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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

The Twin City Co-op Wars

An Interview with Erik Esse

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August 25, 2022
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In this episode of All Things Co-op, Cinar and Kevin talk with Erik Esse, the producer of the new documentary The Co-op Wars. The Co-op Wars traces the history of the food cooperative movement in the mid to late 1970s in Minnesota's Twin Cities. The rapid development of the food co-op network in the area prompted a split between anarchist "hippies" and Bolsheviks who styled themselves as the “Cooperative Organization” and set about taking over the People's Warehouse by force. The film provides powerful lessons for cooperative organizations and activists today. As Erik and the ATC guys dissect the film and its implications, they touch on the role of traditional politics, the limits of "third-worldism" in the first world, the mainstreaming of co-ops, the potential influence of COINTELPRO, and much more.

About our guest: Erik Esse is a long-time cooperator, having worked in marketing for North Country Cooperative Grocery in Minneapolis and Central Co-op in Seattle and as an organizer of the US Conference of Democratic Workplaces (birthplace of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives). He has worked in the sustainable agriculture movement with the Land Stewardship Project and the Local Fair Trade Network, where he helped organize the first Farmworker Conference for Fair Trade. He has also worked in the indie film world with the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and FilmNorth.

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Richard Wolff: This is Richard Wolff. Welcome to All Things Co-op, a podcast, by Democracy@Work.

Cinar Akcin: Welcome to another episode of All Things Up. My name is Cinar, and with me, as always, is Kevin.

Kevin Gustafson: And as always. Yeah, I'm always here.

Cinar Akcin: Larry is taking a little bit of a break, but he will be back with us in future episodes. In this episode, we will discuss The Co-op Wars. The Co-op Wars is a film about the growth of a radical food cooperative movement in the Twin Cities in the 1970s. But before we get into the conversation, let's watch the trailer.

[transcript continues after the trailer]

Kevin Gustafson: Everybody. We're going to get back to our conversation with Eric in just a moment. But I wanted to let you know about democracy at work. Don't worry. This isn't like a oh, let's bring this to your sponsors now. This is about democracy at work, the network that All Things Club is part of. Just want to remind you that we're part of democracy at work and democracy work as a nonprofit, small donor funded. And we're now ten years old. And so if you like all things co-op, check out Democracy Works. Other shows, podcast books, including the Cities After with Miguel Robles Duran. It's a show about the future of cities grounded in our urban struggles today and intended to entice civic imagination and put it into action. So if you're interested, go to democracy at work. Dot info. You can see all of the shows, explore all the different things, see the store, get on a mailing list, check out of the social media. You can do all this so that you support the work that we're doing and the advocates like us and how we can do better than capitalism.

Cinar Akcin: We are very excited to have Eric Esse, the producer of The Co-op Wars film with us on today's show. Eric is a long time cooperator, having worked in marketing for North Country Cooperative Grocery in Minneapolis and Central Co-op in Seattle, and as an organizer of the U.S. Conference of Democratic Workplaces. He has worked in the Sustainable Agricultural Movements with the Land Stewardship Project and the local Fair Trade Network, where he helped organize the first farmworker conference for Fair Trade. He has also worked in the indie film world with the Independent Television Service, and Film North. Welcome to the show, Eric.

Eric Esse: Thank you so much. Glad to be here.

Cinar Akcin: So to start off, I have this question. How did you come across this incredible story and why did you decide to produce a film about it?

Eric Esse: Sure, yeah. So my first introduction to co-ops was Northcountry Co-op in Minneapolis, which is the oldest food co-op there. And I came in at the time where it was struggling, and I was part of a group of people who came in and tried to save it there. And one of the things that happened during my tenure was it was our 30th anniversary in 2006, and I was tasked with putting some events about their history. And one book called Storefront Revolution by Craig Cox, which is about the history of the co-ops in the Twin Cities, and talked to a lot of the old timers there and heard about this thing called the co-op wars. And I was stunned that such a thing happened and was as fascinated by it, both as a strange beginning to what — at least in Minnesota — felt like a very mainstream institution, the food co-op, because they're everywhere in Minnesota in general, and especially in the Twin Cities. And I thought it had a lot to say about a lot of lessons to learn about political activism in general. So that's basically why I wanted — it's really useful to look backwards about our political and economic organizing efforts, both to appreciate the people who created these things in the first place, see what struggles they had and how they resolved it, and then try to apply that to the future and see if we can avoid the same mistakes and improve things as we go.

