- Robert Owen's Experiment at New Lanark: From Paternalism to Socialism by Ophélie Siméon
Based on a 2013 doctoral thesis, Ophélie Siméon's volume in a series edited by Gregory Claeys represents an attempt to write a different kind of study of Robert Owen—"an intellectual biography through a sense of [End Page 209] place" (9)—that connects New Lanark more umbilically to his later endeavors. Her avowed intent is to approach this history (where possible) "from below," utilizing newly (post-2013) available material from the New Lanark Trust archives as well as New Lanark records held at Glasgow University. That said, much of the material captured in Siméon's book is not new but has already been brought out in scholarship going back fifty or more years. What is valuable here is that it is brought together in a concise format and Siméon's critical appraisal of many aspects of New Lanark's (and Owen's) history.
The result generates insights of significance into the social relations of the New Lanark community in Owen's time, partially challenging the dominant "Owen-centric" accounts. Siméon emphasizes Owen's status not so much as a protosocialist but as a paternalistic entrepreneur, whose interest in the welfare of his workers was governed by a "top-down" understanding of social relations. She suggests that many perceptions of New Lanark have been apolitical and even teleological, borrowing too heavily from Owen's own writings ("self-hagiography") or from other sympathetic sources. This celebratory narrative has significantly underplayed the contribution of David Dale to the success of the community of New Lanark, has been largely silent about resistance to Owen's reforms from the workers themselves, and has skated over the collapse of Owen's business relationship with his partners at New Lanark in 1825.
Rather than see Owen's career and thought as split into two distinct halves, with the 1817 meetings at the City of London tavern as the watershed, Siméon argues that most of the later features of "Owenism" can be traced back to measures initially trialed in the factory village, which was intended as a prototype for universal regeneration. She argues, on this basis, that the contrast drawn between the Owen of New Lanark (enlightened, rational employer, reformer) and the Owen of New Harmony (idealistic, misled visionary) is false. On the contrary, Owen used New Lanark as a social laboratory, and the results of his experiments on the Clyde impelled him toward embracing socialism. At the same time New Lanark encapsulated in embryo many of the ambiguities and failures that would destabilize later Owenite communities. As Siméon concludes, "The paternalism which lay at the heart of Owen's socialism also carried the seeds of its own destruction" (161).
In her history Siméon attempts to restore some agency to New Lanark's workers and their families. She argues that, contrary to dominant narratives, [End Page 210] they refused to see themselves merely as employees and factory community dwellers. Instead they saw themselves, and should be seen, as individuals and as independent citizens.
In what is in general a subtle and carefully qualified assessment, Siméon notes the lack of organized workers' resistance to Owen, there being no strikes in New Lanark while he was in charge. Nor was there any episode of machine-breaking, and a picture of relative harmony is strengthened by the almost complete absence of crime in the village. Employees appreciated the more humane discipline that Owen brought to the workplace, and Siméon also refers to the positive testimony offered to the Factory Inquiry Commission of 1833 with respect to working conditions in New Lanark mills. Just as significant may be the fact that between 1818 and 1825, twenty-two out of seventy-three children baptized in New Lanark were named either Robert Owen or Anne Caroline (after Owen's wife). And in 1818, 556 male inhabitants of New Lanark...