Manifesto of Robert Owen Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“But thus to rebase, reorganize, reclassify and reconstruct society, it is also necessary that the character of every one . . . should be, from birth, recreated . . . thus gradually, without violence or injustice or misery of any kind, a terrestrial paradise may be formed for all.”

Summary Overview

Robert Owen spent his life trying to raise the standard of living for all people. Initially focusing on those who had the greatest need, the poor and working class, he later broadened his goal to that of a global utopia. The technological changes occurring throughout the world gave him hope that the natural educational system he envisioned would begin to take root. In addition, the rational scientific process was becoming more firmly established as a guiding philosophy in the Western world. Owen had great hope that this was the precursor to a full understanding of the role community played within human development, leading to the final transformation of society. In writing his manifesto, Owen offered guidance for transforming the entire world. For America, which had just chosen the expansionist candidate James K. Polk for president, Owen presented a vision that went beyond just annexing the territory west of the Louisiana Purchase; instead, he thought the United States should incorporate all of North and South America.

Defining Moment

At various times in the past, individuals or groups have firmly believed that dramatic changes were about to happen. During the first half of the nineteenth century, change seemed to be in the air. Several religious groups anticipated that the world would end quite soon and made radical preparations for that event. Other new religious and spiritual groups formed, including the growth of the spiritualist movement in the 1840s. Technology was changing the way people saw themselves and the world. Railroads, the telegraph, and photography changed what was considered possible. New and larger telescopes and new ideas in physics, chemistry, geology, and biology were opening new avenues of thought and inquiry, and the biblical story of creation was starting to be more widely questioned. For Owen, as for many others, all of these things were signs that change was imminent. While there were many different theories as to where this change was going, Owen believed that one did not have to wait upon some outside factor to direct the change. Some thirty years prior to writing his manifesto, Owen had developed his understanding of humanity. For him, now was the time to implement the steps necessary to create a positive change for the entire world. Thus, as the “new era in human existence” was about to begin, Owen wanted to ensure that it would be “based on principles of nature” that would create a world of “knowledge, goodness, and happiness.”

All of this was possible, in Owen’s mind, because rational scientific thought was becoming the primary way to search for answers to the problems confronting humanity. Owen had been a rationalist for decades. He believed that most of the prevailing social structure, including religion, was an impediment to a true understanding of the world. Just as the natural laws were being discovered through the development of the physical sciences and technological developments were being made based on this knowledge, Owen asserted that natural laws of human development had been discovered (by him) and that now was the time to develop human society based on this knowledge. Most of the Western Hemisphere had relatively recently become independent from European domination, so this was the logical place for the transition to begin. The United States was in the process of further expanding its borders and flexing its power. For Owen, it was only a small step from the Monroe Doctrine and President Polk’s expansionist policies to the path that Owen set forth in the second of his three papers.

Author Biography

Robert Owen was born May 14, 1771, in the Welsh town of Newtown, the sixth child of Robert Owen and Anne Williams. Owen was bright and was a teacher’s assistant for a few years while still in school. Outside school, he avidly studied religion, arriving at the conclusion that a secular worldview was the correct one. When he was about ten, Owen was sent to London to apprentice in a drapery shop. After learning the trade, Owen eventually moved to Manchester, where he established his own business when he was eighteen.

Desiring a larger venue in which to try his innovative ideas, Owen offered his managerial services to the owner of a large textile mill when he was only twenty-one and convinced the owner to pay him a substantial salary and a share of the profits. After three years, having been successful in increasing the mill’s profits, Owen left to establish a wholesale operation, which was also a success. While in Manchester, Owen became a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, which broadened his exposure to others interested in industrial reform and current philosophical ideas. In addition, he worked with the Manchester Board of Health to improve conditions for workers and helped establish Manchester College.

In 1799, Owen made the decision to leave Manchester and purchase Scotland’s largest mill, located in New Lanark. He married the former mill owner’s daughter, Caroline Dale, with whom he had seven children who survived infancy. At New Lanark, Owen focused on the conditions of the workers rather than on profits, taking his initial steps toward instituting a rational, secular socialist system. He developed schools and an innovative curriculum for young children instead of working them in his mills. He gained higher output and a superior product from satisfied, skilled workers, earning Owen exceptional profits.

