Consumer cooperative societies in Russia : Goals V. Gains, 1900-1918 - article ; n°3 ; vol.23, pg 351-369

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Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique - Année 1982 - Volume 23 - Numéro 3 - Pages 351-369
Catherine Salzman, Les coopératives de consommation en Russie, les objectifs contre les profits, 1900-1918.
Les objectifs du mouvement coopératif de consommation sont de trois ordres. D'abord, sur le plan économique, les coopératives tentaient d'aider leurs adhérents à économiser de l'argent. En deuxième lieu, pour favoriser le développement moral de leurs membres et éveiller, quand c'était possible, leur conscience politique, elles organisaient toute une gamme d'activités culturelles et éducatives. Enfin, les dirigeants du mouvement s'efforçaient d'utiliser les assemblées générales pour apprendre à ceux de leurs membres appartenant à la classe ouvrière à participer à la gestion des coopératives. Toutefois, le pli des habitudes et des traditions russes - notamment le recours au crédit, l'analphabétisme, le respect des autorités, l'alcoolisme -, ainsi que les répressions gouvernementales et le retard économique entravaient La réalisation de ces objectifs.
Catherine Salzman, Consumer cooperative societies in Russia, goals v. gains, 1900-1918.
The goals of the consumer cooperative movement fall into three categories. First, on an economic level, consumer societies tried to help members save money. Second, to promote the moral development of their members and, where possible, their political consciousness, they organized a wide variety of cultural and educational activities. Finally, the movement's leaders sought to use the general meetings of their societies to teach working class members to participate in running the cooperatives. The realization of these goals was hindered by traditional Russian habits, including reliance on credit, illiteracy, deference to authority and alcoholism, as well as by government repression and economic backwardness.
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Catherine Salzman
Consumer cooperative societies in Russia : Goals V. Gains,
1900-1918
In: Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique. Vol. 23 N°3-4. Juillet-Décembre 1982. pp. 351-369.
Résumé
Catherine Salzman, Les coopératives de consommation en Russie, les objectifs contre les profits, 1900-1918.
Les objectifs du mouvement coopératif de consommation sont de trois ordres. D'abord, sur le plan économique, les coopératives
tentaient d'aider leurs adhérents à économiser de l'argent. En deuxième lieu, pour favoriser le développement moral de leurs
membres et éveiller, quand c'était possible, leur conscience politique, elles organisaient toute une gamme d'activités culturelles
et éducatives. Enfin, les dirigeants du mouvement s'efforçaient d'utiliser les assemblées générales pour apprendre à ceux de
leurs membres appartenant à la classe ouvrière à participer à la gestion des coopératives. Toutefois, le pli des habitudes et des
traditions russes - notamment le recours au crédit, l'analphabétisme, le respect des autorités, l'alcoolisme -, ainsi que les
répressions gouvernementales et le retard économique entravaient La réalisation de ces objectifs.
Abstract
Catherine Salzman, Consumer cooperative societies in Russia, goals v. gains, 1900-1918.
The goals of the consumer cooperative movement fall into three categories. First, on an economic level, consumer societies tried
to help members save money. Second, to promote the moral development of their members and, where possible, their political
consciousness, they organized a wide variety of cultural and educational activities. Finally, the movement's leaders sought to use
the general meetings of their societies to teach working class members to participate in running the cooperatives. The realization
of these goals was hindered by traditional Russian habits, including reliance on credit, illiteracy, deference to authority and
alcoholism, as well as by government repression and economic backwardness.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Salzman Catherine. Consumer cooperative societies in Russia : Goals V. Gains, 1900-1918. In: Cahiers du monde russe et
soviétique. Vol. 23 N°3-4. Juillet-Décembre 1982. pp. 351-369.
doi : 10.3406/cmr.1982.1955
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/cmr_0008-0160_1982_num_23_3_1955CATHERINE SALZMAN
CONSUMER COOPERATIVE SOCIETIES
IN RUSSIA,
GOALS V. GAINS, 1900-1918
L'intérêt de cette étude est de mieux faire connaître les
coopératives de consommation à partir de leur propre pratique,
entrevue notamment grâce à une analyse systématique de Sojuz
potrebitele j , et des autres journaux publiés par le mouvement.
Cela ne saurait faire oublier qu'avec la révolution de Fé
vrier, l'idée de réaliser un véritable projet de société a boule
versé le comportement des dirigeants du mouvement coopératif dans
son ensemble et que celui-ci s'est politisé au point de proposer
une alternative globale au socialisme, à l 'anarchisme, voire au
projet syndical, une attitude qu'a incarnée la présence de droit,
dans les bureaux des soviets, de dirigeants du mouvement.
