An American, Laurence Gronlund, seems to have invented the term, when he published The Cooperative Commonwealth in its Outlines. An Exposition of Modern Socialism in 1884.
Gronlund described his vision this way:
“The Cooperative Commonwealth … is that future Social Order—the natural heir of the present one—in which all important instruments of production have been taken under collective control; in which the citizens are consciously public functionaries, and in which their labors are rewarded according to results.” (1)
There are passages in his book that sound eerily like what many of our sources say today; for instance:
“We should therefore say that the Cooperative Commonwealth will be highly promotive of social welfare by securing to all its citizens abundance; by furnishing them leisure; and by enabling them to follow their natural bent.
“Work will no longer be a tribute to physical necessity but a glad performance of social office. It will for the first time in human history establish harmony between personal Egoism and the Public Welfare, by, simply, distributing the forces of the social organism in accordance with its real needs. …
“When the Cooperative Commonwealth becomes an accomplished fact we shall have the full-grown Society; the normal State. That commonwealth—whose citizens will, consciously and avowedly be public functionaries—will not know of a particle of distinction between the terms ” State ” and ‘Society,’ the two ideas will come to cover each other, will become synonymous.” (2)
Gronlund may have been born a century too early. Or he may have come with the express purpose of introducing these ideas, in much the same way that the master Beinsa Douno, for instance, came to give us a preview of the events of Ascension.
The American Knights of Labor took up the phrase, as did the Wobblies (the International Workers of the World), and the National Farmer’s Alliance and Industrial Union, commonly known as the Populists. Bob Stone describes the way the Populists used and interpreted the term.
“The Populists … used collective action to contest the railroads’ monopoly and secure better commodity prices.”
“It established its own cooperative flour, corn and cotton mills so farmers could avoid third-party mills and market at lower prices. The Alliance started a network of cooperative stores that bought wholesale and sold to farmers at up to 30 percent below retail.
“Its 1888 charter called the society ‘that they hoped to build in America, and hoped to pass on with their farms to their children, a ‘Cooperative Commonwealth.”’”(3)
Those who took up the vision hoped that “the cooperative commonwealth would transform ‘the working men and women into their own employers’ as well as eliminate ‘from the workplace those who lived off the productive labor of the working classes.” (4)
Far from their vision becoming reality, the following century was to see “those who lived off the productive labor of the working class” almost corner the wealth of the country, neutralize labor unions, turn the labor market into a permanent buyer’s market, and marginalize workers. At that time they became known as the “1%” and their power and control over wealth is only now being ended.
Tomorrow we’ll look at how and when the idea of the Cooperative Commonwealth was introduced into political party action, first in Canada and later in the U.S.
(1) Laurence Gronlund, “The cooperative commonwealth in its outlines, an exposition of modern socialism.” iBooks, at http://tinyurl.com/n4n4mkk.
(2) Loc. cit.
(3) Bob Stone, “Frank Lindenfeld’s “Cooperative Commonwealth’: Building on History for a Cooperative Future,” Grassroots Economic Organizing, at http://geonewsletter.org/story/frank-lindenfelds-cooperative-commonwealth-building-history-cooperative-future.
(4) James Frederick Hamilton, “Democratic Communications: Formations, Projects, Possibilities,” at http://tinyurl.com/n3998xx.