Robert Owen

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It is confidently expected that the period is at hand, when man, through ignorance, shall not much longer inflict unnecessary misery on man; because the mass of mankind will become enlightened, and will clearly discern that by so acting they will inevitably create misery to themselves.

Robert Owen (14 May 177117 November 1858) was a Welsh socialist and social reformer, considered to be the father of the cooperative movement.


  • Man is the creature of circumstances.
    • "The Philanthropist"
  • As there are a very great variety of religious sects in the world (and which are probably adapted to different constitutions under different circumstances, seeing there are many good and conscientious characters in each), it is particularly recommended, as a means of uniting the inhabitants of the village into one family, that while each faithfully adheres to the principles which he most approves, at the same time all shall think charitably of their neighbours respecting their religious opinions, and not presumptuously suppose that theirs alone are right.
    • "Rules and Regulations for the Inhabitants of New Lanark" (1800)
  • My friends, I tell you that hitherto you have been prevented from even knowing what happiness really is, solely in consequence of the errors — gross errors — that have been combined with the fundamental notions of every religion that has hitherto been taught to men. And, in consequence, they have made man the most inconsistent, and the most miserable being in existence. By the errors of these systems he has been made a weak, imbecile animal; a furious bigot and fanatic or a miserable hypocrite; and should these qualities be carried, not only into the projected villages, but into Paradise itself, a Paradise would no longer be found!
  • I was forced, through seeing the error of their foundation, to abandon all belief in every religion which had been taught to man. But my religious feelings were immediately replaced by the spirit of universal charity — not for a sect, or a party, or for a country or a colour — but for the human race, and with a real and ardent desire to do good.
  • The working classes may be injuriously degraded and oppressed in three ways:
    1st — When they are neglected in infancy
    2nd — When they are overworked by their employer, and are thus rendered incompetent from ignorance to make a good use of high wages when they can procure them.
    3rd — When they are paid low wages for their labour
    • Two Memorials on Behalf of the Working Classes (1818)
  • Eight hours daily labour is enough for any human being, and under proper arrangements sufficient to afford an ample supply of food, raiment and shelter, or the necessaries and comforts of life, and for the remainder of his time, every person is entitled to education, recreation and sleep.
    • "Foundation Axioms" of Society for Promoting National Regeneration (1833)
  • The lowest stage of humanity is experienced when the individual must labour for a small pittance of wages from others.
    • Paper Dedicated to the Governments of Great Britain, Austria, Russia, France, Prussia and the United States of America (1841)
  • Is it not the interest of the human race, that every one should be so taught and placed, that he would find his highest enjoyment to arise from the continued practice of doing all in his power to promote the well-being, and happiness, of every man, woman, and child, without regard to their class, sect, party, country or colour?
    • Paper Dedicated to the Governments of Great Britain, Austria, Russia, France, Prussia and the United States of America (1841) 17th of "20 Questions to the Human Race"
  • It is therefore, the interest of all, that every one, from birth, should be well educated, physically and mentally, that society may be improved in its character, — that everyone should be beneficially employed, physically and mentally, that the greatest amount of wealth may be created, and knowledge attained, — that everyone should be placed in the midst of those external circumstances that will produce the greatest number of pleasurable sensations, through the longest life, that man may be made truly intelligent, moral and happy, and be thus prepared to enter upon the coming Millennium.
    • A Development of the Principles & Plans on which to establish self-supporting Home Colonies (1841)
  • My life was not useless; I gave important truths to the world, and it was only for want of understanding that they were disregarded. I have been ahead of my time.

A New View of Society (1813 -1816)

