↑ Return to Co-op Membership

History of the Cooperative Movement

Early History of the Cooperative Movement

! People have always found ways to cooperate to satisfy their material and
emotional needs and desires. It is in our nature as human beings — as inherently
social animals — to work together for the common good. Viewed from this
perspective, it is clear that the history of cooperation is timeless. However, the
development of “cooperatives” as understood today — democratically organized
businesses modeled upon commonly accepted cooperative principles — and the
growth of a “cooperative movement,” are of much more
recent origin.  Many of the earliest cooperatives arose in 19th
century Europe and North America, when workers and
farmers faced the pressures of expansive capitalist
development, increased mechanization of work, and
unequal competition between themselves and large scale
capitalist enterprises.

People set up cooperatives of all types
(e.g., consumer, worker, farmer, housing) so that they, the presumably less powerful members of society, could
join together and exercise their power in order to sever inequitable relations
with the bosses, the bankers, the landlords and the store owners; they wanted to
conduct economic activity with dignity and work together to gain control over
the food they ate, the homes they lived in and the work they did.
Undoubtedly, some of the people involved in these early cooperatives were
simply hoping to gain access to commodities and services beyond their reach as
individuals. However, for many early cooperative builders and their supporters
(including radical thinkers such as the early anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon,
the lionized Karl Marx and the early socialist Robert Owen, to name a few)
cooperatives offered a way to analyze, understand and promote visions of radical
change, and to begin to imagine the forms of economic activity that could take
place in a classless, post-capitalist society.

The Rochdale Pioneers


Among the earliest and most influential consumer cooperatives was a small
store created in 1844 by textile workers and other artisans in the industrial mill
town of Rochdale, England. On the heels of an unsuccessful strike in the cotton
mills, 28 weavers and independent artisans established the Rochdale Equitable
Pioneers Society. The Rochdale Pioneers and their families survived on low
wages and felt they could no longer afford the high prices of
food and other goods at the company stores. They decided to
pool their scarce resources and work together in order to
purchase consumer goods at lower prices. Within a year the
Pioneers had raised enough money to open a small store —
originally selling just butter, sugar, flour and oatmeal — and
established what is considered one of the earliest successful
cooperative businesses in the English speaking world, still
operating today. In doing this they inspired others to build
cooperatives in their own communities, and kick-started a period of tremendous growth in the cooperative
movement. The Rochdale Pioneers wanted to ensure that their organization would
continue to serve the needs of their community and would continue to operate in
a way that promoted cooperation and democratic control long into the future. In
order to do this they created a written set of principles to guide their
organization. Although the number and content of these principles have changed
a little over the years, the fundamental ideas expressed by the Rochdale
Principles — member democratic control, serving the needs of the community,
open membership, etc. — have become the basic guiding principles for
cooperatives in countries all over the world.