ICA founding members look back on their role in setting up a global cooperative apex

15 Dec 2020

Delegates from several countries were in attendance at the first World Cooperative Congress in London in 1895. Cooperators from countries including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, England, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, India, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, and the USA travelled to Britain to take part in a historic moment for the global cooperative movement. In 2020 the ICA is celebrating its 125 anniversary and has put together the testimonies of today’s cooperators from some of the countries who sent delegates to the first ICA Congress.

“The Belgian participation in this founding congress was natural: the cooperative movement that FEBECOOP represents today was convinced from the outset of the importance of creating an international movement: these pioneers were convinced that the struggle for social change could only be won by showing solidarity across borders,” said Jacques Debry, Managing Director, FEBECOOP.

Today Belgian cooperatives see the ICA’s role as one of providing global representation, a place for exchange and a regulatory body for overseeing the cooperative principles.

“The cooperative movement must transcend national borders and profile itself as an international, global force. To do so, it needs strong representation through a structure such as the ICA, whose remarkable durability should be underlined,” added Mr Debry.

In an article explaining the longstanding relationship between the Belgian cooperative movement and the ICA, he praised the apex for its longevity and ability to adapt to global changes, surviving two world wars, the Cold War and recent challenges posed by globalisation. The ICA also represents the movement at UN level, serves as a platform for members to exchange ideas and acts as a regulatory body for cooperative principles, he added.  

Eva Bauer, former Housing Economist of Österreichischer Verband gemeinnütziger Bauvereinigungen – Revisionsverband (Austrian Federation of Limited-Profit Housing Associations) also looked at the relationship between the ICA and Austrian cooperatives. While Austrian representatives were unable to attend the 1895 Congress, they welcomed the creation of the ICA and submitted a report to the event on their national cooperative movement.

“The following year we found 14 representatives of Austria-Hungarian cooperatives and their associations in the Grand Comité of ICA as well as a President of Honour,” said Ms Bauer. In the late 19th century there were around 4,000 cooperatives in Austria-Hungary, with the strongest sector being the saving and credit cooperatives – 2,700 – followed by consumer associations, agri-food cooperatives and housing cooperatives.

The relationship between the Austrian cooperatives and the ICA survived several challenges and today the main Austrian cooperative branches – banking and housing – are ICA-members (either direct or via European cooperative networks).

“Finding solutions to answer the challenges on European or worldwide level require international cooperation,” said Ms Bauer. “Learning from each other not only provides opportunities of improving their own performance but also builds up bonds between international partners thus improving and strengthening the model of cooperatives as such. There are manifold challenges in the upcoming years and it is not unlike that cooperatives can provide solutions on the level of organisations and principles.”

Jean-François Draperi, Director of the Social Economy Centre (CESTES) of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM, Paris) and Editor-in-Chief of the International Review of the Social Economy (RECMA, Paris), believes the first ICA Congress held in London marked the beginning of an era of international unification of national cooperative movements.

“It punctuated a long series of English and French attempts which began as early as 1835,” he wrote. “The London Congress is thus not only a birth but also a culmination. The heart of the debate lies in the articulation between two major cooperative conceptions, the one initiated by workers and the one initiated by consumers. The 1895 Congress marked the victory of the latter, echoing the economic success of the wholesale societies. The defenders of the 'participationist' thesis, i.e. that which claims a decisive place for workers, nevertheless continued their quest.”  

He explained that both in England and France, as in most countries, the two currents were developing jointly but their reciprocal relations differed from one country to another.

(left to right) George Jacob Holyoake and Edward Vansittart Neale
(left to right) George Jacob Holyoake and Edward Vansittart Neale

English cooperators Edward Vansittart Neale and George Jacob Holyoake attended the second ICA Congress in Paris in 1896 and expressed interest in the The Familistère was a community-housing complex for workers in Guise, a town of the Picardie region, in France. They also pointed out that France lacked cooperative wholesale societies of the type England had at the time.

“The REC, which became RECMA, has continued and deepened the paths opened by Charles Gide, Albert Thomas, Georges Fauquet, Claude Vienney and Henri Desroche, seeking to understand both the cooperative creativity on all continents and the challenges facing the largest cooperative organisations,” writes Mr Draperi. “This international openness is confirmed by its readership, which extends to fifty countries. RECMA will celebrate, in partnership with the ICA, its centenary in 2021, one year after the 125th anniversary of the ICA.”

Crucial to the success of the ICA was the principle of ‘agreeing to disagree’. Dr Peter Gleber, Scientific Director of the non-profit foundation GIZ - Cooperative History Information Center in Berlin, explained that while German cooperators remained sceptical about other countries’ commitment to the idea of an international alliance, they still backed the project. 

Franz Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch
Franz Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch

“The fact that the Germans were nevertheless involved in the foundation of the ICA is to be seen as a strong signal for the international cooperative system,” he wrote. “In 1895, Schulze-Delitzsch and his comrades-in-arms had created a decentralised civic cooperative system that differed significantly from the models in other countries. However, the principles of the pioneers of Rochdale were also recognised and respected in Germany. In particular, the democratic principle of ‘one member, one vote’ was a reason for German support for the ICA. The German Cooperative Law and the membership in an international association were a ‘life insurance’ for German cooperatives in the German Empire, an undemocratic authoritarian state. ‘We agree to differ’ was an important fundamental principle of the ICA. It teaches us today that solidarity in spite of all differences is an important value for securing peace and freedom.”

Italian cooperatives were also in attendance at the 1895 ICA Congress. President of the Italian Cooperatives, Antonio Maffi, had arrived in London to accompany Italian delegates led by Luigi Luzzatti, along with Luigi Bodio and Leone Wollemborg. Their participation followed earlier exchanges with the British cooperative movement. In 1886 Edward Vansittart Neale and George Jacob Holyoake had attended the opening of the Italian Federation of Cooperatives in Milan, which was renamed the “Lega” (“League”) in 1893.

