Cover image of the reviewed book.

Reviews Consumer and producer cooperatives. Different legacies in Northern and Eastern Europe

+ Mary Hilson, Pirjo Markkola and Ann-Catrin Östman (eds.) Co-operatives and the Social Question: The Co-operative Movement in Northern and Eastern Europe (1880—1950), Cardiff 2012: Welsh Academic Press, 226 pages

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW Vol VI. 2 2013, pp 52-53
Published on on November 12, 2013

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Cooperatives for consumers and producers belong to a category of ideas devised by educated and traveled middle-class reformers and intended for the poor. Enlightened social reformers played a significant role in the social history of the period from 1880 to the Second World War, advocating hygiene, education, temperance, and better housing for the poor.

Liberal notions of self-help have sometimes been considered as part of the middle class education of the “masses”, and thus top-down. They have been contrasted with socialist emancipation from a grassroots level. This top-down vs. bottom-up template is overly simplified.

Cooperatives today have lost their luster in commercial competition, and so we tend to forget the immense significance cooperative ideas had a hundred years ago. They were not only tools for self-help and for adapting family farms to the market economy, as in the Nordic countries. In the large empires of the houses of Romanov and Habsburg, they also served as instruments of national independence, ethnic conflict, and even explicit anti-Semitism (as Jews were often middlemen). In the contentious atmosphere of interwar Central Europe, cooperatives were promoted as the third way between capitalist and socialist economy. Even today, cooperation draws some interest as an alternative economic model when few alternatives exist.

In the last decade, a number of anthologies have been rediscovering this phenomenon, particularly in East-Central Europe. (See titles below.) These tend to be exploratory parallel case studies conveying the importance and some common features of cooperatives, but lacking a common theoretical framework and hence falling short of systematic comparison. The present anthology by Mary Hilson, Pirjo Markkola, and Ann-Catrin Östman fits well into this picture.

The collection focuses on Northern and Eastern European cases, and interestingly, it brings together both consumer and producer cooperatives. Since consumer cooperatives often catered to the working class, whereas producer cooperatives gathered farmers, the joint treatment also highlights relationships between worker and peasant organizations at an important juncture. Efforts to join consumer and producer cooperatives in common central organizations were made regularly, and proved difficult. Working-class organizations were normally parts of socialist or social democratic networks, whereas the farmers’ dairy, meat, and grain cooperatives were closely linked to the peasant parties. The common cooperative organizations had to concentrate on economic and technical issues and leave holistic, ideological, and to some extent educational agendas behind if cooperation was to be smooth. Often this did not succeed. Still, a difference appears: in the Nordic countries, peasants and workers made compromises even if they were difficult to reach and sometimes short-lived, whereas in East-Central Europe, such compromises did not work.

Katarina Friberg, in her chapter on the union of Swedish cooperatives Kooperativa Förbundet, is the only one to actually define “the social question” referred to in the book’s title as pauperism, unemployment, drunkenness, poor health, housing, and women’s rights. She remarks that the social question in Sweden moved from rural to industrial areas during the nineteenth century. The shift also meant that the cooperative retail movement was more oriented towards different shades of socialism, both reformist and revolutionary, than the earlier mixed-class cooperation had been. Working-class orientation did not preclude ideas about a new society organized along cooperative lines, a Cooperative Republic, finally solving the conflict between capital and labor. This vision, built on a holistic understanding and using the cooperatives as a means toward the solution of the social question, did not prevail, however. In Sweden, pragmatic organizers took over. Friberg explains the turn towards pragmatism in organizational terms: the central union consisted of representatives of cooperative societies, not social reformers. Thus economic and practical problems, the interests of members, were at the focus of the organization.

