FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Socialism and Workers’ Coops

Actually existing socialisms since the 1917 Soviet revolution leave a rich legacy: aspects to build on, aspects to reject. Collective consumption (free education, medical care, subsidized housing, transport, etc.) is among the first and party dictatorship is among the second. Those socialisms’ complex histories also leave a legacy of what went missing from them. Identifying and evaluating missing elements can provide today’s socialist movements with better means to surpass capitalism than earlier socialist movements had.

Traditional socialisms stressed macro-level social changes. The promoted socialized over private property in means of production, socially planned distribution of resources and products rather than distribution via market exchange. They abandoned some limited efforts at democratizing enterprise structures relatively early and reverted to the employer-employee model of enterprise organization. The early ideas of socialism that had sometimes included democratized or cooperativized enterprises gave way to a concept of socialism that adopted the employer-employee structure as somehow necessary and universal.

Thus what went missing in most actually existing socialisms was a genuinely socialized enterprise as the economic foundation of production and distribution. Those of us banging the drums for a recognition of the importance of promoting and building democratic worker coops are motivated in part by the need to respond to what was missing before. We seek to ADD a dimension that was absent, not to displace the positive achievements of both the actually existing socialisms and the social movements seeking transitions beyond capitalism. Indeed, we are motivated by the further belief that some of the negative aspects of actually existing socialisms were consequences of what was missing from them. That makes it doubly important to identify and supply what was missing.

Worker cooperatives – where workers organize, manage and direct their workplace division of labor democratically – have a history almost as old as the human race. They represent a stark alternative to the undemocratic, hierarchical organization of past enterprises such as the slave and feudal with their master/slave and lord/serf divisions. Worker coops likewise differ from capitalist enterprises’ foundational division between employers and employees.

Worker coops make each worker both an individual wage-earner and an equal member of the collective of workers functioning as the employer (as in a corporate board of directors). They thus require and develop within each worker abilities, tastes, and demands for participation in all workplace decisions (and likely at other sites in society as well). Thereby economic power devolves from its capitalist concentration in the minority at the top (owners, directors) of enterprises downward to the democratic collective of all workers. Worker coops convert workplaces into genuine, democratic communities: something capitalist enterprises could only ever pretend to support elsewhere in society.

As the democratic, worker base of a social economy built on cooperatives, such worker-directed enterprises could go far in remedying the democratic deficiencies of party, state and society in actually existing socialisms. In such a social economy based on worker cooperatives, the state would no longer be subject to the conflicting influences of employers vs employees. It would not enforce the rule of employers over employees as it normally did in capitalism.

Instead its chief goal would be to reproduce the worker cooperative organization of enterprises. To that end, it would coordinate relationships among worker coops, individual workers, and individual consumers. Democratically representative of both regular workplace and residence-place assemblies, the state would develop long and short term development plans and arbitrate disputes among enterprises and individuals. Projects democratically decided that exceeded individual worker coops’ capacities would be managed by the state. Regular assembly, majority decision, recall, and associated measures to ensure democratic decision-making would be part of the constitution of such a worker cooperative based social economy.

Worker coops offer even greater potential to strengthen socialist political parties working inside capitalist societies to move beyond them. In addition to providing an attractive vision of a cooperative society, worker coops could give such socialist parties a strong economic and political base.

First, making the transition to worker coops a central part of socialist objectives brings the reality of socialism to the immediate micro-level of every working person’s daily life on the job. Socialism is then no longer a matter of changing from private to government ownership, from market to planning, and other such macro-level changes quite removed from individual workers’ daily lives. A worker coop organization of factories, offices, and stores will alter every aspect of workplace life and relationships, making new demands while offering new responsibilities and powers to most workers. Workers engagements with socialism will thus involved a daily process of building, safeguarding, and reproducing the democratic cooperative organization of their workplaces and thereby transforming themselves. It makes socialism immediately relevant and powerful in an ongoing way. It also makes the prospect of socialism an exciting draw that every working person can understand and relate to. Such an engaging socialist “vision” is what contemporary socialist parties have lacked for a long time.

Second, The enemies of socialism are unprepared for such a socialist vision. They have spent the last century honing their adversarial skills against the state’s macro-economic intervention, state enterprises, state central planning, etc. That was how they understood what socialism was so they became endless celebrants of private enterprise and “free” markets. They are poorly equipped to handle a socialist assault focused less on the macro- and more on the micro-dimensions. To take a simple example: how well will they defend against socialists’ attacks on the patently undemocratic organization of the capitalist enterprise (virtually dictatorial powers of a small minority of owners, boards of directors, etc. over a majority of employees affected by but excluded from all the basic business decisions)?