A New View of Society, Or, Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character, and the Application of the Principle to Practice
  • Train any population rationally, and they will be rational. Furnish honest and useful employments to those so trained, and such employments they will greatly prefer to dishonest or injurious occupations. It is beyond all calculation the interest of every government to provide that training and that employment; and to provide both is easily practicable.
  • All the measures now proposed are only a compromise with the errors of the present systems; but as these errors now almost universally exist, and must be overcome solely by the force of reason; and as reason, to effect the most beneficial purposes, makes her advance by slow degrees, and progressively substantiates one truth of high import after another, it will be evident, to minds of comprehensive and accurate thought, that by these and similar compromises alone can success be rationally expected in practice. For such compromises bring truth and error before the public; and whenever they are fairly exhibited together, truth must ultimately prevail.
  • It is confidently expected that the period is at hand, when man, through ignorance, shall not much longer inflict unnecessary misery on man; because the mass of mankind will become enlightened, and will clearly discern that by so acting they will inevitably create misery to themselves. As soon as the public mind shall be sufficiently prepared to receive it, the practical detail of this system shall be fully developed. For the extensive knowledge of the facts which present themselves on the globe, makes it evident to those whose reasoning faculties have not been entirely paralysed, that all mankind firmly believe, that everybody except themselves has been grievously deceived in his fundamental principles; and feel the utmost astonishment that the nations of the world could embrace such gross inconsistencies for divine or political truths. Most persons are now also prepared to understand, that these weaknesses are firmly and conscientiously fixed in the minds of millions, who, when born, possessed equal faculties with themselves. And although they plainly discern in others what they deem inconceivable aberrations of the mental powers, yet, in despite of such facts, they are taught to believe that they themselves could not have been so deceived; and this impression is made upon the infant mind with the greatest ease, whether it be to create followers of the most ignorant, or of the most enlightened systems.
  • All that is now requisite, previous to withdrawing the last mental bandage by which hitherto the human race has been kept in darkness and misery, is, by calm and patient reasoning to tranquillize the public mind, and thus prevent the evil effects which otherwise might arise from the too sudden prospect of freely enjoying rational liberty of mind. To withdraw that bandage without danger, reason must be judiciously applied to lead men of every sect (for all have been in part abused to reflect that if untold myriads of beings, formed like themselves, have been so grossly deceived as they believe them to have been, what power in nature was there to prevent them from being equally deceived? Such reflections, steadily pursued by those who are anxious to follow the plain and simple path of reason, will soon make it obvious that the inconsistencies which they behold in all other sects out of their own pale, are precisely similar to those which all other sects can readily discover within that pale. It is not, however, to be imagined, that this free and open exposure of the gross errors in which the existing generation has been instructed, should be forthwith palatable to the world; it would be contrary to reason to form any such expectations. Yet, as evil exists, and as man cannot be rational, nor of course happy, until the cause of it shall be removed; the writer, like a physician who feels the deepest interest in the welfare of his patient, has hitherto administered of this unpalatable restorative the smallest quantity which he deemed sufficient for the purpose. He now waits to see the effects which that may produce. Should the application not prove of sufficient strength to remove the mental disorder, he promises that it shall be increased, until sound health to the public mind be firmly and permanently established.

Address to the Inhabitants of New Lanark (1816)

"Address to the Inhabitants of New Lanark" at the opening of the Institute for the Formation of Character (1 January, 1816)
  • What ideas individuals may attach to the term "Millennium" I know not; but I know that society may be formed so as to exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little, if any misery, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold; and no obstacle whatsoever intervenes at this moment except ignorance to prevent such a state of society from becoming universal.
  • The Institution has been devised to afford the means of receiving your children at an early age, almost as soon as they can walk. By this means many of you, mothers and families, will be able to earn a better maintenance or support for your children; you will have less care and anxiety about them, while the children will be prevented from acquiring any bad habits. and gradually prepared to learn the best.
  • They would receive the same care and attention as those who belong to the establishment. Nor will there be any distinction made between the children of those parents who are deemed the worst, and of those who may be esteemed the best members of society: indeed I would prefer to receive the offspring of the worst, if they shall be sent at an early age; because they really require more of our care and pity and by well-training these, society will be more essentially benefited than if the like attention were paid to those whose parents are educating them in comparatively good habits.
    • On educating children of the poor, and of neighboring communities.
  • Believe me, my friends, you are yet very deficient with regard to the best modes of training your children, or of arranging your domestic concerns.
There is but one mode by which man can possess in perpetuity all the happiness which his nature is capable of enjoying, — that is by the union and co-operation of all for the benefit of each.

The Social System (1826)

The Social System — Constitution, Laws, and Regulations of a Community (1826) [written in 1821, published in 1826]
  • There is but one mode by which man can possess in perpetuity all the happiness which his nature is capable of enjoying, — that is by the union and co-operation of all for the benefit of each.
    Union and co-operation in war obviously increase the power of the individual a thousand fold. Is there the shadow of a reason why they should not produce equal effects in peace; why the principle of co-operation should not give to men the same superior powers, and advantages, (and much greater) in the creation, preservation, distribution and enjoyment of wealth?
  • In advanced age, and in cases of disability from accident, natural infirmity or any other cause, the individual shall be supported by the colony, and receive every comfort which kindness can administer.
  • To train and educate the rising generation will at all times be the first object of society, to which every other will be subordinate.

