Communes and Workers' Control in Venezuela: Building 21 st Century Socialism from
below, Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2018; 266 pp.: ISBN 1608468291, 8.09 [pounds sterling] (hbk)
Labour Managed Firms and Post-Capitalism, Abingdon: Routledge, 2017; 256 pp.:
ISBN 1138237566, 125.30 [pounds sterling]
Transcending Capitalism through Cooperative Practices, Basingstoke: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2015; 191 pp.: ISBN 134957936X, 27.99 [pounds sterling] (pbk)
What could the road to 21st century, cooperative socialism look like? Bringing these three very different books together provides the beginning of a step-by-step answer to this question. Indeed, by doing so, we start a journey taking us from present-day experiences with workers' cooperation within capitalism, through a cooperative revolution to a post-capitalist cooperative future. A former Amherst student of renowned Marxian economist Richard Wolff, Catherine Mulder analyses the successes, realities and struggles of workers' cooperatives within present-day capitalism. Dario Azzellini, an experienced scholar of workers' control (e.g. Ness & Azzellini 2011), retraces the rise and mutations of socialism in Venezuela under Chavez, focusing on the revolutionary project of workers' control and the encountered obstacles in face of the state and capital. Finally, Italian Marxian theorist Bruno Jossa portrays a prospective cooperative socialism; its characteristics and superiority to capitalism, its conditions to achieve it, as well as the challenges now and in the future.
These three works are part of the latest wave of academic cooperative sympathisers passionate about a new socialism and the possibility of its emergence. The recent general revival of interest in workers' cooperatives stemmed directly from the disaster of the Great Recession, as it ripped through the social and economic bedrock of capitalist societies. This backdrop led to a batch of new texts on workers' cooperatives, identified as promising alternatives to neoliberal capitalism (e.g. Harnecker 2012; Harris 2016; Harrison 2013; Ranis 2016; Restakis 2010; Webb & Novkovic 2014; Wolff 2012). Each in their own way, the works of Azzellini, Mulder and Jossa are part of this academic surge.
Still, at first glance, they seem to have very different objectives. On one hand, Mulder wants to definitively establish that economic alternatives to capitalism exist, that they can struggle but above all that they can strive within capitalism, despite the disadvantages they suffer from under the latter regime (Mulder 2015: 7). On another hand, Azzellini seeks to study the Bolivarian revolution to know how people have taken fate into their hands, how this has changed their social, economic and political life, and what difficulties they faced (Azzellini 2018: 17). Separately, Jossa attempts to demonstrate that the only type of socialism achievable and necessary is one that will bring to life a fully fledged system of workers' cooperatives (Jossa 2017: 26).
But however different they seem, these three works are in fact born from the same following premise: only workers' control is worth considering in a 21st-century socialist project. The reason for that, they argue, is that the Soviet Union reproduced capitalism and other modes of production throughout history by failing to end workers' exploitation (Azzellini 2018: 14; Jossa 2017: 165; Mulder 2015: 12; Wolff 2012: 79). In Marx, exploitation strictly means that the surplus value produced by workers is appropriated by 'nonlaborers' (Mulder 2015: 12). Traditionally the latter are the capitalists; in the Soviet Union, it was the state. Mulder in particular draws directly on Wolff's work, which saw exploitation as the most critical feature of production modes, leading him and others to label the Soviet Union 'state capitalism', pointing out to a communist revolution that perpetuated a capitalist class structure within enterprises (Mulder 2015: 12; Resnick & Wolff 2002; Wolff 2012: 108-109). Azzellini doesn't justify or expand on this premise; Jossa however finds the term problematic. He points out that this does not accurately represent the USSR, a centrally planned system which did not strive for profit maximisation based on free competition between capitalists (Jossa 2017: 165). Furthermore, he recalls (Jossa 2017: 166) that capitalist states trade freely and have had to engage with globalisation, while the Soviet system barricaded itself by banning trade with foreign firms--thus forging what Georgi Derluguian called 'fortress socialism' (Wallerstein et al. 2013). Still, Jossa (2017: 65) argues for the same focus to be placed on exploitation and thus on surplus appropriation/redistribution.
This is where workers' cooperatives come in; they are the only form of economic organisation that achieve the end of exploitation, as workers collectively produce, distribute and...