A Half-Century of Greatness: The Creative Imagination of Europe, 1848-1884

By Frederic Ewen; Jeffrey Wollock | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
The Battle for Minds and Secular Salvation
“Utopia” and “Utility”

1 “Utopia”

Community, the joyful sound,
That cheers the social band,
And spreads the holy zeal around,
To dwell upon the land.

—Owenite Hymn, No. 129

What other Utopians dreamed of, Robert Owen, son of a Welsh saddlemaker, tried to make reality. Undoubtedly a man of genius, he was a combination of the visionary and the realist. He had been moulded in the crucible of hard personal experience, had by his own efforts succeeded, achieved affluence, and thereafter had attempted to transform the lessons of that experience into broad social concepts, and these again into radical philanthropic experiments. That he ultimately failed was a great, even if predictable, tragedy, due as much to the unsoundness of his social premises, shortcomings of his personality, and failure to understand the changing times and the temper of factory workers after 1834, as to the implacable hostility he aroused within the establishment when the full implications of his growing radicalism in politics and religion became apparent.

Genius is a mysterious thing. What are the forces at work when at a critical moment it breaks through the cocoon of the past—traditions, customs, filiations—and emerges in its own independent originality? At what point did this young shopassistant named Robert Owen, who had been sent out into the world to make his way, attain to that level of perception that resulted in an internal, personal revolution?

We do not know. Owen himself was incapable of giving us the clues.

Causes [he told his Lanark audience in 1816] over which I could have no control, re-
moved in early days the bandage which covered my mental sight … The causes which
fashioned me in the womb … these gave me a mind that could not rest satisfied without
trying every possible expedient to relieve my fellow men from their wretched situation,
and formed it of such a texture that obstacles of the most formidable nature served but
to increase my ardor, and to fix within me a settled determination, either to overcome
them, or to die in the attempt.1

He had risen fast when a very young man, and could have every incentive and temptation to enrich himself, like others, profiting from the interminable hours of

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