The Socialist Party often comes across proponents of various cooperative schemes such as Richard Wolff with his Workers Self-Directed Enterprises or Gar Alperovitz and his Pluralist Commonwealth. All very well-intentioned models of how they would like to see the capitalist economy transformed to be in the interests of the workers.
These professors, however, having studied cooperatives ventures should know a lot better than propose them. But their supporters who have read and absorbed the claims made by Wolff and Alperovitz can be perhaps excused for not being aware of the very long history of cooperatives and imagine them to be some sort of recent innovation.
When socialists criticise coops we are not delving into abstract theory nor predicting hypothetic futures. The first cooperatives arose almost at the same time as modern capitalism got going, way back in the 1840s. So when we subject coops to scrutiny there are nearly 200 years of history to base an analysis upon. It is no guessing game, no conjecture but simply looking at the historic record. After almost 200 years of experience surely by now, a conclusion on the worth of the cooperative movement can be made.
However, the short-comings of the coops need not have waited as so long, because for some social activists in the 19th Century had already come to a judgment on the merits of coops.
The Chartist agitator, Ernest Jones, wrote:
“I contend that co-operation as now developed, must result in failure to the majority of those concerned, and that it is merely perpetuating the evils which it professes to remove… That the co-operative-system, as at present practised, carries within it the germs of dissolution, would inflict a renewed evil on the masses of the people, and is essentially destructive of the real principles of co-operation. Instead of abrogating profitmongering, it re-creates it. Instead of counteracting competition, it re-establishes it. Instead of preventing centralisation, it renews it—merely transferring the role from one set of actors to another… your co-operative ranks are thinned, your firms find, one by one, they can no longer in make the returns equal the expenses, they cannot sell as cheap as the capitalist, they can therefore no more command the market, their co-operative fires die out in quick succession, stores and mills close over their deluded votaries—and the great ruin will stand bald, naked, and despairing in the streets.”
The present enthusiasts have cooperatives backside-forwards. Coops are not the means towards socialism as argued by Wolff but they are the end. Only in socialism can we really achieve cooperative values and have the work-places for production and distribution organized cooperatively. It is why the socialist society aimed for was so often described as the cooperative commonwealth in the 19th and early 20th Century.