COOPERATIVE MOVEMENTSthe rochdale model and class collaboration
toward the cooperative commonwealth?
As industrial capitalism spread across Europe during the nineteenth century, working people adopted various associational forms to defend their interests. One of the earliest and most important of these associations was the cooperative society, symptomatic of the search for new sources of community life in the context of increasing social fragmentation and individualism. Workers were exploited as consumers as well as producers, and early factory masters frequently established truck shops that invariably sold overpriced and adulterated food and also led to widespread debt and dependency. Cooperative initiatives of various kinds were designed to check such abuses and encourage working-class self-help or independence. By the late nineteenth century cooperatives had become a fundamentally important feature of the European labor movement. The history of national cooperative movements is complex, however, as cooperatives have been bent to various, often competing, visions of class, gender, religion, and nation.
Not surprisingly, Britain acted as a pacesetter for cooperative development from the late eighteenth century. Some of the earliest forms were flour societies and cooperative corn mills, designed to provide good quality, affordable bread. Founded in 1795, the Hull Anti-Mill Society, for instance, operated successfully for more than a century and has been regarded as an attempt to assert the moral economy of the laboring poor against an encroaching market society. This ethical dimension can be found more explicitly in the cooperatives founded from the 1820s by followers of the pioneer socialist Robert Owen, who linked storekeeping with the desire to construct utopian, anticapitalist communities. Cooperatives were also taken up by the Chartist reform movement, especially its female supporters, who regarded them as a vital economic weapon in the struggle for working-class political power. Although most of these early societies did not survive the crisis of 1848, this phase provided many of the leaders of the later movement.
After midcentury, British cooperators took the society founded in the Lancashire mill town of Rochdale in 1844 as their inspiration. The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was highly successful at a time when many societies collapsed, and consequently its rules and practices seemed to furnish an ideal model. It divided trade surplus among members in proportion to their purchases (the dividend); strongly condemned the practice of credit trading; insisted that each member could only have one vote in running the affairs of the society, regardless of the number of shares held; and favored religious and political neutrality. Propagandists such as the ex-Owenite missionary G. J. Holyoake vigorously publicized the "Rochdale model" of consumer cooperation, and its fame spread throughout Britain and the Continent. The support of middle-class Christian Socialists, who were keen on profit-sharing cooperative workshops as an antidote for class struggle and socialism, was also important during this period, especially in achieving legal recognition. The consumer movement was considerably strengthened by the establishment of the English and Scottish Cooperative Wholesale Societies (CWS) in 1863 and 1868, whose leaders regarded consumption as the basis of economic, social, and cultural change. After decades of bitter conflict within the movement between profit sharers and those who prioritized the consumer, the latter finally won out by the early 1890s.
In France, cooperative ideas can be traced back to Charles Fourier's associationism, but there was little practical experiment before midcentury. State-sponsored cooperative production was advocated by the republican socialist Louis Blanc, before and during the 1848 revolution, but real growth came much later. The Rochdale model of consumer cooperation was supported enthusiastically by the political economist Charles Gide, and a national organization was founded in 1885 to coordinate the activities of a burgeoning movement; there were more than two thousand cooperatives by 1906, though these tended to be much smaller on the whole than their British counterparts. Once again, bourgeois support was in evidence during this phase, as cooperation was seen by many intellectuals to represent a "third way" between classical political economy and socialism and was also intimately bound up with the influential theory of solidarism, which stressed the importance of class conciliation and peaceful change.
Similar class dynamics were apparent in other national contexts. Middle-class liberal intellectuals, for instance, sponsored cooperatives in both Italy and Sweden after midcentury. The distinctive German contribution to cooperative development took the form of credit societies, designed specifically to provide capital for the lower middle class or Mittlestand, asocialgroup threatened by capitalist industry that played an important ideological role within liberalism. The key figure here was the jurist and progressive deputy Hermann Schultz-Delitzsch, who championed credit cooperatives in particular from the 1860s. By 1867 there were 1,122 credit cooperatives and 250 consumer cooperatives in Germany, many of which affiliated to a federation, the Allgemeine Verband. The leaders of the German movement typically regarded these forms as productive of moral qualities such as thrift, respectability, and self-reliance among the artisanate.
If the class origins and affiliations of cooperatives were often complex, so too were religious particularities. Catholic cooperatives were an important, if sub-ordinate, presence in Germany, Italy, and Belgium during the second half of the nineteenth century, though they did not seem to undermine the progress of socialist cooperatives, in Belgium at least.
Indeed, from the late nineteenth century through to World War I, the largest cooperative movements in Europe shifted to the left and became more avowedly proletarian and combative in character. In Britain the hegemony of the Wholesale Societies did not lead to the demise of the vision of a "cooperative commonwealth" as earlier scholars suggested—just the opposite, in fact. The German movement split in 1902 when supporters of the Schulze-Delitzsch artisanal cooperatives managed to expel working-class consumer cooperatives from the Allgemeine Verband. Links between the majority German movement and the Social Democratic Party strengthened during the following decade. A similar transformation occurred in Scandinavian movements, but without splitting the ranks of cooperators. In France alternatives were increasingly polarized after the formation of the Bourse des coopératives socialistes in 1895. This body affirmed the class struggle and had been inspired by striking glass workers in Carmaux and the ambitious Belgium cooperative movement, which was regarded as quintessentially socialist in character: the Maison du Peuple at Brussels and the Vooruit at Ghent seemed literally to embody the coming worker's utopia. Gide was disingenuous when he told the French movement that it should not "expect to teach many new ideas to our English comrades because it is from them that we have received almost everything" (Gide, p. ix), as there had been a traffic of ideas and practices across the channel throughout the nineteenth century; French, Belgium, and other cooperators regularly visited their comrades in England, who were themselves keenly interested in Continental developments.
This fascination was hardly surprising, for by World War I socialist cooperatives were the most dynamic aspect of what was now a truly European movement. This led French socialist leaders such as Jean Jaurès to describe cooperation as one of the "three pillars of socialism," a phrase that was quickly taken up by other national leaders. Both in Britain and Belgium cooperators far outnumbered members of labor and socialist parties and trade unions; there were more than three million members of cooperative societies in Britain in 1914, and the English CWS alone boasted an annual net sales of nearly thirty-five million pounds, making it one of the largest enterprises of its kind in the world at this time. The movement generated a distinctive culture that sought to provide members with education and fellowship as well as honest goods and that represented an alternative to mass consumer capitalism. Especially in France, Belgium, and Britain, cooperative movements controlled a substantial part of retail trade, though capitalist competition in the sphere of consumption was rapidly increasing as department and chain stores continued to proliferate. Modern scholarship has stressed that such changes in the structure of capitalism, combined with internal gender antagonism and hostile government intervention, undermined the long-term stability of cooperative movements. The strength and vitality of the European movement on the eve of total war throws the subsequent decline of cooperation into vivid relief.
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Peter J. Gurney