Co-operativism is a social movement that originated in Europe during the 19th century along with other social movements that questioned the logic of operation and the inequality generated by the capitalist system. Linked to other movements that emerged from the oppressed sectors, co-operativism was based on communal traditions of socialization of work and production, as well as on the ideals of the thinkers called “Utopian Socialists.” The ideas of co-operation and solidarity begun to flourish in the light of the needs of the sectors exploited by the hegemonic system. Thus, cooperation was conceived as a path leading to social transformation.
The first co-operatives appeared in England, France and Germany as a result of the specific needs of the sectors harmed by the advance of capitalist social relations of production, and simultaneously, with the development of organized revolutionary ideas around anarchist and Marxist conceptions.
The people who founded the “Rochdale store” are typically recognized as the pioneers of co-operativism, due to the principles and organizational methods they designed, although they did not constitute the first co-operative. Right from the start, these co-operativists established a program that combined theory with operating rules expressed in the Fundamental Manifesto of the honest Rochdale Pioneers.
Some of the basic concepts originating from co-operativism—which evolved and changed over time, yet maintain their essence—are:
-The free and voluntary association that means that no person can be forced to become a member of a co-operative, and at the same time that no person can be discriminated for reasons of gender, race, politics or religion. Association is the result of common problems to be solved collectively.
-The concept of mutual aid as an organizer of individual and group work.
-The idea of self-management or self-administration that stipulates the self-determination of associates and the democratic form of organization and management.
In 1995 the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) approved the Declaration on Co-operative Identity, which establishes the following definition:
“A co-operative is an autonomous association of people who voluntarily come together to fulfil their common needs and aspirations in economic, social and cultural matters through a jointly-owned and democratically-managed company."
In Argentina, the first co-operative experiences are linked to the mass immigration process of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Thousands of people, mostly peasants and working class, who fled from Europe to escape hunger and wars, came to these lands during the consolidation stage of the National State—a process led by the Argentine conservative and oligarchic ruling class. These immigrants brought their ideals with them, which they materialized applying co-operative organizational criteria. Together with the local population, immigrants contributed techniques, work methods and organization of production based on mutual traditions and solidarity. Organizations grouped by nationality, religion, social class, trade or political conceptions were formed.
At first, co-operativism was one option within a set of ideological conceptions that faced the incipient agro-export model, the ruling class and the oligarchic state. Ideologically, it was linked to the ideas of utopian socialists: Alejo Peyret was one of the first to bring these ideas from his home country, France.
Regarding the branches of activity, the first co-operatives were consumer co-operatives, which developed mainly in urban sectors. The oldest reference was found in Paraná (Entre Ríos) in 1857, the Panadería del Pueblo association. In the city of Buenos Aires, food and drink consumption co-operatives were created at the end of the 19th century, linked to English, German and French immigrants.
These experiences came together in 1905 with the creation of El Hogar Obrero, founded by Juan B. Justo and linked to the Socialist Party, initially as a credit and savings co-operative for construction. El Hogar Obrero promoted the development of consumer co-operatives throughout the country.
In the rural sector, and among the first ones to be created, we can mention El Progreso Agrícola de Pigüé, an agricultural insurance co-operative founded in 1898, and which is still in existence. The first strictly agricultural co-operative was the Sociedad Agrícola Israelita Argentina, located in the town of Basavilbaso, in the province of Entre Ríos. It was created in 1900 by a group of Jewish settlers brought to the country by the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA).
By the first decades of the 20th century, agricultural co-operatives had multiplied throughout the national territory. However, they faced the challenges imposed by the stockpilers and marketing companies, because there was no legal framework to protect them. These co-operatives originated from the actions of a group of community leaders from the Jewish colonies, generally linked to different left-wing ideological currents. In addition to being a solidary way of organizing the communities' economy, co-operatives were centers that promoted meetings, union, discussion, and recreation, as well as social and cultural activity.
Another pioneering branch was that of credit co-operativism. Some of their experiences in the 1860’s and 1870’s resulted, at the beginning of the 20th century, in the formation of different types of institutions, such as popular banks, rural savings banks, regional savings and loan banks, and credit co-operative institutions. The first co-operative credit institution was the Banco Popular Argentino, created in Buenos Aires in 1887, according to the Popular Bank model much used in Italy.
