As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, modern socialism (which includes Marxist communism) traces its roots to the thought of Robert Owen. Owen’s theories anticipated the modern Welfare State as well as the drift into secularism, the deification of the abstraction of humanity, the decay of marriage and family, and a host of other ills attendant upon the alienation of most people from direct ownership of the means of production, and thus personal power and the means of participating as full members of society.
Where Owen got his ideas is impossible to say at this late date. The only known record of Owen’s early life is his own autobiography, left incomplete at his death. Where some autobiographies seem deliberately intended to obscure intimate details by relating a series of more or less connected anecdotes that reveal next to nothing about the writer (Robert Hugh Benson’s Confessions of a Convert, G.K. Chesterton’s Autobiography, and Fulton Sheen’s Treasure in Clay come to mind), Owen’s autobiography presents a wealth of detail intended to glorify Owen and his thought.
This had a singularly unfortunate result in that even Owen’s greatest admirers have been forced to acknowledge that he on many occasions did not merely stretch the truth, he engaged in active invention to add luster to his reputation as the messiah of a new vision of society. The reader sees Owen presenting himself as a child prodigy who astounded his teachers and ended up himself the teacher during the short time he spent in school, read countless books and apparently remembered none of their titles or the contents (and rarely if ever picked up a book after he left childhood), who as a child of five was in virtual control of the household, and at the age of eight was consulted by his parents for his advice and wisdom. At a time when parents apprenticed their children at ten unless they continued their education, Owen related that it was at his command that he left home at that age and never returned until his death.
|Robert Owen's Mill at New Lanark, UK|
A constant theme running through Owen’s autobiography and his speeches and writings is his belief that religion is the cause of all of humanity’s woes. It was religion that instituted marriage and protected private property. If the triad of religion, marriage, and private property could be abolished (so Owen believed), mankind would enter a new age of prosperity, truth, love, justice, and so on. As a starting point, religion must be abolished and its effects especially on children be ameliorated.
Interestingly, we learn from his autobiography that Owen’s family was lax in its religious duties, but that after he left home he lodged with a family where the husband and wife belonged to two different Christian denominations, and they insisted on attending services of both every Sunday and often during the week, along with their children and lodger. From being the one day every week he had completely free, Owen’s Sunday became a trial to be borne from early morning to late evening.
|Robert Owen became a believer in spiritualism|
Not that Owen was against religion . . . as long as it wasn’t religious. This is not as contradictory as it sounds. If by “religion” was meant worship or even acknowledgement of a transcendent God (or even gods), then Owen was against it. As noted, he considered that form of religion one of the greatest barriers to human happiness ever invented. (At an unknown time later in life, Owen began communicating with the spirits of the dead, often being visited by his late friend the Duke of Kent, as well as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Lord Byron, and a host of others, including a number of prophets and patriarchs.)
|Frank Podmore, Fabian socialist|
Owen’s true religion was the worship of humanity, and he wanted, even desperately needed, his God — the People — to be absolutely perfect. His theory was that people are completely formed by their environment and, therefore, to have a perfect People (and thus a perfect God), everything that got in the way of a perfect society that would form a perfect People must be eliminated.
A national church, therefore, must be established (or, in England’s case, reestablished and reformed along humanitarian lines) on a purely practical basis, directed toward perfecting the social order to produce perfect people. Thus, as Frank Podmore, one of the founders of the Fabian Society, summarized Owen’s religious program as presented in Owen’s A New View of Society (1813),
[T]he Church must be purged. The theological dogmas which “constitute its weakness and create its danger” must be “withdrawn”; all tests must be abolished, and all men invited again within the fold, so as to constitute once more a truly National Church. “For the first grand stop towards effecting any substantial improvement in these realms, without injury to any part of the community, is to make it the clear and decided interest of the Church to co-operate cordially in all the projected ameliorations. Once found a National Church on the true, unlimited, and genuine principles of universal charity, and all the members of the State will soon improve in every truly valuable quality.” (Frank Podmore, Robert Owen: A Biography. New York: Haskell House Publishers, Ltd., 1971, 118, quotes from Robert Owen, A New View of Society, p. 322.)
Of course, there are one or two holes in Owen’s theories. For one, if the environment alone determines whether an individual is virtuous or vicious, why isn’t everyone from the same environment identical? For another, if people are formed entirely by their environment, how did Owen realize that, and how did he alone break free?
That, however, was not the only problem, as we will see in the next posting on this subject.