Let’s Get Together: Społem & the Polish Co-operative Movement
default, 'Dobrze' co-operative, photo: Bartosz Bobkowski / Agencja Gazeta, center, #000000, kooperatywa-dobrze-fot-bartosz-bobkowski-ag_bb151219_008.jpg
If you’ve ever visited Poland or simply love all things Polish, you are probably well familiar with the famous Społem logo and the ubiquitous Społem grocery stores. But do you know exactly what Społem is and where it came from? It turns out that it’s a bit of a mystery! This article will attempt to unravel the unknown history of Społem and the Polish co-operative movement.
To put it most simply, Społem is the name of the biggest association of Polish food-consumer co-operatives, which manage local, community-owned grocery stores all over Poland. But even a quick online search will be enough to show that the Społem association in operation today was formed only in 1992 – while the Społem logo has been a staple of Polish design for ages, and numerous Społem stores have been supplying fresh and tasty food to local communities for longer than anybody can remember. In fact, the exact origins of the brand remain quite unknown, despite involving some of the biggest names in Polish history. A detailed investigation into Społem will take us to several European countries, while covering a story that spans across three centuries.
However counterintuitive it may seem, we should start tracing the history of Społem by going to Rochdale, near Manchester, where the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was founded in the year 1844. It is generally agreed to be the first consumer co-operative in the world, and the rules established by its members serve as a foundation for many contemporary co-operatives, including Społem.
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The Rochdale co-operative was established by 28 workmen, mostly weavers, who were not able to afford many goods on their meagre wages. They decided that instead of relying on other suppliers, they should open their own, community-owned store, which would sell to the members of the co-operative at more affordable prices than those offered by the privately owned competition. Although the store was first established with the help of one-pound contributions from each of the members– and sold only basic merchandise such as butter, flour and sugar – the interest from other workers eager to join the initiative allowed it to grow rapidly in size and scope, offering more goods of greater quality.
In order to guarantee the proper functioning of their establishment, the Rochdale workers proposed a set of principles which guaranteed open membership, democratic control, the economic participation of the members, the autonomy and independence of the co-operative, the provision of education and training to the members and the public, and cooperation amongst co-operatives and concern for community – all this to make sure that the enterprise would actually serve those for whom it was created. The Rochdale model was well-functioning and easy to follow. All that was left was to bring it to Poland and add the name Społem.
Except Poland had already gotten to the whole co-operative idea working 30 years earlier, even if the rules were not exactly the same.
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Those familiar with Polish history have probably heard about Stanisław Staszic, one of Poland’s greatest philosophers and a leader of the reformatory movement which brought the country its first constitution in 1791. (It is widely believed that one of Staszic’s pamphlets sparked the movement and his political ideas about constitutional monarchy directly influenced the constitution’s contents.) But this Enlightenment thinker had a few other thoughts he wanted to promote. As a physiocrat, he followed the French economist François Quesnay in arguing that farming is the only real source of wealth. Consequently, Staszic also opposed serfdom – which forced Polish peasants into involuntary labour for the owners of the land on which they lived – and argued for the improvement of their lot. But while many philosophers are known for being all talk and no action, Staszic actually put his money where his mouth was in quite a literal way.
In 1811, back when philosophy paid much better than in does today, he bought a 6,000-hectare estate in Hrubieszów in today’s southeastern Poland. In 1816, he divided it amongst 329 peasants who were willing to join the newly established and wonderfully named Hrubieszów Farmers’ Association for Mutually Saving Each Other From Misfortunes. The association was given the estate, and its members were granted lifelong and inheritable permits to use its land – under the conditions that their individual farms would not exceed 100 morgen (around 50 hectares), that they paid local taxes as well as an additional contribution of 2 złoty per morgen per year for shared goals, and that they would help each other in times of need.
The association was a resounding success, in practice abolishing serfdom in the lands it controlled, while also bringing great prosperity to the region – this early co-operative built manufactories, schools and a hospital, while taking care of orphans and financing education for the brightest children of its members. Staszic’s initiative also offered individual loans to peasants who were part of it and provided welfare to those who were unable to work. It remained in operation until 1951, when it was disbanded and nationalised by the communist regime’s authorities – even though, from the 1860s, the Russian partitioning administration had tried to establish control over the association and even ruined some of its plans.
Despite its successes, the Hrubieszów Farmers’ Association for Mutually Saving Each Other From Misfortunes was quite far from the ideals established in Rochdale. Membership was not exactly open, as only the inhabitants of Hrubieszów were admitted, and even that was not on equal terms. Since the right to work the land was inherited, only some of the peasants had their own farms, whereas others had to work for them (which, admittedly, still offered a vastly more appealing career path than serfdom). The members also lacked economic control over the estate, as the association was managed by the President (the job was inherited by the Grothus noble family, but they were later replaced by state representatives) and an indirectly elected council. They were also bound by the founding agreement drafted by Staszic.
