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Co-operative movement. The Co-operative movement is often identified solely with retailing, and its foundation ascribed to the ‘Rochdale Pioneers’ who set up the first store to pay dividends to members on the basis of how much they had purchased from the society. It actually originated in the ideas of Robert Owen, the visionary factory owner and social thinker of New Lanark. During the 1820s and 1830s many groups of people started on the road to creating an alternative society based on mutual assistance rather than competitive individualism, the ‘New Moral World’ whose superiority, once established through the working of communities in which labour was the unit of currency, would drive out the irrationality of capitalism. The first step on the road to community-building was to set up a shop, whose surpluses could then be applied to manufacturing and ultimately farming; but most of the early co-operative societies fell at this first hurdle. The Rochdale Pioneers system rendered Co-operation attractive to those who sought to save as they spent, and brought the movement into line with prevailing social values. After the Pioneers began in 1844 the movement spread rapidly, supplying unadulterated foodstuffs at accessible prices and making a distinctive virtue of refusing credit. Co-operation was especially popular in the textile towns of Lancashire and west Yorkshire in the mid-Victorian years, later gaining a strong following in Scotland and colonizing the midlands and south. Membership had reached saturation point in some industrial towns by the turn of the century, and middle-class recruitment began in earnest in the inter-war years. Societies were locally based, but the Co-operative Wholesale Society co-ordinated purchasing and then manufacturing for the whole movement from 1863. Although most members came to view the dividend as the most important aspect, the Co-op never lost its idealism completely, providing classes and libraries, supporting strikes, and (through its Women's Guild) offering political confidence and empowerment to working-class women. The societies were democratically run and in 1918 a Co-operative Party was set up, which ran in harness with the Labour Party. The Co-op also diversified its retail services, went into banking and home loans, and built houses for its members. It sustained its strength into the mid-20th cent., despite campaigns against it by private traders, and came to hold a dominant position in retailing, which it gradually lost in the changing climate of the 1950s onwards. Societies amalgamated, local identities were lost, the dividend itself was abandoned, and the Co-op seemed to many to have lost its way. Attempts are still being made to adapt it to modern circumstances without losing its distinctive identity, but the struggle is an uphill one.
John K. Walton
cooperative movement Variety of worldwide organizations, founded to provide mutual assistance in economic enterprises for the benefit of their members. The first such movement was founded (1844) in England by the Rochdale Pioneers, who established a cooperative retail society to eliminate the middleman and share profits among its members. The cooperative movement has been extended to include cooperative agriculture, cooperative manufacturing (in which the workers own and manage their own plant) and cooperative banking and finance. See also Cooperative Party; Cooperative Wholesale Society; Owen, Robert
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