New Lanark

Issue section: 
(331)

South Lanarkshire, Scotland

Readers of Socialist Review may like to know, if they did not already, that 2008 is the 150th anniversary of the death of Robert Owen. In Engels' Socialism, Utopian and Scientific the term "Utopian Socialists" was coined for the group that included Owen and made first attempts to formulate a vision of what a socialist society might be like.

Owen was a factory owner in the opening decades of the 19th century. At his mills located between Edinburgh and Glasgow, he tried to establish a community according to the principles of community and social welfare. The result was New Lanark.

Here workers enjoyed conditions far in advance of those found anywhere in the world at the time. A school for children and for the education of adults was established. Workers paid into a health scheme that paid for a doctor whenever sickness struck the family. A community hall was the venue for many kinds of cultural and social events.

An elected committee attended to the overall state of cleanliness and hygiene. Workers were given far more leisure time than their counterparts elsewhere. Owen's vision differed from that of Marx and Engels who looked to the conscious actions of workers' self-organisation as the key principal of a new society. Nonetheless, in its time Owen's project was visionary.

Readers will be pleased to learn that today New Lanark is not only still intact (it was nearly demolished by land developers in the late 1960s), but is now a World Heritage Site - and it is well worth a visit.

The restoration is remarkable. The school rooms and community hall are there, as are the workers' cottages. Working mill machines give a sense of what the work was like and of its dangers, even in Owen's factories. Owen's family house is on the site and some of his books on science and the Enlightenment are still there to be seen.

The visitors' attractions are also done well. One exhibition area describes the life of Annie McCleod, a girl who grew up at New Lanark in the 1820s. In a short film of her life, a young actress playing Annie talks about Owen's ideas. In another area a kind of holographic 10 year old girl appropriately called Harmony, who lives 200 years in the future, takes you on a tour and talks about how life could be different.

The site has obviously been developed with schools and families in mind and those looking for sober historical analysis will be disappointed. But if you want to get talking to your kids about socialism and "where it all began", then pay New Lanark a visit.

Indeed, if all you want is a quiet retreat you could do a lot worse than spend a couple of days at the site. New Lanark is in a wonderful setting on the banks of the Clyde below dramatic waterfalls.

The nearest station is Lanark and a short taxi ride will get you there. There is a hotel, a visitors' centre and (speaking from experience) a really great Youth Hostel. So do pay New Lanark a visit: relax, reflect and enjoy.