- Robert Owen’s Experiment at New Lanark: From Paternalism to Socialism by Ophélie Siméon
Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. ix + 173 pp. Cloth, $109.99, isbn 978-3-319-64226-0.
In a striking formulation, Ophélie Siméon describes her study as “an intellectual biography through a sense of place” (9). The subject of the intellectual biography is Robert Owen (1771–1858), the enlightened manufacturer turned universal reformer—and the father of British socialism. The place is the New Lanark Mills, the idyllic Clydeside factory village Owen superintended from 1800 to 1825. Owen’s spectacular entrepreneurial and humanitarian successes as a paternalistic manager served as the springboard for his subsequent career as a radical activist and socialist pioneer. Concomitantly, the prosperity and happiness of the New Lanark community during his tenure provided “a founding myth of British socialism” (6). Siméon’s project is to replace this myth of New Lanark with a fine-grained account of the reciprocal relationship between Owen’s incipient “social system” (later “socialism”) and the milieu in which it took shape (9). And she succeeds admirably at this project.
Marshaling an impressive array of archival evidence, Siméon demonstrates that New Lanark was not simply a passive “receptacle” for Owen’s reformist innovations, as his own writings suggest (9). Rather, the factory colony was simultaneously a “laboratory” for Owen to develop his system through trial and error and “a major source of inspiration” for ideas and institutions that would subsequently characterize his communitarian socialism [End Page 418] (8, 9). While the latter fact has been recognized by previous scholars, Siméon is the first to offer a detailed investigation that spans Owen’s quarter-of-a-century association with New Lanark. This long perspective enables her to draw numerous, persuasive connections between specific features of Owenite socialism and their antecedents at the factory village.
For example, the iconic “labour notes” that Owen advocated as an alternative to government-issued currency has a clear precursor in the “tickets for wages” utilized at New Lanark (98). Similarly, the committee representation system that Owen proposed to govern his communitarian settlements closely resembles the neighborhood delegate structure he implemented at the factory colony. More familiarly, the Institution for the Formation of Character (a school with an unprecedentedly expansive curriculum for laboring-class children) and the company store (which, by buying in bulk, was able to sell goods at wholesale prices) were a perennial source of inspiration for Owenites and economic co-operators.
In keeping with her intention to resist the “dominant, Owen-centric” myth of New Lanark, Siméon devotes considerable attention to the contributions of David Dale, the “driving force in planning the village in the early days” and Owen’s eventual father-in-law (10, 26). Significantly, the village was conceived from its inception “as a fully-fledged community,” not a “mere appendage to its cotton mills” (13). Moreover, New Lanark was already exceptional for the amenities it offered its workers before Owen assumed control in 1800. Even the educational provision Dale provided his operatives’ children was “remarkable for its day” (36). I was surprised to learn that this provision included an infant school, an innovation frequently attributed to Owen himself.
Given that Owenite socialism is built upon communitarianism and “character formation” (i.e., education, expansively conceived), what Owen found at New Lanark would have strongly reinforced his own intuitions. But to demythologize need not be to debunk, and Siméon accords Owen the credit he deserves for transforming New Lanark into a factory community “unparalleled in terms of working and living conditions” (160).
From my perspective, two of Siméon’s additional claims deserve special emphasis. First, she demonstrates that the New Lanark population increasingly resented—and resisted—Owen’s efforts to subsume their personal and familial identities into the larger communal whole he envisioned (70). She observes that “conflict arose among the workforce whenever it was felt that [End Page 419] Owen had stepped outside his legitimate, customary sphere of influence to intrude on territory, whether actual or symbolic, that workers claimed as...