The Third International and cooperatives

18 December, 2021

Poster of the third Congress of the International
Poster of the third Congress of the International

The Third International, from the experience of the russian revolution, was the first to address the role of cooperatives in a revolutionary phase.

Table of Contents

The background: the NEP

Poster encouraging women farmers to join "producers" cooperatives that is, cooperatives composed of small and very small landowners.
Poster encouraging women farmers to join “producers” cooperatives that is, cooperatives composed of small and very small landowners.

Let’s go back to 1921, at the beginning of the NEP (New Economic Policy). The NEP was a standstill, forced by the stagnation of the socialist revolution in Europe, of the permanent revolution dynamic of the revolution in Russia. It froze the social revolution, which had already broken out occasionally and spontaneously during war communism, under what Lenin defined as a “state capitalism under conditions of dictatorship of the proletariat“.

The very contradiction present in the formula evidences that the NEP was a desperate attempt to rebuild a productive apparatus ravaged by civil war and famine, whose decay had practically disbanded the organized proletariat that had carried out the revolution while emptying the soviets of the life of October.

Its first, urgent goal is to recover the alliance with the peasantry, that is, with the agrarian petty bourgeoisie, in order to avoid a new civil war. To change the property structure of the land -collectivize- lies farther away than ever. But increasing agrarian productivity is urgent in order to be able to maintain the proletariat of the cities.

Cooperatives during the birth of the Third International

That is why Lenin, from the first drafts of the new policy, will attach great importance to the cooperatives of small proprietors, an importance which will be extended, in the background, to the workers’ consumer cooperatives. The subject will become so important that the Russians will include it in the III and IV Congress of the International (1921 and 1922), the last ones with Lenin alive. In doing so, the situation of world cooperativism will come to the forefront of the discussions.

By the breakup of the Second International, most consumer cooperatives across Europe had passed into the control of the social-patriots, who were driving out the communists and reasserting their control on the basis of an ever-stronger alignment with the political neutralism of the ICA, fueling utopias of a peaceful, non-revolutionary transition to socialism by the mere extension of the cooperative system.

Worker cooperatives were another matter. In France and Germany most had realigned with the International but in Spain most were under CNT influence.

The International will then take a position similar to the one it had taken with respect to the unions: to form an International of cooperativists with red cooperatives and with the minorities that remained in the cooperatives under social democratic control, trying to recover them by creating cells of the communist parties in them. The banner will be the rupture with the ICA, argued on the criticism of its neutralism and the struggle for the economic independence of the cooperatives with respect to the state.

The third congress

Delegates at the IIIrd Congress of the International
Delegates at the IIIrd Congress of the International

The theses and resolutions of the Third Congress are clearly written from the Russian perspective. The person tasked with leading the discussion during the congress was Nikolay Leonidovich Meshcheriakov. One more sign that the focus of the Russian party’s interest in cooperativism was on the relations of the peasantry.

With production under state control and hoping to bring to life a rural capitalism under supervision, agrarian cooperatives of independent peasants became a way to increase their productivity by separating the independent peasant from the wealthy landowner, the kulak.

For their part, consumer cooperatives were one of the few possible expressions of the proletariat under the NEP. And production cooperatives were left to gather the independent craftsmen, as a tool to complete their industrialization, a stage that had already been left far behind in Western Europe, even in Spain and Portugal.

This division of roles will be such as will inspire the outline of the theses and resolutions of the International. With two important additions. The first, the aspiration for consumer cooperatives to break the economic blockade and become trading partners of the Russian state. The second, it pushed the cooperatives to integrate and coordinate with the trade unions.

The combination was an explosive one. Although it was intended to strengthen the opposition in the trade unions and the ability to spread revolutionary propaganda, in the context of what was happening in Russia on the one hand and in the European trade unions on the other, the appeal had just encouraged the remnants of the social democratic bureaucracy – which in part, as in Spain or Italy, or en bloc, as in France, had gone over to the new communist parties – to merge with the trade union structure in their country and coordinate with the nascent bureaucracy of the Russian state.

Finally the International is tasked with creating a section of cooperatives to implement the program. The model will be that of the Red Trade Union International, of which it is seen as a complement and a natural financial support. An International Conference of Communist Cooperators is then convened in Moscow which will meet during the six days prior to the Fourth Congress and will submit its conclusions to the Communist International.

Fourth Congress

Poster of the 4th Congress of the IIIrd International
Poster of the 4th Congress of the IIIrd International

Arrived at the IVth Congress, Meshcheriakov reads the proposed resolution drafted by the secretariat of the International. The centrality of consumer cooperatives and the reduction of European cooperatives to financial backers is clear from the very first paragraphs.

During the last years preceding the world war and even more so during this war, cooperation acquired in almost all countries a strong impulse and attracted to its ranks broad masses of workers and peasants. The almost universal offensive launched by capital compels the workers, and especially the working women, to appreciate even more the help that consumer cooperation can give them.

The old social-reformist bosses have understood after a long time the importance of cooperation for the achievement of the objectives they pursue. They have installed themselves in the cooperative organizations and from there they poison the consciousness of the working masses, disturbing the mood and activity of the workers who possess a revolutionary spirit.

