[OPE] socialism through co-operatives in capitalism

From: <dogangoecmen@aol.com>
Date: Thu Jan 15 2009 - 05:16:42 EST

Rosa Luxemburg says it is impossible to achieve socialism by establishing co-operatives in capitalism.

Rosa Luxemburg

 Reform or Revolution

Part Two

Chapter VI

Co-operatives, Unions, Democracy


Bernstein’s socialism offers to the workers the prospect
of sharing in the wealth of society. The poor are to become rich. How
will this socialism be brought about? His article in the Neue Zeit (Problems of Socialism) contain only vague allusions to this question. Adequate information, however, can be found in his book.

Bernstein’s socialism is to be realised with the aid of these two
instruments: labour unions – or as Bernstein himself characterises
them, economic democracy – and co-operatives. The first will suppress
industrial profit; the second will do away with commercial profit.

Co-operatives – especially co-operatives in the field of production
constitute a hybrid form in the midst of capitalism. They can be
described as small units of socialised production within capitalist

But in capitalist economy exchanges dominate production. As a result
of competition, the complete domination of the process of production by
the interests of capital – that is, pitiless exploitation – becomes a
condition for the survival of each enterprise. The domination of
capital over the process of production expresses itself in the
following ways. Labour is intensified. The work day is lengthened or
shortened, according to the situation of
the market. And, depending on
the requirements of the market, labour is either employed or thrown
back into the street. In other words, use is made of all methods that
enable an enterprise to stand up against its competitors in the market.
The workers forming a co-operative in the field of production are thus
faced with the contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the
utmost absolutism. They are obliged to take toward themselves the role
of capitalist entrepreneur – a contradiction that accounts for the
usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure
capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to
predominate, end by dissolving.

Bernstein has himself taken note of these facts. But it is evident that he has not understood them. For, together with Mrs. Potter-Webb,
he explains the failure of production co-operatives in England by their
lack of “discipline.” But what is so superficially and flatly called
here “discipline” is nothing else than the natural absolutist regime of
capitalism, which it is plain, the workers cannot successfully use
against themselves.

Producers’ co-operatives can survive within capitalist economy only
if they manage to suppress, by means of some detour, the capitalist
controlled contradictions between the mode of production and the mode
of exchange. And they can accomplish this only by removing themselves
artificially from the influence of the laws of free competition. And
they can succeed in doing the last onl
y when they assure themselves
beforehand of a constant circle of consumers, that is, when they assure
themselves of a constant market.

It is the consumers’ co-operative that can offer this service to its
brother in the field of production. Here – and not in Oppenheimer’s
distinction between co-operatives that produce and co-operatives that
sell – is the secret sought by Bernstein: the explanation for the
invariable failure of producers’ co-operatives functioning
independently and their survival when they are backed by consumers’

If it is true that the possibilities of existence of producers’
co-operatives within capitalism are bound up with the possibilities of
existence of consumers’ co-operatives, then the scope of the former is
limited, in the most favourable of cases, to the small local market and
to the manufacture of articles serving immediate needs, especially food
products. Consumers’ and therefore producers’ co-operatives, are
excluded from the most important branches of capital production – the
textile, mining, metallurgical and petroleum industries, machine
construction, locomotive and ship-building. For this reason alone
(forgetting for the moment their hybrid character), co-operatives in
the field of production cannot be seriously considered as the
instrument of a general social transformation. The establishment of
producers’ co-operatives on a wide scale would suppose, first of all,
the suppression of the world market, the breaking up of th
e present
world economy into small local spheres of production and exchange. The
highly developed, wide-spread capitalism of our time is expected to
fall back to the merchant economy of the Middle Ages.

Within the framework of present society, producers’ co-operatives
are limited to the role of simple annexes to consumers’ co-operatives.
It appears, therefore, that the latter must be the beginning of the
proposed social change. But this way the expected reform of society by
means of co-operatives ceases to be an offensive against capitalist
production. That is, it ceases to be an attack against the principal
bases of capitalist economy. It becomes, instead, a struggle against
commercial capital, especially small and middle-sized commercial
capital. It becomes an attack made on the twigs of the capitalist tree.

According to Bernstein, trade unions too, are a means of attack
against capitalism in the field of production. We have already shown
that trade unions cannot give the workers a determining influence over
production. Trade unions can determine neither the dimensions of
production nor the technical progress of production.

This much may be said about the purely economic side of the
“struggle of the rate of wages against the rate of profit,” as
Bernstein labels the activity of the trade union. It does not take
place in the blue of the sky. It takes place within the well-defined
framework of the law of wages. The law of wages is not shattered but
applied by trade-union activit

According to Bernstein, it is the trade unions that lead – in the
general movement for the emancipation of the working class – the real
attack against the rate of industrial profit. According to Bernstein,
trade unions have the task of transforming the rate of industrial
profit into “rates of wages.” The fact is that trade unions are least
able to execute an economic offensive against profit. Trade unions are
nothing more than the organised defence of labour power
against the attacks of profit. They express the resistance offered by
the working class to the oppression of capitalist economy.