The newly born ICA maintained a close relationship with the Italian cooperative movement until the rise of Fascism a few decades later, which temporarily interrupted it. The ICA re-established contact with the Italian movement after World War II, building strong relationships with the country’s cooperators which culminated with the election of Ivano Barberini as President of the International Cooperative Alliance at the Seoul General Assembly in 2001.

Mattia Granata, President National League of Cooperatives Study Centre, Rome and Director of the Ivano Barberini Foundation, Bologna, wrote: “He was the first Italian to hold, for two subsequent mandates, that office: the most prestigious position for a cooperator. His presidency was marked by a commitment to peace and social justice, values common to the various international movements that in this difficult historical moment of time will certainly have to be pursued with ever greater conviction.”

Likewise, representatives of the Russian cooperative sector, who attended the first ICA congresses, “were highly interested in foreign cooperation”. I.F. Zherebyatyev, one of the Rusian cooperative movement’s leaders, was personally acquainted with his English and French counterparts and was familiar with the activities of European cooperative societies.

“The first years associated with the ICA were both productive and encouraging for the Russian cooperation, since the Alliance acted as the highest authority to discuss controversial issues of theory and practice, and as a platform to get acquainted with cooperative movement, where Russian cooperators represented by Centrosoyuz (an ICA member since 1903) got practical experience,” said Alexander Sobolev, Professor at the Department of Economics at the Russian University of Cooperation in Moscow.

The relationship continued after the formation of the Soviet Union and mid-20th century representatives of Centrosoyuz and the Soviet bloc have played a prominent role in the activities of the ICA and in the ICA congresses.

Prof Sobolev added: “Membership in the ICA allowed Centrosoyuz to extend contacts with cooperators from developing countries and maintain mutually beneficial international cooperation. In the 1960s-1980s Moscow Cooperative Institute provided internships to thousands of cooperators from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The ICA has always been needed primarily in order to have its supporters in other countries.”

Another country that supported the ICA from the very beginning was the United States. It was  represented by three delegates and five visitors at the August 1895 International Cooperative Congress in London, and had a representative on the ICA’s first Central Committee.

Ann Hoyt, Ombuds and Emeritus Professor University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote: “By the end of the 19th century many American cooperators had travelled to Europe to learn about its cooperatives in agriculture, banking, and consumer goods and services. They established international trade connections and were deeply committed to the establishment of commercial enterprises based on mutual self-help, democratic control and economic and social justice. 

“They saw the value of developing a strong international voice and custodian for these values. ICA is the organisation that provides the platform for the world’s cooperatives to discuss the common and fundamental core of our identity, our current value and how our principles can and should be adapted over time. Today there are literally tens of thousands of American cooperatives whose businesses are based on the Cooperative Principles and Values as protected and supported throughout the world by the ICA.”

Professor Hoyt believes the ICA’s measurable accomplishments in supporting cooperative international trade economic development, education and women’s and workers’ rights in an ever-increasing variety of industries have been crucial to the US support of ICA. Another important area of work for the ICA has been championing the role of cooperatives in promoting peace. 

“Beyond all the other advantages of the 125 year partnership between American cooperatives and the ICA, the opportunity to collaborate through ICA with the worlds’ cooperatives to pursue activities that foster positive peace has been its most enduring value and is its most positive future,” she wrote.

Argentina is also believed to have sent representatives to the first Congress. The first cooperatives in the country were set up in the late 19th century – some sources suggest there were approximately 60 cooperatives in the late 19th century. Cooperative ideas were pioneered by several Europeans who had migrated to Argentina including Frenchman Alejo Peyret, the Catalan Victory y Suarez and the German L’Allemant.

“All of them maintained active engagement with European organisations and political and social militants. Shortly afterwards, the task was continued by a generation of Argentinian young people, amongst whom Juan B. Justo was most prominent in his contribution to shaping socialism and developing the cooperative movement,” said Daniel Plotinsky, Director of Idelcoop Foundation of Cooperative Education and of the Historical Archive of Credit Cooperatives in Argentina.

Juan Bautista Justo
Juan Bautista Justo

Juan B. Justo was in Europe in 1895 but there are no records of him attending the 1895 congress. The Argentine movement remained closely connected to cooperators elsewhere and in 1910 El Hogar Obrero (EHO), a credit and housing cooperative founded in 1905, was the first non-European organisation to be accepted as a member of the ICA. Through its membership of the ICA, the cooperative established relationships with wholesale cooperatives in England, Spain and Italy from 1920 onward. Argentina hosted its own national cooperative congress in 1919 with the aim of lobbying for a General Law of Cooperative Societies. At this meeting Argentine cooperators suggested celebrating the international day of cooperatives on 21 December – the day the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers started trading. The ICA adopted their suggestion but changed the date to 6 September, and then to the first Saturday of July.

Argentine cooperatives remained engaged in the international movement, particularly in debates around the neutrality of cooperatives. In 1965 they put forward a resolution arguing that cooperatives were not neutral and had to be engaged in political debates in order to pursue their activities. Mr Plotynsky believes this text could have led to the revisions made by the ICA at the Congresses of Vienna (1966) and Manchester (1995).

“The ongoing and increasing participation of the Argentine cooperative movement in the International Cooperative Alliance has allowed it to keep the founding values and principles alive, and at the same time has prompted it to reflect on them, and thereby enriching them further,” he wrote.

The full testimonies of countries who sent delegates to the first ICA Congress can be read here.

Photo: a report from the proceedings of the 1895 Congress written by E.O. Greening which can be found in the Co-operative Archive at Holyoake House in Manchester, UK


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