While the headline in a national news weekly recently started with an article entitled “We Are All Socialists Now,” the reality is obviously quite different. From all appearances Capitalism has won the ideological war against socialism which began when socialism took the world stage during the first half of the 19th century. Capitalism of some sort seems to most people particularly within the United States to be the natural destiny of humanity. However while capitalism won the war against the brutal perversion of socialism called communism and while the great social democratic parties of Europe seem to have given up on any socialist vision greater than that of a mixed social democratic economy, the instinct for social justice, human equality, community, and freedom that socialism historically has tried to realize has not died. The sparks of socialism still survive within small groups and within individuals in the United States and many other parts of the world. As the current world recession, energy, ecological and global warming crisis show; world capitalism’s future is not assured. Socialism could ultimately win the last war.
However a precondition for that victory must be a rethinking of the socialist vision. Most Americans and in fact most of the world’s people still imagine that socialism is primarily about the power of the state being utilized to dominate or control the economic direction of societies. This certainly has been the dominant conception of the Marxian and Fabian forms of socialism. Both European Social Democracy and Soviet Communism envisioned future socialist societies as being based on statist models of governmental ownership and control of all of the economic activities of society. Little if any role existed in either model for private enterprises or for companies which were directly owned and managed by workers themselves. The primary difference between these two was that Communism supported the totalitarian communist state and Social Democracy supported the western liberal democratic state. These are important differences.
However historically other powerful minority forms of socialism have existed which envisioned alternative non statist models of a socialist future. The socialist movement of 19th century France was dominated by “associational socialism” which foresaw a future socialist society in which workers themselves through their labor associations would ultimately take control of society. The economy of this future socialist society would be dominated by worker owned and managed cooperatives / companies. Latter in the late 1800s and early 20th century this associative or cooperative socialism transformed into revolutionary anarcho syndicalism. Anarcho syndicalism still held the same basic socialist vision of a free society directly controlled by workers themselves however. Spain and Italy were also dominated by anarchist ideals which also rejected the vision of socialism in which the state / government would hold absolute power over the economic institutions of society. In stead the socialism of these nations advocated a socialism of free producers or associations as did the French.
In the United States the socialist movement dominated by the Socialist Party of America reached its high point of influence in the early decades of the 20th century. Early American socialism seemed to take an intermediate position between the purely statist concept of socialism and the more syndicalist forms of socialism. Out side of the American socialist movement during the 19th century at least two movements one dominated primarily by American farmers and the other dominated primarily by American workers developed ideas similar to that of Southern European socialism. These were the Knights of Labor one of the first and largest national labor unions that developed during the 19th century and the other being People’s Party the agrarian party of reform which represented the interest of the impoverished farmers of the American South and West. Both of these movements before they collapsed in the 1890s held a strong belief in economic cooperatives as the solution to the “wage slavery” of workers and the poverty of indebted small farmers. Both typified the desire of workers and farmers for an economic system that would incorporate the values of economic democracy and worker self management.
In France the anarcho syndicalist movement reached its height during the first decade of the 20th century and then disintegrated. The anarchists of Italy fell together with the socialists before Mussolini’s fascists in the 1920s. The powerful anarcho syndicalist Spanish labor unions and anarchist dominated villages fell before General Franco’s fascist troops during the Spanish Civil War. From that point in history it appeared that the alternative socialist tradition had been cast into the dust bin of history.
However the vision of a worker self managed society or of economic democracy while it ceased to be embeded in powerful political movements continued in another form. Large numbers of workers and reformers beginning in the 1800’s while avoiding politics and revolutionary rhetoric worked hard to develop various forms of worker owned and managed businesses / cooperatives which have been economically successful though out the world. These businesses if they were small often are operated on principles of direct democracy by their worker owners. If large they are commonly governed by workers councils elected by worker owners. In general the worker councils of large cooperatives often having hundreds of workers will hire a team of professional managers which instead of being to accountable to stockholders are ultimately responsible to the worker owners of the company.
Today thousands worker owned cooperatives through out the world successfully compete for markets and customers. These cooperatives which are of many kinds agricultural, consumer, producer, service, etc have not become the dominant economic sector in the modern world. However many have become very successful in competing in the hostile environment of capitalism, Some examples are the strong worker cooperative movement in the Emilia Romagna area of Northeast Italy. Of the 7500 cooperatives in this area over two thirds are worker owned. Over 10% of the work force in the region is employed by cooperatives. In Switzerland two of the largest supermarket chains Migros and Coop are in cooperative form. In Japan over 14 million citizens are members of the consumer cooperative movement.
However the most successful example of worker owned cooperative success is the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation head quartered in the town of Mondragon Spain. In 1956 five workers who had been trained at a technical school founded by the Roman Catholic priest Don Jose Maria Aristmendi developed the first worker owed cooperative ULGOR to produce kerosene stoves. The company initially employed 24 worker owners. Now the world wide Mondragon Cooperative Corporation employs over 85,000 workers in various industries in nations such as Brazil and China through out the world. The Mondragon Cooperative Corporation includes a united system of self managing banks, insurance companies , a university and many other economic enterprises. Currently the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation is the 7th largest corporation in Spain. The example of the Mondragon and other successful examples of worker ownership and self management give the lie to the commonly held belief that workers simply do not have the ability to manage their own workplaces and companies. They give evidence that a different form of civilization is possible.
As this brief historical summery shows the statist form of socialism which is in fact what most Americans think of when they think of socialism has never been the only form of socialism. Another alternative form of the socialist vision has also existed. I would argue that it is this alternative vision of socialism with which the future of the socialist movement lies. This is not to suggest that the anarchists, the syndicalists etc had all the right ideas. The political strategies developed by these movements were extremely flawed thus causing their ultimate dismiss. Social Democracy in the form of the German Social Democratic Party, the France Socialist Party and the British Labor party were strategically much wiser in their overall championship of reforms which would help workers immediately. However I believe that the basic motivational vision of socialism lies in its vision of a free and just society in which workers themselves own the means of production. This is the liberatory vision of the alternative socialism in which the future lies.