Robert Owen: Social Visionary

Robert Owen: Social Visionary

Robert Owen: Social Visionary

Robert Owen: Social Visionary

Synopsis

Born in 1771, Robert Owen lived through the Age of Revolutions and was heavily influenced by the ideas and changes that characterised that era. After profiting enormously from the rise of industry, he gained fame as a social reformer, applying radical ideas in the mills at New Lanark and subsequently at the experimental community of New Harmony, Indiana. Long after his death his ideas continued to inspire others, though the hagiography generated by his disciples did neither his name nor reputation much good, since they transformed the 'Social Father' of their movement into the 'Father of Socialism', a sobriquet that ill fits him, yet it sticks to this day. Ian Donnachie redresses this balance in the first biography of Owen for fifty years.

Excerpt

Robert Owen was one of the most important and controversial figures of his generation. Born in 1771 he lived through the Age of Revolutions and was personally touched by the ideas and dramatic changes that characterised that era. Profiting enormously during the first half of his life from the rise of industry, he devoted much of the time thereafter espousing a social and economic philosophy which would serve as corrective to what he saw as the excesses of progress. Much of this derived from his own experience and strongly emphasised the importance of environment, education and, ultimately, co-operation. He gained fame, even notoriety, as a social reformer, and long after his death in 1858 his ideas continued to inspire others. Much of the hagiography generated by his disciples did neither his name nor reputation much good, since they transformed the 'Social Father' of their movement into the 'Father of Socialism', a sobriquet that ill fits him, yet it sticks to this day, most notably for some reason in library catalogues.

Nearly fifty years have passed since the last biographical study of Robert Owen, but in the interval he has not been forgotten. His major works have always been in print and since the 1960s there have been a number of important works of scholarship examining both his social and economic ideas and various aspects of his career. Many journal articles can be consulted on the man and the movement he inspired. All of this has generated new findings and raised new questions about Owen, who continues to motivate and puzzle scholars internationally. As I set out on this project my aim was to re-examine Owen's career to 1830, taking account of recent scholarship.

This is not just a work of synthesis because in the course of more than ten years research (and writing, with Dr George Hewitt, a history of New Lanark) I have examined the major collections dealing with Owen and many others containing Owen material on both sides of the Atlantic. the research, itself generating a large archive, has revealed much that is new to add to the synthesis derived from my earlier work and more substantially of others.

There is no doubt in my mind that, like Owen, I have been touched by the spirit of the places he made famous. For this reason New Lanark and New Harmony, two of the three community experiments in which he was personally involved have become the twin foci of the present study. As this book was being completed the third community, Queenwood . . .

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