Kevin Gustafson: So one, I just obviously give a sort of a ringing endorsement both of the story, it's a really cool story, and the documentary itself is actually very well produced. You know, the stories of, let's say, more potentially kind of obscure things sometimes suffer from a kind of quality deficit that may disincentivize some from watching. This one does not suffer from that. It's cool. Some of those, you know — finding videos of the kind of dug out, and stuff like that, to be able to find some of those. And, you know, it is obvious that there's a bit of a dearth for some pictures of folks, too, because you kind of have to go back to similar pictures, because it's one of those visceral representations of the fact, like, not everybody was taking pictures all the time like we do, you know. It's just like, oh, we got videos of everything now. So like if you're making a documentary 30 years from now about Occupy or something, it's going to be easy because, you know, there's going to be material abundantly. And so then again, though, there's just great — you know, like the pictures of the aftermath of the truck — I won't give everything away — but things like that, to be able to find some of those things is really cool. But I'm hoping that you can at least give the the kind of quick overview of your co-op wars — and it's for because for those of us who may be somewhat wide-eyed and idealistic about co-ops, co-ops and wars, those two words are not usually seen juxtaposed to one another. So what's the story?

Eric Esse: So the basic story is that in Minnesota in the early 1970s, there was an explosion of natural food co-ops. That happened in 1971. And this came out of a very strong anti-war movement in the Twin Cities, especially around the University of Minnesota. And one co-op was started in 1971 and it was so popular that in the explosion of dozens of co-ops and other related cooperative ventures, and a whole basically counter-culture alternative economy that happened.

Kevin Gustafson: The Haight-Ashbury of Minneapolis being the West Bank, which is sort of funny now, because when you go to the West Bank, it has a — there's a — I guess in some ways there's there's still some — you know, I think Mayday Books is still there, and the Triple Rock used to be around there, but it's definitely changed quite a bit from the the heyday of the hippies around. You did that great interview with the cab driver, which really made me laugh, right outside of the Riverside buildings. It was awesome.

Eric Esse: Yeah, yeah. A neighborhood that was always a traditional immigrant neighborhood, and then in the sixties and seventies became a hippie neighborhood, and now again is an immigrant neighborhood, mostly East African folks. But there was this cultural explosion that food co-ops were part of, and there was this kind of demand where people were changing the way that they ate that wasn't reflected in grocery stores. It was actually a time when mom-and-pop grocery stores were disappearing, big supermarkets were exploding. And we couldn't even get wheat bread, wholewheat bread. So the co-ops became the solution to getting that food maybe, they became social centers, because they're mostly volunteer-run or almost volunteer-run and they became hubs of this exciting community. And part of that was they also reflected a the diversity of responses to the end of the Vietnam War amongst the counter-culture and the Left, with some people going into more of a lifestyle direction or a spirituality direction, or who were into more mainstream liberalism, and some people going hardcore Marxist-Leninist third-world revolutionary in where they wanted to go. And that was reflected in what the co-ops were for, because there was really no experience. There had been co-ops before, obviously, but not this kind, and not amongst these people, who were often very young.

And so the discussions around who is this for, what is it for: is it just for cheap food? Is it for healthy food? Is it for the political [indecipherable] or not? And if they are, what politics? All that was throwing around, and into that came a guy named [indecipherable] Smith, who had some background probably with SNCC and with some black organizing in Detroit, and he started talking to some people who were already involved in the co-ops, and took a real Maoist, you could say, approach and saw the co-ops as something that should be revolutionary organs for the working class. They should be for organizing people. And convincing people of this, and they started spreading their ideas around. And they actually had a lot of support among people working in the Commons, but they couldn't convince people to go in this direction. And they got frustrated and they decided that they were just going to take over. They were going to follow the old bolshevik route and just have a coup. And so they took over the warehouse, and that became a big deal. And later on, when the warehouse started to die off because of lack of business, they started taking over food co-ops. And there was violence, there was a car bombing, there were shots fired, and eventually that group, which called themselves the C.O., the Co-op Organization, failed in their attempts to take over the co-ops because they alienated everybody.

And so there's a legacy of that in Minnesota, about how much to mix politics with you're co-ops. At the end of the film, we talk about the contemporary situation that has some resonance, where one co-op, the Seward Co-op — which was one of the first co-ops started and now is one of the larger co-ops and very prosperous — opened a second store with their prosperity, wanted to do it in a neighborhood that needed it, and had a lot of support in the neighborhood, but also had some people who were very critical, seeing them as gentrifiers, seeing them as bourgeois. And and there was controversy around opening that store, and how they adjusted what they were doing to respond to that criticism, and try to create more, what we call now food justice. I mean, the traditional mission of the natural food co-op, but also having a lot more awareness of the racial and class dynamics involved, in selling that kind of food.

Cinar Akcin: And can you give us Erik, just a sense of how many cooperatives there were, because it's interesting, you know, we were talking about Haight-Ashbury and we were talking about San Francisco, and they got inspired by that counterculture. They went out there, but they surpassed anything that was in San Francisco, right? We're not talking about two co-ops, we're talking about like 20, 30. It was the most in the US, is that is that right?

