Mutualist.Org: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

Homebrew Industrial Revolution
Anarchist Theory of Organizational Behavior
Articles and Essays
Suggested Reading
Mutualist Political Economy
Corresponding Society Meeting



As Kropotkin showed in Mutual Aid, voluntary association for mutual aid is as old as the human race, and resurfaces whenever the authoritian state is at an ebb: " soon as the States relax the iron laws by means of which they have broken all bonds between men, these bonds are at once reconstituted...." [p. 249] And innumerable examples can be found in every country and culture. But as our concern here is with the rise of mutualism as an organized and self-conscious movement, we start with its origins in England and Western Europe, and restrict ourselves to organized mutualist bodies.

The typical form of mutualist organization for English laborers was the friendly society, or mutual benefit society. Friendly societies did not suddenly spring up in the 1790s, of course. Their origins have been traced back at least to the Seventeenth Century. The first English friendly society, according to M. F. Robinson (The Spirit of Association p. 142) was organized in 1634. A group of French Protestant refugees formed a London Friendly Society in 1666. The Oddfellows, one of the most famous fraternal orders, was formed early in the following century. (Ibid. p. 146) Such societies were remarked on favorably by Daniel Defoe. (Ibid. p. 141)

Of course if we ignore the artificial distinction between friendly societies, guilds and unions, they go back much further into the High Middle Ages, and last into the twentieth century. (Ibid. p. 107) Indeed such forms of organization are arguably at the root of our liberties. According to G. Unwin, "[t]he political liberty of Western Europe has been secured by the building up of a system of voluntary associations, strong enough to control the State..." (The Guilds and Companies of London, quoted in Robinson p. 6) (Cf. Nisbet on intermediate organizations)

But despite the antiquity of its origins, the friendly society came into its own as a dominant form of working class radicalism and self-organization only in the 1790s. The correspondence society, for example, made its first appearance around this time, in the atmosphere of revolutionary contagion emanating from France. E.P. Thompson described the corresponding societies as the first specifically working class political organizations in history. They were a break with the past tradition of working class mobs organized (like the Wilkesite mobs), not by themselves, but by outside interests. (The Making of the English Working Class pp. 20-21)

...the London crowd of the 1760s and 1770s had scarcely begun to develop its own organization or leaders; had little theory distinct from that of its "managers"; and there is a sense in which it was manipulated and called out by Wilkes to "operate on behalf of external interests".... (Ibid. p. 70)

The corresponding societies of the 1790s, on the other hand, showed the same forms of organization that were to characterize the friendly societies in general.

...there are features, in even the brief description of its first meetings, which indicate that a new kind of organization had come into being--features which help us to define (in the context of 1790-1850) the nature of a "working-class organisation". There is the working man as Secretary. There is the low weekly subscription. There is the intermingling of economic and political themes.... There is the function of the meeting, both as a social occasion and as a centre for political activity. There is the realistic attention to procedural formalities. Above all, there is the determination to propagate opinions and to organize the converted.... (Ibid. p. 21)

To see what the corresponding societies were up to, an outside perspective from a member of the upper classes might be helpful. In the early 1790s the Secretary at War sent the Deputy Adjutant-General to survey the effect that Paine's radical doctrines were having on the reliability of the troops. He was horrified at the activities of the Sheffield Corresponding Society (along with the London Society, one of the two most important in the nation). He described the society (in Thompson p. 103) as 2500 of "the lowest mechanics," in which

the seditious doctrines of Paine and the factious people who are endeavouring to disturb the peace of the country had extended to a degree very much beyond my conception.... Here they read the most violent publications, and comment on them, as well as on their own correspondence not only with the dependent Societies in the towns and villages in the vicinity, but with those... in other parts of the kingdom.

The Sheffield Society grew out of a group of "five or six mechanics... conversing about the enormous high price of provisions," and quickly grew into the thousands. It was divided into small meetings, or "tythings," of ten members each, who elected delegates in turn to higher meetings of ten, and so on, until the whole society was organized along the pattern of direct democracy and federation that was to become so much a part of the labor movement. Their officers "were all journeymen or craftsmen in the Sheffield industries." (Thompson pp. 149-150.)

This pattern of organization is very much in the spirit described by Hannah Arendt in On Revolution, of spontaneous, grass-roots organs of local self-government that spring up in periods of revolutionary crisis. The Russian soviets of 1905 and 1918, the rate of 1918 in Germany, etc., were quite similar. Had the social unrest of the 1790s resulted in a republican revolution in England, the corresponding societies might well have formed the foundation of a "soviet republic."

The corresponding societies were a valuable tool for self-education. And at the same time, they emphasized order and self-discipline as a necessary part of fraternity. As R. Birley described them, in The English Jacobins (quoted in Thompson pp. 154-155), their "usual mode of proceeding" at weekly meetings was along these lines:

The chairman (each man was chairman in rotation) read from some book... and the persons present were invited to make remarkes thereon, as many as chose did so, but without rising. Then another portion was read and a second invitation given. Then the remainder was read and a third invitation was given when they who had not before spoken were expected to say something. Then there was a general discussion.... The moral effects of the Society were great indeed. It induced men to read books instead of spending their time at public houses. It taught them to think, to respect themselves, and to desire to educate their children. It elevated them in their own opinions.

