Learning From New Lanark

New Lanark has been hailed as the epitome of utopian socialism, but industrialist Robert Owen was criticised by Marx and others for his paternalistic approach to community living. Nevertheless, Hailey Maxwell argues there is much we as socialists can learn from the 18th century village… 

New Lanark is well known in Scotland as the 18th century village that has been immaculately restored and turned into a tourist attraction. Many visitors love it for the scenery: the riverside forest surrounding New Lanark is part of the outstanding Falls of Clyde Reserve, managed by Scottish Wildlife Trust.

These 175 acres of woodlands colonise the dramatic sandstone gorge, upholstered in green moss, which rises gradually beside the river rapids and effusive waterfalls. This ancient and deciduous home of otters, roe deer, peregrine, kingfishers and even rare pine marten, has been historically popular with those of a Romantic disposition, from Coleridge to Wordsworth to J.W Turner.    

But David Dale’s choice of the site as the location for his cotton mills in 1785 was a shrewd one. The density of surrounding natural resources and the power of the river was appropriated by two of the century’s industrial pioneers. Powered by water and wind under the management of Dale’s son-in-law Robert Owen, New Lanark developed into the biggest mill in Scotland and one of the most prosperous industrial groups in the world. Cotton was spun here for almost two hundred years.

To this day, New Lanark remains a significant monument. The village is one of six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Scotland, and has also been marked as an Outstanding Conservation Area, with each building enjoying the status of Category ‘A’ listing. The sight of an immaculately restored 18th century village itself comes as a surprise when you first enter via the visitor carpark. The steeply descending wooded valley abruptly opens up to reveal a panoramic view of the site. The sandstone buildings of New Lanark stand neatly like teeth, curving into reassuring grin alongside the riverbank, as the Clyde walkway reaches the end of its meandering journey from Glasgow.

Victorian mill owners making enormous profits by processing cotton pulled by slaves in the New World is the standard narrative of the Industrial Revolution. But New Lanark was different: it was Owen’s cultural response to the societal degradation initiated by capitalism. He loathed the squalor, disease and pollution, the injuries and early deaths. He provided the mill workers – many of whom had come from the Highlands for work – with clean, spacious accommodation.

He gave them access to healthcare and insisted on education, constructive leisure time and time spent in the fresh air. Child labour was scaled back and regulated while elderly and sick workers were treated humanely. The village shop sold fairly-priced quality goods, with the profits paying for the educational institute, an innovation which inspired the Rochdale Pioneers to lay the groundwork for the co-operative movement.

Owen was, in essence, a socially liberal atheist influenced by philosopher Jeremy Bentham and anarchist William Godwin. Like French utopian socialists Fourier and Saint-Simon, Owen believed the modernity initiated by the Enlightenment offered an opportunity to achieve universal fraternity, equality and justice through the fulfilment of the worker.

While his approach seemed bizarre to many of the audiences to whom he preached his ‘Vision of a New Society, many capitalists visited the mill and were astounded that better conditions for workers was increasing productivity and profits. When Scottish industrialist Abram Combes visited the mill in 1820, he was so inspired he established a social experiment of his own in nearby Motherwell.

Orbiston, Combes’ community, aimed at self-sustenance: it contained spaces for housing, education, socialising and work, and produce was harvested from a community garden. Produce was harvested from the community vegetable garden and orchard and contained spaces for housing, education, socialising and work. Orbiston had a foundry and workshops accommodating a pantheon of artisans: weavers and shoemakers, tanners and bookmakers, seamstresses and blacksmiths had gainful employment.

By 1827, the village had been handed over to members and was based on communal ownership of property and equal wealth distribution. When Combes died, the village died shortly after. All that remains are the key stones, which can be found near the Bellshill side of Strathclyde Park, bearing a plaque inscribed: “The Babylon Community, Orbiston (1825-1828). The first experiment in communal living in Britain.”

By contrast, the social experiment initiated at New Lanark was, from the beginning, undermined by a fundamental, irresolvable tension between the anti-capitalist foundation of the community and the paternalism of the industrialist who oversaw them. The benevolence of Owen was matched by his desire to dominate and administer the lives of workers in their entirety, organising their leisure and labour, from the cradle to the grave.

Owen was reluctant to hand over the means of production to the ones doing the producing. Famously, Marx’s criticism of him was that he imagined social transformation and equality could be achieved without class struggle.

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That doesn’t negate the fact Owen was a true social visionary at odds with the industrialists of his day in his insistence that the indignity of poverty was not the fault of the poor, but that of a system predicated on competition and profit alone. His campaigning on behalf of workers conditions and rights to education and healthcare was incessant and he contributed significantly to the establishment of the trade union and co-operative movements.

Owen demonstrated that people are moulded by society and its institutions: access to quality housing, healthcare and education are the bare minimum requirements of a just society. These ideas were not fully realised in Britain until the establishment of the welfare state. While austerity practices and the insidious privatisation of public services over the past decade are seriously undermining a century of social reform in the UK, looking back at New Lanark provokes a rare epiphany of optimism.

One lesson we should take from New Lanark is that while top-down efforts at community creation can be helpful, they are fundamentally hierarchical, relying on the benevolence of enlightened elites. Today, we see many aesthetic-political experiments taking place within community settings, such as the recent announcement by Glasgow City Council that artists are to be “installed” in every community as agents of “renewal and regeneration.”

Serious questions need to be asked about what ends this plan will serve and what “community” means in this context. We should remember that state-sponsored, funder-led creative projects that aim to “democratise culture” often exploit the precarious working conditions faced by those in the creative industries.

Artists can find themselves complicit in prescribing dominant cultural values to disengaged groups, with the assumption that culture is always good, innocent and deserving of attention. We also see utopian, community-based art projects claiming to improve wellbeing and social life, while expecting to be evaluated on different terms than similar projects initiated by voluntary services.

A more positive idea demonstrated by Owen’s socialist utopian experiment is that working on a local, devolved scale in networks means we can integrate institutions more easily and work creatively on a more nuanced, site-specific level. This means responding to the environment and paying attention to the particularities of place and space.

The benefits of mutual dependency and co-operation are finally being recognised in health and social care, with local authorities across the country slowly but surely integrating, in recognition of the need for a coordinated approach to care. This change, if effectively maneuvered, potentially relieves some of the stress individuals suffer while trying to access help from highly bureaucratic services. Lastly, as utopian socialists we learn that social change and humanity under vicious capitalism is at least possible, especially along the Clyde, and we should seek it wherever possible.