Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Cautionary Tale From Extremist History

In the early 1970’s the Twin Cities area of Minnesota boasted an impressive leftist scene. A big part of this scene was the network of cooperatively owned businesses (co-ops) that existed in the area at the time. The main thrust of the co-ops was food distribution. They sold bulk foods and health foods at low prices, with the aim of strengthening the sense of neighborhood community and forwarding leftist politics. The Twin Cities even had co-op print shops, hardware stores, and clothing stores. Everything went well until, as so often happens in leftist movements, the Communists showed up. In this case the commies in question were a group known as the “O”, a bizarre and secretive group of Maoists who were led by an enigmatic political con artist named Theo Smith. Smith decided he wanted the food co-ops for his own economic projects and ordered their seizure, thus starting what became later known as “The Co-op Wars”. O members stormed many of the food co-ops in the Twin Cities, expelling the former workers and beating anyone who resisted. Since the co-ops had no official owners, it was difficult for the groups that originally started the collectives to legally force the Communists out. The leftist hippies instead started a consumer boycott of O controlled businesses, which was pretty effective. By the early 80’s, all of the O controlled co-ops were closed. As a result of all of this, the radical potential of the Twin Cities co-op movement was destroyed. The co-ops had to set up a legal structure of ownership to prevent more takeovers, and those who advocated revolutionary politics within the co-ops were discredited by the violent actions of the O. Today, the few co-ops left in the Twin Cities are little different from the mainstream health food stores they compete with. The O continued to exist as a political cult for many years after their setbacks in the 1970’s, sucking in new members and continuing to serve Smith’s megalomaniacal interests. I’ll return to that story later.


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