A new view of society (exerpts)

Robert Owen

[Source: A. L. Morton, The Life and Ideas of Robert Owen (New York: International Publishers, 1962), pp. 73-76, 81, 123-124, 134-135, 164-165.]

What follows are a series of excerpts from Owen's A New View of Society. All of Owen's ideas were based on the essential notion that man's character is formed for him and not by him (an idea which we will see fully developed in the work of Karl Marx at mid-century. Owen believed that to change environment was to change human nature. This belief, sustained by his experiences at New Lanark, remained the unalterable principle of Owen's social philosophy.

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Man's Character is Formed For Him

From the earliest ages it Has been a practice of the world to act on the supposition that each individual man forms his own character, and that therefore he is accountable for all his sentiments and habits, and consequently merits reward for some and punishment for others. Every system which has been established among man has been founded on these erroneous principles. When, however, they should be brought to the test of fair examination, they will be found not only unsupported, but in direct opposition to all experience, and to the evidence of our senses.

This is not a slight mistake, which involves only trivial consequences; it is a fundamental error of the highest possible magnitude, it enters into all our proceedings regarding man from his infancy; and it will be found to be the true and sole origin of evil. It generates a perpetual ignorance, hatred and revenge, where, without such error, only intelligence, confidence, and kindness would exist. It has hitherto been the Evil Genius of the world. It severs man from man throughout the various regions of the earth; and it makes enemies of those who, but for this gross error, would have enjoyed each other's kind offices and sincere friendship. It is, in short, in error which carries misery in all its consequences.

This error cannot much longer exist; for every day will make it more evident that the character of man is, without a single exception, always formed for him; and that it may be, and is, chiefly created by his predecessors that they give him, or may give him, his ideas and habits, which are the powers that govern and direct his conduct. Man, therefore, never did, nor is it possible that he ever can, form a his own character.

The knowledge of this important fact has not been derived from any of the wild and heated speculations of an ardent and ungoverned imagination;, contrary, it proceeds from a long and patient study of the theory and practice of human nature, under many varied circumstances; and it will be found to be a deduction drawn from such a multiplicity of facts, as to afford the most complete demonstration.

True and False Principles

Every society which now exists, as well as every society history records, has been formed and governed on a belief in the 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 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 the remaining part such a degree of happiness as they now enjoy.

Hence a system of counteraction in the pursuits of man, 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 populations 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 in every individual under such 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 these erroneous maxim which bring misery to 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.

Our Society Manufactures Criminals

How much longer shall we continue to allow generation after generation to be taught crime from their infancy, and when so taught, hunt them like beasts of the the forest, until they are entangled beyond escape in the toils and nets of law? when, if the circumstances of those poor unpitied sufferers had been reversed with those who are even surrounded with the pomp and dignity of justice, these latter would have been at the bar of the culprit, and the former would have been at the judgment seat.

Had the present in Judges of these realms been born and educated among the poor and profligate of St. Giles, or some similar situation, is it not certain, inasmuch as they possess native energies and abilities, that ere this they would have been at the head of fair then profession, and, in consequence of that superiority and efficiency, would already have suffered imprisonment, transportation or death? Can we for a moment hesitate to decide, that if some of those men whom the laws dispensed by the present Judges have doomed to suffer capital punishments, had been born, trained and circumstanced as these Judges were born, trained and circumstanced, that some of those who had so suffered would have been the identical individuals who would have passed the same awful sentences on the present highly esteemed dignitaries of the law.

Men and Machines

Many of you have long experienced in your manufacturing operations the advantages of substantial, well-contrived, and well-executed machinery.

Experience has also show you the difference of the results between mechanism which is neat, clean, well arranged, and always in a high state of repair; and that which is allowed to be dirty, in disorder, and without the means of preventing unnecessary friction, and which therefore becomes, and works, much out of repair.

In the first case the whole economy and management are good, every operation proceeds with ease, order, and success. In the last, the reverse must follow, and dissatisfaction among all the agents and instrument interested or occupied in the general process, which cannot fail to create great loss.

If, then, due care as to the state of your inanimate machines can produce such beneficial results, what may not expected if you devote equal attention to your vital machines, which are far more wonderfully constructed?

When you shall acquire a right knowledge of these, of their curious mechanism, of their self-adjusting powers; when the proper main spring shall be applied to their various movements -- you will become conscious of their real value, and you will readily be induced to turn your thoughts more frequently from your inanimate to your living machines; and you will discover that the latter may be easily trained and directed to procure a large increase of pecuniary gain, while you may also derive from them a high and substantial satisfaction.

