It's difficult to discover or "contract trace" the origins of an obsession. So it's hard to really know how or why I became interested in Russian history or the history of the Russian Revolution. But I sometimes suspect that my interest in revolutionary Russia can be traced back to my interest in my grandfather's politics. Although I never knew my grandfather, I grew up hearing about grandfather's single minded pursuit of Leftist economic and social upheaval. Be this as it may, my grandfather wasn't a communist, and he never preached overt revolution. Rather, he was a collectivist or devotee of cooperatism. He might also fit under the broad category of Christian Socialist. In any event, I believe my grandfather learned about collectivism in the shadow of the First World War at Harvard University around 1915. In any event, he never let go of the idea after leaving Harvard. Although experiencing several farming failures, my grandfather served as a postmaster general and small town newspaper editor for about 40 years. He also helped to found a couple of small cooperative ventures.
Knowing that my grandfather talked about nothing else, I have often wanted to know more about collectivism, and especially how it relates, if it did relate at all, to communism. For this reason, I was especially happy to find a novel by Upton Sinclair entitled, Co-op: A Novel of Living Together. Of course, the idea of turning a dry economic or political idea into a novel seemed odd, but as it turns out, the novel reads relatively well, and gives one a wonderful picture of the "romance" of cooperatism, such as it was.
In general, the novel suggests that cooperatism was a response to the economic dislocation that followed World War I and eventually reasserted itself in the Great Depression. According to Sinclair, cooperatism was an extremely rational response to poverty, unemployment, overabundance, and currency scarcity. In his novel, the unemployed gather together to barter outside of the cash economy. The coop was a nexus or alternative market for workers who lacked both cash and commercial employment. Its internal politics were fundamentally democratic, and many of its adherents professed to believe in some form of Socialism or communism. However, the coop movement sidestepped traditional politics in order to avoid being quashed by the U.S. government and Big Business.
Sinclair's novel is a paen to the virtues of cooperative living, which he suggests are a perfect mixture of realism and idealism. To the modern eye, the economic system seems inherently unproductive, with coops avoiding monetary incentives and sharing bartered tools and goods whenever possible. However, one can readily imagine how many Americans were ready to try something midway between Capitalism and Bolshevism in the 1930s.
And what was the relationship between the American cooperative movement and the Russian Revolution? According to Sinclair, the American bourgeoisie was always terrified by the prospect of Bolshevik Revolution, Civil War, expropriations, and economic chaos. One of his wealthy characters does business with the coop precisely because he wants to make friends with Leftists in the event that there is a Russian-style revolution. Better to do business with the coop than to be "shot in the cellar" later on.
Upton Sinclair claims in his novel that California had over 200 coops in the 1930s, and that thousands of people worked for one of these coops in one way or the other. Politically, coops were propped up by former Wobblies, radicals, liberals, syndicalists, reform-minded Christians, socialists, and communists. Economically, they were fueled by people who found themselves excluded from the cash economy.