A Case For Revolutionary Cooperativism PDF Print E-mail

By: Scott Wallace

Once again working class people are being treated to a kick in the teeth from the capitalist system. The economic system under which we are forced to live is experiencing yet another one of its periodic crises.  Hopefully, many of us are beginning to ask, “Is there another way? And fortunately, the answer is yes! There is an alternative to capitalism.  Working class people can, as soon as we collectively choose, put the means of production under democratic control, thus putting an end forever to poverty, unemployment, economic insecurity, and war. We would then have the opportunity to end racism, and environmental degradation, and humanity could begin to lift itself toward the loftier benefits of civilization. It is production for profit that generates these catastrophic crises, and it is production to satisfy human needs that can take us out of this swamp. The trick will be to get everyone to understand that higher ground does exist and to begin to move toward it. Getting out of the swamp will not be easy, because the entirety of the human race is stuck. It is our duty to indicate in what direction that higher ground lies.

In order to put the means of production under democratic control, it is necessary to build a class-wide organization, a revolutionary union that will prepare the working class to take, hold, and operate the means of production of goods and services.  With few exceptions unions have not assumed their historic mission, that of preparing the working class to take control. They have confined their efforts at best to attempting to minimize the effects of capitalist exploitation on the workers, or at worst, as a set of labor brokers, just another layer of parasites that feed off the working class and act as a lightning rod to divert the energies of the rank and file away from the struggle for fundamental change. How then, to build such organizations, or to convert conservative unions into revolutionary ones?

There is no single or simple answer to that question. But a part of the answer may lie in the seldom considered option of revolutionary cooperativism. Revolutionary cooperatives can be useful as in the effort to build a larger revolutionary movement.  That has already been demonstrated in various parts of Latin America and perhaps in other places as well.

Revolutionary cooperatives can serve as a model of a certain aspect of socialism, namely, democratic control of the workplace.  They can give a set of working class people experience with the mechanics of workplace democracy. Revolutionary Cooperatives can organize themselves as a union, and seek to extend that organization to workers in capitalist industries. Revolutionary cooperatives will bring revolutionary workers into contact with each other every day, providing opportunity for them to discuss and plan.  Revolutionary cooperatives can provide workers with the opportunity to do socialist agitation in the community, perhaps providing them with the material resources, leaflets, transportation, time off, etc. Revolutionary cooperatives will certainly have a significant educational element to them, providing education to extend the abilities and knowledge base of its members, provide a foundational knowledge for new members, both in practical matters concerning production, and the administration of the co-op. In addition, it will be important for the co-op to reach out to the larger community, and offer educational programs focusing on the need to abolish capitalism, and offering industrial democracy as a practical alternative.

Historically, Marxists for the most part have rejected cooperativism.  Let’s take a look at the comments of Rosa Luxemburg as our point of departure. In her work Reform or Revolution, she criticizes the socialism of Eduard Bernstein

“Bernstein’s socialism offers to the workers the prospect of sharing in the wealth of society. The poor are to become rich. How will this socialism be brought about? His article in the Neue Zeit (Problems of Socialism) contain only vague allusions to this question. Adequate information, however, can be found in his book.

Bernstein’s socialism is to be realised with the aid of these two instruments: labour unions – or as Bernstein himself characterises them, economic democracy – and co-operatives. The first will suppress industrial profit; the second will do away with commercial profit.

Co-operatives – especially co-operatives in the field of production constitute a hybrid form in the midst of capitalism. They can be described as small units of socialised production within capitalist exchange.

But in capitalist economy exchanges dominate production. As a result of competition, the complete domination of the process of production by the interests of capital – that is, pitiless exploitation – becomes a condition for the survival of each enterprise. The domination of capital over the process of production expresses itself in the following ways. Labour is intensified. The work day is lengthened or shortened, according to the situation of the market. And, depending on the requirements of the market, labour is either employed or thrown back into the street. In other words, use is made of all methods that enable an enterprise to stand up against its competitors in the market. The workers forming a co-operative in the field of production are thus faced with the contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the utmost absolutism. They are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur – a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving.

