New Lanark and elsewhere: 1800-1847
In 1800 Robert Owen takes charge of a cotton mill at New Lanark on the Clyde. It has been previously owned by his father-in-law, who established it in 1785 in partnership with Arkwright. It is therefore a thoroughly modern enterprise, well run by the standards of the time. But the idealistic young Owen is distressed by the conditions in which the employees and their families (some 2000 people in all) live and work.
Seeing ignorance, crime and drunkenness in the community, he blames it not on the workers but on their environment. And he considers the environment at New Lanark, or in any other factory, to be the direct result of the mill owners' overriding concern to make money.
For the first time, in this perception, the ideals of socialism are directly opposed to the tenets of capitalism. The two great rivals of 20th-century politics discover each other.
Owen's reforms make New Lanark an essential port of call for anyone interested in social reform. Visitors admire the high standards in housing and the conditions in the factory. They note that goods are sold in the village shop at almost cost price. They see the care shown for the health of the families and the education of their children (Britain's first primary school is opened here in 1812). New Lanark becomes, and is recognized to be, a model industrial community.
Yet New Lanark is also a conventional business, making a good profit for its owners. Owen begins to dream of more utopian ways of solving society's ills. He promotes the idea of self-contained communities of agricultural workers and craftsmen, owning everything in common including their land. With no capitalist owner to cream off the profit, he imagines such communities being so successful that they soon become the standard form of human society.
He proves less effective as utopian theorist than as benevolent mill owner. Four Owenite communities are founded between 1825 and 1839 (the best known is at New Harmony in Indiana). Squabbles and bankruptcy finish off every one of them within a very few years.
Robert Owen severs his connection with New Lanark in 1829, the very year in which the trials at Rainhill introduce the railway era. The replacement of canals by railways for the transport of freight greatly speeds up the process of the Industrial Revolution, and makes possible the growth of the great manufacturing cities of the 19th century.
New Lanark, an elegant and isolated experiment in the countryside, is not a viable model in these circumstances. More effective in the long run, as a way of restraining the tendency of employers to exploit workers, is the painstaking process of welfare legislation.
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