The Book of the New Moral World (1836-1844)

Published as The Book of the New Moral World, in 7 volumes 1836-1844; published as one volume in 1845.
  • The advanced members of the medical profession know that the health of society is not to be obtained or maintained by medicines; — that it is far better, far more easy and far wiser, to adopt substantive measures to prevent disease of body or mind, than to allow substantive measure to remain continually to generate causes to produce physical and mental disorders.
    • 3rd Part
  • To preserve permanent good health, the state of mind must be taken into consideration.
    • 3rd Part
  • It is the interest of the individual and of all society, that he should be made, at the earliest period, to understand his own construction, the proper use of its parts, and how to keep them at all times in a state of health; and especially that he should be taught to observe the varied effects of different kinds of food, and different quantities, upon his own constitution~ He should be taught the general and individual laws of health, thus early, that he may know how to prevent the approach of disease. And the knowledge of the particular diet best suited to his constitution, is one of the most essential laws of health.
    • 3rd Part
  • Where are these rational practices to be taught and acquired? Not within the four walls of a bare building, in which formality predominates... But in the nursery, play-ground, fields, gardens, workshops, manufactures, museums and class-rooms. …The facts collected from all these sources will be concentrated, explained, discussed, made obvious to all, and shown in their direct application to practice in all the business of life.
    • 3rd Part
  • The advantage of pure, and the disadvantage of impure air are experienced each time we breathe, and all who understand the causes of disease know that an impure atmosphere is most unfavourable to the enjoyment of health, and an efficient cause to shorten human existence within the natural life of man. It is therefore most desirable that decisive measures should be devised and generally adopted to ensure to all a pure atmosphere, in which to live during their lives.
    • 3rd Part
  • Women will be no longer made the slaves of, or dependent upon men ... They will be equal in education, rights, privileges and personal liberty.
    • Sixth Part
I gave important truths to the world, and it was only for want of understanding that they were disregarded. I have been ahead of my time.


  • All the world old is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer.
  • By my own experience and reflection I had ascertained that human nature is radically good, and is capable of being trained, educated and placed from birth in such manner, that all ultimately (that is as soon as the gross errors and corruptions of the present false and wicked system are overcome and destroyed) must become united, good, wise, wealthy and happy. And I felt that to attain this glorious result, the sacrifices of the character, fortune and life of an individual was not deserving a moment's consideration. And my decision was made to overcome all opposition and to succeed or die in the attempt.
  • Children at this time were admitted into cotton, wool, flax and silk mills, at six and sometimes even five years of age. The time of working, winter and summer were unlimited by law, but usually it was fourteen hours per day — in some fifteen, and even, by the most inhuman and avaricious, sixteen hours.
  • Courts of law, and all the paraphernalia and folly of law cannot be found in a rational state of society.
  • Finding that no religion is based on facts and cannot be true, I began to reflect what must be the condition of mankind trained from infancy to believe in error.
  • I had done all I could to enlighten the evils of those whom I employed; yet with all I could do under our most irrational system for creating wealth, forming character, and conducting all human affairs, I could only to a limited extent alleviate the wretchedness of their conditions, while I knew society possessed the ample means to educate, employ, place and govern the population.
  • I had not the slightest knowledge of this new machinery. I looked wisely at the men, although I really knew nothing. But by intensely observing everything, I maintained order and regularity throughout the establishment.
    • On his management of his cotton mills.
  • I left this country in 1824 to go to the United States to sow the seeds in that new fertile soil — new for material and mental growth — the cradle of the future liberty of the human race.
  • I was obliged to commence with a combination of vicious and inferior conditions — but conditions to which the population had long been accustomed, and to many of which they were strongly attached. I had to meet the objections of my partners, who were all good commercial men, and looked to a good return on their capital.
  • I was the best runner and leaper in the school. I had the libraries of the clergyman, physician and lawyer thrown open to me .... I generally finished a volume daily .... I read all the lives I could meet with of the philosophers and great men.
  • I will lay my bones whence I derived them.
  • My intention was not merely to be a manager of cotton mills, but to change the conditions of the people who were surrounded by circumstances having an injurious influence upon the character of the entire population .... The community was a very wretched society and vice and immorality prevailed to a monstrous extent.
  • National arrangements shall be formed to include all the working classes in the great organisation.
  • Never argue; repeat your assertion.
  • Our opinions are made for us, not by us.
  • The houses of the poor working classes generally are altogether unfit for the training of young children; the children are therefore spoken to and treated just the reverse of the manner required to well-train and well-educate children.
  • There is an eternal, uncaused Existence, omnipresent and possessing attributes whereby the world is governed, but no man has yet been able to comprehend God.
  • Without consistency there is no moral strength.
  • You may depend upon it that they are as good hearts to serve men in palaces as in cottages.
  • Nor yet are they to be submitted to the mere men of the law; for these are necessarily trained to endeavor to make wrong appear right, or to involve both in a maze of intricacies, and to legalized injustice.

