He was the first socialist, first limousine liberal, and the first to make excuses
Robert Owen and the pioneering social experiment
In the early decades of the 19th century, the world was aflame with ideas. Advances in medicine and technology changed the way people lived forever, and the world’s population surged. America had successfully separated from England and gained individual freedoms, while the French were…less successful in their Revolution, entering the 19th Century under the dictatorial rule of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Second Great Awakening was a major American event in religion of the 19th Century. The first “awakening” had taken place in 1739, due to a weakened Church of England presence as well as a new interest in a variety of Protestant denominations. The second awakening launched in June of 1800, with the first “camp meeting,” featuring a Presbyterian minister and two Methodists. Isolated settlers on the frontiers of the US liked being able to reconnect with organized religion, and the idea spread.
During The Second Great Awakening, the emerging missionary groups led to other forms of social activism. The temperance movement, along with movements to abolish slavery, establish the vote for women, reform prisons, and care for the mentally ill can all trace their beginnings back to this time.
There was a belief that in America, anyone with enough persistence and strength of character could change not only themselves, but their circumstances. The class system of Europe and Old Blighty didn’t apply here; you didn’t have to be born into the upper class, you could make yourself into a person of quality.
Others weren’t content to change themselves, they wanted to change the world. Religious fervor, along with an expanded, more-powerful middle class was responsible for hundreds of Utopian societies based on a wide variety of both religious and secular ideals. While there had already been Utopian societies, such as the Shakers, long established before the 19th Century, now their numbers exploded.
Enter Rober Owen
In 1825, industrialist Robert Owen came from Scotland looking for a place to set up his own version of socialist paradise. (It is one of the lost mysteries of history whether Owen himself or his adherents coined the term.) He was well-known and applauded in his home country for the way workers in his cotton mill were treated and for their onsite living conditions. He wanted to set up a society in America for the whole world to see, where people lived according to his ideals of equality, atheism, and science. He believed this model community was all that was necessary for the rest of the world to accept and use his ideas to establish a whole new civilization. He purchased a property on the Wabash River in the Indiana Territory from a religious society known as the Rappites. It consisted of over 160 buildings, including stores, workshops and residences, including about 2000 acres of cleared farmland. The Rappites had been successful in selling their produce and manufactured goods, but they needed a location closer to mainstream commerce routes.
Soon, somewhere between seven and nine hundred Americans — all followers of Owen’s socialist plan — showed up at New Harmony in an attempt to make history. Like almost all of the Utopian collectives of the day, Owen’s settlement at New Harmony failed, and by 1829 the property had been sold off to former residents, among them five of Owen’s adult children.
Seen from a 21st Century perspective, it would appear the community failed primarily because no one had bothered to ensure at least some of the residents had the skills needed for survival. Independent blacksmiths, other tradesmen, and farmers weren’t interested in joining the group because they could make more money on their own. The citizens of New Harmony simply didn’t know how or were not inclined to do anything to provide food for the group, or take care of the number of chores that must be done when living in a wilderness.
Owen himself didn’t live there; he devoted his time to traveling the US and Europe promoting his ideas. When he did arrive for a visit in January of 1826, his response to the disaffection and unhappiness among his citizens was to hold some meetings and reorganize, while pretending the experiment was successful. The settlement had already been bogged down by bureaucracy and regulation; it was only a matter of time before New Harmony was finished as a social experiment. Several more reorganizations failed to achieve the results expected.
Yet in the same way today’s socialists refuse to accept failures of their chosen system, other groups of the time thought they could succeed. Owen sold off some of the New Harmony property to small groups wanting to establish socialist societies of their own. Including others under different leadership and slightly different precepts, at one time there were as many as 50 socialist societies in the United States.
All of them failed; most within a matter of two or three years.
On returning to England, after spending almost all his money on the New Harmony disaster, he blamed the location, the people in the group — everybody and everything else. Sound familiar?
