Richard Wolff recently wrote an article “Socialism and Workers’ Coops.” This article glosses over important points and offers, at best, an entirely vague notion of how workers’ coops fit a “socialist” conception of society. Wolff’s article is short, but it is typical of much of his writing.
First off, he talks about “actually existing socialisms” without really pointing to any in particular. He mentions the “1917 Soviet revolution” so he at least includes the former USSR. So when he says “traditional socialisms” had “abandoned some limited efforts at democratizing enterprise structures relatively early and reverted to the employer-employee model of enterprise organization”, how do we know what he is referring to here? Wolff’s article is primarily directed at a Western audience, mostly in the USA. His stated goal is “identifying and evaluating missing elements [that] can provide today’s socialist movements with better means to surpass capitalism than earlier socialist movements had.” OK, then what exactly is he analyzing from the historical record? Is he, for instance, alluding to so-called “war communism” in the early USSR, which was implemented by Lenin in the face of a civil war and widespread famine in a nation of mostly peasants, largely illiterate, without significant industrialization? Or is he referring to the way that Stalin’s rise to power resulted in the outright murder of most of the “old Bolsheviks”? Hard to say. Kuzbass Autonomous Colony was founded by the USSR and exists to this day. It was the exception rather than the rule, but these points are meant to illustrate that Wolff is being so general as to allow him to make apples-to-oranges comparisons. What lessons should the modern-day USA, with its advanced industrialized economy and massive wealth—albeit in the face of tremendous inequality and attendant widespread poverty—learn from difficult tactical decisions that Lenin made during the unique circumstances of civil war, famine, and the absence of industrialization that prevailed during “war communism”? Or what lessons should the USA take from Mao’s China? These are actually important points, because the transition from an agrarian economy to an industrialized one took place in the USA during a period of legalized chattel slavery. Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told alludes to a connection between chattel slavery and industrialization in the USA (though in a dubious identity politics/racialist way), just as Moshe Lewin’s The Soviet Century shows how Stalin’s gulag/mek system was a crucial part of the USSR’s industrialization. In either locale, those are circumstances of the past, but they each represent hugely different circumstances from the present (recognizing that present circumstances continue to be influenced by those historical legacies). Wolff trades in rather empty historical generalizations here. While he deserves credit for suggesting that there were real achievements in “actually existing socialism”, his points about what was allegedly missing might be disingenuous strawman arguments when historical conditions show that such choices were impossible (Lars Lih’s scholarship is useful here, as is the fictional work of the writer Andrey Platonov).
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Wolff frames his article as being about “socialism” (he does not use the word “communism”). But his arguments about worker coops seem rooted in anarchism, or anarcho-syndicalism. This is significant. Perhaps his analysis about things to “add” to socialist projects is wrong not because socialists have failed to consider them, or failed to implement them, but because communists/socialists are opposed to anarchist concepts and their political tactics. The definitive work on on this point is of course Lenin’s The State and Revolution — the single most widely published book written in the 20th Century. Also directly on point is Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution, written in opposition to Eduard Bernstein’s reformist position. As Luxemburg stated quite plainly, “Co-operatives and trade unions are totally incapable of transforming the capitalist mode of production.” Wolff offers no engagement with any of those concepts. In the contemporary age, Fredric Jameson’s An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army really presents the clearest statement of the analysis missing from Wolff’s article (and his writing and commentary in general). Jameson cogently notes that the question of federalism is central to any utopian project (communist/socialist or otherwise). This is precisely what Wolff fails to explain or address. Worker coops are still problematic—or perhaps a better term is limited—for a number of reasons. Following Jameson’s question about federalism, we can ask how the various coops would be selected and organized. Are we simply converting the existing economy to one with coops, without any clear mechanism to decide when and how to introduce new industries (and associated new coops), akin to a modern, industrialized version of an Amish society? Should we be supporting coops in destructive industries, such as fracking or mercenary armies? Who decides where coops (and their workers) should be located? What if large numbers of workers all decide they want to have coops making useless products? Or if few if any workers wish to work in industries in which chronic shortages of labor or products arise? These are all questions of federalism. While, no doubt, worker coops might alleviate some burdens on workers in a capitalist society, just as being in a trade union might, Wolff basically ignores problems like chauvinism—just like “states rights” is the argument of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” against federalism, coops will undoubtedly give rise to much of the same (as they have historically!). Aside from Jameson, Staughton Lynd has also written in somewhat similar terms, quoting Victor Serge saying that anarchism is about “idealistic aspiration” but anarchist thinking is impractical and anarchists lack any answer to the question of power. Jodi Dean is also a useful thinker here. As François Mitterrand said upon the failure of his political program in the 1980s: “In economics, there are two solutions. Either you are a Leninist. Or you won’t change anything.” Wolff falls in the “won’t change anything” camp, but doesn’t seem to realize it. Now, if Wolff was instead arguing that coops merely provide a kind of temporary respite from the ravages of late capitalism, from which a meaningful revolution might be waged, that would at least get him as far as Hardt and Negri’s Empire. But even that is still insufficient, because it still does not act upon a system of federalism from the start and therefore provides no real motivation or mechanism for the implied second revolution — and ends up more or less endorsing a new form of (quasi-)managerial capitalism without a bourgeoisie. Wolff dodges the question of power and politics too much.