Cooperative Commonwealth

The cooperative commonwealth, one of the oldest ideas in American Populist thought, was also one that proved harder to translate into widespread and sustainable action in the United States. In fact, the cooperative commonwealth was brought closer to full realization in other parts of the English-speaking world, most notably in Canada. Nonetheless, the cooperative commonwealth ideal would both illuminate and inspire rural and urban labor Populist activists throughout the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

As the nineteenth century progressed, modern capitalism and wage labor became the increasing economic norm in the United States and displaced the traditional small-scale craft manufacturing that had been integral previously to the U.S. economy. As a result, manufacturing workers increasingly lost independence, and economic inequality grew. At the same time, farmers lost much of their traditional independence as the market revolution transferred profits from the trade of farm products increasingly out their hands. As a result, first labor and then agricultural activists were inspired by the philosophy of producerism. Producerism was the idea that workers and farmers, the “producers” of the nation's wealth, should enjoy the economic fruits of their own labors. These early populist activists also promoted the idea of the cooperative commonwealth, in which industrial capitalism and wage work would be replaced by worker-owned cooperatives, where workers would collectively own and profit from their industries. The period immediately following the Civil War saw the height of producerism in the United States, and with it the heyday of union-sponsored cooperatives in several industries. By contrast, the farmers’ cooperative movement did not emerge until the closing decades of the nineteenth century.

One of the most important proponents of the cooperative commonwealth idea in the United States was the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor (KOL). The Knights of Labor, the first successful post–Civil War labor federation, began in 1869 as a secret society due to severe antilabor hostility, but by the 1880s it organized openly under the leadership of Terrence V. Powderly. The KOL, in contrast to the American Federation of Labor that succeeded it, was noted for its openness to nearly all workers, excluding only lawyers, liquor distributors, and other groups deemed “parasites.” The KOL was also noted for its opposition to strikes and similar labor actions in favor of binding arbitration and, more significantly, for its goal of ending the wage system and replacing it with worker cooperatives. Notably, Powderly favored neither socialism nor government ownership of industry but instead urged workers to collectively save enough to purchase the industries that were their “means of production” and run them on a cooperative basis. According to this incarnation of the cooperative commonwealth, when workers became owner-producers, the labor-management divide would be eliminated and industry-generated wealth would be more justly distributed than was possible under the traditional capitalist system. The cooperative commonwealth movement promoted by the KOL, therefore, effectively rejected the prospect of a permanent wage-earning class and appealed to the producerist ideals of many labor activists in the first decades following the Civil War. In the end, however, the collapse of the KOL and its replacement by the craft-oriented AFL largely ended the cooperative commonwealth ideal in the American labor movement. Although the AFL mildly supported consumer cooperatives, never again would the mainstream American labor movement be a promoter of producer cooperatives.

Although the dream of the cooperative commonwealth was never able to displace the dominance of American capitalism, the Populist ideal of worker (or consumer) ownership of the means of production has never entirely disappeared. Farm and natural food co-ops remain a familiar part of the American economic landscape, and although somewhat different from the ideal of worker-owned cooperatives, employee ownership or majority ownership has become a feature of many American corporations, and in the early twenty-first century there has been a growing interest in cooperative enterprises that also emphasize environmental sustainability. Most significantly, the cooperative commonwealth ideal remains a relevant example of the long history of populist challenges to the economic and cultural norms of American capitalism.

Susan Roth Breitzer

See also: American Federation of Labor (AFL) ; Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association (FMBA) ; Farmers’ Transportation Convention ; Granger Movement ; Knights of Labor ; Producerism ; Railroad Regulation ; Rochdale Plan ; Rural Credits ; Subtreasury Plan ; Warehouse Act (1916)


Hild, Matthew. Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists: Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Nineteenth-Century South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007.

Ware, Norman J. The Labor Movement in the United States, 1860–1895. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1929.

Weir, Robert. Knights Unhorsed: Internal Conflict in a Gilded Age Social Movement. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2000.