Eric Esse: Yeah, it was. It was from around 25 food co-ops and also hardware stores, and auto repair shops, and all kinds of affiliated businesses, as well, the cafes. And these, of course, were very small back then, each one, but they led to a situation where now in the Twin Cities, there's — [indeciperable] — I think there's 13 or 14 food co-ops in a total of some 18 locations, and those are all pretty big. So there's nothing like that in the rest of the country now, as well. The closest is here in Seattle, where I am now, and that's basically — it has two co-ops, and one of them is a [indecipherable], it has like 15 stores. But this idea of having this whole ecosystem of food co-ops supporting hundreds of organic farmers in the region is like nothing else and was sort of that way from the beginning.

Cinar Akcin: The point I wanted to make there is that it was kind of a legitimate business. I mean, they were creating their own kind of ecosystem there, their own economy, at the end of the day.

Eric Esse: Exactly, yeah. And I talked to people who said you could live within the counter-economy. You could do your shopping, do your car repair, go to your film nights, and go to your softball team, and they're all part of this sort of counter-culture economy/social situation that existed in the 1970s. And it has resonance now that there's nothing quite like it anywhere else.

Kevin Gustafson: It's exactly — I mean, we've talked to Michael Peck and a number of different people about these different approaches to creating a deeper entrenchment of cooperatives in different fields, and whether or not you center on an anchor institution, how you develop a kind of legitimate alternative economy that gives people the ability to say, "do I want to go to cooperative businesses or do I want to go to traditional capitalist or bourgeois businesses?" And I think food is a natural center of gravity, right? I mean, we literally all need it. And at that point people were becoming more aware of how shitty the food was, coming out of the war, and that kind of mass production era, and then moving back to more kind of organic and "hippie" as they, I think even sort of didn't have a problem referring to themselves as. In some ways. So it was nice to kind of see an example in a world that doesn't feel really far away. At least for me too, being from Minnesota, it was like I knew the locations. It was sort of fun to hear about starting, like they wanted to sell them freezers, and then when they looked at like where the freezers were, they were like, "can we just buy the store?" which is cool. And it was funny, for them, like you were saying, young hippies growing food and then finding out because they wanted to have their commune sufficiently stocked, they had a wholesale. And then just turning it like, "oh God, we went from, you know, it's like we're doing five grand a day or like 50 grand", in the seventies it was like "we're just making bank," you know, in this very non-bourgeois kind of way, and sort of be able to organically grow — literally organically grow the food — and organically grow this sort of operation to become this whole interconnected network, is in a world again that doesn't seem super far away. It seems very relevant.

It was sort of nice to see but I, I having like this for me it was like very personal in the sense that not only is it a place that I lived in, and sort of care about to a certain degree, but also kind of the two sides of my own political perspective. Whereas in one sense I could totally agree with the more anarcho-hippie kind of lifestyle people, and that because I identify with that to a certain degree, and then I could understand the kind of more militant Leninist, Maoist kind of perspective. And so in one sense, it was it was like yet another example of the frankly annoying tendency on the left to fight among itself. It's very much like Christianity in that way. You know, the best way to like screw up Christianity is to get a bunch of Christians together because they'll probably going to fight, you know.

And so it seemed like such a great thing that was really destroyed for frustrating sort of reasons. And the thing I identified, or the thing that I kind of had a raised eyebrow, was this seemingly shadowy figure in this multiplicity-of-names person, this Theo, and this guy that you mentioned who kind of came into a movement that was very much organically growing, and then it was able to kind of — through some charisma, and even probably some good points — sort of convinced at least a certain group that, "I know we got to do this cadre organization creating," and stuff like that. And to be honest, the fact that you got everybody else in the doc — you know, anyone who's still around is in the doc, except for this dude who seems to have played a significantly important role. And it's the 1970s, which is like my COINTELPRO alarm kind of went off, and I was like, "this guy's a fucking Hoover plant," you know, like he came into and did all of the stuff that you read in the Church Committee documents about, you know, "go into meetings and intentionally disrupt it, and be super aggressive" and like, how are you going to get people to get turned off to potentially more hardcore socialist ideas? Will you discredit it through being more radical than is necessary?

So I wonder, as somebody who learned about this and was part of conducting the interviews and things like that, did those same COINTELPRO alarm bells go off for you? Or how do you see the role of this weird, nebulous character that seems to have had such an impact and yet is— I mean, even in the doc, we— what happened to this guy? Did he just go also to the turn to industry, like a bunch of lefties did in the late seventies and just withered away? Or did he go back to D.C. to write his big report? You know, I don't know. What do you think about that?

