5 October 2009


[CU for Tuesday, 6 October 2009]

The Communist University is back in full force. On Sunday, in the name of the CU, the SACP UJ Branch and the SACP Johannesburg Central Branch, 32 people from a number of different formations gathered in a proper university lecture theatre to engage with the discussion document for the forthcoming SACP Special National Congress. This was the first CU contact session since mid-2008. We had a high-quality debate.

The next session will take place on Sunday 25 October 2009 in the same venue at the same time. We will continue with our programme of pre-Congress discussions.

A difficulty with the current series (provisionally called “Urban, Rural, Local, Provincial, Development”) is that we do not as yet have the discussion documents on industrial and rural development, and on local and provisional government, that are due to be published in preparation for the same SACP Special National Congress (that is to take place in December, 2009).

Therefore we are working to a temporary framework for considering these questions. We have followed the scheme announced in the first part of the series. We began with Engels’ “Condition of the working-class in England” and “Housing Question” and followed that with some urban and rural theoretical material of a mainly petty-bourgeois and peasant nature.

Then we said we would return to some of Lenin’s writings. We will do so in two parts. One (today) will take the question of Co-operatives, before and after the proletarian revolution. The other will look at the Soviet Union’s New Economic Policy (NEP), which was a broader dispensation, covering the entirety of relations with peasantry and petty-bourgeoisie, whether organised as co-ops, or not; followed by some newer material on development, and underdevelopment.

After that we will look for material on large-scale planning.

The classic literature on co-operatives divides into two parts, characterised first by Marx’s, Engels’ and Lenin’s disdain for co-ops under the bourgeois dictatorship, and second by Lenin’s embracing of co-ops as the sufficient and necessary means, under proletarian rule, of uniting the town and the country and effecting a transition, for the proletarian and non-proletarian masses together, into socialism.

This poses theoretical problems for South Africans. We cannot just ignore what the classics say about co-ops under capitalism, not because they are “classics”, but because the arguments are strong. We also cannot pretend that ours is not still a bourgeois state. Yet we appear to need the opportunity, that co-ops provide, of socialising fragmented and incomplete individual efforts, or in other words of organising the unorganised peasantry, petty-bourgeoisie, and more generally, those whom capitalism has failed to employ.

The main item today is Lenin’s “On Co-operation”, a short but very rich and extraordinary document written in January 1923, almost exactly a year before Great Lenin died. Before coming to it, let us first look at some of what Karl Marx said about co-operatives, 48 previously, in “The Critique of the Gotha Programme”. Most of it is scathing. The best Marx can manage to say is:

“That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale, in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid. But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not protégés either of the governments or of the bourgeois.”

Prior to the above he remarks:

“Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?”

The co-operation that is patronised by the state, as well as state distribution (i.e. what we now call “delivery”) is “vulgar socialism”, says Marx.

Lenin, writing in post-revolutionary conditions, briefly acknowledges the criticism that had been heaped upon co-ops under the bourgeois dictatorship: “There is a lot of fantasy in the dreams of the old co-operators. Often they are ridiculously fantastic,” says Lenin. Following which he proceeds to place an extremely high value on co-operatives, as almost the most important component of the advance to full socialism.

We can note that in this article, Lenin anticipates at least one or two decades of further life of the New Economic Policy (NEP). What actually happened was that within about four years after Lenin’s death the NEP had been reversed and the policy of the Soviet Union had become one of large-scale five-year plans, only. The centralisation of the economy, started under Lenin as a complement to the NEP, had in effect become treated as an either/or mutually exclusive alternative to it. Is this a necessary contradiction? Surely, our Special National Congress will be seeking to find ways both of popular organisation, and of planning at the national level, at the same time.

This whole article of Lenin’s on co-operation could be treated as a keynote text for our Special National Congress. It ranges more widely than simply on co-ops as such. Particularly interesting are the concluding paragraphs of Part 2 of the document, where Leinin refers to a “cultural revolution”. In the penultimate paragraph of Part1, Lenin had written:

“By ability to be a trader I mean the ability to be a cultured trader. Let those Russians, or peasants, who imagine that since they trade they are good traders, get that well into their heads. This does not follow that all. They do trade, but that is far from being cultured traders. They now trade in an Asiatic manner, but to be a good trader one must trade in the European manner. They are a whole epoch behind in that.”

The difference that Lenin refers to as between “Asiatic” and “European” trading is the difference between production for sale without having secured a market, and on the other hand, production for a known market, or for a previously-identified demand.

The third linked item today is a short article of Professor Michael Morris published in 1996 in the Business Day, which debunked a number of misconceptions about so-called “entrepreneurship”. Morris wrote, among other things, that: “The entrepreneurial individual recognises a trend, a possibility, an unmet demand. He or she comes up with a concept for capitalising on the trend or demand and does so while the window of opportunity is open.”

This is precisely the same point as Lenin is making. Lenin knew that the setting up of producer co-operatives without attention to their markets would be a disastrous waste.

The Chinese delegation that visited South Africa last month said that the Chinese peasants are guaranteed a market by the state, at the same price that private buyers are prepared to pay.

The Special National Congress will have to pay attention, perhaps above all, to the question of the market for peasant, petty-bourgeois, and co-operative production, and also to the subjective, exhortative, educational contribution, which is so clear in Lenin’s approach and which he explicitly recommends. Even if it may not be a matter of the state setting up co-ops (which could degenerate into inefficient state-run small enterprises), yet it is always going to be a matter of educating, organising, and mobilising.

In the next part, we will look more closely at the NEP as such.

Click on these links:

On Co-operation, Lenin (2611 words)

Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx (8317 words)

Dismissing Myths and Misunderstandings of Entrepreneurship, Morris (1170 words)


Post a Comment

Post a Comment