Open accesscreativecommonsPeer reviewed/Research article
Published online: Dec 2023

The uses of Robert Owen in co-operative education, 1844-1939

Tom WoodinORCID

Vol 56 No 3, pp. 38-49

How to cite this article: Woodin, T. (2023). The uses of Robert Owen in co-operative education, 1844-1939. Journal of Co-operative Studies, 56(3), pp. 38-49.


Robert Owen has cast a long, benign shadow over the co-operative movement. In the early nineteenth century, his strand of utopian thinking punctured the emerging and increasingly dominant laissez-faire ideas of a new generation of political economists and highlighted the possibilities of a New Moral World. He became a central figure for the co-operative movement, particularly from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. In the creation of a co-operative story, Owen and Owenism served as pre-history, providing principles, ideas, motivation, and spirit that co-operators selectively adapted and put into practical action. He fitted into a narrative which commenced with the violent transitions of the Industrial Revolution and eventuated in a much-improved society with co-operators looking to a brighter future. While Owen was never viewed as a saint, accounts for children display elements of hagiography. Co-operative texts for children had to present wholesome influences which made it difficult to critique or selectively filter Owen’s ideas and character — rather he had to be presented as a thoroughly good person, a friend and hero. Historical nuance might be compromised in the desire to offer up a laudable model of the individual pioneer for future co-operative improvement.



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