During this time, Owen began to publish his views on human nature, economics, and education, through which he tried to transform the lives of the working poor. In 1825, Owen purchased a town in Indiana and created New Harmony to try out his ideals in a new setting. However, the artificial community failed within just a few years. Returning to Great Britain, Owen continued to write on what came to be called socialism. He started cooperative stores and workers’ unions during the late 1820s and early 1830s. Others started communities based on his theories. He focused on education as the key to changing the world, as well as people’s lives. Through this educational process, he believed that eventually a cooperative system would replace capitalism. He continued to publicize his ideas until just before his death on November 17, 1858.

Document Analysis

Robert Owen was a great believer in human ability as guided by rational thought. In his mind, the problems of the world could be overcome through the proper education of all people. The result would be a utopia, with morality and happiness prevailing in each person’s life. Increased personal well-being would create harmony among all human organizations, although Owen also thought it would be more rational to have fewer divisions between people by eliminating most languages, religions, nations, and any other factors that have historically divided groups from one another. In order to do this, he believed, the Eastern and Western Hemispheres should unite into one political unit. By sharing in all things, the human race could overcome the “fundamental errors” that had plagued it from antiquity. With the advances that were being made in the early nineteenth century, Owen believed the time was right to undertake this ambitious agenda.

Over a four-day period, Owen submitted three papers for publication. The excerpt contains the entire first paper, about the first two-thirds of the second, and none of the third. The first paper is a general call for the transformation of people and society, while the second deals with the United States and the Western Hemisphere. The third paper addresses the Eastern Hemisphere and Great Britain, with the same goal and virtually the same approach as in the second paper. Owen thought that the steps taken to unify the Eastern Hemisphere would have to be slightly different, given its strong heritages, which would need to be overcome. If changes in the East were not possible, Owen believed the Western Hemisphere could implement the system and be self-sufficient. Ideally, however, the United States and Great Britain would lead their respective hemispheres into the utopian future that Owen envisioned.

The general introduction to all three papers presents an overview of Owen’s goals for the near future, as well as a very brief summary of the current situation. It is clear that Owen thought the situation in 1844 was far from ideal. He implies that the world is not civilized by writing that his papers are for “people who desire to become civilized.” In addition, he states that technology is the “tyrant master and cruel oppressor of . . . society.” However, he does give hope. If the “governments and people” listen to and act on Owen’s propositions, then they will obtain “permanent peace” as well as increase everyone’s intelligence, ethics, and happiness. Following the steps he prescribes will ensure technology’s shift from tyrant to “slave and servant of humanity.” Owen offers the world a chance to become a brilliant success rather than a total failure—if people listen to and act on his advice. He then goes on to outline why this is in the interest of the world at large.

In most of his written works, Owen does not shy away from taking ownership of his ideas, but in this first paper, he does not identify himself as the source of the theories that undergird his discussion. Although any who knew him would recognize his line of thought, by not stating that this theory of human development is one that he has created, he is trying to make it a more universal statement of truth. Thus, when he states that a discovery has been made that identifies the “few unchanging errors of inexperienced imagination” that plague every society, he makes it sound as if this were a fact—which, in his mind, it probably was. Owen’s statement on the cause of all societal problems is made in a way that assumes rational thinkers agree with him. The same is true of the solution that he gives: doing away with these “errors of imagination.” This, for Owen, would solve all problems. He is correct in saying that the things that have led in the past to “ignorance, falsehood, division, wars, contentions, crime and misery” will continue to do so in the future; however, he is not correct in his implication that his approach was generally understood as the best way to avoid these things.

Having identified the unfortunate outcomes of the past, Owen seeks to have as many people as possible understand what happened in order to do better in the future. Owen continues to argue, without giving specifics, that people live and structure society by accident or chance, rather than by a sound philosophical or scientific understanding. In the fifth paragraph of this first paper, he continues to list the failures of society. He emphasizes the irrationality of expecting the foundation of a flawed society to produce an idyllic result in the future.

