Opposition to the Cooperative Movement
The British cooperative movement in the early years of the 19th century drew
its inspiration from the Benthamites, a highly influential group whose primary
philosophical concern was to place free market capitalism on a rational and
ethical footing. Bentham himself was initially a supporter of Owen’s
endeavours to reform working-class conditions. However, whereas the
cooperative movement was primarily concerned with the ethical defects of
capitalism and promoted socialist solutions, the Benthamites became
increasingly preoccupied with its rational defects. When the consequences of
the socialist program became apparent, James Mill,28 a prominent Benthamite,
was horrified. He wrote:
Their notions of property look ugly… they seem to think that it should
not exist, and that the existence of it is an evil to them. Rascals, I have no
doubt, are at work among them.29
Bertrand Russell cites these words (written in 1831) as “the beginning of the
long war between Capitalism and Socialism”.30
The economic debates at this time are interesting, if for no other reason than
that they appear not to have changed much in a century and a half. Bentham
believed that free labour markets would enable workers to move from one
place of employment to another and so choose their employers, thereby curbing
the excess power of capitalists. Owen, on the other hand, recognized that in an
age of machines, those few who owned machines could control the labour
market and thereby bend the workers to their will. He understood what so few
understand even today, that in free markets the question of who has market
power is all important. Owen’s solution was the cooperative one, that machines
should be owned collectively so that the benefits of machine automation might
be shared by those who worked them. Note that a cooperative economy does
not imply the abolition of private property but rather introduces another mode
of ownership in addition to public and private.
In pursuit of his vision, Owen and many of his followers set up intentional
communities as experiments in cooperative living. The reasoning was simple –
if the human character is moulded by life experience, in particular early
childhood experience, then the way to a better world cannot be purely
concerned with the factory floor. The entire social order itself must be changed
to ensure that good life experience can shape people of good character. These
experiments in community living were a failure and it is important to
understand why. At least three factors suggest themselves.
First, many of the persons involved in the early cooperative communities
appeared to have had little aptitude for what they were attempting. New
Harmony, Owen’s own attempt to set up a model cooperative community in
Indiana, USA, 1826, collapsed when one of his business partners ran off with
the money.31 Another attempt in Glasgow also failed. In the words of Owen’s
son, the persons who joined these experimental communities were “a
heterogeneous collection of radicals… honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists,
with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in”.32
Second, the community lifestyle required participants to accept a uniformity of
purpose and circumstances. It was too much to ask. Contemplating the failure
of New Harmony, Josiah Warren wrote:
We had a world in miniature – we had enacted the French revolution over
again with despairing hearts instead of corpses as a result… It appeared
that it was nature’s own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us…
our “united interests” were directly at war with the individualities of
persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation…33
Warren went on to become an advocate for individualist anarchism – this in
itself says something about the diversity of minds with which Owen had to
contend. But there is no doubt that the requirement for a uniformity of mind
and purpose contributed to the failure of the early utopian communities.
Third, the British government of the day rejected the cooperative agenda, both
the business model to improve working conditions and the social model to
address deficiencies in public education, health and welfare. Instead they chose
the laissez-faire doctrine of minimum government intervention.34 The
Australian economist and academic Hugh Stretton believes that laissez-faire
cost Britain dearly. The French, Germans and Americans were subsequently to
become greater industrial powers because their governments became
economically involved by promoting public education, public science, public
investment and “abler public services”.35
Owen devoted much of his life to lobbying politicians. He fought the
commonly held view of his day that the poor were sub-human, the “savages at
home”,36 for whom education would add cunning to vice. Articles appeared in
The Economist magazine (which was then, as now, a proponent of laissezfaire)
providing the theoretical justification for such views.37 Owen’s failure to
overturn prejudice by moral argument disillusioned him with politics and he
sought, instead, to create the ideal society by establishing working examples of
it. But in a society which rejects cooperation, it is not easy to create a shining
example of it. Owen’s success at New Lanark is, therefore, all the more
In conclusion, we must be careful to assess the cooperative movement of the
first half of the 19th century with a view to its achievements as well as its