Eric Esse: Well, you know, you're not alone. A lot of people have those alarms ring, and they sort of feel like this couldn't be coming from us, this had to be a plant. And of course, the reason that he gave to his followers for his own secrecy was COINTELPRO. Like, "I have to be secret because the FBI is after people like me. They'll kill me like they kill the Black Panthers," and things like that. I wouldn't say that I don't think he was, and the reasons are [indecipherable] interesting and we don't touch upon it in the documentary. You know, maybe in the sequel. In fact, the CO kept going after the co-op wars. It shrank, a lot of people left, a lot of people moved with it to Chicago, and it kept going for another 15 years, or more. It became basically a cult, a political cult. And the weirdest kind, which is that most of the members of the group did not know who the leader was.

Kevin Gustafson: So it's not like the Revolutionary Communist Party where everybody knows who Bob Avakian is.

Eric Esse: Exactly, yeah. And there's that proliferation of cult-like Marxist-Leninist parties in the seventies that in some ways still linger. And this is definitely one of them, but he kept himself — you know, people knew him, but they didn't know he was a leader, and they would just follow directions on these memos that they'd be given. And about like who they would marry, and things like that. Very culty, and very busy, working very hard, above and beyond what the usual COINTEL spy would have done for 20 years of their lives. So I think he was a true believer, and just thought of himself as someone who was a political genius, like people who start these types of groups, or he was guiding these people towards something. And he did not say, but implied that they were part of some bigger group that was connected to the Chinese Communist Party. And some people who stayed in it until the early nineties, when they got out of it, were surprised to know them that they had met everyone in the group. They thought they were part of something bigger.

And so that's pretty traumatizing for people. And we were lucky when we started making this film, at the time a lot of them were finally willing to talk about it, and not just dealing with the trauma of having done that with their lives. So that's almost like a more important lesson than being a COINTEL person is that this is a potential within us. Being manipulated by narcissists, basically, but also that you appeal to the some of the more hard working or serious-minded members of the movement, because they didn't just want to be hippies, they're not impressed by the casualness of how the co-ops were run. They wanted to really make something happen, and really think hard, and write papers, and read difficult books. And that all was taken advantage of, but also they had responsibility for their actions too. They walked into these meetings and read their ranty Marxist position papers at people and alienated them, and felt good and important, that they were doing something big, like they were Che Guevara or something, and really they were just screwing up a grocery store. This moment of these young people wanting to be part of this big worldwide revolutionary movement, and this is how they apply it. They playact Maoism, and in this context it just didn't work.

Cinar Akcin: I mean, it's quite interesting going back, you said "the reach of it," because I remember at one point I was struck by one of the members, and he was being sent to New Orleans, and he was being sent to Detroit. It seemed very odd where he was getting these directions to go about, moving around the country, maybe ostensibly to start new co-ops or whatever. But what's also interesting is going back to this Smith, this shadowy character, I don't want to dwell upon him too much, but it's interesting that they found this to be a focal point, that this cooperative movement, that they wanted to focus on that. And I guess in a way it kind of demonstrates the potential that this movement actually had. And I don't know, I'll call it a movement because they were creating an alternative economy, at the end of the day. So they saw a tremendous amount of potential out of this, at the end of the day. And it's also interesting to see in the documentary you have these two factions — and I like the symbols, that actually you have the peace sign and then the hammer and the sickle, and eventually one moves over to the other. But it's interesting how they still are a bit conflicted about what was the end goal of this whole cooperative movement. You know, at the end of it, was it just to provide fresh groceries, fresh fruits and vegetables — which, by the way, like Kevin was mentioning, I think back then you really didn't have that kind of food; it's hard to imagine now because you can go and get that easily — or was it just much more of a kind of substantive change in how we actually conduct ourselves in the economy, and what that means for social justice issues, and economic justice issues? So it was interesting to see that dynamic, but just your opinions on the co-op itself, and how that was a vehicle for something new in society.

Eric Esse: Yeah. And the interesting thing is that although they had the word co-op on their storefronts from the beginning — most of them — most of them were not actually formally organized as co-ops until after the Co-op Wars. They weren't formally organized much at all, you know. There were some pretty large businesses that basically didn't have books, handled super informally, and often by a couple of people who were just responsible folks who showed up all the time, while a lot of other people just moved through, and made sure things happened. And so the fact that they were co-ops was almost a coincidence. And I think this has resonance in other places where there's co-op networks and movements, that it's a vehicle for something else. Co-ops aren't the center, it's a vehicle for farmers escaping oppression, or Mondragon Basque nationalism, or something else. And so this is a vehicle for people getting their food, and having this countercultural alternative space. And only after the co-op wars pointed out that the lack of organization was a vulnerability, that they actually create the democratic institutions in a more solid way. And so that's sort of a happy outcome of it. And then it made me people who were like — one doesn't reject the rigidity of what they grew up with so hard that they didn't appreciate structure or process at all.

