Yrjö Kallinen - A paradoxical pioneer of Finnish cooperatives

Leo Sammallahti

Leo Sammallahti

Aug 11, 2019

"A walking paradox"

Yrjö Kallinen (1886-1976) is a legendary figure in Finnish history, with a unique life story. He is often described as a walking paradox: he was sentenced to death four times, yet lived to be 90 years old. He was a pacifist but also served as defence minister (the only pacifist in the history of the world to have served in such a position in any country). He had only rudimentary education, but was widely respected for his deep and wide knowledge ranging from economics and business management to eastern philosophy. He belonged to the social democratic party, yet many leading capitalists of the country respected him and his advice. He attended the church, yet was also the most respected expert in eastern religious thinking. He played a key part in building one of the most successful businesses in Finland - the retail cooperative movement that still dominates the retail sector in the country, yet he was a humble and ascetic man who was much more interested in spiritual enlightenment than material wealth. 


Early Life

Born to a poor family, Yrjö Kallinen started working at age 13 and soon started working in the railways. He worked in a signal booth where he had plenty of time to read and was also active in the trade union movement. He helped set up the Railway Workers Union and served briefly as its leader. His career in the railways ended when a civil war broke out in 1918. The war was fought between the left wing “reds” and right wing “whites”, with the latter winning the war. In the aftermath of the war, massive prison camps were set up for the reds, where tens of thousands perished due to hunger, executions and mistreatment. Although he had opposed violence as a mean to advance political ends, he was sent to a prison camp and convicted to death penalty numerous times. The time in the camps solidified his thinking and he became very critical of ideological fanaticism, militarism and authoritarianism.

Career In The Cooperative Movement

In 1924 he started his career in the consumer cooperative movement by doing advocacy work by going around the country preaching and educating people about the movement. Later on, he served as a board member of what is now the largest retailer in the country, the HOK-Elanto cooperative and was also as a member of the central committee of the International Cooperative Alliance.

He saw the fifth cooperative principle “Education, Training, and Information” as perhaps the most vital part of the movement. In his world view, the technological progress had advanced too rapidly relative to the cultural progress of how we use the new amazing productive powers provided by science. Martin Luther King Jr. put it in a brilliant way “We have guided and misguided men.” Especially after witnessing the development of nuclear weapons, he saw the urgency of instilling a new way of thinking if humankind was to survive. He thought that our innate primitive instincts for war, domination and ruthless competition that had been reinforced through thousands of generations by cultural norms that glorified war and material greed needed were at the core of the problem.


The solution was to organise society and culture through mutual cooperation for shared purpose, in which he saw cooperatives play a key role. He described these ideas in a following way:

“All of us are more or less mentally ill, every single of us is more or less asleep. It has its basis in our genetic heritage: when our hairy ancestors landed from the trees they had fear in them, they had the need for security, preparing for battle for their existence… These are our basic instincts, and on top of this subconsciousness we have built suggestion after suggestion for millenias, from generation to generation: we have been raised and taught all the way from ancient times to equip to the battle, to die heroically… We have left behind the ancient times, feudalism and moved to capitalism, which has given new conceptualisation of these old instincts. Now we have this security of property around us, we have competition on who owns more… but thank god it seems we are waking up from this dreadful state of trance!
At the moment, we have around the world attempts to apply to social life mutual cooperation. Let's call it as in my actual position I called it, with a name of "co-operation". I have a wonderful definition for that, good friend of mine English professor Fred Hall has taught me word for word: Cooperatives are voluntary and systematic co-operation for the common good. But this same idea is also suitable for generally social life, it does not have to be limited only to the cooperative movement as such but everywhere, where human lives among people… It is something different than a monkey culture, which we have thus far cultivated; This frantic rat race, this gluttony, this enslavement, deprivation.

Human has the opportunity to overcome this, perfectly natural possibility of which is as it were reserved already in a human. When it's awakened, people will be able to do systematic, rationalist, humane cooperation for the common good. This has been proven, and I believe, that this is possible. Now it's just a matter that can we get enough people to wake up in large numbers, so that the direction will change.”

He saw cooperatives not just vehicles for transactional, economic relationships, but also as manifestations of a higher level of civilisation that was not only beneficial, but necessary for humanity to survive in an age of nuclear weapons and environmental destruction. This is why he focused so much on the educational aspect of the movement, by being in charge of newspapers and educational programs that the cooperatives produced. He was also an early pioneer of using radio and film to advance this cause. He never articulated his point of view in this manner, but I believe he saw war, that is the most rudimentary form of competition by force, as the opposite of cooperatives, that are a very pure form of voluntary cooperation.

Principle 5 Today

Cooperatives can not only bring about economic benefits, but they can shape our culture. Instead of glorifying individual billionaires and lying to young people that if they believe in themselves enough, they can become one, we must create an atmosphere where we glorify collective efforts, such as Wikipedia, and encourage people to dream instead something much more realistic - such as setting up a worker owned bakery cooperative loved by the local community by providing breakfasts to children. 

Digital technology must also be utilised more fully to advance Principle 5. We need more documentaries, lectures, massive open online courses, online educational certifications and other material. 

Examples of this includes “Towards Co-operative CommonWealth” MOOC by the  Athabasca University in Australia and FairShares online courses that enable everyone to earn a certificate in using the FairShares model to build multistakeholder cooperatives.

When I first started thinking about marketing for Coop Exchange I wanted to do something that is educational and beneficial to the cooperative movement as a whole. Starting the “coop fact of the day” campaign was born out of this goal - each day we share in Facebook and Twitter one fact about cooperatives. It is based on sharing snippets of information that can be easily passed on in a pub discussion, unlike a commercial that seeks to trigger positive feelings and therefore create a positive, abstract, unconscious association.

There is something that makes Coop Exchange uniquely suitable for this sort of outreach campaign - it seeks to support cooperatives across all sectors, so it does not require the outreach to be targeted to potential customers of specific goods and services. It is also fundamentally global, so we do not need to limit our outreach geographically. The growth of global platform cooperatives makes raising global awareness more beneficial than ever before - if the largest worker owned cooperative in the world, the Spanish Mondragon makes a tweet that is shared by someone in Korea, that person cannot buy services from Mondragon. It therefore cannot harness global awareness into new customers. However, a cooperative like Coop Exchange is different - whether the tweet is shared by an Indian or a Korean does not matter to us, as they both will be able to join the coop when we launch. A documentary film about a housing cooperative in New York might inspire someone to start a housing cooperative, but unless the viewer happens to live there, they cannot join that particular cooperative the documentary is about. A documentary film about global platform cooperatives that would present projects like Resonate (a Spotify alternative that is a cooperative co-owned by listeners and musicians) would be different - everyone watching the documentary can join Resonate with few clicks. This simple logic means that with the rise of similar platform cooperatives that allow anyone from anywhere in the world to join, global cooperation to raise awareness about cooperatives will become more easily utilised. The potential is therefore massive - and we at Coop Exchange hope to play a part in organising such global outreach efforts.