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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(1) A form of organization of labor in which a significant number of people participate jointly in one or in many different but interconnected labor processes.

(2) A complex of formally organized, gainful, voluntary mutual aid associations of workers and small producers (including peasants), which are established to achieve common goals in different branches of economic activity.

The main forms of cooperative associations are agricultural production, credit, housing, consumers’, artisans’, marketing, supply, and agricultural cooperatives. Each type of cooperative includes a variety of organizational forms. (For example, among the agricultural production cooperatives are partnerships for the joint cultivation of the land, partnerships for the joint use of machinery, and agricultural artels [kolkhozes], and among the credit cooperatives are savings and loans partnerships, credit unions, “people’s banks,” “people’s mutual aid funds,” “workers’ mutual aid funds,” and credit associations.) Cooperatives are often classified according to their sphere of activity. Thus, production and artisans’ cooperatives fall under production, and consumers’, marketing, supply, and credit cooperatives, under circulation. Depending on their branch of economic activity, cooperatives may be classified as marketing, supply, credit, or trade (consumers’) cooperatives. According to the social class of their members, they may be categorized as workers’, peasants’, farmers’, artisans’, or mixed (that is, made up of representatives of various classes). Finally, they may be classified as urban or rural. In some countries cooperative organizations are classified according to the nationality or religion of their members. The assets of a cooperative include the shares, the membership fees, and the profits.

The essence, place, and role of cooperation in a socioeconomic structure are determined by the prevailing production relations. From the standpoint of production relations, there are two types of cooperation: capitalist and socialist. Originating in the mid-19th century with the development of capitalism, capitalist cooperatives were one of the means of involving small commodity producers or consumers in the system of market capitalist relations. At the same time, the cooperatives offered these groups a means of struggle against exploitation by commercial middlemen, secondhand dealers, usurers, and industrial capitalists.

Under capitalism, cooperatives are collective capitalist enterprises, inasmuch as the main source of their profits and property is part of the surplus value yielded to them by the industrial capitalists. They develop according to the economic laws of capitalism, and they often exploit hired labor. Many capitalist cooperatives are headed by representatives of the bourgeois social strata, who have close ties to the capitalist monopolies, banks, and machinery of state, as well as to prominent members of bourgeois political parties and organizations.

However, cooperatives differ from private capitalist firms, joint-stock companies, and monopolistic associations in the main goal of their activity. They operate not to make maximum profits but to meet consumer, production, and other economic needs of their members. Unlike the joint-stock companies, which pool capital, the cooperatives unite persons who take advantage of their services or participate in their economic and public activity. Cooperatives have a more democratic administration and management than joint-stock companies. Control depends not on the number of shares but on the principle of “one member, one vote.” In many countries the state assists certain kinds of cooperatives (chiefly agricultural ones) by granting them credit.

Although they act as capitalist enterprises, cooperatives are mass organizations of workers, peasants, farmers, and handicraft artisans, whose interest they represent and protect.

When the means of production are socialized, cooperatives become socialist and are transformed into a powerful instrument for uniting broad masses of the working people—above all, the peasants—and involving them in socialist construction. In the USSR and the other socialist countries the cooperatives became the chief means of bringing about a socialist transformation of agricultural production.

In the socialist countries cooperatives function on the basis of economic accountability and according to a plan coordinated with the general national economic plan. Cooperation is regulated by special or general legislation and by charters that establish the form of management, the rights and responsibilities of members, the procedure for setting up funds, the structure of funds, the distribution of income, labor organization and remuneration, and the use of the means of production. (Charters vary, depending on the type of cooperative.) The highest body of the cooperative is the general assembly, which adopts the charter and elects administrative bodies and the agencies of mass public control. In addition, the general assembly makes decisions on all fundamental questions related to the cooperative’s economic activity and accepts and expels members. The board, which is headed by a president, manages the affairs of the cooperative between meetings of the general assembly.

