Bernard E. Harcourt | Thoughts on Marx, Balibar, and Cooperation

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“The cooperative factories run by workers themselves are, within the old form, the first examples of the emergence of a new form, even though they naturally reproduce in all cases, in their present organization, all the defects of the existing system, and must reproduce them.”

     — Marx, Capital Volume III, Chapter 27.

Where Marx went wrong, in my opinion, was to argue simultaneously (1) that worker cooperatives are inherently defective because they draw on the same logics of profit as capitalism does, but (2) that these same forms of cooperation are a necessary step toward communism. That is deeply counterproductive because it does not make anyone feel good about participating in a worker cooperative.

If in fact worker cooperatives are a step toward Marxian communism, then critical philosophers would need to emphasize their benefits, not just their drawbacks. They should not primarily disparage them, the way that Marx did. That would be strategically undermining. It would mean that none of the people who follow Marx’s logic in Capital would feel passionate about cooperative forms of “co-operation” in a way that would inspire them to act.

And the problem is not just the writings of Marx. There are constant Marxist critiques of worker cooperatives as undermining class struggle. So for instance, there is a constant refrain of criticisms of the Mondragon cooperatives, from a Marxist perspective, because those worker cooperatives supposedly turn workers into petty bourgeois. You hear it loud and clear in Sharryn Kasmir’s book, The Myth of Mondragón, which she concludes in the following terms: “In evaluating the cooperative system, we should, therefore, think in ideological terms, including imagining what it would be like if workers were active in larger political movements and if, in this age of flexible accumulation, we could build organizations that truly transferred power to workers and genuinely created more just workplaces.”[1] You hear it as well in the short foreword to the book by the late CUNY anthropologist June C. Nash, who underscores that “the very ideological stance of the cooperatives as harmoniously integrated worker-management teams mitigates the expression of antagonism based on structural opposition that persists in these settings.”[2] What they are saying is that worker cooperatives undermine class conflict.

Now, you can’t have it both ways: either cooperatives are a necessary step toward a classless society or they prevent it. In effect, Marx and some Marxists are so focused on the eschatological endpoint of the classless society that they make it virtually impossible to get there on their own logic. I believe that is what Lenin understood, finally, in 1923, when he wrote the two essays On Cooperation.

In my book Cooperation: A Political, Economic, and Social Theory, I left open this question. I specifically wrote, on page 176:

there is no need to speculate over a future beyond coöperism. I do not believe in the end of history. I suspect that, once coöperism is established, there will be new questions to ask and problems to solve. Who knows where that will take us? It would be such a radically different experience to live in a more just world built on coöperism that we can leave what comes after to a later time. There is no final stage for a just society; it is always in construction. We first need to experience robust coöperism; there is no point speculating what will come after.[3]

In a footnote placed there, I added that Lenin and Nyerere were better models for us, implying that it was because they embraced cooperation less grudgingly and therefore more inspiringly.[4] I still think this is the right approach to take.

An internal (not immanent) critique of Marx

From start to finish, Marx disparaged worker cooperatives as having conservative tendencies.

In his critique of utopian socialism in the Communist Manifesto with Engels, Marx belittled the icariasand socialist colonies, writing of the utopian socialists that “they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social Gospel.” (Tucker edition, p. 498) He ridiculed those efforts as “castles in the air.” (Tucker edition, p. 499)

I’ve already discussed the unpublished manuscript that Engels included in Capital, Vol. III at Chapter 27, written in the mid-1860s, and that Balibar discusses here.

And in his last writings, The Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), Marx also disparages the Lassallean platform that included the establishment of co-operative societies. He refers to the “reactionary workers of the Atelier” and to the proposal as “taking, in general, a retrograde step from the standpoint of a class movement to that of a sectarian movement.” (ed. Tucker, p. 536)

At the same time, Marx treated cooperatives as a necessary stage of historical development. As Marx wrote in Volume I, in speaking of the “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation,” “other developments take place on an ever-increasing scale, such as the growth of the co-operative form of the labour process… [and] the transformation of the means of labour into forms in which they can only be used in common…”[5] In other words, workshops and worker cooperatives are a stage of historical development.

