The cooperative movement is mourning the loss of one of its pioneers, Lars Marcus, who died in Stockholm at the age of 95.
Lars served as the President of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) between 1984 and 1995. A tireless advocate and defender of cooperatives, he also supported cooperative leaders in emerging democracies, helping to build an international cooperative development aid programme.
His cooperative journey began in the 1950s at the Coop Konsum grocery chain where he was chief-of-staff to Carl-Albert Andersson, who would later become Chair of Sweden's Cooperative Association (Kooperativa Förbundet). He was also involved in politics, serving on the Executive Committee of the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League, SSU and is also credited for helping to persuade Olof Palme (Prime Minister of Sweden, 1982-1986) to get involved in politics.
He later became the Executive Vice President of the Swedish Consumer Cooperative Union and Wholesale Society (KF), overseeing its communication, policy, training and international engagement activity. He deepened the movement’s international engagement by helping to develop the Swedish Co-operative Center (SCC) and the VI-Forest programme. SCC became a key supporter of the ICA’s development programme. He joined the ICA Central Committee in 1976 and was elected to the Executive Committee in 1980. In 1984, at the 28th ICA Congress in Hamburg, he was elected President of the ICA, succeeding Roger Kerinec. He held this position for 11 years, alongside his KF job.
Under his leadership, the ICA expanded membership, welcoming housing, insurance, banking and workers’ cooperative organisations as members. Along with Karl Daniel Mauritz Bonow (1904-1982, ICA chair from 1960), he was instrumental in expanding the organisation’s reach beyond Europe.
He also increased the ICA’s engagement with agricultural cooperatives and their banks and insurance societies, a group that remains amongst the ICA’s strongest members.
At the 29th World Cooperative Congress in Stockholm, Sweden in 1988, he presented a landmark report on Cooperatives and Basic Values, which was unanimously accepted as a resolution by delegates. The report explored cooperative values and identity and was instrumental in developing the Statement on Co-operative Identity as we know it today.
While at the ICA, Lars Marcus also further advanced the organisation’s Policy for Cooperative Development and emphasised the important role of cooperatives in bridging inequalities in less economically developed countries, with support from industrialised states. His first ICA presidential report was presented at the 30th Congress in Japan in 1992 - the first congress to take place outside Europe. He also spoke about the need to support young cooperative movements and the role of governments in backing the less economically developed countries, and led discussions on environment and sustainable development.
In light of the collapse of the Soviet Union – and the realisation that cooperatives were associated with former Communist regimes – he pushed for redefining the movement so that cooperatives could regain their advantage and compete in the age of globalisation. Consequently, he worked closely with the late Professor Ian MacPherson towards formulating cooperative principles fit for the 21st century. He also established the tradition of celebrating the International Day of Cooperatives, which was announced at the 31st Congress in Manchester, UK in 1995 – on the occasion of 100 years of the ICA.
In addition, Lars built on the ICA’s relationship with the ILO, and was a keynote speaker at the ILO’s 75th anniversary conference in 1994.
Lars Marcus is survived by his wife Annhelen, three children and their families.
Co-operators from the ICA and the Swedish cooperative movement have paid tribute to Lars Marcus:
Anders Lago, Board member of the International Cooperative Alliance and President HSB (Sweden); Tommy Ohlström, former CEO of KF, member of the ICA Consumer Cooperative Committee and Chair of We Effect; and Mats Ahnlund, former International Secretary of KF 1992-2002, and former employee of the International Cooperative Alliance:
“Lars was a visionary and a charismatic leader whom many looked up to. He devoted countless trips to defending cooperatives both as an idea and as a business model. He also stood up for cooperative leaders, often representing a pocket of democracy in countries where political democracy, freedom of association and human rights were not present. The fact that he, as president of the world's largest NGO, was received at the highest political level provided him with a platform to speak frankly about the importance of preserving economic diversity through cooperatives, limiting state interference and treating national and local cooperative leaders with respect.
“We who worked closely with him felt his warmth, humour and commitment. He was also a constant seeker, openly questioning and inviting feedback as to whether he had done the right thing and what he could do differently to achieve his and the ICA’s vision.
“Those of us who have succeeded Lars on ICA’s Board and Consumer Committee are still aware of his presence. When we say that we’re from Sweden his name often comes up, 25 years after resigning his position as ICA President. He is still remembered. Always with deep respect.
“Lars Marcus was, until his passing away, a person we were happy to return to for advice, including on contemporary issues. His great wisdom, experience and cooperative compass provided excellent guidance.”
Ariel Guarco, ICA President:
“I deeply mourn the passing of Lars Marcus, the 11th President of the International Cooperative Alliance, who led our movement between 1984 and 1995. His visionary leadership helped our organisation to consolidate on a truly global scale and to be an open house for all cooperatives in the world. He was among those instrumental in taking international cooperation to regions beyond Europe.
“As the ICA works toward the 33rd World Cooperative Congress in Seoul, the Republic of Korea (1-3 December 2021) which will be dedicated to Deepening our Cooperative Identity, we will remember the vital role Lars played in consolidating the concept of the Cooperative Identity. The first congress he presided over was the 29th, in his hometown of Stockholm, Sweden, where he presented a resolution on Cooperatives and Basic Values. This resolution, which was accepted unanimously, was grounded in his vision of the important need for cooperative ideology, cooperative principles, and cooperative values to be thoroughly examined.
“Lars chaired the first Congress that took place outside Europe (the 30th Congress, in 1992 in Tokyo, Japan) and was also instrumental in establishing the tradition of celebrating the International Day of Cooperatives, recognised by the UN, every first Saturday of July.
“The ICA will always remember him with admiration, and we take his work as a legacy that inspires us to keep on working for that just, supportive and democratic world for which he did so much.
“I take this opportunity to send my condolences to his family, colleagues and friends in Sweden and in all the countries where Lars sowed the seeds of cooperation.”
Bruno Roelants, ICA Director General:
“It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of Lars Marcus, a dedicated man and exemplary cooperator. We have lost a real defender of the cause of the international cooperative movement. Lars Marcus was at the head of the ICA from 1984 to 1995 and showed during these years that he was a true visionary cooperative leader. He left an indelible trace in the history of the International Cooperative Alliance as well as an unforgettable impression upon the mind of those who have had the chance to meet him. We extend our sincere condolences to Mr Marcus’s family, friends and the Swedish Cooperative Movement.”