Postmodernism, Part 21: Owen’s Heresy

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks.  (Additional support includes The Communist Manifesto, by Marx and Engels; The History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell; Freedom and Organization by Bertrand Russel.)

Previous posts:

Enlightenment and Darkness

Rousseau’s Revolutionary Politics

Right Collectivism

Left Collectivism

Erstwhile

Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism.  Modernism’s political philosophy proposes reason, individualism, liberal democracy, and free markets.  Postmodernist philosophy is based on the metaphysical nihilism of (Nazi) Martin Heidegger.

jean-rousseauJean Rousseau

Postmodernism’s radical left politics don’t flow naturally from Heidegger’s subjectivist philosophy.  Postmodernism’s leftist political philosophy is explained by twentieth century Marxists’ crisis of faith in the face of undeniable Marxist catastrophe.  Postmodernists took refuge in an earlier totalitarian collectivist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau’s ideas inflamed the French Revolution and gave rise to Napoleon.

Rousseau’s ideas (and Napoleon’s conquests) inspired the German Counter-Enlightenment thinkers (Kant, Herder, Fichte, Hegel).  They gave Rousseau a German twist, including multiculturalism, moral relativism, indoctrinating education, hero worship, state worship, totalitarianism, and dialectical history (with German supremacy and destiny).  This partly explains totalitarian collectivism (and German nationalism).

Left Collectivism has roots in romanticism (inspired by Rousseau).  Romanticism was both an aesthetic and a value system.  It valued unthinking passion, sympathy, virtuous poverty, idyllic nature, danger, violence, and radicalism.  It devalued social consequences and conventional morality.  The romantic Lord Byron had a profound influence.  He was an aristocratic rebel who espoused rebellion, amorality, hero worship, militarism, and revolution.

Left Collectivism has roots in the problems of our industrial past.  Families struggled to survive crowded filthy “third world” slums, malnutrition, epidemics, long hours, unsafe work, misery, crime, societal breakdown, and uncaring government.  Revolution seemed imminent.

Left Collectivism has roots in utopian socialism, as well.

Utopian Socialism
karl-marxKarl Marx

“Utopian socialism” is a label concocted by Marx and Engels.  They needed their brand (“scientific socialism”) to be distinct from the off-brand (“utopian socialism”).  Their brand of theoretical sausage was “science” (crunching numbers in a dialectical meat grinder.)  Those others were just starry eyed dreamers in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Those utopian socialists paint “fantastic pictures of future society”, Marx scoffs, “the abolition of the distinction between town and country, of the family, … the proclamation of social harmony”.  They “are of a purely Utopian character” that “lose all practical value and all theoretical justification”.  Their “disciples have, in every case, formed mere reactionary sects.  They hold fast by the original views of their masters … [and] still dream of experimental realization of their social Utopias”.  (Some people never learn.)

Utopian socialism is dangerous heresy.  “Their fanatical and superstitious belief in the miraculous effects of their social science,” Marx thunders, “can only result from blind unbelief in the new Gospel”.  (Those other guys are superstitious fanatics!)

Who were these heretics?  We begin with the courageous idealist Robert Owen.

Owen’s Heresy

Robert Owen was a social reformer and experimenter.  He was influenced by classical economics.  He had some success with practical reforms.  His controversial ideas undermined attempts at larger reforms.  Undeterred, he financed an unsuccessful communist experiment.  It seemed people were the biggest obstacle to socialism.

Socialism has roots in classical economics.  The 19th century economist, David Ricardo, formulated the labor theory of value (Marx’s “law of value”).  This theory said that the economic value of a good or service is based on the cost of labor required to produce it.  (This rings true, but is oversimplified.)

English Socialist Thomas Hodgskin took this theory and equated profit with theft.  That idea undermines private property.  “Their notions of property look ugly,” objected utilitarian philosopher James Mill, “they seem to think it should not exist … The fools, what they madly desire would be such a calamity to them as no hands but their own could bring down on them”.

robert-owenRobert Owen

These ideas influenced Robert Owen.  He had married into ownership of a manufacturing mill (in New Lanark, Scotland).  An innovator, he improved management, working conditions, machinery, sanitation, and productivity.  With the help of investors, he added a school (and nursery school).  He helped provide for workers in bad times.  Owen was a success and became world famous.  (Future Tsar Nicholas even paid him a visit.)

Owen had many ideas.  He tried to push through practical reforms (like reforming child labor).  His groundbreaking idea (pun intended) was a way to deal with unemployment and poverty: agricultural communism.  Owen wanted to put the unemployed into self-sustaining agricultural communes.  They would work the soil together and live together.  He promised universal happiness – no more war, crimes, or prisons.

Owen ran into trouble over his controversial ideas.  He had nontraditional family ideas.  He objected to marriage (seeing it as ownership).  (His followers became free love types.)  He had nontraditional religious ideas.  He blamed religion for man’s problems.  (In Victorian England, that was a poor way to win friends and influence people.)  Owen was ridiculed and attacked.

new-harmonyNew Harmony’s pretty labyrinth

Owen struck out to prove his “New Moral Order” could succeed.  He purchased a settlement at Harmony, Indiana.  Owen renamed it New Harmony.  He invited “any and all” to join him.  He attracted a “collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle, honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists” plus assorted “crackpots, free-loaders, and adventurers”.  (New Harmony’s anti-Christian stance caused recruiting troubles in America.)  They tried “every conceivable form of organization and government” but had major disagreements over organization, cooperation, and management.  The more people they had, the more trouble they had.  (Struggling with your group project?)  His experiment failed, after two years.

He ended his days as an eccentric spiritualist.

Commentary

Robert Owen was fearless and self-sacrificing in his idealism.  He practiced what he preached.  He was no “limousine liberal”.  He didn’t “virtue signal”.  He put his money where his mouth was, talked the talk, and walked the walk.

Owen’s utopian experiment was named New Harmony.  The word “soviet” also means harmony.  Owen’s experiment suggests that the biggest obstacle to harmony is people.

Next

Utopian socialism gets utterly silly. Next: Part 22, Fourier’s Fairy Tales.