For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America

For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America

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For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America by John Curl

Seeking to reclaim a history that has remained largely ignored by historians, this dramatic and stirring account examines each of the definitive American cooperative movements for social change—farmer, union, consumer, and communalist—that have been all but erased from collective memory. With an expansive sweep and breathtaking detail, this scholarly yet eminently readable chronicle follows the American worker from the colonial workshop to the modern mass-assembly line, from the family farm to the corporate hierarchy, ultimately painting a vivid panorama of those who built the United States and those who will shape its future. This second edition contains a new introduction by Ishmael Reed, a new preface by the author that discusses cooperatives in the Great Recession of 2008 and their future in the 21st century, and a new chapter on the role co-ops played in the food revolution of the 1970s.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604865820
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 07/01/2012
Edition description: Second Edition, Second edition
Pages: 544
Sales rank: 674,535
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

John Curl is the author of Ancient American Poets, History of Work Cooperation in America, Memories of Drop City, and seven books of poetry. He has been a member of Heartwood Cooperative Woodshop for more than 30 years. He lives in Berkeley, California. Ishmael Reed is a novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, and National Book Award nominee. He is also a publisher and editor of numerous anthologies and magazines as well as a teacher and lecturer. He lives in San Francisco.

Read an Excerpt

For All the People

Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America

By John Curl

PM Press

Copyright © 2012 PM Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-732-9


Early Cooperation in America


The first North Americans to practice collectivity, cooperation, and communalism were, of course, Indigenous. The hundreds of tribes and nations north of Mexico each had its own distinct culture, language, traditions, and history, yet almost every account stresses community over individualism as their overriding core value, even among comparatively individualistic peoples. Cultural patterns of economic cooperation were clearly engrained in the fabric of every tribe. While this is a vast and complex area of study, some very general observations can help put what follows into perspective.

The typical unit of an Indian society was the extended family, with a number of related adults in the same household who shared a common store of provisions and tools, and worked for the common benefit. Groups of extended families were organized into larger cooperative units, clans and bands. The collection of these family groups, clans, and bands made up the tribe. The concept of individual private property in land or natural resources was unknown. Tools were commonly shared within the communal group. It was unthinkable, for example, for one Inuit in a band to have two harpoons while another had none.

Hunting and gathering peoples followed their food sources around with the seasons; food availability and the methods of gathering determined the size of the living group. At certain times of year, usually scattered groups would join into larger units for cooperative production, using methods not possible in smaller units.

Shoshone families wandering west of the Wyoming Rockies would gather periodically with other families in their bands for cooperative rabbit hunts with nets. A successful hunt was not possible without a large enough number of coordinated people. They would form the nets into a semi-circle hundreds of feet long, then beat the brush and chase the startled rabbits into the trap. The Shoshone traditionally divided the catch equally among the families until common survival needs were met. Any family without nets — the means of production — usually got a slightly smaller share. They considered this fair because there was much work involved in tying, repairing and hauling the nets around, and because they made nets from readily available materials, accessible to any family who chose to put in the labor. These mutual-aid gatherings were not only for work, but were also social celebrations, and formed an integral part of Shoshone societal structure.

The introduction of horses made hunter cooperation on a larger scale possible for the Lakota and many other tribes. Horses spread to the Western Native nations several generations before contact with whites, and a culture arose based on them, resulting in those celebrated epic buffalo hunts across the Great Plains involving hundreds of hunters. These were similar to the rabbit hunts but on a larger scale. They were mutual-aid gatherings of usually scattered bands, combining work and social connection. "The buffalo hunt was under the supervision of chosen and responsible leaders ... It was understood that the herd was the prey of the entire community and that the chase was to be a united, group activity." Hunters could win a larger share of the kill by their prowess, but no one went without. Preparing the great feasts that followed were cooperative and collective endeavors.

Cooperation and collectivity also formed the backbone of the way of life of agriculture-oriented peoples. Since ancient times, the Southwest Pueblos have practiced collective and cooperative farming (and later herding). The Rio Grande valley Pueblos used cooperative irrigation and, in the high desert further west, the Hopi practiced cooperative dry farming.

The Northwest coast tribes such as the Hupa, Yurok, Tillamook, and Chinook were based upon collective fishing. The tribe channeled the entire catch to an elder whose only power was to assure an equitable distribution according to need.

Some form of collective democracy formed part of almost every Native social system north of Mexico. The Iroquois confederacy developed inter-tribal democracy on a large scale. Their Council of Sachems consisted of male elders from the various tribes appointed by female elders, and made decisions by unanimous collective consensus. Variations of the council-consensus system are the most typical form of Native political organization.

