The ICA During War and Peace 1910-1950 by Rita Rhodes

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   This document has been made available in electronic format
           by the International Co-operative Alliance.
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Book Review
Rita Rhodes: The International Co-operative Alliance During War
and Peace 1910 - 1950, ICA Geneva 1995 ISBN 92 9054 001 X,
423 pp.
             by Hans-H. Mnkner, Marburg/Germany

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 sources.

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 fractions.

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 trove 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 organisation.

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 members.

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 on 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 member-organisation.

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.