It is only in the sixth paragraph that Owen presents a statement of past errors and, implicitly, the correct understanding that should be used in the future. The basic error Owen sees is the societal belief that anyone can be a self-made man. He argues that at birth, a child “does not possess the power to create” anything. The resources for physical development come from the outside, as does the stimulation for intellectual and moral development. The same, he asserts, is true as the child grows. The commonly accepted ideal of the individual who personally develops his own talents and then builds his own success is wrong, according to Owen. The only thing that a person can claim—having been done “by mysterious means”—is the body and mind with which one was born, or accidents that might have occurred. By implication, Owen asserts that the development of the person takes place based on external factors and forces that most would say were outside the control of the individual. Thus, philosophically Owen falls into the school of thought that sees people as innately neither good nor bad but as blank tablets (tabula rasa) upon which life’s experiences create the individual’s outlook on and understanding of the world. Although Owen saw this understanding of the world and human development as a major breakthrough, he was not the first or the only one to believe that human beings are a reflection of the environment in which they are raised.

Given this understanding of human development, in his manifesto, Owen emphasizes his four Rs: rebase, reorganize, reclassify, and reconstruct. From his point of view, because people absorb what is around them, he advocates that “society must be rebased on demonstrably true and unchanging laws of nature.” In Owen’s mind, these laws of nature were the things that led to a life and society full of happiness, goodness, harmony, and a plentiful supply of material things. This was the state of being that should exist; thus, in his opinion, the conditions that produce it were the laws of nature. He understood this to be the truth, and with the greater acceptance of rational scientific changes, he believed it was then possible for everyone to understand and accept them as well.

Although he does not spell it out as much in this paper as in some of his other writings, Owen believed that society must be reorganized for the implementation of these “laws of nature.” From his time at New Lanark, he understood that education was the key. There, he had implemented an educational process from birth through the teen years. In his ideal society, the educational process would last at least through the twenties, with individuals mixing work and education during the last half of the process. Thus, he believed that society needed to be reorganized so that either babies would be sent to school each day or parents would be trained to begin the educational process at home. The entire educational process would be a positive reinforcing experience, one that took place “in a spirit of universal charity.”

Because of his extended educational process, Owen believed in what he called the need to “reclassify” people as they matured. The most obvious aspect of this is the change in the formal educational process as children get older and have a better understanding of the various subjects. His model used five-year cohorts, or groups, so that every five years, the child or young adult would move to a new level with a new educational emphasis. Owen believed that in his utopian society, many fewer hours would be needed to produce the necessary goods. In some of his enterprises, he introduced the eight-hour workday; however, he thought it possible that people might only have to work two hours, thereby leaving the remainder of their time free for the discussion of philosophical ideas and the needs of the society.

It was clear to Owen that society “must be reconstructed in all its parts, to be in unison with the principles.” He had no doubt that humanity was up to the task of this total reconstruction. He saw the utopian world as one in which human-created (cultural) differences would disappear, leaving “one language, one code of simplified laws, one interest, one currency, one spirit, and one general superior mind, and conduct over the globe.” In order for this to happen, every person “should be, from birth, recreated through a new creation and arrangement of superior external circumstances.” This was the world that Owen wanted everyone to create. Unlike others, he did not believe this creation should happen through force; rather, he thought that if people knew it were possible to create “a terrestrial paradise” for everyone, they would gladly make changes in their lives to make it a reality. He was convinced that the necessary ingredients were at hand for this transformation, if people would just accept his ideals and act on them. In the second and third papers, Owen gives the broad proposals to show how this might occur.

The second paper is directed “to the leading men of all parties in the United States.” Owen had been to the United States and understood the potential “within the Union.” Owen possessed a strong ego and would initiate social experiments without hesitation or doubt. He believed that others should be willing to do the same, including the leaders of the entire country. The opportunity, in Owen’s eyes, was for the United States to develop “the most powerful and splendid empire” through the peaceful means of his educational process. For Owen, one key ingredient was to adopt the new lifestyle wholeheartedly. He believed that a person, or society, either lived up to his ideals or failed and fell back into the old ways.

Owen lists six qualities that would be necessary for this social transformation to work with the fewest problems during the transition. He writes, “The United States now possess these advantages, or the means to acquire them.” What was required was for the political and social leaders of the country to make the initial decision to move toward the goal of a united Western Hemisphere. Owen saw no problem in moving from the relative freedoms and various constitutional rights American society to a setting where the government would implement strict requirements such as demanding all citizens “exercise physically and mentally all, at all times.” However, many of the requirements that Owen lists for the United States were possible because of the relative newness of the countries in the Western Hemisphere. The United States was clearly the power in the hemisphere, even without the twenty-year-old Monroe Doctrine. Owen truly believed in a rational, scientific approach to life and social structure. Thus, for him, it was possible for American leaders to take the assets required and “combine them into a scientific new arrangement of society.” The benefits of this social engineering, in Owen’s mind, would greatly outweigh any inconveniences.

