Co-operation and socialism[1]

Peter Kropotkin

Les Temps Nouveaux, 27 July 1895

It is necessary to refer to the thirties and forties of this century in order to realise the enthusiasm with which co-operation was envisaged, or “association” as they used to say in France, and to appreciate the audacity of Proudhon who dared to attack it head-on.

Association, in the ideas of that time, was to change everything. In order to avoid paying a formidable tribute to the intermediaries of commerce, a group of workers co-operated to buy a sack of flour together, and sold it to the members of the group at cost, plus some minimal administrative expenses. And, little by little, by dint of privation and struggle, this group succeeded in attracting others and providing each other with whatever they consumed at 20 or 30 per cent below the prices of commercial suppliers.

This little experiment was to gradually reform the world. The small co-operation would spread, it would eventually encompass all workers. It would remove intermediaries. Bread, meat, housing would be provided at the cost price: the worker would emancipate himself from the intermediate vulture. He would gain the habit of association, of managing his own affairs. He would see at first hand [toucherait du doigt] the advantages of communism and gradually acquire broader views on national and international relations.

Then, using a share of the profits to expand business, we would create producer groups. Instead of purchasing cloth or shoes from the capitalist manufacturer, associations for production would be formed which would provide consumer associations with all they buy today from capitalist vultures. Gradually, these would be eliminated from production as well as from consumption. And if the workers succeeded in forcing the State to open credit for production for them (the Louis Blanc project, later adopted by Lassalle and still in vogue in socialist democracy), the economic revolution would be made.

The worker, freed from the capitalist, would be in possession of the tools necessary to produce. He would enjoy the full product of his work. With the aid of labour notes [bons de travail], which enabled the worker to buy without waiting until his products are sold, it was the social revolution accomplished.

* * *

It would not be fair to treat the cooperative movement as insignificant. On the contrary. In England and Scotland, more than 1,600,000 people and households are members of consumer cooperatives. Cooperatives are found everywhere, especially in the towns and villages of the North. Their business amounts to billions of francs. And the central wholesale co-operative in Manchester, which supplies everything to local cooperatives, is a tremendous establishment with multi-storey shops covering a whole neighbourhood, not to mention its huge warehouses in the docks of Liverpool. It sends its five or six ships to look for tea in China, it buys sugar from India, butter from Denmark, cotton goods from the largest producers, and so on... – “Suppose [there was] a social revolution in Manchester,” I asked the administrators, “Could you feed and clothe the whole city, and distribute produce in all neighbourhoods [quartiers]?” – “With our equipment, our arrangements and men of good will, it would be done in twenty-four hours. Provide money or credit to buy - there would be no shadow of difficulty,” was the immediate answer.

And that is true. You must see the establishment to understand the correctness of the statement.

* * *

Moreover, the tendency has been for some time to form associations for production on a large scale that manufacture essentials. After a number of failures, the English [and Scottish] co-operators succeeded in making their shoe factories, their flour mills and their bakeries run smoothly. Already, a third of the bread eaten by the 686,000 inhabitants of Glasgow is provided by co-operatives.

In a word, the English and Scottish co-operators have had considerable success; they are a force that is still growing. Only, this success is such that the first co-operators would have turned away in disgust; for, until the last three or four years when the socialist spirit began to pervade the co-operatives as well as the bourgeoisie itself, the English co-operatives remained the fortresses of worker bourgeoisism.

* * *

As for their direct effects on the well-being of the worker, these are very small.

Our Swiss readers will remember the misery that reigned at La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1877-78. They opened a municipal canteen where they had a good meal at a low price. But already two months after the opening of the canteen, the rent of the rooms within a half-kilometre radius of the canteen had risen by at least five francs a month – “But Monsieur can pay five francs more for the room as he will be a stone’s throw from the canteen,” replied the ladies with a sweet smile.

The English big bourgeoisie did more: it imposed the profit sharing due to the co-operatives. A few years ago, a Newcastle co-operator brought us to an old miner who was to familiarise us with the advantages of co-operation and he did so in these terms:

“Well, you see. With wages of 9 shillings per week, I live today just as well as I lived twenty years ago with 16 shillings. And this [is] thanks to the co-operatives. The house belongs to me; I bought it through the co-operative and have no rent to pay. I save at least thirty percent on everything I buy. And my nine shillings are enough where sixteen hardly sufficed.”

Our question is anticipated: “But why did he earn only 9 shillings instead of 16?” And the response is likewise anticipated: “The work is not required; we only work three days a week!”

In other words: since the capitalist has every interest in keeping an army of miners who will work only three days a week and who, at the moment when coal prices rise, will be able to double production – he does. He does on a large scale what the good ladies of Chaux-de-Fonds did on a small scale. He profits from the co-operative.

