It is not that ideas are unimportant, but the most important idea for workers to absorb is that they can take control of their own lives, that they can run their own enterprises, communities, and organisations. That is the idea that Marxists have to promote whether it is in relation to the building of workplace organisation, community organisation or the building of co-ops. In the end, even the most militant workplace organisation is limited in what it can achieve so long as the workplace is outside the workers ownership. But, the development of a factory committee in which workers increasingly develop their solidarity, and their confidence that they can exert such control is a solid basis for those workers taking over the enterprise as a co-op.
To the extent that workers transform the Co-op itself, so its substantial resources can be brought to bear in developing a national/international co-op federation in which that belief can be strengthened further.
As Ernest Jones put it,
“A national fund thus established, would, in all probability, be a large one—and place a great power in the hands of the association. Persecution would be far more difficult. Now each society stands isolated, and is attacked in detail by the combined forces of monopoly—then to touch one would be to touch all. The national centralisation of popular power and popular wealth (not its local centralization), is the secret of success. Then restrictive political laws would be far more difficult, for they would encounter a gigantic union, instead of a disorganised body. Then the combination of the rich would be far less formidable—for, though superior in wealth, they would be far inferior in numbers. So they are now—but the numbers at present are without a connecting bond; nay, in but too many cases, essentially antagonistic...
If, then, you would recreate society, if you would destroy profitmongering, if you would supplant competition by the genial influence of fraternity, and counteract the centralization of wealth and all its concomitant evils,
But, today not only are these resources in the hands of workers greatly enhanced, not only, as Marx proposed, is there the possibility of mobilising credit to support the extension of worker-owned property, but vast resources exist within the workers own pension funds. Around £800 billion exists in workers pension funds in Britain; enough to buy up whole of the shares of three-quarters of the FTSE 100. If workers were to engage in a political struggle for control of the Co-op and its resources, if they were to demand that their trades unions insist on democratic control over the resources in these pension funds that would put them in a strong material and social position.
Workers in a factory faced with closure could occupy it, and instead of simpering pleas to the capitalist state to nationalise it, the workers could begin to operate it as a co-op, immediately integrated into such a national co-operative federation, backed by these sizeable financial resources.
As Engels put it,
“...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.”
Workers technically own the Co-op, but they do not have direct control of it. Workers as individual co-op members, as trades unionists and members of the Labour Party should take back that control, and transform it into a worker-owned Co-op. We should then use the resources of the Co-op to directly support workers in struggles, and to bring together all other Co-ops into the kind of national federation proposed by Marx, as well as using that to extend the number of Co-ops, especially where workers face the closure of their workplace.
The bosses will resist such a process by whatever means needed. For that reason, it will be necessary to mobilise the unions and the Labour Party to resist the bosses offensive.
In the final part, I will examine how the development of worker owned property requires the development of workers democracy.