On the other hand, the social-democratic parties which have in their hands the leadership of the cooperative movement, draw in certain countries from the coffers of the cooperatives the material resources necessary for the support of their party. Under the mask of political neutrality, they support the bourgeoisie and its imperialist policy.

From there, the resolution focuses on how to win the organizational leadership of the cooperatives by creating communist cells and using the tactic of the united front. Their goal: to take control of the financial apparatus represented by the European consumer cooperatives and to begin as soon as possible to put it at the service of the needs of the struggles: relief for the repressed, unemployed and laid-off, payment of propaganda, etc.

The leadership of the debate is taken by two French delegates. On the one hand Henriet, who came from anarchism, ran a consumer cooperative and was later expelled for resisting Zinovietism. On the left, Lauridan, who at that congress was supported by Rosmer in discussions on trade unions.

Like Rosmer, Lauridan came from revolutionary syndicalism. He was considered the rising figure on the left of the PCF, but on his return from the congress he would be expelled in one of the endless dirty wars of the French party. Disqualified as a friend of the police, he suffered an almost total ostracism which led him to go into exile from his region humiliated and resentful. He would reappear a few years later in the first Gallic fascism and end up as a collaborator of Vichy.

Internal French problems will overshadow the discussion by causing Henriet to take positions sometimes contradictory and almost always very averse to cooperativism per se, as he interprets it again and again as inseparable from the harmonist positions of Charles Gide’s consumer cooperativism. Lauridan seems to understand that cooperatives are tools of the movement as a whole and recounts with not a few examples how at that time they are playing a determining role in the development of the communist movement.

We must move towards the goal of cooperatives providing a refuge for the proletariat in struggle and above all supplying it. In the North of France, all the cooperatives have founded people’s houses for workers’ organizations. They distribute subsidies to strikers and the unemployed. Many cooperatives offer the party direct or indirect financial support. We can express it through a simple formula: today the cooperatives must be the mainstay of the party; tomorrow they will be a mainstay of the dictatorship of proletarian power.

But as the discussion clears the rhetorical trappings, it becomes clear that for him all that counts is the financial usefulness of the cooperatives to the party. Henriet’s response declaring that he is not a supporter of cooperatives exposes not only Lauridan’s simplism, but also his own misunderstanding of cooperativism as a part of the class movement.

A membership assembly [of a cooperative] which approves spending on communist propaganda, can just as easily approve money for reformist propaganda.

But the most striking thing is that, like the Conference, he equivocates and equates worker cooperatives with producer cooperatives, that is, petty bourgeoisie cooperatives. It is as if he were thinking that an agricultural cooperative formed by the owners of fields to mill the olives is the same thing as the cooperative of day laborers who sell their labor force en bloc to do the harvesting. So Henriet jumps directly against worker cooperatives with the old reactionary argument that they make capitalists out of workers and a typically anarchist logic of reasoning.

Since cooperatives are tied to the capitalist system, they have no other way to escape crises of overproduction or underproduction than those that are characteristic of this system. In reality they can only develop by merging completely into the capitalist system. Under such circumstances, the comrades who are active in this field will almost always be lost to the cause of the revolution. […] All communists must make efforts to avoid getting mixed up in anything that would diminish their impetus and their freedom for communist propaganda and action.

The debate will end with Jinchuk, a Menshevik who would end up being part of the stalinist elite at the time of the great purges, stepping in to cut and correct them both and point out to them that what makes it important to win communist hegemony in the cooperatives is to control food distribution and avoid disaster in the early stages of civil war.

To sum up, what can be drawn from reading the debate on cooperativism at the 4th Congress is bittersweet. On the one hand the post-war era was seeing the emergence of a wave of worker cooperativism that needed to be clearly separated from small business cooperativism, but which intuitively moved closer to communists… the same communists who did not know what to do with it or even rejected it.

The French were still scarred by the controversy between Guesde and Gide at the time of the Second International and were actually incapable of understanding cooperativism outside the ICA parameters. For the Russians, who had never had a worker cooperative movement, the important thing was the peasant question and food distribution.

Lenin intervenes in the debate


It is not surprising that only two weeks after the Congress, Lenin published an article to try to fix the mess by correcting, without actually naming them, all the speakers. Lenin vindicates cooperativism not only for practical reasons or to organize the peasantry in a way compatible with the proletarian dictatorship. For Lenin, as for Marx, it is the way to move from workers’ control of production in the factory to workers’ management of social production.

If we could organize the entire population into cooperatives, we would already be treading with both feet on socialist ground.

And he reminds everyone that the Marxist critique of cooperativist utopianism focused on the anti-political and harmonist character of utopian theories, not on a principled rejection of cooperativism and even less on worker cooperativism.

There is a lot of fantasy in the dreams of old cooperators. They are often comical because of how fantastic they are. But what is this fantasy about? That people do not understand the fundamental importance, the cardinal importance of the political struggle of the working class to overthrow the domination of the exploiters. Today this overthrow is already a fact in our country, and much of what seemed fantastic, even romantic and even trivial in the dreams of the old cooperativists, now becomes a most natural reality.

