Pamphlet by Robert Owen on Self-Governing Communes

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Robert Owen’s pamphlet on reforming Britain into federation of autonomous socialist communities: front cover

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Rear cover listing other works written by Owen.

Looking through my bookshelves yesterday, I managed to find an old copy of a pamphlet by Robert Owen that I’d read when I was at college. It’s a facsimile edition of the Utopian Socialist’s Outline of the Rational System of Society, published by his Home Colonization Society at their headquarters in Pall Mall in London in 1841. The modern edition was republished by a small, private press on Guernsey.

Inside the front cover is a short piece by the Home Colonization Society’s secretary, A.C. Cuddon, giving a brief overview of its aims and activities. It states

Whatever may be said or written on the improvement of all classes of society, it is now evident to those who reflect, that that which is necessary to this end is a SOUND, GOOD, PRACTICAL EDUCATION, AND PERMANENT BENEFICIAL EMPLOYMENT to all who require them; in fact, that any other measures are mere palliatives, and can produce only temporary benefits, at an extravagant waste of time, capital and labour.

It will also be obvious to those who have thoroughly investigated the subject, that a sound education and permanent beneficial employment cannot be given under the present competitive arrangements of society; and that the best mode of securing these benefits to the population will be by the establishment of SELF-SUPPORTING HOME COLONIES, on account of their complete efficiency for the purpose, and their great economy over the present system.

A Society has therefore been formed to promote the establishment of these colonies; having for its object-
1stly. To submit the plans of the Colonies in all their details to the most scientific and experienced men in every department of life.
2ndly. To make these plans extensively known to the public, and to demonstrate their efficiency for the purposes designed.
3rdly. To demonstrate that these Colonies, in consequence of their very superior economical arrangements, will afford a secure and profitable investment for capital.
4thly To arrange the preliminaries for Joint-Stock Companies to carry the same gradually into extensive execution.
5thly. To publish the most useful and authentic works explanatory of the principles on which the system of Home Colonisation is based, in order to convey to the public correct information on this most important subject.

The expenses attendant on the above will be met by Subscriptions of £5 each and upwards; which shall, at the option of the subscriber, be placed to his or her credit in behalf of one or more shares, which the subscriber may choose to take in the first Joint-Stock Company established, and by donations.

A Subscription of Donation to the above amount will constitute a member of the Society.

The Society have published a statement of their views and the measures they propose, in a work entitled “A Development of the Principles and Plans on which to establish Self-supporting Home Colonies; as a secure and profitable investment for capital, and effectual means permanently to remove the causes of ignorance, poverty, and crime, and most materially to benefit all classes of society, by giving a right application to the now greatly misdirected powers of the human faculties, and of physical and moral science.”

This Society is not confined to any particular class, sect or party, but invites the cooperation of all who will unite in practical measures for the relief and amelioration of humanity. And the proposed Colonies will contain arrangements for the accommodation of every religion; the only religious requisition being, the practice and charity and kindness to all.

The pamphlet consists of several short sections, in which Owen lists the basic facts or principles on which his communities will be built, which mostly consisted of his views of human nature and psychological needs and influences of human society. The sections are entitled:

The Five Fundamental Facts on Which the Rational System of Society is Founded;

The Fundamental Laws of Human Nature, Or First Principles of the Science of Man;

The Conditions Requisite for Human Happiness;

The Principles and Practice of the Rational Religion; and

The Elements of the Science of Society, Or Of the Social State of Man.

He then gives on pages 10 to 14 of the pamphlet his proposed constitution for these colonies. He writes

A rational Government will attend solely to the Happiness of the governed.
It will ascertain what human nature is;-what are the laws of its organisation and of its existence, from birth to death;-what is necessary for the happiness of a being so formed and matured;-and what are the best means by which to attain those requisites, and to secure them permanently for all the governed.