M. F. 352 CATHERINE SALZMAN
The consumer cooperative movement in prerevolutionary
Russia is a topic neglected by historians for all too long.(l)
Consumer cooperative societies (obshchestva potrebitelej) were
progressive social organizations under a conservative gov
ernment. Their history makes it possible to assess the fragile
potential that existed for gradual, progressive social and
political change. In this essay I will outline the goals
that consumer coopéra tors hoped to accomplish, as well as
the various constraints that made their work especially
difficult.
Beginning in the 1860's, consumer societies were estab
lished across the Russian Empire. In 1897 there were only
307, but the number was beginning to grow more quickly.
In I905, 948 were counted, and by January 191Л there were
approximately 10,080.(2) During the First World War the con
sumer cooperative movement grew dramatically as the private
system of food distribution disintegrated. By the end of 1917
the total number of consumer cooperatives in Russia had
reached an estimated 35,000 and the total membership 11,550,000.
This was approximately 8.2 % of the population of the Russian
Empire.
Table 1
The growth of the consumer cooperative movement,
1914 to 1919
Year Number of Number of members
societies (in millions)
1913 10,080 1.40
1914 11,400 1.65
1915 14,500 2.61
1916 23,500 6.82
1917 35,000 11.55
1918 47,000 17.00
Source: Soiuz pot rebitelei , May-June, 1922: 18. The figures in
this table are for Dec. 31 of each year.
Consumer cooperatives can be broken down into five basic
types. The largest number were "village" societies, amounting
to 80 % of the total in 1917. But they were also the smallest
and poorest consumer societies. "Factory" societies were larger "railroad" societies were by far the largest type of con
sumer cooperative. Factory and railroad were closely
associated with a single firm, and their management was
normally heavily influenced by the firm's own. Independent
"worker" consumer societies, on the other hand, were run
by the workers themselves, together with their friends from
the intelligentsia. Worker societies were the radical left wing
of the consumer cooperative movement. "City" societies were
an odd assortment of consumer cooperatives associated with CONSUMER COOPERATIVE SOCIETIES 353
various urban groups and social organizations, as zemstva, or
associations of doctors, lawyers or military officers. Many were
restricted to persons who were members of the organization
with which they were affiliated, but most were open for
anyone to join, and in 1917 the vast majority of their members
were from the urban working class.
The most complete statistics on the consumer cooperative
movement in Russia were collected by the Moskovskii Soiuz
Potrebitel'nykh Obshchestv (Moscow Union of Consumer Soci
eties), the MSPO, established in 1897. The MSPO was an
ail-Russian union with member societies in every corner of
the Russian Empire. In 1917 it underwent a reorganization,
becoming an association of unions of consumer societies and
changing its name to the Central Union of Consumer Societies,
the Centrosoiuz. Its leaders in the prerevolutionary period
were SRs, Mensheviks and liberals. In January 1917, the MSPO
had 2,902 member societies, including 526 city, 222 factory,
29 railroad, Л9 worker and 2,076 village societies. (3)
Consumer societies were fast growing organizations, even
before the goods crisis swelled the movement to unheard of
dimensions. MSPO member societies grew substantially between
19Ю and 1912.
Table 2
Average size of MSPO consumer societies,
1910 to 1912
1912 1911 1910
285 273 249 City
626 662 638 Factory
Railroad 3,836 3,687 3,062
Worker 431 415 352
Village 137 125 104
Average 370 412 416
Source: Ezhegodnik MSPO, 1914 g. , pt. I: 126. The average consumer
society fell in size because village societies were growing much
faster in number than any other kind. MSPO member societies tended
to be somewhat larger and wealthier than non-MSPO societies.
Of course, there is another side to the picture. Many
consumer societies failed and closed. According to a study
made in 1912, 94.8 % (5,258 of 5,545) of those founded between
1906 and 1911 were still functioning on January 1, 1912.