This is vital. For ten, twelve, or fourteen hours a day, six days a week, most of these men were held in absolute contempt. They were human raw material, means to an end, chattels whose values, opinions and desires were less than worthless. They worked in an environment in which prototypical "industrial engineers" like Andrew Ure looked for ways to deskill the work force, and to make the work process as independent as possible of the judgment of workers on the shop floor. But in these meetings, "the stone that the builder refused became the head cornerstone."

The society of correspondence was but one face of the friendly society. Besides its political manifestation, there was the economic. Small artisans and factory laborers "sought to insure themselves against sickness, unemployment, or funeral expenses through membership of 'box clubs' or friendly societies." Such common endeavors, combined with the need to exercise vigilance over a body to whom they had entrusted their funds, were a school in self-discipline and participatory democracy. (Thompson p. 419).

In the very secretiveness of the friendly society, and in its opaqueness under upper-class scrutiny, we have authentic evidence of the growth of independent working-class culture and institutions. This was the sub-culture out of which the less stable trade unions grew, and in which trade union officers were trained. Union rules, in many cases, were more elaborate versions of the same code of conduct as the sick club....

In the simple cellular structure of the friendly society, with its workaday ethos of mutual aid, we can see many features which were reproduced in more sophisticated and complex forms in trade unions, co-operatives, Hampden Clubs, Political Unions, and Chartist lodges. At the same time the societies can be seen as chrystallizing an ethos of mutuality very much more widely diffused in the... personal relations of working people, at home and at work. Every kind of witness in the first half on the 19th century... remarked upon the extent of mutual aid in the poorest districts. In times of emergency, unemployment, strikes, sickness, childbirth, then it was the poor who "helped every one his neighbour". (Thompson, pp. 421, 423.)

One observer of Lancashire expressed his astonishment at how working men bore

the extreme of wretchedness with a high tone of moral dignity, a marked sense of propriety, a decency, cleanliness, and order... which do not merit the intense suffering I have witnessed. I was beholding the gradual immolation of the noblest and most valuable population that ever existed in this country or in any other under heaven. (W. Cooke Taylor, Notes of a Tour of the Manufacturing Districts of Lancashire (1842), quoted in Thompson p. 423.)

The friendly society, in its many guises, was the genesis of the radical political party, the labor union, the cooperative, and the association for mutual aid. Bob James criticizes (in "The Tragedy of Labour History") the tendency of orthodox labor history to impose an artificial distinction between trade unions and the rest of the friendly societies. The intent is to treat trade unions, narrowly defined, as "modern," and to dismiss or marginalize the broader culture of friendly societies (rites, regalia, and all) as outmoded or atavistic.

But to do this is to impose an anachronistic interpretation on the past. James points out that the trade unions were very much a part and outgrowth of the friendly society phenomenon, and shared the same symbolism and ceremony as the Masons, Oddfellows, etc. The ceremonies, whether in the trade unions or other benefit societies, "were part of a living culture reflective of the needs, anxieties, expectations or desires of the people using them." makes much more historical sense to see the core of Labour History as a range of benefit societies, and to see what are called "trade unions" as just one culturally-determined response within a group and along a time-line....

What we now call "trade unions" were and are benefit societies, just like the Grand United Oddfellow and Freemason Lodges.... Concern about working conditions and the strategy of withdrawing labour, "going on strike", developed naturally out of the lodge habit of insuring against all sorts of other future dangers. Strike pay was just another benefit covered by contributions....

This tradition of the union as a fraternal society and lodge survived into the rites and lore of the Knights of Labor. (cf. The Politics at God's Funeral on religious-influenced ceremonial among displaced peasants in new industrial cities; resemblance of union ceremonies to Catholic or Protestant liturgy in respective areas.)

The potential of benefit societies to improve the bargaining position of workers was very real. For example the Clerk's Society (founded Newcastle, 1807) paid unemployment benefits of ten shillings a week for the first 26 weeks, extendable for another 26 weeks at the Society's discretion. (Gray, "A Brief History of Friendly Societies") It's easy to see why the state was so zealous to suppress such organizations under the Combination Acts. By providing an alternative to the dilemma of "accept work on the terms offered, or starve," they seriously undermined labor discipline and increased the independence of working people. As a survey of the enclosure movement shows us, capitalism, despite its official ideology of free markets and freedom of association, is ever willing to resort to coercion when the property and associations of ordinary people give them too much power.

Besides unemployment insurance, friendly societies provided services including sickness and disability insurance, and death benefits.

There was a broad tradition of working-class self-education, ranging from individual study to societies organized for that purpose. E.P. Thompson described this intellectual culture as it developed in the twenties and thirties:

The towns, and even the villages, hummed with the energy of the autodidact. Given the elementary techniques of literacy, labourers, artisans, shopkeepers and clerks and schoolmasters, proceeded to instruct themselves, severally or in groups. And the books or instructors were very often those sanctioned by reforming opinion. A shoemaker, who had been taught his letters in the Old Testament, would labour through the Age of Reason; a schoolmaster, whose education had taken him little further than worthy religious homilies, would attempt Voltaire, Gibbon, Ricardo; here and there local Radical leaders, weavers, booksellers, tailors, would amass shelves of Radical periodicals and learn how to use parliamentary Blue Books; illiterate labourers would, nevertheless, go each week to a pub where Cobbett's editorial letter was read aloud and discussed.

