Planned Failure: George Schuyler, Ella Baker, and the Young Negroes' Cooperative League

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In response to an abiding violence against minoritized lives, a lifeline of scholars has been asking a tart question: how do we live and plan for a day that will never come? This essay asks another: how do we live and plan for a day that must not? Recalling the all-but-forgotten black cooperative movement, I give a history of Ella Baker and George Schuyler's Young Negroes' Cooperative League (1930–37), a network of cooperatives with more than two dozen chapters across the US and with affiliated credit unions in the West Indies. Its three-hundred-plus members helped establish buying clubs, grocery stores, a newspaper stand, and other co-ops, businesses owned by their patrons. But the league sought much more than this: a diasporic "cooperative commonwealth," in which, as Baker cried, "the soil and all of its resources will be reclaimed by its rightful owners—the working masses of the world." Delved with delight from manifestos, columns, op-eds, bulletins, conference brochures, financial records, unpublished essays, novels, and letters, this history reframes these two canonical figures and reorients the larger study of leftist social movements. I show how a novelist (Schuyler) more often remembered for his political conservativism and a writer (Baker) more often celebrated for her far-less-contentious ecumenical leadership in the civil rights movement practiced an anarchy. Then through my concept of planned failure, I reverse the terms through which we have come to understand black social movements as failed plans. An alternative to narratives of historical progress, an ungovernable generativity, planned failure designates the intended demise of any initial plan for the organizational structure and for the movement as a whole. It follows from the assumption that to fulfill the initial plan is to reinforce the problems one sought to escape, hierarchies of gender, race, and class, and their material effects. Planned failure is an ecstasy. It unsettles the remarkable dominance of the tragic frame used to interpret political action and provides a door to one of the most fruitful political movements of the twentieth century.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)853-879
Number of pages27
JournalAmerican Quarterly
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History


Dive into the research topics of 'Planned Failure: George Schuyler, Ella Baker, and the Young Negroes' Cooperative League'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this