Even today, sheep herding is largely pooled in a traditional Navajo extended family, although the animals are individually owned. The Navajo extended family members work collectively in many of their economic and domestic chores, such as harvesting planted fields. The group lives in a cluster of hogans (and today, houses) centered on an older woman, and includes her husband, unmarried children, married daughters with their husbands and children, and possibly other relatives. If they move to another location due to weather, foliage for the animals, or to seasonal camps for harvesting piñon nuts, they move as a group. A married man often visits his mother's or sisters' extended families and joins in their work.

Despite the ravages of European invasion, collectivity, communalism, and cooperation remain the dominant texture of Indian life today, particularly of those tribes able to hold onto their land. Many tribes have tribal enterprises and production cooperatives, organized on partly traditional, partly "modern" lines. Collectivity and communalism are as integral to Native American culture and religion as are the tribe and the land.

Today's powwows are inter-tribal in essence, based on traditions combined from many tribes, yet with an infinite number of ever-changing variations. "Every summer there are powwows on every reservation and in urban communities where there is more than one Indian. We eat and dance and we have a good time. But there is more to it than that. We are sharing. We share the food, the dances, and the good times."


Close community survival cooperation permeated the entire way of life in Colonial America. This was true of all the waves of settlers: British, French, and Spanish. Settlers raised houses and barns, plowed fields, and built fences cooperatively and collectively. Mutual-aid events like corn-husking bees, log-rolling bees (to clear land), sewing and quilting bees, apple paring bees, grain rings (threshing), bull rings (slaughtering), and ship launchings also served as social structures and gatherings that welded together the fabric of the working community of settlers in the same way that similar gatherings did among the Native peoples. As one historian has commented, "This power of the newly arrived pioneers to join together for a common end without the intervention of governmental institutions was one of their marked characteristics."

Barter and labor exchanges were widely practiced. Money was scarce and in many areas used only sporadically, making early country stores mostly barter centers. The incessant waves of displaced humanity found warmth and shelter on these troubled shores through cooperation, mutual aid, and sharing. As another historian noted, settlers banded together "because they needed each other. Westward -moving pioneers everywhere found group travel and group living normal." Cooperation, not competition, resounded as the dominant chord across the continent among the working population.


The Spanish settled the territories that are now the American Southwest through land grants made by the King of Spain to groups of emigrant families, usually twenty or more, beginning in the late 1600s. The Spanish Crown initiated this system to entice Mexican colonists to frontier areas with an offer of free land, which appealed to landless groups.

"Community land grants," issued to groups of ten or more married settlers, contained large sections of common lands called ejidos set aside for the use of the entire community. "Individual land grants," made to particular people and families, also usually designated ejidos for general communal use, and common areas for pasture, watering, wood gathering, or hunting. Grants were also often made to newly founded towns, providing adjacent common lands for use by all residents. In addition, land grants were made to Indian pueblos, often simply confirming ancient rights to these territories, in exchange for their recognition of the Spanish Crown. These land grant policies governed settlement in all the colonies of Spanish America, and were modeled on similar customs in medieval Spain. The ejido system also had roots in indigenous Mexico. The basic unit of Aztec social organization was a group of interrelated families who farmed cooperatively called a calpulli. Mexican Indians usually accompanied colonist groups traveling north. After independence in 1821, the Mexican government continued these policies of land distribution. Spain and Mexico made a total of 295 land grants in the territory that eventually became the American Southwest, of which 154 were community land grants, including 23 grants of communal lands to the indigenous Indian pueblos. In 1848, most of the territory was still sparsely populated, with only a few large towns, and most of the approximately 60,000 settlers lived in these subsistence agricultural communities.

Community land grants typically kept about 90 percent of their land in common, including pastures and forests, for collective use. The common ejido land could not be sold. Beyond that, each family owned a house and a farmable plot. The ejidos were self-governing and all males had a vote in biennial elections. Much work was done cooperatively and, on occasions, the whole village joined in projects for the common good, such as annual repairs of irrigation systems and roads. Tools were often collectively owned and used. The system was geared for group self-sufficiency under harsh conditions.

Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which formally ended the US-Mexican war in 1848, Mexico ceded a vast area to the US, including California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Texas. The US in turn agreed to recognize all existing property ownership in the territories. But in practice, the US often did not protect the property of Mexican-Americans and their descendants, and in particular the common lands of community land grants. These have been in dispute ever since.

In Mexico below the Rio Grande, ejidos were also under attack by land grabbers, and their restoration became one of the central goals of the Zapatistas in the Mexican Revolution of 1910. According to a celebrated account about the almost-mythic Emiliano Zapata, a full-blooded Indian, "In early 1914 some emissaries from a Michoacán rebel came to his camp at Pozo Colorado, to see if he was sincere. What was he really fighting for? How could he prove it? He had Robles [his aide] bring the Anenecuilco [his home village] documents, and he showed them to his visitors. 'Por esto peleo,' he said. 'For this I am fighting.'" The documents that had been entrusted to him were the almost-sacred land grants of his village, written in the Nahuatl language and representative of the collective rights of the people to the land. New Mexico land grantees felt similarly about their ejidos, and many of their descendants, displaced from their ancestral lands, continue to do so today.