On the one hand, trade unions have the function of influencing the
situation in the labour-power market. But this influence is being
constantly overcome by the proletarianisation of the middle layers of
our society, a process which continually brings new merchandise on the
labour market. The second function of the trade unions is to ameliorate
the condition of the workers. That is, they attempt to increase the
share of the social wealth going to the working class. This share,
however, is being reduced with the fatality of a natural process by the
growth of the productivity of labour. One does not need to be a Marxist
to notice this. It suffices to read Rodbertus’ In Explanation of the Social Question.

In other words, the objective conditions of capitalist society
transform the two economic functions of the trade unions into a sort of
labour of Sisyphus,[2]
which is, nevert
heless, indispensable. For as a result of the activity
of his trade unions, the worker succeeds in obtaining for himself the
rate of wages due to him in accordance with the situation of the
labour-power market. As a result of trade union activity, the
capitalist law of wages is applied and the effect of the depressing
tendency of economic development is paralysed, or to be more exact,

However, the transformation of the trade union into an instrument
for the progressive reduction of profit in favour of wages presupposes
the following social conditions; first, the cessation of the
proletarianisation of the middle strata of our society; secondly, a
stoppage of the growth of productivity of labour. We have in both cases
a return to pre-capitalist conditions,

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 movem
ent 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.

What, in that case, is the basis of Bernstein’s program for the
reform of society? Does it find support in definite tendencies of
capitalist production? No. In the first place, he denies such
tendencies. In the second place, the socialist transformation of
production is for him the effect and not the cause of distribution. He
cannot give his program a materialist base, because he has already
overthrown the aims and the means of the movement for socialism, and
therefore its economic conditions. As a result, he is obliged to
construct himself an idealist base.

“Why represent socialism as the consequence of economic
he complains. “Why degrade man’s understanding, his feeling for
justice, his will?” (Vorwärts, March 26, 1899).
Bernstein’s superlatively just distribution is to be attained thanks to
man’s free will; man’s will acting not because of economic necessity,
since this will is only an instrument, but because of man’s
comprehension of justice, because of man’s idea of justice.

We thus quite happily return to the principle of justice, to the old
war horse on which the reformers of the earth have rocked for ages, for
the lack of surer means of historic transportation. We return to the
lamentable Rosinate on which the Don Quixotes of history have galloped
towards the great reform of the earth, always to come home with their
eyes blackened.

The relation of the poor to the rich, taken as a base for socialism,
the principle of co-operation as the content of socialism, the “most
just distribution” as its aim, and the idea of justice as its only
historic legitimisation – with how much more force, more with and more
fire did Weitling defend that sort of socialism fifty years ago.
However, that genius of a tailor did not know scientific socialism. If
today, the conception tore into bits by Marx and Engels a half century
ago is patched up and presented to the proletariat as the last world of
social science, that too, is the art of a tailor but it has nothing of
a genius about it.

Trade unions and co-operatives
 are the economic support for the
theory of revisionism. Its principal political condition is the growth
of democracy. The present manifestations of political reaction are to
Bernstein only “displacement.” He considers them accidental, momentary,
and suggests that they are not to be considered in the elaboration of
the general directives of the labour movement.

To Bernstein, democracy is an inevitable stage in the development of
society. To him, as to the bourgeois theoreticians of liberalism,
democracy is the great fundamental law of historic development, the
realisation of which is served by all the forces of political life.
However, Bernstein’s thesis is completely false. Presented in this
absolute force, it appears as a petty-bourgeois vulgarisation of
results of a very short phase of bourgeois development, the last
twenty-five or thirty years. We reach entirely different conclusions
when we examine the historic development of democracy a little closer
and consider, at the same time, the general political history of

Democracy has been found in the most dissimilar social formations:
in primitive communist groups, in the slave states of antiquity and in
medieval communes. And similarly, absolutism and constitutional
monarchy are to be found under the most varied economic orders. When
capitalism began, with the first production of commodities, it resorted
to a democratic constitution in the municipal-communes of the Middle
Ages. Later, when it developed to manufacturing, capitalism found its
0political form in the absolute monarchy. Finally, as a
developed industrial economy, it brought into being in France the
democratic republic of 1793, the absolute monarchy of Napoleon I, the
nobles’ monarchy of the Restoration period (1850-1830), the bourgeois
constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe, then again the democratic
republic, and against the monarchy of Napoleon III, and finally, for
the third time, the Republic.

