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Note the caption below the etching: 
Design of a community of 2,000 persons, founded upon a principle, commended by Plato, Lord Bacon, Sir T. More and R.Owen


A large number of co-operative societies (for the most part very small scale trading associations) and trade unions or guilds (the distinction was not clearcut) existed throughout the country, but those who were called 'Owenites', seeing them as having within themselves the potential for a complete reorganisation of society, pressed for organisation on an ever larger, more national, scale. Owen himself was not initially involved in this. On his return to England he had seen his main role as education. He was delivering regular Sunday morning lectures in London (Sunday because that was the only day many workers could come to hear him), and founded a weekly journal, The Crisis. His first practical initiative was the establishment of an 'Equitable Labour Exchange'.

This was an attempt to realise the idea of a currency based on units of labour. One of his supporters offered him the use of a large building on the Gray's Inn Road, initially for the purpose of the lectures, but Owen quickly recognised its potential as a trading emporium. Workers - in this case presumably small independent artisans - brought the product of their work and were given notes in exchange which could then be used to buy other products deposited in the store. The notes supposedly represented the hours devoted to doing the work, but since the work of a skilled craftsman was rated more highly than the value of a day labourer it amounted in practice to a judgment on the part of the committee running the store.

The attractions of the scheme were explained in an article by Robert Dale Owen written during a visit to England when he was briefly made co-editor with his father of The Crisis. He said that the producer would receive 'an immediate representative of his product', before any sale had been made; that the profit of the middleman had been reduced from anything between 20 and 100% to a fixed percentage of eight and one half to cover expenses,  and the valuation was made by disinterested parties, who did not stand to gain or lose by it. This probably goes some way towards explaining the initial popularity of the Exchange but in the event it only lasted a couple of years, probably because the labour notes could only be exchanged against the arbitrary selection of goods that were available in the store. When it was put to him that many people had invested in the venture on the strength of his name, Owen felt obliged personally to pay off the deficiency that had accumulated of some £2,500.


All this time, dramatic developments were occurring in the trade union movement, centred on Birmingham, where there was another Equitable Labour Exchange and a great deal of interest in Owen's thinking. 1833 saw a major conflict between the Operative Builders Union and the building contractors, who were themselves combining and pledging themselves not to employ any members of the union. The Operative Builders Union was a relatively recent creation, bringing together a variety of smaller associations each of them representing particular crafts within the overall industry. Towards the end of the year it expanded again into the Grand National Union of Builders, with its own journal, The Pioneer, edited by James Morrison. Morrison, a housepainter, was a friend of William Pare, one of the leading advocates of Equitable Exchanges. He was himself involved with the Birmingham Exchange and had written to Owen in July 1833 saying 'Before I knew the great truths which you have developed, I was a rough and irritable stickler for individual liberty.'

The Pioneer first appeared in September 1833 as the voice of the centralising tendency within the union which aimed at an even greater scale of organisation, beyond the building trade - the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, which finally emerged in 1834. Owen himself had been involved in the discussions that led to it but he had advocated a 'Grand National Moral Union of the Useful and Productive Classes of the United Kingdom', which would have attempted to bring together employers and employees, masters and men, with the emphasis on a reorganisation of the whole economic system.

But Owen was out of phase with the mood of the times, when the unions were faced with a policy of lockouts and an agreement among the employers to refuse to use workers unless they signed a 'document' renouncing trade unionism. The employers had the support of the government led by Lord Melbourne who was, as it happens, a friend of Owen's. In January 1834, Owen complained in a letter published in The Pioneer and in The Crisis

'Sometimes you and your correspondents seem to have lost the spirit of peace and charity by which alone the regeneration of mankind can ever be effected. You have drawn a line of opposition of feelings and interests between the employers and employed in the production of wealth which, if it were continued, would tend to delay the progress of this great cause, and to injure those noble principles which you are so desirous of seeing carried into practise.'

But both The Pioneer and his own paper The Crisis were drifting away from him.


Since September 1833, The Crisis had been edited by a rather extraordinary figure called James Elishama Smith, a one time probationer of the Church of Scotland who had taken up millennialist views under the influence of the pioneer of Pentecostalist preaching, Edward Irving, and had then been drawn to the 'Christian Israelite' followers of Joanna Southcott, observing Jewish dietary laws and preaching a doctrine which he called 'universalism', though it seems unrelated to American universalism. Smith's universalism would have shared the American idea that all would eventually be saved, but he taught in addition that there was a continuity between God and the Devil, good and evil - that evil was a necessary prerequisite for the existence of good.

He had come to London in August 1832 and been introduced to Owen through Edward Irving (Irving had been a very successful and even fashionable London-based minister of the Church of Scotland, but was expelled after members of his congregation started speaking in tongues. After his expulsion he preached for a time in premises provided by Owen). Smith set up as a free lance preacher in a chapel he rented for the purpose, rather as Owen himself had done. From June 1833 he began to give regular lectures in Owen's exchange building, which had now moved from the Gray's Inn Road to Charlotte Street. He preached a Christian variety of Owen's social gospel, relating Owen's insistence that individuals were not responsible for good and evil to St Paul's doctrine that 'it is not I that sin, but sin that dwelleth in me.' (Rom 7.17) He argued that the Christianity of the rich was Antichrist and that it was only now that the real Christianity, the Christianity of the poor, was beginning to manifest itself. He developed these ideas with great freedom in the pages of The Crisis.

A series of 'Letters on Associated Labour', almost certainly by Smith, appeared in Morrison's Pioneer at a time when Morrison was in an increasingly bitter dispute with Owen and the executive of the Consolidated Union. This was in the context of the arrest of six agricultural workers in Dorsetshire, held without bail for administering unlawful oaths, trying to form a branch of the Consolidated Union - the famous 'Tolpuddle Martyrs'. Owen was himself indignant at their treatment and had formally joined the Consolidated Union in April, but he was trying to steer it towards a moderate policy of negotiation and compromise. Smith's Crisis, however, complained against the inaction of the Union's executive and in the following issue actually expressed disagreement with a long letter in which Owen complained that his principles had been misunderstood and outlined the aims of the Union as he understood them - aims which contained nothing more radical than the elimination of drunkenness, the education of children and adults, and establishing proper relations between workmen and the government.

Smith wrote to his brother at the beginning of August to say he had left Owen's party and, a couple of issues later, The Crisis stopped publication. Morrison had resigned from the Union's executive in March, though he continued to publish The Pioneer in defiance of Owen's wishes. He died the following year.

In these conditions both the Labour Exchanges and the Consolidated Union collapsed. In November 1834 Owen launched a new journal - The New Moral World - with the emphasis on unity of interests throughout the country, and in May the following year he became the 'Social Father' of 'The Association of All Classes and All Nations.' The political initiative in working class politics passed decisively into the hands of the Chartist movement with its commitment to aggressive class warfare and its central demand for an extension of the franchise.