Theories. Cooperation theories originated in the first half of the 19th century, with the emergence of consumers’, agricultural, credit, and other cooperative associations in Western European capitalist countries. Three basic trends developed in cooperation theory: petit-bourgeois, liberal-bourgeois, and proletarian.

In the mid-19th century and until the 1930’s petit bourgeois cooperative theories prevailed. Utopian and reformist, they were deeply rooted in the teachings of the Utopian socialists and were an outgrowth of the idea that cooperation is a basic link in the transformation of capitalism into socialism. V. I. Lenin called this trend “cooperative socialism.” Later, petit bourgeois theories were, to a certain degree, reflected in the teachings of the representatives of Christian socialism and Fabianism, as well as in the work of F. Lassalle. The Nimes school, which was headed by C. Gide, developed the idea of “consumers’ socialism” at the beginning of the 1880’s and that of the “cooperative republic” at the beginning of the 1920’s. These ideas were based on the belief that the consumers’ cooperatives were the main force capable of transforming capitalism into socialism. As they become widespread, cooperatives take hold of commerce. Later, they gradually buy up industrial enterprises and agricultural lands, establishing collective farms on them.

The theories of the Nîmes school had supporters in many countries (except Germany): in France (B. Lavergne and E. Poisson), Great Britain (T. Mercer), and Russia (M. I. Tugan-Baranovskii and V. F. Totomiants). The Russian Narodniki (Populists) also supported these theories. Evaluating them, Lenin wrote that their authors “dreamed of peacefully remodeling contemporary society into socialism without taking account of such fundamental questions as the class struggle, the capture of political power by the working class, the overthrow of the rule of the exploiting class. That is why we are right in regarding as entirely fantastic this ’cooperative’ socialism, and as romantic, and even banal, the dream of transforming class enemies into class collaborators and class war into class peace” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 45, p. 375).

The 1930’s saw the development of social-reformist theories of the “third path,” which became widely known in the developed capitalist countries after World War II (1939–45). Fundamental to these theories is the observation that there are some democratic principles in cooperation (voluntary membership, election of administrative and control bodies, an equal vote for each member, educational activity, and restrictions on the amount of capital in shares and on interest rates). Proceeding from this observation, supporters of social-reformist theories maintain that even under capitalism, the cooperatives stand above classes. In their opinion the cooperatives must be considered not capitalist establishments but organizations contributing to the democratization of economic life, the abolition of classes and of the class struggle, and the radical improvement of the material and social condition of the working people, all of which will eventuate in the creation of a new system.

Simultaneously criticizing capitalism and rejecting the socialist economic system, the ideologists of the third path assert that cooperation will bring about a new system that will differ from the present two modes of production (capitalist and socialist), be free of their shortcomings, and represent “a state of universal prosperity” and “the society of social justice.” This trend is supported by the West German, Belgian, and Austrian Social Democrat, the British Cooperative Party, prominent theorists of the British Labour Party (G. D. H. Cole and J. Strachey), the outstanding theorists of the cooperative movement, G. Lasserre (France) and J. Warbasse (USA), and the Indonesian sociologist M. Hatta. Also among the advocates of the third path are many right-wing leaders of the International Cooperative Alliance.

Liberal-bourgeois theory—the second main trend in the theory of cooperation—originated in Germany in the mid-19th century. The German pioneers of the creation of cooperative associations and advocates of the cooperative movement (H. Schulze-Delitzsch and F. W. Raiffeisen) considered cooperation a basic means of protecting the petite bourgeoisie and small producers from being exploited by large-scale capital.

In contemporary bourgeois cooperation theories there is a trend similar to J. Galbraith’s theory of countervailing forces. It considers cooperation a force that counteracts pressure from the monopolies. This point of view is also maintained by theorists and by leaders of the cooperative movement in the majority of capitalist states. After World War II the trend in bourgeois cooperative thought represented by the managers and leaders of cooperative organizations in the majority of developed capitalist countries became very popular. Theorists of this trend study and make generalizations on the practical activity of cooperative organizations in different countries in the past and in the present and draft recommendations for the improvement and extension of the business of the cooperative associations, so that they can strengthen their position in the competitive struggle with private companies. In the opinion of these theorists, it is necessary to improve the administration of the cooperatives. They also describe different forms of collaboration between the cooperative associations and the state or private companies.