Thus working men formed a picture of the organization of society, out of their own experience and with the help of their hard-won and erratic education, which was above all a political picture. [pp. 711-712]

This working class picture of the world, although it varied widely in literacy and level of sophistication, was well expressed in this note left in a supervisor's house after a break-in during an 1831 coal strike in the north-east:

I dinna pretend to be a profit, but I naw this, and lots of ma marrows na's te, that wer not tret as we owt to be, and a great filosopher says, to get noledge is to naw wer ignerent. But weve just begun to find that oot, and ye maisters and owners may luk oot, for yor not gon to get se much o yor own way, wer gan to heve some o wors now.... [in Thompson p. 715]

From its low level in this illustration, literacy ranged upward to self-educated tradesmen like the Leeds warehouseman James Watson, who during his imprisonment "read with deep interest and much profit Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Hume's History of England, and Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History." [Thompson pp. 726-727]

Workers carried out self-education in organized form in a wide variety of ways. Penny-a-month clubs were formed for buying political newspapers and periodicals. Hampden Clubs and Political Unions organized "Reading Societies," and established permanent reading-rooms in the larger towns. In the Stockport Union reading-rooms in 1918,

there was a meeting of class leaders on Monday nights; on Tuesdays, "moral and political readings"; on Wednesdays, "a conversation or debate"; on Thursdays, "Grammar, Arithmetic, &c" was taught; Saturday was a social evening; while Sunday was school day for adults and children alike. [Thompson p. 717]

Coffee-houses, often combined with newsrooms, served the same function. John Doherty's "Coffee and Newsroom" in Manchester, attached to his bookshop, in 1833 took 96 newspapers each week, including unstamped underground papers. Less formal groups met in smaller towns and villages, meeting in inns or private homes. Thousands of small groups fought the high cost of taxed periodicals by clubbing together to subscribe and read them aloud. The Radical periodicals ranged from 40-60,000 weekly for Cobbett's Register, to the low ten thousands for others. Some of Cobbett's pamphlets ran as high as 200,000. [Thompson pp. 718-719] Thus, under the combined effects of high subscription costs and persecution, "a reading public which was increasingly working class in character was forced to organize itself." Indeed, the "tax on knowledge" resulted in the "great unstamped," an underground press created by and for the working class. [Ibid. pp. 727-728]

Besides societies for reading and debate, workers formed schools for basic education. The mutual improvement society, for example, "met week by week with the intention of acquiring knowledge, generally under the leadership of one of its own members." [Ibid. p. 743]

Compare this self-organized school system to the "public" schools. The latter were formed to meet the needs of the new factory system for a docile, obedient work force of regular habits, and as a source of indoctrination in "Americanism" or (in Mill's words) a "virtuous attachment" to the government. The contrast is between a system of education that treats human beings as an end in themselves, and one that treats people as human raw material, processed to serve corporation and state.

Owenism was the first major movement to combine a theoretical system with a general system of organization, and was to sweep the working class movement like a tidal wave in the 20s and 30s. But as we mentioned above in the section on theory, Owen's theory and organization initially received a lukewarm reception from English workers, who rightly perceived him as a paternalist and suspected his motives. E.P. Thompson put Owen's initial thought in the same tradition as Andrew Ure, attempting "to meet the same difficulties of labour discipline, and the adaptation of the unruly... labourers to new industrial work-patterns...." [p. 780]

...the notion of working-class advance, by its own self-activity towards its own goals, was alien to Owen.... Next to "benevolent" the words most commonly encontered in early Owenite writings are "provided for them".

This tone presented an almost insuperable barrier between Owen and the popular Radical as well as trade union movement. [p. 781]

The later shift in Owenism's fortunes, and its enthusiastic adoption by the working class, reflect its assimilation into a working class movement with ends and values beyond the comprehension of Owen himself. The very term "Owenism" can be misleading, if we forget it is used only for convenience: a number of parallel cooperative and labor movements were absorbed under the "Owenist" name, so that "Owenism" as an umbrella term came to include many kinds of autonomous worker self-organization.

The followers of Spence and other precursors of mutualism, although independent movements in their own right, were brought under the aegis of Owenism. More importantly, at the time of Owen's initial writing and experimentation in the teens, there were already attempts at large-scale labor organization underway. As we mentioned in the previous section, writers like John Wade at the Gorgon were coming to see industrial unionism and other forms of self-organization as the way for workers to create a new society for themselves. Activists like John Doherty and John Gast were building a theory of labor organization which, as E.P. Thompson described it, emphasized "system, the workers' own power to improve their conditions, or to change the entire by the force of combination...." Doherty, during the 20s, came to be "at the heart of the great movements of the northern workers for general unionism, factory reform, co-operative organisation, and 'national regeneration'." [p. 774]

