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Lenin, the Communist International, and the cooperative dream

February 15, 2013

By John Sharkey. This guest article expands on a presentation to a study session on “Toward the United Front”. As a Toronto community activist living in the Bain Apartments Housing Cooperative, affectionately known as The Bain, it was an eye-opener to read the debates on the role of the co-operative sector during the Russian Revolution.

Absorbing the wealth of information about co-operatives in Toward the United Front, which presents the proceedings of the Communist International congress held in 1922. I realized that not much has changed over the past 90 years. This became especially apparent when reviewing Lenin’s subsequent articles on the central role co-operatives needed to play in developing socialism in Russia.

The November 1922 Communist International Congress was preceded by a six-day convention of international Communist cooperative activists. V.N. Meshcheriakov, a Russian Communist, presented their recommendations to the world congress.

V.N. Meshcheriakov

V.N. Meshcheriakov

Before the Russian Revolution, he said, his party had focused on winning proletarian hegemony through trade-union class struggle. It had largely ignored the cooperative movement, viewing the leadership of this economic sector as petit bourgeois (as it still is today). As a result of this neglect, distribution of goods, especially food, to the revolutionary forces during the civil war was ineffective and had even been sabotaged by cooperative leadership.

Based on the Soviet Russian experience, the world congress recommended that national communist parties in other countries create cells within cooperatives to closely align them with the party and revolutionary trade unions and to win workers, women and youth to communist ideas. In this way other national communist parties would ideally control the cooperative sector in advance of their revolutions and thus avoid the oversights of the Russian party.

A discordant exchange

The previous world congress, in 1921, had adopted a similar position on cooperatives, but this decision had been poorly carried out in Western Europe. That led to considerable discord, particularly in France, about the party’s resource allocation and leadership to the cooperative sector.

Two French delegates to the congress, Henri Lauridan and Arthur Henriet, made lengthy, somewhat pedantic, speeches in response to Meshcheriakov’s presentation. They agreed with his general recommendations, but provided more details on cooperatives in France, especially housing and producer cooperatives. They both argued that these types of cooperatives should be approached with caution as they tended to inculcate ideas of capital accumulation into workers.

Although Lauridan acknowledged the importance of the cooperatives, especially in promoting socialized land use by the peasantry, he was skeptical about their revolutionary potential. Henriet, in keeping with the Bolshevik position, stressed that cooperatives were a vehicle for social transformation – but only after a workers’ revolution.

Lauridan interrupted Henriet’s speech repeatedly, raising procedural issues and ideological objections, as if to illustrate Meshcheriakov’s opinion that the French Communist Party was badly divided.

Unfortunately, in all too many ways, this individualistic squabbling reminded me of occasional bickering at general meetings in The Bain… plus ça change!

Lenin deepens the discussion

Four weeks after the congress closed, while recovering from a second stroke, Lenin wrote of the central role the co-operatives were playing in the revolutionary process. His article synthesized much of the positions and debate elaborated during the Fourth Congress.

Lenin placed his remarks within the general expectation of the International Communist Party at that time that Europe was on the verge of a revolutionary uprising, which was greatly needed in order to relieve the Western imperial pressure on the Russian revolution. Internally, the Bolsheviks were focused on adjusting the New Economic Program (NEP) rolled out in 1921 to stimulate the Russian economy after the traumatic civil war. Increased productivity was essential to bring the mass of the population into the socializing process.

As a key component of the transitional state-capitalist concepts of the NEP, Lenin argued, that co-operatives were the main economic vehicle for bringing about socialism in Russia.

Central to his analysis was the position that as the working class, through the Communist Party, had taken control of the state apparatus and all the means of production, especially the land, a fundamental objective shift had occurred in class relations. This radical change had dramatically reoriented the Party’s position regarding the co-op sector. Before the revolution, the dream of the co-operative leadership to co-opt (pun intended) the capitalist class through economic activity was pure fantasy, as the capitalists would never allow it to happen. However, with the current objective transformation brought about by the revolution, the co-operative sector could now play the historic role wished for it by the pre-revolutionary utopian Socialists.

A determining factor was that the co-operatives were institutions the majority of the population, the peasantry, were very familiar with. Cooperatives were the obvious vehicle to incorporate peasants into the revolutionary process in the most practical and acceptable way possible.

But this historic role could not be carried out realistically unless there was a massive education program among the population, which Lenin referred to as a cultural revolution. He was acutely aware that the largely illiterate farming population need to learn how to read so they could be trained in modern agricultural techniques and processes that would provide them with the knowledge to bring the Soviet economy up to European industrial standards of the day. This was a huge task that Lenin believed would take decades.

Unfortunately Lenin did not live long enough to witness the development of the co-operative sector within the Soviet economy in the years following his death. Although the sector expanded dramatically both within the Soviet Union and internationally over the past ninety year, as Lenin predicted, we’re still waiting for cooperatives to transform the world into socialism.

4 Comments
  1. SPN permalink

    “Henriet, in keeping with the Bolshevik position, stressed that cooperatives were a vehicle for social transformation – but only after a workers’ revolution.”

    I would respond to Henriet but saying that if class consciousness is required for a workers’ revolution then worker cooperatives are the best way to do that. By allowing people to put socialism into practice this would create consciousness more than a union would because workers in unions don’t actually run the business. After consciousness has reached a critical mass, a workers’ party could be elected, and I hope they dismantle and bury the state and allow communism to reign immediately.

    • Response permalink

      @SPN

      Yes, your idea is noteworthy, but you failed to pick up the point that Lenin stressed; which was that before a worker co-opt is introduced there must be state-revolution because the existing capitalist framework would not allow for such a cooperation to exist or flourish. Also, the intra-rivalry in cooperatives is a very real and a major stumbling block. Look no further than to the Soviet example.

      • John Sharkey permalink

        Actually cooperatives emerged in the England in the 1830 as a reaction to the industrialization of the time. The early promoters, often referred to by the communists as utopian socialists, did believe that cooperatives would gradually, over time, transform capitalism into socialism.
        As you know, they believed the only way to transform society was for the organized working class to take over the state in order to transform capitalism. What has happening is that coops have benefited their members for over 200 years all around the world but have not transformed capitalism. A major reason for this as you mention is that capitalist states have imposed rules and regulations on cooperatives that prevent them from developing economically. A good case in point are credit unions, which are a form of cooperative. The commercial banking sector has made sure that there are considerable restrictions on how much capital they can accumulate so that they do not compete with the private banks.

    • John Sharkey permalink

      Thanks for your comments SPN and apologies for not replying sooner. My reading of both Henriet and Lauridan’s cautionary intervention is that working people who buy into a housing or producer’s co-op begin to identify as property-owning petit bourgeois and by extension with capitalism. As a result they would switch class allegiances and would no longer be working class. They would only be interested in propping up the system as they were benefiting from it and so would no longer be motivated to change it. This is why they stressed that cooperatives could only be a vehicle to develop socialism/communism after a working class lead revolution took over of the state. In that case the ideology and production would be oriented to the needs of the working class and not to profit as it is under capitalism. This was Lenin’s position that he outlined in early 1923 as well as noted below.

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