At the present time there seems to be a desire to reconstitute the old agrarian communities under a new form. In England several agricultural undertakings have been established on the principle of co-operation. One of the oldest is that of Balahine, in Ireland, started in 1830 by Owen's disciple, John Scott Vandeleur. It seems to have met with the best results, both in a moral and economical point of view,(1) until the experiment collapsed suddenly on the flight of Vandeleur, who was ruined at play. The report of the Rev. James Fraser, the present bishop of Manchester, government commissioner in the inquiry as to the employment of women and children in agriculture, brings before us two agricultural co-operative societies, which seem to succeed perfectly. They were on the estates and under the supervision of Mr Gurdon, of Assington Hall, near Sudbury in Suffolk. The first dates from 1830. It was formed, at the suggestion of Mr Gurdon, by the association of fifteen ordinary labourers, who each contributed three pounds, and a further sum of four hundred pounds was advanced by the landlord. They have now extended their farm from sixty to a hundred and thirty acres. They have returned the money advanced to them, and each share is worth about fifty pounds, which represents more than sixteen times what was originally invested. One of the associates, elected by his fellows, directs the cultivation, having a committee of four to assist him. The associates may sell their share; but the consent of the landlord and of the society is necessary for the validity of the sale and the admission of the new associate.
The second society was formed in 1854 under the same conditions, with the same success. Mr Gurdon again advanced four hundred pounds, which has been repaid to him. The land cultivated has been from time to time enlarged, and now extends over two hundred and twelve acres, the rent of which is two hundred and thirty-five pounds. The original shares, for which three pounds ten shillings were given, are now worth more than thirty pounds. Mr Fraser has much to say of the advantages of the system; and another writer, who also visited the Assington co-operative agricultural associations, confirmed, in the Pall-Mall Gazette of June 4, 1870, the correctness of the facts given by Mr Fraser. The celebrated German economist Von Thünen, about 1848, introduced, upon the land of Tellow in Mecklenburg, the system of participation in the profits in favour of his agricultural labourers. According to evidence furnished by Dr Brentano, of the Berlin statistical department, this experiment, which was carried on in spite of the death of Von Thünen, is giving excellent results; for each labourer receives an annual dividend of about twenty-five thalers, and the oldest among them have a capital of five hundred thalers in the savings-bank.
The working classes in England at the present time regard the idea of applying co-operation to agricultural labour with much favour: and it was even advocated by Mill, who would have had the State grant to co-operative agricultural societies a portion of the common land still existing. These schemes have found their echo in the antipodes, and an association has just been formed at Melbourne, in Australia, called the "Land Reform League," the object of which is to restrain sales by the State of public lands, which it would retain as provision for the future.
There is no doubt that it would be desirable to see co-operative association applied to the cultivation of the soil. Its advantages have been fully shewn by several economists, by Rossi amongst others. Of these advantages the two most important are: first, that a reconciliation is by this means effected between labour and capital, which are at the present time always engaged in a lamentable struggle; and secondly, small properties, which are desirable in a social point of view, are associated with cultivation on a large scale, which is no less profitable economically, as employing machinery and a systematic distribution of crops. But we must not be deluded with the idea, that association of agricultural labour could be easily introduced into general practice. The success of the experiments made in England at Assington, and in Germany on the land of Tellow, is in great measure due to the prevailing influence of Mr Gurdon and of Von Thunen. The old agrarian communities were actually co-operative agricultural societies: they were founded on ties of blood, family affection and immemorial tradition; and, this notwithstanding, they disappeared, not by the hostility of state powers, but from the gradual influence of the sentiment of individualism, or of egotism, characteristic of modem times. In the place of family spirit, which has waxed feeble, will a new sentiment of collective fraternity develop itself with sufficient force to serve as cement for future associations? It is a consummation we may hope for, and the difficulties of the existing situation make it singularly desirable. It is, however, too evident that the labouring classes, especially in the country districts, still want the enlightenment and spirit of mutual understanding essential to the success of co-operative association. Much as we may hope that a brilliant future awaits such association, we must admit that its hour has not yet come; though, probably, it is to come.
