In reflecting on Cliff DuRand’s support of cooperatives in Cuba (see “Cooperatives and social change in Cuba” 8/7/2015), it seemed to me that DuRand’s view reflects a subtle form of utopian socialism. In formulating historical materialism, Marx endeavored to place socialist thought on a scientific foundation. He envisioned a transition to socialism on the basis of empirical observation of possibilities contained in existing economic and political conditions. After Marx, socialist thought could move beyond a utopian and idealist vision for humanity and project a real possibility through the practical resolution of contradictions in the existing political-economic system. But DuRand, in advocating the expansion of cooperatives and the reduction of state property and small-scale private party, is advocating a direction for the future of the socialist project on the basis of idealist conceptions and not on the basis of real challenges and possibilities in Cuba.
To be sure, cooperatives are a part of the Cuban socialist project, developed in agriculture in the 1960s, expanded in the agricultural sector in the 1990s, and expanded to non-agricultural sectors in the new economic and social model of 2012. But DuRand’s idealist view of cooperatives causes him to exaggerate the role of the cooperatives in the new social and economic model, and to misinterpret the evolution of the Cuban revolutionary project from 1959 to the present. In my last post, I attempted to describe the new social and economic model in a form that is more consistent with the constantly evolving Cuban empirical social reality (“Cooperatives and social change in Cuba” 8/7/2015).
Utopian socialism has a long history in the United States. During the nineteenth century, concentration of ownership of the means of production led to growing popular awareness that that the US economic system functioned for the benefit of the few and ignored the welfare of the people. In this economic and ideological context, Robert Owen, a Welsh factory owner, and Charles Fourier, a French entrepreneur, proposed the development of cooperative communities, which would remove ownership and control from a handful of capitalists. They and their followers in the United States believed that capitalists could be persuaded to invest in cooperative communities, since it was the best way to avoid a revolution from below stimulated by the working class (Foner 1975:170-72).
Robert Owen came to the United States in 1825. He addressed the House of Representatives on two occasions, which included the attendance of the president, the president-elect, and heads of departments. His frequent addresses across the nation were fully reported in the US press. From 1825 to 1827, nineteen Owenite communities were established in New York, Ohio and Indiana (Foner 1975: 173).
Fourier’s ideas also had significant influence in the United States. His greatest disciple in the United States, Albert Brisbane, disseminated his ideas in various books and articles and in the columns of the New York Tribune, founded by Horace Greeley, in the early 1840s. Fourierism had thousands of adherents, and forty Fourierist communities was established across the nation. The most famous of them, Brook Farm, counted among its associates the intellectual giants of the time, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne (Foner 1975:174-77).
The Owenite and Fourierist communities failed. Their principle problem was the inability to attract sufficient capital for investment (Foner 1975:173, 177-78). During the 1840s and 1850s, in spite of the practical failure of their project, the utopian advocates of cooperative communities had significant influence in the working class movement. Utopians were opposed to the reform of capitalism, and thus they were against the strategy of striking to increase wages and reduce labor hours, even when this was understood as integral to a long-term transition to socialism. They tried to convince workers that anything less than the total and immediate abolition of capitalism would have no positive effect. Middle class reformers often entered the working class organizations and took control of them, undermining political and social action in defense of workers’ needs (Foner 1975:188-90, 206, 211).
But middle class utopianism was on the decline, unable to deliver on its promises, as a result of the refusal of the capitalist class to cooperate in its vision. At the same time, producers’ cooperatives, formed from below by workers, were economically impossible, as a result of the ruthless competition practiced by the largest capitalist enterprises, as we will see in the next post.
But another approach was emerging. During the 1840s, a permanent class of factory workers began to develop. Permanent factory workers began to forge a movement that sought to bring the advances of industrialization to workers through political and economic struggle and united action. Against the utopians, they understood that the interests of capitalists and workers were in conflict, and that the organization by workers was necessary for the attainment of a better life.
The working class organizations formed by workers, seeking improvement in conditions through the strike, was a force that, distinct from cooperative communities, could not be ignored; and distinct from workers’ cooperatives, could not be defeated and eliminated. During the course of more than a century, the factory owners were compelled to make reformist concessions to this force from below, which, however, preserved the essence of the capitalist system.
We can understand today that the reformist concessions in the United States and other core nations were made possible by the superexploitation of vast regions of the planet, which would become politically unsustainable by the 1960s. And they were in part financed by government deficit spending, which reached its limits during the 1970s. Thus the reform of the capitalist system in response to the demands of organized workers ultimately would not be a sustainable resolution of the contradictions of the capitalist world-economy.
That US capitalists would not support a transition from concentrated private ownership to cooperative communities could not be known in the 1840s. It could be imagined as a reasonable option, emerging as a resolution of the contradictions of the capitalist system, which generates a permanent class war. But during the second half of the nineteenth century, in the era of the Robber Barons, the capitalist class demonstrated that it was prepared to use all methods, legal or not, peaceful or not, in its quest to stabilize a high margin of profits, even at the expense of the good of the nation in the long run. And since 1980, the capitalist class has demonstrated that it is prepared to put the survival of humanity at risk in the aggressive pursuit of short-term profits. So at the present time, it would be idealist and utopian to believe that the capitalist class would possibly cooperate in the development of a more just and democratic world-system. We can only conclude that the capitalist class must be dislodged from political power by popular movement, if political stability in the world-system is to be attained and the survival of humanity ensured.
Although utopianism and cooperatives demonstrated their lack of viability in the nineteenth century, they continued to survive in the form of idealist hopes of the people. They were manifest in the hippie communal movement of the late 1960s and in the localism of the Occupy Movement today. We must, however, follow the example of Marx. We must seek to overcome the temptations of utopianism and to be scientific in our understanding, basing our projections on real possibilities. The example of Cuba is instructive in this regard. In Cuba, the popular revolution first took control of the state, and then proceeded to develop cooperatives along with other forms of property, both private and state, in accordance with real needs and possibilities, as we will discuss in the next post. Rather that supporting cooperatives in Cuba as against the other forms of property developed by the Cuban Revolution, we should follow the example of Cuba: we should form in our own nation a popular movement that seeks to take power and to subsequently develop forms of property that are real possibilities and that respond to the material and cultural needs of our people.
Foner, Philip S. 1975. History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume I: From Colonial Times to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor. New York: International Publishers.