Political Essays (1819)/Mr. Owen's New View of Society
"A new View of Society; or, Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character, and the Application of the Principle to Practice." Murray, 1816.—"An Address to the Inhabitants of New Lanark, on opening an Institution for the Formation of Character." By Robert Owen, one of his Majesty's Justices of the Peace for the County of Lanark."—Hatchard, 1816.
["Dedicated to those who have no Private Ends to accomplish, who are honestly in search of Truth, for the purpose of ameliorating the Condition of Society, and who have the firmness to follow the Truth wherever it may lead, without being turned aside from the Pursuit by the Prepossessions or Prejudices of any part of Mankind;—to Mr. Wilberforce, the Prince Regent," &c.]
August 4, 1816.
"A NEW View of Society"—No, Mr. Owen, that we deny. It may be true, but it is not new. It is not coeval, whatever the author and proprietor may think, with the New Lanark mills, but it is as old as the royal borough of Lanark, or as the county of Lanark itself. It is as old as the "Political Justice" of Mr. Godwin, as the "Oceana" of Harrington, as the "Utopia" of Sir Thomas More, as the "Republic" of Plato; it is as old as society itself, and as the attempts to reform it by shewing what it ought to be, or by teaching that the good of the whole is the good of the individual—an opinion by which fools and honest men have been sometimes deceived, but which has never yet taken in the knaves and knowing ones. The doctrine of Universal Benevolence, the belief in the Omnipotence of Truth, and in the Perfectibility of Human Nature, are not new, but "Old, old," Master Robert Owen;—why then do you say that they are new? They are not only old, they are superannuated, they are dead and buried, they are reduced to mummy, they are put into the catacombs at Paris, they are sealed up in patent coffins, they have been dug up again and anatomised, they have been drawn, quartered and gibbetted, they have become black, dry, parched in the sun, loose, and rotten, and are dispersed to all the winds of Heaven! The chain in which they hung up the murdered corse of human Liberty is all that remains of it, and my Lord Shallow keeps the key of it! If Mr. Owen will get it out of his hands, with the aid of Mr. Wilberforce and the recommendation of The Courier, we will "applaud him to the very echo, which shall applaud again." Till then, we must content ourselves with "chaunting remnants of old lauds" in the manner of Ophelia:—
"No, no, he is gone, and we cast away moan,
And will he not come again,
And will he not come again?"
Perhaps, one of these days, he may . . . . "like a cloud over the Caspian:" then if ever, and never till then, human nature will hold up its head again, and the Holy and Triple Alliance will be dissolved. But as to this bald spectre of Liberty and Necessity conjured up by Mr. Owen from the falls of the Clyde, with a primer in one hand, and a spinning-jenny in the other, coming down from the Highlands in a Scotch mist, and discoverable only by second-sight, we may fairly say to it—
"Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes,
Which thou dost glare with."
Why does Mr. Owen put the word "New," in black-letter at the head of the advertisements of his plan of reform? In what does the New Lanark differ from the old Utopia? Is Scotland, after all, the true Lubber-land? Or must the whole world be converted into a cotton-factory? Does not Mr. Owen know that the same scheme, the same principles, the same philosophy of motives and actions, of causes and consequences, of knowledge and virtue, of virtue and happiness, were rife in the year 1793, were noised abroad then, were spoken on the house-tops, were whispered in secret, were published in quarto and duodecimo, in political treatises, in plays, poems, songs, and romances—made their way to the bar, crept into the church, ascended the rostrum, thinned the clashes of the universities, and robbed "Durham's golden stalls" of their hoped-for ornaments, by sending our aspiring youth up to town to learn philosophy of the new teachers of philosophy; that these "New Views of Society" got into the hearts of poets and the brains of metaphysicians, took possession of the fancies of boys and women, and turned the heads of almost the whole kingdom: but that there was one head which they never got possession of, that turned the heads of the whole kingdom round again, stopped the progress of philosophy and necessity by wondrous fortitude, and that "thus repelled, philosophy fell into a sadness, then into a fast, thence to a watching, then into a weakness, thence to a lightness, and by this declension, to the lamentable state wherein it now lies,"—hooted by the boys, laughed at by the women, spit at by fools, trod upon by knaves, damned by poet-laureates, whined over by maudlin metaphysicians, rhymed upon by mincing ballad-makers, ridiculed in romances, belied in histories and travels, pelted by the mob, sneered at by the court, driven from the country, kicked out of society, and forced to take refuge and to lie snug for twenty years in the New Lanark mills, with the connivance of the worthy proprietor, among the tow and spindles; from whence he lets us understand that it is coming up again to Whitehall-stairs, like a spring-tide with the full of the moon, and floating on the blood that has flowed for the restoration of the Bourbons, under the patronage of the nobility, the gentry, Mr. Wilberforce, and the Prince Regent, and all those who are governed, like these great personages, by no other principle than truth, and no other wish than the good of mankind! This puff will not take with us: we are old birds, not to be caught with chaff: we shall not purchase in this new lottery, where there are all prizes and no blanks! We are inclined to throw Mr. Owen's "New View," behind the fire-place, as we believe most people do the letter they receive from the proprietors of the lucky lottery-office, informing them that their ticket was drawn a blank the first day, and in the postscript soliciting their future favours!