failures. On the positive side, the movement changed forever the conditions
considered acceptable for working-class people. It promoted child care, public
education, public health and equal rights for women, all of which today are
considered the norm in a democratic society. The other part of the cooperative
legacy was the elaboration of a new business model, the consumer and worker
cooperative. The Rochedale pioneers established the principles of cooperation
which survive to this day. On the negative side, the early experiments in
intentional communities appear naive in hindsight. The failure of some of the
early consumer and worker cooperatives are best judged as experiments in a
new business model.38
While the cooperative movement was struggling with its failures, Marx and
Engels appeared on the stage with a new ingredient to add to the socialist mix,
class struggle. Owen of course recognized class antagonisms, but he attempted
to establish his ideal within the established social order. In the Communist
Manifesto, Marx and Engels disparaged this approach and drew a distinction
between themselves as scientific socialists and the cooperative movement as
utopian socialists. The term utopian socialists has stuck. Utopian socialists,
declared Marx and Engels:
consider themselves far superior to all class antagonisms. They want to
improve the condition of every member of society, even that of the most
favoured. Hence, they habitually appeal to society at large, without
distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class. For how can
people, when once they understand their system, fail to see in it the best
possible plan of the best possible state of society? Hence, they reject all
political, and especially all revolutionary, action; they wish to attain their
ends by peaceful means, and endeavour, by small experiments,
necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the
way for the new social Gospel.39
In 1880, Engels published a simpler and shorter account of the new scientific
socialism, under the title Socialism – Utopian and Scientific.40 Its grand visions
captured the imagination of a younger generation. Historical materialism could
explain the past and the future. The liberation of the working class was an
historical inevitability.
By comparison, the utopian socialists offered only an ethical ideal with no
apparent means to realize it. Socialism, said Engels, was not just a new idea
discovered by Owen and his followers, but rather the necessary outcome of a
historical struggle between two classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The
requirement of the day was not to build model communities but to strike at the
source of class enmity, the economic relations between the two classes.
Trade union membership increased rapidly from 1880 to the end of the century
and the cooperative movement also enjoyed a resurgence, partly due to rising
living standards of workers and partly because, as Cole puts it, every “trade
unionist was always a potential cooperator…”41 But over the same period the
two movements took different paths. Cole again: “In the eighties trade
unionism and consumers’ cooperation went on their several ways, each
shedding much of its earlier idealism, and each settling down to consolidate its
position within somewhat narrowly delimited fields.”42 The cooperative
movement expanded more easily into consumer cooperatives which engaged
labour “in the ordinary labour market…” and were not therefore seen as
offering the same benefits to workers as producer cooperatives. Towards the
end of the 19th century, the cooperative movement equipped itself with all the
formal apparatus of a large national organization, holding annual congresses
with delegates from regional and local levels. It also began publishing a
newspaper, The Cooperative News. And, despite the difficulties, there was also
a gradual expansion of producer cooperatives during this period.43
The Cooperative Movement into the 20th Century
Marxism split the socialist movement in two, those supporting the
revolutionary approach through the vehicle of Communist parties, and those
supporting a gradual approach through moderate Labor parties. In Britain,
1884, the gradualists formed the Fabian Society, which continues to this day to
be the social conscience of the British Labour Party. It promotes the welfare
state but does not challenge the power of the private enterprise sector on which
the welfare state depends.
By the late 19th century, the cooperative movement had lost its initial
momentum and fervour. Revolutionary socialists had rejected cooperatives in
favour of state-owned enterprises44 and liberal capitalism had made only those
grudging compromises with the welfare state it deemed politically necessary.
The cooperative ideal continued to get political support from Fabian
socialists,45 but the focus of the socialist struggle had moved elsewhere.
However, it should not be forgotten that the cooperative movement continued
to spread around the world in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th
century in the form of agricultural cooperatives and credit unions. They
especially found a role in the newly emerging frontiers of the USA and
Australia where government administration and infrastructure had not yet
penetrated. Farmers had to fend for themselves and found it advantageous to
form cooperatives through which they could process and market their produce.
