The Role of Ideology and Organization in ICA's Survival between 1910-1950 (1996)

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

     (Source: Review of International Co-operation,
     Vol.89, No.2/1996, p.47-52)

          The Role of Ideology and Organisation in the ICA's 
                      Survival between 1910-1950 
                         by   Rita Rhodes*

This paper derives from a Ph.D. thesis, The International
Co-operative Alliance During War and Peace 1910 - 1950, of
which the ICA published a book version in 1995.  Both thesis
and book looked at questions of how and why the ICA survived
the two World Wars and the Cold War when similar international
working class movements split under pressures of total war and
divisions of doctrine.  Being more limited in scope this paper
will concentrate on analysing the two main reasons advanced
for the Alliance's survival, namely its ideology and
organisation. At the outset we should note that the period
1910 to 1950 was one in which consumer co-operatives
predominated, helping to shape the Alliance's culture, and
ethos and providing its leaders. In turn these factors
influenced its organisation and ideology.

ICA Organisation 1910 - 1950
Organisation is defined as the ICA's Constitution and
authorities. During the period the Alliance's Constitution
changed little. Only minor amendments were made with its main
features remaining intact. One reason for the Constitution's
durability was that it enjoyed widespread acceptance and the
confidence of ICA member organisations. It also legitimised
ICA decision making, and the longer it survived the more
skilled ICA Member organisations became in using it.  This was
seen particularly clearly during the Cold War when east-west
tensions were contained within the framework of the
Constitution and not allowed to split the ICA.

Between 1910 and 1950 the ICA Constitution exhibited four main

Ideological Consistency
The first was ideological consistency, illustrated by the
similarity between the ICA's original Constitution and that
which was amended in 1948.  The former stated Alliance Objects
as being the fostering of relations between the co-operators
of different countries, the elucidation of co-operative
principles and the establishment of commercial relations
between co-operators in different countries.  In 1948 these
objectives largely remained but were spelt out at greater

a.   To be the universal representative of Co-operative
     Organisations of all types which, in practice, observe
     the Principles of Rochdale

b.   To propagate Co-operative Principles and methods
     throughout the world 

c.   To Promote Co-operation in all countries

d.   To safeguard the interests of the Co-operative Movement
     in all its forms

e.   To maintain good relations between its affiliated

f.   To promote friendly and economic relations between the
     Co-operative Organisations of all types, nationally and

g.   To work for the establishment of lasting peace and

Article 1 of the Constitution as amended in 1948 also
reflected the Alliance's concern to advance co-operation as a
distinct form of social ownership.

"The International Co-operative Alliance, in continuation of
the work of the Rochdale Pioneers and in accordance with their
principles, seeks complete independence and by its own methods
to substitute for the profit-making regime a co-operative
system organised in the interests of the whole community and
based upon mutual self-help."2

The period between these two statements of objects spanned
more than half a century, but their similarity suggests that
the values underlying them had been successfully transmitted
through several generations. In other words there had been an
active ideology which had shown a fair degree of consistency.

ICA Membership
The second characteristic of ICA organisation during the
period was a homogeneity which derived from the way in which
member organisations were recruited and the type of
co-operative that these represented.  As far as the former was
concerned the Alliance's first Constitution had laid down that
ICA Membership was to "comprise co-operative groups,
federations and associations and . . . individuals who were
members of co-operative associations."  Within a few years
there were moves to exclude individual members and to base ICA
membership instead on national co-operative organisations. 
The phasing out of the membership of individual persons was
completed by 1921. Thereafter ICA membership was either
"individual", meaning that of individual co-operative
societies or "collective", in that it was based on
co-operative societies' apex organisations.  The latter soon
became the main form of ICA membership and had the effect of
streamlining and strengthening its organisation.

