Co-operative Democracy – The Middle Way: Part 1

On 30th July 2010 I addressed the conference of the Co-operative Forum at Trinity College, Dublin, which had the theme “From Plunkett to the Credit Crunch”. Horace Plunkett was the founding father of the Co-operative Movement in Ireland. The republican-left Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn has recently addressed the Co-operative Party, which thankfully remains independent of the Neoliberal Labour Party, which claims to represent the Socialist vanguard, but actually remains trapped in nationalist, particularly Irish nationalist, ideologies.

My dissertation concerned “The impact of Horace Plunkett on Irish Society and Co-operation in Ireland” but  I  have titled it “The Middle Way”.

In Northern Ireland during the early 1980’s there remained a lower standard of living, a higher proportion of unfit houses, larger families and more unemployment than anywhere in the United Kingdom. Several groups based on community Self-Help were finding that co-operative democracy still offered the best chance of making full use of Ulster’s resources and creating a classless society.

Co-operative democracy is centred on “Co-operation” between bodies of persons for the mutual assistance of both producers and consumers. It thus provides a middle way between capitalism and socialism. The system of Common Ownership is applied, whereby people who own and control that enterprise collectively. Among the first and most successful experiments in co-operation were those of devout Protestants sects who settled in early America e.g. the Dutch Labadists, the German Amish, Mennonites and Dunkers (Church of the Brethren), the Swedish Janssonists and the British Shakers.

The people called Shakers formed a monastic community not unlike those of early Christian times, with complete equality of race and sex. They knew one another as Believers and used mystic dances and songs as recreations to refresh the spirit following physical labour. Edward Deming Andrews in his classical study writes that “Comparison of the religious behaviour of the Believers with that of other spiritual or primitive sects shows little essential difference in the physical phenomena of worship. The mystical experiences of all spiritual fellowships – the cases of clairvoyance and clairaudience, the speaking in unknown tongues, telepathies, prophecies, automatisms, all the charismatic gifts associated with the primitive church – were but the signs, as Rufus Jones has suggested, of more important traits ‘a unique degree of moral earnestness and passion… a rare acuteness of conscience… a unique purity of life’.” Furthermore, “The Methodists under Wesley and Whitefield and the subjects of the famous Ulster Revival in Ireland exhibited in comparable forms the peculiar psychology attendant on excessive rapture.”

For the Shakers manual labour was a sacred commitment, being good for both the individual soul and the collective welfare. As Edward Andrews has written, “The shaker idea was that in consecration, not compulsion; lay the secret of a successful economy. Age, sex and ability were all considered in assignment to work. But one assigned, the individual became part of a co-operative in which TEMPERATE labor – what one writer called ‘the middle way” – was a marked characteristic.” Community of goods was most specifically discussed by the prominent Believer of Ulster descent, John Dunlavy, chief minister at Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, who, in the Manifesto (1818), treated it under the term “united inheritance”. For Dunlavy religious socialism with unity of spirit and possessions was the only logical manifestation of equality and universal love. Only by sharing prosperity with others would such love be genuinely expressed. The fact that individuals widely different in race, age, disposition, education and wealth could form a successful community proved, Dunlavy insisted, that the union was “according to the mind and purpose of Christ himself.

As well as playing an unobtrusive but important part in America’s development, the people called Shakers have been justly described as “really the pioneers of modern socialism, whose experiments deserve a great deal more study than all the speculations of the French Schools.” Certainly they had a deep influence on socialist theorists such as Robert Owen in England. Historically, with the development of capitalism, control of an enterprise was vested totally in the hands of the “owner”. Until just over a century ago the provider of capital was responsible for the success or failure of the venture, taking all the profits or incurring all the losses as the case might be. It was not unreasonable, therefore, that the capitalist would require a measure of control proportionate to the degree of risk involved. The introduction of limited liability in 1855 meant that thenceforth the liability of the investor was limited to the amount of capital that he or she agreed to subscribe to the company. The investor’s return, however, remained unlimited, as did the extent of the investor’s control.

The fundamental injustice of this system led to the formation of the Co-operative movement, the basic principles of which were laid down in 1844 by the Rochdale Pioneers under the influence of Robert Owen (a). The early co-operators identified a limited return on capital and one person one vote (rather than one share one vote). The Labour movement also embraced the ideal of “common ownership of the means of production”. However, socialist theoreticians in the Labour movement (particularly Sidney and Beatrice Webb) were opposed to worker’s co-operatives in principle, maintaining that “common” ownership would be better achieved by national ownership of the means of production. Hence nationalisation became the Labour Party platform.

Farmers have naturally been in the forefront of the producer Co-operative movement because of feelings that they were at a disadvantage in trading. As early as the 1850’s in America Mormon farmers were pooling their labour to irrigate their fields. Founded by Joseph Smith (1805-44) the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” was constituted at Fayette, Seneca County, New York on the 6th of April, 1830. Persecution soon followed and the Mormons established eventually the fine city of Nauvoo in Illinois. Joseph Smith’s maxim for his followers was that, “We teach them the correct principles and they learn to govern themselves”. Co-operation and self-help led to a flourishing community. With the murder of Joseph on the 27th June, 1844, Brigham Young was elected his successor. Fierce persecution continued and the Mormons were asked to leave Nauvoo and its sacred Temple, which was considered to be the most beautiful Church in North America.

Following “the track of Israel towards the west” the first column of immigrants, including people of Ulster descent, arrived on the banks of the Missouri at the end of June 1846. They passed the winter in the prairies – some in huts, others in tents, and in caves which they dug in the earth. They underwent dreadful sufferings from cold, want, and disease, many of them perished. Between 1847 and 1868 about 80,000 Mormons emigrated from Missouri to Utah (Deseret as they had wished it to be known), 6000 died on route. Some travelled with ox teams and some rode on horseback, but hundreds walked – for 4 months – pushing and pulling handcarts and carrying babies in their arms. My Grannies’ Uncle Ned, the Rhyming Weaver known as the Bard of Conlig, joined them in Salt Lake City in 1863. And when Brigham Young died on 29th August 1877 he knew that his people had reached their “Promised Land”.

Towards the end of the 19th century a movement in Ireland towards reconciliation, based on social and economic reform was initiated by the progressive Unionist the Hon. Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett. Born on 25th October 1854, Horace was the third son of Admiral Edward Plunkett 16th Baron of Dunsany of Dunsany Castle, County Meath and the “Low Church” Hon. Anne Constance Dutton (d.1858), daughter of 2nd Baron Sherbourne (b). His older brother was John, 17th Baron of Dunsany, whose son Edward was the brilliant Fantasy writer and friend of Francis Ledwidge. His cousin was the Papal Count George Noble Plunkett, an ardent nationalist and Home Ruler and future Sinn Fein MP, who was the father of Joseph Mary Plunkett, a signatory of the 1916 proclamation. Dunsany House is possibly the oldest home in continuous occupation in the whole of Ireland and is situated near the ancient British pre-Celtic site known as the Hill of Tara.

Two years after coming down from Oxford, Plunkett was threatened with the old family affliction of tuberculosis, a disease caused by a Mycobacterium which seems to have a hereditary bias, as is shown also by the Brontës. Perhaps brain involvement leads to creativity. It is, of course, a contagious disease, first recognised as such by the Persian and Moslem physician and polymath Ibn-Sīnā (Avicenna), c980-1037, the greatest medical thinker of all time. We visited his birthplace near Bukhara, Uzbekistan some years ago when we travelled on President Yeltsin’s Presidential train. He is buried in Hamedan, Iran. Tuberculosis had carried off Horace’s mother, younger brother and sister, and was soon to take his eldest brother. He therefore left for Wyoming, U.S.A. for health reasons from 1879-89. Returning to Ireland in 1889, he retained a love of America all of his life and his sojourn there imbued him with that detached view of Unionism and Nationalism, Protestantism and Catholicism which at times made him one of the least-loved men in Ireland.

Editor’s notes

(a) The local landlord, Sharman Crawford, was MP for Rochdale in this period –

Sharman Crawford (1781-1861), was an improving landord and Radical MP (Dundalk, 1835-1837, Rochdale, 1841-1852). In 1847 Crawford founded the Ulster Tenant Right Association which sought to have the Tenant Right customary in Ulster given the force of law. So he was a leader of the Tenant Farmers’ movement throughout Ulster and, indeed, further afield. In 1852 Sharman Crawford gave up his seat in Rochdale to contest County Down, but was not elected.

See LAST LONG PRE-MARATHON RUN (Wednesday, April 26. 2006)

(b) The 18th Baron Lord Dunsany (1878-1959) is remembered best for his witty short stories, which influenced many. Yet Dunsany was a skilled chess player as well and in 1929 achieved a draw with former World Champion José Raúl Capablanca in a simultaneous exhibition. The story is recorded in Lord Dunsany 1 (Friday, December 28. 2007) and Lord Dunsany 2: his most famous game of chess (Friday, January 18. 2008).

To be continued

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