Bakunin’s Advocacy of Worker Co-operatives

The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin had a strange, contradictory attitude towards co-operatives. In his article ‘On Co-operation’, Bakunin argued that they could actually harm the workers’ movement. He was highly critical of those founded on what he considered to be bourgeois principles for two reasons. Firstly, they could collapse, leaving the workers involved demoralized and poorer than before. And secondly, if they were successful, they elevated a small group of workers to the bourgeoisie while other workers, what he called a fifth estate, were exploited by them. At the same time, he passionately supported co-operatives as a means of empowering the workers and as the beginning of the future socialist society he looked forward to.

In his article ‘Geneva’s Double Strike’ he wrote

Let us organize and enlarge our Association, but at the same time let us not forget to consolidate it so that our solidarity, which is our whole power, may become daily more real. Let us build our solidarity in study, in labour, in public action, and in life. Let us become partners in common ventures to make our life together more bearable and less difficult. Let us form as many cooperatives for consumption, mutual credit, and production as we can, everywhere, for though they may be unable to emancipate us in earnest under present economic conditions, they prepare the precious seedes for the organization of the future and through them the workers become accustomed to organizing their own affairs.

In Robert M. Cutler, ed. and trans., Mikhail Bakunin: From Out of the Dustbin: Bakunin’s Basic Writings 1869-1871 (Ann Arbor: Ardis 1985), p. 148.

And after laying out his criticisms of ‘bourgeois’ cooperatives and their advocates in ‘On Cooperation’, Bakunin then turns to promoting them. He wrote

We want cooperation too. We are even convinced that the cooperative will be the preponderant form of social organization in the future, in every branch of labour and science. But at the same time, we know that it will prosper, developing itself fully and freely, embracing all human industry, only when it is based on equality, when all capital and every instrument of labour, including the soil, belong to the people by right of collective property. Therefore before all else, we consider this demand, the organization of the international strength of the workers of all countries, to be the principal goal of our great International [Working-Men’s] Association.

Once this is acknowledged, we hardly oppose the creation of cooperative associations; we find them necessary in many respects. First, and this appears to us even to be their principal benefit at present, they accustom the workers to organize, pursue and manage their interests themselves, without any interference either by bourgeois capital or by bourgeois control.

It is desirable that when the hour of social liquidation is at hand, it should find many cooperative associations in every country and locality; if they are well organized and above all founded on the principles of solidarity and collectivity rather than on bourgeois exclusivism, then society will pass from its present situation to one of equality and justice without too many great upheavals.

Cutler, Mikhail Bakunin, p. 150.

I don’t believe in a radical transformation of society like Bakunin, who was an ardent revolutionary. But I would like more cooperatives to be founded, and this to become, with various other forms of industrial democracy, the dominant form of industrial organization. Working people should be able to organize and empower themselves so that they can resist the power of big business and Conservatism, which has stripped them of rights at work and even the promise of secure, well-paid jobs. There is a problem in that cooperatives can be less economical than capitalist enterprises, but the success of the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain shows that this is not necessarily the case. And cooperatives and industrial democracy, if done properly, will empower the workers and help break down the current class system and the increasingly oligarchical nature of business and politics.

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