An article by the French anarchosyndicalist Paul Delesalle in which the author points out some of the shortcomings of cooperatives from a revolutionary point of view.
On Cooperation – Paul Delesalle
There is nothing more simple than the fact that some individuals in today’s society have formed organizations to buy articles of consumption in common and then to distribute them to their members; but I do not see this as any reason to put very great hopes in this development.
Buying, selling, making profits and distributing dividends; this is what capitalist society is based on, and it seems to me at least strange to want to destroy a society that is defined as evil, unjust and inhuman, by utilizing the very same procedures that characterize that society.
The same criteria apply to production as apply to consumption: that the workers should be associated in order to manufacture some product and sell it, is nothing special, but no one would say that this is a way to abolish wage labor. I will be accused of a lack of proof for this statement and that in the place of proof I have presented the “iron law of wages”, concerning which I have not said a word, since I have restricted myself to proving that the workers do not in general obtain any more than what is strictly necessary for their survival. That is my theory, one that irrefutably prevails. In Paris, for example, wages are higher than in any other city in France; but provisions and most necessary goods are also more expensive than anywhere else. The cost of living is not so high in Belgium or in Germany, and the pay is also lower in those countries: I did not intend to say anything else; this is not mathematics nor is it a law, yet these are indisputable facts and I noted them, and from these facts I deduced that in certain cases consumers’ cooperatives could constitute an obstacle to wage increases. This is so true that some far-sighted capitalists have founded company stores and supply goods to their exploited workers at cost price. I am familiar with many cases of cooperatives that have suppressed the revolutionary spirit among their members and replaced it with the mercantile spirit. In Fourchambault, an industrial center that used to host an active labor movement, the quest for a certain percentage of profit has killed off the ideal. Near where I live, in Paris, there is a cooperative that is a veritable school of intoxication, but only its bar makes a profit. I do not want to speak of bonuses, bribes or the corrupt behind-the-scenes deals of many Paris cooperatives, the less said the better about those things, and with respect to this topic we should always remember that such things are inevitable and inherent to the current organization of society, since it often happens that in the cooperatives large sums of money are entrusted to the care of poor wretches who do not always have much more than the minimum to live on, and only the strongest are capable of handling so much gold and personally bearing privation.
There are many cooperatives that have a number of “shareholders” who receive “dividends”, the fruit of the labor of the non-shareholder “simple associates”. This is the case of the Society of Optical Workers, that of the file cutters and a printing press, among many others. When I returned from the Congress of Lyon I visited the Glassworks of Venissieux, where there are “comrades” who possess stocks worth 10,000 francs as well as exploited workers with 13 years of service who make 1 franc a day. In London I visited the famous Wholesale store, and I left that place, as did the others who accompanied me, seething with rage. I saw women packing tea in filthy, poorly-ventilated rooms, full of dust, worse even than in similar enterprises in France, which is saying a lot; others working in a sweet shop who seemed more like monsters than like human beings, and all earning 12 or 15 shillings a week (15 or 18 francs), while the directors make 1,000 to 1,500 francs a month. An Englishman with whom I spoke about this said: these salaries are paid to the “directors” in order to attract “capable” men for the job.
In the Brussels cooperative the sale of anarchist newspapers is prohibited. Nowhere have I seen employees in retail stores who treated the customers worse than those employees treated the customers in that cooperative.
I could provide an endless list of such achievements of the cooperatives; I must repeat, however, that this is due to the capitalist organization of society, and cooperatives, whether of production or consumption, cannot be any different.
The essential error that is made with regard to this topic consists in believing that it is possible to organize the production and exchange of the future society within the capitalist society of today.
1901 (Original source publication unknown)
Translated (in December 2013) from the Spanish translation obtained online at: http://bibliotecasindicalista.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/sobre-cooperacion-paul-delesalle/