Mr. Owen may think that we have all this while been jesting, when we have been in sad and serious earnest. Well, then, we will give him the reason why we differ with him, out of "an old saw," as good as most "modern instances." It is contained in this sentence:—"If to do were as easy as to teach others what were good to be done, chapels had been churches, and poor men's cottages princes' palaces." Our author has discovered no new theory; he has advanced no new reasons. The former reasons were never answered, but the plan did not succeed. Why then does he think his must? All that he has done has been to leave out the reasons for his paradoxes, and to give his conclusions in capitals. This may take for a time with Mr. Wilberforce and the Methodists, who like hieroglyphics, but it cannot last. Here is a plan, strange as it may seem, "a new View of Society," published by two of our most loyal booksellers, and what is still more extraordinary, puffed in The Courier as an extremely practical, practicable, solid, useful, and good sort of work, which proposes no less than to govern the world without religion and without law, by the force of reason alone! This project is in one of its branches dedicated to the Prince Regent, by which (if carried into effect) he would be stuck up in his life-time as "a useless piece of antiquity;" and in another part is dedicated to Mr. Wilberforce, though it would by the same rule convert that little vital member of the community into "a monkey preacher," crying in the wilderness with no one to hear him, and sneaking about between his character and his conscience, in a state of ludicrous perplexity, as indeed he always appears to be at present! What is most remarkable is, that Mr. Owen is the first philosopher we ever heard of, who recommended himself to the great by telling them disagreeable truths. A man that comes all the way from the banks of the Clyde acquires a projectile force that renders him irresistible. He has access, we understand, to the men in office, to the members of parliament, to lords and gentlemen. He comes to "pull an old house about their ears," to batter down all their establishments, new or old, in church or in state, civil, political, and military, and he quietly walks into their houses with his credentials in his pocket, and reconciles them to the prospect of the innumerable Houses of Industry he is about to erect on the scite of their present sinecures, by assuring them of the certainty of his principles and the infallibility of his practice, in building up and pulling down. His predecessors were clumsy fellows; but he is an engineer, who will be sure to do their business for them. He is not the man to set the Thames on fire, but he will move the world, and New Lanark is the place he has fixed his lever upon for this purpose. To shew that he goes roundly to work with great people in developing his formidable system of the formation of character, he asks, p. 7 of the second Essay,—
"How much longer shall we continue to allow generation after generation to be taught crime from their infancy, and when so taught, hunt them like beasts of the forest, until they are entangled beyond escape in the toils and nets of the law? When, if the circumstances from youth of these poor unpitied sufferers had been reversed with those who are even surrounded with the pomp and dignity of justice, these latter would have been at the bar of the culprit, and the former would have been in the judgment-seat.
"Had the present Judges of these realms, whose conduct compels the admiration of surrounding states, been born and educated in St. Giles's, or some similar situation, is it not reasonable to conclude, as they possess native energies and abilities, that ere this they would have been at the head of their then profession, and in consequence of that superiority and proficiency, have already suffered imprisonment, transportation, or death? Or can we for a moment hesitate to decide, that if some of those men whom our laws, dispensed by the present Judges, have doomed to suffer capital punishment, had been born, trained, and surrounded as these Judges were born, trained, and surrounded; that some of those so imprisoned, transported, or hanged, would have been the identical individuals who would have passed the same awful sentences on our present highly esteemed dignitaries of the Law?"
