Against Utopia: Marxism, Worker’s Cooperatives, and Prefigurative Politics

 Recently, social movements and projects of resistance have been characterized by the rejection of leaders and structure in favor of spontaneous uprisings against the system. From Wisconsin to Yemen, many places have been the site of mass participatory assemblies and directly democratic processes. These struggles, I want to emphasize, are valuable. They have positively transformed the lives of millions of people. I do not want to disparage them in this regard. However, these movements set a dangerous precedent. In the past, it was common sense that discipline and accountability to an organization were necessary components of victory. However, the rise of these spontaneous movements has led many to proclaim that “prefiguring” the new society is sufficient to build a new world.

When one looks at recent protests and sees hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have never been involved in politics before, doing a far better job of struggling for their rights than the political establishment, it is easy to claim that leaders are unnecessary. This is only compounded by the fact that many leaders who are supposed to struggle for the rights of the masses, such as union bosses, have been more than willing to acquiesce to the demands of the oppressors. In short, it is completely understandable why leaderless and prefigurative movements would spring up in such great numbers.

However, there is another way to understand this question. Leaderless and prefigurative movements are often touted as being models for a future society. They are taken as evidence that the people can govern themselves. I do not disagree with this statement as such. Direct democracy and mass assemblies are indeed the sorts of institutions I would like to see form the basis of the future. But in creating the model of a future society, proponents of leaderless movements have forgotten that we still live in the present. Leaderless movements might offer an attractive vision of the future, but they do not present a path to it. Creating models is not enough. The ruling class will not simply roll over and allow us to implement the kind of society we want.

The author and activist Andy Cornell defines prefigurative politics as, “the principle that activists and social-change organizations should model in their present-day lives and work the new values, institutions, and social relationships they advocate for on a broader scale, as part of their strategy for bringing about that change” [1].

Under the umbrella of prefigurative politics, therefore, can fall a broad number of different institutions and practices, including cooperative workplaces, communal houses, urban gardens, consensus decision-making and “horizontal” leadership structures.

Prefigurative politics borrows and builds upon various historical and contemporary movements—including the anarchist, pacifist, and environmentalist movements.  The arguments for prefigurative politics, therefore, are very diverse.  Some see it as a way of ensuring against the reproduction of political and social hierarchies; others as a form of propaganda, proving in practice the superiority of revolutionary politics.

Communes, co-ops, free schools, and community gardens can also offer a sort of safe haven from the abuse of capitalism.  They create spaces for people that in one way or another can resemble the possibility of seeing another world in our lifetime.  They reflect a sincere desire to overcome capitalism.

The most thorough explanation to date of “prefigurative politics” has been provided by Wini Breines, a professor of sociology and former New Left activist. For Breines, “prefigurative politics” centers on “participatory democracy,” understood as an ongoing opposition to hierarchical and centralized organization that requires a movement that develops and establishes relationships and political forms that “prefigure” the egalitarian and democratic society that it seeks to create. Breines sees prefigurative politics as integrally connected to the notion of community, by which she means a network of relationships that are more direct, more total, and more personal than the formal, abstract, and instrumental relationships that characterize contemporary state and society. These new relationships meld together the public and private spheres of life and are to be embodied in the non-capitalist and communitarian counter-institutions forged by the movement. Quite significantly, Breines counterposes “prefigurative politics” to “strategic politics,” at the center of which are “strategic thinking” and the commitment to build formal organizations to achieve major structural changes in the political, economic, and social orders [2].

I should state here that I do not believe that “survival programs” such as the free breakfast program initiated by the Black Panther Party [3], constitute prefigurative structures. While these programs did intend to work outside of capitalism, the BPP was under no illusion that they would be enough to abolish capitalism. The BPP coupled their free breakfast program with struggle sessions, self-defense classes, and mass-line work. They understood that in order to create a new society, revolutionaries must first break up the old. Free soup kitchens and the like ought to be supported by revolutionary socialists, so long as they are undertaken in conjunction with the “strategic politics” that will actually bring down capitalism.

An initial problem with prefigurative politics is, of course, that we are not already free. Prefigurative Politics is not a strategy for changing society, but a strategy for escaping it, attempting to create spaces of harmony in a society determined by struggle and conflict—again confirming the neoliberal assumption that there is no alternative to capitalism, that we must transcend it or find alternatives within it instead.

But class struggle doesn’t go away if you ignore it.  Just like gravity will pull you back to the earth, whether or not you acknowledge it—so too will the capitalists poison your rivers and food, foreclose on your home, and throw you in prison. They will do this regardless of whether or not you acknowledge they exist or organize against them.

In creating the model of a future society, proponents of prefigurative movements have forgotten that we still live in the present. Leaderless movements might offer an attractive vision of the future, but they do not present a path to it. Creating models is not enough. The ruling class will not simply roll over and allow us to implement the kind of society we want.

In fact, throughout history there have been numerous instances of the ruling class violently crushing attempts to build a new society in the here and now. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Paris Commune of 1871. Here, workers seized Paris and ran it themselves through elected assemblies, factory committees, and other such institutions. In just three short months, however, the French army unified with the Prussians to drown the Commune in blood. It is crucial to note that the French and the Prussians had been engaged in bloody battles with one another for years prior to this. Different sections of the ruling class have historically been willing to put aside their differences to destroy examples of the new society that attempted to establish themselves within the old [4].

