Sunday, March 25, 2007

Van Ornum, Co-operation, VI

Twentieth Century, June 21, 1894, 8-10.



It is impossible to review, even in a hasty/manner, the multitude of co-operative schemes which have, from time to time, been advocated or tried in this and other countries. Nor is it my purpose to undertake it. The most that I can hope to do is rapidly to scan a few which may be regarded as typical, or which convey some valuable lesson as to what co-operation has accomplished; what it may be hoped to accomplish; and the conditions under which success may be expected.

In a previous number I reviewed one phase of English co-operation, known as the Rochdale system. I do not wish to be understood that this is the only form which English co-operation has assumed. As a matter of fact, there are several others of great importance. One, which approaches the Rochdale quite nearly in some respects, and yet differs from it in other essentials, is the London system. It had its origin in a revolt of the purchasers against the high prices of the shop-keepers. It was first started by the clerks in the General Post Office, in 1864, and limited to them and their families. Meeting with success, other members of the civil service took up the idea; and a new society was formed ‘which was open to members of every branch of the civil service. It sought by co-operation to buy at reduced rates most or all of the articles needed for current consumption. Each member was provided with a purchase ticket, with a price list of everything in the store. It also included a list of every merchant with whom the association had dealings, and catalogues of special articles sold by special tradesmen. The society had its physicians, surgeons, accouchers, apothecaries, counsellors, stockbrokers, etc. who engaged to attend to the wants of members at reduced rates. Insurance was also obtained at a reduction. Purchasers were given the advantage of cheapness; but received no dividends on their purchases. While it was generally intended to furnish goods of good quality and measure, there was no such safeguard against adulterations as the Rochdale stores. This association was followed by the Army and Navy store, built on the same lines. It was not intended for the poor, but to enable a few well-to-do people to buy cheaply. So far they were successful. They also broke tip the habit of paying commissions to dishonest servants to influence purchases. The only element of co-operation in it was the co-operative purchase of supplies; and this was too loosely arranged to admit of proper safeguards as to quality and measure.

In 1825 a co-operative society was organized in Scotland to put in practice the ideas of Robert Owen. It was capitalized for £50,000 in shares of £250 each, which was afterward reduced to £200. 280 acres of land was bought at Orbiston, Scotland, for £19,995, and paid for mostly with borrowed money. The society soon fell into debt, and in 1828 its affairs were wound up and the estate sold.

The Catholic missionaries have frequently been strong supporters of co-operation. It is true, the support has generally taken the form of the compulsory establishment of communistic institutions: philanthrop-despotisms; but generally they were fairly well suited to the states of development of the peoples among whom they were set up. This is shown by the hold they acquired and the tenacity with which the people clung to them after the power of the missionaries was broken. Such institutions were established by the Jesuits in Paraguay, early in the seventeenth century, and which continued for more than a hundred years. Even now many of the customs remain in full force although the Jesuits have long since been banished from the country.

Among the theoretical promoters of co-operative communism must be mentioned Claude Henri Saint Simon, and François Charles Marie Fourier. Both were Frenchmen, nearly contemporaneous; and both sought, to a greater or less extent, to set up the kingdom of heaven by law, rather than await the slower but more certain course of evolution, although there is much in the teachings of both to make apparent this absurdity. Still, absurd as this is, and as those who yet teach practically the same doctrines will sometime find it to be, the advocacy of it had, and still continues to have a vast practical value in spreading a knowledge of the possibilities of a better state of society: that lofty ideal where capitalism, with its ruinous and wasteful competition and wage slavery shall give place to cooperation.

The teachings of Saint Simon had little influence on popular thought during his life; but after his death strong followers took them up. A society was formed, and, for a time, flourished; but it was soon wrecked through the desire of the leaders for rulership. Still their influence was perpetuated, and in some directions has produced most lasting results. Being scientific men, they were able to grasp the possibilities of human progress. It was among these men and in their schemes for human betterment that the project for building the Suez Canal first had its inception. They sought to unite mankind for the exploitation of nature instead of having mankind exploited by man. The complete emancipation of women and their equality with men was one of their fundamental tenets, although they maintained the Christian law of marriage.

Fourier taught that the evils of society arise from the unnatural restraints imposed by society on the gratification of individual desire, which is the fundamental basis of anarchy. He claimed that there exists a perfect harmony among the passions, and that cooperation, or united industry is the natural means for its attainment. And then, in the face of this practical wisdom he proposed the foolishness of arbitrarily organizing society as a whole into phalanges of 1,600 persons each, each phalange to occupy a common building built upon a uniform plan, called a phalansterie, with a definite allotment of land set apart to each phalansterie. He provided also for elaborate regulations of domestic affairs to govern the communities. In other words, he would have society impose still more extensive and vigorous restraints upon the gratification of individual desires, instead of promoting the perfectly voluntary co-operation of individuals while leaving each to gratify his own desires in his own way. He was like a potter who would put the human clay into a superior kind of mould and thus turn out a superior class of men.

