Sunday, 12 January 2014

For A Political Revolution At The Co-op - Part 8

In Part 7, I discussed Marx's view that Socialism can only be developed gradually because the process of replacing bourgeois economic relations with new relations based upon co-operative, worker owned property, itself relies upon workers themselves bringing about this transformation through their own conscious efforts, and this requires a more highly developed culture amongst the workers, which can only arise on the back of changes in the material conditions, which themselves can only change gradually. I described how this was a problem in Russia in 1917 and after, precisely because the political revolution carried through by the Bolsheviks was able to destroy the old property relations, but it could not create these new property relations overnight from above. They could only be created by the workers themselves. What then arises in Russia is a society in which the old forms of property have been destroyed, and so the material base of the old ruling classes is dug up root and branch, leaving the workers as de facto the new ruling class, resting upon property that is socialised in the sense of what Engels describes in his Critique of the Erfurt Programme as “State Socialism”, and what Lenin himself described as “State Capitalism”, but a ruling class that is in no position to directly develop its own property relations, or the social relations that rest on it. This is very much like member owned co-ops, where the co-op is established by workers, and for the most progressive reasons, but the workers who establish these co-ops, and who run them, are not the workers actually employed by the Co-op. Many of the British Retail Co-ops established in the 19th Century, for example, were established by railway workers! But, its precisely this basis which both in Russia, and within the member owned co-ops, opens the door to the development of a bureaucracy, because the task of control then necessarily becomes the job of a management separated from the firm's actual workforce.

The Co-op is not established by the firm's own workforce, but is the venture of other workers who glimpse the future, and create it not out of the drive of economic necessity of workers to regain ownership of their means of production, but the ideological drive of advanced workers to try to create that new society out of their heads. If there is any economic drive for these workers in setting up retail co-ops, it is the economic drive of workers as consumers not as workers. As Marx put it in the Programme of the First International,

“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.”

In Russia, rather, as happened in the English Civil War, and as with the Great French Revolution, a political revolution occurs without the social revolution having been completed, which would have established the revolutionary class as ruling class, and which, therefore has to rely on an elite, now in control of the state to carry forward its historic tasks. In England, Cromwell, in France Napoleon Bonaparte, in Russia Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Trotsky argued that the Workers' State in the USSR degenerated, but in reality it was born deformed for that very reason.

In those conditions, the less educated workers, more recently drawn into the Bolshevik ranks were more easily swayed. But, in conditions where workers had a struggle every day even to earn a living it is little wonder that many ordinary workers had little time to devote to additional activities, in attending meetings etc. That opens up the kind of potential for these bodies to be controlled by the various elites and activists as previously described in the quote of G.D.H. Cole. Indeed, as Trotsky describes in relation to the Soviets, in his History of the Russian Revolution.

“There were over 150,000 soldiers in Petrograd. There were at least four times as many working men and women of all categories. Nevertheless for every two worker-delegates in the Soviet there were five soldiers. The rules of representation were extremely elastic, and they were always stretched to the advantage of the soldiers. Whereas the workers elected only one delegate for every thousand, the most petty military unit would frequently send two. The grey army cloth became the general ground-tone of the Soviet.

“But by no means all even of the civilians were selected by workers. No small number of people got into the Soviet by individual invitation, through pull, or simply thanks to their own penetrative ability. Radical lawyers, physicians, students, journalists, representing various problematical groups – or most often representing their own ambition. This obviously distorted character of the Soviet was even welcomed by the leaders, who were not a bit sorry to dilute the too concentrated essence of factory and barrack with the lukewarm water of cultivated Philistia. Many of these accidental crashers-in, seekers of adventure, self-appointed Messiahs, and professional bunk shooters, for a long time crowded out with their authoritative elbows the silent workers and irresolute soldiers.

“And if this was so in Petrograd, it is not hard to imagine how it looked in the provinces, where the victory came wholly without struggle.” (Trotsky – History of the Russian revolution pp 234-5)

Of course, what Trotsky misses out here, in his discussion of the early period of the soviets, is that these elements were pushed out by the even more disciplined and authoritative elbows of the Bolsheviks, many of whose leaders, who took up the leading positions, in the soviets and the State, were, like Trotsky and Lenin, far from being ordinary workers!

There is a direct parallel here with the creation of member owned Co-ops like the Co-op Bank, and the Co-op itself, whose ownership and control from the beginning is in the hands not of the workers employed by the enterprise, but by some other group, even if that group to begin with is one made up of workers or those sympathetic to the interests of workers. I will continue this comparison in Part 9.

Back To Part 7

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