And I think it also was an entry point for people into cooperatives too. Because one of the reasons that happened in Minnesota was that we had a strong cooperative tradition from back in the 1800s that was related to the to certain immigrant groups from Scandinavia, some Finnish communists coming over after their civil war. And so there was a tradition of farmer co-ops and other types of co-ops in the state. There were good laws around cooperatives that made them easy to start and organize. And a lot of the people who were involved in this were from rural areas, or one generation away from rural areas. And so you go to a small town in Minnesota, or North Dakota, and the grain elevator's a co-op, and the gas station's a co-op — that's just a way you organize things. So it had that momentum that it wouldn't have had in some other parts of the country, and a precedent. And then it was a way in — you know, something else I want to mention about the political side is that the C.O. Wanted to make it into an either/or proposition. You're either with them, and thus you're for the working class and for being serious politically, or you're with these muddle-headed potheads. But in reality, it was a very diverse movement, and there were Marxist-Leninists who were against the C.O., and Trotskyites who were against the C.O., and serious anarchists who saw building this cooperative network as the revolution — building it as you go. You can't just take over society and propose it, this is how it's built.

And it seemed at that point, you know, if they projected forward their growth from 1971 to '75, they would have taken over the whole world by this time. So that was a very exciting thing. It didn't feel like you're retreating from the world. It felt like you were changing the world.

Kevin Gustafson: I wonder how much — it's not super touched on in the doc — though, there is this recognition that there was a huge network of co-ops that was thriving, then that you have this conflict, this schism, and there is a bit of discrediting of it that happens, right? There were articles in the Star Trib that were talking about this and people were aware of it. And so I'm wondering, you know — and you know, yes, Seward is still, around and yes, it's still — but I mean, you walk into Seward's today, and you show it in the documentary, it is — I mean I would describe it even to Cinar before we were talking — kind of boogie. You know, it has a kind of — now I know that they've got a good perspective, but it sort of doesn't give off a sort of revolutionary vibe or anything like that. It seems very mainstream. And that may be just a sign of success, to a certain degree, but there was one comment by one of the more anarchist or hippie guys, who did say, "yeah, you know, maybe the C.O. was right." And there's a maybe wrong tactics or practices, but not necessarily an incorrect perspective because — and you show — Seward: good intentions, but it's own praxis was kind of potentially harmful to it, and they have learned how to do it in the modern way. And so I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how popular these really were at the heyday, and what factors — both the sort of war that happened between them, but maybe other factors that all kind of come together to create a situation in which they lose at least some of that revolutionary edge.

And, you know, I'm thinking things like one of the things I found interesting was because this is about food. And the beginning of it is very much like organic, natural, cheap things you can't find. And one of the perspectives with the CEO was be like, oh, stop doing this granola shit and start, you know, giving put Pepsi in the store like working class people don't want, don't you know? And there is still very much this argument that I think you hear, too, that like, although, you know, we should all be eating better, that, you know, the regular working class dude just wants to buy a, you know, a Mountain Dew and a and a hostess or something, right? They don't want to have to, you know, want to eat a handful of granola. That's for like the the bourgeois hippies, you know, and you see depictions in, you know, media. And I'm thinking, um, like co-ops being this place where it's a bunch of, like, rich hippies who buy their, you know, buy the stuff that nobody else wants to eat because it's not tasty. So that's a multifaceted question. But you know, this like I'm wondering, you know, how much that this sort of the war discredited, how much this like muddling between being really, truly organic and kind of bringing in this other stuff because it's Seward's now you can get, you know, I'm sure that you can buy soda or as they would say, pop in Minnesota and had salads but you know you but you can also buy a very healthy stuff and locally sourced and stuff like that. So I'm wondering how you see that this development and whether and like whether or not it's really it discrediting is maybe the proper way or has it just changed with the times or something? I mean, how do you see this?

Eric Esse: Yeah, it's interesting as to whether the co-op wars discredited it. I think it didn't create — you know, it soured some people on it, it traumatized the people personally because they were good friends and lovers who fell out over this. But long-term — I would love to have a second documentary about the course between now and then, because it's interesting, because in the eighties it was sort of a time of retreat, some of the smaller co-ops died off, and then in the nineties there became more mainstreaming of natural foods, and they began to get bigger, and bigger, and bigger. And then the last 20 years, the memberships are skyrocketing. So the number of people being served by these co-ops now compared to even in the boom time of the late seventies, is way more; they're serving a much larger group of people. And so they're not as culturally specific, they're not about a little subculture. And that subculture didn't last itself, you know. Part of the way that those little co-ops worked was that the minimum wage was high, a lot of people were living on very little, they could volunteer or work for a dollar an hour. And they liked the co-op because it was a place to hang out with people like them. And that is not a model that survived because those people grew up, and they had kids, and they had to have more money, and they had less time. And so you can't reproduce that long-term. And you still meet some older people from that generation, who look at these co-ops and say, "it's not a real co-op." And what they mean is that it's not like the thing I'm used to, and the thing that I was going there for. But what it is, is a store that serves many, many, many more people, and many more different types of people, in a much more professional way.

