W.E.B. Du Bois


May 1, 1918

The Crisis has now for several months been developing a program looking toward an economic forward movement among the Negroes of the United States. The matter has been developed slowly in order to have as large a number of people as possible understand just what it is that The Crisis has in mind.

The first duty of a modern citizen is to earn a living; but earning a living today is a complicated thing and it would be a great mistake for Negroes to try the old, individualistic laissez-faire method.

Co-operation in economics can, perhaps, best be explained by quoting a leaflet by Dr. J. P. Warbasse:

The Co-operative Movement is an organized non-political effort of the people to control the production and distribution of the things needed to satisfy their wants. It is devoted to the principle that things should be done and commodities produced for use rather than for exchange.”
With a regularity of increase which has seemed almost fatalistic, the movement has spread. In most European countries the membership in the co-operative societies has about doubled itself every ten years. Now, after three-quarters of a century, in many of these countries the number of people embraced in the movement is passing from a large minority toward a majority of the total population. In some sections it has already become a large majority.

Food, clothing, housing, fuel, insurance, transportation, and entertainment are all provided by cooperative societies for their members. To attain these things has meant, first, the organization of people as consumers, and then production for these organized consumers. This has involved study, consecration, and organization talent. There have been many conflicts with the forces of capitalism, but co-operation has won.

The powerful combines, with capital, unscrupulous control of politics, and the force of vested interests behind them, have been beaten by organizations largely composed of working people. Co-operation has succeeded against the greatest economic odds. Now the distributing agencies, the lands and mills of the co-operators, have become noteworthy objects of industry. Some of these are among the largest flour mills, shoe factories, clothing factories, canneries and bakeries in the world—all producing things, not for the competitive market, but for the people who own and consume them.

Experience and not theory has developed the fact that the successful co-operative movement which leads straight to the goal, begins with the organization of the people as consumers. These have an immutable economic principle working for them. The consumer has the money; if he has not he cannot consume; or he consumes with somebody’s else money. He and his purse are the aim and object of business. Commerce is addressed to him. It is for him that the honey of trade is spread, music plays, lights sparkle, and all the prostitution of business is made as alluring as genius can contrive. As consumers, business takes off its hat to the workers; bows, flatters and smirks, and licks the dust from their shoes.

Whenever the people organize as consumers, then they begin to enjoy the economic advantages of their organization; not at some remote day, but from the moment they organize; not when all are organized, but when even a few are gathered together.

These are some of the important things which experience has revealed, and it may be assumed that they will hold as true for the future as for the past.

This is the movement which The Crisis wishes to bring more and more to the attention of the Negroes of the United States. It firmly believes that this is our economic way out, our industrial emancipation.


For attribution, please cite this work as:
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1918. “Co-Operation.” The Crisis 15 (1): 9–10.