Was Robert Owen a Radical Visionary or just a very canny businessman?

David Smith, Secretary of Co-ops & Mutuals Wales, gives us the lowdown on the man widely acknowledged as one of the key founders of socialism and the co-operative movement.

See this page in: Cymraeg

How would you describe Robert Owen’s ideas and legacy to someone who knew nothing about him?

  • He is self-educated, an avid reader and consumer of ideas.
  • Owen speaks globally to the hopes and struggles of people seeking to make their world a better place.
  • His legacy still permeates our everyday working lives, for example, trade unions, building and friendly societies and community development pioneer.
  • Owen campaigned on early education, ending child labour, better housing and clean water supplies.

Was Robert Owen a radical visionary or just a very canny businessman?

  • He was both. Owen had a comprehensive vision for revolutionary reform to address the endemic social ills that accompanied the capitalism of his era.
  • Owen supported the ideals of the French Revolution – liberty, fraternity and equality – and tried to put them into action.
  • As a factory owner who inspired Movements, co-operative values not coercion was the mainspring of change, with education being more important to the success of the venture than administration.
  • Owen provided the co-operative aim, but Dr William King (Brighton) appeared to provide the means for its fulfilment, with future co-operators ever grateful for his practical store keeping advice, and emphasis on moral values and education.

Education:  What are your views on his ideas about education?

  • Owen sought to create the external conditions that would remake human character and produce good, rationale and humane citizens.
  • Crucially, Owen linked this formation of character to a business model in which the social formation of character was paramount, enabling the creation of co-operators.
  • He was one of the first to use informal learning, using visuals aids, maps and activities such as singing, dancing and out-door activities with an emphasis on participation.
  • Owen felt that children should be prepared to play a full part in a new kind of society where they would all be equal members of a local community.
  • His aim was self-improvement rather than just an ability to pass tests.

What has been his most important legacy and is it still relevant?

  • His chief legacy has been the notion of “association” or solidarity – the need for people to do things together if they are to succeed, hence the need for co-operative associations, trades unions and even an International Association of Nations, which Owen proposed. He thought this was the way to deliver tangible benefits immediately, rather than the vague promises of most politicians.
  • Owen’s ideas are essential for anyone who cares about social justice, the reform of economics, globalisation and the achievement of the UN’s sustainable development goals.

Robert Owen was born in Newtown, Montgomeryshire:  What should we in Wales learn from him?

  • His ideas have successfully spread to many parts of the world.
  • His beliefs resonate with many Welsh people, yet he is not well known in Wales today. We must put that right.
  • We have almost lost the belief that we can do things for ourselves. There are many examples of successful co-operative ventures. We must publicise and encourage more local co-operative ventures to help rebuild our economy and ensure jobs in all parts of the country without despoiling our natural environment or our national heritage.

What would a young Robert Owen be campaigning for (or against) in Wales today?

  • An end to the climatic and environment disasters occasioned by capitalist greed.
  • Extension of economic democracy and the voice of younger people as active citizens.
  • A fair share of global wealth for all nations and all people and a more effective United Nations.
  • Actively driving local national curriculum delivery, including the self-help co-operative business model and school activity.

Why aren’t his ideas more widely known or implemented and what can we do to promote his ideas today?

  • We need to argue the case on all possible occasions. More importantly we need to give examples of successful co-operative ventures – both from Wales and around the world.
  • Campaign for the principles and practices of co-operation to be taught in all Welsh schools and for the schools themselves to become more co-operative in nature by ensuring a partnership between pupils, teachers, parents and the wider community.
  • Campaigning for an educational system that puts more emphasis on the development of pupils’ characters and ability to contribute effectively to the wider society rather than just cramming knowledge.
  • We welcome contact with teachers and pupils who wish to help make that change.

David Smith is Secretary of Co-ops & Mutual Wales. Find out more at https://www.cooperatives-wales.coop

Join with us in celebrating the 250th Anniversary of Robert Owen's birth

14 May 2021 marks the 250th Anniversary of the birth of Robert Owen. Owen is widely acknowledged as the father of co-operation, and the Wales Co-operative Centre is running activities to mark the event.