While it is straightforward to describe utopian socialist dream worlds, to define the significance of worker associations to early socialism is somewhat more complex. In this chicken-and-egg debate, the primacy of socialist doctrine in asserting cooperation as an alternative to capitalist competition has been reversed in the past 20 years as historians have begun to stress the persistence of traditional artisan concepts. Sewell explored the continuity between the traditional artisan corporations of the eighteenth century, the compagnonnages and confraternités, and early nineteenth-century mutual-aid and other workers' organizations. Furthermore, he claimed that an awareness of class identity was present in the nineteenth-century formations and that workers, through their organizations, made major contributions to revolutionary movements in this half-century. Fellow Americans took him to task, claiming that Marseille, where Sewell had done his innovative research, may have fitted his model, but that it was not relevant elsewhere. Buttressed by recent detailed research into worker groups, they asserted the diversity of artisan associations, few of which were committed to revolutionary goals. They denied that a cohesive and coherent worker consciousness existed.
Many socialists were artisans, and worker associations figured as some of the most practical achievements of socialism. Most socialists described, and tried to implement, piecemeal reform very different from utopian dream worlds. Indeed even those who were called utopians spent much of their time addressing limited, practical problems. The worker associations of the early nineteenth century followed the template of how their organizers thought the traditional economy had operated in harmonious cooperation.
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