In practice, the distinction between the bourgeois and socialist reformist theories of cooperation is often lost, and the two sides frequently join in the struggle against Marxist-Leninist ideology.

A well-developed, strictly scientific, and consistent evaluation of the role and importance of cooperation under different socio-economic systems is found in the Marxist-Leninist theory of cooperation, which represents the proletarian trend in the theory of cooperation. It is most fully developed in the works of Lenin. Marxist-Leninist teaching strictly differentiates between cooperation under capitalism and cooperation under socialism.

The classic works of Marxism-Leninism emphasize that the socioeconomic characteristics and essence of cooperative activity under capitalism are dualistic and deeply contradictory. On the one hand, the cooperative is a collective capitalist enterprise that is completely subject to the operation of objective capitalist laws and that reproduces in its activity the social and economic relations of capitalism with all their contradictions. In societies that function under the law of competition, cooperatives tend to become bourgeois joint-stock companies. On the other hand, as mass organizations of the working class and the middle strata in the cities and the countryside, cooperatives protect their members from capitalist exploitation and the omnipotence of the monopolies and sometimes improve the material conditions of the working people.

The cooperation of workers under capitalism is an aspect of the mass international workers’ movement. In boosting the activity of the masses, cooperation instills in them traits of collectivism and prepares the workers for their role as the organizers of economic life in the future socialist society. Recognizing that the cooperative movement is a mass movement, Lenin urged the workers to join the proletarian cooperatives and to use them to arouse the class consciousness of the working people and to strengthen their ties with the trade-union movement and the proletarian parties. As for the small commodity producers’ cooperatives, most of which were peasant associations, Lenin emphasized that they are progressive, even though under capitalism they bring the greatest profits to the prosperous strata of farmers, peasants and large capitalist enterprises. Small commodity producers’ cooperatives, he pointed out, promote an intensification of differentiation among the peasants and unite them in their struggle against capitalist oppression.

Although they recognized that cooperative activity has some positive significance, the classic Marxist-Leninist works asserted that under capitalism the cooperatives are not in a position to make any fundamental improvement in the condition of the toiling masses. Furthermore, even though it is a democratic form for centralizing distribution and concentrating production and even though it therefore promotes the creation of the material preconditions for the socialist mode of production, the cooperative in a capitalist society is a capitalist establishment. Therefore, it does not and cannot choose as its direct goal the destruction of the capitalist system and of the private ownership of the means of production. For this reason, the development of cooperatives does not in itself entail the development of socialism. Capitalism, reproduced in cooperation, inevitably generates capitalism. The dissemination of illusions concerning the ability of the cooperatives to “transform” capitalism into socialism is a means of diverting the working people from the class struggle, which aims at the destruction of the capitalist mode of production.

The Communist and workers’ parties in capitalist countries consider the cooperatives established under state-monopoly capitalism an inalienable component of the broad democratic movement and a form of struggle for progressive socioeconomic reforms and for the democratization of economic life. Therefore, they work within these mass organizations in order to transform them into part of an antimonopolistic front for the struggle for the vital interests of the broad toiling masses and against the attack of the monopolies.

To some extent, cooperatives help to ensure the preconditions for the noncapitalist development of countries that have been liberated from the colonial yoke by promoting the development of commodity-money relations and the elimination of feudal relations. Under the dictatorship of the proletariat, cooperation assumes a different meaning. Established under capitalism as a mechanism for distribution and accounting and as a form of association of working people or small commodity producers, under socialism the cooperatives become a common form of socialization, distribution, and agricultural production. There-fore, during the transition from capitalism to socialism they are an easily understandable and accessible way for the small commodity producers to make the transition to the large-scale socialist economy. Emphasizing that cooperation is a vast cultural heritage that must be valued and used, Lenin pointed out that after the victory of the proletarian revolution, cooperation would coincide with socialism.