Nevertheless, the association demonstrated that the ideal of cooperativism could be achieved in Poland and served as a foundation for later developments in the movement while also earning the title of the first pre-co-operative farming organisation in Europe. To be fair, there was not that much competition as Staszic’s ideas were quite revolutionary.
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Co-operatives in the contemporary sense of the world appeared in Poland only in the second half of the 19th century. After Aleksander Makowiecki published his Spółki Spożywcze (Food Co-operatives) in 1868, in which he outlined the democratic ideals of Western co-operative enterprises, Polish community-owned establishments started popping up in all parts of Poland – even though the country no longer existed and was under the control of the three partitioning powers of Prussia, Russia and Austro-Hungary. The first co-operative which closely resembled the Rochdale ideal was the Merkury food association, established in Warsaw in 1869 – the year which is widely accepted as the beginning of Społem and the Polish co-operative movement, even though neither the name nor the famous logo had been invented yet.
But co-operative ideals was already widespread in Poland, as many other co-operatives there, including food co-operatives, can be dated back to early 1860s. It is worth noting here the 1861 Credit Co-operative for the Industrialists of the City of Poznań, modelled after institutions proposed by Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen, which popularised the idea of financially oriented co-operatives. It was later expanded by Franciszek Stefczyk, who in the years 1889 and 1890, established ithe highly successful Stefczyk credit union in Galicia (it has to be noted that today’s SKOK Stefczyka is only loosely inspired by this credit union).
Despite its popularity, the Polish co-operative movement faced some significant difficulties in its early years, as the three partitioning powers had radically opposed approaches to this form of shared ownership. Although the Prussian and Austrian authorities did not oppose the formation of co-operatives, Russia had an altogether different position. The St Petersburg authorities treated co-operatives as anti-state activity, and only those who received permits approved in the capital were allowed to operate. This was particularly surprising, as the first co-operatives created in Poland had a purely economical character and their founders had simple goals – to avoid poverty and make sure they controlled their own livelihood – which were not directly opposed to the interest of the Russian state.
However, some pioneers of Polish cooperativism had loftier ambitions, and even a brief look at their philosophical and political programme should be enough for anybody to agree that perhaps the Russian authorities were not completely wrong in their assessment.
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Edward Abramowski was another great Polish philosopher involved in the co-operative movement, but for him, it wasn’t just a side project with a practical focus, like it was for Staszic. It can be argued that cooperativism was at the centre of Abramowski’s socialist philosophy – he saw the institution of a co-operative as something that could challenge the alienating capitalist mode of production and ownership structures. Additionally, proving the Russian authorities right, he wanted co-operatives to become an alternative to state institutions, with people freely associating themselves not only for economic, but also cultural purposes. In his view, the people should establish jointly-owned initiatives responsible for everything other than public safety, judiciary and defence, which would remain under the management of a very narrowly defined state. It is difficult to say how exactly Abramowski envisioned his practical utopia ,as he argued that its shape would be determined only by the preceding ‘moral revolution’ brought about by the changes arising as cooperativism grew.
However, Abramowski was definitely interested in practical matters. When the 1905 Russian Revolution forced the Russian authorities to change political course, they also must have realised that the co-operative movement was not the greatest imaginable threat to the tzar and relaxed some of the rules related to them. This allowed Abramowski to co-found Towarzystwo Kooperatystów (The Cooperativists’ Society), which wanted to promote co-operative ideas amongst the Polish people. Amongst its members and supporters were Stanisław Wojciechowski, who was elected the President of Poland in 1922, and the writers Stefan Żeromski and Maria Dąbrowska. Interestingly, other renowned authors were not as keen on the whole idea of cooperativism – Bolesław Prus even argued that Poles might be willing to die for their country, but did not have the patience for the everyday routine work necessary to make the co-operatives successful, which in his eyes was reflected in the fact that they did not even bother to visit the barber on regular basis.
The Cooperativists’ Society founded its newspaper in 1906, and its name, invented by Żeromski, is the first time the word ‘społem’ was used in branding – it simply means ‘together’, although it has an archaic note to it. But nobody knows who designed the logo or even when exactly the famous typography was adopted. At first, the newspaper only used an image of a group of people pushing the Earth with ‘Społem’ written under it. Perhaps it would be most suitable if we just agreed it was a co-operative effort.
