The ICA During War and Peace 1910-1950

This document has been made available in electronic format
     by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA
                     January 1996

The International Co-operative Alliance During War and Peace 1910-1950 by
Dr Rita Rhodes, ICA Publications, Geneva 1995, 430 pp, price CHF 45.00,
ISBN 92 9054 001  X

Rita Rhodes' book on the history of the International Co-operative Alliance
(ICA) during the critical period of 1910 to 1950, from pre-war developments
before the First World War to the cold war period after the Second World
War is much more than a historical record. It sheds light on periods of the
ICA which had remained in the dark not only for the ordinary observer but
also for research workers who relied on official texts and published

Rita Rhodes' book illustrates, how the organisation is influenced by its
origin as a European and consumer/worker based institution and how an
international organisation carries its birth marks received from its
founding fathers, even after a century. The book demonstrates, how strong
or weak leadership affects the fate of such organisation and what strains
are put on an international organisation trying to remain politically
neutral in times of war, with members coming from the different warring

The book is fascinating reading, because it reports little known facts of
the struggle within the ICA between divergent schools of thought: self-help
co-operatives versus co-operatives serving the common good, co-operatives
as workers' organisations versus co-operatives of the middle class,
co-operatives as communist collectives or mass organisations of a party in
centrally planned economies versus private, politically neutral
co-operatives in a market economy. It shows how the devotion to the goal of
maintaining the ICA as a forum of persons holding different opinions and of
avoiding a split of the world co-operative movement prevailed over the idea
of protecting the Rochdale heritage and the true co-operative principles at
all cost.

It is interesting to learn details on how the ICA operated with a devoted
leadership and staff on a limited budget and how it saw its role in
post-war Europe and in the countries devastated by the war.

The book is written in a scholarly manner, close to the original sources
(minutes and memoranda, correspondence and reports), many of which
published for the first time.

With its many quotations from little known documents, this book is a
treasure grove for those who want to understand, how the ICA works, how it
could survive in turbulent times and to what degree compromise with
socialist ideals was accepted, while compromise with fascist ideas was
strictly rejected.

The book is subdivided in nine chapters. It starts with a carefully drawn
picture of the historical roots of the ICA, both in Great Britain and in
France and to a lesser degree in Germany and shows how the ICA was
initiated by people whom we would call today "true Europeans" or
"internationalists", working unselfishly for a common cause. It is
interesting to note that the initial congresses of the ICA were not
exclusively meetings of co-operators but included prominent people of
public life, the peace movement, the labour party and the church.

This is followed by a survey of ICA's organisation and ideology between
1910 and 1950 - with surprisingly little changes in its constitution and
organisational set-up during these turbulent decades. It lays the ground
for deeper understanding of the ways in which controversies within the ICA
were settled in a manner to avoid friction which could break up the

In the next chapter on the ICA and the First World War it becomes evident
that this war did not threaten civic society and the co-operative movement
as much as the Second World War did and that it was possible to maintain
the co-operative communication channels despite the war.

In this part of the book a hitherto fairly dark part of ICA's history is
brought to light. It deals with the issue of whether the ICA has the right
to question continuation of membership, if the member follows principles
different from those of the ICA and describes how the ICA authorities
decided to tolerate communist co-operative concepts rather than to risk a
split of the ICA - a trend towards ideological compromise which later
caused a lot of trouble and required strong measures to fend off communist
pressure to change the ICA and to take over control.

The chapters on the ICA's response to Italian fascism and German nazism and
on the situations in Austria, Spain, Czechoslovakia and the Far East on the
eve of the Second World War and during that war are interesting reading
especially for readers of the respective countries who may not have had the
opportunity to see events from this angle. Detailed information is given on
the dissolution of the Lega in Italy and the ICA's reaction to the growing
influence of the Nazi regime on German co-operatives. Finally, the author
offers some explanation why the ICA survived the two World Wars and the
Cold War and at what cost.

The book reminds the reader that many of the issues debated today were
already on the agenda decades ago - only that those debates have been
forgotten. It shows the advantages of undogmatic flexibility and tolerance
but also the dangers of abandoning ones' own values and principles. It
offers insight into the process of gradual changes of the Rochdale
Pioneers' principles designed for consumer co-operatives in the times of
industrial revolution in Western Europe to become internationally
recognized co-operative principles of the ICA, claiming universal
applicability across cultural and political boundaries and validity for all
types of co-operatives. The book shows how difficult it is for the ICA to
play the role of the global guardian of true co-operative principles in a
world of turmoil, war and aggression, to maintain high standards of
credibility and to pursue at the same time a policy of internationalism and
tolerance, accepting movements of different ideological colour, different
degrees of autonomy and different attitudes towards political neutrality as

This becomes particularly obvious in the account of dealings of the ICA
with the Centrosoyus. The ICA found unanimity on issues like democracy,
although the communists held a totally different view on what democracy
meant as compared with that of the fellow members from Western Europe and
the USA. While it was stated by non-communist co-operative leaders within
the ICA that democracy always includes freedom of association and freedom
of speech and excludes compulsory co-operation, Centrosoyus had been
admitted and remained an important member and contributor. It was somehow
accepted that collectives and party organisations following communist
principles were a special form of co-operatives which could be reconciled
with the co-operative principles governing the ICA, although the President
of the ICA (Maurice Bonow) referred to socialist forms of co-operative
organisation and co-operatives according to the ICA principles as mutually
exclusive concepts.

It appears that the ICA has learned a lesson from these difficult times,
namely to clarify the meaning of the ICA co-operative principles for
considering future admissions of members.

To conclude, Rita Rhodes' book may have been the best birthday present the
ICA could hope for at the occasion of its centennial, because it clears up
ICA's role during the most difficult period of its existence and enhances
its much needed credibility. The mosaic of facts presented by her, offers a
vivid picture of how and why the ICA survived the two World Wars and the
Cold War.

Some may see this account as a late rehabilitation of some Western ICA
leaders who struggled behind the scene to keep the ICA clear of communist
domination and as an explanation why the Centrosoyus was allowed to remain
a member of the ICA despite all difficulties experienced with this

It also explains to some extent, why the ICA as the largest, oldest and
potentially powerful Non Governmental Organisation (NGO), which should be
the global authority to defend member movements against political
oppression and despite its consultative status with the UN-ECOSOC acts as a
modest and prudent organisation.

This book is worth reading, not only for practitioners and scholars
interested in co-operative development but also for all those who want to
know more about the internal working of international NGOs.

Hans-H. Munkner