Marx against cooperation?

Ernest Jones

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 42

The Inaugural Address to the First International in which Marx expressed support for workers’ cooperatives, and the 1859 Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, were both political interventions into the working class movement by the ‘Marx party’, understood as a current of thought in the broader working class movement rather than a separate centralised organisation.  The idea that the strong views expressed by Marx in support of cooperatives in the Inaugural Address were a concession to the Owenites and Proudhonists in the International is not credible and requires implausible arguments to dismiss, what are for some, quite uncongenial views.  However, as we noted in the previous post, the Address was not the first occasion when Marx expressed support for them, if previously at one remove.

In Volume 11 of Marx and Engels Collected Works the editor has a footnote to two articles nominally written by the English Chartist leader Ernest Jones. In it he says that:

“In 1851 the Chartist weekly Notes to the People published two articles by Ernest Jones, the editor, on co-operation: “A Letter to the Advocates of the Co-operative Principle, and to the Members of Co-operative Societies” (No. 2, May 10, 1851), and “Co-operation. What It Is, and What It Ought to Be” (No. 21, September 20, 1851). They were written at a time when especially close, friendly relations had been established between Marx and Engels on the one hand and Ernest Jones, the Left-wing Chartist leader on the other.”

“Marx and Engels constantly helped Jones in his fight for the revival of Chartism on a socialist basis, in his propaganda campaign and his work as publisher and editor of the Chartist papers . . . .  On November 4, 1864 Marx wrote to Engels the following: “I happened to come across several numbers of E.Jones Notes to the People (1851, 1852) which, as far as economic articles are concerned, had been written in the main points under my direction and in part even with my close participation. Well! What do I find there? That then we conducted the same polemic—only in a better way—against the co-operative movement, since in its present narrow-minded form it claimed to be the latest word, as ten to twelve years later Lassalle conducted in Germany against Schulze-Delitzsch.” 

The editor declares that the articles by Jones and the replies by a Christian socialist “show clearly the difference between the viewpoints of the Christian socialist and the proletarian revolutionary. The former saw the aim of the co-operative movement in distracting the workers from the class struggle and called for the collaboration of hostile classes and the reconciliation of their interests.” 

“Jones, supported by Marx, emphasised that from the viewpoint of the workers’ liberation struggle peaceful co-operation had no prospect and that under capitalism workers’ co-operative societies could not exist for long; they would not withstand competition on the part of big capital and would go bankrupt, or else they would turn into purely capitalist enterprises deriving profit from exploiting workers. The decisive condition, Jones said, for the workers’ co-operative societies to be really of use to the working class was that the latter win political power in order to reorganise the existing system in the interest of the working people.” 

“Of Jones’ many articles on co-operation the two mentioned at the beginning of this note are included in this volume because they most vividly reflect the influence of Marx’s views on Jones and show clearly that Marx in fact took part in writing them.” (Collected Works Volume 11) p. 57 

The spin by the editor would leave the impression that Marx, through Jones, was an opponent of workers’ cooperatives and that their existence was merely a prelude to the conquering of political power.  Their character, as described by Marx in the Inaugural Address to the First International, demonstrates a quite different view of their significance and prompts a wholly different reading of the articles.

Far from seeking to minimise their significance Jones argues, as does Marx in the Address, that they should be expanded.  As to the overall approach to their contemporary advocates Jones says that he writes as “the real friend of co-operation” and that:

“I am not the enemy of co-operation, but its friend—its true friend—I do not oppose co-operation, but wish to rescue it from that course, in which it is digging its own grave.”

He notes that the objectives of cooperation are to “destroy profitmongering. . . put an end to competition and . . .  to counteract the centralisation of wealth” but that in its present form it fails in all of these:

In the second article he states that

“Therefore, the present plan is not true co-operation; it is essentially hostile to the spread of associated labour; instead of ending profitmongering, it renews it; instead of abolishing competition, it recreates it; instead of abrogating monopoly, it re-establishes it, and is the death-blow to the hopes of labour’s emancipation.”

In the first he argues that “. . .  the co-operative system, as at present practised, carries within it the germs of dissolution, would inflict a renewed evil on the masses of the people, and is essentially destructive of the real principles of co-operation. Instead of abrogating profitmongering, it re-creates it. Instead of counteracting competition, it re-establishes it. Instead of preventing centralisation, it renews it—merely transferring the rôle from one set of actors to another.”

