Italian Center for Documentation on Cooperation and Social Economy | Virtual museum - Cooperative Issues

Virtual Museum
of cooperatives

Cooperative Issues

This session is aimed at revisiting the ideas and theoretical elaborations of the main European thinkers and promoters of the cooperative movement.
In the room devoted to the European Fathers of cooperation, it is possible to find an overview of the most significant contributions of the founders of European cooperation. Belonging to different cultural matrices, these XIX century thinkers have in common a more or less tight link with the so called “utopistic” socialism. For them cooperation is a solidaristic instrument to put in place a renewed society, capable of overcoming the worst shortcomings of XIX century capitalism. Their views, although quite idealistic, were not at all devoided of practical content; these thinkers were in fact often organizers of cooperative enterprises, not all of them successful, but fundamental for the future creation of viable selfgoverned enterprises.
The room devoted to the Italian Cooperative Thinkers is organized in a bit different way in three groups, because Italian cooperators belong to more than one ideal inspiration. Beside the socialist ideal root, there is a national root that was initiated by Giuseppe Mazzini and a catholic one that was inspired by Pope Lion XII.
The Liberal-Mazzinian School of Thought
Liberal-inspired cooperative principles, though extremely significant in the origins of the movement, are decidedly marginal today. This view groups together those who embrace a philanthropic view, and attempt to bring about democratic business management and an organizational structure which is able to conciliate development, efficiency and equal distribution of the resources produced.  
This lay vision of cooperativism encompassed both the liberal bourgeois-philanthropic culture, as well as Mazzinian principles which embraced the idea of “labour and capital in the same hands”. One of the first and most important theorists of the Italian cooperative movement, Francesco Viganò, was a follower of Mazzini and was inspired by the values of conciliation, social peace and universal brotherhood.   A few years after him, in the last years of the 19th century, Luigi Luzzatti and Leone Wollemborg emerged as promoters of the first cooperative rural banks and cooperative agricultural banks, respectively. Another figure to arrive on the scene at this time was Ugo Rabbeno, one of the first to articulate a systematic economic theory of the “Green” cooperative movement. Vilfredo Pareto was the first to draw attention to some of the contradictions of the self-managed enterprise, debunking some of the socialist theories in this area. Maffeo Pantaleoni, a fervent anti-socialist and defender of liberal economic principles, followed a similar approach. Between the 19th and 20th centuries, other important figures in the cooperative movement inspired by liberal principles were Enea Cavalieri, who believed the cooperatives to be a vehicle through which to escape from a subsistence economy, Luigi Buffoli, who claimed that the cooperative movement should have nothing to do with politics or religion, and Giovanni Raineri, who promoted an agricultural progress founded on the cooperative principles of association and consortia. Halfway through the 20th century, one of the last liberals to show interest in these issues was Albert Basevi. Basevi was one of the main lobbyists responsible for the inclusion of cooperative issues in Italian Republican legislation.
The Socialist School of Thought
When, in the last decades of the 19th century, the spread of Socialist ideas and the development of class-consciousness among the working classes emerged, a large part of the cooperative movement chose to orient itself towards this political ideology. The cooperative movement became a means of solidarity among the working classes, as well as a vehicle for socialism and a channel through which the bourgeoisie could be defeated. Among the first and most significant leaders of the ‘red’ cooperative movement was Andrea Costa, the first socialist candidate to be elected to Parliament. Even if the difference in views between the radical ‘maximalist’ faction and the moderate reformists was often irreconcilable, on a practical level the cooperative movement was situated halfway between acting as an economic body and a political one.   As a consequence it was greatly appreciated by the more moderate faction of PSI (the Italian Socialist Party). Among the most prominent theorists of this school were Nullo Baldini, founder of the first cooperative of daily-labourers, and Antonio Vergnanini, supporter of the so-called “integral cooperatives,” which identified the relationship between reformism and cooperativism through a joint document.
The Catholic School of Thought
In 1891, with the encyclica Rerum Novarum, Pope Leone XIII established the social vocation of Catholicism within the framework of a capitalist economy. As a result, the first cooperatives of catholic inspiration soon emerged, promoted by men such as Nicolò Rezzara, a prominent figure in Bergamo and among the first to highlight the unique characteristics of Catholic cooperatives, vis à vis the Socialist, Republican or Liberal ones. Especially in the building of rural cooperative banks, Luigi Cerutti, was active and developed theories of the religious root of these organizations. Due to the vast parishes network, the social-Christian cooperative movement spread rapidly.   The rapidity of diffusion was due also to the commitment of certain intellectuals who continued the work begun by the first Catholic leaders. Even if the name of Luigi Sturzo stands out in the collective memory, as a politician he was involved in and wrote on many issues related to Catholic cooperativism; we must not forget also Ercole Chiri, among the main architects of Confcooperative.

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