Farming is an industry which seemingly offers peculiar facilities for co-operation, but in which co-operation is in a very backward state. There are many reasons assigned for this, but that most generally given is, that farmers, as a class, are naturally repugnant to co-operation: that their habits of life unfit them for united production. But this is not true, as I shall attempt to prove. The early history of the race shows, that the earliest form of land tenure was of agricultural association through community of land. If there was naturally any such special inaptness among farmers for co-operation it ought to have shown itself then. The truth is, that the present system of land tenure is the thing which, more than all others, stands in the way of co-operation in agriculture. Every intelligent farmer knows well how promptly land yields to better culture; and co-operation makes possible just such improved tillage through greater subdivision of labor, closer attention to details and improved methods. The further fact is also true, that the condition of isolation of the farmers under the present system is a most constrained and unnatural one. Man is everywhere a social being, and if the land system which condemns the farmers of this country to lives of solitude, was once broken up, so that they could adopt a more rational plan, they would as naturally do it as men condemned to solitary confinement in prison would abandon their cells if they could.

The history of the Ralashine community, begun in 1831, in County Clare, Ireland, is a complete demonstration of this position. Here was an agricultural people, differing in no way from the people in other parts of Ireland, rack-rented and famished until driven into riotous demonstrations. They had killed the old steward of the estate: shot him dead in his own house. Throughout Ireland the landlords were fleeing from the fury of their oppressed tenants. Evictions were the order of the day. Tillage lands were turned to grazing, and the people driven out. A police force of 30,000 armed men were maintained to keep the people in subjection, backed by coercion laws and the English army. Thousands perished in silence while others banded against the landlords. The recital of the outrages committed upon the Irish people would take pages to tell of them. Yet amidst all these unfavorable conditions the community was started. One Irish landlord, a Mr. Vandeleur, who had taken lessons in Socialism from Robert Owen, determined to try a new plan with his tenants. After considerable difficulty he secured a new steward, named Craig, who proved a most worthy assistant, to take the place of the one who had been killed. There was only 268 acres under tillage, with a bog of 63 acres which gave sufficient fuel. A small stream supplied a limited water-power. He put up several buildings, with dining hall, lecture, reading .and class rooms. Nearby was a storeroom, dormitory and six cottages. He then turned the old castle into a building for the accommodation of the people whom he hoped to unite in co-operative work. A constitution for the new society was drawn up by Mr. Craig Its objects were declared to be:

To acquire a common capital;

To render to each other a mutual assistance;

To obtain a larger share of comforts for the members;

For moral and mental improvement; and

For the education of the children.

The methods were announced to be, to unite to rent the land and buildings from Mr. Vandeleur, and it provided that all property should be his until paid for. All members were to work and co-operate fully in production. Youths of both sexes from 9 to 17 were to learn trades. Meetings of the committee of management were to be held evenings to arrange for the work of the next day. Each member was to be governed, in his selection of work, by his own feelings, but power was reserved to coerce members who refused to work. No gambling, drunkenness or tobacco to be allowed. Full liberty of conscience was recognized. The governing committee was composed of nine members to be chosen half-yearly. The treasurer was to furnish full reports at regular intervals, and provision was made for dividing all profits among members. The rent was fixed at £700 a year which was acknowledged to be a very high price.

Now came the hardest part of the work—to get members. The people were moody and suspicions. They looked upon the whole thing as another landlord’s scheme to trap them. Craig received frequent warnings, and several times was assaulted. But he never lost heart. His uniform courtesy and kindly sympathy at last won. A meeting was held at which he explained the pun. Still the people hesitated until Craig proposed the election of officers. They then realized that he did propose to let them manage their own affairs. The membership was soon filled with twenty-eight men, twelve women and twelve youths under seventeen years of age. The experiment was a success from the start and attracted attention all over Ireland. Crime ceased in County Clare, and was greatly reduced all over the country in the hope of encouraging other landlords to do the same thing. On this estate there were no more outrages for thirty years. The people prospered and were happy notwithstanding the famine and notwithstanding the high rent they had to pay. The success exceeded all expectation.

But the landlord had an inveterate passion for gambling. He lost all land was thrown into bankruptcy. Under the English law the tenants were held to have no rights which landlords were bound to respect, and the little community was stripped of everything by Vandeleur’s successor. Solemn agreements between landlord and tenants went for nothing.

Then the old outrages began again, and with good reason. But the practicability of agricultural co-operation was demonstrated in the most complete way and under the most adverse circumstances. I think no reasonable person, in the face of these facts, can doubt for a moment that the land system is almost the only bar to co-operative farming. There have been many other experiments and all teach the same lesson, but there is not space for further details.

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