Using the world “ought to be” as the starting point of our politics becomes a substitute, therefore, to developing a political strategy for the present.  Projects built from this perspective largely depend upon ideal circumstances with ideal people—not the world as it is: contradictory and ever changing.

Prefigurative politics urges activists to draw the means they use today from their vision of the future.  However, means suited for the ideal circumstances and ideal people of the future, are not sufficient for revolutionaries who have to live in the present.

Without the proper terrain, prefigurative projects become stillborn or corrupted as they’re planted in the hostile soil of capitalist exploitation and competition. Worker’s cooperatives, I will examine here, are a perfect example of this.The economist Richard Wolff holds that worker cooperatives are sufficient to bring about a non-capitalist society [5].

These are firms in which workers directly elect managers and have a say in the day-to-day management of production. To quote Wolff, “In each enterprise, the co-op members . . . collectively own and direct the enterprise. Through an annual general assembly the workers choose and employ a managing director and retain the power to make all the basic decisions of the enterprise” [6]. Certainly, many of these elements, such as the election of managers, are important aspects of socialism. Workplaces in the Soviet Union, for example, were generally organized along very similar principles [7]. What differentiates socialist workplaces from worker cooperatives, however, is ownership. Cooperatives are owned directly by the workers in them, whereas socialist workplaces are owned by the state-which is itself controlled by workers. In this essay, I want to argue against Wolff’s conception of cooperatives as an already-existing alternative to capitalism.

I should begin by saying that I think cooperatives are a useful tool in struggle, and they have many benefits. However, I reject the notion that they are a pathway out of capitalism in and of themselves. Marx himself praised the cooperative movement in 1864, writing,

“The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labor need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the laboring man himself; and that, like slave labor, like serf labor, hired labor is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labor plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart . . .” [8].

Marx was right in asserting that cooperatives play an important role in capitalism. They show that workers are in fact capable of managing production without the “carrot and stick” imposed upon them by the capitalist. Workers can take control of production and, by extension, of society.  Further, the fact that workers control their own immediate work, in a cooperative fashion, is itself a contribution to enhancing their well-being. It decreases their alienation from their work, and permits them to flex their intellectual as well as their physical muscles. There is cause to establish cooperatives within capitalism, but treating them as if they are themselves a road out of capitalism can only harm our movement.

Marx understood that cooperatives showed the possibility and desirability of socialism. This is still true today. Cooperatives show that it is something of a myth that people dislike labor. To prove this, I will quote a very large passage from sociologist Alfie Khon’s book Punished by Rewards. He writes,

“To study what he calls ‘flow’ experience, which consists of feeling active, challenged, and fully engaged, the psychologist Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi likes to give people beepers…to carry around with them. When they are beeped at various times during the day and evening, subjects describe what they are doing and how they are feeling. It turns out that, despite their stated that they would prefer not to be, people actually reported more flow experiences while at work than at any other time. (This was true of workers on assembly lines, too.)” He goes on to say that, “People do not heed the evidence of their senses. They disregard the quality of immediate experience, and base their motivation instead on the strongly-rooted cultural stereotype about what work is supposed to be like” [9].

What is clear from this is that people do not hate work. Rather, they despise the loss of autonomy that occurs in the workplace under capitalism. When work becomes something that you have to do in order to survive, the intrinsic value is removed from the activity. This is also shown by “a more conventional survey, in which participants were asked to rate the enjoyment they derived from over two dozen common activities” [10]. The survey found that, “The intrinsic rewards from work are, on average, higher than the intrinsic rewards from leisure” [11].

It is obvious from the research that, when one’s ability to survive is not dependent on their work, they are able to enjoy it fully. Given that this is the case under socialism, it is reasonable to say that people would actually do better work than they currently engage in.

It is also worth mentioning the research of Michael Albert, a proponent of participatory economics, who once ran an experiment wherein he determined how much he could lower the salary of a surgeon before they elected to take a much higher-paid job in a coal mine. He found that, so long as the surgeon was getting paid just enough to live on, they would stay at their current occupation. What this shows is that so long as the work itself is engaging, incentives are meaningless [12].

This is corroborated by research by none other than the Federal Reserve. They funded an experiment at MIT in which a group of students was given a set of challenges. These included things such as memorizing strings of digits, solving spacial puzzles, and throwing a ball through a hoop. The students were given a monetary reward proportional to their performance. It was found that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of money. So long as a task requires basic thinking skills, financial incentives lead to poorer performance. Incentives only work if the task is purely mechanical [13].

One other objection to the organization of work under socialism that cooperatives show to be false is as follows. If workplaces are democratized, workers will spend all their time bickering, and nothing will get done. This will result in the vast majority of people being underfed or otherwise disadvantaged. The reason capitalist workplace organization has survived for so long is because, although it might result in a loss of autonomy, it is efficient. Like the previous objection, this makes sense on a surface level. We have all seen the amount of bureaucracy and gridlock that results from supposedly democratic societies such as the United States. But, also like the previous objection, it simply doesn’t stack up to the facts.