During their first three years in America, from 1620 to 1623, the Pilgrims of Plymouth farmed and worked communally, depositing all the products of their work into a common warehouse and taking their needs from a common store. The first New England colony began as a commune, and later reorganized into a cooperative community. As an early historian stated, "Any attempt to treat of the cooperative efforts in Massachusetts without commencing with a reference to the Pilgrim Church, the township, and the fisheries, would be like a record of the Revolution with Samuel Adams, Lexington and Concord left out."

The Pilgrim Separatists financed their voyage from England to America through the backing of a group of capitalists, the Merchant Adventurers. The colony was to be a base for fur trading with the Indians, cutting timber, and for fishing on the Grand Banks. The Pilgrims would send these products back to England to pay off the debt and for supplies that the investors would continue to send. The settlers would each put in seven years labor and receive a share of the profits, which would not be divided until the end. At that time "the capital and profits, viz. the houses, lands, goods, and chattels," would be equally divided between the investors and settlers and the contract would be dissolved. In the original agreement, every family was to have a plot of land to garden for its own needs, and the right to work "two days a week for their own private employment, for the more comfort of themselves and their families," and four days a week working for the corporation. At the last minute, however, the investors insisted on changes to the agreement, because they were afraid that the colonists would work their own plots to the detriment of the enterprise's profits. They threatened to withdraw their financing unless the settlers agreed to work entirely for the corporation with no separate plots. The colonists, most of them tenant farmers in the open fields of an old manorial hunting park in Nottinghamshire, considered that the investors' demand essentially reduced them to serfdom. The settlers were asking for no more than was normal under England's manorial system in effect since the Middle Ages. Peasants worked in the lord's fields but also had time to work individual plots for their household needs. The serf, in a stricter form of bondage than the peasant, had no time to himself and no right to an individual plot.

At an impasse and with the entire project at risk, one of the Pilgrim leaders signed the restrictive agreement without authorization from the group. This set up a conflict that would play itself out in the first years of the colony.

The original core of thirty-five gathered sixty-seven others into the group shortly before leaving. Most of these newcomers were indentured servants, required to work in bondage for a fixed time period with the master receiving a share of the enterprise's profits from the servant's labor. More than half of the 102 people aboard the Mayflower were indentured servants. But the day before landing, the servants staged an insurrection and declared they were seizing their freedom. The bulk of the Pilgrims — "free" workers — sided with the servants. The masters had no choice but to agree to the demands. All adult males signed the Mayflower Compact, affirming that all were now free, and establishing a government in which all males had equal voice and vote. Thus, revolutionary servants set up the most democratic political system of its time in colonial America, although it still excluded women.

Relations between the Pilgrim settlers and the investors quickly deteriorated. The colonists struggled through many hardships, expecting that the investors would send them regular supplies of food, clothes, and tools. Instead, subsequent ships came laden only with new colonists, and the settlers were left to fend for themselves for survival while sending the returning ships back laden with furs, lumber, and salt fish to be sold by the investors.


Excerpted from For All the People by John Curl. Copyright © 2012 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Early Cooperation in the Americas,
2. The Revolutionary Movements Begin,
3. The Movements Renewed & the Corporations' Rise,
4. The Aftermath of the Civil War,
5. The Knights of Labor & "The Great Upheaval",
6. "The Bloody Nineties",
7. "The Progressive Era": Wobblies & Radical Farmers,
8. World War I & the Conservative Reaction,
9. The Great Depression & the Conservative Advance,
10. Case Study: The Berkeley Co-op,
11. Cooperatives & Counterculture: The 1960s & '70s Part I,
12. Case Studies: Bay Warehouse & Heartwood,
13. Cooperatives in the Mainstream: The 1960s & '70s Part II,
14. Surviving: From the 1980s through the Millennium,
15. Cooperatives & Communalism,
16. The Early Communalist Movements,
17. Communalism in the 20th Century,
18. Spiritual Communalism,
Cooperatives Today & Their Potential as a Strategy of Social Change,
1: Listing of Some Unique Cooperatives Today ..,
2: International Documents on Cooperatives,
Bibliographic Essay,
Illustration Credits,

What People are Saying About This

Paul Buhle

Curl surveys all and explains much. New generations of readers will find this a fascinating account. (Paul Buhle, coeditor, Encyclopedia of the American Left , and founding editor, Radical America journal)

Howard Zinn

It is indeed inspiring . . . to be reminded by John Curl's new book of the noble history of cooperative work in the United States.

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