But only 76.3 % (726 of 951) of those founded between 1901
and 1905 were still functioning in 1912. U)
We can now turn our attention to the goals of the consumer
cooperative movement and how cooperators sought to accomplish
them. Of course, there was no unanimity on that subject. But
it was only in the late summer of 1917 that the gap between CATHERINE SALZMAN 354
moderates and radicals in the movement became unbridgea
ble. (5) It was possible for liberals and socialists to work
together in the consumer cooperative movement relatively
harmoniously, because the vast majority of socialist cooperators
did not think in terms of accomplishing their goals through
revolution. The sort of struggle envisioned by socialist coop
erators is seen in the following quotation from the MSPO's
worker oriented journal: "The cooperative movement is a
fortress - from which we will bombard bourgeois society with
two pound breads and cheaper potatoes. "(6)
In his memoirs, M. D. Shishkin, a Menshevik active in
the movement's cultural work, summarized the aspirations of
both liberal and socialist consumer cooperators:
"Some believed that through the cooperative movement
the people would achieve democracy. Others nourished
even greater faith that through the move
ment the people would achieve socialism. All agreed
that through the cooperative movement the people would
gain the habits, experience and knowledge necessary
for building a better future. "(7)
There was almost universal agreement on the principle
that consumer cooperatives should help Russian peasants and
workers build a better future. Cooperators of different polit
ical colors could and did agree on this, while disagreeing
as to precisely what was meant by "a better future".
There were three general ways in which cooperators sought
to help build a better future. First, on an economic level,
cooperators helped their members save money. Second, coop
erators organized various cultural and educational activities.
Finally, cooperators used the meetings of their consumer
societies as a means of developing the ability of working
class members to participate in running the cooperatives.
The main way in which consumer societies sought to help
their save money was in the form of a rebate paid
out at the end of every year. Goods were sold at the market
price. These were two of the "Rochdale principles." Rochdale
was the world's first modern consumer cooperative, founded
in the village of Rochdale, in England, in 1844. The founders
of Rochdale enunciated certain principles which served as
guidelines for the operation of their society. They were sound,
conservative business principles, designed to assure long term
financial safety. Only a few societies disregarded these two
principles and made it possible for members to save money
more directly by selling goods under the market price. The
rebate that consumer societies paid to their members was
normally equal to 2 or 3 % of the goods they had bought
during that year.
The most important reason why cooperatives were not able
to give their members a larger rebate was that Russian peas
ants and workers, because of their poverty, were in the habit
of buying on credit. The publications of the consumer coop
erative movement were unanimous in their recommendation that CONSUMER COOPERATIVE SOCIETIES 355
consumer societies sell their produce only for cash. This was
another of the Rochdale principles. The founders of Rochdale
realized that selling on credit would be a constant drain on
the resources of the cooperative. But Russian consumer coop-
erators honored this principle loudly in theory, while disre
garding it quietly in practice.
As the following figures clearly illustrate, it was only
the very poorest Russian consumer societies which, involun
tarily, practiced the Rochdale principle that no sales were
to be made on credit. In 1912, members of MSPO consumer
societies made an average of only 41 % of their purchases
for cash.
Table 3
Percentage of sales made for cash in MSPO consumer societies
in 1912
Circulation
(in thousands
of rubles) Railroad Worker Village Average City Factory
98.7 Up to 10 90.5 91.2
— 10 to 20 80.7 78.8 96.3 89.0 87.6
20 to 50 75.9 34.2 11.3 67.0 77.1 84.6
50 to 100 79.1 47.2 22.1 48.0 72.5 63.1
100 to 300 68.0 21.3 48.1 51.1 40.0
— — 300 to 500 64.1 16.4 36.0 30.3
— — — 500 to 1,000 22.3 79.3 34.1
11.1 Over 1,000 30.5 23.6
Average 72.3 19.5 34.3 54.6 84.9 41.0
Source: Ezhegodnik MSPO 1914 g. , pt. II: 93.
The higher the circulation of the society the smaller the
percentage of its sales made for cash. The reason for this
was that the poorest societies had to receive cash from their
members in order to be able to pay their bills. But as soci
eties increased their circulations, they could begin to respond
to the desire of members for credit. Only railroad so
cieties deviated from this pattern. The credit there was
guaranteed by the railroad administration.
Giving credit resulted in a tremendous drain on the re
sources of consumer societies. Inevitably, as the indebtedness
of the society's members went up, so did its to
its creditors.
The goods crisis that began in 1916 put additional pres
sure on the financial resources of consumer societies. The
circulation of consumer societies increased dramatically but
the increase in share capital was very modest. Average share
capital per member actually declined from 20 rubles in 1913 to
К rubles in 1917, and this in a time of rampant inflation. (8) 356 CATHERINE SALZMAN
Ironically, the situation was made still worse by the fact
that it was now no longer possible for a consumer society
to buy supplies on credit. Wholesalers demanded payment in
advance on most orders. They were in a position to take
advantage of retailers and frequently did. It was not uncommon
for a firm to tell a society that it was not possible to fill
an order that had been placed several months earlier, due
to the absence of railroad cars for shipment. The firm would
return the society's payment, but without paying any interest
on it. It would then sell the goods to a new buyer at a price
which had, in the meantime, risen. And then with the new
buyer the same story would be repeated. (9)
In summary, it was very difficult for consumer societies
to make it possible for their members to save substantial
amounts of money. During the goods crisis they even had
difficulty providing their members with the goods they needed
at any price.