For this reason, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a large body of research which shows that worker cooperatives can be at least as productive and successful as capitalist-owned firms [14]. “Cooperative firms do seem to produce moderately more output with a given set of inputs” concludes a study  of the US plywood industry [15]. “Cooperatives are at least as productive as conventional firms” finds research  on French firms [16].

As Brent Kramer, a senior associate at the Fiscal Policy Institute, writes,

“Using a statistical procedure that compared each EO company to its matching KO company (or companies), I found that, on average, EO companies had 8.8% greater sales per employee during the period for which I had data. Fully (100%) owned companies had better “EO advantages” than the rest on this measure, smaller firms had better sales-per-employee advantages than larger ones, and firms with greater ESOP assets per employee (effectively the average employee financial investment) also did better. These additional results tend to validate my hypothesis that it was the culture of ownership in the EO firms that led to higher “productivity” (as measured by sales per employee). I also conducted a survey of EO firm managers to try to determine which (if any) factors of worker control or influence might strengthen this indirect measure of productivity. While many proposed factors failed to show an influence, high worker influence on new products, work design, and marketing all seemed to improve the advantages that EO firms had over KO ones. While there is no way to rule out the possibility that firms that became employee-owned over the years before this study were those that were already more productive because of better employment practices, this analysis does indicate that employee ownership per se does not mean lower efficiency. Firms don’t need worker ownership to become better employers, or more efficient in their use of both material and human resources. But there is no “efficiency” reason for not moving toward more worker-ownership and control, and every reason to do so” [17].

Further, a study from the Harvard Business Review states that, “An emerging suite of literature and research—including our 2013 workplace survey—clearly points to the power of choice and autonomy to drive not only employee happiness, but also motivation and performance. We found that knowledge workers whose companies allow them to help decide when, where, and how they work were more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, performed better, and viewed their company as more innovative than competitors that didn’t offer such choices” [18].

An article published in the first issue of the Labor Relations Review (1995), states that,

“Using meta-analytic techniques, the author synthesizes the results of 43 published studies to investigate the effects on productivity of various forms of worker participation: worker participation in decision making; mandated codetermination; profit sharing; worker ownership (employee stock ownership or individual worker ownership of the firm’s assets); and collective ownership of assets (workers’ collective ownership of reserves over which they have no individual claim). He finds that…profit sharing, worker ownership, and worker participation in decision making are all positively associated with productivity. All the observed correlations are stronger among labor-managed firms (firms owned and controlled by workers) than among participatory capitalist firms (firms adopting one or more participation schemes involving employees, such as ESOPs or quality circles)” [19].

Despite these benefits, Marx did not think that cooperatives were socialism in and of themselves. Marx rejected the idea that we could get out of capitalism simply by establishing one cooperative after another. He held that the only real way out of capitalism was the complete destruction of it, rather than a gradual “changing from within.”

It should be noted that from the very beginning the co–op saw itself as providing an alternative to struggle against the system. The Mondragón cooperative-which Wolff upholds as a prime example and which we will return to later-was originally the idea of a Catholic priest named José Maria Arizmendiarrieta who regarded class struggle as destructive and who hoped to overcome it not by directly challenging the power of the exploiting capitalist class, but by creating a small corner of the economy in which class differences supposedly did not exist [20]. Cooperatives establish a form of worker’s power in a single workplace, but they leave the normal capitalist order in place elsewhere. Cooperatives on their own do not fundamentally alter the system. For this reason, a reliance on cooperatives in the socialist movement may divert energy from real anti-capitalist struggle. Marx noted this in the aforementioned speech. He also noticed that a variety of establishment figures had come to support the cooperative movement. In his words,

“[P]lausible noblemen, philanthropic middle-class spouters, and even kept political economists have all at once turned nauseously complementary to the very co-operative labor system they had vainly tried to nip in the bud by deriding it as the utopia of the dreamer, or stigmatizing it as the sacrilege of the socialist” [21].

Even fascists have sometimes praised co–ops. In the 1960s, the labor minister of Spain’s fascist dictator General Franco awarded the Gold Medal for Merit in Work to Mondragón’s Arizmendiarrieta. [22]. Decades earlier, in fascist Italy, Benito Mussolini established the National Fascist Cooperative Agency (Ente Nazionale Fascista della Cooperazione) and encouraged the expansion of cooperatives in the farming and food processing sectors as a way to downplay class differences [23].

Individual co–ops do not threaten the system and can absorb time and resources that could be used for other kinds of organizing. Yet, as Marx put it in his speech, “To save the industrious masses, cooperative labor ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means” [24]. Cooperatives can be an important starting point for establishing socialism, but they can never do so on their own. The advocacy of cooperatives by forces objectively hostile to socialism should be evidence enough of this.

Worker’s cooperatives, in addition to diverting energy from socialist organizing, are not in and of themselves powerful enough to challenge capitalism from within. Capitalism, as its name suggests, is a system organized for the perpetuation of the supremacy of capital. The economic, political, and legal systems are organized to prevent forces antagonistic to capital-such as the workers-from taking power. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, admitted as much in a 1787 debate on the constitution. He wrote:

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge the wants or feelings of the day-laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe, — when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability” [25].

