Lenin's "On Cooperation"

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Thu Oct 3 14:47:54 MDT 1996

You can make no bigger mistake than turning Lenin's writings into
doctrine. He said, for example, that the lessons of "What is to Be
Done" are limited to a very specific time and place and were outdated
by 1910 or so.

The same thing has happened with "On Cooperation", the penultimate
article before "Better Fewer, but Better". Jim Lawler, someone who
used to be an active list member before it turned into a cesspool,
turned this rather slight article into a defense of a Leninist orthodoxy
that dictated an epoch of capitalism in the Soviet Union before
socialism could be built.

There is no mistaken the rather rueful and chastened tone of the
article. Lenin is clearly pessimistic about any rapid transition to
socialism. He says, "Strictly speaking, there is 'only' one thing we have
left to do and that is to make our people so 'enlightened' that they
understand all the advantages of the co-operatives, and organise this
participation. 'Only' that. There are now no other devices needed to
advance to socialism. But to achieve this 'only', there must be a
veritable revolution--the entire people must go through a period of
cultural development. Therefore, our rule must be: as little
philosophising and as few acrobatics as possible. In this respect the
NEP is an advance, because it is adjustable to the level of the most
ordinary peasant and does not demand anything higher of him. But it
will take a whole *historical epoch* to get the entire population into
the work of the co-operatives through NEP. At best we can achieve
this in *one or two decades.*"

What Lenin is unmistakably saying is that socialism in the Soviet
Union will consist of moving the mass of ignorant and isolated
peasantry into cooperatives. There is nothing particularly socialist
about cooperatives, by the way. There is a famous Mondragon co-op in
Spain. The workers own the means of production jointly, sell the
goods on the open market, and divide the profits. Nicaragua's boldest
agricultural experiment was to encourage cooperatives. Cooperatives
have a long and rather unspectacular history in American history. In
the small farming village I grew up in, there was a grain cooperative.
There are food co-ops all through Brooklyn and yuppie co-op buildings
in Manhattan.

Lenin's views on co-ops were the views he held on January 6, 1923
when he wrote this article. If he had lived to see the counter-
revolutionary upsurge of the Kulak in the late 1920s, he might have
written an entirely different type of article, just as he did when he
defended the War Communism of 1919-1920. Lenin was a principled
revolutionary but he was also for *what worked*. The "pragmatic"
Sandinistas had much more in common with Lenin than all of the
doctrinaire Leninists who fantasize about cloning the experience of
1917 without regard to time or place.

The problem with Lenin's views on Cooperation at this time (and this
something I took up with Lawler on the list; our articles are on the
Marxism Web Page) is that they don't anticipate future developments
in the Soviet Union. They don't anticipate the "scissors effect" that
lifted the price of manufactured goods while depressing the price of
agricultural commodities. The "scissors effect" created tension
between city and countryside that was nearly guaranteed to result in
bloodshed. Stalin's excessive and bureaucratic measures could have
been improved on, but in any case we are looking at something like
Kronstadts all through the countryside. We know what these
Kronstadts look like from the recent experience in Nicaragua where
they may be called "contrastadts".

The point is that the USSR faced irreconcilable contradictions from
the moment of its birth. Stalin resolved these contradictions in a
manner of speaking but Soviet society had to face them in a new form
in the 1970s and 1980s. It is a big mistake to try to develop a doctrine
out of Lenin's writings and the Soviet experience.

The best thing that you can take away from 1917 are lessons how to
defeat the capitalist class. Once in power, however, a revolutionary
government has no cookbook to resort to. The recipes have to be
created on the fly.

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