The thing is that both the C.O. and the anti-C.O. people were just wrong about economics. They were wrong about why what they were doing was working, and where it could go. The uniting of natural and cheap was a short-term thing. They were selling big bags of rice and things like that wholesale, to people who cook all their own food for their group house, and that's not what most people can do when they're working a lot, and have kids, or whatever. And so people cook even less now than they did back then. And that whole bulk, cheap side of things only works with a certain lifestyle. And so you can't just force that on people, you've got to sell what people actually buy, and their lifestyles change and they don't have time to do that, and there's no there's no store. So people began to create more packaged, convenient natural foods, mostly in little mom-and-pop businesses. Those eventually get bought out by holding companies, and become this whole center part of the store.

And so the C.O. was right in that these counterculture people, who at that point were poor, all went to college, basically, and so became a professional class. And so the co-op changed with them. And the C.O. was completely wrong about what they could do. How on earth were they going to sell Coca-Cola and regular corporate food cheaper than a supermarket, at a little co-op? It's just not — economics of scale just don't work that way. They can't just will it to happen. It's not like the CEOs make so much money that if you got rid of them, then all of a sudden this food is cheap, even cheaper than it was. And when they actually had some stores run by themselves, they were horrible at it. Didn't believe in marketing, or a nice name. In all their stores it was People's Co-op #14, or whatever.

Kevin Gustafson: That was my favorite part. Like, the idea is we're going to take this over, and just grab hold of it, right? And then as soon as you grab hold of it, it's like, "oh God, now we have to run things." And it made me laugh too, because, you know, as a student of the Russian revolution, I wrote as a PMC kind of thing, I wrote my master's thesis on the bureaucracy in Russia, and how because of the expediency of the civil war, and then the utility of what Trotsky would have called the thermadorian reaction, the necessity to maintain the bureaucracy was essential. And so you might have lots of rhetoric about the fact that everything is going to change, but then you run it and you find out that, in the Soviet context, it was poorly run to begin with and it was poorly run sort of throughout, and just forced through. Whereas in this context, you grab hold of something that was working, and because you don't genuinely know how it actually works, and you just wanted to take it over, and have everybody just continue to work for you — when they stop, you fail.

Eric Esse: Yeah. You can't stage a coup in a voluntary organization.

Kevin Gustafson: That's a nice quotable right there.

Eric Esse: And their model was wrong. You can't — you say you want to serve the working class, but then you have to — the supermarkets are serving the working class, and they're making that food as cheap as it is because they're so big, and because they're so efficient, and they work their workers so hard. And you change every other element of that and like, somehow the food is still cheap. So they were doomed from the beginning, in that way. So, they have their critique right, on some level, but their solution makes no sense. So not surprising that everybody had some [indecipherable] right, but they could not see the future. And for a bunch of kids who were just making it up as they go, they didn't have a big macro-economic vision, even if they were reading a lot of works in political writing.

Cinar Akcin: But despite that, you know, there's a sense of tremendous idealism in there. But despite that, I mean, they really created something substantial there. And that's pretty amazing. At the end of the day, yeah, they might not have had that kind of business approach to running this whole operation. But at the end of the day, they created something very, very concrete, which you like to see more of, actually.

Eric Esse: Exactly and that's what the cool thing is — like, some of these people were teenagers, and a lot of them had, I mean, virtually none of them had any experience running a business, or with food or anything. And the fact that they had the chutzpa to just do it, and just try stuff. And a lot of them sort of went in and out, but some of them are still working at it. And, you know, it wasn't going to be what they pictured in their heads, but it's this amazing thing that exists. Like that 50 years of profits that came out of selling this food, all stayed in the community. Every last bit of it that went to those stores, stayed in the community, built more co-ops, got given away to community organizations, went in dividend checks to community members. That's amazing. And also in the 1970s, it wasn't all natural. It was conventional, they just got it from a warehouse, and there wasn't even the infrastructure to have organic food locally grown. And that was built because those retail venues were available to sell to. And so this partnership between these organic farmers was something that developed over time, and is this amazing thing that creates acres all over our rural communities in the upper Midwest, economic acres, environmental impacts that are huge.

