In Part 2, I demonstrated that the AWL's attempt to misrepresent Marx's views on workers establishing Co-operatives, attempting to turn him into an opponent rather than a supporter of them, and the attempt to portray him as advocating instead “Public Ownership”, is an extension of their attempt to turn him into a proponent of Economistic/Reformist struggle based in the realm of Distribution. That is the very opposite of Marx's actual position.
There is a very good reason for that. Real, revolutionary, working-class, self-activity can only be built upon direct, mass action by ordinary working-class people themselves. A Workers Co-operative even of several hundred workers, requires the daily involvement of all those workers in a real, functioning workers democracy.
Of course, Marx too advocated reforms, such as those contained within the Minimum Programme part of the Programme of the French Socialists that he co-wrote with Guesde. But, Marx was clear about the nature of these reforms, insisting that they could only be such as were within the capability of Capital to concede, and which acted, therefore, in the same way that workers negotiated with individual employers, and at the same time facilitated the workers own development. But, he rejected as “revolutionary phrasemongering”, the idea of putting forward demands that Capital could not concede.
“Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society.  To the out-cry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, it answers: Ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits? But looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist. ”
and elaborating this in note 82, he says,
“We, therefore, find, e.g., that in the beginning of 1863, 26 firms owning extensive potteries in Staffordshire, amongst others, Josiah Wedgwood, & Sons, petition in a memorial for “some legislative enactment.” Competition with other capitalists permits them no voluntary limitation of working-time for children, &c.
Marx – Capital
They became necessary to prevent unbridled competition from destroying the very working-class that Capital was dependent upon. The Acts were really no different than each individual group of workers could have negotiated with their employer. But, once in Law, and with Inspectors to oversee their implementation, they became a tool for workers to use to insist that their particular employer complied. Not for one minute did Marx believe that the introduction of the Factory Acts were an alternative to that independent action of the working-class. He took the same approach in relation to Education.
In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx wrote,
"Elementary education by the state" is altogether objectionable. Defining by a general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc., and, as is done in the United States, supervising the fulfillment of these legal specifications by state inspectors, is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people! Government and church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school.”
And in the Programme of the International Marx expands upon this, writing,
“However, the more enlightened part of the working class fully understands that the future of its class, and, therefore, of mankind, altogether depends upon the formation of the rising working generation. They know that, before everything else, the children and juvenile workers must be saved from the crushing effects of the present system. This can only be effected by converting social reason into social force, and, under given circumstances, there exists no other method of doing so, than through general laws, enforced by the power of the state. In enforcing such laws, the working class do not fortify governmental power. On the contrary, they transform that power, now used against them, into their own agency. They effect by a general act what they would vainly attempt by a multitude of isolated individual efforts.”
Just how hostile Marx was to the idea of State intervention or of misleading workers into a belief in the idea that an extension of that State power was in their interests can be seen by the fact of his feeling the need to explain that the intention was not to “fortify governmental power.” And just how much he opposed the extension of the State can be seen in another part of the Programme where he writes, arguing for Direct taxation,
“Because indirect taxes conceal from an individual what he is paying to the state, whereas a direct tax is undisguised, unsophisticated, and not to be misunderstood by the meanest capacity. Direct taxation prompts therefore every individual to control the governing powers while indirect taxation destroys all tendency to self-government.”
So we see here in what Marx actually proposed, as the basis of political action and strategy for workers, the very opposite of the kind of Statism, that Martin Thomas wants to put in the mouth of Marx.Section 5, he writes,
“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.”
And, just so that it is clear that this is Marx speaking his own words, and not those imposed upon him, we can see the same statements by both Marx and Engels in many more places. In the Grundrisse, Marx for example, discusses the way in which both Capital and Labour are dissolved once Labour becomes an owner of Capital. And in Vol.III of Capital, Marx reaffirms his view of the role of Co-operatives as precisely this transitional form to Socialist property, when he writes,
“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.
This description here where Marx talks about “a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one”, is precisely the kind of analysis he has produced in Capital itself about the way in which Capitalism developed naturally out of Feudalism. It does not at all support the idea put forward by Martin Thomas, of Marx rejecting the idea of Co-operatives, and of him seeing the transformation of the productive forces occurring as a result of the Lassallean/Fabian concept of “Public Ownership”. That is made clear by Marx's further comment, “The credit system is not only the principal basis for the gradual transformation of capitalist private enterprises. into capitalist stock companies, but equally offers the means for the gradual extension of co-operative enterprises on a more or less national scale.” If Marx's opposition was to a gradual extension of Co-operatives then why would he make such a statement? If his view was merely that Capitalist property was to be seized after a political revolution, then why would he argue that Credit could be used to take it over, and in the meantime to extend Co-operative enterprises?
The answer is that Marx did not underestimate the fact that Capital would resist the spread of Co-operative enterprises, and the extension of the power of the working-class that goes with it, any less than the Feudalists had resisted the spread of Capitalist enterprise. But, Marx also recognised that just as the resistance of the Feudalists to Capitalist property made clear the need for a class struggle of Capital and against the Aristocracy, so the resistance of Capital to the extension of Co-operative property would lay bare the need for a class struggle against the Capitalists.
In his Inaugural Address he sets out just how important this perspective was.
“But there was in store a still greater victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property (than the passing of the ten Hours Act - Boffy). We speak of the co-operative movement, especially the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold “hands”. The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labour need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the labouring man himself; and that, like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart. In England, the seeds of the co-operative system were sown by Robert Owen; the workingmen’s experiments tried on the Continent were, in fact, the practical upshot of the theories, not invented, but loudly proclaimed, in 1848.