Drawing the peasant farms under its influence and socializing different branches of agriculture by organizing large cooperative production units and enterprises, the cooperative movement creates the preconditions for the statewide planned regulation of the economy through the centers of agricultural cooperation and the socialized economic forms, thus involving the peasant in socialist construction. Lenin also emphasized that it would take a long time to draw the broad, backward peasant masses into the cooperative movement, because cooperation cannot succeed without certain skills. The spread of literacy, the rising cultural level of the population, and its conscientious attitude toward cooperation promote the development of the cooperative movement. This, in turn, helps the small commodity producers to become convinced from their own experience of the benefits and advantages of cooperation. Successful socialist construction in the USSR and in other socialist countries has demonstrated the vitality of Lenin’s theory of the transformation of cooperation into a means of socialist construction in the city and in the countryside.


Marx, K. “Uchreditel’nyi manifest Mezhdunarodnogo Tovarishchestva Rabochikh.” K. Marx and F. Engels. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 16.
Marx, K. Kapital, vol. 3. Ibid., vol. 25, part 1, pp. 90, 94, 104, 115–16, 292, 426, 428.
Lenin, V. I. “Vopros o kooperativakh na Mezhdunarodnom sotsialisticheskom kongresse v Kopengagene.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 19.
Lenin, V. I. “O kooperatsii.” Ibid., vol. 45.
Pronin, S. V. Chto takoe sovremennyi “kooperativnyi reformizm.” [Moscow] 1961.
Pronin, S. V. “Demokraticheskii sotsializm” i problema kooperativnoi sotsializatsii v Anglii. Moscow, 1964.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Achaean League
federation of Greek cities formed in 280 B.C. to resist Macedonian domination. [Gk. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 6]
Allies, the 1.
in World War I, nations, initially Russia, France, and Great Britain, allied against the Central Powers. 2. in World War II, those allied against the Axis, including Great Britain, Russia, and U.S. [Eur. Hist.: Collier’s, VIII, 457]
in World War II, the affiance of Germany, Italy, Japan, etc., opposing the Allies. [Eur. Hist.: Collier’s, VIII, 457]
Central Powers
in World War I, the alliance of Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, and Turkey. [Eur. Hist.: NCE, 493]
Common Market
association of western European countries designed to facilitate free trade among members. [Eur. Hist.: EB, III: 1001]
the eleven Southern states that seceded from the U.S. and banded together. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 623]
Entente Cordiale
agreement between Great Britain and France to settle their disagreements over colonies as diplomatic partners. [Eur. Hist.: WB, 21: 367]
Helsinki accord
agreement between Soviet bloc and the West for economic, commercial, and scientific cooperation and for respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms. [World Hist.: News Directory (1977), 177–179]
League of Nations
world organization for international cooperation. [World Hist.: EB, 6: 102]
free-world mutual security pact against Soviet bloc. [World Hist.: Van Doren, 520]
Nazi-Soviet Pact
nonaggression treaty freed Hitler to invade Poland. [Ger. Hist.: Shirer, 685–705]
cartel of nations whose economic livelihood depends upon the export of petroleum. [World Hist.: WB, 14: 646]
Pact of Steel
German-Italian treaty established common cause in future undertakings. [Eur. Hist.: Shirer, 646–648]
Potsdam Conference
unconditional Japanese surrender demanded; war crimes trials planned (July, 1945). [World Hist.: Van Doren, 507]
organization formed to assure protection against communist expansion in Southeast Asia (1955–1976). [World Hist.: EB, IX: 377]
Tinker to Evers to Chance
legendary baseball double-play combination (1902–1910). [Am. Sports: Turkin, 474]
Triple Entente
association among Great Britain, France, and Russia; nucleus of the Allied Coalition in WWI. [World Hist.: EB, 10: 128]
United Nations
world organization for international discussion and peacekeeping. [World Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 1116]
Yalta Conference
Allies developed plan for reconstruction of Europe (February, 1945). [World Hist.: Van Doren, 504]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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