Likewise, the credit co-operative institutions date back to the beginning of the 20th century and were originally linked to the Ashkenazi Jewish community. Many of these organizations came from the farein —in Yiddish, associations of Jewish immigrants organized by their territorial origin, that were in charge of welcoming and helping those who arrived in the country—, and disseminated throughout the littoral region and Buenos Aires.
In its origins, a distinctive mark of the credit co-operativism, which differentiated it from other mutual aid associations, was its anti-capitalist orientation. Its members usually adhered to different expressions of solidarity, socialist, humanist and revolutionary ideas.
The beginning of the 20th century saw the first attempts by different entities to come together. In 1913 a meeting was organized in Entre Ríos with the purpose of sharing experiences, comparing the organizations according to the different by-laws, and carrying out joint commercial activities.
In March 1919, El Hogar Obrero held the first Co-operative Conference, where the organization of a National Congress was promoted. Shortly after, in October of that same year, the Museo Social Argentino (Argentine Social Museum) held the First Argentine Co-operation Congress.
One of the discussions that took place in those years referred to state regulation. There were different points of view that were expressed in various provincial and national meetings of co-operatives. Regarding the role of the State, there were views that considered that State intervention or regulation represented a control and a limit to co-operative autonomy and self-management, while others argued that it was necessary to create a law that regulated the operation of co-operatives and laid down the conceptual frameworks to establish the requirements and principles that the organizations should maintain to form a co-operative.
The first general bill for co-operatives was prepared by Juan B. Justo in 1915, who presented a second bill in 1921. After several attempts, the bill of the socialist senator Mario Bravo was approved, and Law 11,388 on “Legal Regime of Co-operative Entities” was passed. This law regulated co-operative entities until 1973, the year in which Law 20,337, currently in force, was passed.
Electric co-operatives were also among the first type of co-operatives to be created, such as Punta Alta Co-operative, founded as early as 1926. This branch originated as a popular reaction against the injustices of the private monopolistic companies that provided electricity. Punta Alta's positive experience served as a model and incentive for the creation of numerous similar entities. In 1938, the First Argentine Congress of Electric Co-operatives was held with the attendance of co-operative delegates from Salta, San Juan, Córdoba, Entre Ríos, Santa Fe, Buenos Aires, Chaco, Neuquén, Río Negro and La Pampa, whose initiative resulted in the creation, in 1939, of the Argentine Federation of Electric Co-operatives.
Dairy co-operatives have their origin in Santa Fe at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1928 many of these co-operatives came together to industrialize their production in San Carlos, forming the first second degree co-operative in all of Latin America. In 1938, Sunchales held the organization meeting of Co-operativas Unidas Ltda. Fabrica de Manteca (currently SanCor), with the attendance of delegates from 11 co-operatives. Likewise, in 1943, Sociedad de Cooperativas “Fábrica de Manteca” (later known as Manfrey Co-operativa Ltda.) was created from the union of 12 co-operatives in the town of Freyre, Córdoba.
Work co-operativism is currently the largest branch in Argentina and also traces back its origins to more than 90 years ago. The first co-operative in this branch, La Edilicia, Co-operativa de Construcciones Ltda., began operating in 1928, in the town of Pergamino, province of Buenos Aires. Since then, these co-operatives have been developing constantly and in a sustained manner, and they are formed by the people who actually provide the service. In 1954, the Association of Work Co-operatives of the Argentine Republic (ACTRA, for its Spanish acronym) was created with the objective of bringing together the second and first degree co-operatives of Argentina. At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, the work co-operative was the natural form of organization adopted by the companies whose workers recovered from bankruptcy and the state of neglect to which their previous owners had led them.
Currently, co-operativism plays a central role in the lives of millions of people, in Argentina and around the world. In this context of economic, ecological and social crisis, where the profound damages caused by inequality and exploitation are growing, co-operatives, together with other organizations of the social economy, are spaces that support the struggle for survival, but also togetherness and solidarity.
This work team represents the trust and the invaluable meaning that we find in the creation of the Archive, intended as a tool at the service of the development and operation of co-operative entities, to preserve collective memory and learn from failures and successes, and also to encourage the development of historiographic works that continue to produce knowledge.