Will you then continue to expend large sums of money to procure the best devised mechanisms of wood, brass, or iron; to retain it in perfect repair; to provide the best substance for the prevention of unnecessary friction, and to save it from falling into premature decay? Will you also devote years of intense application to understand the connection of the various parts of these lifeless machines, to improve their effective powers, and to calculate with mathematical precision all their minute and combined movements? And when in these transactions you estimate time by minutes, and the money expended for the chance of increased gain by fractions, will you not afford some of your attention to consider whether a portion of your time and capital would not be more advantageously applied to improve your living machines? From experience which cannot deceive me, I venture to assure you, that your time and money so applied, if directed by a true knowledge of the subject, would return you, not five, ten, or fifteen percent, for your capital so expended, but often fifty, and in many cases a hundred percent.

Pauper Apprentices

It is not to be supposed that children so young could remain, with the intervals of meals, from six and the morning until seven in evening, in constant employment, on their feet within cotton mills, and afterwards acquire such proficiency in education. And so it proved; for many of then became dwarfs in body in mind, and some were deformed. Their labor throughout the day and their education at night became so irksome, that numbers of them continually ran away, and almost all looked forward with impatience and anxiety to the expiration of their apprenticeship of seven, eight, and nine years, which generally expired when they were from thirteen to fifteen years old. At this period of life, unaccustomed to provide for themselves, and unacquainted with the world, they usually went to Edinburgh or Glasgow, where boys in girls were soon assailed by the innumerable temptations which all large towns present, into which many of them fell sacrifices.

Thus Mr. Dale's arrangements, and his kind solicitude for the comfort and happiness of these children, were rendered in their ultimate effects almost new nugatory. They were hired by him and sent to be employed, and without their labor he could not support them; but, while under his care, he did all that any individual circumstanced as he was, could do for his fellow-creatures. The error proceeded from the children being sent from the workhouses at age much too young for employment. They ought to have been detained four years longer, and educated; and then some of the evils which followed would have been prevented.

If such be a true picture, not overcharged, of parish apprentices to our manufacturing system, under the best and most humane regulations, in what colors must it be exhibited under the worst?

Children Can be Molded

Children are, without exception, passive and wonderfully contrived compounds; which, by an accurate previous and subsequent attention, founded on a correct knowledge of the subject, may be formed collectively to have any human character. And although these compounds, like all the other works of nature, possess endless varieties, yet they partake of that plastic quality, which, by perseverance under judicious management, may be ultimately molded into the very image of rational wishes and desires.

In the next place, these principles cannot fail to create feelings which, without force or the production of any counteracting motive, will irresistibly lead those who possess them to make due allowance for the difference of sentiments and manners, not only among their friends and countrymen, but also among the inhabitants of every region of the earth, even including their enemies.

To Whom Can My Plans Be Submitted

Not to the mere commercial character, in whose estimation to forsake the path of immediate individual gain would be to show symptoms of a disordered imagination; for the children of commerce have been trained to direct all their faculties to buy cheap and sell dear; and consequently, those who are the most expert and successful in this wise and noble art, are, in the commercial world, deemed to possess foresight and superior acquirements; while such as attempt to improve the moral habits and increase the comforts of those whom they employ, are termed wild enthusiasts.

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.

Nor to the mere political leaders or their partisans, for they are embarrassed by the trammels of party, which mislead their judgment, and often constrain them to sacrifice the real well-being of the community and of themselves, to an apparent but most mistaken self-interest.

Nor to those termed heroes and conquerors, or to their followers; for their minds have been trained to consider the infliction of human misery, and the commission of military murders, a glorious duty, almost beyond reward.

Nor yet to the fashionable or splendid in their appearance; for these are from infancy trained to deceive and to be deceived, to accept shadows for substances, and to live life of insincerity, and of consequent discontent and misery.

Still less are they to be exclusively submitted to the official expounders and defenders of the various opposing religious systems throughout the world; for many of these are actively engaged in propagating imaginary notions, which cannot fail to vitiate the rational powers of man, and to perpetuate his misery.

These principles, therefore, and the practical systems which they recommend, are not to be submitted to the judgment of those with been trained under, and continue in, any of these unhappy combinations of circumstances. But they are to be submitted to the dispassionate and patient investigation and decision of those individuals of every rank and class and denomination of society, who have become in some degree conscious of the errors in which they exist; who have felt the thick mental darkness by which they are surrounded; who are ardently desirous of discovering and following truth wherever it may lead; and who can perceive the inseparable connection which exists between individual and general, between private and public good!