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Industrial Co-operation:





The Co-operation Movement Today.

Summary and Conclusion.

IT is hoped that the account of the history, principles, and practice of the co-operative movement given in the foregoing chapters will have shown that the whole edifice rests upon a basis of equitable association, and that this characteristic manifests itself in all the various organisations for mutual service which exist within its borders.

It has sometimes been said that the Co-operative Movement has to-day lost the high ideals of its pioneers; that with the attainment of material success the altruistic desire to uplift humanity has been abandoned, and that selfishness is now the predominant motive actuating co-operative effort.  Before concluding our survey, it may be well, therefore, to endeavour to trace in the practice of present-day Co-operation the characteristics which marked the faith of the early co-operators, and which has found expression in the motto “Each for All, and All for Each.”


In the Economist, of 1821 [1] is the following statement concerning the objects of a society then in course of formation:—

The object sought to be obtained . . . is unrestricted co-operation on the part of all the members for every purpose of social life.

We have seen that the Rochdale Pioneers were actuated by the same desire, and indeed this belief in the all-embracing power of Co-operation may be traced throughout the history of the movement in all its phases.  True, it has sometimes seemed to be obscured by petty details; true, co-operators are divided as to the precise meaning of “unrestricted co-operation”; true, material prosperity has in some cases overshadowed the finer spirit of this large conception; but the belief has never been entirely lost.  Economic changes have necessitated modifications of some of the original proposals; experience has taught that others are probably unsuited to our present stage of social development; but the ideal is still that of the substitution of industrial peace for commercial warfare, and it is still true in the main that —

Co-operators have always been inspired by the ancient doctrine of human fellowship, by the new spirit of social service, by a firm faith that the day would come when each man and woman would work, not for personal subsistence or personal gain, but for the whole community. [2]


One of the aims of the early co-operators was to abolish fraudulent trading, such as adulteration of goods, [3] short weight, and unfair prices, and these principles are still recognised as an essential of co-operative trading and manufacture.  Co-operators may justly claim to have taken a large share in securing, not only for their own body, but for the people generally, purer food at more reasonable prices, both by their work in educating public opinion and in actual practice within their own organisation.  Mr. E. W. Brabrook, late Chief Registrar of Friendly Societies, has given it as his opinion that —

The Co-operative Movement stands to-day as one of the most practical and the most successful efforts to promote industrial welfare.  Its beneficial operation has extended far beyond the range of the actual members of societies.  The competition which it has set up with the local tradesmen has shown them that it is unwise, as it is unfair, to make the purchaser who pays cash provide for the loss of interest and sometimes of principal caused by the purchaser who takes credit, and has reduced the share of the middleman in the profit of commodities to a minimum. The whole community has benefited by this change. [4]


Unfortunately, however, in another important direction, that of ready money trading, the co-operative movement cannot claim to have kept true to its first principles, and those who have the maintenance of its high ideals most at heart make no secret of their regret at this departure from the sound rules laid down by the early co-operators for the conduct of their business, that “no credit should be given nor asked.”  The proportion of co-operative societies which have departed from this rule in more or less degree is far too large, and although the majority of societies which give credit have defined the limits within which it shall be allowed, yet the practice is nevertheless dangerous to the stability of the society practising it, and inimical to “the beneficial influences and the immense possibilities which are involved in the practice of thorough Co-operation.

The Co-operative Congress has never countenanced the practice of credit trading, and has from time to time passed resolutions condemning the system.  Such a resolution was passed at Stratford Congress (1904) in the following strong terms:—

That this Congress desires once again to place on record its emphatic condemnation of the system of credit trading, which appears to be growing in the movement, and calls upon all societies to use their utmost efforts to abolish the credit system and to substitute cash payments for all goods sold in their shops. [6]


The fundamental principles that capital shall be provided by the members and bear a fixed rate of interest, and that “profits” should be divided pro rata upon the amount of purchases made by each member; the democratic principle of “one man one vote”; and the democratic form of government by elected committees, are maintained both in spirit and in practice; and for the most part the equality of the sexes is recognised.  We have seen to what extent the movement reflects the enthusiasm of the Pioneers for education, and in what manner it has proceeded “to arrange the powers of production,” and the hold it has taken upon agriculture and the land.

In the number of its adherents, and the volume of its trade; in the strength and social importance of its propagandist agencies; and in the elasticity with which its methods may be applied to varied undertakings, the Co-operative Movement To-day has to a great extent fulfilled the hopes of its founders, although these have not been carried out in their entirety by any one society.