Examining Owen’s argument for these social changes, it was, and is, difficult to disagree with his assertion that people want to be part of a “well governed” country and would want to have their physical and mental attributes “well cultivated from birth” in order to be the best people possible. However, if one accepted Owen’s arguments, then one would also be accepting Owen’s judgments of what was best. Doing away with “languages, religions, governments, laws, or currencies” in order to simplify interactions with others does follow a rationalistic logic. However, it is Owen’s perceptions that dictate what should be kept, not a scientific study of human culture, as he seems to imply in his papers. For a society to have the qualities that Owen lists, including “superior habits, manners, and conduct; with the pure spirit of charity, . . . and love,” would be good. He offers all of this and more if the United States is willing to follow his teachings on how to shape the life of each person. He expresses his certainty that the United States and the rest of the hemisphere had the resources to make this a success. However, as in other places where Owen had suggested such a plan, the leaders and the people were not willing to adopt his extreme form of socialism, which included turning all child care over to the state.

In the remainder of the second and in the third paper, Owen continues to assure the reader that the benefits of making these changes, in either hemisphere, are great enough that the people would accept the discomfort that change has always brought. The fact that it would be decades before the system would be fully implemented was always ignored by Owen when he proposed it to various groups. Owen understood many aspects of human nature and the problems that confronted many urban areas during the first half of the nineteenth century. He made important contributions to understanding the educational process and argued that mills could make greater profits by treating their workers well. However, he was overly optimistic as to how rational the average person really was and how large an immediate change they would be willing to make to be part of “this new, superior, and rational state of human existence.”

Essential Themes

The dramatic changes that Robert Owen proposed did not come to pass. While the United States and Great Britain were political leaders within their respective hemispheres, they did not use this position to try to implement anything like his proposal. For better or for worse, they continued with the old way of doing things. Thus the heritage of Owen was not a new political and social order. What he contributed were specific aspects of his utopian dream, which were important challenges to the status quo.

Owen’s most significant contribution was his emphasis on the importance of education. When he stopped employing children under the age of ten at New Lanark, he was called before a parliamentary committee and questioned as to whether this did not cause the working-class children to become immoral and dangerous. Owen replied that by receiving an education at this age, they actually became better citizens and workers. The policy changes he advocated—universal education and the extension of education beyond the very basics—have become the norm in all developed nations.

A second major contribution that came from his vision for the world was a change how workers were treated. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, workers were treated like pieces of machinery that could be easily replaced. Through his example, Owen demonstrated that this was not really the case. Although workers could be replaced, the quality of the work diminished. By caring for their health, helping them learn, and limiting the time spent on the job, productivity actually increased. While the two-hour workday was never achieved, Owen’s advocacy of shorter work shifts was gradually accepted, as was the offering of employee benefits such as health insurance and tuition reimbursement.

Philosophically, Owen challenged the idea that people were able to “form their own physical, mental, and moral capacity.” He pushed the idea that society played the dominant role in a person’s development. He did not believe in the philosophy of “might makes right.” Most agreed with him that the world would be a better place if people knew the essential truths and lived by these truths; however, almost everyone rejected the idea that Owen had discovered these essential truths and the proper lifestyle with which to implement them. Thus, while Owen failed to see his global vision implemented, the questions he raised and parts of his plan have been beneficial to society as a whole.

  • Gordon, Peter. “Robert Owen (1771–1858).” Prospects 24.1/2 (1994): 279–96. PDF file.
  • Owen, Robert. Manifesto of Robert Owen. Washington: Globe Office, 1844. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Brown, Paul. Twelve Months in New Harmony. Philadelphia: Porcupine, 1972. Print.
  • Claeys, Gregory. Machinery, Money and the Millennium: The New Moral Economy of Owenite Socialism, 1815–60. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987. Print.
  • Harrison, J. F. C. Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
  • Owen, Robert. A New View of Society and Other Writings. New York: Dutton, 1927. Print.
  • ---. Selected Works of Robert Owen. Ed. Gregory Claeys. London: Pickering, 1993. Print.
  • Robert Owen and New Lanark: A Man ahead of His Time. New Lanark Trust, n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2013.

Categories: History