1920s >> 1926 >> no-257-january-1926

Co-operation. Past, present and future

People whose notion of co-operation is associated with the “divi” store regard it as an ideal “principle” invented or discovered by the Utopian forerunners of scientific Socialism; as opposed to competition, another “principle,” which they seem to imagine was invented by capitalist economists.

Marx, however, showed that co-operation in its various forms, has formed the basis of social existence from time immemorial ; while competition was the outcome of the break-up of certain old, narrow forms of co-operation which in course of time proved inadequate to the needs of society. The special form of co-operation in existence at any given time has depended upon the degree of development in the means and methods of gaining a living.

The earliest form of co-operation known to us was the hunting pack, which prevailed when human beings depended upon the flesh of animals for food and upon their skins for clothes and shelter. Under these conditions only the crudest arts and crafts could develop and such division of labour as existed was based upon differences of age and sex.

Even after the domestication of animals, the nomadic character of life placed obvious restrictions upon economic development but with the discovery of tillage and the invention of the plough and the adoption of settled habitations, more complex forms of society arose. The domestication of women was followed by the domestication of men ; in other words, chattel-slavery was established.

On this basis arose the ancient Empires of which Rome was the last and greatest.

Henceforth division of labour became a marked feature in social life. For some considerable time the class of free citizens pursued various crafts in addition to the main art of husbandry; but by degrees these became the occupations of slaves whose masters spent their time in the pursuit of warfare, politics, sport, art and science, and, eventually, debauchery. Thus, the first historical form of society was based upon compulsory co-operation i.e., the co-operation of slaves to produce wealth and luxury for a class of cultivated idlers.

For all the refinement of those who lived by it, however, chattel-slavery was a crude and wasteful method of exploitation. The slave population had no fear of the “sack” and lived at their masters’ expense whether busy or idle. They had, therefore, none of that “incentive” to work so prominent in the case of the workers of to-day and so much esteemed by the anti-Socialist.

They required as a consequence extensive and costly supervision which eventually exhausted the Roman State. Undermined by economic causes within, Rome fell before the onslaught of its barbaric foes ; and the initiative of historical development shifted to the north and west of Europe, where the foundations of the great feudal kingdoms were laid in serfdom, a more economical form of slavery.

The serfs held sufficient land to provide themselves with a rude maintenance on condition that they spent a certain definite time in cultivating the land of the lord of the manor. The serf was legally bound to the manor and thus compelled to co-operate in the service of his lord. Other classes of free peasants also rendered forms of service in the shape of rent in kind or military service, while in the towns the free craftsmen and merchants, organised in guilds, usually held their chartered rights under the “protection” of some overlord. Thus co-operation remained, albeit in a modified, limited and indirect form, the basis of the social order.

Under feudalism, division of labour within society became crystallised into a definite form. A whole hierarchy of classes and sub-classes with clearly defined rights and duties existed in a state of apparent stability ; but in the towns was preparing a further advance along the line of division of labour which was destined to sweep feudalism away as patrician rule had been swept before it.

As yet, the workers, whether peasants or craftsmen, had been accustomed to follow their job through from start to finish ; they turned out complete articles. Now in the factories of the rising merchant class began the splitting up of the process of labour into its details and the apportioning of each detail to a special labourer. Thus specialised, the workers acquired a greater speed and the quantity of wealth produced increased. Larger numbers of workers were employed in the individual workshop and co-operation took on still another form. How the merchants developed into fullblown capitalists by the introduction of machinery was recited in last month’s issue of this paper. The special point of importance here is the fact that the machine brings still greater numbers of workers into direct co-operation. Whereas in former ages only works of exceptional size such as the building of pyramids, temples, etc., demanded the co-operation of large numbers, now it is the normal thing for such things as clothes, food, boots, etc., to be turned out by concerns employing thousands.

The self-contained life of the village community and the simple co-operation of the mediaeval craftsman’s family have given place to the gigantic complexity of modern industrialism. Yet there is a point of similarity between these seemingly diverse modes of production. The modern wage-slave, like his forerunners, the serf, and the chattel-slave, is compelled to co–operate in maintaining an idle class—a class now which lacks either the military prowess of the feudal knights or the culture of the Athenian “democracy,” but which hires both force and cunning into its service.

Unlike the chattel-slave, however, the wage-earner is not the personal property of his exploiter; neither is he legally bound to serve him like the serf. Legally he is quite entitled to give notice if he likes starvation, but usually the termination of his employment takes the form of the “sack.” That is a refined weapon which the rulers of former ages had not discovered. It has been left to modern society to produce that symptom of social anarchy the landless “freemen,” the masterless slaves, viz., the unemployed. They provide indisputable evidence of the wasteful character of the capitalist form of co-operation ; and of the fact that the productive forces of society are not being fully utilised.

What then? Have we reached finality? By no means ! A new form of co-operation must arise. Its foundations in the workshops are already laid; co-operative production is a fact. Co-operative distribution must be developed to make full use thereof. By that we do not mean the apologetic humbug of the so-called co-operative societies (who exploit their employees like any other capitalist concern). Nor do we mean State or Municipal Trading as advocated by the Labour Party, to which the same objection applies. Piecemeal measures, whether adopted by governments or groups of individuals, are futile when society as a whole has to be dealt with.

Capitalist ownership must be abolished in its entirety as a system. The means of life must be converted into the common property of all. That alone will destroy at once the despotism within the workshop and the anarchy outside. Co-operative production to produce the needs of all in accordance with a social plan democratically administered ; the co-operation, not of slaves, but of free men and women. That is the next step in social progress. That is Socialism.


(Socialist Standard, January 1926)

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