These two sketches – two small parts of reality – summarise the history of co-operatives. The co-operative can increase the welfare of the worker; that goes without saying. But in order that the worker may not lose all the benefit as a result of a wage-cut, increased unemployment, economic rent on land and, therefore, rents always going up, and taxes always growing – for the benefit gained by the abolition of the middle-man not to be stolen by the landlord, the banker, the boss and the State, he must attack head-on this new co-operative of vultures; he must fight them by the hunger or the torch of strikes, by conspiracy and revolt. And if he does not do this – he has worked for the other co-operative, that of the vultures.

We always come to the same point. The struggle, the war against the exploiter always remains the only weapon of the exploited.

But there is worse.

While struggle, by the strike, the war with the machines, the war against the landlord (which takes a thousand different aspects according to the localities), and the revolt against the State unites workers – these expedients, such as co-operatives, divide them.

Indeed, until the last three or four years there were no worse bosses in England that co-operators. Their congresses of 1886 and 1887 were striking in this respect. The selfishness of the co-operators, especially in the North, has been one of the greatest obstacles to the development of socialism in this part of England. The fear of losing the little that they had acquired after so many struggles – man always loves what he has fought for – stood like a barrier against all propaganda for solidarity, either during strikes or in the propaganda of socialist ideas. It was much easier to convert a young bourgeois to socialism than bring a co-operator to it.

* * *

This is changing now, we hasten to openly admit. Certainly, this is changing; but the “how” of the change is highly instructive. This is changing, because others alongside them have done better.

Indeed, during the last miners’ strike in Yorkshire everyone read with amazement that the Manchester wholesale co-operative had donated in one go 125,000 francs into the strike fund. We can imagine the effect of this contribution on the outcome of the strike. But they did better. We are told that the central co-operative has provided credit of nearly one million francs to the small local co-operatives in the miners’ villages, and whoever knows how much the denial of all credit is an article of faith amongst co-operators will even better appreciate this advance which permitted the local co-operatives to provide credit to the miners.

Reliable friends tell us, furthermore, that in new production associations the relations between worker-workers and worker-bosses are changing completely, and we hasten to admit that this is the case.

* * *

But where does this new wind which is blowing in the co-operatives come from?

The “theoreticians,” of course! The co-operatives also feel the breath of socialism which makes recruits today even in the enemy camp of the bourgeois.

Fifty years ago, two distinct currents took shape within the socialists. One wanted to be “practical” and launched themselves into a series of expedients. “Since the workers are not communists,” they said, “they must be made communists by personal interest. The co-operative based on personal egoism will accustom them to communism.” And for fifty years they have practiced this expedient, with the results that we know.

But, fortunately, there were also “theoreticians,” the “hare-brained,” amongst the socialists. They did not want to hear talk of the communist spirit developed by narrow financial selfishness. They have turned their backs on expedients (just as we anarchists turn our backs today on political and economic expedients). They followed their natural course.

Two divergent lines have thus been produced in this way. The men of expedients followed one, the socialists followed the other. – “You are theorists, dreamers, fools, madmen,” they said to the others; “you should become practical, create co-operatives and the rest!” To which they replied with lofty defiance and followed their path – the path of propaganda and revolt against the whole entirety of modern civilisation, against all forms of exploitation simultaneously.

* * *

And they were a thousand times right. The two lines diverged more and more. And now, when socialism, in its entirety, and anarchy, in its entirety, have made a profound impression on the ideas of the century, when the revolt against all economic and statist exploitation has made recruits in all social strata – the “expedientists” are also reached and their league begins to pour into the socialist current.

It will be forced to pour into it entirely. Otherwise, it would belong to the world that is departing and would be condemned to disappear.

* * *

Can we ask, after this, whether the socialists were right to refuse compromises and remain “theoreticians,” as the bourgeois liked to say? If they returned to the co-operative current – false at its very root, since it was based on the partial liberation of the individual, in only a small part of his servitudes – if the socialist current poured into co-operation, it was drowned there, it became unrecognisable, it lost its very essence; it became neither flesh nor fowl – a compromise.

But it preferred to remain in its isolation. Rather be a few than lose its distinctive features, sacrificing the best of its thought! And it ended by forcing the other current to give everything it had to give, to fully develop and, then, pour its waters into the socialist movement.

Absolutely the same thing happens with the anarchist current. We know that in the social revolution the association of consumers and producers will be one of the forms of the emerging society. But not this association which aims to pocket its surplus-value or its profit. And we spread all our thought, we fan all our revolt against the world that is departing. We spread our ideas everywhere, in the trade union, in the co-operative as well as in the unorganised working masses – and by doing this – since we are in the right – we will eventually pour all these partial currents into one great current: anarchy.

End Notes

[1] Economic Expedients, II [“Les Expédients économiques” had already appeared in Les Temps nouveaux, 19 July 1895. A translation of this article (“Economic Expedients”) is included in Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology - Translator.]