Sunday, 23 February 2014

For A Political Revolution At The Co-op - Part 14

In Part 13, I looked at the way, as Marx and Lenin described, the trades unions are imbued with bourgeois ideology, and inculcate that mindset within the working-class via a perspective of bargaining within the system, rather than seeking to change the system, by mobilising the forces of the workers, to transform their material conditions, by the development of worker-owned property, and the social relations and ideas that spring from it. But, this perspective is also carried through into the actions of the workers parties, i.e. into the ideology of reformism.

Rosa Luxemburg is right when she says,

“Co-operatives and trade unions are totally incapable of transforming the capitalist mode of production. This is really understood by Bernstein, though in a confused manner. For he refers to co-operatives and trade unions as a means of reducing the profit of the capitalists and thus enriching the workers. In this way, he renounces the struggle against the capitalist mode of production and attempts to direct the socialist movement to struggle against “capitalist distribution.” Again and again, Bernstein refers to socialism as an effort towards a “just, juster and still more just” mode of distribution. (Vorwärts, March 26, 1899). 

It cannot be denied that the direct cause leading the popular masses into the socialist movement is precisely the “unjust” mode of distribution characteristic of capitalism. When the Social-Democracy struggles for the socialisation of the entire economy, it aspires therewith also to a “just” distribution of the social wealth. But, guided by Marx’s observation that the mode of distribution of a given epoch is a natural consequence of the mode of production of that epoch, the Social-Democracy does not struggle against distribution in the framework of capitalist production. It struggles instead for the suppression of the capitalist production itself. In a word, the Social-Democracy wants to establish the mode of socialist distribution by suppressing the capitalist mode of production. Bernstein’s method, on the contrary, proposes to combat the capitalist mode of distribution in the hopes of gradually establishing, in this way, the socialist mode of production.”

Reform Or Revolution

But, Luxemburg fails to notice here the basic difference between the Trades Unions and the Co-operatives, which is that the sole function of the Trades Unions is to operate within the existing system of property relations, whereas the worker-owned co-operatives are forced to to pose directly the socialised, worker-owned form of property in opposition to that of capitalist property be it privately owned capital, socialised capital in the form of the Joint Stock Company, or state capital.  It was for that very reason that Marx and the First International encouraged workers to establish worker owned, producer co-operatives.

"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...

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."

Marx - Instructions For Delegates

It was Bernstein's approach that won out, but that was inevitable, because, to the extent that the Workers' Party actually is a party created by workers, and based upon them, it must, in large part, reflect the ideas of those workers. For so long as the workers remain dominated by bourgeois ideas, any genuine workers' party will also be dominated by those ideas too.  The Marxists can only win a majority to their ideas over a long period of struggle, in which their own actions and ideas play an important role in transforming the material conditions of the workers, and thereby create the basis for their changed consciousness.  Left alone, the trades unions, the co-operatives, the workers party will always tend to sink back into the morass of reformism, because bourgeois ideas naturally dominate the society as a result of the domination of society by bourgeois productive and social relations.  The question is, then should the Marxists try to isolate themselves from that reality by creating their own pure sects, separated essentially from the workers, or should they have faith in their own science, and immerse themselves in the broad labour movement, as Marx and Engels did, and attempt to develop it?  The answer is clear the workers will not spontaneously come to the ideas of Marxism, nor will they, therefore spontaneously come to the Marxists and their pure sects.  As Trotsky put it, "If the mountain will not come to Mohamed, Mohamed will have to go to the mountain."

As Engels describes in his "Condition of the Working Class", by the end of the 19th Century, the big industrial capitalists were not only able to offer reforms to the workers in return for their electoral support to guarantee political control of the bourgeois social-democratic regimes, against their opponents within the landlord class and ranks of small capitalists, but they had very good material reasons for doing so. These reforms, such as the creation of Welfare States, provided the big industrial capitalists with the labour-power they required, helped regulate markets and economies, and weakened their smaller rivals, as well as socialising the working-class, tying it ideologically to the bourgeois social democratic state.

Increasingly, the Marxist notion of working-class independence, of workers self-government was undermined by this ideology of reformism and welfarism. It encouraged the workers to simply see their role as workers and consumers, with the task of ensuring that their interests were defended being sub-contracted to specialists – trade union bureaucrats, reformist politicians. Trade Union membership itself came to be seen as little different to an insurance policy, not a means of collective protection, let alone means of mobilisation for wider goals.

Even in terms of the Left version of this reformism such as that put out by the Communist Party and its fellow travellers via the Alternative Economic Strategy, or by The Militant Tendency, in its ridiculous calls for the nationalisation of the 200 top monopolies, the workers were essentially being asked to swap the exploitation of private capitalists for the more effective exploitation of the capitalist state. As Kautsky had put it in the Erfurt Programme,

“If the modern state nationalizes certain industries, it does not do so for the purpose of restricting capitalist exploitation, but for the purpose of protecting the capitalist system and establishing it upon a firmer basis, or for the purpose of itself taking a hand in the exploitation of labour, increasing its own revenues, and thereby reducing the contributions for its own support which it would otherwise have to impose upon the capitalist class. As an exploiter of labour, the state is superior to any private capitalist. Besides the economic power of the capitalists, ii can also bring to bear upon the exploited classes the political power which it already wields.

The state has never carried on the nationalizing of industries further than the interests of the ruling classes demanded, nor will it ever go further than that. So long as the property-holding classes are the ruling ones, the nationalization of industries and capitalist functions will never be carried so far as to injure the capitalists and landlords or to restrict their opportunities for exploiting the proletariat.”

So, even that pinnacle of Left reformism, the demand for nationalisation with or without the demand for "Workers Control" (added out of a sense of shame as Marx put it) merely confines the workers deeper within the realm of bourgeois ideology, and what is more, as such state capitalism is identified in the minds of the workers with the notion that it is in some way “socialist”, the more this state capitalism is seen to be a more effective, more oppressive means of exploiting the workers, the more the idea of Socialism itself is discredited in the eyes of the workers. If we want to know why the workers put up little resistance to the fall of Stalinism in Eastern Europe, if we want to know why Thatcher came to power and stayed in power for so long, only to be replaced with Blairism, we only need look at just how badly those examples of state-socialism and state-capitalism failed to provide any solution for workers.

The task, therefore, of rebuilding the Labour Movement – the trades unions, the co-operatives, friendly societies, workers parties – is, therefore, one which requires an ideological rearming of the working class and its advanced guard. But, consistent with Marx's materialist analysis, that rearming is not one that can take place in a vacuum. The progress of ideas must proceed in dialectical interaction with changes in the workers material condition itself. I will turn to this in Part 15.

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