Indeed, given that in our country the power of the State is in the hands of the working class and that to this State power belong all the means of production, it only remains for us, in reality, to fulfill the task of organizing the population in cooperatives. With the maximum organization of the population into cooperatives it achieves by itself the goal of that socialism which formerly aroused legitimate ridicule, smiles and scorn among those who were convinced, and rightly so, that class struggle, the struggle for political power, etc.

Now, not all comrades realize the gigantic and unfathomable importance which the organization of cooperatives in Russia now acquires for us. […]

All the great means of production in the power of the state, and the power the state in the hands of the proletariat; the alliance of this proletariat with millions and millions of small and very small peasants; the guarantee of the leadership of the peasants by the proletariat, etc.

Is that not all that is needed to build the complete socialist society, starting from the cooperatives, and nothing but the cooperatives, which we used to treat as mercantilists and which today, during the NEP, also deserve, in a certain sense, the same treatment? [No,] That is not yet the building of socialist society, but of everything indispensable and sufficient to build it.

On Cooperatives. Lenin, 1923

Lenin imagined that the revolution would go on to attack the capital-labor relation when the world revolution finally spread and Russia could move, at once, to develop the socialist phase of its permanent revolution. And he thought he would do so from that which had been the great achievement of the revolution in Russia, the centralization of the class as such in the soviets.

He imagined thus, the passage from state capitalism to the outbreak of anti-capitalist measures as the product of a centralized international structure – the workers’ state – with its economic structure converted into a sort of great cooperative (consumer) federation collectively and consciously oriented towards decommodification.

To sum up: the 3rd International’s view of cooperativism is the view of NEP’s Russia. Worker cooperatives are of no special interest. Not even the productive communes that are springing up all over Russia deserve attention. Why would they? With the proletariat dominating the soviets and through them the whole productive apparatus, their significance is reduced to a moral movement, to one of many explorations that the class makes during those years.

The Bolsheviks are interested in consumer cooperatives. They regret not having had them during war Communism. Lenin sees them as even more important during the NEP, he perceives in them the mechanism through which, under the conditions of state capitalism, the proletariat can exercise its dictatorship over exchange prices with the countryside.

It is one thing to fantasize about all kinds of workers’ associations to build socialism, another to learn to build in practice so that every small peasant can collaborate in that construction.

On cooperatives. Lenin, 1923

But this is not only a matter of establishing a relationship with the peasantry through the NEP market. To organize the relationship on that terrain it is not enough to organize the peasants. The perspective is to organize in parallel the workers in the city into consumer cooperatives to consciously articulate and organize the calculation of their needs and what is more important, the organization of production to satisfy them.

The creation of large consumer cooperatives would be the first step towards the decommodification of production. It would be the most advanced step that could be taken as long as the revolution did not spread at least through fully capitalist Europe, where the proletariat was a majority also in the countryside.

In the Bolshevik perspective after the civil war, the class itself organized in consumer cooperatives was to directly dictate priorities to the industries run by itself and negotiate the prices of agrarian products with the peasantry – organized in turn in cooperatives of small landowners – from the position of strength that came from being a monopsodium, a monopoly of demand.

To put it another way: cooperativism was to serve the Russian proletariat in taking over the management of the economy… as far as it could. The consumer cooperatives strengthened it to condition agrarian production with its needs. To condition because in reality, it had no choice but to leave the sector in the hands of a peasantry bent on the development of rural capitalism and anxious to find allies in the imperialisms antagonistic to the revolution through foreign trade.

As everything in the Russian revolution, it expressed a particular equilibrium, that is to say, a conflict of interests and at the same time a mutual dependence between proletariat and peasantry. And the fact is that in Russia the revolution had not been a socialist revolution but a permanent revolution in which the workers had sacrificed their agrarian program – expressed in the collectivizing demands of day laborers and farm laborers – for that of the peasantry, defended by the SRs.

Beyond the NEP-and-Russia

Membrilla. Collectivity of day laborers during the Spanish Revolution.
Membrilla. Collectivity of day laborers during the Spanish Revolution.

However, in the vision articulated by Lenin in his article one can clearly see the line they were drawing to prepare a transitional economy and the central role they were assigning to consumer cooperativism in order to “already tread with both feet on socialist ground.”

We would have to wait for a revolution that was socialist from the very first moment, so that the sense of what at that time was the Bolshevik vision of the future would unfold. It would prove then that when in rural areas the starting point is collectivities of day laborers and workers of the countryside instead of organizations of peasant landowners, the workers’ management of agrarian production becomes also and necessarily – on pain of self-destruction – immediate action towards decommodification, in a “social revolution” that expands to the cities.

Because for the workers, once the power of the capitalist state has been destroyed, it is not a matter of managing – or “self-managing” – capitalism and its price mechanisms, but of overcoming it step by step by direct production according to needs. Needs that the workers organize consciously and collectively from those same collectivities that, in the city and the countryside, gain scale until they become the organized expression of the class as a whole, uniting consumption and production.


Follow our updates and international news on Telegram's Communia channel