Now we will turn to the sort of work referred to by co-
operators as cultural and educational activity (kul'turno-
prosvetitel'naia dejatel'nost1 ) . Cultural and educational
activity emphasized the moral development of the working
classes and, where possible, their political development. A
large percentage of all allocations went towards supporting
schools and libraries. Societies arranged for lectures to be
given by visiting instructors. There were a number of drama
workshops and tea rooms attached to consumer societies. The
form of cultural work practiced by the largest number of them
was the distribution of journals, books and newspapers, many
of which were published by unions like the MSPO.
The publishing activity of the movement was an excellent
reflection of its values and spirit. Cooperative literature
sought to spread advice and information on founding and op
erating consumer societies and to spread cooperative ideals
among the literate members of the urban and rural working
classes. There was a continuing debate at MSPO meetings of
representatives on how best to accomplish this. The first
important consumer cooperative's journal was Soiuz potrebitelei
which the MSPO began publishing in 1903. But Soiuz potrebit
elei was written at an intellectual level that made it inter
esting and comprehensible only to rather well educated readers.
In 19Ю, the idea was adopted of publishing an additional
issue each month, costing less and written more simply than
Soiuz potrebitelei. The journal now appeared 48 times a year
and one issue a month was designated as a "popular" one.
In fact, it took some time before the MSPO learned how
to put together a mass oriented journal. The popular numbers
of Soiuz potrebitelei hardly differed from the other issues.
But in February 1911 this was replaced by a new periodical,
Ob"edinenie. The editor of both Soiuz potrebitelei and Ob"edi-
nenie was a socialist sympathizer, V. N. Zel'geim. A further
step by the MSPO in the direction of a more popularly oriented
press was taken in February 1916 with the establishment of
Obshchee delo. The first issue announced that it was intended
for the "wide circles of the village population [•••] With CONSUMER COOPERATIVE SOCIETIES 357
respect to its language, our journal is intended for even the
less prepared reader. "(10) The editor of Obshchee delo was
A. V. Merkulov, a Cadet. No individual coopéra tor and no
cooperative journal could claim to speak for the entire move
ment. Even the MSPO's three journals were written from dif
ferent points of view. Ob"edinenie was left oriented, Obshchee
delo was liberal and Soiuz potrebitelei in between.
From the very beginning, the editors of MSPO journals
showed remarkable independence in their choice of subject
matter. They did not hesitate to criticize the interference
of factory or railroad administrations in the affairs of con
sumer societies attached to their enterprises. For example,
in 1905, Soiuz potrebitelei covered a strike that had broken
out at the Putilov factory. When the strike began, the Putilov
consumer society stopped giving credit. An article appeared
in Soiuz potrebitelei, stating point blank that the factory
administration had instructed the consumer society to do so.
The article charged that the consumer society was completely
controlled by the factory administration. It added that of
some 15,000 workers in the factory, only about 100 owned
shares in the society, and that was "mainly for decoration. "(11)
This independent criticism is especially noteworthy because
the Putilov society and many other administration controlled
factory and railroad consumer societies were members of the
MSPO.
As the revolutionary movement gained momentum, the pub
lications of the consumer cooperative movement were subjected
to increasing censorship. Trud, a left wing worker consumer
cooperative journal, began publication in the summer of 1916
in Petrograd. Virtually every issue of the journal had many
blank spaces on every page, normally making the content
of the articles practically incomprehensible. Starting in the
summer of 1916, the left wing Ukrainian consumer cooperative
journal luzhno-russkii potrebitel1 was also filled with such
deletions.
Censorship was an important political constraint on the
publications of the consumer cooperative movement. But the
importance of censorship can be exaggerated. Despite examples
of censorship, it is clear that in the course of the war the
tsarist government gradually lost its control over what was
published. Cooperative journals found it possible to publish
a great deal of information which could never have been
printed prior to 1914. For example, on the eve of the February
revolution, Obshchee delo placed a notice that the Minister
of Interior had sent a letter to all provincial governors
criticizing their "weak supervision of the - general
and cooperative - press. "(12) The very fact that Obshchee
delo could and would print such a report was a part of what
the minister was complaining about.
