Any assessment of Robert Owen is bound to be partial, because there are some gaps in our knowledge about both the man and his agenda. But we have seen the close links between his personal experience as an enlightened employer and the social philosophy presented in the essays, which found its ultimate expression in the community scheme and mutual cooperation.
Owen's most important ideas about character formation underpinned much of this philosophy. He has rightly been condemned for much woolly thinking, but was at least consistent in articulating the key role that education would play in his New Society.
Packed into this were controversial ideas about the influence of environment on individuals and how they would relate to each other in communities, where some of the precepts of ‘Old Society’ regarding the role of women, sexual relations, marriage and religion would be left behind. A few of the ideas that he picked up, like birth control which, apart from its obvious function, empowered women, were so contentious they could not be articulated, though it seems that population levels in the new communities were to be regulated in that way.
Although Owen had given insufficient attention to the economics of his scheme, this could be explained by his failure to realise that the success of New Lanark as a dynamic capitalist enterprise under his management could hardly be replicated in multifunctional villages where the profit motive was secondary to cooperation, social and moral improvement.
Despite the many contradictions in his own life and thought, some of which I have mentioned, Owen's ideological legacy was profound. Some of his ideas did not transmit too well in time or space, but the lessons of the Enlightenment Owen learned in his early career certainly had a profound impact on his most tangible legacy, the remarkable community of New Lanark. Owen's experiment there may have lasted only 25 years, but subsequently it provided inspiration for later educators, public health reformers, trade unionists and cooperators.
Many of the ideas set out in A New View of Society were too progressive for their time, and were only beginning to be implemented in the early twentieth century. Some are still part of ongoing debates about education, citizenship, welfare, cooperation and the environment, which suggests that Owen may indeed have been something of a visionary.
Meanwhile, the place Owen had made internationally famous continued for another 130 years as a working factory village, still attracting visitors from as far afield as Japan (where there remains considerable interest in Owen's management psychology), until the mills ultimately closed in 1968. Thereafter, although the visitors kept coming to honour Owen's memory and ideals, the community declined and decay was rapid. But, thanks to a major restoration project initiated in the 1970s, culminating in New Lanark's designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we can now see the community, with all its ‘arrangements’, much as it was in Owen's day. At New Lanark the UNESCO rubric appears in three languages, English, Gaelic and French – further proof, if needed, of the community's international status.
Finally, while there is much that is puzzling about Robert Owen, there is one question that intrigues me more than any other. Given the importance Owen attached to the role of the environment on character, did New Lanark not influence him more than he did the place itself? I believe that it did, and that it is the key to understanding his essays.