The O (political group)

The O (political group)

The O., short for 'the Organization', was a Maoist political group which grew out of the U.S. cities of Minneapolis-Saint Paul food cooperative movement in the 1970s. Former member Alexandra Stein described it as "a leftist political cult" and as practicing "a form of fascism". []


In the early 70s, anti-war activists in Minneapolis and St Paul had founded more than two dozen natural food co-operatives, which were owned and operated entirely by volunteer members. There were politically oriented co-operatives in other sectors as well.

These co-operatives the most successful in the United States at the time. Ironically, a contributing factor to their success was the rise of larger supermarkets. This put many smaller, family-owned grocers out of business, and thus meant there was a large amount of cheap, already furnished storefront space.

Political differences arose between those who were influenced by the ideas of the counter-culture of the time, and more orthodox Marxist-Leninists. The second group argued that the co-operatives should sell products such as Coke, sugar, and canned goods, which natural food co-operatives obviously declined to sell, and should adopt a Leninist vanguard organisation.

By 1975 the orthodox Marxist faction had coalesced into a group called the Cooperative Organization, which was to evolve into 'the O'. Their aim was to take control of the co-operatives from the other faction. They quickly began to use violence to achieve this aim. []

Use of Violence

On May 3rd, 1975, a group of members of the CO took over the People’s Warehouse co-operative, seizing the cash box and beating anyone who attempted to resist the incursion. The Warehouse served as the primary distribution center for most of the neighborhood co-ops. When a couple of supporters of the Warehouse came by the Warehouse to heckle the CO, they were attacked with baseball bats. One of the victims was later treated for broken bones.

Now known officially as the 'Mass Organization', the faction attacked and took over a number of other cooperatives. They also harassed their 'counter-culture' rivals, for example by slashing their tyres.According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the CO "were believed to have a cache of weapons stored on the South Side of Minneapolis." []

Ultimate Failure

The CO's campaign had no long-term success. Although they managed to take over several enterprises, the customers and workers largely transferred their efforts to enterprises the CO did not control.

A former member of the Minneapolis cooperative movement said that "what tended to happen in those situations, is that [the CO] would come, and they would take over, and then no one would shop there anymore. They would just go to a different store! I remember, they took over Powderhorn, which is this itty bitty little store! And the people who were volunteering there just said 'OK' – and they left. So there were CO cadre sitting at Powderhorn, and nobody came to shop!" []


The group was characterized by an extreme form of secrecy. Members used code-names, and instructions were communicated by memos. The secrecy was such that many members had never met, or could not even name, group leader Theophilus Smith. Some members were under the totally false impression that the group was related to the Black Panthers or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or was part of a nationwide group. At one point members received no orders for a year, with no explanation given at the time or afterwards. The reason was that Smith was spending a year in jail for manslaughter. []

Alleged Status as a Cult

Sociology professor and specialist on cults Janja Lalich stated that the O, "with its clandestine structure, charismatic leader and all-controlling environment", was a cult. However some former members have disagreed. Former member Bob Malles described being in the O as a "bizarre and painful experience". However he describes it not as a cult, but as a failed social experiment which "blew up in the lab, so to speak, flinging the research staff far and wide." []

Current State

Because of the O's total secrecy, it is unknown as of 2008 whether the group still exists. It survived until at least 1991. []

ee also

the International Workers Party and Tvind - Two groups with similar politics, which have also been accused of being cults.


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