As far as the type of co-operative was concerned, consumer
co-operatives soon comprised the largest single group.  This
occurred despite the fact that, under its Constitution, the
Alliance was open to all kinds of co-operatives.  The figures
speak for themselves.  In 1927 the ICA had an affiliated
membership of nearly 43 million of which just over 31 million
were members of consumer societies.3  By 1946 those figures
had risen to almost 99 million and 56 million respectively.4 
The predominance of consumer co-operatives encouraged an
ideological cohesiveness, strengthened by the fact that they
were the type of co-operative  most closely associated with
Rochdale. Thus in the ICA between 1910 and 1950, Co-operative
Principles were synonymous with Rochdale Principles and
consumer co-operation with co-operation generally.  We should
recall that it was the period in which the consumer theory of
co-operation had recently triumphed over that of producer

Consumer co-operatives were considered the main vehicle for
co-operative expansion and their influence on the ICA was seen
in many ways, not least in its methods of accountability and

Accountability and Control
These developed in a stable framework:  during the period the
Alliance's "authorities" remained unchanged.  Except for the
post of General Secretary, which was provided for in the Rules
revisions of 1910, the Central Committee and the Executive
Committee it elected, and the Congress, had been laid down in
the first Constitution.  However, between 1895 and 1910 the
Central Committee, although nominally responsible for business
between Congresses, was not able to meet regularly because of
the cost and difficulties of travelling.  By the First World
War, however, it was becoming easier for it to convene at
times other than immediately before or after a Congress. 
Before then the Executive "Bureau", renamed Executive
Committee by 1914, conducted day-to-day business on behalf of
the Central Committee. Its officers, who worked on a voluntary
basis, acted as an embryonic Secretariat.  As we noted, Rules
revisions at the Hamburg Congress, 1910, provided for the
position of a General Secretary, although that post was not
filled until 1913. Thereafter the Secretariat grew.

Alliance authorities operated within a democratic framework in
that the General Secretary was responsible to the Executive
and Central Committee, while the Executive was answerable to
the Central Committee.  In turn that reported its conduct of
the Alliance's affairs to the Congress which had ultimate

Durability and Flexibility
Durability and flexibility were features of the Alliance's
Constitution.  One reason for the former was the
Constitution's fairness.  For example, voting rights and
subscriptions as laid down by Congress, were weighted
according to the membership of affiliated organisations.  Only
the two largest movements, the British and the Soviet, were
asked to accept restrictions on their voting rights without
any commensurate reduction in their membership fees.  The
Stockholm Congress, 1927, decided that no country, or union of
countries, should command more than one-fifth of Congress
votes or hold more than a given number of seats in the Central

The Constitution's flexibility was assisted by the evolution
of a number of conventions.  One appeared in the late 1920s
after the Soviet Central organisation, Centrosoyus, requested
an automatic seat on the ICA Executive.  It was decided that
the election to the Executive should remain on an
international, rather than on a national basis,5  but the
convention developed that Soviet members were elected to the
Committee, often at Vice-Presidential level.

Other examples of flexibility occurred during the two World
Wars when improvised arrangements were made by British, French
and American member organisations to keep limited ICA
activities going. These war-time initiatives were all reported
to, and approved by, subsequent Congresses.

To conclude this section we should reiterate the point made
earlier that ICA organisation was very much shaped by the
Alliance's ideology.

Let us now turn to that ideology in which four distinct
features could be discerned.

Co-operative Principles
While the ICA espoused some pre-Rochdale co-operative ideas
including opposition to the effects of capitalism, and support
for self-help and mutual benefit schemes, it's ideology was
most heavily influenced by Rochdale.  Even so it did not
become the "guardian" of Co-operative Principles until 1930
when the Vienna Congress decided that the ICA should undertake
a review of Rochdale Principles on the grounds that they were
almost a hundred years old yet lacked a definitive statement.. 
Fears were expressed that some ICA member movements were
failing to observe them fully, while others were applying them
in different ways.

Reports of the subsequent review were made to the London and
Paris Congresses of 1934 and 1937 which largely reaffirmed
Rochdale practices, but with some degree of prioritisation. 
For example, the basic Principles were held to be those of
Open Membership, Democratic Control, Dividend on Purchases and
Limited Interest on Capital. A second league comprised
Political and Religious Neutrality, Cash Trading and the
Promotion of Education.6  Other features of the Rochdale
system were also endorsed, but not given the status of
Principles.  These included trading exclusively with members,7 
voluntary membership8 and sale at current market prices.9 
Disagreement arose, however, on the question of "inalienable
assets", because of different practices in different ICA
member organisations.  Finally it was agreed to recommend that
co-operatives should make regular allocations to inalienable
reserves and seek legislative provision for indivisible
collective assets. Thus the 1930s review of Rochdale
Principles endorsed a major part of ICA ideology but there
were also other elements.