Bernstein has himself taken note of these facts. But it is evident that he has not understood them. For, together with Mrs. Potter-Webb, he explains the failure of production co-operatives in England by their lack of “discipline.” But what is so superficially and flatly called here “discipline” is nothing else than the natural absolutist regime of capitalism, which it is plain, the workers cannot successfully use against themselves.

Producers’ co-operatives can survive within capitalist economy only if they manage to suppress, by means of some detour, the capitalist controlled contradictions between the mode of production and the mode of exchange. And they can accomplish this only by removing themselves artificially from the influence of the laws of free competition. And they can succeed in doing the last only when they assure themselves beforehand of a constant circle of consumers, that is, when they assure themselves of a constant market.

It is the consumers’ co-operative that can offer this service to its brother in the field of production. Here – and not in Oppenheimer’s distinction between co-operatives that produce and co-operatives that sell – is the secret sought by Bernstein: the explanation for the invariable failure of producers’ co-operatives functioning independently and their survival when they are backed by consumers’ organisations.

If it is true that the possibilities of existence of producers’ co-operatives within capitalism are bound up with the possibilities of existence of consumers’ co-operatives, then the scope of the former is limited, in the most favourable of cases, to the small local market and to the manufacture of articles serving immediate needs, especially food products. Consumers’ and therefore producers’ co-operatives, are excluded from the most important branches of capital production – the textile, mining, metallurgical and petroleum industries, machine construction, locomotive and ship-building. For this reason alone (forgetting for the moment their hybrid character), co-operatives in the field of production cannot be seriously considered as the instrument of a general social transformation. The establishment of producers’ co-operatives on a wide scale would suppose, first of all, the suppression of the world market, the breaking up of the present world economy into small local spheres of production and exchange. The highly developed, wide-spread capitalism of our time is expected to fall back to the merchant economy of the Middle Ages.

Within the framework of present society, producers’ co-operatives are limited to the role of simple annexes to consumers’ co-operatives. It appears, therefore, that the latter must be the beginning of the proposed social change. But this way the expected reform of society by means of co-operatives ceases to be an offensive against capitalist production. That is, it ceases to be an attack against the principal bases of capitalist economy. It becomes, instead, a struggle against commercial capital, especially small and middle-sized commercial capital. It becomes an attack made on the twigs of the capitalist tree.

Luxemburg’s argument is generally sound. We will certainly never compete capitalism out of existence by means of the cooperative movement. Furthermore, there are relatively few niches in the economy where cooperatives can exist at all. But few as they may be, even at this late date they do exist. One could easily name a dozen or so, many having to do with the production of food. Organic gardening, hydroponics, production of gourmet mushrooms, fish farming, production of organic fertilizer, present themselves. In related enterprises we can imagine dehydration of fruits and vegetables, small scale production of high quality beer and wines. Related to these types of production, restaurants and bars of a cooperative nature are very realistic. Cooperative schools could be viable as well as cooperative tour operators. Also, production of clothing, and of housing could be within the reach of a cooperative movement. In addition, in some parts of Latin America, there are factories under cooperative control, some of which have been expropriated because the previous owners owed back-wages to the workers, or because they had perpetrated fraud against the government, or in the case of Venezuela, the government actively supports cooperative enterprises. The only statement by Luxemburg which warrants refutation is that the cooperative movement could never survive in the area of machine production.  This is a niche of the economy where many shops thrive even using somewhat antiquated technology.  Many shops out there still have WWII vintage machine tools, and are still able to operate profitably.  Indeed this would be an area that would be very important for the cooperative movement to develop, because if we can build our own machines, our ability to proliferate is greatly enhanced. The important idea here is that Revolutionary cooperativism is not put forth as a method of competing capitalism out of existence. It is seen as a platform from which the struggle for socialism can be conducted more efficiently.