This is a delicate passage. So then according to the author of the "New View of Society," the Prince Regent of these realms, instead of being at the head of the allied sovereigns of Europe, might, in other circumstances, have been at the head of a gang of bravoes and assassins; Lord Castlereagh, on the same principle, and by parity of reasoning, without any alteration in his nature or understanding, but by the mere difference of situation, might have been a second Count Fathom; Mr. Vansittart, the chancellor of the exchequer, might, if he had turned his hand that way in time, have succeeded on the snaffling lay, or as a pick-pocket; Lord Wellington might have entered houses, instead of entering kingdoms, by force; the Lord-chancellor might have been a Jew-broker; the Marquis of —— or Lord —— a bawd, and their sons, tapsters and bullies at bagnios; the Queen (God bless her) might have been an old washer-woman, taking her snuff and gin among her gossips, and her daughters, if they had not been princesses, might have turned out no better than they should be! Here's a levelling rogue for you! The world turned inside out, with a witness!—Such are Mr. Owen's general principles, to which we have nothing to say, and such his mode of illustrating them in his prefaces and dedications, which we do not think the most flattering to persons in power. We do not, however, wish him to alter his tone: he goes swimmingly on at present, "with cheerful and confident thoughts." His schemes thus far are tolerated, because they are remote, visionary, inapplicable. Neither the great world nor the world in general care any thing about New Lanark, nor trouble themselves whether the workmen there go to bed drunk or sober, or whether the wenches are got with child before or after the marriage ceremony. Lanark is distant, Lanark is insignificant. Our statesmen are not afraid of the perfect system of reform he talks of, and, in the meantime, his cant against reform in parliament, and about Bonaparte, serves as a practical diversion in their favour. But let the good which Mr. Owen says he has done in one poor village be in danger of becoming general,—let his plan for governing men by reason, without the assistance of the dignitaries of the church and the dignitaries of the law, but once get wind and be likely to be put in practice, and his dreams of elevated patronage will vanish. Long before he has done as much to overturn bigotry and superstition in this country, as he says Bonaparte did on the continent, (though he thinks the restoration of what was thus overturned also a great blessing) Mr. Wilberforce will have cut his connection. When we see Mr. Owen brought up for judgment before Lord Ellenborough, or standing in the pillory, we shall begin to think there is something in this New Lanark Scheme of his. On the other hand, if he confines himself to general principles, steering clear of practice, the result will be the same, if ever his principles become sufficiently known and admired. Let his "New View of Society" but make as many disciples as the "Enquiry concerning Political Justice," and we shall soon see how the tide will turn about. There will be a fine hue and cry raised by all the good and wise, by all "those acute minds" who, Mr. Owen tells us, have not been able to find a flaw in his reasonings, but who will soon discover a flaw in his reputation. Dr. Parr will preach a Spital sermon against him; lectures will be delivered in Lincoln's Inn Hall, to prove that a perfect man is such another chimera as a golden mountain; Mr. Malthus will set up his two checks of vice and misery as insuperable bars against him; Mr. Southey will put him into the "Quarterly Review;" his name will be up in the newspapers, The Times, The Courier, and The Morning Post; the three estates will set their faces against him; he will be marked as a Jacobin, a leveller, an incendiary, in all parts of the three kingdoms; he will be avoided by his friends, and become a bye-word to his enemies; his brother magistrates of the county of Lanark will refuse to sit on the bench with him; the spindles of his spinning-jennies will no longer turn on their soft axles; he will have gone out for wool, and will go home shorn; and he will find that it is not so easy or safe a task as he imagined to make fools wise, and knaves honest; in short, to make mankind understand their own interests, or those who govern them care for any interest but their own. Otherwise, all this matter would have been settled long ago. As it is, things will most probably go on as they have done, till some comet comes with its tail; and on the eve of some grand and radical reform, puts an end to the question.