Cooperatives can be useful for a revolutionary movement, but only if they serve as an economic base for the movement, rather than an end in themselves. A good example of this type of application is the way the Black Panthers used cooperatives to bolster their movement.
Cooperatives have long been seen as a controversial institution in radical spaces. Some see cooperatives as the best way for workers to “own the means of production”; others see them merely as a way for workers to take up the burden of exploitation onto their own shoulders, a strategy which does nothing to address the general framework of capitalism and its dehumanizing and exploitative tendencies.
I myself fall into the latter camp; but the fact that cooperatives, by themselves, do not constitute a revolutionary space does not mean that we should reject cooperatives entirely. I would argue that they can be an important method by which revolutionary organizations can accumulate the resources necessary to expand, agitate, defend radical spaces and revolutionary projects.
From Huey P. Newton’s “On the Relevance of the Church (1971)“:
The Black Panther Party, with its survival programs, plans to develop the institutions in the community. We have a clothing factory we are just erecting on Third Street, where we will soon give away about three hundred to four hundred new articles of clothing each month. And we can do this by robbing Peter to pay Paul. What we will do is start to make golfing bags under contract to a company, and with the surplus we will buy material to make free clothes. Our members will do this. We will have no overhead because of our collective (we’ll “exploit” our collective by making them work free). We will do this not just to satisfy ourselves, like the philanthropist, or to serve, or to save someone from going without shoes, even though this is part of the cause of our problem, but to help the people make the revolution. We will give the process a forward thrust.
It might be shocking to some that the Black Panthers worked for corporations; I was certainly taken aback when I read this passage. But there is a clear justification for this seemingly reactionary relationship; Newton and the Panthers understood the tactical requirement to engage with capital, while maintaining an ideological buffer to prevent a complete subsumption back into capitalism.
A revolutionary movement requires both labor and capital (or resources, if you prefer to not use the term “capital”). It needs labor to engage in the day-to-day tasks of creating writings and propaganda, reaching out to communities physically, distributing goods and services to people, and so on. And it needs resources to support these activities; it does little good if a group has members to distribute food, but no access to the food itself.
And so a crucial question becomes: how to produce and reproduce resources that can be then put toward furthering revolution? Given that we in the United States live in a capitalist country (the capitalist country, by some accounts), it is arguably impossible for us to realistically and efficiently build an economic base for our activities without engaging with capitalist structures in some capacity or another.
If we want to distribute free food, we have to acquire the food somehow; and this source will almost certainly be tied to the larger system. Food from dumpster diving, while not benefiting corporations or the State in any direct way, is still dependent on industrial agriculture and corporate distribution networks. Even closed-off farming communities have to purchase tools and fertilizer from capitalist markets–and if they want to grow, they have to acquire money, which requires selling their products back into capitalist markets. Theoretically, a community can attempt to be completely closed-off (make their own tools from local forests, consume all of their food, and in short live a subsistence lifestyle), but if that that’s what you want to pursue, you can forget about ever making any measurable progress in challenging the foundations of the first truly global world-system.
What this means is that there shouldn’t be a dogmatic rejection of any and all interaction with capitalism, or structures that resemble markets. As Newton argues, it is necessary to engage in some type of surplus accumulation in order to further revolutionary struggle. And we can find examples of this throughout history. Many of the socialist and nationalist anti-colonial groups in Africa sold newspapers to raise funds, Chinese revolutionaries funded the 1911 insurrection against the monarchy with funds from bourgeoisie expatriates, and the Black Panthers sold Mao’s Little Red Book to Berkeley students (as well as apparently selling golf bags to corporations).
However! I do think that the examples I just gave–including the tactics of the Panthers–were extremely limited. The main reason for this is that there was a clear delineation between the activities that garnered funds, and the activities that the funds were used for. The fund-raising activities–whether they were from donations or the sales of clothing–were never seen as having any revolutionary characteristics in themselves, aside from funding the purchasing of weapons or establishing a reason for a community to support radical activities.
But what if the specific fundraising/cooperative venture itself took the form of an activity that, through its existence itself, furthered the revolutionary cause? I feel like the clothing factory that Newton talks about has murmurs of this potential. After all, clothing isn’t just some trivial luxury that people purchase; it’s a fundamental need that is currently addressed through engagement with corporations and international markets. By establishing a factory that is embedded within the community, the Panthers were starting to create a space where the reproduction of day-to-day life is under local control.
The real question, then becomes how to expand this autonomous economic space–especially given the fact that the clothing factory is hardly economically autonomous. Even if the decisions regarding the production of the clothing and the conditions of the workers are governed democratically by the workers and their families, the question of where to get the raw materials for making the clothes is still dependent (presumably) on external markets. A spike in the price of leather could very well wreck the entire experiment, and return the community right back to where they were. Therefore, the only way that a cooperative can maintain a revolutionary character is if it is relentlessly expanding, and doing away with its dependence on capital and the state.
Once a clothing factory is established, the community’s best course of action is to figure out ways to reach out to communities where materials the factory is dependent on are produced (cotton, polyester, leather, etc). They should agitate for them, too, to seize their means of production (or produce or purchase their own) so that they can establish an economic relationship between the two communities based on social and communal needs–as well as the needs for further expansion and revolutionary organizing. After all, what good is a cooperative that produces clothing, if such production is dependent on the exploitation of workers further back on the supply chain?
But if a cooperative venture seeks to constantly expand its worker empowerment down the supply chain, and use its surplus accumulation to not just re-invest in its own community, but to invest into adjacent, more marginalized communities, then it can transcend its reformist nature and become not just the means to support a Party or an organization, but the very content of the Revolution itself.
Ruthlessly expanding (much in the same way Capital does) is the only way a cooperative’s revolutionary character can be affirmed. And if done correctly, it can be a method by which communism can be established directly and immediately–without the traditional intermediate state-socialist phase.