Doherty's experience was with organizing the cotton-spinners. Gast, as a shipwright in the 1790s, had unsuccessfully to build a labor organization based on the St. Helena Benefit Society. During a shipwright's strike in 1802, he took part in organizing the Hearts of Oak Benefit Society. These examples illustrate the difficulty at the time of drawing clear distinctions between benefit societies, labor organizations, and political organizations. He was a leading figure during the teens in the attempt to organize a "General Union of all trades" in London and Manchester. His "Committee of the Useful Classes," formed in 1822, was described by Thompson as "an incipient 'trades council'." In 1824, when the Thames Shipwrights Provident Union was organized, Gast was its first Secretary. With the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1825, the trade union movement emerged from the underground; at the same time, the lobbying of employers for the Acts' restoration spurred zealous political struggle by the workers' movement. Doherty and Gast achieved prominence in the political struggle of the 20s. The sheer scale of political activism, and the force of workers' outrage, led contemporary observers to fear revolution if the Acts were reenacted. [Thompson pp. 520, 774-775]

There was "something in the air" at this time, and movements toward industrial unionism, mutualist enterprises, cooperation, etc., were achieving a synergy and looking for some theoretical expression. Cole called the 20s "the seeding-time of working-class ideas and organizations." [Short History 52]

Owenism really began to pick up steam when leaders of the workers' movement like Gast and Doherty endorsed it (Gast explicitly endorsed Owenism in the late 20s). In a way, it is more accurate to say that these movements took over Owenism as their expression, than the reverse. " Owenism changed its form among its plebian followers, the dream of a co-operative community upon the land acquired extraordinary force." E.P. Thompson argued that the publication of Hodgskin's Labour Defended (recounted in the section on theory above) in 1825, and its reception by the trade union movement, "represents the first clear point of junction between the 'labour economists' or the Owenites and a part of the working-class movement." [230, 779, 795]

Whatever the reason, Owenism in the 20s reached a critical mass. It ceased to be a mere diversion of paternalistic gentlemen-reformers, and was enthusiastically adopted by the working class as its dominant form of organization. But the Owenism of the workers differed significantly from the Owenism of Owen and his patrician followers.

Owenite Socialism always contained two elements which never wholly fused: the philanthropy of the Enlightenment, devising "span-new systems" according to prinicples of utility and benevolence: and the experience of those sections of workers who selected notions from the Owenite stock, and adapted or developed them to meet their particular context. [Thompson p. 780]

...Owenism, from the late Twenties onwards, was a very different thing from the writings and proclamations of Robert Owen. It was the very imprecision of his theories, which offered, none the less, an image of an alternative system of society, and which made them adaptable to different groups of working people. From the writings of the Owenites, artisans, weavers and skilled workers selected those parts which most closely related to their own predicament.... Owen's [writings] can be seen as ideological raw material diffused among working people, and worked up by them into different products. [Ibid. p. 789]

In the words of G.D.H. Cole, Owenism

exactly suited the younger generation of intelligent workmen who were growing up inside the new industrial order.... They seized hold of Owen's doctrine of Co-operation and made it the basis of a new working-class gospel. Owen... had appealed to the rich to free the poor from their dominion, and to start the new system and teach the workers to govern themselves. The younger workers... did not see why they should not, by association, make the new order for themselves. Owen still mistrusted their power, without education, to win or exercise control. They felt more confidence in the ability of their class. [Short History 54]

The artisan classes fused selected elements of Owenite thought into their "long tradition of mutuality--the benefit society, the trades club, the chapel, the reading or social club, the Corresponding Society or Political Union." Indeed, the initial rapid growth of the cooperative movement took place in the late 1820s, during Owen's sojourn in America.

Indeed, the germs of most of Owen's ideas can be seen in practices which anticipate or occur independently of his writings. Not only did the benefit societies on occasion extend their activities to the building of social clubs or alms-houses; there are also a number of instances of pre-Owenite trade unions when on strike, employing their own members and marketing the product. [E.P. Thompson 790]

Pretty heady stuff. When Owen returned from America, he tried to "push the new movement in his own direction," but found he had become a passenger rather than the driver. [Claeys, "Intro" I:xxxviii]

Between the mid-20s and the early 30s, societies sprang up all over Britain to promote cooperative ideas. Along with these came journals like the United Trades' Co-operative Journal, the Lancashire and Yorkshire Co-operator, etc. Continuing the earlier traditions of mutualist organization, the Owenist movement organized reading-rooms, travelling lecturers, and schools. [E.P. Thompson 792-793]

In 1827 a group of workers from the Brighton Mechanics' Institution formed, with advice from a Dr. William King, the Brighton Co-operative Society. Following on its success, "other stores and productive associations soon arose out of it." In 1828, King founded The Co-operator as a national journal of the cooperative movement. [Cole, Short History 76-77]

In 1829 the British Association for the Promotion of Co-operative Knowledge was formed as a central body, with its journal British Co-operator. Lovett and other London artisans used the Association and the journal as organs of national propaganda in favor of cooperation. [E.P. Thompson; Cole, Short History 77]

The early labor movement intersected with the cooperative movement in all sorts of interesting ways. Especially from the late 20s on, the trade unions began to operate in conjunction with cooperative stores.

As the Trade Unions grew after 1825, Owenism began to appeal to them, and especially to the skilled handicraftsmen, who were still an important element in the towns. Groups of workers belonging to a particular craft began to set up Co-operative Societies of a different type--societies of producers which offered their products for sale through the Co-operative Stores. Individual Craftsmen, who were Socialists, or who saw a way of escape from the exactions of the middlemen, also brought their products to the stores to sell." [Cole, Short History 76]

This pattern of organization was characterized by

societies of producers, aiming at co-operative production of goods and looking to the Stores to provide them with a market. These naturally arose first in trades requiring comparatively little capital or plant. They appealed especially to craftsmen whose independence was being threatened by the rise of factory production or sub-contracting through capitalist middlemen.