Consumer Co-operation and Socialism
A distinction between consumer co-operation and socialism was
articulated when, at its Copenhagen Congress, 1910, the
Socialist International tried to bring trades unions and
co-operatives into closer association.  The move failed and
the ICA Congress in Hamburg a few days later was able to
report that the Socialist International had agreed that
co-operatives' political neutrality necessitated their
remaining independent.  However, there had been agreement that
workers' parties, trades unions and co-operatives should work
together on matters of mutual interest.

Prof. Charles Gide, the French co-operative leader and a
prominent figure in the ICA, went on to draw an important
distinction between socialism and consumer co-operation. 
Pointing to the growing significance of consumers in national
economies, he argued that consumer co-operatives enhanced
consumers' power through their wholesales which allowed
consumer involvement in primary production and a better
marrying of demand and supply.  Through such vertical
integration consumer co-operation was creating a new economic
system capable of transforming large parts of private
enterprise into co-operative social ownership.  Gide denied
that this was the kind of expropriation that many socialists
sought.  Rather it was the triumph of a superior system
through the play of market forces. Moreover, unlike some
socialists, cooperators did not believe that class conflict
was inevitable because "the consumer does not represent any
class . . . everybody is a consumer . . everybody, Socialist
or otherwise, has the right of admission
to the association." 10

Despite the pointing up of such differences the Alliance found
it difficult to retain part of its ideology that had been
enshrined in its Constitution since 1895, namely political

Co-operation and Political Neutrality
Dr. William King (1786-1865) had first argued that
co-operation functioned best when free from the state or
government. The Rochdale Pioneers later adopted political
neutrality as a defensive mechanism. It served much the same
purpose in the ICA because it helped to separate the Alliance
from the political actions of its members. Even so, some ICA
member movements such as the Scandinavians, feared that the
ICA was taking political positions when it declared on issues
such as the League of Nations, world peace and the protection
of co-operative movements from fascist regimes.

Increasingly during the inter-war years, the ICA found it
difficult to maintain political neutrality, thus creating
tensions between it and other parts of ICA ideology.  As war
approached, many in the Alliance recognised that peace might
have to be sacrificed in order to save democracy.

This dilemma was difficult for an organisation that had passed
its first Peace Resolution at its Manchester Congress in 1902,
where it had also decided to join the International Peace

Subsequent ICA Congress also passed peace resolutions, the
most famous being that of the Glasgow Congress, 1913.  Between
1932-1934 the Alliance had observer status at the
International Conference on Disarmament held in Geneva.  Thus
it can be seen that the ICA had held a sustained peace policy
over many years which pre-dated the period 1910 - 1950 and
continues to the present day.

To conclude this section we should note that throughout the
period the ICA had an active ideology.  Not all the parts of
this necessarily sat easily with each other but, overall, they
had a cohesive effect on Alliance membership, even during war.

Evidence suggests that its ideology and organisation were two
over-arching reasons why the Alliance survived the two World
Wars and the Cold War when similar international working class
organisations split. There were, of course, other factors but
these were less significant or occurred in a haphazard or
contingent fashion.

Such conclusions raise questions about the Alliance since
1950. The earlier close relationship between ideology,
organisation and homogeneity of membership has long since
passed:  ICA membership has widened, become more diverse and
with a wider geographical spread. No single type of
co-operative now has the hegemony that consumer co-operatives
exercised between 1910 - 1950. It therefore seems pertinent to
consider how this might have affected ICA ideology and
whether, for example, it has weakened the earlier close
relationship between the ICA's ideology and organisation.

1.   Report of ICA Congress, Prague, 1948, p113

2.   ibid

3.   Review of International Co-operation, No.3. March 1929,

4.   Report of ICA Congress, Prague, 1948, Appendix vi

5.   Minutes of Meeting of ICA Executive, Bremen, 28-29 March
     1928, p7

6.   Report of ICA Congress, London, 1934, p155

7.   ibid pp150-151

8.   ibid p152

9.   ibid p153

10.  GIDE, Charles, The International Co-operative Alliance,
     Presumed date of publication 1920

* A past student of the British Co-operative College and the
Co-operative Research Unit of the} Open University, UK, Dr.
Rhodes became a Lecturer in Further and Higher Education and
also held educational posts in the Co-operative  Union,
National Co-operative Development Agency and the International
Co-operative Alliance. She has also undertaken co-operative
assignments in Egypt, Malaysia, Mongolia and Sri Lanka.