In Germany, the only truly democratic institution – universal
suffrage – is not a conquest won by bourgeois liberalism. Universal
suffrage in Germany was an instrument for the fusion of the small
States. It is only in this sense that it has any importance for the
development of the German bourgeoisie, which is otherwise quite
satisfied with semi-feudal constitutional monarchy. In Russia,
capitalism prospered for a long time under the regime of oriental
absolutism, without having the bourgeoisie manifest the least desire in
the world to introduce democracy. In Austria, universal suffrage was
above all a safety line thrown to a foundering and decomposing
monarchy. In Belgium, the conquest of universal suffrage by the labour
movement was undoubtedly due to the weakness of the local militarism,
and consequently to the special geographic and political situation of
the country. But we have here a “bit of democracy” that has been won
not by the bourgeoisie but against it.

The uninterrupted victory of democracy, which to our revisionism as
well as to bourgeois liberalism, appears20as a great fundamental law of
human history and, especially, modern history is shown upon closer
examination to be a phantom. No absolute and general relation can be
constructed between capitalist development and democracy. The political
form of a given country is always the result of the composite of all
the existing political factors, domestic as well as foreign. It admits
within its limits all variations of the scale from absolute monarchy to
the democratic republic.

We must abandon, therefore, all hope of establishing democracy as a
general law of historical development even within the framework of
modern society. Turning to the present phase of bourgeois society, we
observe here, too, political factors which, instead of assuring the
realisation of Bernstein’s schema, led rather to the abandonment by
bourgeois society of the democratic conquests won up to now.

Democratic institutions – and this is of the greatest significance –
have completely exhausted their function as aids in the development of
bourgeois society. In so far as they were necessary to bring about the
fusion of small States and the creation of large modern States
(Germany, Italy), they are no longer indispensable at present. Economic
development has meanwhile effected an internal organic cicatrisation.

The same thing can be said concerning the transformation of the
entire political and administrative State machinery from feudal or
semi-feudal mechanism to capitalist mechanism. While this
transformation has been historically inseparab
le from the development
of democracy, it has been realised today to such an extent that the
purely democratic “ingredients” of society, such as universal suffrage
and the republican State form, may be suppressed without having the
administration, the State finances, or the military organisation find
it necessary to return to the forms they had before the March

If liberalism as such is now absolutely useless to bourgeois society
it has become, on the other hand, a direct impediment to capitalism
from other standpoints. Two factors dominate completely the political
life of contemporary States: world politics and the labour movement.
Each is only a different aspect of the present phase of capitalist

As a result of the development of the world economy and the
aggravation and generalisation of competition on the world market,
militarism and the policy of big navies have become, as instruments of
world politics, a decisive factor in the interior as well as in the
exterior life of the great States. If it is true that world politics
and militarism represent a rising tendency in the present phase of
capitalism, then bourgeois democracy must logically move in a
descending line.

In Germany the era of great armament, began in 1893, and the policy
of world politics inaugurated with the seizure of Kiao-Cheou were paid
for immediately with the following sacrificial victim: the
decomposition of liberalism, the deflation of the Centre Party, which
passed from opposition to government.=2
0The recent elections to the
Reichstag of 1907 unrolling under the sign of the German colonial
policy were, at the same time, the historical burial of German

If foreign politics push the bourgeoisie into the arms of reaction
this is no less true about domestic politics – thanks to the rise of
the working class. Bernstein shows that he recognises this when he
makes the social-democratic “legend,” which “wants to swallow
everything” – in other words, the socialist efforts of the working
class – responsible for the desertion of the liberal bourgeoisie. He
advises the proletariat to disavow its socialist aim so that the
mortally frightened liberals might come out of the mousehole of
reaction. Making the suppression of the socialist labour movement an
essential condition for the preservation of bourgeois democracy, he
proves in a striking manner that this democracy is in complete
contradiction with the inner tendency of development of the present
society. He proves, at the same time, that the socialist movement is
itself a direct product of this tendency.

But he proves, at the same time, still another thing. By making the
denouncement of the socialist aim an essential condition of the
resurrection of bourgeois democracy, he shows how inexact is the claim
that bourgeois democracy is an indispensable condition of the socialist
movement and the victory of socialism. Bernstein’s reasoning exhausts
itself in a vicious circle. His conclusion swallows his premises.

The solution is quite simple. In view of that fact that bourgeois
liberalism has given up its ghost from fear of the growing labour
movement and its final aim, we conclude that the socialist labour
movement is today the only support for that which is not the
goal of the socialist movement – democracy. We must conclude that
democracy can have no support. We must conclude that the socialist
movement is not bound to bourgeois democracy but that, on the contrary,
the fate of democracy is bound up with the socialist movement. We must
conclude from this that democracy does not acquire greater chances of
survival, as the socialist movement becomes sufficiently strong to
struggle against the reactionary consequences of world politics and the
bourgeois desertion of democracy. He who would strengthen democracy
should want to strengthen and not weaken the socialist movement. He who
renounces the struggle for socialism renounces both the labour movement
and democracy.

The mythological king of Corinth who was condemned to roll a huge stone
to the top of a hill. It constantly rolled back down against making his
task incessant.

[3] The German revolution of 1848, which struck an effective blow against the feudal institutions in Germany.

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Received on Thu Jan 15 05:18:48 2009

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