In other words, wealth (“landed interests”) will be increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands through markets (“various means of trade and manufactures”).  The wealthy, therefore, would be outvoted in a democratic system and government would be overrun by the majority of working people.  To prevent the working class from attaining political power and expropriating the property and wealth of the rich (“an agrarian law”), we have to “wisely” ensure that government “protect the minority” of the rich against the majority of the poor.

What does this mean for worker’s cooperatives? In short, it means that the system is set up to discourage and crush these firms. Since worker’s cooperatives represent a kind of worker’s power, they do in some sense threaten the capitalist order. While they do not change the system as a whole, they do make workers aware of the fact that they are capable of running things by themselves, without capitalists. This, obviously, is very bad for the capitalists. Therefore, the very market mechanisms that allow capital to exercise control over labor also discourage attempts by labor to threaten capital.

In order to effectively be an alternative to capitalism, worker-managed organizations must receive support from a state that represents the interests of the working class. If this is not the case, the cooperatives will crumble under market mechanisms. Worker’s cooperatives will always be at a disadvantage under capitalism, and will therefore never be able to do away with it unaided.

German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg, in her pamphlet “Reform of Revolution,” expanded upon this idea. “Co-operatives,” wrote Luxemburg, “especially co-operatives in the field of production, constitute a hybrid form in the midst of capitalism. They can be described as small units of socialized production within capitalist exchange” [26]. The problem is that cooperatives that are established in the context of the capitalist market must compete in order to survive, and if the rate of exploitation is high among your competitors, then you must match it. Cooperatives must always “self-exploit” in order to keep up with capitalist enterprises, and thus compromise their own egalitarian ideas.

As Luxemburg put it,

“In capitalist economy exchanges dominate production. As a result of competition, the complete domination of the process of production by the interests of capital—that is, pitiless exploitation—becomes a condition for the survival of each enterprise” [27].

She continues:

“The domination of capital over the process of production expresses itself in the following ways. Labor is intensified. The workday is lengthened or shortened, according to the situation of the market. And, depending on the requirements of the market, labor is either employed or thrown back into the street. In other words, use is made of all methods that enable an enterprise to stand up against its competitors in the market” [28].

Some cooperatives find small niche markets in which to survive, but the majority will either be driven out of business or be forced to copy the practices used by other employers. In Luxemburg’s words:

“The workers forming a co-operative in the field of production are thus faced with the contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the utmost absolutism. They are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur—a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving” [29].

The history of the world’s biggest co–op, the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation in Spain, is a perfect illustration of Luxemburg’s argument. Mondragón was set up with the ideals of worker participation, solidarity and equality, but as the business has grown bigger and bigger, and become more and more integrated into global capitalism, its founding principles have applied only to a shrinking percentage of its workforce.

In 1993, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that Mondragón was restructuring to get ready to compete in the European single market. It noted that “increased salary differentials, advertising campaigns in Fortune and cooperative alliances with companies like Hotpoint have had many co–op workers wondering whether in the new Mondragón Cooperative Corporation [MCC] some members are more equal than others” [30].

By this time daily life for most Mondragón workers was not noticeably different from working for a more traditional capitalist employer, although with greater job security. Decision-making had become highly centralized, with most co–op members having no say in the company’s day-to-day operations. Perhaps not surprisingly, in a survey comparing job satisfaction of Mondragón manual workers with workers in a similarly sized privately-owned company, there was little difference between the two groups, with the Mondragón workers slightly less satisfied [31].

A few years later the Guardian reported, “MCC members have learned to think like the shareholders of any other global business. In order to protect their own jobs from fluctuations in demand, 20% of the workforce are on part-time or short-term contracts and can easily be shed.” The corporation president, Antonio Cancelo explained: “Our clients cannot guarantee us steady workloads, so we have to have a number of people on temporary contracts. We live in a market economy. That we cannot change” [32].

Meanwhile, most workers employed by Mondragón outside of the Basque region are not members of the co–op. By the late 1990s Mondragón was setting up joint ventures with capitalist firms in other parts of Spain, and operating plants employing low-wage labor in countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Thailand, and China [33].

MCC adopted an ethical code for its foreign employees and promised that their treatment would reflect the cooperative’s “core values.” But in early 2011, Mondragón was accused of employing sweatshop labor in an appliance manufacturing company it owns in Poland, where low-paid workers started a work-to-rule. According to one commentator sympathetic to Mondragón:

“The Polish struggle represents the dark underside of worker co-operation. Our movement can’t engage in the exploitation of workers even to protect other members of the co-operative or, worse, a nostalgic legacy. I don’t think that this means that Mondragón should simply accept worker demands; however, when the situation gets to the point of a work slow-down, work-to-rule, or all-out strike, it seems to me that a worker cooperative is no longer acting according to the principles of co-operatives or worker rights” [34].