Third a socialist political party and worker coops are natural allies and partners. The party needs widely dispersed local bases to build support, identify and mobilize activists, raise funds, etc. The worker coops need a political organization strong enough to advance the worker coop sector of the economy. To that end, a socialist party can work for new or revised laws and regulations, repeal of old ones, etc. Capitalistically organized enterprises have long used political parties (GOP and Dems in the US) to advance their interests. Their alliance is “the establishment.” An alliance of worker coops and a socialist party is needed to secure and grow both within societies whose “establishments” will resist that.

More articles by:

Richard Wolff is the author of Capitalism Hits the Fan and Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens. He is founder of Democracy at Work.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
April 06, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
COVID-19 and the Failures of Capitalism
W. T. Whitney
Donald Trump, Capitalism, and Letting Them Die
Cesar Chelala
Cuba’s Promising Approach to Cancer
David A. Schultz
Camus and Kübler-Ross in a Time of COVID-19 and Trump
Nomi Prins 
Wall Street Wins, Again: Bailouts in the Time of Coronavirus
Dean Baker
Getting to Medicare-for-All, Eventually
Dave Lindorff
Neither Pandemic Nor Economic Collapse is Going to Be a Short-Lived Crisis
Sonali Kolhatkar
Capitalism in America Has Dropped the Mask: Its Face is Cruel and Selfish
Ralph Nader
Trump’s 7 Pro-Contagion Reversals Increase the Coronavirus Toll
David Swanson
A Department of Actual Defense in a Time of Coronavirus
Ellen Brown
Was the Fed Just Nationalized?
Jeff Birkenstein
Postcards From Trump
Nick Licata
Authoritarian Leaders Rejected the Danger of a COVID-19 Pandemic Because It Challenged Their Image
Kathy Kelly
“He’s Got Eight Numbers, Just Like Everybody Else”
Graham Peebles
Change Love and the Need for Unity
Kim C. Domenico
Can We Transform Fear to Strength In A Time of Pandemic?
Mike Garrity
Alliance for the Wild Rockies Files Lawsuit to Stop Logging and Burning Project in Rocky Mountain Front Inventoried Roadless Area
Stephen Cooper
“The Soul Syndicate members dem, dem are all icons”: an Interview with Tony Chin
Weekend Edition
April 03, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Omar Shaban
Gaza’s New Conflict: COVID-19
Rob Urie
Work, Crisis and Pandemic
John Whitlow
Slumlord Capitalism v. Global Pandemic
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Strange Things Happening Every Day
Jonathan Cook
The Bigger Picture is Hiding Behind a Virus
Paul Street
Silver Linings Amidst the Capitalist Coronavirus Crisis
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Control of Nature
Louis Proyect
COVID-19 and the “Just-in-Time” Supply Chain: Why Hospitals Ran Out of Ventilators and Grocery Stores Ran Out of Toilet Paper
Kathleen Wallace
The Highly Contagious Idea
Kenneth Good
The Apartheid Wars: Non-Accountability and Freedom for Perpetrators.
Andrew Levine
Democracy in America: Sorry, But You Can’t Get There from Here.
Ramzy Baroud
Tunisia Leads the Way: New Report Exposes Israel’s False Democracy
David Rosen
Coronavirus and the State-of-Emergency Pandemic
Matthew Stevenson
Will Trump Cancel the Election? Will the Democrats Dump Joe?
Ron Jacobs
Seattle—Anti-Capitalist Hotbed
Michael T. Klare
Avenger Planet: Is the COVID-19 Pandemic Mother Nature’s Response to Human Transgression?
Jack Rasmus
COVID-19 and the Forgotten Working Class
Werner Lange
The Madness of More Nukes and Less Rights in Pandemic Times
J.P. Linstroth
Why a Race is Not a Virus and a Virus is Not a Race
John Feffer
We Need a Coronavirus Truce
Thomas S. Harrington
“New Corona Cases”: the Ultimate Floating Signifier
Victor Grossman
Corona and What Then?
Katie Fite
Permanent Pandemic on Public Lands: Welfare Sheep Ranchers and Their Enablers Hold the West’s Bighorns Hostage
Patrick Bond
Covid-19 Attacks the Down-and-Out in Ultra-Unequal South Africa
Eve Ottenberg
Capitalism vs. Humanity
Nicky Reid
Fear and Loathing in Coronaville Volume 2: Panic On the Streets of Tehran
Jonas Ecke
Would Dying for the Economy Help Anybody?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail