New Cooperatives – Looking Back, Looking West

Activists who are trying to revive the spirit of cooperativism in Central Europe operate in a unique context, created by the convergence of the region’s turbulent history and an influx of ideas from the West

Man from Hungarian Farmers’ Cooperative writing down new members

“The significance of cooperativism lies in developing creative freedom and being a breeding ground for real democracy.”




The statistics on the number of cooperatives operating in Central Europe seem encouraging. According to the 2016 “Power of cooperation” report, cooperatives are widespread throughout all the countries of the region. In Poland, the number of cooperative members is estimated at 8 million, which means that one in five Poles belongs to a cooperative. In Hungary, housing cooperatives consist of over 700 thousand members, which indicates that about 8% of Hungarians live in cooperative housing, a far bigger proportion than in Western Europe. At the same time, every edition of the European Social Survey shows that the countries of Central Europe are generally the ones where the fewest respondents are voluntary members in organisations or agree that “most people can be trusted.” The 2014 edition reveals that this statement is approved by a mere 16% of Poles and 23% of Czechs, while in the Western Europe those numbers are several times higher, reaching as much as 70% in Denmark and 66% in Finland.

If Central Europeans do not trust one another and are unwilling to participate in organisations, how can they have so many cooperatives? The answer lies in the history of the region, which was greatly shaped by communism. Most of the existing cooperatives are remnants of the previous socioeconomic system and have little to do with their Western counterparts. In the communist era, cooperatives were large top-down organisations, heavily bureaucratised and tightly controlled by the state. When communism ended, the laws on cooperatives underwent numerous changes which were aimed at empowering cooperative members, but it did not take into account the fact that people were tired of forced collaboration. As a result, thousands of housing cooperatives and cooperative business under-went commercialisation or privatisation. They remained cooperatives in name only.

Spolem shop in Warsaw, 1967-1972

© G. Rutowska, Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe


After the fall of communism, Central Europeans began to perceive property ownership as the best way to win a certain freedom and control which seemed unattainable through the housing solutions promoted by the communists. Because cooperatives were associated with communism, it is not surprising that most of them underwent complete or partial privatisation. Those which survived remained stuck in bureaucracy and stagnation. “In the last 3 decades no new housing cooperatives were established and the existing ones didn’t develop further. (…) They are not community oriented, have no influence on the housing developments, don’t generate any social or cultural developments,” comments Bence Komlósi on the existing housing cooperatives in Hungary.

Cooperative Dobrze

© M. Liminowicz, P. Salicka

Bence Komlósi is a co-founder in Community Living (Közösségben Élni), a knowledge transfer hub which was set up in 2012 by a group of Hungarian architects who started researching housing while studying in Switzerland. They were looking for an alternative to the “top-down housing cooperatives forced [on them] by the socialist regime” and discovered cohousing: “bottom-up initiated housing developments where community-oriented thinking and sharing play a key role.” They decided to disseminate the knowledge they had acquired abroad and started to provide mentoring to groups who want to develop cohousing in Hungary, including Rakoczi Kollektiva.




Adopted text from Magazyn Miasta / Cities Magazine vol. 1

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