“Let us reflect, what are the great canal-companies, joint-stock companies, banking companies, railway companies, trading companies—what are they but co-operative associations in the hands of the rich?”

But, he states, “here again I admit that co-operation on a sound basis is salutary, and may be a powerful adjunct towards both social and political emancipation.”

“Then what is the only salutary basis for co-operative industry? A national one. All co-operation should be founded, not on isolated efforts, absorbing, if successful, vast riches to themselves, but on a national union which should distribute the national wealth. To make these associations secure and beneficial, you must make it their interest to assist each other, instead of competing with each other—you must give them unity of action, and identity of interest.”

Jones ends the first article by saying that “I have given the difficulties in the way of the co-operative movement—not with a view to discouragement—but that by seeing the dangers, we may learn how to avoid them.”

In the second article he explains a bit more what is meant by this:

“People imagine if a few individuals co-operate together to start a trading concern and make as much money as they can, that this means co-operation in the real sense of emancipated and associated labour.

Nothing of the sort! If that were so, every railway, banking, or shipping company would realise the true principles of co-operation.

By co-operation, a very inadequate word, by the way, we mean the abolition of profitmongering and wages-slavery, by the development of independent and associated labour. But this can be established only on the basis of the following principle already laid down in this article.’

No man has a right to take more from society, than the value of that which he confers upon it.”

In the first article the watchword is “Nationalise Co-operation”; not in the sense of seeking state ownership, but the extension of cooperatives to national dimensions through seeking their growth and development, not through competition with each other but through cooperation.  The further development of economic relations today requires that the corresponding demand would be to call for the extension of cooperation on the international level.

“This is co-operation. It is co-operation, because it establishes a community of interest—the success of each “branch” furthers the success of every other, and of the whole collectively. There can be no conflicting interests—no rivalry—no competition—for the greater the success of each undertaking, the more the stability and permanency of the whole is ensured”

The argument by Jones, and through him by Marx, is not that the conquest of political power is not vital but that cooperation would strengthen the unity and power of the working class and make it better able to resist the attacks of the capitalist class by the state.  It does not reduce the importance of the conquest of political power but illustrates the necessity for it to protect and advance the cooperative power of the associated producers, the working class.

Many of today’s Marxists understand none of these points, but on the contrary, routinely argue that the state that is the enemy of the growing power of the working class should be hailed as its benefactor, so that instead workers ownership should be discarded for the objective of state ownership!  Such is the degeneration of political understanding of much of today’s Marxist movement. 

Back to part 41

Forward to part 43

2 thoughts on “Marx against cooperation?

  1. Pingback: Communist news from 300+ organizations ☭

  2. An excellent post! I would add the following points also contained in my blog posts on Can Cooperatives Work.

    Marx in his Programme for the First International wrote:

    “It is the business of the International Working Men’s Association to combine and generalise the spontaneous movements of the working classes, but not to dictate or impose any doctrinary system whatever. The Congress should, therefore, proclaim no special system of co-operation, but limit itself to the enunciation of a few general principles.

    (a) We acknowledge the co-operative movement as one of the transforming forces of the present society based upon class antagonism. Its great merit is to practically show, that the present pauperising, and despotic system of the subordination of labour to capital can be superseded by the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers.

    (b) Restricted, however, to the dwarfish forms into which individual wages slaves can elaborate it by their private efforts, the co-operative system will never transform capitalist society. to convert social production into one large and harmonious system of free and co-operative labour, general social changes are wanted, changes of the general conditions of society, never to be realised save by the transfer of the organised forces of society, viz., the state power, from capitalists and landlords to the producers themselves.

    (c) We recommend to the working men to embark in co-operative production rather than in co-operative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork.

    (d) We recommend to all co-operative societies to convert one part of their joint income into a fund for propagating their principles by example as well as by precept, in other words, by promoting the establishment by teaching and preaching.

    (e) In order to prevent co-operative societies from degenerating into ordinary middle-class joint stock companies (societes par actions), all workmen employed, whether shareholders or not, ought to share alike. As a mere temporary expedient, we are willing to allow shareholders a low rate of interest.”

    In the last part of his life, Marx wrote, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme,

    In criticising the statist Lassallean view of nationalisation, or cooperatives created with state aid – the equivalent of the nonsensical demand of some statist “Marxists” today for nationalisation under workers control, Marx wrote,

    “Instead of arising from the revolutionary process of transformation of society, the “socialist organization of the total labour” “arises” from the “state aid” that the state gives to the producers’ co-operative societies and which the state, not the workers, “calls into being”. It is worthy of Lassalle’s imagination that with state loans one can build a new society just as well as a new railway!