All clear-sighted economists have seen the necessity of agricultural co-operation. To quote Rossi on the subject:(2)
"Extensive property and extensive cultivation, small property and small cultivation, are not ideas which are necessarily construed each by the other... .How can cultivation on a large scale be applied to small properties? The answer is, `By association.'.. .The spirit of association is natural to man, alike in all times and in all countries.... In France the spirit of association will be spread by the multiplication of small capitalists, and to a still greater extent by the diffusion of enlightenment and of popular education....
"The cultivation of grain, of roots, of resinous or dye-producing plants, of pasture and forests, as well as the dissemination of sanitary and economic principles, are objects to which association may be applied with ease and advantage....
"The terms of association must vary with the manners and customs of the country, with the kind of cultivation, and the nature of the produce. In some localities, by means of association a large property may be formed of several small holdings, and let to a tenant, while the proprietors can find more useful employment for their labour m some manufacturing industry. Elsewhere an administration may be organized for joint expenditure under the direction of one or more of the associated proprietors. Here they may unite solely for the purchase and employment of certain agricultural machines and implements; there, to organize means of irrigation, and to distribute water among the persons interested. Where would the principle stop? The mind of the labourer, once awakened, would not be slow in finding the forms of association best adapted to local circumstances.
"The cultivators are not such strangers as may be supposed to the idea of association, common interest, and division of profits....
"Unfortunately, the public has at present no very clear idea of the conditions of the problem which it is called upon to solve. So the progress in question cannot be sudden: it is an end towards which we are advancing gradually day by day. Between the dissolution of the old ties, and the spontaneous formation of new ones, which under the empire of civil equality are to unite and co-ordinate individual forces, there was of necessity an intermediate state, an epoch of transition, of agitation and of difficulty, subject to the passions and controversies of mankind. This interval, full of difficulties and dangers, we have nearly completed: we can see distinctly its boundary-line, but it would be a delusion to suppose ourselves already arrived at it, when we are atm only on the way....
"...Unless all that we have just. said is entirely without foundation, the economic results of laws regulating property in land may be modified and corrected by agreements between the owners of land, and especially by association. Henceforth the interest of all questions of succession grows weaker for the economist. What matter great or small properties, the amount of the reserve land, the limitations imposed on testators, and other questions of this nature, where the proprietors, whatever the extent of their possessions, can apply according to circumstances cultivation on a large or small scale, and derive in any case the greatest possible advantage from that powerful instrument of production, the soil?"
"When subdivision shall have produced all its fruits," says Louis Reybaud, "and in consequence of its obvious disadvantages men return from small cultivation to cultivation on a large scale, new progress will be achieved in an alliance of human interests. Association will be the offspring of the continued subdivision of property."(3)
"Association is calculated to banish pauperism, and to assemble in systematic social order the disconnected elements of modern society. The principle of association will restore to the world the peace for which it is athirst. Those who become its apostles and obtain it a hearing, will be the benefactors of the human race."(4) These are the words of M. Michel Chevalier.
To quote next M. Wolowski:(5) "Social progress cannot consist in the dissolution of every kind of association, hut rather in the substituting in the place of the compulsory and oppressive associations of times past, voluntary and equitable associations, combinations not merely for security and defence, but for common production."
"The spirit of association and the spirit of family divide the world between them," said M. de Cormenin when treating of agricultural association.(6)
"Providence has implanted these two instincts in man. Both, when wisely employed according to the object in view, conduce alike to the individual and social welfare.
"The division of properties is tending, in more instances than one, to produce the same inconvenience as their extreme accumulation.... In countries where the soil is minutely subdivided, the peasant, who is half-labourer, half-proprietor, has all to gain by association. For him it can work marvels.
"Further, consider the moral effect of such association; increased welfare in the present, security of mind for the future, and respect for oneself and one's neighbours. Consider the pledges of mutual good will, the salutary and wide-spreading influence of example, the healthy, voluntary discipline, observance of engagements, and internal peace for the community!"
1. See Mr William Pare's Co-operative Agriculture, which contains interesting details. The author, however, carried away by the attraction of his own Utopia, has perhaps given too highly-coloured a view.
2. Cours d'économie politique, Vol. II. Lesson 5, pp. 101138.
3. Etudes sur les réformateurs modernes, Vol. I. p. 198.
4. Michel Chevalier, Diet. de la Conversation, art. Population.
5. Leçons au Conservatoire des Arts-et-Métiers, 16 Dec. 1844.
6. Entretiens de village, etc. xxii.