The most significant feature of the years we are discussing was the rapid rise of this... type of Co-operative Society and the direct entry of the Trades Unions into Co-operative production. Most of these Societies were based directly upon or at least very closely connected with the Unions of their trades, and many of them were actually indistinguishable from the Unions, which took up production as a part of their Union activity--especially for giving employment to their members who were out of work or involved in trade disputes.... [Ibid. 78]

The aims and overall vision of such organization was well expressed in the rules of the Ripponden Co-operative Society, formed in 1832 in a weaving village in the Pennines:

By the increase of capital the working classes may better their condition, if they only unite and set their shoulder to the work; by uniting we do not mean strikes and turning out for wages, but like men of one family, strive to begin to work for ourselves....

The plan of co-operation which we are recommending to the public is not a visionary one but is acted upon in various parts of the Kingdom; we all live by the produce of the land, and exchange labour for labour, which is the object aimed at by all Co-operative societies. We labourers do all the work and produce all the comforts of life;--why then should we not labour for ourselves and strive to improve our conditions. [Ibid. pp. 793-794]

As the reference to exchanging "labour for labour" suggests, the system of cooperative exchange grew beyond the level of the individual retail store. Cooperative producers' need for an outlet led to Labour Exchanges, where workmen and cooperatives could directly exchange their product so as "to dispense altogether with either capitalist employers or capitalist merchants." Exchange was based on labor time, with a currency of paper "labour notes." "Owen's Labour Notes for a time not only passed current among members of the movement, but were widely accepted by private shopkeepers in payment for goods." Of course, this was a time in which the public was used to a wide variety of private banknotes in circulation. [Cole, Short History 78-79]

Labor notes, although fairly successful for a while, failed because it was hard for labor values and "ordinary commercial values" to exist side by side. Goods that the Labour Exchange sold cheaper than the private tradesmen moved quickly, but those more expensive sat on the shelves. And the exchanges had trouble regulating supply to demand, because their inventory consisted of whatever was brought to them, and they were overstocked in items produced by heavily cooperative trades. [Ibid. 79-80]

The principle of labor-based exchange was employed on a large-scale. In 1830 the London Society opened an Exchange Bazaar for exchange of products between cooperative societies and individuals. [Cole, Short History 76] The Co-operative Congress, held at Liverpool in 1832, included a long list of trades among its participants; the b's alone had eleven trades. The National Equitable Labour Exchange, organized in 1832-33 in Birmingham and London, was a venue for the direct exchange of products between craftsmen, using labor-notes as a medium of exchange. [E.P. Thompson 791]

These were all early expressions of mutualism as the general principle of a movement to create a new society "within the shell of the old." A whole range of mutualist institutions, including cooperative retailers, labor exchanges, and trade unions, interacted synergistically to support each other. Not only was this a method of organizing an overall movement, but it was a vision of what the new society would look like when old things passed away.

Such organizations as labor exchanges and cooperative congresses involved mainly artisan laborers, and did not address the special needs of workers employed in large-scale manufacturing. The latter were addressed by leaders in the national labor movement, who attempted to adapt the basic principles of Owenism in a syndicalist direction. As we saw above in the discussion of Proudhon in the theoretical section, the mutualism of Proudhon and Owen had a powerful resonance with the later syndicalist movement, and could be taken in many ways as prototypical of syndicalist ideas.

With the repeal of the Combination Act in 1824, the trade union movement emerged from underground. The next decade "saw the foundation of openly constituted Trade Unions in a very large number of trades; and many combinations which had previously disguised themselves as Friendly Societies, or kept up a secret and intermittent activity, came out into the open and adopted proper codes of rules." [Cole, Short History 61] There was an attempt in 1826 to create a General Union of all trades, in Manchester. [Ibid. 62]

As mentioned above, Gast endorsed Owenism in the late 20s. The Manchester Cotton Spinners, after a six-month strike in 1829, embraced Owenism. From the failure of their strike, Doherty drew the lesson:

It was then shown that no individual trade could stand against the combined efforts of the masters of that particular trade: it was therefore sought to combine all the trades.

One initial response was to create, in 1829, the Operative Spinners of England, Ireland, and Scotland--an attempt at industrial unionism--which met on the Isle of Man. Cole referred to Doherty's Operative Spinners as "the first really national Trade Union of the modern type." [Ibid. 70] In 1830 Doherty organized the National Association for the Protection of Labour, which included "wool textile workers, mechanics, potters, miners, builders, and many other trades" within a hundred miles of Manchester. This grandfather of the syndicalist federation dissolved, unfortunately, in acrimony between the groups involved. Its remnants were absorbed by the Owenist Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1833. After Doherty, "the history of Owenism and of general unionism must be taken together." [Thompson 795-97; Cole 71]

The Operative Builders' Union was organized, under Owen's influence, in 1831 or 1832. Under the umbrella of this single union were included all sections of the building industry. It proposed to take over the national building industry and organize it as a Grand National Guild under the control of the OBU, by freezing out masters who didn't join and eliminating the middlemen. It was a sort of combination of the producers cooperative with what would later be called the hiring-hall system used by longshoremen. (This same method of organization is being experimented with today by temporary workers on the West Coast, incidentally, in an attempt to create cooperative temp agencies and eliminate the middlemen.) In a series of lock-outs by the masters, unfortunately, the Union was largely broken. [Cole, Short History 82-83]

In 1832 leaders of the London Radical artisans, meeting in the National Union of Working Classes and Others, were discussing the feasibility of a general strike (a "Grand National Holiday") of a month, by which the working classes would seize control of the state and economy. [Ibid. pp. 811-12] In language worthy of the IWW Preamble, "A Member of the Builder's Union" wrote in 1833:

The Trades Unions will not only strike for less work, and more wages, but they will ultimately ABOLISH WAGES, become their own masters, and work for each other; labour and capital will no longer be separate but they will be indissolubly joined together in the hands of the workers and work-women.

A writer in Pioneer in 1834 proposed a House of Trades to replace the House of Commons, sounding an awful lot like an attempt at Father Haggerty's wheel. [Ibid. 829-30]

The Grand National Consolidated Trades' Union was organized in 1833-84.

Owen addressed a National Conference of Trade Unions, "Union Shopt," and Co-operative Societies at London, in October 1833, and proposed a "Grand National Union of the Productive Classes of Great Britain and Ireland," with all unions, co-ops and friendly societies organizing themselves as "affiliated lodges of this great Union." A provisional council created the GNCTU, followed by another conference the following February to make it official. [Cole, Short History 84-85]

G. D. H. Cole, in language bringing to mind the doctrine of full-blown syndicalism, described its purpose as

nothing less than the entire supercession of Capitalism and of the system of competition by a Co-operative system of workers' control. It aimed, not only at controlling industry, but at superseding Parliament and the local governing bodies, and at becoming the actual government of the country. [Ibid. 85]

For a brief period, Owen had the position of "Grand Master" thrust upon him. Besides the One Big Union itself, many benefit societies participated in a project to form an Agricultural and Manufacturing Association, "whereby they could apply their accumulated funds to Co-operative production." [Claeys, "Intro" I:xli; Cole, Ibid. 85]

Although it had as many as a million members, including many trades, and engaged in a number of strikes, it collapsed. Even before the February conference was held, employers responded almost immediately with lockouts and the "document," a grandfather to the yellow dog contract. The Grand National, barely off the ground, was forced to conduct and finance strikes on a nationwide scale "before it had any rules or any central fund of its own." At one point the GNCTU levied a national one-shilling payment on its membership to support the workers involved in the single biggest lockout at Derby, but the strike finally collapsed after four months. The Union was also crippled by prosecution (under Pitt's 1797 police state legislation) of an agricultural workers' union at Tolpuddle for "administering unlawful oaths." [Cole, Ibid. 85-86; Claes, Ibid. I:xli]

The Grand National was also weakened by dissensions between Owen and the militant working class leadership. For one thing, he disapproved of the friendly society and lodge culture that permeated the labor movement. "Owen, from the first, disapproved of these oaths and ceremonies as 'relics of barbarism'; but he was unable to prevent their continuance." [Cole, Ibid. 86] On a more general level,

Owen... was... dissatisfied with the way the movement was going. He disapproved of sectional strikes, and of class-conflict, and was by temperament unfitted for leadership in a militant working-class campaign. He had sought to make a union of all the "well-disposed members of the industrious classes," and had looked to the beauty of his Co-operative scheme to convince many employers as well as workers. He had hoped by the power of union to achieve a bloodless and painless revolution; he had certainly never meant to become the leader of a mass-strike agitation. [Ibid. 88]

In August 1834 Owen persuaded a London Conference of the Grand National to reform the Union as the "British Consolidated Association of Industry, Humanity and Knowledge." It would rely on propaganda and education, as Owen had originally envisioned, instead of the strike. A shadow Grand National persisted for a time despite its formal dissolution, but soon passed away. Many of its component unions "survived, and reconstituted themselves as separate societies, living on to become the nuclei of the modern Trade Union movement." {Ibid. 88-89]

After this point, "Owen's direct contact with the Trade Unions ceased," and Owenism was mainly concerned thereafter with intentional communities and consumer cooperation. [Cole 89] This was probably for the best, since he still "insisted that the working classes could not lead themselves, and said so frankly." [Claeys, "Intro" I:xli]

In the meantime, by 1832 there were around five hundred cooperative societies, with at least 20,000 members. There were experiments that prefigured the farm populist movement in the U.S. and Canada, with weavers attempting the cooperative purchase of materials and the cooperative marketing of their product. [E.P. Thompson 792-93] Nevertheless, most of the cooperative organizations formed in the early 30s collapsed within a few years under the lack of capital and experience, and were later reorganized on Rochdale cooperative prinicples. [Claeys, "Intro" I:xxxviii, E.P. Thompson 797] The Rochdale Pioneers' Co-operative Society "arose directly out of a local Owenite body" in 1844. [Cole 89]

The great significance of Owenism is that it supplied, for the first time, a comprehensive theory of capitalism and of the working classes' attempts to build an alternative form of society.

