How much better for the world would it have been had Robert Owen’s original formulation of socialism been studied and debated in full, rather than overshadowed by the looming monstrosities of writers like Marx and Engels?
Consider the following selection from Owen (see below). There is much that is wrong, here. Much. But it is wrong in interesting ways — far more interesting than the pseudo-intellectualism of Marx’s idiotic inversion of Hegel, or his misguided, historically embarrassing wrong path on track of value. Further, Owen’s own success at making a profit while improving the living conditions for his workers was an interesting example of managerial entrepreneurship. Had he not distracted himself from out-competing more callous businesses, and thereby spreading a new way of looking at hiring and firing help — and its great utility — he might have changed Britain for the better earlier on.
And killed state socialism in its crib.
In any case, lost opportunities aside, this is the fact: it has been two hundred years since Robert Owen’s Address to the Workers of New Lanark. On this occasion of the bicentennial of socialism, perhaps we should reconsider Owen, and begin, again.
Every society which exists at present, as well as every society which history records, has been formed and governed on a belief in the following notions, assumed as first principles:
First,—That it is in the power of every individual to form his own character.
Hence the various systems called by the name of religion, codes of law, and punishments. Hence also the angry passions entertained by individuals and nations towards each other.
Second,—That the affections are at the command of the individual. Hence insincerity and degradation of character. Hence the miseries of domestic life, and more than one-half of all the crimes of mankind.
Third,—That it is necessary that a large portion of mankind should exist in ignorance and poverty, in order to secure to the remaining part such a degree of happiness as they now enjoy.
Hence a system of counteraction in the pursuits of men, a general opposition among individuals to the interests of each other, and the necessary effects of such a system,—ignorance, poverty, and vice.
Facts prove, however—
First,—That character is universally formed for, and not by, the individual.
Second,—That any habits and sentiments may be given to mankind.
Third,—That the affections are not under the control of the individual.
Fourth,—That every individual may be trained to produce far more than he can consume, while there is a sufficiency of soil left for him to cultivate.
Fifth,—That nature has provided means by which population may be at all times maintained in the proper state to give the greatest happiness to every individual, without one check of vice or misery.
Sixth,—That any community may be arranged, on a due combination of the foregoing principles, in such a manner, as not only to withdraw vice, poverty, and, in a great degree, misery, from the world, but also to place every individual under circumstances in which he shall enjoy more permanent happiness than can be given to any individual under the principles which have hitherto regulated society.
Seventh,—That all the assumed fundamental principles on which society has hitherto been founded are erroneous, and may be demonstrated to be contrary to fact. And—
Eighth,—That the change which would follow the abandonment of those erroneous maxims which bring misery into the world, and the adoption of principles of truth, unfolding a system which shall remove and for ever exclude that misery, may be effected without the slightest injury to any human being.
Here is the groundwork,—these are the data, on which society shall ere long be re-arranged; and for this simple reason, that it will be rendered evident that it will be for the immediate and future interest of every one to lend his most active assistance gradually to reform society on this basis. I say gradually, for in that word the most important considerations are involved. Any sudden and coercive attempt which may be made to remove even misery from men will prove injurious rather than beneficial. Their minds must be gradually prepared by an essential alteration of the circumstances which surround them, for any great and important change and amelioration in their condition. They must be first convinced of their blindness: this cannot be effected, even among the least unreasonable, or those termed the best part of mankind, in their present state, without creating some degree of irritation. This irritation, must then be tranquillized before another step ought to be attempted; and a general conviction must be established of the truth of the principles on which the projected change is to be founded. Their introduction into practice will then become easy,—difficulties will vanish as we approach them,—and, afterwards, the desire to see the whole system carried immediately into effect will exceed the means of putting it into execution.
The principles on which this practical system is founded are not new; separately, or partially united, they have been often recommended by the sages of antiquity, and by modern writers. But it is not known to me that they have ever been thus combined. Yet it can be demonstrated that it is only by their being all brought into practice together that they are to be rendered beneficial to mankind; and sure I am that this is the earliest period in the history of man when they could be successfully introduced into practice.