Two impressive examples of cooperative economies in the 20th century deserve
special mention, that of Yugoslavia (on a national scale) and that of
Mondragon, Spain (on a regional scale). Yugoslavia during the 1960s and 70s
provides a unique example of a predominantly worker cooperative national
economy. In Yugoslav Socialism: Theory and Practice, Harold Lydall46 makes
some interesting comparisons between the Yugoslav and Mondragon
approaches to worker cooperatives. A critical difference between them
concerns income reinvested for capital formation – in Mondragon cooperatives
it is owned by the worker/members whilst in the Yugoslav case it was
collectively owned by the state. In Lydall’s view, worker management in
Yugoslav cooperatives was more a public relations exercise than real. As he
puts it, a “one-party Marxist regime… is fundamentally incompatible with selfmanagement,
since it does not really trust the workers to make their own
decisions”.47 He prefers instead the Mondragon model to which we shall return
at various points in this essay.
To sum up the 20th century experience, we may say that although cooperative
economics was not highly visible compared to private enterprise capitalism and
state enterprise communism, it nevertheless survived in pockets in an otherwise
hostile world. This says much about the inherent resiliance of cooperation.
Not much will be said of Fascism in this essay, because it is not a sustainable
social system. Like a pathogen, it only draws sustenance from societies that are
already sick. However it is of interest philosophically because it is the polar
opposite of cooperation. 20th century Fascism grew out of 19th century
European Romanticism.48 As represented by the German philosopher
Nietzsche (1844-1900), it celebrates the will of great men to do great deeds.49
Great deeds require great resources which are gathered through imperial
conquest. The suffering of the masses is of no account if it is in the service of
great men. Nietzsche alludes habitually to ordinary human beings as the
bungled and the botched and as having no independent right to happiness or
well-being. He regards any sign of empathy or compassion as a weakness:
The object is to attain that enormous energy of greatness which can
model the man of the future by means of discipline and also by means of
the annihilation of millions of the bungled and the botched, and which
can yet avoid going to ruin at the sight of the suffering created thereby,
the like of which has never been seen before.50
One glimpses in this passage a terrible premonition – Nazi Germany some 50
years later.
The question arises in Nietzsche’s philosophy – how to determine a great man
and how to determine a great deed? Great men are those who rise to the top
through struggle and war. And these men must be great by birth because if
such accomplishments could be achieved by learning, this would suggest an
equality that Nietzsche is nowhere prepared to acknowledge. Great deeds are
determined by great men for “no morality is possible without good birth” and
“every elevation of Man is due to aristocratic society”.51 It comes as no
surprise that Nietzsche despised women (“we should think of women as
property”) and Christianity (because it cultivates slave morality). It should be
noted that Robert Owen and many other 19th century socialists also argued
against religion. But whereas socialists objected to religion because it checked
the advancement of the common person, Nietzsche objected to it weakening
the resolve of a great man. The common person was of no account.
Writing in 1943, while Nazi Germany was still a formidable power, Bertrand
Russell remarks on a particular feature of Nietzsche’s philosophy – the
complete absence of empathy.52 Indeed, Nietzsche explicitly preached against
it. Only three years later, a psychologist, Dr. Gustav Gilbert, was assigned by
the U.S. Army to study the minds and motivations of the Nazi defendants at the
Nuremberg tribunals. The following year, he published a diary containing
transcripts of his conversations with the prisoners. The one characteristic he
found all the defendants to have in common was a lack of empathy. In a 2000
TV dramatization of the Nuremberg trials, the Gilbert character says:
I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I’ve
come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic
that connects all the defendants: a genuine incapacity to feel with their
fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.
In an essay motivated by the Nuremburg dramatization, journalist Ernest
Partridge says:
Empathy, the capacity to recognize and cherish in other persons, the
experience, emotions and aspirations that one is aware of in oneself, is
the moral cornerstone of progressive politics. It is a principle recognized
and taught in all the great world religions, reiterated by numerous moral
philosophers, and validated by the scientific study of human
In conclusion, it seems relevant to note that Nietzsche, the champion of the
superman and the despiser of the bungled and botched, was for most of his life
incapacitated by bad health. He retired from a university position, incapable of
work, at the age of 35. He went insane aged 44 and remained so to his death
twelve years later.
Matter-Centred Philosophy
In Socialism – Utopian and Scientific, Engels introduced Marxism as a
synthesis of French socialism, German philosophy and English economics. It is
not the intention of this section to offer a comprehensive account of Marxist
philosophy. Our interest is primarily with Marx’s treatment of ethics and the
human character. How did Marx hope to create a better society? How did he
contend with the question of human nature? What was the practical outcome of
his scientific socialism?