50 Years Ago: Co-operation — a Hopeless Experiment

Over a hundred years ago Robert Owen conceived the idea of organising a new society in the midst of the old. He thought the workers could band themselves together into producing and distributing groups, spread over the whole of society, and eventually freeze the capitalist out. Subsequently he had to modify his ideas somewhat, owing to the strength of the opposition, and tried experiments by establishing cooperative colonies on comparatively virgin soil — but, of course, with people brought up in capitalist surroundings. These experiments all ended in disaster; they ultimately ruined him and demonstrated the futility of attempting to found ideal societies in a capitalist world.

There was an excuse for the dreams of the heroic and good-intentioned Owen. In his time knowledge of the organisation and development of society was comparatively small; and he was one of those by whose disastrous experiments later generations were to acquire a sound understanding. Since his time social investigators have piled up literally mountains of information showing how one form of society grows out of another, owing to the operation of forces that already exist in the old society; and that a new society is never grafted on to the old, as it were, from the outside.

In Owen’s day the capital required to start an important industry was but a tiny fraction of what is required today; and the power that lies in the hands of those controlling the State was not yet sufficiently realised by the oppressed class or its would-be deliverers. The powerful capitalists have it in their hands to smash to pieces, whenever they wish, any rising productive or distributing organisation that challenges their existence, long before such an organisation could reach any serious proportions. The very fact that they make no serious effort to interfere with the development of the various Co-operative Societies shows that they expect no dangerous opposition from these societies.

(From an article by Gilmac in the Socialist Standard, July 1923)