They had learned from it to see capitalism, not as a collection of discrete events, but as a system. They had learned to project an alternative, utopian system of mutuality. They had passed from Cobbett's nostalgia for an older world and had acquired the confidence to plan the new.... Henceforward, nothing in capitalist society seemed givenand inevitable, the product of "natural" law. [Idid. p. 806]

Friendly societies continued to grow in number, at an accelerating rate, into the late 19th century. In 1877, registered membership was over two and three-quarter million. Ten years later it reached over three and a half million and was increasing at an average rate of at least 90,000 a year. Membership reached 4.8 million in 1897, still increasing at an average of 120,000 a year. By 1910 membership was 6.6 million. "It is important to remember that these figures simply reflect the numbers known to the Government. For many societies preferred to avoid even the minimal interference of the British state, and simply 'failed' to register." The Chief Registrar of Friendly Societies estimated in 1892 that 3.8 million of 7 million industrial workers were insured against sickness through a registered friendly society, while at least another 3 million belonged to unregistered societies. The Chief Registrar praised the friendly societies in these terms:

it remains one of the great glories of the Victorian era that welfare has been established in a very large degree by the labours and sacrifices of working men themselves, and by the wise and judicious legislation which has permitted and encouraged their endeavour in the direction of self-help.

By 1900 the various provident institutions controlled L400 million, and by 1911 covered nine and a half million people by some form of insurance. [Tim Evans, Socialism Without the State]

As was the case in Britain, the practice of mutualism predated the theory by decades. The American culture is especially predisposed toward mutual aid and cooperative endeavor. As Tocqueville described it,

In no country... has the principle of association been more successfully used, or more unsparingly applied to a multitude of different objects... a vast number... formed and maintained by private individuals. [Democracy in America]

But American mutualist practice was revolutionized as a deliberate form of organization in the 1820s. Under the influence of Josiah Warren, originally a disciple of Owen, a cooperative movement came into being which corresponded to that in Britain at the same time.

Warren, the founder of American mutualist theory, was also a powerful creative force in mutualist practice. His most important contribution to the later was the "time store," first introduced in Cincinnati in 1827. He separated the cost of compensation for his own labor from the cost of the goods sold. The cash price of his goods was equal to his own wholesale price plus seven percent mark-up for "contingent expenses." His customers paid the cost of Warren's labor, however, in "labor notes" promising to repay an equal amount of time in the customer's trade. [Martin, Men Against the State 15-17] Of course in an economy organized entirely on a labor exchange basis, the retailer would have no need to separate his own operation from his transactions in a surrounding capitalist economy.

The time store was a considerable success. After a shaky start, in the first three months it so impressed neighboring retailers that one adopted his methods. Warren claimed that his methods enabled him to sell as much in an hour as was normally sold in a day. He doubled the capacity of his store within a year, but never hired wage labor. Warren considered a significant expansion of his activity to be against the spirit of his project; he wanted only to demonstrate to others that such a basis of economic activity was possible. [Ibid. 19-20] Whenever possible, he tried to undersell his competitors as much as possible, "to provide the greatest possible contrast between the profit system and the cooperative system." [Ibid. 21-22] Warren shut down operations of the time-store in 1830, having in mind the establishment of a colony based on his principles. [Ibid. 22]

He established a new time-store in New Harmony (still surving as a town on a largely non-Owenist basis) in 1842, again with considerable success.

As in Cincinnati, each individual decided the value of his own labor note, the expectation being that the general opinion of the people involved in the labor exchange would eventually set an average for the various products and services in terms of labor price. [Martin 43]

In both Cincinnati and New Harmony, the main drawbacks of the notes themselves were the possibility of depreciation or non-redemption, both of which depended on the good faith of the issuers and the social pressure against default. But in practice the notes worked fairly well, and the potential problems of redemption for the most part failed to materialize. [Ibid. 43]

Such issues were outweighed in practice by the sabotage of the local business community, which feared the competition from an alternative system.

The impact of the new rock-bottom pricing on the credit structure erected by the local merchants was disastrous, but even more ominous in the eyes of the orthodox were the bi-monthly discussions of the affairs of the labor-exchange participants in the once-forbidden Rappite Community House No. 1, an affair which promised to undermine the local retail situation even more.... No newspapers in the area risked the wrath of advertisers to print his few communications, and the entire affair was shunned by the prominent residents of the town. [Ibid. 43-44]

Warren combined his labor notes with a second form of mutualist practice, that of the labor exchange based on a "report of demand." Those with specific needs for labor posted them on a chart in the time-store, and those with services to exchange posted the nature of their trade or skill. He found that there was a backlog of offers of unwanted skills, coupled with a shortage of desired skills. In part he blamed the apprenticeship system, which deliberately restricted employment, and undertook to circulate information about all kinds of skilled labor. By reducing the barriers to learning new skills, he reasoned, it would be possible to speed up the process by which people increased their opportunities by learning trades that were in demand. The labor exchange faced another problem, that of comparing the intensity of different kinds of labor, and dealing with the fact that the most unpleasant types of work were the worst paid. "This matter he wrestled with for the remainder of his life, and was never able to satisfy himself as to the best method of solution." [Ibid. 21]

