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11. Revolution in a Can Food, Class, and Radicalism in the Minneapolis Co-op Wars of the 1970s Mary Rizzo Dowegivepeoplewhattheywanttoeatordowegivethemwhat’sgoodforthem? That’sthecentralcontradictionintheco-ops. betsy raasch-gilman, A History of North Country Co-op In 1974 a war broke out in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Its battlefields were the dozens of food cooperatives that had sprouted in this progressive region in the preceding four years, and the combatants were the friends, lovers, and family members who had built the co-ops into thriving utopian enterprises. Known as the “Co-op Wars,” this con- flict was summarized best by Dean Zimmerman, one of the cooperative movement’s founders, in the above quote. Should the co-ops sell only “whole foods,” organic groceries, and “untainted” products, or should they stock Coca-Cola and Hamburger Helper? Should they continue to be a place where middle-class counterculturalists and liberals shopped, or should they strive to include the working class? As this last question suggests, the Co-op Wars raised critical questions regarding the intersections among social class, food, radical politics, and identity in the 1970s. Although both factions shared certain overarching goals, each had a different vision of exactly how their idealistic revolution should be conducted and by whom, making the Co-op Wars an 220 Rizzo 221 important glimpse into the complicated process of utopia building in the late twentieth century. The conflict began with the formation of a Marxist reading group in 1974 by a mostly young, white, middle-class, educated group of Minneapolis co-op members. Feeling that the co-ops, which included grocery stores, bakeries, and restaurants, had lost their impetus for social change with the end of the Vietnam War and had become insular havens for ex-hippies, the reading group named itself the Co-op Organization (co). With its explicitly Marxist-Leninist ideology, the co felt it was imperative to woo the working class into the co-ops and thereby politicize them. Only the working class could lead the coming revolution , with help from the intelligentsia as represented by the co. The other co-op members, a loose collection of mainly white, middle-class counterculturalists, anarchists, and liberals,1 disagreed, seeing all political doctrines—especially one as seemingly dogmatic as Marxism-Leninism —as anathema. To the counterculture, the co could be seen only as advocating “a hierarchical store structure, democratic centralism . . . party-line political analysis and . . . intolerance for any other political point of view.”2 Instead the counterculture advocated cultural revolution and individual change as a means of destroying racism, war, imperialism , and capitalism. Over the course of several months, the co distributed position papers advocating a dramatic reorganization of the co-ops, which met with staunch resistance. Even though the co successfully reorganized a failing co-op, the Beanery, the real battle was for control of the oldest and largest cooperative, North Country Co-op. In May 1975 the co forced a confrontation by violently taking over the People’s Warehouse, a central repository that supplied much of the food that area co-ops sold, making it the hub for the entire co-op system. Control of the People ’s Warehouse considerably increased the power of the co in shaping the co-ops and caused a great deal of animosity and confusion among the counterculturalists. After several weeks the countercultural faction formed a new warehouse and used police and legal pressure to oust the co, which lost most of its support by the next year.3 While the co-ops 222 Revolution in a Can withstood this internecine conflict, other, larger leftist organizations in this era crumbled irrevocably into rival radical blocs.4 Each faction in the Co-op Wars and in national disputes among leftist groups created symbols that represented their goals, suggesting that a key part of these ideological struggles occurred in the realm of the imaginary . Since both groups hoped to foment a revolution, it was critical for each to imagine collectively answers to questions such as Who would create and lead this revolution? Who would participate? How would it be accomplished? And who would the enemy be? Disputes over the answers to these questions have tended to prohibit the maintenance of a cohesive Left in the United States. While this point is important in itself, I look at another aspect of this trend. The dispute in the Co-op Wars was ideological, but the factions argued in concrete terms that ultimately crystallized around the issue of what foods the co-ops...


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