Industrial Co-Operation: Bridging Voluntary Action and Business

Michael Weatherburn, Imperial College London

This April saw the European Social Science and History Conference come to Glasgow. The topics covered by speakers were diverse, but there were two panels that especially caught my eye. One was on co-operatives and the other on workhouses. They raised some interesting issues that resonate with the work of VAHS researchers and might be of interest to readers of this blog.

The first panel was chaired by Northumbria University’s Nicole Robertson, author of The Cooperative Movement and Communities in Britain, 1914-1960, with Leeds University’s Martin Purvis as a discussant. The speakers were University of Central Lancaster’s David Stewart and Angela Whitecross, the University of Liverpool’s Rachael Vorberg-Rugh and Antony Webster of Liverpool John Moores. It was stimulating to hear the panel discuss the mutual development of the Co-Operative retail stores, the Co-Operative Wholesale Society (CWS), and the related Co-Operative Party.

1930s adverisement: The People's Museum

The papers and discussion hinged on two particular points. The first was how the CWS managed to convince Co-Ops to purchase their goods when the Co-Ops were completely free to purchase from any wholesaler they wished. This of course became particularly important during the 1930s, when private wholesalers were willing to cut wages and other costs more than the CWS. I particularly enjoyed Martin Purvis’s case study of the behaviour of Co-Operative storekeepers in the 1930s Defiant radio controversy. Co-Op storekeepers were complaining at the price fixing cartels controlled by large manufacturers. So Co-Ops took a stand and decided to stock the CWS-made Defiant radio. Then again, as Purvis pointed out, Co-Ops still stocked the market-dominant brands as well. Customers at the store then had to choose which radio they wanted to buy. So there was more than one level of voluntarism in this case: the Co-Ops had to choose to stock the Defiant, just as the customers had to choose to buy them. The case was made in terms of what we would now call ethical consumerism.

The second important issue was whether cooperators believed that they were a political organisation, a consumer organisation, or a mixture of the two; a balance between values and consumerism. There was of course a Co-Op party but it didn’t become affiliated to the Labour Party until World War One. During this war they were reluctant to get involved in party politics, but realised they had been excluded from all the food boards. This was despite their extensive experience with food distribution. So in World War Two, the Co-Operative Party was much keener to engage with political power to get their point across.

It was interesting to consider why so many people have recently been researching the co-operative movement. I’ve been reliably informed that this was not the case only a few years ago. I think that these historians have set themselves on a quest to explore historical alternatives to the present economy, dominated as it is by distant, nameless financiers as opposed to operating for the good of local communities. It will certainly be interesting to see what other historiographical trends emerge out of this kind of thinking.

The next session of particular interest explored the case of workhouses. In a wonderfully coherent panel, the University of Vienna’s Sonja Hinch, Oxford Brooks University’s Virginia Crossman and the Open University’s Megan Doolittle presented examples of voluntary work, workfare, and forced labour in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The core issue at stake was how policymakers and reformers decided who could work and was genuinely unable to do so. Of those who could work, the important distinction to be made was whether someone could work but lacked the work ethic to do so, or whether they were prevented from working by extenuating circumstances such as unemployment or illness. It was striking how different the solutions were to those who were deemed able to work but unwilling to do it.

Pre-Nazi Winterhilfe, November 1931: German Federal Archive

An interesting issue raised was the stage at which we conclude that cultures of voluntarism (particularly in localised, tight-knit communities) actually produce a moral compulsion to contribute voluntary work. How might we decipher these scenarios with historical hindsight? I am thinking of the example of Winterhilfe – the German culture of helping out the community in harsh winter conditions, which was magnified in the interwar period into larger notions of social responsibility and a collective body politic. By the advent of the Third Reich, most historians agree that there was no semblance of voluntarism to the practice any more, and rejection of it was seen as resistance to the Volk.

Pre-Nazi Winterhilfe, September 1931: German Federal Archive

These discussions overlap a great deal with my own work on British industry, and were well documented in Geoff Brown’s 1977 Sabotage. Brown considered numerous ‘go slow’ methods of working in the twentieth century, such as soldiering and ca’canny, but certainly never accused these workers of laziness. Quite the opposite, he said they were making important political points and it is hard work to sustain such practices in a large group of people with differing priorities under high-stress conditions. In effect, their refusal to work was a kind of voluntary activism in itself. When we consider that this perspective could be applied to our analysis of strikes and protests, this could be a particularly fruitful avenue of research to follow up, and one which I address in my own research into 1930s political activism.

This is one of the issues the VAHS New Researchers event at Southampton in the autumn will address. Anjelica Finnegan and I are putting panels together of historians and social scientists interested in how and why people conduct voluntary work in a variety of circumstances: in the home, the community and in industry, for example. I’ll be delivering a paper on Voluntary Industrial Aid for Spain, a 1930s campaign which brought together a variety of engineers, communists, and intellectuals to contribute their time and skills in making industrial products to aid the Spanish republic. I look forward to it.

To cite this article, please use: Michael Weatherburn, ‘Industrial Co-Operation: Bridging Voluntary Action and Business’, Voluntary Action History Society Blog (13 May 2012). Available online at:
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