Pellervo in Finland on the other hand was an organization for spreading cooperative ideas and visions, not a central federation. It was created by the conservative Hannes Gebhard, who tried to win over prominent men in society for his organization. He explicitly rejected the Danish tradition of grassroots organization, allegedly because the Finnish peasantry had not reached the level of education of the Danes. Pellervo had an ambiguous relationship to the consumer cooperation organized among industrial workers, associated with the social democratic labor movement. Still, the contacts became close, as Mary Hilson explains in personal terms: Gebhard’s wife was working with the Women’s Cooperative Guild, which promoted consumer cooperatives. It was a difficult collaboration due to the ideological differences between agrarians and social democrats in a society heading towards civil war. During the war, the alliance broke up, but, interestingly, the depression of 1929—1932 brought reconciliation between the consumer and producer cooperatives, encouraged by other Nordic cooperative organizations. The ability of agrarian and labor organizations to cooperate made for political stability in the economic crisis, writes Mary Hilson. In Finland, such cooperation was far from easy. The extreme right-wing Lapua movement had gained public support and was increasingly using violent methods in the crisis. When agrarian members of parliament officially took a stance against these methods, the influence of the movement started to decrease. Thus, against heavy odds, the cooperative movement was part of a political turn in Finland towards the Nordic model.

The ability to make compromises and oppose undemocratic methods stood in contrast to the other new republics of East-Central Europe where violent movements increased in the 1930s. Hungarian intellectuals advocated a Finnish-style development, along with its cooperative model, as an example for Hungary, writes Katalin Miklossy. In East-Central Europe, however, the agrarian movements explicitly acted as a bulwark against socialism, and the intellectuals’ ideas did not catch on. This may have been due to the weakness of the working class relative to the peasantry, to the vicinity of Soviet communism making socialist tendencies seem more dangerous, or simply to a more conflict-ridden social environment. The inability to reach difficult compromises was even more evident on the political level (with the exception of Czechoslovakia, which is not included in this anthology). In addition, as Johan Eellend and Piotr Wawrzeniuk show, nationalism was a more important issue for the cooperatives in Estonia and Galicia than it was in Finland.

It thus seems as if the relationship between consumer and producer cooperatives, as worker and peasant organizations, constituted a crucial difference between Northern and Eastern Europe. The ability to find compromises between workers and farmers was at the core of the Nordic model of equality, democracy and stability, and the cooperative movement, extremely strong among the farmers and strong enough among consumers, actively contributed to it. The consumer cooperatives are less prominent in the chapters about East-Central Europe, where agrarians were vehemently opposed to all kinds of socialism. This difference between Northern and Eastern Europe seems more significant than the top-down-versus-bottom-up model, which fits neither the Estonian nor the Swedish case very well.

The articles are interesting and reveal a little-known landscape. The general attempt to look at the entire cooperative spectrum is particularly worthwhile. The anthology also includes a gender perspective, and raises important questions about morality and economics. The lack of a common core shows in the introductory chapter, which is rather confusing and contains a great many disparate themes. In this respect, it mirrors the development of cooperatives, which in their most popular period functioned as receptacles for all kinds of ideas, but it does not really orient the reader. The combination of consumer and producer cooperatives in one volume should inspire deeper studies. The comparison between Northern and Eastern Europe is difficult to make, but the Finnish experience works as a neat bridge, combining historical legacies from both regions. ≈

Reading recommended by Anu Mai Kõll:

Torsten Lorenz (ed.), Cooperatives in Ethnic Conflicts: Eastern Europe in the 19th and early 20th Century [sic], Berlin 2006: Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag.

Dietmar Müller & Angela Harre (eds.), Transforming Rural Societies: Agrarian Property and Agrarianism in East Central Europe in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,  Jahrbuch für Geschichte des ländlichen Raumes, Innsbruck 2010: Studienverlag.

Helga Schultz & Angela Harre (eds.), Bauerngesellschaften auf dem Weg in die Moderne: Agrarismus in Ostmitteleuropa 1880 bis 1960, Wiesbaden 2010: Harrassowitz.

Piotr Wawrzeniuk (ed.), Societal Change and Ideological Formation among the Rural Population of the Baltic Area 1880—1939, Studia Baltica II:2, Huddinge 2008: Södertörn University.

Anthony Webster et al. (eds.), The Hidden Alternative: Co-operative Values, Past, Present, Future, Tokyo 2012: United Nations University Press.

  • by AnuMai Kõll

    Is legally responsible for the publication Baltic Worlds. Professor in Baltic History, Culture and Society, and director of CBEES at Södertörn University.

  • all contributors

+ Mary Hilson, Pirjo Markkola and Ann-Catrin Östman (eds.) Co-operatives and the Social Question: The Co-operative Movement in Northern and Eastern Europe (1880—1950), Cardiff 2012: Welsh Academic Press, 226 pages