The censorship apparatus was partially paralyzed, no
doubt largely as the result of overwork. In journals like
Trud and luzhno-russkii potrebitel1 the government was able,
after a fashion, to control what was printed. But even there
the blank spaces in the articles were an eloquent statement 358 CATHERINE SALZMAN
of dissent. The additional burdens put on the government by
the war, at first only by the fighting but later also by the
goods crisis and popular unrest, made it impossible for it to
maintain the sort of control that it previously had. (13)
But there was another constraint, this time a cultural
one, on the ability of the publications of the consumer coop
erative movement to educate Russian workers and peasants:
the low rate of literacy. In 1917, only some 20 to 25 % of the
population of Russia was literate. (14) No political revolution
could change that figure. At best, a only initiate a long period of hard work which might
raise it gradually.
There is some evidence available on cultural work that
transgressed the rather confining boundaries of the law. The
libraries of some consumer societies did contain some illegal
material, although we have no way of knowing what percent
age, since this was a subject which the publications of the
movement were understandably hesitant to discuss. The only
direct information on this comes from a correspondence article
published in 1916 in Obshchee delo. The article described a
recent meeting of representatives of a consumer society in
the Don oblast', called to discuss the allocation of the profits
from that year. A proposal to make an allocation to the
society's library to enable it to expand its collection was re
jected by some members. The member who wrote the correspond
ence article was particularly critical of a former trustee
of the board of directors who, he said, opposed further
allocations "as though only because the library had some
books by inappropriate writers." The implication of the cor
respondent was that this former board member wanted that
money to be added to the amount that would be distributed
among the shareholders in the form of dividends, and was only
using the question of illegal books as an excuse. Of partic
ular interest is one of the arguments used by the president
of the library committee to defend the allocation. He asserted
that "recently the works by inappropriate authors had almost
all been removed." The correspondent went on to state that
some people expressed the opinion that since "forbidden fruit
is sweeter" such books were very useful in attracting readers,
"although of course there should also be books with appro
priate criticism." In the end the proposed allocation was
made. (15)
Furthermore, it can be inferred that many of the lectures
delivered at consumer societies by visiting instructors con
tained revolutionary ideas, because a survey made at the
First All Russian Congress of Cooperative Instructors, held
at the end of May 1917, showed that the vast majority of
instructors were members of one of the socialist parties (see
Table 4).
But cultural work did not necessarily have to be revolu
tionary to attract the attention of the tsarist police. Inter
ference by the tsarist administration in the affairs of consumer
societies was centered around their cultural work. Only in
exceptional cases did the police place restrictions on the CONSUMER COOPERATIVE SOCIETIES 359
Table 4
Political affiliations of instructors in 1917
Party Active Sympathetic Total
SD 18 5 23 (Menshevik)
SD (Bolshevik) 5 1 6
SD (Bund) 1 0 1
SD (non-faction) 18 6 24
SR 76 25 101
Anarchist-
communist 2 0 2
syndicalist 1 0 1
Socialist-
federalist 1 0 1
sympathizer 0 1 1
Popular-
socialist 7 8 15
Trudovik 1 3 4
Peasant Union 0 1 1
Kadet 2 6 8
Total 132 56 188
Source: Soiuz potrebitelei , Aug. 3, 1917: 19-21. One of the in
teresting things about this table is the high percentage of SDs
not affiliated with any fraction. There were about 1,000 coopera
tive instructors at work in Russia at the end of 1917, and about
1,500 in July 1918. E. M. Kayden and A. N. Antsiferov, op. cit.:
166.
economic activities of such societies. For example, at the end
of 1909, ten which had formerly been part of the now defunct
union of independent worker consumer societies Trudovoi Soiuz
were denied permission to have more than one shop each. (16)
But this restriction on economic activity was clearly made
only because these were left-wing ones, with strong interest
in non-economic activity.
In the summer of 1916, when the tsarist administration
was making a last concerted attempt to deal with the rising
social tensions, it again concentrated on the cultural work
of consumer societies. The Menshevik E. O. Lenskaia, the
head of the MSPO's popular propaganda department, was
forced to leave Moscow and 11 union instructors were forbidden
to give lectures. Ob"edinenie was closed and Soiuz potrebit
elei and Obshchee delo were fined and told that if they
didn't "restrain their tone" they too would be closed. In the
fall, the union was told privately that some government of
ficials wanted to arrest several of the movement's leaders and
to ban all non-economic activity. (17)
There was tremendous variation in the amount of money