And the other thing, too, is that there was a sort of progression of very politicized counter-culture co-ops that became more mainstream in the nineties. A lot of time in the nineties, people would even drop the word co-op from the store name, and call it a market or something. And now, for both market and political reasons, they're going back to the co-op identity. Market reasons are you can get this food almost anywhere, so they want to create a market differentiation from a corporate store. And the political reason is that, there's a lot more consciousness about class politics and racial politics now than there was a little while ago. And co-ops as community-owned stores respond to that, and they respond to it as appropriate amongst their membership. So that's different in each neighborhood in city. So Seward Co-op is in a very lefty neighborhood, they had a Green Party city council member, you know, there are still a lot of co-op [indecipherable] businesses there. And so they have a reporting policy about their social and environmental impacts. And when they got this criticism about being gentrifiers, they changed their hiring methods so that you had a lot more people of color and working class people being hired there, by a factor of three or four. And they — and many other co-ops around the country — they are emphasizing what is cheap in their store, and how you can eat cheaply at the co-op. You don't have to buy the most expensive things there, there are other things that are not as expensive, and other programs to help people of all incomes to eat there. It's not happening in the corporate stores, it's not happening at Whole Foods. And so that impact keeps going and it doesn't have any of the rhetoric or imagery of revolutionary action, but it is actively improving people's lives right now on a larger scale than it did back in the seventies.

Cinar Akcin: But following on that, it does seem like the people who are involved in it, it seems like they are conflicted. At the end of the day, they're like, the hippies won, or that camp won. But at the end of the day, the CEO or that revolutionary side, the potential revolutionary side, they acknowledge, a lot of them, that they won the argument, at the end of the day. "We could have done more, or something more could have happened here." And then also there was one guy, I think his name is Keith, I think he was the guy who started everything — I felt bad for him because I think he just basically was disillusioned with the whole process.

Kevin Gustafson: "Happy to fade out," I think he says.

Cinar Akcin: I hope not. I hope Keith gets involved again.

Kevin Gustafson: I hope he's happy on his farm. You know, but still, you know, I mean, it's probably happier than many farmers, though. It's my it's my experience that many of the people who are staying on the farm are there because they genuinely want to now, whereas, you know, the economic pressure is still on them to leave and they're fighting that. So I'm hoping that he's that he's happy.

Eric Esse: Yeah, it's interesting the paths people took after that. For really retreating, like Keith did. I mean, he was really burned. One of the C.O. leader's — many of the C.O. leaders' — patterns was to, when someone within the group had a lot of authority and charisma, to sideline them: he would kick them out or send them somewhere else. And that happened to Keith. And so some people distance themselves from it, and they're burnt out, and some people stayed involved in the business side of it for a long time, and some people became political activists in different ways. Dean Zimmerman was a Green Party City Council member for awhile, and Jerry Cunningham was in there, who helped as a teenager start the Bryant-Central Co-op, the Black co-op, runs a national business development organization for minority wealth building. So, that's a much more mainstream, wearing-a-suit type of activity, but it's in-line with what he intended way back then.

Kevin Gustafson: Yeah, it reminds me of the sort of "where are they now from SDS?" and stuff. Lots of professors, but also still kind of activism. I mean, like the it made me laugh at the sort of dedication to Marxist principles, in sort of reading Marxism, Marx, and Mao, and Lenin, and stuff like that. And then to making the fundamental mistake of not recognizing where you are and what year it is, and all the political dynamics so that you can properly do what they did, which is to understand his particular situation as compared to others, so that you could form a strategy that actually works. The lesson I think, for me, that this and other countless examples of the attempt to just kind of plop in a ready-made theory and not doing the hard work of sitting down and — I mean, in some ways Lenin had the advantage, dare I say, of having to go into exile, so that this is all you had to do, because that really allowed — and Mao, the same thing; Ho Chi Minh same thing. You know, Castro — these are people who were essentially exiled or jailed, to be able to spend the time that it takes to really understand it. Whereas if you're day-to-day trying to run a business that either doesn't have books or, you know, is just like flying by the seat of its pants, maybe you're not in the best position to really do the important ideological and praxis type of work, to be able to see what really works and what doesn't. But obviously there was many lessons learned, and people have found places to be, like the City Council. I mean, the City Council in Minneapolis is an interesting place. It has also kind of waxed and waned, and been highly centrally controlled by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, but then had many entrants. And I'm curious about — I even being from the area, didn't even know — we hear about the Victor Bergers and the people — you know, the socialists who got elected back in the day, a hundred years ago. You don't hear a lot about the fact that there's somebody who freely admitted their intentions, or sort of Marxist background, who was sitting on the City Council in 1975. And so and I'm curiousabout the impact of that, how both being somebody in a position of legitimate current political power, as it related to this rising other means of power, both in just the the organization of the co-ops and then this intentional, almost conspiratorial type of power play politics, and gathering power. And because things like when they turn off the electricity, the City Councilor gets to call and say like, "hey, can you turn on the power? Because like, hey, I'm calling from city council, you know." I'm wondering, in your perspective about — I mean, he's in the doc, he obviously has a sort of perspective, but he's also very much a "small d" democrat. And so I'm curious about that interaction, how that maybe affected or was part of the dynamics, particularly in Minneapolis. Whereas you didn't have as much of that, or didn't have as longer tradition of that, like you were saying, because Minnesota has a long tradition of '48ers, and Swedes, and Finns, and people who are more radical coming in and deciding not to stay on the East Coast, which I sort of understand.

