V. I. Lenin

The Question of Co-Operative Societies at the International Socialist Congress in Copenhagen

Published: Sotsial-Demokrat No. 17, September 25 (October 8), 1910. Signed: N. Lenin. Published according to the text in Sotsial-Demokrat.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, [1974], Moscow, Volume 16, pages 275-283.
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
Copyleft: V. I. Lenin Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) © 2004 Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.  

In the present article I intend to confine myself to an account of the transactions of the Congress on the question indicated in the heading and to a description of the trends of socialist thought which came into conflict there.

Prior to the Congress three draft resolutions on co-operative societies were published. The Belgian draft (in No. 5 of the Periodical Bulletin of the International Socialist Bureau, which is issued irregularly in the three official languages of the International Congresses) begins by warning socialist workers against the doctrine of those who regard co-operative societies as something self-sufficient, a sort of means for the solution of the social question. Then, admitting that the working class is extremely interested in utilising the co-operative societies as a weapon in their class struggle, the draft resolution of the Belgian party points out the direct advantages of co-operative societies (combating commercial exploitation, improving the working conditions of persons in the employ of the suppliers, etc.) and expresses the desire for “organic, closer and closer ties” to be established between the socialist parties and the co-operative societies.

The draft resolution submitted by the majority of the French Socialist Party is drawn up in the Jaurès spirit. The co-operative societies are exalted to the skies and are put forward—exactly in the style of the bourgeois reformers—as a “necessary” element of “social reformation”. There are vague phrases about converting the co-operatives from   unions of separate persons into general federations of associations. Proletarian co-operative societies are confused with the co-operatives of petty proprietors (in agriculture). The resolution advocates the neutrality of co-operative societies, describing as harmful the imposition of any obligations on the co-operative societies with respect to the Socialist Party.

Lastly, the draft submitted by the minority of the French socialists (Guesde-ists) declares emphatically that the co-operatives in themselves are by no means class organisations (as, for instance, the trade unions axe), and that their importance is determined by the use which is made of them. The workers, by joining the co-operative societies en masse, can benefit from them in their struggle against capital; from the example they offer, the workers can to some ex tent get an idea of the socialist society that would be organised after the contradictions of the present social order have been eliminated. The draft therefore emphasises the limited significance of the co-operative societies and calls upon the socialist parties to assist the proletarian co-operative societies, warns against illusions as to the role of co-operative societies, and recommends socialists to unite Within the co-operative societies in order to explain to the masses their real task: the conquest of political power and the conversion of the means of production and distribution into common property.

It is quite clear that there are two main lines of policy here: one—the line of proletarian class struggle, recognition of the value of the co-operative societies as a weapon in this struggle, as one of its subsidiary means, and a definition of the conditions under which the co-operative societies would really play such a part and not remain simple commercial enterprises. The other line is a petty-bourgeois one, obscuring the question of the role of the co-operative societies in the class struggle of the proletariat, attaching to the co-operative societies an importance transcending this struggle (i. e., confusing the proletarian and the proprietors’ view of co-operative societies), defining the aims of the co-operative societies with general phrases that are acceptable even to the bourgeois reformers, those ideologues of the progressive employers, large and small.

Unfortunately these two lines were only sketched in the three drafts that had been prepared beforehand, and they were not opposed one to the other, clearly, distinctly and sharply, as two trends, whose conflict should settle the question. Hence the transactions of the Congress proceeded unevenly, confusedly, and as it were spontaneously. It “came up against” differences of opinion, every minute, but they were not cleared up and the result was a resolution reflecting the confusion of ideas, one which did not say everything that could and should have been said in a resolution of a Congress of Socialist Parties.