MCC’s image as an egalitarian paradise suffered a further blow in November of 2013 when one of its largest components, the domestic appliances manufacturer Fagor Electrodomésticos, was forced to declare bankruptcy. Fagor had run up debts of over one billion dollars during Spain’s severe and continuing economic crisis, and the Mondragón Group General Council decided it could not risk lending the company any more money. Attempts by Fagor’s management to persuade US hedge funds to invest in the co–op also fell through.

Almost 2,000 workers lost their jobs in the Basque region and another 3,500 were laid off from Fagor factories in France, China, Poland, and Morocco. MCC’s Corporate Employment Office offered the Basque workers help with finding work, but hundreds of them occupied one of the affected plants in Edesa and workers later formed a human chain outside MCC’s main office in Mondragón [35]. Even the world’s largest cooperative has been forced to bend to the market in order to survive. It has proven incapable of challenging capitalism by itself.

In addition to the totalizing nature of market mechanisms analyzed above, worker’s cooperatives do not alter the material basis of capitalist production to the degree necessary for the establishment of socialism. They are useful for showing workers that they have power, but they do not actually allow them to exercise that power across the whole of society.

In order to explain why that is, I want to turn to the Spanish Civil War of 1936. In Spain, just before the bourgeoisie’s attack led by Franco, anarchists were leading the most important mass trade union (the CNT had more than one million members) and had a political apparatus, despite what they claim, with the Federación Anarquiste Ibérica (FAI). In a dominating position, anarchists had the organizational capacity and the possibility to lead the proletarian and peasant masses in the abolition of capitalism [36]. It was partly their reliance on decentralized worker-owned cooperatives that resulted in their defeat by fascist and capitalist forces.

Spanish anarchists believed, much like those of today, that a system of autonomous self-managed communes, with the weakest links between each other, was the alternative to capitalism. They thought that as soon as they had collectivized villages in the countryside and cooperative factories in the city, they would also have socialism.

But, as Lenin argued, “small production engenders capitalism” [37]. This is true whether the small companies are owned by a single owner or by the entire workforce.  Despite the  heroism of anarchist activists, their Spanish project failed because the material basis which gave birth to capitalism, namely social classes and the resulting inequality is compatible with cooperative production. Anarchism failed because it saw small production units, organized along cooperative principles, the solution to capitalism.

The market forces of capitalism quickly reasserted themselves within communes led by anarchists. These forces were not mainly linked to difficulties of the civil war, but by economical relationships between communes. The communes’ incapacity to overcome inequalities, as with other problems, was noticed by all serious civil war commentators, from various tendencies, and even by some leaders of the CNT [38].

This inability to overcome inequality does not mean that the communes were a failure. Some functioned well, others not. Again, despite their faults, they demonstrated that workers could continue production without bosses. But cooperatives were not enough to stave off the return of capitalism.

This was precisely because of the  worker cooperative method of ownership. In Anarchist Spain, cooperatives were owned by the workers who directly made use of them, not by a state managed by the entire proletariat. This caused workers to consider their factory as the possession of those who worked in it rather than property of the whole proletariat. While unemployment was high, workers in collectivized shops tended more often than not to proceed to improve their own working conditions through better wages and social programs than to distribute their advantages with other workers. As with agricultural communes, great disparities lasted between laboring workers and unemployed ones, between workers from better-paid strategic sectors and those from secondary sectors [39]. This does not reflect the egalitarian, cooperative values of proletarian socialism, but is rather reminiscent of the bourgeois doctrine “every man for himself.” This bares a striking resemblance to the all-too-common phenomenon of settler workers betraying immigrant workers within unions, in that both prioritize the individual over the collective [40]. Small ownership caused this mentality to flourish, which is why it was incapable of staving off the return of capitalism. Socialism, to put it succinctly, is collective ownership of the means of production. Socialism is not “collectively private” ownership of these means.

The Marxist theory of historical materialism holds that ideas are the result of the ways in which humans change the world, that is, the ways in which they engage in labor [39]. Therefore, we can conclude that the commune’s decision to look out for one’s own workplace rather than the working class as a whole is a result of fundamentally bourgeois relations of production. Cooperatives in ‘non-capitalist societies’ such as anarchist Spain, therefore, failed to prevent the inequalities of capitalism from resurfacing, because they did not sufficiently change the material basis of capitalism. Because prefigurative political projects do not change this material basis, there is nothing to ensure that capitalist dynamics will not resurface in them.

In the case of cooperatives, the actual results of the prefigurative experiments left much to be desired. In Anarchist Spain, for example, evidence of difficulties in the union-controlled economy soon came in abundance. The Republican Minister of Industry reported that by January 1937 he had received petition asking for state intervention in no less than 11,000 enterprises [41]. This is nothing less than proof of Marx’s assertion that cooperatives require a state to function on the market. Cooperatives are simply not designed to function on the market (or, more accurately, markets are designed to inhibit the functioning of cooperatives). As such, they cannot possibly represent an exit strategy from capitalism.

This method of small collective ownership, which led to inequalities, also led to a lack of independence for many workers in rural cooperatives. The poorest collectivized workplaces did not have the necessary funds to pay wages. They were forced to acquire these funds by mortgaging their workplace’s equipment, as well as their warehoused material with the bourgeois Catalan government. One by one, workplaces passed from proletarian hands to those of the bourgeoisie. Eventually, capitalism returned entirely. In this sense, the direct ownership of workplaces by those employed there meant a lack of freedom for the working class as a class. Direct ownership would seem to be more conducive to freedom than state ownership, but the case of Anarchist Spain shows this to be far from the truth.

