The cooperative movement has from the beginning stood for neutrality in questions of class and race differences, politics, and religion. This is because consumer cooperation is a ground upon which all people may unite, irrespective of these differences. All people are consumers, and as consumers they have a common interest in securing the best possible access to things they want. By eliminating from their affairs any consideration of the above factors of difference, harmony and common interests are preserved. Experience has taught the practical importance of this policy.
This means no official cognizance of these antagonizing factors. But each individual member of cooperative societies is free to have his other affiliations and to act in these matters, as an individual, as he pleases.
In some countries the cooperatives have been compelled to violate this policy of neutrality in politics to their damage. Still in these countries there are signs that the voluntary and non-political principle has great power to survive political pressure. In countries like Belgium, in which the cooperative movement is dominated by political socialist ideology, cooperatives have committed themselves to one particular political party. This policy is exceptional and tends to divide the movement. Where such political discrimination exists, there is always a sentiment against the policy, which may be expected to break it down eventually and establish neutrality. The generally adopted policy of the world-wide cooperative movement is one of neutrality. As a result, in the United States for example, people of various political parties and religions are found in membership in the same cooperative society and on the same board of directors. Political and religious questions upon which they are in disagreement are never permitted to come before their societies.
The importance of this is far-reaching. Cooperation brings together in harmony the diverse elements of the world, who outside the cooperative movement find themselves in hostile camps. This is not a theory but a fact, to be observed in cooperative societies the world over. It bears upon the question of peace because this same force that locally unites people of diverse interests, also harmonizes people internationally. The cooperative movement theoretically has always taken a definite stand against war. Idealistically, it can not ally itself with any political or religious body which approves of war, which actively encourages war, which exhorts people to go to war, or which gives war-making its blessing. To advocate peace between wars would seem not enough. However, in the interest of self-preservation, cooperative societies have quite generally allied themselves with the government in time of war as an expedient of compulsion.
At a recent congress of the International Cooperative Alliance, I sat with a Buddhist Hindu delegate on one side, a Shinto Japanese on the other and an American Hebrew in front of me. These people were united by a common cooperation. While this congress was being held, the Mohammedan Arabs in Palestine were organizing their own cooperative societies and the Jews had theirs. Since that time, while in the political and religious fields the Arabs and the Jews have been at war killing one another, in the economic field they continue their peaceful cooperative societies with their world federation.
Cooperation, it must be understood, can not be regarded as a religion, for it is economic and democratic in principle. The things by which people live and grow, are in the economic field. The great virtues--knowledge, truth, kindness, and justice exist in the relationships between corporal beings. These human beings are composed of materials which are acquired by economic means. Culture, the creation of values, and life itself are economic at their basis. Cooperation is constructive and life-promoting. These values, which are for all people, develop best in the presence of democracy, where success depends upon the welfare of all. And democracy, which has failed to establish itself by political agencies, is finding expression by means of the economic cooperative method.
There is no reason why the churches, the instruments of religion, should not be interested in principle in the cooperative movement. We have seen that many clergymen and communicants are sincere advocates of cooperation, and that the Christian clergy especially have made contributions to its advancement. But ideals and practice in a warring world often have to be at variance. The peace value of neutrality in the cooperative movement is the important fact.
Political systems expressed in governments can properly approve of cooperation. Political parties write endorsement of cooperation in their platforms for the purpose of winning support of members of cooperative societies. This commits the political regime to approval of the cooperative idea. In a country where cooperatives observe political neutrality and endorse no political party, all political parties endorse cooperation; whereas in countries where the cooperative movement endorses one political party, only one political party endorses cooperation.
Neutrality is one of the assets of cooperation. It is this precious quality which makes possible an international organization of peoples of every belief and station, and which has some chance of withstanding the pressure of international hostilities when war comes. We see this exemplified in the International Cooperative Alliance. If all people, as well as cooperators, were aware of the peace possibilities of this Alliance, they might proceed to make it the great international force for peace.