Quotes about Owen

  • Thou needest to be very right, Robert, for thou art very positive.
    • Advice to Owen by David Dale, father of Owen's wife, Caroline.
  • I would class Owen in a triad as one of the three men who have in this generation given an impulse to the moral world, Clarkson and Dr. Bell are the other two.
  • I think that everyone who is compelled to look closely into the problem of popular education, must be led to Owen's conclusions that the infants' school is, so to speak, the key of the position. Robert Owen, discerned this great fact, and had the courage and patience to work out his theory into a practical reality. That is his claim — if he had no other — to the enduring gratitude of the people.
  • He organised infants schools. He secured the reduction of the hours of labour for women and children in factories. He was a liberal supporter of the earliest efforts to obtain national education. He laboured to promote international arbitration. He was one of the foremost Britons who taught men to aspire to a higher social state by reconciling the interests of capital and labour. He spent his life and a large fortune in seeking to improve his fellowmen by giving them education, self-reliance, and moral worth. His life was sanctified by human affection and lofty effort.
    • Epitaph on the Owen Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery, London, England
  • Mr. Owen looked upon men through the spectacles of his own good-nature. He seldom took Lord Brougham's advice "to pick his men." He never acted on the maxim that the working class are as jealous of each other as the upper classes are of them. The resolution he displayed as a manufacturer he was wanting in as a founder of communities. ... No leader ever took so little care as Mr, Owen in guarding his own reputation. He scarcely protested when others attached his name to schemes which were not his. The failure of Queenwood was not chargeable to him. When his advice was not followed he would say : "Well, gentlemen, I tell you what you ought to do. You differ from me. Carry out your own plans. Experience will show you who is right." When the affair went wrong then it was ascribed to him. Whatever failed under his name the public inferred failed through him. Mr. Owen was a general who never provided himself with a rear guard. While he was fighting in the front ranks priests might come up and cut off his commissariat. His own troops fell into pits against which he had warned them. Yet he would write his next dispatch without it occurring to him to mention his own defeat, and he would return to his camp without missing his army. Yet society is not so well served that it need hesitate to forgive the omissions of its generous friends. To Mr. Owen will be accorded the distinction of being a philosopher who devoted himself to founding a Science of Social Improvement and a philanthropist who gave his fortune to advance it. Association, which was but casual before his day, he converted into a policy and taught it as an art. He substituted Co-operation for coercion in the conduct ot industry and the willing co-operation of intelligence certain of its own reward, for sullen labour enforced by the necessity of subsistence, seldom to be relied on and never satisfied.
  • Moved by a generous eagerness to turn men's attention to the power which dwelt in circumstances, Mr. Owen devised the instructive phrase, that "man's character was formed for him and not by him." He used the unforgettable inference that "man is the creature of circumstances." The school of material improvers believed they could put in permanent force right circumstances. The great dogma was their charter of encouragement. To those who hated without thought It seemed a restrictive doctrine to be asked to admit that there were extenuating circumstances in the career of every rascal. To the clergy with whom censure was a profession, and who held that all sin was wilful, man being represented as the "creature of circumstances," appeared a denial of moral responsibility. When they were asked to direct hatred against error, and pity the erring — who had inherited so base a fortune of incapacity and condition — they were wroth exceedingly, and said it would be making a compromise with sin. The idea of the philosopher of circumstances was that the very murderer in his last cell had been born with a staple in his soul, to which the villainous conditions of his life had attached an unseen chain, which had drawn him to the gallows, and that the rope which was to hang him was but the visible part. Legislators since that day have come to admit that punishment is justifiable only as far as it has preventive influence. To use the great words of Hobbes, "Punishment regardeth not the past, only the future."
Is it not the interest of the human race, that every one should be so taught and placed, that he would find his highest enjoyment to arise from the continued practice of doing all in his power to promote the well-being, and happiness, of every man, woman, and child, without regard to their class, sect, party, country or colour?

