His self-help dream represented a marriage of morality and socialism that has had a timeless appeal. It inspired the co-operative movement, trade unionism and thinkers such as Keynes and Beveridge. Yet it became obscured by the influence of Marxism that saddled the Labour Party from 1918 with a commitment to nationalisation and the dominant state. Only latterly, in face of popular Thatcherite individualism and the accompanying social breakdown, has Labour rediscovered its early traditions.
Yesterday Tony Blair laid claim to the Owenite legacy. In his first speech since John Smith's death, he called for social action that 'would develop individual potential, not subjugate it'. His rhetoric highlighted the need to foster communities and repair the social fabric in order to encourage self-improvement and responsibility. It was an initial attempt to set out a communitarian Blairism to replace Thatcherism and become the driving political philosophy of the Nineties.
However, the speech did not go much further than that. As a solution to the problems of Britain, it sounded comforting, but lacked policy radicalism. It contained little that might offer Britain's deprived housing estates more hope than a piece of crack or a syringeful of heroin. Mr Blair's speech constantly prompted the question: 'But where's the beef?'
It is fine to argue for revitalised communities, but achieving the reality today is a far harder task than it was for Robert Owen. If Mr Blair reaches Downing Street, he will have to contend with a complex, international capitalist economy, whose every impulse is to reduce society to its atomised parts.
His speech yesterday contrasted markedly with the revivalist tone of Gordon Brown's barnstorming efforts on Sunday. The two candidates for the Labour leadership faced very different audiences: Mr Blair spoke at a small gathering on youth crime, and Mr Brown faced the party faithful in Wales.
The shadow chancellor unambiguously picked up the Smith mantle by presenting himself as the man to unite Labour. He castigated the failings of the Government over Europe and the economy, and accused ministers of corruption. Then he laid out a long list of policies, including a house-building programme, taxes on utilities to fund an emergency employment scheme, and a more flexible welfare state.
It was a rather breathless performance, which appealed to the more out-of-date elements within the Labour Party. But it had a harder edge than the philosophising of his opponent. Over the coming weeks, Mr Blair will have to articulate a much more concrete and bold programme for government if his Utopia is to be accepted as more than wistful nostalgia.Reuse content