The endorsement of workers’ cooperatives by Marx with which the previous post in this series finished needs emphasis because all too many of today’s Marxists fail to acknowledge their place in Marx’s alternative to capitalism. To take just one example: the Irish Marxist Kieran Allen, in his ‘Karl Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism’, references workers’ cooperatives under the heading of ‘Marx and Utopianism’, and with a view that appears to see these cooperatives as ‘islands of socialism’ within a capitalist sea, that “could not break with the logic of capitalism.” The endorsement of workers’ cooperatives by Marx is not referred to by him, which is more than remiss given the title of the book.
Instead trade union organisation is endorsed and the perspectives of Marx described thus:
“Marx’s approach, therefore, was not to build alternatives within the existing mode of production but to overthrow it”
This is a view common to many of today’s Marxists. However, by using this example of this approach, a number of points can be made, by way of illustration how it may be contrasted to the approach set out so far in these posts.
First, it might be pointed out that while cooperatives may not break completely with the logic of capitalism, this was well understood by Marx, as the first sentence of the extensive quote from the last post makes plain – “The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system.”
Second, it may be noted that not only do trade unions enforce the logic of capitalism, by bargaining the price of labour power in the labour market, but they are obviously built within the existing system and generally do not seek to overthrow it, a criticism levelled at cooperatives.
In this sense, it is equally obvious that unless the alternative is built “within the existing mode of production” there will be nothing with which “to overthrow it”. Something as true of a working class party as of cooperative workplaces. Without material foundations for example, there will be no revolution, certainly not one that is successful. This will be the case because it is not just a question of overthrowing capitalism but of replacing it, and the replacement cannot be conjured out of nothing. It cannot arise from empowering the state to take control – because this is not socialism, as the series of posts on the Russian revolution demonstrated. But it will also not arise from within the heads of the working class unless the real world outside their heads, the’being that determines consciousness’, propels them to it.
Both within workers’ consciousness and the real world that creates this consciousness there must be a viable alternative, one that the creation of workers’ cooperatives within capitalism can represent. In this sense, such cooperatives can be made, if not islands of socialism, then sites of struggle to win workers to ownership of the means of production right across society, and a giant step towards it within the existing system.
Allen argues that “unlike the capitalist class, workers need direct political power to begin the process of liberating themselves” (emphasis added), but this confuses the requirement for revolution, and the conquering of political power by the working class, with the process to get there, and what the working class needs to do afterwards in order to rule, not just in the political sense but as a ruling social class. Much of the Marxist movement has been handicapped by failure to properly understand the necessity to advance the economic, social and political power of the working class, in the way Marx sought to do, within capitalism, as a prerequisite of, and prior to, overthrowing and replacing it.
Since this is a necessity whether one believes it is required or not, the vacuum created by lack of such understanding is filled by reformist and statist conceptions of working class struggle and socialism, which are as routinely condemned as much as they are advanced in practice. These statist conceptions of socialism were opposed by Marx, as by many Marxists today, but he had conceptions of the alternative, which many of today’s Marxists do not. They thus lapse into Keynesian remedies and calls for nationalisation, ignoring experience of the latter when it happens and results in enforcement of the logic of capitalism – as in Ireland with bank nationalisation and creation of an enormous property development company by the state – NAMA.
This yawning gap in the conception of how the working class prepares itself to be the ruling class, to carry out a revolution, has all sorts of other deleterious consequences, leading not just to reformist capitulation but alternatively to ultra-left isolation, and retreat into vanguardist conceptions that amazingly can include reformist politics as well. Since the real prerequisites for socialist revolution are ignored, the experience of heightened episodes of class struggle are continually misapprehended as revolutionary outbreaks when they are not. Their failure leads to a search for scapegoats, for villains who have betrayed, without pausing to ask how this betrayal could have been allowed if the working class was already revolutionary.
It means that even those parties with the purest revolutionary programmes will be compelled to retreat and betray their revolutionary beliefs because the working class they seek to lead, and may even succeed in leading for a time, is simply not in a position to make a revolution, a weakness inevitably reflected in their political consciousness. Retreat in such circumstances is inevitable regardless of subjective wishes and intentions.
In practice, such realisation affects the most radical parties long before they are in a position to claim outright leadership of the majority of the working class, whereupon the left section denounces the right as betraying socialism and the right denounces the left as lacking in realism. Meanwhile the decisive question is how the working class has prepared itself for political power, because it is the class that creates the party, not the other way round.
The prevailing general conception of many Marxists is presented by Allen this way:
“It was only in the process of revolution that the mass of people learnt to clarify their own interests and develop a different understanding of their society. In normal times, the majority accept the legitimacy of their rulers and at least some of their ideas. This cannot be changed simply through preaching, teaching or good example. A new consciousness cannot emerge on a mass scale by workers ‘waking up’ and then passively following the teachings of their intellectual masters or clever television presenters. Experience of class struggle is the only way in which people can learn, and, as Draper put it, ‘revolution speeded up the curriculum and enriched the course.’”
What this says is that only revolution can bring about the consciousness within workers that a revolution is required, which is actually partly true but obviously hardly adequate; in other words inadequate. Read in reverse, the paragraph quoted above makes the weakness of this conception clearer; for it reads – revolution becomes the means of ‘waking up’ the workers, while revolution is the result of their ‘waking up’.
As a more or less sudden and abrupt process, of greater or shorter duration, a revolution alone cannot equip the working class with the consciousness that society must be organised by themselves and that they have the capacity to do so. Marxists often note that consciousness lags behind material changes in the real world, and stand firmly on the ground that such material reality is the soil upon which consciousness grows. It is therefore the case that anticipations of the new socialist society must appear within capitalism for the consciousness of the new society to also appear and grow, and to achieve hegemony within the working class. As we have noted, of all the developments of the forces and relations of production under capitalism, it is cooperative production, working class control of the means of production – even within the capitalist system – that Marx notes should be considered one of the“transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one.”
The creation of workers’ cooperatives raises the potential for increasing numbers of workers to understand the possibility of working class ownership of the means of production. Such ownership also has the potential to demonstrate the benefits of increasing the scale and scope of cooperative production within capitalism – the benefit of cooperative enterprises cooperating with each other.
It also has the potential to demonstrate the ultimate requirement to defend this working class control through rejecting a capitalist state that exists to defend capitalist ownership and control. The need for the working class to have its own state can be demonstrated when it becomes clear that it needs it to defend its own cooperative property.
Cooperative production has the potential to burst asunder the existing relations of capitalist production and release the fetters on the forces of production increasingly under strain from the limitations imposed on the socialisation of production by capitalist property relations. So, for example, the savings of workers, including their pension funds, can be mobilised using the existing system of socialised capital to provide the funding for workers to create their own cooperatives.
Workers’ cooperatives are not however a ‘magic bullet’ and do not replace the various other means by which workers must organise, in trade unions and political parties etc. as the example of Marx and Engels’ own lives demonstrates. Cooperative factories were however important for how they conceived of the transition from capitalism to socialism and clearly fit their conceptions relating to the forces and relations of production that we have reviewed in these last number of posts.
Back to part 26