Another critic of cooperativism, one Ben Seattle, phrased his argument this way:  “The evolution of an alternative economy under conditions of bourgeois rule is also a dead-end idea that goes nowhere. I sometimes refer to this trend of thought as "co-op consciousness" because in the 1960's the idea was near-universal that such entities as co-ops would usher in a new way of thinking and doing things. A friend of mine, for example, once donated his afternoon to building a bookshelf for a local food co-op here
in Seattle. The food co-op has since gone on to become very successful--although not in terms of its original founding vision. The food co-op certainly sells a lot of food. But the decisions are now made by well-paid corporate executives and the low-paid workers have no say in how things are run and in general are treated like shit. And this always seems to happen. If you throw a rock in the air it will eventually come down again because of _the law of gravity_. No matter how hard you try--you cannot throw a rock  fast enough that it can escape the law of gravity. Similarly any kind of co-op that you build will, if it is part of the money economy, fall victim to the laws of commodity production. The laws of commodity production can no more be escaped than the law of gravity.”

The question presents itself, Is the problem with the laws of commodity production,
or with a conservative cooperative consciousness. Cooperatives haven't done much to point the way in the past century. There is a Yahoo list called the “worker owned co-op” list, and some of the members of that list became quite angry that some on the list wished to discuss the possibility of cooperatives leading the way to socialism. One member asserted that he saw his participation in the co-op merely as participation in the capitalist system, and nothing that would challenge or threaten capitalism. Such an attitude toward cooperativism will not allow it to lead the way toward socialism. However, there is an alternative to a conservative cooperative consciousness, and that, of course, is a revolutionary cooperative consciousness. If we organize cooperativesin such a way as to consciously prepare them to be sign posts for socialism, if we consciously organize them to model some aspects of socialism, if we actively recruit revolutionaries to become the
producing members of these co-ops, if we make certain that a significant part of the resources of the co-op go toward education, including socialist education, if we build activist and out-looking and outreaching co-ops that try to influence the communities around them, then, yes, cooperatives can help point the way toward socialism.

Will future society be based on cooperatives? It depends on how you define your terms. To repeat, co-ops will never compete capitalism out of existence. Actually, it is only in certain niches where competition is not extremely intense that they can exist at all. Hopefully, whatever co-ops we can build will slide into the post-capitalist economy like a hand into a glove, but the majority of the economy will necessarily be the former capitalist sector finally put under democratic control. It seems logical that those workplaces should be integrated within a revolutionary industrial union movement through which cooperative labor will organize and coordinate itself democratically, and indeed it would take such a movement to sweep away capitalist social relations in the first place. Certainly an integrated cooperative commonwealth under democratic control is the goal, rather than an atomized system of co-ops that would trade with each other using money and markets. But revolutionary cooperatives could have an important role in getting a credible revolutionary socialist movement off the ground in the first place. It could model some aspects of socialism even before the revolution, it could provide the material basis for organizing a revolutionary industrial union movement, and a revolutionary political movement. It could provide important socialist education. But this is a very narrow, and definitely revolutionary concept of cooperativism, one that realizes that the whole job will not be done by co-ops, that the real power lies in revolutionary industrial unions.

In Brazil there is an organization called the MTL,(movimento terra trabalho e liberdade) that has launched several revolutionary cooperatives, and these organizations have become dynamic centers of socialist organization and class struggle. Workers have been drawn into the movement merely because they needed a job, and wound up receiving a socialist education and becoming class conscious activists. The MLS a predecessor of the MTL entered a struggle that was going on between van drivers, and the bus monopoly in the city of Goiania. The struggle wound up breaking the bus monopoly in Goiania and resulted in both the creation of a transport co-op, and the election of the socialist Elias Vaz (of the MLS) to city council. As a side note, the MLS was originally part of the PSTU (Trotskyist) but wound up being expelled over the question of cooperativism, and the organization today is not specifically Leninist, but it is specifically Marxist. Anyway, two other cooperatives have been formed in Goiania, a recycling co-op, and a labor pool type co-op, and these have become magnets of socialist recruitment and struggle, and Elias Vaz has defended the interests of workers in these coops in the city council, and gotten workers en masse to struggle politically for their rights within the context of
city politics. These activities, by the way, have earned Comrade Vaz a few death threats.  The key to the success of these cooperatives, and the fact that they were successful in maintaining a revolutionary perspective is that they were created by socialists for the purpose of building the socialist movement.