Even in the direction of self-employment and the establishment of self-supporting home colonies, the dreams of the early co-operators may be said to have reached some small measure of fulfilment.  The last few years have shown a growing tendency to federal action, and an increasing consolidation of co-operative organisations, together with an ever-increasing breadth in the nature and scope of their work, necessitating the employment of an increasing body of workers, for whose well-being there is a growing sense of responsibility on the part of co-operators.


One other proposal put forward by the Rochdale Pioneers — that “for the promotion of sobriety, a temperance hotel should be opened as soon as convenient,” has found fulfilment in the spirit rather than the letter.  The co-operative movement has consistently refused to countenance the sale of alcoholic drink in its stores, and its influence has, on the whole, been ranged upon the side of temperance.  A growing number of societies have established co-operative cafés, worked upon temperance lines, as branches of their business.  Co-operation has not, however, wholly succeeded in guarding its organisation from the temptations of this insidious evil, and it is important that there should be no weakening of this early ideal and practice as regards “the promotion of sobriety.”


There are problems to be faced and difficulties to be overcome some of which were undreamed of by its early founders — before the Movement shall have reached its full growth. Whatever the future may hold, the present is not the time in which co-operators can rest content with their achievements.  It is not enough that the leaders of thought in the movement should be imbued with the high ideals that have come to them from the past: Co-operation is essentially a democratic movement, and its ultimate success depends upon the membership as a whole — their knowledge of its principles, their devotion to its cause. Apathy is the greatest foe to success. “Langour,” said Arnold Toynbee, “can only be conquered by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be kindled by two things — an ideal which takes the imagination by storm, and a definite intelligible plan for carrying out that ideal into practice.” [7]

The pressing need of the movement of to-day is that every individual co-operator should arrive at a clear understanding of the principles upon which Co-operation is based, and acquire some knowledge of its business methods.  The dangers and weaknesses which exist within its own borders, and those which threaten it from without, have been indicated in various pages of this book.  The movement is justly proud of its great organisation; but the tendency — to which all successful undertakings are liable — to exalt commercial prosperity at the expense of principle is a weakness of which co-operators should beware.  The trite axiom that “the strength of the chain is in its weakest link” holds good in Co-operation as in any other organisation.  Whether the “weakest link” is found in the apathy of individual co-operators; in illiberal treatment of employees; in the growth of a commercial spirit; or in ignorance of economic tendencies, it is this link which should be most closely watched, lest the fair chain of democratic brotherhood which binds co-operators into one complete whole, break at this point.


The course which lies before the Movement is well summed up in the following extract from the address of the late Dr. Creighton, Bishop of London, to the Congress at Peterborough, in 1898:—

The Co-operative Movement cannot cease to be missionary or its career is ended. It cannot measure its results simply by consideration of material benefit to those concerned; it must be in living connection with the whole field of industrial effort. It must not only sell the goods which the consumer wants . . . . it should create a higher view of the proper conditions of industry, and should inculcate a preference for goods which are produced under those conditions. It should never cease to pursue and emphasise the great moral considerations on which all our dealings should be based . . . . Material interests do not prosper unless they bring with them that increased sense of duty which must ever accompany a large sense of comradeship. In proportion as we know ourselves to be one of many we lose our selfish individuality in a common life, animated by a common purpose.

It is by adherence to these principles and to this practice that the co-operative movement will continue to attract to its ranks as its leaders men and women of high character; it is thus that its members will be able to maintain the impetus gained in the past; it is thus that the “Peaceful Revolution” from Competition to Co-operation will be accomplished.

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1. The Economist, August 11th, 1821.

2. The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain, Page 221.

3. The Second Annual Report of the Leeds District Flour Mill Society, 1849, contained the following injunction:— “At whatever cost, instruct the buyer to buy the best wheat the market affords, and to bear in mind that the working classes of this district should have the best and purest bread possible to be manufactured. The quality should be first, the price only the second object.”— Jubilee History of Leeds Society.

4. Provident Societies and Industrial Welfare, by E W. Brabrook, C.B., page 146.

5. The System of Credit as Practised by Co-operative Societies, by J. C. Gray. (Co-operative Union pamphlet.)

6. Congress Report, 1904.

7. The Industrial Revolution. Toynbee. Page 230.