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Despite their mysterious origins, the name and the logo must have been a resounding success from the very beginning, as shortly after, the society managed to set up wholesaling initiatives and even built its own headquarters in Warsaw in 1913. Undoubtedly, the organising skills of the future President Wojciechowski, as well as the legendary Polish cooperativist Romuald Mielczarski were put to good use.
With the 1920 bill on co-operatives, which regulated some aspects of community-owned enterprises, the society was able to further increase its reach. The same year, in Kielce, they opened the first co-operative factory in Poland which produced soap. They also opened countless Społem-branded stores and even ventured into less productive sectors by founding a journalists’ co-operative and a hospitality co-operative. In 1935, they finally adopted ‘Społem’ as the official name of their organisation, but the sparsely documented history of many early Społem-branded stores and local co-operatives shows that some of them could have been established rather independently from the Warsaw-based head organisation. It seems that co-operative ideals and Społem as a symbol had reached far beyond what the founders of the Cooperativists’ Society envisioned.
And yet, despite the greater scope of the movement, as well as the rising popularity of its ideas, Abramowski’s political hopes never came to fruition, as the state power in Poland grew in strength and the capitalist mode of production did not bow down to cooperativist pressure. Nevertheless, Wojciechowski’s electoral victory was a significant step in the development of the movement, and the effects of co-operative work changed the lives of many Polish families.
Centrally planned grassroots movement
The catastrophe of World War II had a significant impact on Polish cooperativism. Not only were many lives lost, but much of the co-operatively owned property was confiscated by the German and Soviet armies occupying the country. And even though the communist authorities at first expressed support for community-ownership of means of production (the first official declarations date as far back as 1944), subsequent efforts at centralisation were a heavy blow to the recovering movement. Similarly to the case of the Staszic-founded Hrubieszów association, the state took control over many of the co-operative enterprises. After all, a centrally planned economy might not have left enough room for countless grassroots initiatives.
This did not mean an end to Społem, however, as the state-controlled council responsible for managing ‘co-operative’ institutions adopted the name and continued to build new Społem stores, even though their management structure was vastly different. Over the years, the attitudes of the authorities to cooperativist ideas changed quite drastically, and the first concessions were made in 1957, during the political thaw following the death of Stalin. The central Społem association remained under state control until 1981, however, when it regained some of its independence and reintroduced a limited democratic member-led management.
Despite administrative difficulties and philosophical differences, the communist period was a relatively good period in the history of the movement – in addition to new local stores, farms and factories being opened even in most remote parts of Poland, various branches of Społem managed build large-scale department stores, which often symbolised modernity and luxury for customers.
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The economic transformation following the country’s democratisation in 1989 almost brought an end to Społem as we know it, as the central association was disbanded – only to be reestablished in 1992 in a form that allowed the organisation to function in the new capitalist circumstances. Today, hundreds of Społem stores all over Poland are part of the central Społem union, although the competitiveness of today’s market, as well as the changing economic climate, has necessitated numerous changes. A majority of the department stores which proved popular amongst local customers are no longer in operation, while the smaller Społem grocers would be indistinguishable from the privately owned competition if not for the unmistakable branding.
But just as new Społem initiatives during the Interwar period seemed to pop up everywhere even without the involvement of the central Społem organisation, the cooperativist ideas espoused by Abramowski, Wojciechowski, Dąbrowska and many others are also alive and well outside of Społem as reestablished in 1992. Many grassroots food co-operatives have been established in Polish cities, although, quite interestingly, they have decided on different branding than the one so familiar to people all over the world. Whereas the history of Społem is commonly associated with the word ‘spółdzielnia’, a Polish equivalent of the English ‘co-operative’, new projects often refer to themselves as ‘kooperatywy’, as if they wanted to open a new page in the history of Polish cooperativism. This is the case of Kooperatywa Spożywcza ‘Dobrze’, Wawelska Kooperatywa Spożywcza, Kooperatywa Grochowska, Poznańska Kooperatywa Spożywcza and many others that see people create bottom-up structures to make sure all members of the local community have access to good-quality, affordable food.
Perhaps just as brilliant as the typography by the unknown author, Społem was never about the branding, but about an idea. Its popularity was a result of people’s willingness to join their efforts in order to make life easier and support each other through times good and bad – goals that have proved achievable in co-operative ways ever since Staszic’s 1816 experiment. It looks like Bolesław Prus was wrong, and uprisings are not the only grassroots movements that Poles are good at putting together. The successes of Społem and contemporary food-based co-operatives shows that our shared love of cheap and tasty food might be the single biggest unifying factor in the country.
Written by Michał Wieczorek, Oct 2020
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