1920s >> 1923 >> no-227-july-1923

Editorial: Co-operation—A hopeless experiment

There are many who believe that the Cooperative movement will provide an easy and painless means of transforming present competitive production into production upon a basis of common property. There are others who oppose the Co-operative movement on the ground that it is Socialist. Those who advance these views have not given sufficient consideration to fundamental matters.

The means of production to-day are in the hands of a small but tremendously wealthy class; a class that is powerful because it controls the State machinery. The means of production are operated by a large but poverty-stricken class of wage workers ; a class that is in slavery because it leaves the State machinery in the hands of its oppressors.

Production is on a gigantic scale, based upon sale for profit. The increase in quantity and complexity of the machinery used makes necessary ever less and less workers to turn out the things required by society. The big capitalists undersell the small, and eventually drive increasing numbers of the latter out of business. Only a short time ago the Small Traders’ Association was complaining bitterly that their members were being rapidly wiped out of trade. In fact, the small traders are becoming little more than salesmen for the powerful trusts.

Assuming the continuance of present production for sale, the large capitalists can only be driven out of business by a still larger type. Any organisation that is going to offer serious opposition to the present owners of wealth must have an enormous capital at its disposal. Imagine the size of capital an organisation would require to, compete successfully with, say, the Steel, Oil, or Meat Trusts, or similar gigantic corporations ! Further, such an organisation to live and flourish would have to adopt the same methods as its competitors—exploit its workers.

Over a hundred years ago Robert Owen conceived the idea of organising a new society in the midst of the old. He thought the workers could band themselves together into producing and distributing groups, spread over the whole of society, and eventually freeze the capitalist out. Subsequently he had to modify his ideas somewhat, owing to the strength of the opposition, and tried experiments by establishing co-operative colonies on comparatively virgin soil—but, of course, with people brought up in capitalist surroundings. These experiments all ended in disaster; they ultimately ruined him and demonstrated the futility of attempting to found ideal societies in a capitalist world.

There was an excuse for the dreams of the heroic and good-intentioned Owen. In his time knowledge of the organisation and development of society was comparatively small; and he was one of those by whose disastrous experiments later generations were to acquire a sound understanding. Since his time social investigators have piled up literally mountains of information, showing how one form of society grows out of another, owing to the operation of forces that already exist in the old society; and that a new society is never grafted on to the. old, as it were, from the outside.

In Owen’s day the capital required to start an important industry was but a tiny fraction of what is required to-day; and the power that lies in the hands of those controlling the State was not yet sufficiently realised by the oppressed class or its would-be deliverers. The powerful capitalists have it in their hands to smash to pieces, whenever they wish, any rising productive or distributing organisation that challenges their existence, long before such an organisation could reach any serious proportions. The very fact that they make no serious effort to interfere with the development of the various Co-operative Societies shows that they expect no dangerous opposition from these societies.

In his “History of Co-operation,” the late G. J. Holyoake, one of the best-known advocates of Co-operation, defined it as follows :

“The equality sought is not the mad equality of equal division of unequal earnings, but that just award of gains which is proportionate to work executed, to capital subscribed, or custom given. . . and there is equality in a co-operative society, when the right of every worker is to a share of the common gain in the proportion to which he contributes to it, in capital, or labour, or trade—by hand or head ; and this is the only equality which is meant, and there is no complete or successful co-operation where this is not conferred, aimed at, and secured.”—(Vol. I., page 4.)

From this it will be seen that he who subscribes most capital will gain most; in other words, those who “have not,” who are the ones that most require aid, will remain as they were before—without. Inequality in the means of living, and hence private property, is at the root of the Co-operative movement—that is, the very opposite to Socialism.

On page 5 of the same volume the author states :

“It touches no man’s fortune ; it seeks no plunder ; it causes no disturbance in society ; it gives no trouble to statesmen.”

Here the death knell of Co-operation is sounded, from the point of view of any advantage it offers to the workers. If those who own the means of production are not to have their fortunes touched, from whence are to come the productive powers of tomorrow? If there is to be no disturbance in society, then the slaves are to remain as they are—slaves. If it is to give no trouble to statesmen, then the capitalist can rest content that, so far as the Co-operative movement is concerned, the parasite will be kept for ever.

At present the mass of the people obtain, on the average, barely sufficient to keep themselves and their families from starvation; consequently they have no appreciable sum to invest in Co-operative shares. Their wages are so small that as a general rule they must buy in the cheapest market. The wealthy Trusts have demonstrated again and again that, when necessary, they can undersell and bankrupt their smaller opponents.

The Co-operative concern can only flourish by adopting up-to-date methods, employing as few as possible workers to obtain a given output. If, therefore, we were to assume a growth of the Co-operative concerns to an important size it would mean a parallel growth of unemployment. There would be less who could buy shares and more who wanted bread. The problem facing the workers of obtaining the wherewithal to live would be intensified instead of being abolished.

The soundness of this position is borne out by the history of the Co-operative movement. It has adopted capitalist methods and exhibits capitalist evils. At the moment of writing, 15,000 employees of the Co-operative Wholesale Society are out on strike against a reduction in wages. (“Daily News,” 11/6/23).

Co-operation offers no easy road to emancipation. Those who suport the movement,, such as the Communist Party and the Labour Party, are inviting the workers into that alley where they become temporarily disillusioned and apathetic.

The abolition of wage slavery necessitates recognition of the fact that the workers are robbed of the wealth they produce; that the capitalists are the robbers; that the workers can produce for their own consumption more easily than for an idle class ; that the robbery can only be prevented by the producing class owning the wealth it produces ; that such ownership can only be attained by taking from the capitalists the control of the political machinery and converting private ownership into social ownership.

The new society will therefore grow out of the old and not be imposed upon it. All that is valuable in the old society will be retained, and all that is harmful will be abolished. The central idea of present production—profit, with its basis private property—will give place to production for use on the basis of common property.


(Socialist Standard, July 1923)

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