Meanwhile Warren was involved in setting up a series of colonies: at Tuscarawas County, Ohio (1835-37); "Utopia" at Clermont, Ohio (1847-51); and "Modern Times" at Brentwood, Long Island (1850-62). All were organized around the central principle of "mind your own business," with the inhabitants supporting themselves by small-scale labor and farming, and exchanging their products through labor notes. [Schuster 98-99] The most successful of them, Modern Times, suffered, because of insufficient size, from a failure of the supply of various forms of labor to correspond with the demand. Those who practiced trades in low demand had to seek employment in New York; likewise, the colony was forced to buy some supplies in the city that were unavailable at home. [Martin 71] At the same time, the insulation of the colony from the effects of the Panic of 1857 showed that a decentralized, libertarian economic system might function without a boom-bust cycle. [Ibid. 83]

Ironically Warrenism, an offshoot of Owenism, cross-pollinated in turn the cooperative movement in Britain. Indeed, it was a major influence on the British cooperative movement of the late 1820s. The first use of labor notes by the Brighton Co-Operative Benevolent Fund Association, in November 1827, followed Warren's Ohio experiment by six months. [Ibid. 16, 16n] Warren's ideas were put into practice on a larger scale in England, over the next several years, than in America. [Ibid. 88-89] The Warrenite influence in England centered on Ambrose Caston Cuddon, who was involved with many aspects of the reform movement. He was heavily engaged in the London Confederation of Rational Reformers, and in 1862 went on to play a major role in creating the International Working Men's Association. [Ibid. 90-91]

The development of cooperative institutions in Canada parallelled closely those in the United States. Mutual insurance was organized in the 1830s by farmers. Its success (in the face of opposition by the Retail Merchants Association) inspired the later cooperatives. The Grange movement was the direct impetus behind the formation of co-ops in the 1870s. But the cooperatives, seen as an "economic arm of Christianity," grew naturally out of the tradition of mutual aid and neighborliness. They were not nostalgic or regressive, but sought to defend society from the negative aspects of urban development. [MacPherson, Each for All 9-11, 116]

Every single thing done for us by the Twentieth Century welfare state, was done by us, for ourselves, in the Nineteenth. The only shortcoming of the friendly societies was in their resources--and this was not a fault, but an injury. Had the legal bulwarks of privilege been eliminated, and the laboring classes been able to keep the full fruit of their labor for themselves, they would have had the resources to provide a "welfare state" for themselves equal to anything existing today. But the solution of the Twentieth Century regulatory and welfare state was not to eliminate the privilege and subsidy on which capitalism depends. It was, rather, to leave the statist structural props to capitalism in place, and then to intervene further with yet more authoritarian state action to stabilize capitalism and render it palatable.

Although the Rochdale movement was originally coupled with a conscious theory of cooperation as the basis for a different kind of society, its theoretical component was gradually eclipsed in an evolution toward a sort of "business cooperativism." This was the prevailing tendency of cooperative movement in most of the twentieth century, despite its temporary revival as a kind of radical practice by various populist organizations like the Grange, People's Party, Nonpartisan League, Farmer-Labor Party, etc.

At the same time, the workers who had been involved in the Grand National turned to the Chartist movement, "which arose swiftly out of the ashes of the 'Grand National.'" [Cole 89-90] The Chartist movement was the first sign of the working class' turn from mutualist organization as a form of radical practice, to its reliance on parliamentary political action. [Ibid. 95] The Chartist movement conjointed with organized labor in the strike movement of 1842. They began by fighting wage cuts in response to a depression, but "spread like wildfire and rapidly assumed, under Chartist influence, a political form." In a tactic that foreshadowed the "flying squadrons" of the 1930s, bodies of strikers would travel from mill to mill stopping work, and removing the plugs from boilers to render them inoperable. But this movement was unable to cohere and quickly fell to pieces under the pressure of mass arrests. [Ibid. 113]

The Chartist-influenced labor federation, National Association of United Trades for the Protection of Labour, "no longer planned a general strike or a sudden overthrow of Capitalism; it was rather a loose defensive alliance, the forerunner of the modern Trades Union Congress. Some cooperative ideas still persisted in the Chartist and labor movements. The NAUTPL organized a companion body, the National Association of United Trades for the Employment of Labour, aimed at promoting "Union Shops" (cooperative associations of producers). [Cole 114]

The Chartist land scheme, promoted by Feargus O'Connor, also had a mutualist ring to it. The Chartist Cooperative Land Society (later National Land Company) purchased estates and settled them with Chartist colonists. In something like George's later "single tax," they cultivated plots individually and paid rent to the Society. Althoug it was heavily influenced by Owen's system of colonies, "Owen had planned to cover the world with mainly self-supporting Socialist Communities; O'Connor planned to cover it with peasant villages of small holders." [Cole 115-116]

As the above examples show, the labor and socialist movements in the nineteenth century, in both Britain and North America, continued in practice to be largely grass-roots and controlled by the working class. But Chartism nevertheless reflected a statist tendency that culminated in the takeover of the labor and socialist movement by Fabianism and Progressivism in the early twentieth century. After the crushing of the syndicalist attempts of the 1830s, the labor movement gradually evolved toward a combination of parliamentary social democratic action and "business unionism," dominated by professional labor bosses. Despite partial and periodic couner-currents like the Knights of Labor, syndicalist elements in the TUC, the IWW, and elements in the early CIO, the organized labor movement in the English-speaking world on the whole has largely abandoned direct action and self-organization, and instead hitched its wagon to the State.