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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Memo to the Cooperative Movement

January 28, 2016
Body paragraph

by Josh Davis

While reading through an academic paper we featured in our Gleanings section last year about Helen Foster Snow and her contributions to China's INDUSCO cooperatives, I came across a memo from one Rewi Alley that really caught my eye.  Alley was one of the lead organizers of the Chinese Industurial Cooperatives, known as INDUSCO, a Mondragon-like network of industrial worker cooperatives that existed for seven years before becoming a casualty of the Chinese Civil War in 1945.  INDUSCO apexed in 1941, having at that time 1,867 enterprises and 29,284 registered members.  In this memo from 1940, Alley discusses what he sees as necessary for INDUSCO to continue to grow and succeed.  While it was written in a different time and in a much different context, I think his advice to the organizers of INDUSCO is as relevant for cooperative organizers today as it was when it was originally written.  Take a look:

Promotion Locally.  There is a great deal of work in need of being done in local promotion, so as to educate public opinion in Industrial Co-operative ideals, and to give confidence in the movement....

Inspection.  Up to the present, our inspection work has not been adequate.  I am of the opinion that inspection work needs to be reorganized, and the best type of man obtained for this work.  On the Technical side, the Chief Engineer's work should be largely inspection--where he can make the fruits of his experience helpful...

Statistics.  We must collect accurate and complete statistics.  We cannot expect bankers to help us if we cannot show proper figures.  We must also be able to demonstrate to buyers that we can produce the products in sufficient quantity.
Education.  Everywhere I have seen the immense need for better education.  This applies to both staff and cooperative members....The work that has been done in technical training work of prospective cooperators I have seen, and find useful.  More of it needs to be done. I consider the education of cooperative members' children to be one of the most important things we have  to do in the future.  We want the child, as he grows up, to enter the cooperative group naturally and easily, and every child that does this will in turn be a new advocate for cooperation in industry.  

Constitution. ...Coop members need to have a copy [of the cooperative's constitution] that they can talk over and study...In industrial cooperation we have to deal with so many more phases of life than does either credit or consumer cooperation.  In industrial cooperatives people live by their cooperative.  In other cooperatives, the cooperative is an adjunct.

Federations and marketing and supply.  It becomes more than ever apparent that the success of our work depends very much on the local federation of co-ops, and on its having a progressive, energetic Marketing and Supply agency.  Where our work has been good, one sees such a facility.  

Research and Development. Research work should be carried on in the best way possible under existing circumstances.  Research studies should be published so that all co-ops can share the benefits.  

Technical Training.  There is a need for all branches of INDUSCO service to know something of technical processes.  Both the organizer and the accountant need to have some rudimentary idea of what an industry is and how their work fits in.  I hope that we can induce more technicians to become organizers as we go on.

...[E]ngineers in many cases need to be broken of their ideas of huge factory chimneys, great turbines, million-dollar plants, and come down to the reality of industry that is to be controlled by people, and forget ideas of great industrial concerns in which the people are second to machines.  We must be wedded to a new ideal --that of making small industry produce as efficiently as any industry, and to have this industry on a co-operative basis.

Transport.  We still have not been able to pay proper attention to this most important aspect of our work.  The organization of co-operative transport units to work together with our marketing and supply agencies will become increasingly important.

Accountancy.  We must have from workers on this side of our work the same zeal for Gung-ho ["working together"] ideals as we have from our organizers.  The conception of Gung-ho as a business and a movement--and not as a "chi-kwan" must be first and foremost.  The accountant must always say, "If this were my business, on which I had to live, would I do this?"  

Consolidation.  The necessity of consolidation is ever before us.  To consolidate work in depots by striving for better educational facilities for staff and members.  To make for basic trades--iron founding, cotton spinning, machine shops.  To have cooperative federations set up and marketing and supply depots everywhere.  And all marketing and supply depots joined up.  To organize and finance many new coops and depots on the main lines of communication so that the chain of industry will stand.  A few productive units isolated cannot stand.  Thousands joined together can.

Criticism.  INDUSCO, we must always remind ourselves, is a very practical expression of the Principle of People's livelihood.  But it is not a political movement.  And none of us are politicians.  It is a popular movement for better business and better production.  Engineers and cooperators, like doctors, should be welcome everywhere.

Good stuff, amiright?  Much of what Alley recommends for INDUSCO is very close to what we at GEO have been promoting as the next steps forward for the cooperative movement as a whole: local and regional cooperative federations, joint marketing, public education about the "cooperative difference," education of cooperative members and organizers, and the sharing of knowledge and information between cooperative practicioners.

As I read, I couldn't help but think of all the ways people in the cooperative community are already fullfilling many of these suggestions.  VAWC, NoBAWC, and PACA are great examples of local cooperative federations; the Young People's Action Coalition is educating the youth about cooperation; many academics and researchers are studying co-ops in the US and abroad; and, of course, groups like GEO, truth-out and The Laura Flanders Show have been spreading public awareness of cooperatives and their benefits, and we've got a project with ACE and TESA to creat a Co-op Education Hub to facilitate the spread of information among practicioners and organizers.

I especially liked Alley's assertion that engineers need to "come down to the reality of industry that is to be controlled by people, and forget which the people are second to machines" which implies that we need to radically reconceptualize industrial production in a way that is more {gasp!} human-centered.  It is also notable that Alley ends his memo with a "criticism."  This is something we at GEO have been talking alot about lately - the need for self-criticism in our co-ops and our movement more generally - so I was glad to see Alley setting a good example here by not shying away for a little critique.  On a side note, Alley was right to be concerned about politics, since as the paper's author Gary B. Hansen notes:

Unfortunately, as successful as the INDUSCO cooperatives had been in helping free China maintain the war effort against the Japanese and provide work, goods and services, and incomes for many Chinese refugees, INDUSCO and its leaders soon became enmeshed in internal  Chinese politics and the battle between the Nationalists and Communists.

And as an added bonus for this dive into cooperative history, there are at least two good bumpersticker slogans in Alley's memo:

"A few productive units isolated cannot stand.  Thousands joined together can."

And my favorite:

"Engineers and cooperators, like doctors, should be welcome everywhere."


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