What is missing from the strategy of establishing cooperatives is any way of achieving this bigger goal, because “the lords of the land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defense and perpetuation of their economic monopolies. So far from promoting, they will continue to lay every possible impediment in the way of the emancipation of labor” [42].

Economic democracy is an important element of of socialist society, but this can only be permanently established by adopting a strategy aimed at dismantling the power of the capitalist state and expropriating the expropriators. The working class must create its own state which can organize production for the benefit of everyone, rather than a small minority (or groups of minorities) who owns the factories, land, and so on. In other words, what is needed is  a political strategy, not one focused primarily on attempting to create alternative economic models within existing capitalist society. We must become, in a word, revolutionary.

There cannot be a one-to-one correlation between the methods, strategy, and tactics of an opposition movement and those of the socioeconomic and political system that emerges from it. The “good society” assumes an egalitarian distribution of resources and power that allows for the resolution of differences in a peaceful and democratic manner. Today’s society, on the other hand, is characterized by a vast disparity of power and resources between the rulers and their opponents, by rulers who cannot be expected to willingly accept defeat in struggles even over reforms, let alone peacefully hand over their power over society, and who will sooner or later mobilize their power to violently oppose radical social change. It is also true that the more the existing relation of forces favors the insurgents, the less likely the rulers are to put up a violent resistance. But far from this being an argument in support of pacifism or nonviolence, it reinforces the likelihood that an opposition movement will have to confront violence, including armed violence, and needs to be prepared to deal with it.

Social movements focused on emulating the future (while they may experience a momentary success, if they tap into popular anger and frustration) face similar challenges in navigating the contradictions of politics and consciousness in the present.  These movements can often become encapsulated to a small group of committed radicals as they find it hard to build a base—since most people don’t already share a commitment to a post-revolutionary vision—or as they become inward looking and aim to perfect their relations among each other first.

For many of the theoreticians of prefigurative politics, the problems presented by revolutionary politics can be avoided by simply redefining them out of existence. Questions involving the relationship between reform and revolution are simply wished away by redefining revolution as no longer involving the actual overthrow of the capitalist system through a set of discrete and relatively short-lived events. As John Holloway, the Irish social scientist teaching in Mexico, and one of the best exponents of prefigurative politics, argues in his Crack Capitalism, “the revolutionary replacement of one system by another is both impossible and undesirable,” and that the only possible way of conceiving revolution is as an interstitial process that involves the creation, expansion, and multiplication of cracks—such as the Zapatistas in the Mexican state of Chiapas [43].

“Strategic leftists” appreciate,  too, the self-organization and emancipatory potential of plant occupations and community self-rule, but at the same time underscore the limitations of these important but nevertheless defensive struggles. Occupied plants, to survive, have to function within the economic and political context of capitalist society, particularly under the pressures of a chaotically competitive system, which sooner or later forces many compromises and encroaches on worker self-management. This is why they cannot “prefigure” the future society, even as they may, at least initially, strengthen the independence and self-confidence of the workers involved in those struggles.

Similar concerns apply to the self-governed communities in Chiapas led by Marcos and the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation). While the Mexican government has decided, perhaps for the sake of political stability, to permit the continued existence of the EZLN self-governed communities in the Lacandona jungle—one of the poorest and most isolated parts of the country—these communities continue to be subject to the same powerful pressures of capitalism. As the veteran Latin American leftist Guillermo Almeyra points out, they are still immersed in the market, forced to sell their labor for most of the year, to buy tools, fertilizers, and agricultural products unavailable in the Zapatista zones, to sell or exchange their products in town markets outside of their own region, and even to turn to the official health and education systems [44].

For Holloway, however, these movements are the “cracks” whose growth will bring the revolution. Thus, revolution for him is a question of movement, of direction, but not a break. As he puts it, “Movement is what matters. The possibility of the cracks is in their moving,”  [45]. echoing the outlook of Edward Bernstein and the evolutionism of classical social democracy except, of course, that Holloway clearly advocates an evolutionism of struggle, while the “revisionist” wing of classical social democracy placed a great deal of emphasis on the inevitable development of an electoral political majority that would take over the state and eventually introduce socialism [46].

Paradoxical as it may sound, Holloway’s notion of revolution as evolution through struggle is also central to the thought of revolutionary anarchists like anthropologist David Graeber. If, on one hand, Graeber takes a self-styled radical stance supporting the notion of “diversity of tactics” that entitles small minorities of activists to break windows and engage in other similar “trashing” activities. even against the express wishes of the sponsors and the great majority of participants in demonstrations, on the other hand, like Holloway, he rejects the notion of a “clean break,” that is, a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. That is what he does when he speculates on what might have happened had the Spanish anarchists won in 1937. “Spain,” he writes,

would have ended in a situation similar to Chiapas with a stalemate between Anarchist and anti-Anarchist factions that would have tilted in favor of the Anarchists only after a protracted, long lasting, and arduous effort to win over their [statists’] children, which could be accomplished by creating an obviously freer, more pleasurable, more beautiful, secure, relaxed, fulfilling life in the stateless sections [47].

