The essence of “co-operative socialism”

Greg Rosen’s book Serving the People quotes two statements in particular that seem excellent summaries of what “co-operative socialism” is about, in contrast to the centralised state-socialism that characterised much of Labour’s actions.

The first was written by Harold Campbell in 1947 (p.27):

The Co-operative Party advocates the sovereignty of the consumer. It declares that the state should be controlled in the interests of the consumer as a co-operative society is controlled in his interests.

It bases its advocacy upon the socialist ground that consumer control is the only truly classless control. The consumer interest is all embracing: any other is a limited interest. … The specific role of the co-operative movement in politics is the advocation of libertarian socialism, based upon the classlessness of consumer sovereignty.

In the drive to make as much headway in five years towards a new and planned Britain by the Labour government, much that is kindly and human and liberal (in its wider sense) is in danger of being overlooked. … In the clash of interests apparent in the transition to the new order – the clash between capital and labour – the claim of the consumer to be the only non-sectional and therefore classless or unifying interest, is in danger of being ignored or – when it is heard – not understood.

The second is from the party’s annual report in 1979, which contained the following repudiation of the “Bennites” then seeking to dominate the Labour Party (p.54). (Note: I have a lot of admiration for Tony Benn. But I certainly find the following a more appealing account of socialism than the “Old Labour” path of nationalisation and state control):

We have regarded it as a principal function of the Party to demand the organisation and government of society so that the maximum degree of free and voluntary association is provided. Our Labour Party allies have not always followed this precept. This is largely because the emphasis of Labour Party thinking has been the interest of the producer in the form of the organised worker.

For many years we have questioned the validity of nationalisation as the ultimate development of socialism and claim that it does not in fact mean consumer control, since it encourages uniformity rather than diversity. …

Co-operators are by natural inclination social democrats. They believe that power belongs to the people, authority rests on consent and should be granted, sparingly, to those leaders chosen by the community. And those leaders should at all times be accountable. …

We advocate co-operation as the form of social ownership most likely to succeed. It will succeed because it attracts the support of those engaged in the enterprise. The Co-operative form of social ownership is the alternative to nationalisation and state ownership. Nationalisation is right for some industries but not for all. … The state is not always the same thing as the community.

The common themes in these statements, separated by 30 years and written in very different contexts, seem to be:

  • a “libertarian socialism”, based on voluntary co-operation rather than state ownership;
  • the “sovereignty of the consumer”, in which our interests as consumers are seen as a unifying force, contrasted with our opposing interests as “capital” or “labour”;
  • a scepticism about nationalisation, seeing it as leading to “uniformity rather than diversity”, and as harmful for “much that is kindly and human and liberal”; and
  • the need for power to be granted to the state “sparingly” and with full accountability.

If “socialism” – a word which, let’s face it, can be something of an empty container into which a wide variety of conflicting ideas can be poured – has any future, then it has to be along these lines.

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10 thoughts on “The essence of “co-operative socialism””

  1. To be honest, I’m inclined to read Cameron with a judgment of charity and believe that he means what he says. I think someone might have written something about doing that somewhere. As an example, Cameron does seem to ‘get’ how the Internet is changing society. The rest of his party may not, of course, but I think he does.

  2. Phil: yes, I do believe Cameron means what he says (and in some cases that’s rather alarming – see foxhunting, Yurp). But I also think that his party’s instincts remain somewhat different.

  3. Dear Wandering Hedgehog

    Sad that I didn’t know of/meet you when I was in Petts Wood earlier this summer!

    Now back in Canada and with a new Reader on Co-operative Socialism from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – http://www.policyalternatives.ca – to hand.

    They can send out hard copies (e-mail jason@policyalternatives.ca ) and i can send a PDF of it to anyone(s) interested.

    Best

    For all!

    john

    1. John,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m extremely close to Petts Wood, as it happens – about ten minutes’ drive away, and go to church there. Perhaps next time you’re over? 😉

      I’d love to see a PDF of that Reader – email address is johnhalton AT gmail.com.

  4. Great article. I think that there’s an argument for nationalisation of ‘natural monopolies’ such as ports, railways and roads. But wherever elastic markets exist, cooperative ownership is a compelling option. In Australia, mutual ownership was favoured by some socialists (eg William Lane) in the 19th century but as elsewhere, state control came to be seen as a panacea after WW2.

    .

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