By 1835, Owen and his followers established what they first called, the Association of All Classes of All Nations, later called the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists, and eventually the Home Colonization Society. Owen’s title was Rational Social Father for much of the life of the organization. Meetings were held in large buildings on Sundays, with sermons provided by Owen himself. The intention of the organization was to promote socialism and moral reform based on Owen’s concept that the individual was in no way responsible for his own character. His major published work, entitled New Moral World (available here to read online or download) formed the basis for most of his sermons.
The Sunday services attracted a young Friedrich Engels in 1843, who said in an article for the Schweizerischer Republikaner:
[T]here are also the Sunday lectures, which are very diligently attended; thus during my stay in Manchester I saw the Communist Hall, which holds about 3,000 people, crowded every Sunday, and I heard there speeches which have a direct effect, which are made from the special viewpoint of the people, and in which witty remarks against the clergy occur. It happens frequently that Christianity is directly attacked and Christians are called “our enemies”. In their form, these meetings resemble church gatherings; in the gallery a choir accompanied by an orchestra sings social hymns; these consist of semi-religious or wholly religious melodies with communist words, during which the audience stands.
As the first of the socialists, Robert Owen made some obvious mistakes that would continue to be made until the present day. The first of those was his failure to recognize people as individuals. He saw people as a homogeneous mass, with identical needs, without taking into account the differences that abound in character, ability, intelligence and other aspects that make us all uniquely human. He never recognized that his fellow socialists had free will, and most of them wouldn’t hesitate to use it. Neither did he recognize that his solution for economic slavery and oppression was equally oppressive and enslaving, only in a different form.
His arrogance, however, kept him from seeing the rational truths that doomed his social engineering experiments. He ignored his failures, continuing to plan new efforts right up until his death in 1858.
Owen’s successors, from Marx and Engels in the same century, to Lenin and Stalin in the 20th Century and numerous proponents of socialism today, continue to make the same errors of arrogance and ignorance. What is most striking about 21st Century socialism is how little the philosophy has changed. Socialism is every bit as racist, classist, and sexist as it was in Owen’s time, with an equal amount of avoidance of responsibility. There is still no recognition of practicality, consideration of how a socialist system or program would be reasonably applied, much less consideration of unintended consequences.
What has changed in 200 years is the level of violence. Owen’s intent was for a peaceful acceptance of socialist ideals by an understanding and grateful world. Marx and Engels wanted armed, violent revolution; Lenin and Stalin implemented it, creating the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. At its height, the USSR was comprised of 15 Soviet Socialist Republics, and was the largest country in the world. It too, failed in 1991.
Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party wasn’t allowed to fail on its own, rather it was blasted out of existence after Hitler decided military takeover of the world was the goal of his proposed Third Reich.
As of this writing, in South America the socialist government of Venezuela is in violent death throes.
One hundred years from Lenin’s revolution, the body count stands near 100 million. Yet, socialists still refuse to admit they are wrong.
Previously, the revolutions had been in other countries far from the US, isolated attacks on public buildings or riots/insurrection in major US cities. But now it seems violence for political motives has become personal.
On June 14, Congressman Steve Scalise was one of five people — all Republicans — shot when a gunman opened fire at a park in Alexandria, Virginia. The assailant was known on social media and elsewhere to be an ardent socialist who had once volunteered for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.
I saw this week where Antifa Website Encourages ‘All Manner of Physical Violence’ Against Trump Supporters and Capitalists. The website mentioned at the link calls for stabbing people who support the President and anyone else they deem to be fascist by their definition.
The outcome of this kind of proposal is anybody’s guess, but a comment on the article was especially chilling:
The Resistance is political activist porn but there exists in every liberal group a core of [the] deranged who live for violence. The Bill Ayers, the Weatherman Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army. The Left looks to the 60’s as the base for power and idolizes the loudest voices.
We must ask ourselves though, what happens when the party of Antifa rioters with something-studies degrees working as baristas goes head to head with the party of NRA and Iraq and Afghanistan veterans?
If Antifa and their ilk will insist on using violence, then yes, we must ask, what will come in defense?
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