This presents a tension between a retrograde yet necessary step in the development toward Marx’s goal of a communist society. It’s not as if it was a question of reform versus abolition, or reform versus revolution: it is not the case that a reform toward cooperatives would sap the energy of abolition or revolution, or undermine the possibility, if in fact it is a necessary step. For Marx, it was a necessary step. These were stages of economic development. So cooperatives were not in competition, they were in succession. But you cannot have succession if there is no reproduction. If the critique is too searing, if the next stage seems so disgustingly caught in the old logics of capitalism, no one is going to want to go there. There will be no next stage, and no progression. So instead of disparaging cooperation, Marx should have gone at length to show its appeal.

My position

I argue for coöperism, first, because of the extraordinary potential of expanding egalitarian democratic self-governance and sustainability to every aspect of our lives—work, housing, consumption, production, financial, insurance, etc. It is hard to overstate how generative it would be to seize decision making and place it in our collective hands in an equal democratic fashion. That’s the objective of the whole book.

I also argue, second, that cooperation is the only viable way out of our political predicament today. In the face of the multiple crises that menace us, there is no electoral path forward in the United States and the only revolutionaries are on the extreme right. (Note that since writing the book, the situation has only gotten worse with the complete dysfunctionality of the Republican-held House of Representatives; and even if someone were to dream that the dysfunctionality there would lead to a Democratic wave in 2024, just keep in mind that (1) there is still a filibuster in the Senate that would prevent any positive legislation, (2) there is still a supermajority conservative Supreme Court that will prevent any positive regulations; and (3) we are talking about a Biden administration which seems eager to wage war on Putin and Hamas, but not on the crises we face (global warming, social injustice, etc.)).

At this time, I still believe that we need to promote cooperation rather than disparage it for its potential weaknesses.

As for what happens after coöperism, I remain agnostic, although I am increasingly drawn toward forms of anarchism. In the book, I argue that coöperism itself does not do away with the state—that there remains the need for mechanisms of dispute resolution that cannot avoid some kind of decisional supremacy (although I argue it should be a council of cooperators in the place of traditional supreme courts or legislatures). I often speak about coöperism as being “bottom up” by contrast to the different forms of state dirigisme that characterize capitalist or socialist countries.

But I am starting to not like the idea of “bottom up,” as if it is constructing an “up” of the state from the bottom. Perhaps we should just say “bottom down” instead! Maybe it should proceed from the bottom (us, the ordinary ones) down toward a future of statelessness.

Regardless, I remain convinced that the task now is simply to achieve coöperism and not to look beyond it. The future would look so different if we were there. It would be impossible today to imagine what comes next.

Framing Coöperism 5/13

I would like to frame our discussion this way so that we have a defined object to discuss.

This session of Coöperism 13/13, then, presents a very specific question—one that I purposefully left open in Cooperation. The question can be phrased in a few different ways:

  • Is the model of coöperism an end in itself or a means toward a more utopian endpoint?
  • Can we make a strong argument for coöperism if we highlight especially its deficiencies?
  • Should the praxis of cooperation precede the critique of coöperism, or vice versa, in which case can the praxis of coöperism emerge after its critique?

Welcome to Coöperism 5/13!


[1] Sharryn Kasmir, The Myth of Mondragón: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 200.

[2] June C. Nash, foreword to The Myth of Mondragón: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. ix.

[3] Harcourt, Cooperation, p. 176.

[4] Harcourt, Cooperation, p. 248 n.27 (“In this sense, Lenin’s writings at the end of his life offer better guidance, as do the economic writings and initiatives of Julius Nyerere. See Vladimir Lenin, “On Cooperation,” Pravda, no. 115–116, May 26–27, 1923 (written January 4–6, 1923), reproduced in Vladimir Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 33, 2nd English ed. (Moscow: Progress, 1965), 467–475,; Julius Nyerere, “The Arusha Declaration” (written for the Tanganyika African National Union), February 5, 1967,”)

[5] Karl Marx, Capital, vol I, trad. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1977), part 8, chap. 32, p. 929.