In the commission on the question of co-operative societies two trends immediately became apparent. One was represented by Jaurès and Elm. Elm was one of the four German delegates on the co-operative commission and acted as spokesman for the Germans—adopting a definitely opportunistic tone. The other trend was the Belgian. The mediator and conciliator was the Austrian, Karpeles, a prominent leader of the Austrian co-operative movement, who upheld no definite line of principle, but (or “because” rather than “but”) who inclined more often than not to the opportunists. Moreover, even when the Belgians did challenge Jaurès and Elm this was due more to the instinct for a really proletarian approach to co-operative affairs than to a distinct understanding of the hostility and the irreconcilable breach between the proletarian and the petty-bourgeois point of view on the question. That is why, for instance, Anseele (chairman of the co-operative commission) made some forceful and excellent speeches to the commission against neutrality in the co-operative societies, against exaggerated ideas of their importance, and urging the necessity of our being socialist co-operators, not co-operator socialists. Yet when the resolution was being drawn up the same Anseele might have driven anyone to despair by his toleration of the formulations put forward by Jaurès and Elm, his reluctance to inquire into the causes of the dissension.

But to return to the meetings of the commission. Naturally the course of its work was decisively influenced by the representatives of nations with a strongly developed co-operative movement. Moreover, it immediately became apparent that there was a difference of opinion between   the Belgians and the Germans, vastly to the disadvantage of the latter. At any rate the Belgians pursued a proletarian line, although not quite consistently, not quite distinctly. Elm came out as an opportunist of the first water (especially in the subcommission, of which more later). Naturally, the leading role belonged to the Belgians. The Austrians were sympathetically disposed to them and at the end of the commission s deliberations an Austro-Belgian resolution was read, while Elm, who submitted the German resolution, declared forthright that he thought it would be quite possible to make it agree with Jaurès’s draft. Since among the French there was a strong minority against Jaurès (there were 202 mandates for his point of view and 142 for Guesde’s) while among the Germans there would have been a no less strong minority against Elm (if the question of the two points of view had come up clearly and sharply), the Austro-Belgian alliance had real chances of victory. And it was not so much a question of “victory” in the narrow sense of the word as of consistently upholding the proletarian point of view on the co-operative societies. Due to the excessive concessions which the subcommission made to Jaurès and Elm, this consistency was not attained.

As for us, the Russian Social-Democrats, we tried to sup port the Austro-Belgian line in the commission and with this aim in view, before the reading of the Austro-Belgian conciliatory draft, we submitted a draft resolution of our own, as follows:

“Draft Resolution of the Social-Democratic Delegation of Russia

“The Congress is of the opinion:

“1) That proletarian consumers’ societies improve the situation of the working class in that they reduce the amount of exploitation by all kinds of commercial middlemen, influence the labour conditions of the workers employed by the supplying firms and improve the situation of their own employees.

“2) That these societies can assume great importance for the economic and political mass struggle of the proletariat by supporting the workers during strikes, lock-outs, political persecution, etc.

“On the other hand the Congress points out:

“1) that the improvements that can be achieved with the help of the consumers’ societies can only be very inconsiderable as long   as the means of production remain in the hands of the class without whose expropriation socialism cannot be attained;

“2) that consumers’ societies are not organisations for direct struggle against capital and exist alongside similar bodies organised by other classes, which could give rise to the illusion that these organisations are a means by which the social question may be solved without class struggle and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie.

“The Congress calls on the workers of all countries:

“a) to join the proletarian consumers’ societies and to promote their development in every way, at the same time upholding the democratic character of these organisations;

“b) by untiring socialist propaganda in the consumers’ societies, to spread the ideas of class struggle and socialism among the workers;

“c) to strive at the same time to bring about the fullest possible co-operation between all forms of the labour movement.

“The Congress also points out that producers’ co-operatives can be of importance for the struggle of the working class only if they are a component part of consumers’ societies.”

All the draft resolutions were handed to a subcommission (the commissions at International Congresses are so large—each nation delegating four representatives to each commission—that it is simply Out of the question to work out the text of resolutions at a full commission meeting). This subcommission consisted of ten persons; two Belgians (Anseele and Vandervelde), one Frenchman (Jaurès), one Austrian (Karpeles), one German (Elm), one Dutchman (Wibaut—a Marxist), one Italian, one Dane, one Englishman and one Russian Social-Democrat (Voinov and myself— our Social-Democratic delegation was unable to meet to elect a representative—so we both attended and one voted).

