Sunday, 2 March 2014

For A Political Revolution At The Co-op - Part 15

The notion that socialism can be brought about by a top down political revolution that takes hold of state power, and then transforms productive and social relations is both idealist and elitist. But, for the same reasons, the idea that the Trades Unions or the Labour Party can be transformed into some kind of revolutionary, socialist organs without a transformation of workers ideas is equally idealist and elitist. Certainly, it may be possible that such elitism, particularly in the absence of real, mass involvement, by workers, may secure control of the leadership of trades unions. It may even, as it did in the late 70's and early 80's – and as it had done on previous occasions – lead to similar control of Labour Party branches and constituencies, even in the passing of militant resolutions at Conferences. If the Left sects ever overcame their congenital bickering, they may be able to create a Labour Party Mark II. But, for what real advantage?

We have seen trades unions taken over by people claiming to be revolutionaries. But, rather like Engels' quote in relation to the Peasant War in Germany, they found that having done so they could do nothing with it. Its one thing to win such positions of leadership, its another for the membership at large to share your own revolutionary politics, and be prepared to act upon it. The same is true of the Labour Party. For decades, the Labour Party had Clause IV of its constitution, but no one really expected the party in government would act upon it. Moreover, even if it had, the likelihood is that it would have failed to be able to mobilise the widespread extra-parliamentary support required to face down opposition from the bourgeoisie to such a course.

Such a transformation of the trades unions, and of the workers party can only be sustainable on the back of a transformation in the ideas of the working-class, and such a transformation of ideas can only arise on the back of real changes in the material condition of the working-class. That is why as Marx points out the role of the worker-owned co-operatives is crucial.

“But there was in store a still greater victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property. 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 labor, 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.”

If we want to transform the trades unions and the workers party, we have to transform the dominant ideas in the heads of workers, and to do that we have to change the material conditions of their existence in the way Marx and Engels proposed. We have to develop the worker-owned co-operatives, and other forms of workers self-government. That does not mean in any sense a Utopian Socialist notion of the gradual replacement of capitalist property by co-operatives. On the contrary, as Marx described, precisely because the bourgeoisie will attempt to frustrate any such development, the workers will have to engage in a real class struggle – a struggle for their form of property over that of the bourgeoisie – which they will have to fight on every front, including the use of their trades unions, and political parties.

In Part 16, I will look at how that can be done.

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