Eric Esse: Yeah, it's interesting. So you're talking about [indecipherable] who was a countercultural publisher who got elected to the City Council and called himself a Maoist, and still does. And he did help out the C.O. a little bit at the beginning of their takeovers, but then grew disillusioned with them with their tactics. And so aside from helping them keep the lights on and running their [indecipherable] for them a little bit, I don't think it had that much of an impact, and he was sort of a lone voice. Like, I believe the mayor of the time was a conservative ex-cop, so you didn't have control of the government in any way.

But it was interesting, there was a connection between this sort of grassroots radicalism and people in elected office, which happens from time to time. Yeah. I don't know where else to go with that. One interesting detail we don't go into, is that there was an incident back in like 1930, there was sort of an echo of whatever happened before, it was this whole thing back up in northern Minnesota where the leftist Finnish immigrants had a big warehouse and a big co-op network, as well. And at one point, Stalin decided that the Communist Party had to take it over, and instructed the Communists on the board of the warehouse to secretly send money from the warehouse to the Communist Party. And they refused, and there was a big hubbub over that. And so it was again, there was this political leader all the way from Moscow trying to control this grassroots cooperative situation. And it also, in the end, discredited the communists there, and they actually changed their symbol from the hammer and sickle to the two trees of cooperation.

So there's all these repeated attempts by people to try to make a cooperative into a partisan party organization, and that was one of the C.O.'s calls was ideological unity. And that just means someone's got to be controll to enforce that ideological unity. And so that's really a sign that it's a different beast, and there's a reason why — and I think maybe you mentioned it in your 10th anniversary podcast — about people with a practical mind gravitate to the cooperatives, who don't want to just argue over ideology and have power-plays over who's right about things, and that you poison that by trying to create uniformity. It's inherent in diversity and cooperation if it works.

Kevin Gustafson: Well, and it's obviously at this point a trope that those who don't understand history are doomed to repeat it. And I would be very remiss if we didn't learn these lessons from reverberations of this lesson being shown to us multiple times, because there is a new co-op movement, we are part of it. And there is this debate between the the green peace sign and the hammer and sickle is still with us. And so, you know, both understanding it and being able to know where you stand, and hopefully learn the lesson is, I think, extremely important. And this documentary is a fantastic, entertaining, high quality way of, I think, expressing that. And the cool thing is, if you're deeply ideological, or interested in all of the nuances, it feeds that, and it's like, "oh, this is I get it." You know, I was thinking COINTELPRO and those kind of things, but in some ways, if you just want to hear a good story, it's also that and that's a hard needle to thread. And so I, you know, as a kind of at least from my point of sort of parting thought, I was highly entertained, highly educated and came out with it feeling sort of a little bit closer, and somewhat nostalgic about the time I spent in Minneapolis, and realizing how as much as I'm interested in politics and history, and was involved in the politics when I was there, I didn't know as much as I would have liked to, and I would have maybe been able to be more effective and more engaged had I known that history. And so I'm deeply grateful for that, for you having done the work both at the co-op, but also on this documentary. It's a gift, honestly, to Minnesotans for sure, but also everybody, anybody who's interested in this, whether you're coming at it from the co-op perspective, or the kind of ideological socialist, communist, anarchist, Marxist. I think it's a wide audience and good job.

Cinar Akcin: Eric. How can people find out more about this, or just watch the documentary?

Eric Esse: Sure. Our website is You can find out all about it. You can see it on the PBS app, and, which is the Twin Cities Public TV website. And you can search for Co-op Wars there, and they'll be streaming it as well. And we also have been doing community events at food co-ops and a lot of organizations around the country, and even in other countries. And we'll list those on our website as they come up.

Kevin Gustafson: That's awesome and TBD let's do it again. Another thing like, oh, I remember watching like the Red Green Show on TPT, oh man, that brings back memories. But yeah, you know, if you're watching this podcast, you'll love this documentary. And I'm sure you are either part of a local food co-op or have a bunch of other people who'd want to see it. So spread it far, spread it wide. It's well worth it. And, you know, hey, public television, you get to watch it for free and without ads and stuff. So that's my kind of content, I'll tell you what. Eric, thanks so much for doing this and talking with us. And if-and-when, hopefully, there is a Co-op Wars: Round 2, I am very much looking forward to it.

Eric Esse: Right. This has been so wonderful and fun. Thanks so much for having me on.

Kevin Gustafson: Thanks, Eric. Take it easy.

Thanks for listening to this episode of All things Co-op. To learn more about All Things Co-op, check out our web page at Democracy at Work dot info slash atc. And if you enjoyed this podcast and want to help support it, please go to Patreon slash All Things Co-op to contribute any amount that works for you.


This transcript has been edited for readability


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