It was in the subcommission that the real business of drawing up the text of the resolution took place. The text adopted by the Congress, except for some small stylistic changes, is the same as the one drawn up by the subcommission; the reader will find the text of the Congress resolution elsewhere in this issue. The fight in the subcommission centred not on the question of the relations of co-operators to the Party—as was the case in the commission—but on the more fundamental question of the significance and role of co-operative societies. The Belgians tended to define their role, quite correctly in principle, as one of the possible (in certain conditions) auxiliary weapons in the proletarian class struggle for the “total expropriation” (expropriation intègrale) of the capitalist class. Elm, supported by Jaurès,   was strenuously opposed and revealed his opportunism to the full. He said it was not certain that matters would ever come to expropriation, that he personally considered it most improbable that for the “majority” (!) this was a debatable question, there was nothing about expropriation in the programme of the German Social-Democratic Party an4 that one should say “Überwindung des Kapitalismus”—“the overcoming of capitalism”. Bebel’s famous words in Hannover, uttered at the conclusion of the controversy with Bernstein, “es bleibt bei der Expropriation”—“we stand as before for expropriation,”{1} were forgotten by one of the leaders of German opportunism. In connection with this dispute the “question of socialisation” arose. Jaurès demanded in the form of an ultimatum that the definition of the significance of the co-operative societies should include: “They help the workers land this was included in the text adopted by the Congress I to prepare the democratisation and socialisation of the means of production and distribution.”

This is one of those nebulous, indefinite phrases—entirely acceptable to the ideologists of the petty proprietor and the theoreticians of bourgeois reformism—at which Jaurès is such an adept and to which he is so partial. What is the “democratisation of the means of production and distribution?” (Later in the commission, when the draft came back from the subcommission, the French altered the word “means”—moyens—to forces, but this did not make the slightest difference.) Peasant production (as I told the commission) is “more democratic” than large-scale capitalist production. Does this mean that we socialists want to establish small-scale production? And what is “socialisation"? It can be taken to mean conversion into the property of the whole community, but it can also he taken to mean any palliatives, any reforms within the framework of capitalism, from peasant co-operatives to municipal baths and public lavatories. In the subcommission Jaurès referred to the Danish agricultural societies, apparently sharing the view of the bourgeois economists that these are not capitalistic enterprises.

Organising opposition to this opportunism, we (Russian and Polish Social-Democrats) tried appealing from Elm to Wurm, the co-editor of the Neue Zeit, who was also representing   the Germans on the co-operative commission. Wurm did not approve of the phrase “democratisation and socialisation”, proposed (privately) a number of amendments, and negotiated between Elm and the Marxists; but Elm was so “adamant” that Wurm’s efforts came to nothing. Some time after the Congress I read in the Leipziger Volkszeitung (No. 201, August 31, 1910, 3. Beilage), that the question of the co-operative societies had been brought up in the German delegation the Tuesday before. “R. Fischer inquired,” wrote the correspondent of this paper, “if there were any differences on the question of co-operatives among the German delegates.” Elm replied: “Yes. And they can’t he eliminated overnight. Congress decisions are always in the nature of a compromise and on this question too matters will probably end in a compromise.” Wurm: “My views on the question of the co-operative societies are quite different (durchaus andere) from the views of von Elm; nevertheless, we shall probably find common ground in a combined resolution.” After this the delegation considered further discussion unnecessary.

This report bears out the fact which was already quite evident at the International Congress in Stuttgart.{2} The German delegation is composed equally of Party representatives and trade union representatives. The latter are almost all opportunists as it is usually the secretaries and other trade union “bureaucrats” who are elected. In general the Germans are incapable of pursuing a consistent line of principle at International Congresses and the hegemony in the International often slips from their hands. Wurm’s impotence before Elm is but one more illustration of the crisis in German Social-Democracy which consists in the growth of an inevitable and decisive breach with the opportunists.

