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After a brief attempt to persuade the Mexican government to give him Texas for his experiments, and a mammoth debate with a prominent American liberal theologian on the evidences of Christianity, Owen returned to England, where he became involved with the fledgling trade union and workers' co-operative movements.

We have seen that Owen was no democrat - at least in the present state of society when, he believed, people were so badly formed that they could not be trusted to look after their own interests. Essentially he seems to have seen society as a school in which the ruling elements acted as teachers to the rest - very bad teachers who were forming them in the ways of selfishness, dissipation and idleness. His policy was to improve the teachers - he had little confidence that the mass would be able to improve themselves of their own volition - the inability of men to form their own character was an axiom with him.

Owen's own closest personal relations had been with the aristocracy and the philanthropic rich and his most substantial personal achievement - New Lanark - paved the way for a succession of model villages and educational initiatives undertaken throughout the century by industrialists with a conscience.

This line of development was personified in politics by Owen's friend, Henry, later Lord, Brougham, a major architect of the strange alliance between utilitarianism and evangelical Christianity that helped bring about the transition from eighteenth century 'Whig' to nineteenth century 'Liberal'. An early sign of that alliance was the presence of the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham together with the Quakers among the proprietors of New Lanark.

Like Owen, Brougham laid great emphasis on the education of the working class - he was to be the driving force behind the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and in the 1820s, while Owen was in North America, he was behind the establishment throughout Britain of 'Mechanics' Institutes', which provided low-cost library, educational and meeting facilities for skilled workers - men whose work required technical knowledge, unlike the unskilled women and children at New Lanark. There is something moving and appropriate in the fact that Owen's last public appearance, at the age of 86, was at a public meeting organised by Brougham.

Manchester Mechanics Institute, 1825

Owen's arguments, however, contained the seeds of something more radical. One of his basic arguments, often repeated, was that the principle of commerce - to buy cheap and sell dear - was self destructive, especially in a society whose productivity had been greatly increased by the use of machines. The easiest way to cut the costs of production was to cut wages. But it was of little use to produce an enormous amount of goods very cheaply if they could not find a market. The problem was that too many goods were chasing too few purchasers. And yet the country was full of people who needed these goods but could not afford them - a population which included those workers whose wages were being depressed. On economic grounds alone - simply to create a market - a mechanism had to be devised by which workers were able to enjoy the fruits of their own labour and at the same time in which no-one should be without employment.

Owen had addressed this problem in his Report to the County of Lanark in which, as we have seen, he had argued for the establishment of labour intensive agricultural villages. But the Report had also proposed a reform of the currency. In 1820, with the country still suffering from the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, the Bank of England had engineered a return to the Gold Standard - abandoned since 1797 so that enough money could be put into circulation to pay for the cost of war. Now, when the problem was massive unemployment and poverty, the money supply was to be restricted again. Owen's Report argued that instead of gold, labour should be used as the determining measure of the value of money. Workers should be paid in notes expressive of the value of their work, denominated according to 'hours'. The worker would thus be able to use them to obtain the equivalent of the value of his own contribution to the total social wealth. 

Implicit in this was the idea that wealth is created by labour, in opposition to the predominant idea that it was created by the investment of capital. A much more sophisticated version of this 'labour theory of value' had earlier been advanced by the economist David Ricardo. The conclusion could easily be drawn that if wealth is created by labour, then the profit of the person who has merely invested capital in the enterprise has been stolen from the worker. This is not the sort of language that Owen himself used - he preferred to see both 'capitalist' and worker as victims of a bad system rooted in ignorance. But his idea - that labour was the source of wealth and that poverty and unemployment could be eliminated by a more rational organisation of society - was a great inspiration for the ideas of self organisation that were gaining ground in the working class. Owen was thus adopted by - and tried himself to adopt - a tendency he had not initiated. 

Through the 1820s, a number of writers emerged who regarded themselves as followers of Owen but who developed his ideas in a fuller and often more readable manner. They included Abram Combe, John Gray, William Thompson and John Minter Morgan. Combe in Scotland was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to establish a self-supporting community in Orbiston, County Lanark, parallel to Owen's efforts at New Harmony. Gray's Lectures on Human Happiness developed the idea that all property was based on labour and that capital was simply 'accumulated labour': 'all just exchanges can only be based on equal quantities of labour while between the possessing and labouring classes no just exchanges can take place.' The only limits to production were those imposed by the competitive system - there was no objective limit either to production or to demand. Later, in 1831, Gray worked out a practical proposal for a system of money understood simply as a receipt for quantities of labour.

The most sophisticated socialist economist of the time was an Irish landowner, William Thompson, who argued for a system of co-operation against a system in which 'not the cheerful desire of increasing happiness, but the fear of want becomes the stimulus to labour.' He chaired the Co-operative Congress in Manchester in 1831 - meeting in one of Brougham's Mechanics Institutes - which was Owen's first encounter with working class politics.

The most entertaining Owenite writer, however, was John Minter Morgan, whose popular Revolt of the Bees, published in 1826, describes the chaos and disorganisation that result when a hive of bees adopt the principles of private property and competition. Eventually an ingenious bee devises a system whereby large quantities of honey can be produced using very few workers. Then a clever drone (Rev Richard Malthus) argues that the resulting misery was due to the fact that there were too many bees and no amount of honey would be able to keep up with the number of unemployed bees. As they reflect that the only solution is collective suicide, a wise bee shows them a way by which all can be gainfully employed and consume the fruits of their labour. But he is treated as a visionary and so flies off to a foreign land (Owen in North America). Since 1824, however, the poor bees are beginning to understand and turn to the wise bee's teachings.