At the same time the experience of the period from 1848 to 1864 has proved beyond doubt that, however, excellent in principle and however useful in practice, co-operative labour, if kept within the narrow circle of the casual efforts of private workmen, will never be able to arrest the growth in geometrical progression of monopoly, to free the masses, nor even to perceptibly lighten the burden of their miseries. It is perhaps for this very reason that plausible noblemen, philanthropic middle-class spouters, and even kept political economists have all at once turned nauseously complimentary to the very co-operative labour system they had vainly tried to nip in the bud by deriding it as the utopia of the dreamer, or stigmatising it as the sacrilege of the socialist. To save the industrious masses, co-operative labour ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means. Yet the lords of the land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defence and perpetuation of their economic monopolies. So far from promoting, they will continue to lay every possible impediment in the way of the emancipation of labour. Remember the sneer with which, last session, Lord Palmerston put down the advocates of the Irish Tenants’ Right Bill. The House of Commons, cried he, is a house of landed proprietors. To conquer political power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes. They seem to have comprehended this, for in England, Germany, Italy, and France, there have taken place simultaneous revivals, and simultaneous efforts are being made at the political organization of the workingmen’s party.”
But, it is clear from this statement that Marx does not counterpose the winning of political power to the development of Co-operatives! On the contrary, the development of the Co-operatives, which “by deed instead of by argument, (they) have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labour need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the labouring man himself; and that, like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart”, are a vital part of developing the working-class economically, politically, socially, and ideologically.
There is nothing here to suggest that Marx and Engels position was for the Lassallean/Fabian strategy of Public Ownership. On the contrary, they argued the very opposite, including speaking out vociferously against those in the German Socialist Party who argued for it.
So for example, Engels in his Letter To Bebel of 1875, 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!”
And, even when they do argue the need once a Workers State has been established for the Co-operative property to be held by it, they are quite specific about how limited the role of that State in its ownership of the property should be. In his Letter To Bebel of 1876, Engels writes,
“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.”
But, this is a far cry from the EXISTING Capitalist State owning this property, which is what Martin Thomas means when he talks about “Public Ownership”. It is even a far cry from the idea that even in a post-capitalist society in transition to Socialism that such a State should exercise a controlling function over these Co-operatives.On Co-operation.
As Anton Pannakoek put it in Public Ownership And Common Ownership
“The acknowledged aim of socialism is to take the means of production out of the hands of the capitalist class and place them into the hands of the workers. This aim is sometimes spoken of as public ownership, sometimes as common ownership of the production apparatus. There is, however, a marked and fundamental difference.
“Public ownership is the ownership, i.e. the right of disposal, by a public body representing society, by government, state power or some other political body. The persons forming this body, the politicians, officials, leaders, secretaries, managers, are the direct masters of the production apparatus; they direct and regulate the process of production; they command the workers. Common ownership is the right of disposal by the workers themselves; the working class itself — taken in the widest sense of all that partake in really productive work, including employees, farmers, scientists — is direct master of the production apparatus, managing, directing, and regulating the process of production which is, indeed, their common work…
“As a correction to State-managed production, sometimes workers’ control is demanded. Now, to ask control, supervision, from a superior indicates the submissive mood of helpless objects of exploitation. And then you can control another man’s business; what is your own business you do not want controlled, you do it. Productive work, social production, is the genuine business of the working class. It is the content of their life, their own activity. They themselves can take care if there is no police or State power to keep them off. They have the tools, the machines in their hands, they use and manage them. They do not need masters to command them, nor finances to control the masters.
Public ownership is the program of “friends” of the workers who for the hard exploitation of private capitalism wish to substitute a milder modernized exploitation. Common ownership is the program of the working class itself, fighting for self liberation….”
And Engels himself spelled out the revolutionary distinction between Public Ownership i.e. State Capitalism, and Workers ownership via Co-operatives. In his Prussian Military Policy and the German Workers Party, he writes,
“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.”
So here we see just how much Marx and Engels, and indeed other Marxists such as Pannakoek and Lenin were committed to the idea of Co-operatives as a means of providing that bridge between the Minimum Programme of reforms, and the Maximum Programme of Political Revolution. For Marx and Engels, as set out in their opposition to revolutionary phrase mongering of the Guesdist type, reforms are no different than the kind of Trades Union bargaining done by workers on an individual basis.
But, as Marx and Engels make clear, if we are to go beyond this process of bargaining within the system, workers have to recognise the need to establish control over the means of production, which is their only guarantee of increasing their share of society's wealth, and of exercising control over those aspects of their life, and of production that are most important. Ultimately, that can only be done by taking over all the means of production, which requires the establishment of a Workers State. But, the question is, how to get from here to the political revolution that creates that state? For Marx, and Engels and other Marxists, Co-operatives have a vital function in that process. In his discussion on wages with Weston, Marx referred to the situation in America, where wages were relatively high, precisely because the abundance of land meant that workers could quickly go off, and become peasants, small property owners in their own right. Capital had to pay high wages because of the effect this had on the Supply of Labour Power. The more workers create a Co-operative sector of the economy, the more this also reduces the Supply of labour power for Capital. Moreover, as owners of Capital themselves via the Co-operative, and because of the greater efficiency of Co-operative production, workers in the Co-operative sector are able to enjoy higher wages and conditions, further pressing on private Capital, and providing an example and incentive for struggle for workers in those private companies. As Marx put it providing an example by deed rather than argument.
But, Co-operative production also requires workers to develop, and take part in their own new forms of democracy on a daily basis, and the forms and content of that democracy are extensible from within the Co-operative factory to wider structures, such as the workers communities.
In the final part, I will examine the nature of this political struggle more closely as regards what it entails, and how here too, the AWL misrepresent the views of Marx.
Back To Part 2
Forward To Part 4