Obituary: Lars Marcus, former ICA president

Lars Marcus, ICA president between 1984 and 1995, has passed away aged 95

The global co-operative movement has been paying tribute to Lars Marcus, former president of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), who has passed away at the age of 95.

Mr Marcus was the ICA’s 11th president, between 1984 and 1995, and will be remembered as a tireless advocate and defender of co-operatives and for his international outlook on co-operation. 

Born in Sweden, he began his career at the Coop Konsum grocery chain in the 1950s and was involved in politics, serving on the Executive Committee of the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League. He was later executive vice-president of Kooperativa Förbundet (KF, a federation of consumer co-operatives in Sweden) and helped develop the Swedish Co-operative Center (SCC), which became a key supporter of the ICA’s development programme. 

He joined the ICA Central Committee in 1976 and was elected to the Executive Committee in 1980. In 1984, at the 28th ICA Congress in Hamburg, he was elected President of the ICA, succeeding Roger Kerinec. He held this position for 11 years, alongside his KF job.  

Under his leadership, the ICA expanded membership, welcoming agricultural, housing, insurance, banking and workers’ cooperative organisations as members. Along with Karl Daniel Mauritz Bonow (1904-1982, ICA chair from 1960), he was instrumental in expanding the organisation’s reach beyond Europe. He also developed the ICA’s relationship with the ILO, and was a keynote speaker at the ILO’s 75th anniversary conference in 1994. 

“His visionary leadership helped our organisation to consolidate on a truly global scale and to be an open house for all co-operatives in the world. He was among those instrumental in taking international co-operation to regions beyond Europe,” said Ariel Guarco, current president of the ICA.

“Lars chaired the first Congress that took place outside Europe (the 30th Congress, in 1992 in Tokyo, Japan) and was also instrumental in establishing the tradition of celebrating the International Day of Cooperatives, recognised by the UN, every first Saturday of July.”

An advocate for the Co-operative Identity

He will also be remembered for his work on consolidating the co-operative identity. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he pushed for redefining the co-op movement so that co-operatives could regain their advantage and compete in the age of globalisation. 

Mr Guarco said: “As the ICA is now working on the 33 World Cooperative Congress (1-3 December 2021), which will be dedicated to Deepening our Cooperative Identity, we will remember the first congress Lars presided over, the 29th World Cooperative Congress in Stockholm, Sweden in 1988. In his hometown, a landmark report was presented and unanimously accepted as a resolution on Cooperatives and Basic Values following his vision stating the importance of cooperative ideology, cooperative principles, and cooperative values to be thoroughly examined.”

Following this, Mr Marcus worked closely with the late Professor Ian MacPherson towards formulating cooperative principles fit for the 21st century – work which resulted in the 1995 Statement on Cooperative Identity. 

“We will always remember him with admiration, and we take his work as a legacy that inspires us to keep on working for that just, supportive and democratic world for which he did so much,” added Mr Guarco.

Global Tributes

Also paying tribute were colleagues from Sweden, including Anders Lago (ICA board member and president of HSB (Sweden)), Tommy Ohlström (former CEO of KF, member of the ICA Consumer Cooperative Committee and chair of We Effect) and Mats Ahnlund (former international secretary of KF 1992-2002, and former ICA employee).

“Lars was a visionary and a charismatic leader whom many looked up to,” they said in a joint statement. “He devoted countless trips to defending cooperatives both as an idea and as a business model. He also stood up for cooperative leaders, often representing a pocket of democracy in countries where political democracy, freedom of association and human rights were not present.

“We who worked closely with him felt his warmth, humour and commitment. He was also a constant seeker, openly questioning and inviting feedback as to whether he had done the right thing and what he could do differently to achieve his and the ICA’s vision.”

They added that those who succeeded him on the ICA’s board and consumer committee were still aware of his presence. “When we say that we’re from Sweden his name often comes up, 25 years after resigning his position as ICA President. He is still remembered. Always with deep respect.

“Lars Marcus was, until his passing away, a person we were happy to return to for advice, including on contemporary issues. His great wisdom, experience and cooperative compass provided excellent guidance.”

Bruno Roelants, ICA director general, described Lars Marcus as “a dedicated man and exemplary co-operator,” adding: “We have lost a real defender of the cause of the international co-operative movement … He left an indelible trace in the history of the International Cooperative Alliance as well as an unforgettable impression upon the mind of those who have had the chance to meet him. We extend our sincere condolences to his wife Annhelen, his family, friends and the Swedish co-operative movement.”