A third theme is egalitarianism. Many societies like to claim the virtue of
equality, but what does it mean in practice? In particular, must a society be
equal in some sense to be cooperative?
A fourth theme is ethics. What kind of ethical principles are required to sustain
a cooperative society? And a fifth theme is social progress. How do we know
whether our circumstances are getting better or worse as the years pass by?
These last two themes are also intertwined since progress is frequently defined
in terms of an increasing quantum of the good compared to the bad.
The Cooperative Movement in the 19th Century
The 19th century was the first in which, at least in Europe, the pace of scientific
discovery and technological change threatened the stability of society at large.
Today we accept rapid technological change as a fact of life, despite its often
disruptive social and cultural impacts, and we attempt to gain the initiative by
anticipating future possibilities. However, with respect to technological
change, we might say that the 19th century was caught by surprise. Social
dislocation created many new opportunities for exploitation and the
unscrupulous were not slow to take advantage of them. By contrast, the
intellectual world was full of optimistic expectation that science and
technology would lift humanity above its age-old struggle with nature.
The concept of progress formed an important backdrop to 19th century debates.
New discoveries in the physical and natural sciences and the ever increasing
productivity of machines suggested that material progress could continue
indefinitely. Furthermore the publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution in
1859 encouraged a view that progress was somehow a universal truth,
applicable to both the natural and the human worlds. The concept of progress is
not made explicit in our following review of the 19th century debates but it was
certainly part of the intellectual background to those debates.
This part reviews the initial successes of the cooperative movement in the 19th
century and its subsequent decline. We review only the key strands of
ideological and political thought to emerge in Europe and particularly in
Britain. A more detailed account can be found in the books of historian George
Cole.15 The various ideological splits that took place in the 19th century set the
stage for the major political struggles of the 20th century.
Early Success
The cooperative movement arose as a response to the appalling conditions of
the working class during the industrial revolution.16 Although the first
consumer cooperatives were formed in the 18th century,17 it was not until the
early 19th century that a school of thought emerged to promote cooperation as a
social and economic ideal. The movement was represented on the European
continent by the philosophers Henri de Saint-Simon (France, 1760-1825),
François Fourier (France, 1772-1837) and Wilhelm Weitling (Germany, 1808-
1871), but the greatest practical success was achieved in Britain due to the
efforts of Robert Owen (1771-1858).
Owen was born in a small market town in Wales. At the age of 17, he moved to
Manchester where he subsequently enjoyed much success managing a cotton
mill. In 1799, he moved to New Lanark, on the Clyde upriver of Glasgow, and
finally realized his ambition to manage a cotton mill that achieved commercial
success yet also satisfied his cooperative and ethical ideals. The New Lanark
project generated considerable interest both in Britain and in Europe. Inspired
by what they saw, others set up worker and consumer cooperatives, so that by
1830 there were several hundred cooperatives in Britain. Many of these
eventually failed but some continue even today.18 In 1844 the Rochdale Society
of Equitable Pioneers established the Rochdale cooperative principles which
became the basis for the development of the modern cooperative movement
and is considered by Cole19 to be its formal beginning. For more on the birth of
the cooperative movement, see also Bihari.20
For his philanthropy, Robert Owen enjoyed much fame and the support of a
wide circle of social reformers, including the influential Benthamites.21 New
Lanark itself became a much frequented place of pilgrimage for social
reformers, statesmen and royal personages, including Nicholas, later to become
emperor of Russia.
But Owen was not satisfied. He recognized that the well-being of his workers
in New Lanark was entirely dependent on his personal approach to business.
There was a need to embed new principles of worker and social welfare in
legislation. In 1817 he lobbied strongly for the Poor Laws and was a zealous
supporter of the Factory Act of 1819, although the final result greatly
disappointed him. Engels is lavish in his praise of Owen’s pioneering work for
the working class:
As long as he was simply a philanthropist, he was rewarded with nothing
but wealth, applause, honor and glory. He was the most popular man in
Europe. Not only men of his own class, but statesmen and princes
listened to him approvingly. But when he came out with his Communist22
theories that was quite another thing. Three great obstacles seemed to him
especially to block the path to social reform: private property, religion,
the present form of marriage.
He knew what confronted him if he attacked these – outlawry,
excommunication from official society, the loss of his whole social
position. But nothing of this prevented him from attacking them without
fear of consequences, and what he had foreseen happened. Banished from
official society, with a conspiracy of silence against him in the press,
ruined by his unsuccessful Communist experiments in America, in which
he sacrificed all his fortune, he turned directly to the working class and
continued working in their midst for 30 years. Every social movement,
every real advance in England on behalf of the workers, links itself on to
the name of Robert Owen. He forced through in 1819, after five years
fighting, the first law limiting the hours of labour of women and children
in factories. He was president of the first Congress at which all the Trade
Unions of England united in a single great trade association.23
As Engels acknowledges in this passage, the birth of the cooperative movement
was also the birth of socialism, the word itself being coined by Henri de Saint-
Simon24 in 1827. By the mid 19th century, many of the basic tenets of socialism
had been articulated, in particular those concerned with egalitarianism. We
may distinguish four egalitarian principles:25
1. All human beings regardless of birth or class have a right to selfimprovement.
This right is granted either by God or by virtue of being
2. There are no relevant differences between humans that justify one to
claim a greater inherent right to self-improvement.
3. All human beings regardless of birth or class have the ability to improve
themselves, if placed in beneficial circumstances.
4. Creating those beneficial circumstances is always within political
control, and so is always, by design or neglect, the result of political
Egalitarianism is the foundation of Owen’s philosophy. For example, in
Revolution in the Mind and Practice of the Human Race, he asserts that
character is formed by a combination of Nature or God and the circumstances
of one’s experience. But given Nature cannot easily be changed, social
circumstances become all important in shaping the human character. Cruel
living conditions and the lack of educational opportunities will inevitably warp
the development of moral sensibilities:
…any character from the best to the worst, from the most ignorant to the
most enlightened, may be given to any community, even to the world at
large, by applying certain means; which are to a great extent at the
command and under the control, or easily made so, of those who possess
the government of nations.26
In effect, Owen is asserting the third and fourth principles of egalitarianism,
today widely accepted but in his day dangerously radical ideas. Human beings
are malleable – by manipulating social conditions it is possible to create the
best or the worst of persons. Consequently the poor and impoverished are not
to be blamed for vice and defects of character. Rather the fault is with those
who govern and who permit the most treacherous of circumstances to
“inevitably form… such characters”.27