The History of the Co-operative Movement: Knowledge should be distributed like tea and flour…

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Introduction:

We returned to the Co-operation and Education course this week after a ‘half-term break’ to explore the history of the co-operative movement. This excellent session was facilitated by Lucy and Mike to whom we are all grateful.

The session was split into three sections:

  1. Recap of the previous session, Co-operative Principles and Values;
  2. Read and discuss Woodin’s Co-operative education in Britain during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: context, identity and learning;
  3. Explore how the history of the co-operative relates to the SSC.

1. Recap of the previous session

At the start of the evening we took some time to remind ourselves what we had covered before ‘half-term’. The previous session had focused on co-operative values and principles and, to help us remember what we discussed, we found it helpful to take it in turns to read aloud from the class notes. We found this process useful and, as one scholar commented, it allowed us to “replay the session in our minds.”

2. Read and discuss…

For the second part of the session we agreed to read over Woodin’s text and highlight a sentence(s) and explain why it was meaningful to us. Woodin (p. 78) argues that education has been central to the co-operative movement for the last two centuries, yet education within labour and social movements remains an under researched area. What followed was an insightful discussion about precisely that. Below are some of the comments made by scholars and ensuing discussions by the group:

  • After reading Woodin’s text, one scholar was surprised to learn that co-operative education had a much longer history than formal state education and, in fact, that co-operative education had played a significant role in influencing the provision of state education. However, Woodin (p. 78) adds a word of caution here and argues that the uniquely co-operative ideals and practices that have been contributed to by co-operative and private working-class education are often lost when written about this way. As one scholar commented, “state education closed down radical/alternative education…and through this process co-operative education is managed out of existence.”
  • So important was education to the early co-operative movement that in 1844 the Rochdale Pioneers had proposed that 10% of their surplus income should be devoted towards it. Although this proposal was ultimately disallowed by the Registrar at the time and a much lower figure of 2.5% was finally agreed.
  • Another scholar commented that before the Elementary Education Acts 1870 to 1893 there were a number of different experiments with education, which included the Sunday School Movement, independent schools and, interestingly, the Socialist Sunday School Movement.
  • One scholar commented that there has been a long history of ‘radical education’, ‘self-help’ and working class autodidactism. Indeed, before the industrial revolution, weavers had higher literacy rates than the general population and often read books as they worked. Both Jonathan Rose and E.P Thompson provide good accounts of this.
  • One scholar commented that, in places, extreme left-wing working class areas were referred to as ‘Little Moscows’ with the Chopwell Soviets cited as an example.
  • Another scholar commented on the importance of the built environment as part of the co-operative movement, which could “inspire awe and pride” (Woodin, p. 81). That the “built environment of the co-operative movement offered a “visual resource, a distinctive grammar of construction and design, that provided a continuing induction into the palpable identity of the values of co-operation.” (Woodin, p. 82)
  • One scholar commented that the co-operative movement helped to create and/or point towards alternative subjectivities and “incubated social transformation…” (Woodin, p. 79) and that there was an “interconnection between ownership, learning and common identity…” (Woodin, p. 81) and that “co-operation was a way of life in which individuals might be immersed from birth and subjectivity was fostered through participation in such a way that the co-operative movement ‘produced’ distinctive types of people.” (Woodin, p. 89)
  • One scholar argued that within the co-operative movement that ‘alternative subjectivity’ was often a ‘gendered subjectivity’ with many skilled and semi-skilled males finding it difficult to accept women. An example of this is provided by Woodin (p. 84) who quotes ‘A True Co-operator’ who complains about the “coarseness and popularisation” of co-operative movement that occurred with the appearance of women:

Times have changed; for whereas the meetings used to be of a few working men, who sought for knowledge and instruction – now the meetings are large to excess, composed principally of women, babies and youths of both sexes, tempted by rich got-up tea…

  • One scholar commented that being part of the co-operative movement itself was a form of learning that could be considered as practice or a rehearsal for life in a post-capitalist society:

…co-operation could serve as an educative force. Learning within a democratic social and economic movement was thus connected to wider purposes of social changes.

  • One scholar identified within the text a tension between ‘liberal’ and ‘vocational’ education’; however, Robert Marshall (cited in Woodin, P. 89) argued that this was a false dichotomy:

The old definitions are no longer accepted, that the ‘social’ student is concerned with ends and the ‘technical’ student with means. Both are concerned with ends and means; and technical studies can be the opportunity of educating that familiar figure in educational addresses ‘the whole man’.

We concluded this section by discussing that whilst the co-operative movement had a radical history it had a tendency to become consumerist rather than the labour controlled co-operatives that were envisioned by the early pioneers of the co-operative movement. Instead, we discussed how the co-operative has come to be associated with dividend points and passing mercantile savings on to consumers and, as one scholar reminded us, “Co-operatives were an experiment for social change; not about shopping, but a new social form.” One scholar commented that you could trace the radical roots of the co-operative movement in Lincolnshire back to Robert Parker who founded the Lincolnshire Co-operative in 1861 with 74 members.

3.    How does the history of the co-operative relate to the SSC?

The third and final part of the session invited us to consider how we could relate the history of the co-operative movement to the SSC. We probably created more questions than we answered, but it was a useful and interesting discussion.

Again, we revisited the importance of the SSC having its own permanent physical space that offers “a visual resource, a distinctive grammar of construction and design that provided a continuing induction into the palpable identity of the values of co-operation.” (Woodin, p. 82) One scholar described the original idea for the SSC with a bakery and café and SSC courses going on upstairs. One scholar mentioned a community interest project in Newcastle that might be useful to consider, the Star and Shadow Cinema. Another scholar questioned whether private property would change the nature of the SSC and whether occupying the city was more important than a permanent physical place and whether the SSC more exciting because it is nomadic? We considered alternatives to ownership, such as stewardship, passing through and being a habitant.

We considered our relationship to other co-operatives and how we might work together. One scholar cited Mondragon as an example of how a number of different co-operative could work together. Other scholars mentioned other co-operative projects that they are involved in, such as the Co-operative Abundant Earth Community and the Hospital University project.

We concluded that the history of the co-operative is its strength, but also serves as a warning. As one scholar pointed out “Co-operatives are not the future, but might be vehicle to something else. Creating new forms of social being; creating something that wasn’t there before it’s on the way to communism – we need to reclaim that language.”

 

 

 

 

SSI course reading for week seven: Co-operative history (1)

Hello All

The next two weeks we shall be doing the history of cooperatives. We have chosen two texts. The first kindly suggested by Joss and the second by Mike.

Cooperative education in the nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries: context, identity and learning‘ Tom Woodin (2011)

And

Domestic drudgery will be a thing of the past: cooperative women and the reform of housework‘ Alistair Thompson (1988)

Look forward to seeing you all on Thursday.

Best wishes,

Lucy