It will devise and execute the arrangements by which the condition essential to human happiness shall be fully and permanently obtained for all the governed; and its laws will be few, easily understood by all the governed, and perfectly in unison with the laws of human nature.

Liberty of Mind or Conscience

1. Every one shall have equal and full liberty to express the dictates of his conscience on religious, and all other, subjects.
II. No one shall have any other power than fair argument to control the opinions or belief of another.
III. No praise or blame, no merit or demerit, no reward or punishment, shall be awarded for any opinions or belief.
IV. But all, of every religion, shall have equal right to express their opinions respecting the Incomprehensible Power which moves the atom and controls the universe, and to worship that Power under any form, or in any manner agreeable to their consciences,-not interfering with the equal rights of others.

Providing For and Educating the Population

I. Every one shall be equally provided, through life, with the best of every thing for human nature, by public arrangements; which arrangements shall give the best known direction to the industry and talents of every individual.
II. All shall be educated, from infancy to maturity, in the best manner known at the time.
III. All shall pass through the same general routine of education, domestic teaching, and employment.
IV. All children, from their birth, shall be under the especial care of the community in which they are born; but their parents shall have free access to them at all times.
V. All children shall be trained and educated together, as children of the same family; and shall be taught a knowledge of the laws of their nature.
VI. Every individual shall be encouraged to express his feelings and convictions only; or, in other words, to speak the truth solely upon all occasions.
VII. Both sexes shall have equal education, rights, privileges, and personal liberty; their marriages will arise from the general sympathies of their nature, uninfluenced by artificial distinctions.

General Arrangements for the Population

VIII. Under the Rational System of Society,-after the children shall have been trained to acquire new habits and new feelings, derived from the laws of human nature,-there shall be no useless private property.
IX. As soon as the members of these communities shall have been educated from infancy in a knowledge of the laws of their nature, trained to act in obedience to them, and surrounded by circumstances all in unison with them, there shall be no individual punishment or reward.
X. Society shall not be composed, as at present, of single families, but of communities or associations of men, women, and children, in the usual proportions, from three hundred to two thousand, as local circumstances may determine.
XI. As these new communities increase in number, unions of them shall be formed for local and general purposes, in tens, hundreds, thousands, &c., according to the less or more extended objects and interests which shall require their consideration and direction.
XII. Each of these communities shall possess around it land sufficient for the support, for ever, of all its members, even when it shall contain the maximum in number.
XIII. These communities shall be so arranged as to give to all the members of each of them, as nearly as possible, the same advantages; and to afford the most easy communication with each other.

Government of the Population and Duties of the Council.

XIV. Each community shall be governed in its home department by a general council, composed of all its members between the ages of thirty and forty; and each department shall be under the immediate direction of a committee, formed of members of the general council, chose by the latter, in the order to be determined upon; and in its external or foreign department, by all its members from forty to sixty years of age.
XV. After all the members of the community shall have been rendered capable of taking their full share of the duties in the general council of government, there shall be no selection or election of any individuals to office.
XVI. All the members at thirty years of age, who shall have been trained from infancy in the communities, shall be officially called upon to undertake their full share of the duties of management in the home department; and at forty they shall be excused from officially performing them: at forty they will be officially called upon to undertake the duties of the external or foreign department; and at sixty they will be excused from officially attending to them.
XVII. The duties of the general council of
home department shall be, to govern all the circumstances within the boundaries of its community,-to organise the various departments of production, distribution, and formation of character,-to remove all those circumstances which are the least favourable to happiness,-and to replace them with the best that can be devised among themselves, or of which they can obtain a knowledge from other communities. The duties of the general council of the external or foreign department will be, to receive visitors or delegates from other associations or communities,-to communicate with other similar associations,-to visit them and arrange with them the best means of forming roads, and conveying surplus produce to each other,-to travel, to give and receive information of inventions, discoveries, and improvements, and of every other kind that can be useful;-and also to regulate and assist in the establishment of new associations, composed of the surplus population of the community from among themselves, and to send to delegates to the circle of communities to which their community shall be attached.
XVIII. The general councils, home and foreign, shall have full power of government
in all things under their direction, as long as they shall act in unison with the laws of human nature, which shall be their sole guidance upon all occasions.
XIX. All individuals trained, educated, and placed, in conformity to the laws of their nature, must of necessity, at all times, think and act rationally, except they become physically, intellectually or morally diseased; in which case the council shall remove them into the hospital form bodily, mental, or moral invalids, where they shall remain until they shall be recovered by the mildest treatment that can effect their cure.
XX. The council, whenever it shall be necessary, shall call to its aid the practical abilities and advice of any of the members not in the council.