Now these co-ops, while pretty thoroughly socialist, are still a far cry from the ideal of revolutionary cooperativism. The possibility actually exists of using revolutionary cooperatives as a tool for actually launching the first Socialist Industrial Unions, and certainly for conducting agitation and educational efforts in behalf of socialist industrial unionism. You see, various revolutionary co-ops could get together and form a union. Their organization would already be similar to a union ( a democratic organization of workers) and then that union could also attempt to extend its organization to workers in capitalist workplaces. Revolutionary workers in the co-ops could rotate out of employment in the co-op and take employment in capitalist industries where they could conduct socialist agitation and seek to organize unions. They could do this freely, because if fired for these activities, they could rotate back into the co-op. Similarly, select workers in capitalist industries could be invited to work part time in the revolutionary cooperative movement, giving them experience with a democratic workplace and revolutionary unionism that they could share with their fellow workers. This could be the toehold of socialist industrial unionism. When the material conditions are right, (which seems like it could be pretty soon) the idea could have a credible chance of taking off.

Imagine this, a network of local cooperatives functioning successfully, imbued with an overwhelmingly predominating socialist consciousness, and all of the relevant technology dominated by the members, and an internal education program in place to efficiently train new members in all aspects of the co-op’s operation.  Such a network could ask for volunteers to temporarily relocate to another locality to help others set up another cooperative network wherever a core group of interested revolutionaries might be found.  An interest free loan could be made available in such cases if the new co-op would also make a commitment to repeat this process and replicate itself in other localities once its resources were built up to a sufficient strength. Under such a situation, the rate of growth of the movement would be directly proportional to the number of co-ops in existence, and that of course is the condition for exponential growth. Such a movement would become part of the material base for a revolutionary political movement that would extend far beyond the confines of the cooperative.

How then might we enter into this endeavor in the United States.  In Florida, the Broward County School Board having laid off nearly 2000 teachers recently, and there is a possibility of one or more schools being closed. The possibility presents itself that vacant school facilities could be made available to the communities they are intended to serve.  These facilities could be put under cooperative control, providing employment opportunities both for laid off teachers, and for other citizens who find themselves out of work.  If these facilities were made available rent free under the umbrella of an administrative cooperative, a myriad of non profit mini-cooperatives could be mounted in the school and on the school grounds.

Considering the ample facilities, machinery, equipment, computers, food preparation facilities, auditorium, classrooms, land, etc, etc, present in a secondary school, dozens of possibilities present themselves for productive activities that could feasibly take place under cooperative control, providing a number of jobs, and more importantly, serving as a model for similar projects in other locations.

Here is a preliminary list of activities that this hypothesized network of cooperatives could engage in; movie theater, restaurant, or group of restaurants with food court, urban farm utilizing both hydroponics and organic methods of production, an integrated recycling program with a worm farm for the production of humus both for direct use in organic gardening, and for sale to consumers, production of edible mushrooms, pond culture of tilapia, carp, and freshwater shrimp, production of smoked fish, dehydration and packaging of fruits and vegetables, campground for tourists, grocery store, arts and crafts, manufacture of hydroponic equipment, production of wood products, cheap rental of meeting rooms for community groups, political organizations, etc.,  production of ceramics and pottery,  production of concrete pavers, production of machine parts, welding services, silk screening, production of clothing, leather work, retail spaces,  rental of spaces for swap meets, tutoring services, car repair, bike repair, bakery, web design services, travel agency, sports academy, micro brewery, a mini charter school, temporary labor and professional services, lawn services and landscaping, medical and dental clinics.

It would require a political movement to gain access to these resources, but this is the type of thing it would be very possible to mobilize the community to demand.  Furthermore, these facilities are lying vacant all over the country.  The Kansas City school district closed half its schools, Chicago, Buffalo, and a whole host of cities have closed schools.  Why not put these resources to work? In a similar vein,  a good chunk of GM is now owned by the government.  It would be interesting to organize a political movement that would seek to have GM put under the direct democratic control of the workers, with all proceeds going to the producers.

It seems almost axiomatic that revolutionary cooperativism will play an important role in the construction of the class-wide organization necessary to put the means of life under democratic control