On the question of financial support for the Party from the co-operative societies, Elm and Jaurès during the proceedings of the subcommission also won an excessive concession from the Belgians, who agreed to the formula: “It rests with the co-operative societies of each country to decide whether and to what extent they should assist the political and trade union movement directly from their own funds.”

When the subcommission’s draft came back to the commission for final adoption these were the two points upon which we fixed our attention. Together with Guesde we moved two (main) amendments: firstly, to replace the words “(the co-operative societies) help the workers to prepare the democratisation and socialisation of production and distribution” by the words: “(the co-operative societies) help to a certain extent to prepare the functioning of production and distribution after the expropriation of the capitalist class.” This amendment, which stylistically is not very happily formulated, does not mean that the co-operative societies cannot help the workers at present, but that the future mode of production and distribution, which is being prepared now by the co-operative societies, can begin to function only after the expropriation of the capitalists. The second amendment concerned the point which speaks of the relation of co-operative societies to the Party. We proposed either to add the words “which (i. e., aid to the workers’ struggle) is in any case desirable from the standpoint of socialism”, or to replace the whole of this point by another expressly recommending socialists in the co-operative societies to advocate and insist upon direct support for the class struggle of the proletariat.

Both amendments were rejected by the commission and collected only about 15 votes. The Socialist-Revolutionaries—as they always do at International Congresses—voted for Jaurès. Before the Russian public they are not averse to reproaching even Bebel with opportunism, but before the European they follow Jaurès and Elm! Wurm tried to patch up the last part of the resolution by rearranging the order of the last three paragraphs. Let it be said first of all that the unification of the co-operatives in a single federation is desirable (second paragraph from the end). Then let it be stated that it rests with the co-operative societies to decide whether they should render direct assistance to the Party or not (third paragraph from the end). And let the last paragraph begin with “but” (but the congress declares that it would be desirable to have increasingly intimate relations between the Party, the trade unions and the co-operative societies). Then it would be clear from the general context that the Congress recommends the co-operative   societies to help the Party. Elm rejected even this amendment! Wurm then withdrew it. After that Wibaut moved it in his own name, we voted for it, but the amendment was rejected.

As to the line to pursue at the plenary session of the Congress, we, had a conference with Guesde. Guesde considered—and his opinion was shared by the German revolutionary Social-Democrats—that at the plenary session of the Congress we ought not to start a fight over minor changes, but to vote for the resolution as a whole. Its defects consist in the admission of a revisionist phrase which is not a substitute for the definition of the aim of socialism but stands alongside this definition—and in one insufficiently emphatic expression of the idea that workers’ co-operative societies should help the workers’ class struggle. An attempt should he made to remove such defects but there were no grounds for starting a fight at the general meeting because of them. We agreed with this opinion of Guesde’s and the resolution was unanimously adopted at the plenary session of the Congress.

To sum up the work of the Congress on the question of co-operative societies, we must say—without concealing the defects of the resolution either from ourselves or from the workers—that the International gave, in essentials, a correct definition of the tasks of the proletarian co-operative societies. Every member of the Party, every Social-Democratic worker, every class-conscious worker-co-operator must be guided by the resolution that was adopted and carry on all his activity in, the spirit of this resolution.

The Copenhagen Congress marks that stage in the development of the labour movement in which its growth was, so to speak, mainly in breadth and in which it began to bring the proletarian co-operatives into the orbit of class struggle. Differences with the revisionists came to light but the revisionists are still a long way from coming out with an independent programme. The fight against revisionism has been postponed, but it will come inevitably.


{1} Lenin quotes A. Bebel’s words in a report on “Attacks on the Fundamental Views and Tactics of the Party” at the German Social-Democratic Congress in Hanover (October 9-14 [New Style], 1899).

{2} The International Congress in Stuttgart—the Seventh International Socialist Congress, held August 18–24 (New Style), 1907. Lenin took part in the Congress as a delegate of the R.S.D.L.P. (see present edition, Vol. 13, pp. 75–93).

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