By redefining revolution as nothing more than a progressive increase of “cracks” in society, Holloway’s prefigurative politics negates the centrality of the state, and state power as key to the process. As he himself put it in an earlier work, we “can change the world without taking power” [48]. By negating state power, Holloway is able to avoid the realities of power. For example, the fact that the state will tolerate “cracks” only up to the point when they threaten its power and the power of capitalism. For Holloway this problem simply does not exist. The very examples that he chooses to illustrate his vision are very revealing: the Zapatista movement and its self-governing community in the Lacandonian jungle; a social center in Edinburgh, Scotland; or going to an all-night rave in Berlin. The very fact that he creates the impression that they all embody the same revolutionary potential gives away his lack of regard for power. This lack of regard is evident even when only taking into account his example of the Zapatista communities in Chiapas. To the extent that they pose—or have posed—a threat to the Mexican state, they could conceivably be seen as part of a dynamic analogous to what in classical Marxism is known as “dual power”: the dichotomy, in revolutionary situations in modern capitalist nation-states, between competing centers of revolutionary struggle on one hand, and on the other ruling-class power [49].

For Holloway, and also for Graeber, who also looks at the Zapatistas as a model to be applied everywhere, including civil-war Spain of the 1930s, this state of “dual power” could go on indefinitely, with the Zapatistas being able to survive in their communities and serve as an example to be cumulatively reproduced elsewhere. He sidesteps, however, the fact that the Zapatista communities survive so long as the Mexican state is willing to live, for conjunctural political reasons, with pockets of power outside its control in what are, from the state’s point of view, areas of marginal political and economic importance. But even if the Zapatistas became a real threat to the Mexican state, the dynamics of dual power that this would generate could not last long, if only because it would severely impact the predictability and security that modern capitalism requires to function. This necessarily leads to considerations of repression, response to repression, and so on, that Holloway wishes away [50].

This is a very similar problem to the one that the Utopian socialists faced several hundred years ago. Like Holloway, these activists tended to lionize the spontaneous struggles of the masses and downplay-or argue against-the need for revolution. They failed the key motor force in historical development-the struggle of social classes to organize and reorganize the economy.

Between 1825 and 1830, groups of urban workers made their first concerted attempt to escape deteriorating conditions in the cities by acquiring land and setting up cooperative communities based primarily on agriculture. Many urban wage-earners had the goal of becoming farmers, but the skyrocketing price of land was making it harder and harder to realize that dream. This development mirrored the skyrocketing cost of means of production and farming equipment, making it even more difficult to opt out of the existing society [51].

Cornelius Blatchley first popularized the ideas of the cooperative movement in his essay On Common Wealth, published in 1822. He advocated the formation of peer communities, in which collective good and cooperation would replace selfishness and competition [52].

Blatchley essay was influenced by the ideas of utopian socialist Robert Owen, whom he had been in contact with. In Owen’s A New View of Society, published in 1813, he originated the idea that the capitalist system could be transcended by the formation of ever greater numbers of cooperative communities. Like advocates of prefigurative politics, the utopians wished to ignore the capitalists rather than challenge them directly. All the unemployed could settle in these communities, as well as former workers who wanted their freedom. They would then produce for each other’s needs and for exchange with the outside world. These cooperative villages would grow and federate “in circles of tens, hundreds, and thousands,” eventually transforming the whole of society. From inside the shell of the old, immoral world, a new moral world would arise, characterized by perfect freedom and equality [53].

Owen did not see this project as one with a class character. He thought that he could simply convince the capitalists to join in their new society and avoid struggle altogether. As with worker’s cooperatives, the ultimate aim of Owen’s free communities was not to end class conflict by abolishing classes, but to ignore class conflict entirely through peaceful means. This was reflected when Owen established the “Association of All Classes of All Nations” to bring the new society about [54].

Blatchley soon convinced Owen that America was the most fertile ground for building socialism. Owen set sail for America soon after to build a colony called New Harmony in Indiana. In explaining his reasoning, Owen wrote that America had “open land and a free society in the making.” But American freedom was not what the utopians made it out to be. Freedom in the United States meant not only freedom of the colonizers to genocide natives, and freedom of the southern aristocrats to enslave Africans, but also freedom for the Northern capitalists to build a society in their own image: one based on extreme class differences [55].

Owen, Blatchley, and their communalist followers would soon find out that it was these capitalists who would emerge victorious.

In the Spring of 1825, New Harmony opened its doors to all who shared their vision of a cooperative society. Soon, over 900 mostly urban working people had crowded in. The community thrived for a year. Members worked in a cooperative system, with each person responsible for settling communal debts with work credits on an annual basis. No money was exchanged. New Harmony, along with Owen’s theories, received wide enough publicity and showed enough success as to inspire the founding of other cooperative communities across the United States, particularly in the United States [56].

Owen soon offered a plan for a “community of equals,” a commune in which each member would receive according to need rather than labor performed. Despite the community’s enthusiasm for this project, it met with disaster [57].