Adjustment of Differences

XXI. If the general councils should ever attempt to contravene the laws of human nature,-which is scarcely possible,-the elders of the community who have passed the councils shall call a general meeting of all the members of the community between sixteen and thirty years of age, who have been trained from infancy within it. This meeting shall calmly and patiently investigate the conduct of the general councils; and if a majority shall determine that they have acted, or attempted to act, in opposition to these laws, the general government shall devolve upon the members of the community who have passed the councils are above sixty years of age, united with those who have not entered the council and are between thirty and sixteen years of age. It is scarcely possible to conceive that this clause will ever be required; and, if required, it can only be of temporary application.
XXII. All other differences of every description,-if indeed it be possible for any to exist in these communities,-shall be immediately determined and amicably adjusted between the parties, by the decision of a majority of the three senior members of the council: except when the difference shall ex9ist between members of the councils,-when it shall be, in like manner, decided by the three members who have last passed the councils.

This is followed by a conclusion and a section of concluding remarks, in which Owen looks forward to as many as 2000 individuals being supported per mile of average quality soil, without any further discoveries and much less labour and capital than needed under the present system.

The pamphlet shows Owen’s basis in 18th century philosophy and its concern for establishing the basic principles of human nature, including morality, as well as Owen’s Deist belief. Owen states in his section on religion that God, whatever the individual religions wanted to call Him, exists, but that the precise nature of the Almighty has not been discovered. Which seems to suggest that he believed that someday science would also solve the mysteries of theology as well as the natural world.

His communities themselves are very much like the federation of small, independent communes advocated by Thomas Spence and his followers in the late 18th and early 19th century, and in France by Comte and then Fourier, who recommended reforming the country into a similar system of autonomous phalansteries. It seems to me that these ideas owe much to Rousseau and his ideas of democracy, based on his experience of the Swiss cantons, which were similarly bound together in a federation. They also seem to go back even further to the ancient Greek city states, and the constitutions suggested for them by Plato and Aristotle.

Although Owen went to America to try to found colonies there, his system proved massively impractical and all of them collapsed, as did similar plans by other Utopian Socialists. His schemes offer no rewards for excellence, or punishments for incompetence or laziness, defects which have led to the collapse of many similar experiments in communal life since then. Also, few would really want to embrace a system in which the community has almost absolute power of their children. According to William Blum, this was used as a scare in Venezuela a few years ago to prevent people voting for Hugo Chavez, and his right-wing and far right opponents told people that if they elected him, their children would become the property of the state.

The section where he recommends sending moral invalids, as well as those physically or mentally sick, to the community hospital is also sinister. It recalls the way twentieth century totalitarian governments, like Soviet Russia or Mao’s China, used psychiatry to persecute and incarcerate political dissidents, or sent them to ‘re-education’ camps. Even so, I think its very clear that ‘moral invalid’ certainly describes large numbers of the Tory, Lib Dem and Blairite sections of the Labour party. Particularly Damian Green, his mistress Theresa May, and Jeremy Hunt, and their forerunners in the last government.

Nevertheless, Owen was a major pioneer in the formation of Socialism, and in challenging the injustice, exploitation and poverty of traditional capitalist society, and so still remains important in that sense.

Apart from this pamphlet, Penguin Classics published a collected edition of his works, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

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