For All The People – Cooperatives in America

by Larry Gambone.


John Curl’s book is an exhaustive study of cooperatives, mutual aid and intentional communities from the First Nations to the present. Scores of obscure and forgotten groups can be discovered here. What Curl shows is the record of struggle by ordinary people to construct a humane and democratic way of life in the face of opposition and adversity.

You find that there is no division between class struggle or organization at the point of production and the formation of coops. Nor is there a real split between political movements and alternative building. For the Knights of Labor and the Populist Party alternative building went hand in hand with union organizing or political action. Socialism, from its very inception as a tendency, right up to, and including the foundation of the Socialist Party, meant cooperative production, or as it was expressed as the “cooperative commonwealth.”

While parties and unions built alternatives, the people involved with them sometimes did so at different periods. When a union was broken or a workplace struggle defeated, the members would turn to community building or forming a coop. If these failed, they would then return to union organizing or party-building.

It turns out that all left wing organizations built cooperatives and mutual aid societies, including the Communist Party. Even the left wing New Dealers got in the act, encouraging the formation of consumer and farmers coops, as well as surprisingly, cooperative communities. While Curl’s study is limited to the USA, one must also remember that in the early-mid 20th Century, the European Social Democrats built an entire counter-culture of cooperatives, mutual aid societies, schools, and associations. While this development was most prevalent in Austria and Germany, Northern Italy and the Scandinavian counties were not far behind.

This unanimity around cooperation leads me to question the accuracy of the notion of “state socialism.” While some people such as anarchists, cooperative socialists and syndicalists were “pure cooperators”, the rest of the left preferred a mixed economy of coops, municipal and nationalized industries. State socialism must then be a matter of degree and the term ought only be applied where the economy would be fully dominated by the state sector. Since everyone likes coops, anarchists and cooperative socialists ought to be able to approach “state socialists” in a positive, rather than negative manner. The following questions ought to be asked; “You support coops in this area, why not elsewhere? Don’t you think cooperative principles could be applied to the industries you seek to nationalize? Couldn’t there be a form of national ownership that is not statist?”

Many cooperatives failed, and most intentional communities collapsed in short time. Curl gives the reasons for these failures. One was external problems. The capitalists did everything in their power, from economic warfare to terrorism, to crush alternatives. Governments, in the pay of their corporate masters, were hostile and used the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to prevent the formation of the cooperative federations which could have been of assistance to fledgling coops. Later governments enacted doubled-edged coop legislation which was used to control, de-radicalize and steer the cooperative movement in a more capitalistic direction. There were also funding problems. Banks refused to lend money and the government wouldn’t help either. New coops were saddled with heavy debt-loads or were grossly underfunded.

Then there were the internal problems. Ideological differences fractured groups. There were organizational problems, especially a lack of experienced personnel for the “nuts and bolts” daily coop activities. Naive idealism ruined many an intentional community, unworkable ideas like large-scale communal living and a lack of practical members. (Lots of philosophers, fewer carpenters and farmers.) Coops often over-extended themselves in good times, which lead to collapse and bankruptcy in bad times.

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