Memorial dedication (1902)

Dedicatory address by George Jacob Holyoake at the unveiling of a monument for Owen's grave, Newtown, Wales (12 July 1902) PDF document
  • It is said by parrot-minded critics that Owen was "a man of one idea," whereas he was a man of more ideas than any public man England knew in his day. He shared and befriended every new conception of moment and promise, in science, in education, and government. His mind was hospitable to all projects of progress; and he himself contributed more original ideas for the conduct of public affairs than any other thinker of his generation. ... Because some of his projects were so far reaching that they required a century to mature them, onlookers who expected them to be perfected at once, say he "failed in whatever he proposed." While the truth is he succeeded in more things than any public man ever undertook. If he made more promises than he fulfilled, he fulfilled more than any other public man ever made. Thus, he was not a man of "one idea" but of many. Nor did his projects fail. The only social Community for which he was responsible was that of New Harmony, in Indiana; which broke up through his too great trust in uneducated humanity — a fault which only the generous commit. The communities of Motherwell and Orbiston, of Manea, Fen, and Queenwood in Hampshire were all undertaken without his authority, and despite his warning of the adequacy of the means for success. They failed, as he predicted they would. Critics, skilled in coming to conclusions without knowing the facts, impute these failures to him.
  • He was the first to advocate that eight hours a day in the workshop was best for industrial efficiency. The best employers in the land are now of that opinion. He did not fail there. Who can tell the horrors of industry which children suffered in factories at the beginning of the last century? Were not the Factory Acts acts of mercy? The country owed them to Robert Owen's inspiration. ... He was the first who looked with practical intent into the kingdom of the unborn. He saw that posterity — the silent but inevitable master of us all — if left untrained may efface the triumphs, or dishonour, or destroy the great traditions of our race. He put infant schools into the mind of the world. Have they been failures? He, when it seemed impossible to anyone else, proposed national education for which now all the sects contend. Has that proposal been a failure?
  • He carried no dagger in his mouth, as many reformers have done. He cared for no cause that reason could not win. There never was a more cautious innovator, a more practical dreamer, or a more reasoning revolutionist. Whatever he commended he supported with his purse. It was this that won for him confidence and trust, given to no compeer of his time.
  • It was he who first taught the people the then strange truth that Causation was the law of nature and of mind, and unless we looked for the cause of an evil, we might never know the remedy. Every man of sense in Church and State acts on this truth now, but so few knew it in Owen's day that he was accused of unsettling the morality of the world. It was the fertility and newness of his suggestions, as a man of affairs, that gave him renown, and his influence extends to us. This memorial before us would itself grow old, were we to stay to describe all the ideas the world has accepted from Owen. I will name but one more, and that the greatest.
    He saw, as no man before him did, that environment is the maker of men. Aristotle, whose praise is in all our Universities, said "Character is Destiny." But how can character be made? The only national way known in Owen's day was by prayer and precept. Owen said there were material means, largely unused, conducive to human improvement. Browning's prayer was — "Make no more giants, God; but elevate the race at once." This was Owen's aim, as far as human means might do it.
  • Great change can only be effected by unity. But "Union without knowledge is useless; Knowledge without union is powerless." Then what is the right knowledge? Owen said it consisted in knowing that people came into the world without any intention of doing it; and often with limited capacities, and with disadvantages of person, and with instinctive tendencies which impel them against their will, and which disqualifications they did not give themselves. ... Dislike dies in the heart of those who understand this, and the spirit of unity arises.
  • This was the angerless philosophy of Owen, which inspired him with a forbearance that never failed him, and gave him that regnant manner which charmed all who met him. We shall see what his doctrine of environment has done for society, if we notice what it began to do in his day, and what it has done since.
    Men perished by battle, by tempest, by pestilence, Faith might comfort, but it did not save them. In every town, nests of pestilence co-existed with the churches, who were concerned alone with worship. Disease was unchecked by devotion. Then Owen asked, "Might not safety come by improved material condition?" As the prayer of hope brought no reply, as the scream of agony, if heard, was unanswered, as the priest, with the holiest intent, brought no deliverance, it seemed prudent to try the philosopher and the physician.
    Then Corn Laws were repealed, because prayers fed nobody. Then parks were multiplied because fresh air was found to be a condition of health. Alleys and courts, were begun to be abolished-since deadly diseases were bred there. Streets were widened, that towns might be ventilated. Hours of labour were shortened, since exhaustion means liability to epidemic contagion. Recreation was encouraged, as change and rest mean life and strength. Temperance — thought of as self-denial — was found to be a necessity, as excess of any kind in diet, or labour, or pleasure means premature death. Those who took dwellings began to look, not only to drainage and ventilation, but to the ways of their near neighbours, as the most pious family may poison the air you breathe unless they have sanitary habits.
  • Thanks to the doctrine of national environment which Owen was the first to preach — Knowledge is greater; Life is longer; Health is surer; Disease is limited; Towns are sweeter; Hours of labour are shorter; Men are stronger; Women are fairer; Children are happier; Industry is held in more honour, and is better rewarded; Co-operation carries wholesome food and increased income into a million homes where they were unknown before, and has brought us nearer and nearer to that state of society which Owen strove to create — in which it shall be impossible for men to be depraved or poor.

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