Friday, 23 July 2010

The Politics And Programme Of The First International - Part 4

Co-operative Labour

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to practically show, that the present pauperising, and despotic system of the subordination of labour to capital can be superseded by the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers.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.

I have set out at length in my series Can Co-operatives Work, Marx's position in relation to Co-operatives, along with the position of the other early Marxists. It is again a position which is a far cry from that adopted by modern “Marxists”. Located here in the Programme, the basic principles for developing an independent working-class, with independent working-class property, as well as independent working-class organisations, all working together to create that independent working-class “self-government”, Marx speaks of, can be understood. It is fully consistent with his theory of Historical Materialism, as opposed to the later ideas of Leninism, which effectively returned to the kinds of theory and practice of the Communist League, and League of the Just – the idea that Socialism could be created by conspiratorial, small groups of dedicated revolutionaries, who simply put themselves at the head of a mass movement of revolt against existing conditions. The problem with that approach is of course, that it can be used as effectively by an Ayatollah, or a Nationalistic demagogue, as by a socialist revolutionary.

Marx's position set out here is rather an application to the proletarian revolution of what he had observed of the bourgeois revolution. In the Communist Manifesto, he wrote,

“This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages....

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class.”

In other words Capitalism had developed gradually within the pores of Capitalist Society. It had not been a continuous process. There were setbacks along the way, even complete reversals. Nor had the development been unopposed. The existing ruling class put economic, and political obstacles in its way, and the bourgeoisie had had to demonstrate that its method of production was superior to that of feudalism, as well as engage in a political and ideological struggle. It was, ultimately, the superiority of its method of production, which enabled the bourgeoisie to build up its economic and social power, and from there to build its independence, and its independent bases of power within the developing towns, where it also began to shape the political forms and institutions that best suited its needs, as opposed to those of the feudal aristocracy.

As opposed to the Leninists, who see things back to front, first a political revolution, with the revolutionary elite seizing control of the state in a single event, and then a social revolution as that State is used to transform economic and social relations, Marx saw the proletarian revolution as effectively following the same course as every other social revolution i.e. as effectively a process, not an event. In the Grundrisse, for instance, he says,

“As the system of bourgeois economy has developed for us only by degrees so too its negation, which is its ultimate result." p712.

In other words, he does not see things in terms of some wham-bam political revolution, and the overnight transformation of productive relations. He sees workers establishing producer Co-operatives, which as he sets out in Capital represent more efficient methods of producing than private Capitalist enterprises – if they are not then Socialism is a pipe dream, because the whole basis of Socialism is that Co-operative production is a higher stage, which will develop productive capacity so as to free humanity – and, because of Capitalist opposition – economically – these Co-ops will have to operate on the same kind of basis as the Capitalist monopolies, i.e. they will have to combine their efforts via a Co-operative Federation. Additionally, because Capital will use its position as ruling class to,

“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.”

the workers will have to engage in a political struggle. Just as the bourgeoisie had matched at each stage its rise in economic power with a further development of its political position, so too the workers would have to engage in, and win for themselves increased political power, by whatever means, including representation in the bourgeois Parliaments. But, just as the bourgeoisie, in its rise, had done that by building up its independent centres of power within the towns, so too, the workers would have to do the same, using the centres of power they had established within the Trades Unions, within the Co-operatives, and within Workers Communities, as they developed that workers self-government. The highest point of that Marx could not foresee in 1866. Only with the Paris Commune in 1871, could he see in practice where all this was leading, the way, in which all of this independent working class, direct democracy in these various centres of power, could come together to establish the form of the future proletarian state.

But, it was the economic form of this future Workers State that Marx was concerned with here, precisely because his Historical Materialist method guided him to see that it was this transformation of material conditions, within existing Capitalist society, that was the pre-condition, for the development of socialist ideas within a sufficient majority of the working-class to make that political and social transformation possible. What he termed, winning the battle of democracy. In fact, although it was not necessary for all economic relations to have been transformed into Co-operative property, before that battle of democracy was won, any more than all economic relations had to be Capitalist before the bourgeoisie could gain control of the State, it was necessary that Co-operative property had established itself, and was seen by workers as clearly being superior, before Socialism was possible. Unlike Capitalist property, which could develop simply on the basis of existing, individualist ideas developed by the peasantry, and the application of the idea of self-betterment to the idea of accumulation of Capital, Co-operative property required a conscious collective act by workers. For a society to be possible based upon Co-operative production, therefore, it was not sufficient, merely that the productive power existed to make such a society technically achievable, it was necessary that the majority of workers consciously sought to create their own Co-operative production. That desire could not be created for them, or be substituted by the desire to create collectivised property in the form of state-owned property from above, as Marx made clear in his opposition to such ideas from Lassalle. As he says, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme,

“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.”

This idea was also set out by Engels in a letter to August Bebel in 1886.

“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.”

Marx and Engels closest collaborator in the First International, the person they had hoped would become the leader of the English workers, Ernest Jones, in a letter to the Co-operative Movement, put it like this.

“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.

To effect this, every local association should be the branch of a national one, and all profits, beyond a certain amount, should be paid into a national fund, for the purpose of opening fresh branches, and enabling the poorest to obtain land, establish stores, and otherwise apply their labour power, not only to their own advantage, but to that of the general body.

This is the vital point: are the profits to accumulate in the hands of isolated clubs, or are they to be devoted to the elevation of the entire people? Is the wealth to gather around local centres, or is it to be diffused by a distributive agency?”

This was one of the weaknesses of the Co-op itself as a loose federation of consumer Co-ops. These individual retail societies differed massively in size, and capability. From 1852, each society had put a portion of its surplus to one side for educational purposes, as Marx suggests they do here. The Co-op had established a Co-operative College that attracted workers from all over the globe. But, it was consumers, (mostly workers) not the workers within the Co-op that determined policy (to the extent they bothered to vote) and their main concern was low prices, and high “divi”, not spreading Co-operative philosophy. Only a national federation of worker-owned, producer Co-ops, acting as a single holding company, could do that, and then it would depend to some degree on the extent to which, Co-operative activists, and Marxists operated within it, to drive that forward, just as they had to do within the Trades Unions.

In other words, for a socialist transformation to be possible, the “subjective” element of the workers consciousness becomes just as much an “objective” requirement as that the productive forces have reached a stage in which a Co-operative is possible. Without that any attempt to simply establish Socialism from above is bound to fail. It will leave those revolutionaries pursuing such a course of action, in the position that Engels described in his The Peasant War in Germany.

“The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time. What he ought to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement. Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost. We have seen examples of this in recent times. We need only be reminded of the position taken in the last French provisional government by the representatives of the proletariat, though they represented only a very low level of proletarian development. Whoever can still look forward to official positions after having become familiar with the experiences of the February government — not to speak of our own noble German provisional governments and imperial regencies — is either foolish beyond measure, or at best pays only lip service to the extreme revolutionary party.”

A problem of transforming property from private capital to State Capital, rather than the workers themselves creating their own Co-operative property, is precisely that under those conditions, it is not the workers that are the motivating force, it is not their property and, therefore, they do not exercise control, and so that function automatically passes to some form of bureaucracy. In a Capitalist state to a State capitalist bureaucracy, in a Workers State to a workers bureaucracy (though sociologically the two might be difficult to differentiate).

No comments: