cooperative movement

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cooperative movement, series of organized activities that began in the 19th cent. in Great Britain and later spread to most countries of the world, whereby people organize themselves around a common goal, usually economic. The term usually refers more specifically to the formation of nonprofit economic enterprises for the benefit of those using their services.

Types of Cooperatives

An old and widespread form is the consumers' cooperative, in which people organize for wholesale or retail distribution, usually of agricultural or other staple products. Traditionally, membership is open, and anyone may buy stock. Goods are sold to the public as well as to members, usually at prevailing market prices, and any surplus above expenses is turned back to the members. Money is saved through direct channeling of goods from producer to consumer. Producers' cooperatives are manufacturing and distributive organizations, commonly owned and managed by the workers. Another development in such cooperatives has been the acquisition of failing manufacturing plants by labor unions, who run them on a cooperative basis. Agricultural cooperatives usually involve cooperation in the processing and marketing of produce and in the purchase of equipment and supplies. Actual ownership of land is usually not affected, and in this way the agricultural cooperative differs from the collective farm. Agricultural cooperatives are often linked with cooperative banks and credit unions, which constitute another important type of cooperative. There is also cooperative activity in insurance, medical services, housing, and other fields.


The origin of cooperative philosophy is found in the writings and activities of Robert Owen, Louis Blanc, Charles Fourier, and others. Its early character was revolutionary, but under the impact of such movements as Christian Socialism this aspect diminished. After some early 19th-century experiments, consumers' cooperation took permanent form with the establishment (1844) of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in England.

The cooperative movement has since had considerable growth throughout Great Britain and the Commonwealth, where local cooperatives have been federated into national wholesale and retail distributive enterprises and where a large proportion of the population has membership. Various examples of cooperative organization are also found in the Scandinavian countries, Israel, the People's Republic of China, Russia, and France. In the United States the cooperative movement began in the 19th cent., first among workers and then among farmers. The National Grange, a farmers' cooperative, was founded in 1867 and later exercised considerable political influence (see Granger movement). An international alliance for the dissemination of cooperative information was founded in 1895. Today the major types of cooperatives include those of farmers, wholesalers, and consumers, as well as insurance, banking and credit, and rural electrification cooperatives (the growth of the latter two facilitated by loans from the federal government). There has been increasing international collaboration among the various kinds of cooperatives and a growing trend toward the establishment of international cooperative distribution.


See J. Berry and M. Roberts, Co-op Management and Employment (1984); E. Spanner, Brotherly Tomorrow (1984); G. Melnyk, The Search for Community (1985).

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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

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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