The 900 inhabitants of New Harmony included a wide range of people from varying class backgrounds: workers and their families, middle class intellectuals, and impoverished vagrants. The transition to commune resulted in factions and feuds between people of differing classes, with different class interests. The community split into at least five groups, each forming an independent community on different parts of the land [58]. Without New Harmony as its center, the movement lost direction and eventually dissipated. Class differences and ideologies from the old society still persist in the new. Without a commitment to smashing the material basis of these ideologies, they will return. The process of the Spanish Revolution ironically prefigured itself in New Harmony and other communes.

Most urban workers found that moving to the countryside did not solve their economic problems. Capitalists, bankers, and land speculators squeezed out land all around the country. It was becoming increasingly difficult for people who had known farming all their lives to make a living, let alone former factory workers. The experience of the early utopian socialists should teach us that social transformation has to be based on more than a better model or a good idea. Ultimately, the project of building a new society in the shell of the old was unsuccessful because the utopians failed to fully understand, much less combat, the real power of the capitalist class [59].

Prefigurative politics does not offer a path out of the existing society. It simply wishes it away. Putting our hopes in this idealist conception of history can only spell death for our movement.


  2. Wini Breines, The Great Refusal: Community and Organization in the New Left: 1962-1968 (New York: Praeger, 1982), 6-7
  3. Judson Jefferies, On the Ground: The Black Panther Party in Communities across America (University Press of Mississippi, 2010); David Hilliard, The Black Panther Party: Service to the People Programs (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2008).
  4. Vladimir Lenin, “Lessons of the Commune.” Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1972, Moscow, Volume 13, pages 475-478.
  5. “Yes, there is an alternative to capitalism: Mondragon shows the way,” The Guardian, Sunday, 24 June 2012 (…).
  6. Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It, 2nd ed. (Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2013).
  7. See my blog post “Socialism and Democracy in the USSR”
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  20. Kasmir, The Myth of Mondragón, p. 86
  21. Op. Cit.
  22. Vera Zamagn, “Italy’s cooperatives from marginality to success,” paper presented at XIV International Economic History Congress, Helsinki, Finland, August 2006 (…).
  23. Ibid.
  24. Op. Cit.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Andy Robinson, “Co–ops face an unequal fight,” January 2, 1993.
  31. Sharryn Kasmir, The Myth of Mondragón: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working Class Life in a Basque Town (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996), chapters 5 and 6. See especially pp.162–4.
  32. Giles Tremlett, “Basque co-op protects itself with buffer of foreign workers,” October 23, 2001 (…).
  33. John McNamara, “Contradictions in Paradise: When the Workers Become Bosses,” January 31, 2011,….
  34. “Trouble in workers’ paradise,” The Economist, November 9, 2013 (…); Andrew Bibby, “Workers occupy plant as Spanish co-operative goes under,” The Guardian, November 15, 2013 (
  35. Christopher Bjork, “Recession Frays Ties at Spain’s Co-ops,” Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2013 (…).
  36. Pierre Broué and Émile Témime, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain, London: Faber & Faver Limited, 1972.
  38. Joseph Green, “Anarchism and the marketplace”, in Communist Voice, No. 4, Sept. 15, 1996.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Jacobson, Robin and Geron, Kim (2008)’Unions and the Politics of Immigration’,Socialism and Democracy,22:3,105—122, Page 112
  41. See my blog post, “Marxist Dialectical and Historical Materialism.”
  42. Juan Peiró, De la fábrica de vidrio de Mataro al Ministerio de Industria – Valencia 1937
  43. Op. Cit.
  44. Raúl Zibechi, ‘Sobre la “forma superior de lucha.”’ Rebelíon, November 30, 2013.
  45. John Holloway, Crack Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2010), 11.
  46. Guillermo Almeyra, “Los vaivenes de los movimientos sociales en México,” Colección CLACSO. Textos Completos. OSAL – Observatorio Social de América Latina, Año IX, No. 24, octubre de 2008, 92.…
  47. John Holloway, Crack Capitalism, 72. Holloway’s emphasis.
  48. David Graeber, Revolutions in Reverse. Essays in Politics, Violence, Art and Imagination (London: Minor Compositions, 2011),
  49. Pitzer, Donald (2012). New Harmony Then and Now. Quarry Books. p. 50. Donald E. Pitzer, “The Original Boatload of Knowledge Down the Ohio River.” Reprint. Ohio Journal of Science 89, no. 5 (December 1989): 128–42.
  50. Wilson, William (1964). The Angel and the Serpent. Binghamton, N.Y.: Vail-Ballou Press, Inc. pp. 102–103.
  51. William E. Wilson, The Angel and the Serpent: The Story of New Harmony (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1967, 2nd ed.), p. 105, 110, 116.
  52.  Wilson, p. 116.
  53. Joel Hiatt, ed., “Diary of William Owen: From November 10, 1824, to April 20, 1825” Indiana Historical Society Publications 4, no. 1 (1906): 130.
  54. Carmony and Elliott, p. 168. Op. Cit.
  55. Wilson, p. 122. Op. Cit.


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