    That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale, in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid. But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not protégés either of the governments or of the bourgeois.

    “From the remnants of a sense of shame, “state aid” has been put — under the democratic control of the “toiling people”. …

    “Second, “democratic” means in German “Volksherrschaftlich” [by the rule of the people]. But what does “control by the rule of the people of the toiling people” mean? And particularly in the case of a toiling people which, through these demands that it puts to the state, expresses its full consciousness that it neither rules nor is ripe for ruling! ….”

    As Trotsky also noted to suggest that the path to Socialism resides in the capitalist state nationalising property, and then to hand it to the workers is simply to engage in a blatant deception of them. The capitalist state is far more powerful than any individual capitalist, and so if no individual capitalist will concede such control by workers why would the capitalist state unless in reality power has already been taken from its hands in a condition of dual power?

    Engels re-emphasises these [pints of Marx from the CGP, in a letter to Bebel of 1875.

    He writes,

    “Fourthly, as its one and only social demand, the programme puts forward — Lassallean state aid in its starkest form, as stolen by Lassalle from Buchez. And this, after Bracke has so ably demonstrated the sheer futility of that demand; after almost all if not all, of our party speakers have, in their struggle against the Lassalleans, been compelled to make a stand against this “state aid”! Our party could hardly demean itself further. Internationalism sunk to the level of Amand Goegg, socialism to that of the bourgeois republican Buchez, who confronted the socialists with this demand in order to supplant them!

    But “state aid” in the Lassallean sense of the word is, after all, at most only one measure among many others for the attainment of an end here lamely described as “paving the way for the solution of the social question”, as though in our case there were still a social question that remained unsolved in theory! Thus, if you were to say: The German workers’ party strives to abolish wage labour and hence class distinctions by introducing co-operative production into industry and agriculture, and on a national scale; it is in favour of any measure calculated to attain that end! — then no Lassallean could possibly object.”

    In a second letter, Engels expounds this further.

    “This is a measure which we must under all circumstances press for as long as large landed property remains there, and which we must ourselves carry out as soon as we come into power: the transfer – initially on lease – of the large landholdings to self-managing cooperatives under state supervision and in such a manner that the state remains the owner of the land. The measure has, however, the great advantage of being practically feasible, objectively speaking, but that no Party other than ours can take it up, and also that no Party can bungle it. And with that alone Prussia is done for, and the earlier we popularise it, the better it is for us.

    The matter has nothing to do with either Sch[ulze]-Delitzsch or with Lassalle. Both propagated small cooperatives, the one with, the other without state help; however, in both cases the cooperatives were not meant to come under the ownership of already existing means of production, but create alongside the existing capitalist production a new cooperative one. My suggestion requires the entry of the cooperatives into the existing production. One should give them land which otherwise would be exploited by capitalist means: as demanded by the Paris Commune, the workers should operate the factories shut down by the factory-owners on a cooperative basis. That is the great difference. And Marx and I never doubted that in the transition to the full communist economy we will have to use the cooperative system as an intermediate stage on a large scale. It must only be so organised that society, initially the state, retains the ownership of the means of production so that the private interests of the cooperative vis-a-vis society as a whole cannot establish themselves.”

    Note, here, that the only role for the state, even after the revolution, is to act as a title holder of this cooperative property, so as to prevent the members of any cooperatives selling the property or reconverting it to private property. neither he nor Marx say the Capitalist state itself having any such role prior to the revolution. On the contrary the position was that set out by Marx and Jones in the Letter to Cooperators, of establishing a Cooperative federation as a holding company, and as you say, today, we would propose that on an international basis as for example through Eurocoop, or via the structures of the International Cooperatives Association.

    In Capital III, Chapter 27, Marx spoke of existing state property being taken over by large scale joint stock companies, and his and Engels comments, for example, in Anti-Duhring about the state taking over large monopolies and trusts is in relation to where their monopoly status could act as contrary to the interests of capital as a whole. As Engels put it,

    “It seems that the most advanced workers in Germany are demanding the emancipation of the workers from the capitalists by the transfer of state capital to associations of workers, so that production can be organised, without capitalists, for general account; and as a means to the achievement of this end: the conquest of political power by universal direct suffrage.”

    (The Prussian Military Question and The German Workers Party)

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