22 July 2009

Class, Colonialism and Co-ops

This post deals with the very last chapter of Karl Marx's Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 33, called "Colonialism", which is included in the 24th part from our CU 24-part divided version (the link to part 24 is below).

Chapter 33 is very interesting but in spite of its title, it is not really about colonialism (although David Harvey seems to think that it is). Instead, Marx uses the example of part of one colony of the time, Australia, to make points about capitalism and to “discover in the Colonies the truth as to the conditions of capitalist production in the mother country”. Also see the very last paragraph of the chapter (and the book).

A full study of colonialism would have to isolate the competing kinds, and show the development of the colonial system as a unity and struggle of opposites. These various kinds of colonialism would include the formerly slave-plantation colonies (e.g. the West Indies, Brazil, Southern USA), the genocidal colonies that subsequently imported a proletariat from Europe (e.g. Northern USA, Australia, Argentina, Israel), and the colonies or semi-colonies that proletarianised the existing population (e.g. South Africa, India, China). The history of these different developments is the history of the world of today; but this is not Marx’s concern in Capital, Volume 1.

Nevertheless, the crux of the matter in all these different historical cases is well illustrated by the story of Mr Peel, who, Marx reports, took means of subsistence and of production to the amount of £50,000, and 3000 working-class men, women and children, to Swan River in Australia, only to have the workers disappear and his goods go to waste. Why? Because these workers found means of production (land) of their own and thereby ceased overnight to be proletarians, ceased for that reason to sell their labour-power to Peel, and thereby ceased to maintain Mr Peel’s property as capital.

“...capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons, established by the instrumentality of things,” says Marx.


If capital is not a thing, but a relation, then how is this relation negotiated within a co-operative, under capitalism? The relation is a triple one between the co-op and its workers, the co-op and its investors, and the co-op and its market. As between wages, dividends, and the prices of products, there is a “zero-sum game” whereby a benefit for one is a loss for one or both of the other two. This relationship cannot be freely negotiated within the co-op, because in a capitalist society, all three of these variables are subject to market competition, while the cost of material inputs (raw materials, energy, et cetera) is also determined in the capitalist market-place.

Karl Marx shows how capital must strive ruthlessly to become the “only game in town”. The revolutionary conditions that can allow other kinds of relations of production to exist and thrive, without being blighted by the capitalist relations all around them, are what Lenin discusses in the two documents linked below.

Lenin thought that the “old co-operators” who had existed in pre-revolutionary Russia were “fantastic, even romantic, even banal” (On Co-operation). Those old co-operators thought that sweet reason and humanity would be sufficient to conquer all of the difficulties faced by the co-operatives. But under socialism, the previously ineffectual co-ops became suddenly very useful, although: “The small commodity producers’ co-operatives inevitably give rise to petty-bourgeois, capitalist relations, facilitate their development, push the small capitalists into the foreground and benefit them most… It would be stupid or criminal to close our eyes to this obvious truth…”

Yet: “Co-operative trade… facilitates the association and organisation of millions of people, and eventually of the entire population.” (The Tax in Kind, about half-way through).

The way forward from capitalism is difficult. “The Tax in Kind” was a pamphlet about the New Economic Policy. The way forward from capitalism requires maximum clarity and the absence of delusions about what capital is.

Click on these links:

CU Backbone posting:

1867, Marx, Capital, Volume 1, 31, 32 and 33, Industrial Capitalism, Colonialism (8265 words)

CU additional posting:

1923, Lenin, On Co-operation (2611 words)

1921, Lenin, The Tax in Kind (14719 words)


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