Nature’s Chastity

Jose Harris

  • Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the 19th Century by Barbara Taylor
    Virago, 402 pp, £9.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 86068 257 9
  • Virgins and Viragos: A History of Women in Scotland from 1080 to 1980 by Rosalind Marshall
    Collins, 365 pp, £13.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 00 216039 0

‘Tame’, ‘peaceable’, ‘dogmatic and utterly hopeless’ were the adjectives used by Engels to describe English socialists in his Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844. By ‘English socialists’ Engels meant, not the wide range of heterogeneous sects whom the term would have embraced at any later period, but one specific group – the followers of Robert Owen. Like Engels himself, Robert Owen was an unusual figure among the founding fathers of socialism in that he was also a successful capitalist entrepreneur. Born in 1771, the son of a humble Welsh saddler, Owen soared to success on the industrial boom of the Napoleonic wars. He became the owner of a highly profitable cotton factory at New Lanark; and it was here that he first became convinced of the need to replace competitive individualism by a communitarian ethic of brotherly love. His vision of socialism combined an exaggerated form of Post-Enlightenment rationalism with a mystic hope of social metamorphosis inherited from William Blake. Over the next fifty years Owen sought to realise his vision in a variety of ways – as a model factory employer, as the founder of socialist communities, as a patron of trade-unionism and workers’ co-operatives, and as the sponsor of a wide range of ‘progressive’ causes from legalisation of divorce to abolition of punishment for crime. His schemes attracted a wide following, particularly among industrial workers and self-taught intellectuals of the lower middle class. The Owenite socialist movement in the 1830s and 1840s constituted what was probably the most extensive radical counter-culture that had existed in England since the time of the Civil War. Yet few historians have seen Owenism as more than a momentary aberration in the march toward industrial capitalism. To historians of collective bargaining the Owenites are mainly significant as early exponents of ‘general’ as opposed to ‘craft’ trade-unionism. By historians of popular religion Owenism has been seen as one among many millenarian sects which sprang up in the 1820s, generated by the trauma of the Industrial Revolution. To Marx and Engels Owenism was merely a moralistic utopian cul-de-sac in the pre-history of scientific socialism. Whigs, Marxists and Fabians have generally concurred in consigning the Owenites to History’s old curiosity shop. Robert Owen, wrote the Webbs, was a political ‘simpleton’ who had ‘inflated’ the working class with a ‘premature conception’ of their revolutionary significance. The verdict of Engels was equally severe: ‘the Owenites were too abstract, too metaphysical and accomplish little.’

Barbara Taylor’s study, mainly concerned with the Owenites in spite of its misleadingly ambitious title, challenges these views in a number of different ways. She queries the Owenites’ reputation for utopianism, arguing that ‘what has counted as utopian answers has depended on who has been raising the questions.’ She rejects the common identification of Owenism as a chiliastic religious sect, claiming that Owenites merely borrowed the language of religious ecstasy to describe a vision that was essentially social, secular and atheistic. And, most important, she claims that the Owenites contained within their ranks a group of ‘socialist feminists’ (strictly a late rather than early 19th-century phrase), whose presence has been largely invisible to previous historians of the Owenite movement. This group of feminists put forward a critique of existing male-female relationships, and of the interlocking of these relationships with the socio-economic structure, more radical than that of any comparable body before the present day. Unlike their 18th-century Jacobin predecessors such as Mary Wollstonecraft, or their Victorian successors such as Harriet Taylor and Josephine Butler, the Owenite feminists ascribed sexual repression and exploitation, not merely to the imbalance of power between the sexes, but to the whole structure of private property ownership in competitive societies. Only the destruction of private property and a healing of the social fragmentation that property entailed, so they believed, could bring about a free and equal partnership between men and women based on mutual respect and love.

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