New Harmony: An Early Tale of Socialist Failure
At first glance, New Harmony in Posey County Indiana is just another small town in the US, counting less than a thousand inhabitants. However, there is a significant historical importance to this small town that is often overlooked; in 1825, 42 years before the publishing of Das Kapital by Karl Marx, a now seemingly forgotten socialist experiment took place in New Harmony that was a precursor of things to come in the 150 plus years that followed. This article will be a review of the experiment made in New Harmony.
The mastermind behind the New Harmony experiment was Robert Owen, a Welsh philanthropist and textile manufacturer who is considered to be one of the founders of utopian socialism. Owen attained much of his wealth through his investments and eventual ownership of a cotton mill in Scotland (which was originally owned by his
wife’s father) where he is known to have made several attempts to improve the working conditions of his workers at a time where said working conditions were significantly rough.
Before moving to New Harmony, Owen’s early work in his factory in New Lanark, Scotland is there for all to see: beyond trying to decrease the extensive working hours that his workers were usually put through, he also attempted to improve their lives outside of the factory; he made sure to sell his products only slightly above the cost of production in an attempt to increase the amount of spare money within the community;
and most significantly, he was an early supporter of access to free education and child care, as he believed in environmental determinism (a belief that people’s character is determined by the circumstances around them – meaning that if someone was raised around poverty, theft, misery, etc, they would perpetuate these circumstances).
He moved to America in 1824, and in January 1825 purchased the town of Harmony, renamed it New Harmony, and began to make the necessary changes to implement his ideas, inviting people, regardless of their previous life circumstances, to join his experiment, which led to a number of intellectuals moving to the town, making it a centre of progressive thought. A constitution that required each resident to invest in an enterprise that promoted social equality within it was written, community work could grant oneself credits to purchase goods at local stores if cash payments in advance were an impossibility, and the societal model was built in a way where the average citizen had time to spend on himself: 8 hours work, 8 hours sleep, and 8 hours leisure, which at the time Owen implemented this idea (which is a very modern concept even for our current times) produced a plethora of societal changes. The average citizen had more time to spend with his family and children, productivity increased, and some of Owen’s social reform did have profoundly positive impacts on the community he led, in particular the restrictions in child labour and free education.
However, his biggest strength also turned out to be his biggest failure, as his belief in environmental determinism meant that individualist mindsets who didn’t fit the community’s aims were attacked: most importantly private property, with the various families within New Harmony living in identical housing (even if not having the need to share a house, class mobility wasn’t a thing and therefore neither was a middle class), and communal sharing of various items including clothing. Furthermore, they had to live under Owen’s rules, which included a curfew, mandatory bathing, prohibition of things related to unhealthy social behaviour such as being drunk in public, and other things of the same nature. Finally, and most importantly, as he attempted to disassociate himself from the societal model that he claimed to produce poverty, crime and misery, he made efforts to diminish the importance of the pillars of individualistic minded societies: religion, marriage, and as already mentioned, any type of private property.
The eventual failure of New Harmony could also be traced back to the people who had originally moved into the community for this experiment. In a nutshell, there was a significant amount of intellectuals but not of workers; this, combined with Owen’s progressive policies when it comes to working hours and workers conditions, followed by his attempts to provide free child care and education, made the societal model unsustainable and the industries in town that had been somewhat successful in the early days of the experiment became inefficient. In 2 years, people had started to leave the community; and when his great experiment had collapsed, Owen refused to acknowledge blame for the disaster, shifting most of the blame to the ‘human material’ that had taken part in the experiment (even though he was the one who made the open invitation).
Two quotes provide an excellent summary of the shortcomings in New Harmony. The first one, from one of the first intellectuals to move in who would eventually become a significant figure in individualist anarchist ideology, Josiah Warren, had this to say: "It seemed that the difference of opinion, tastes and purposes increased just in proportion to the demand for conformity. Two years were worn out in this way; at the end of which, I believe that not more than three persons had the least hope of success. Most of the experimenters left in despair of all reforms (…) we had enacted the French revolution over again with despairing hearts instead of corpses as a result (…)It appeared that it was nature's own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us ... our 'united interests' were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation ". The second, and most concise, what that of Robert Owen’s son, Robert Dale Owen, who shared his thoughts on why the experiment collapsed: “All cooperative schemes that provide equal remuneration to the skilled and industrious and the ignorant and idle must work their own downfall, for by this unjust plan, they must by necessity eliminate the valuable members”.
The downfall of Robert Owen’s experiment in New Harmony would become an easily distinguishable pattern in all societies that attempted to destroy the old order and do away with the most basic aspects of individualism (such as private property) in the 20th century and beyond. When Owen put the blame in human failure rather than in a logical flaw in his plans, he was only the first to do so in all of the others that followed who attempted to justify further socialist failures that happened in the exact same circumstances. In gist, the final thought to keep in consideration is simply this; as imperfect as it may be, human nature exists and it cannot be changed simply due to ideology; and if human nature is an obstacle to implement said ideology, then no amount of obsessive love one might have for the ideology is sufficient to make it work.