Antonio Gramsci
Original publication: Cronache Torinesi, pp. 600-3.
Translation: Roderic Day

Socialism and Cooperation (1916)

7 minutes | English Italiano

Published by Gramsci in “The Cooperative Alliance” bulletin under the pen-name Alpha Gamma. “The Cooperative Alliance” was a monthly periodical published on behalf of the Turin Cooperative Alliance, a consumers’ cooperative. Started in 1906, the periodical originally served to inform members about the routine operations of the coop, but by 1916, when Gramsci began writing for it, it had begun to address issues of political and cultural interest. [1]

The unofficial economist of Italian nationalism, Professor Alfredo Rocco, is convinced that he has demolished the collectivist program of socialism once and for all with this formidable objection: Italian wealth amounts to somewhere between 80 billion and 100 billion lire; wage earners outnumber capitalists to such an extent that if the fruits of production were shared out collectively, the increase in welfare for the poor would be minimal, and certainly not enough to justify the crisis that the transition from one regime to the other would bring with it. [2]

This objection is juvenile because socialism does not aim solely to solve the problem of product distribution. Instead, the moral justification of our efforts and the revolution that they will bring about lies precisely in the certainty, acquired by the proletariat through its critique of the present modes of production, that collectivism will serve to accelerate the pace of production itself, by eliminating all the artificial factors that limit its output.

Among these not least nor least important is the fortuitous nature of the distribution of wealth among individuals. The fact is that very often the role of the capitalist and the industrialist coincide in the same person, even though they lack the intelligence and technical competence demanded by the social role they are called upon to play. This immorality in question has been partly addressed by bourgeois organizations themselves. Banks and holding companies were set up precisely to gather the capital of their more inert members, and put it in service of their boldest and most active. More recently, joint-stock companies — which, generally speaking, are nothing more than production cooperatives designed to maximize exploitation and utilization of capital — represent the very best that bourgeois organization can offer in terms of eliminating the capitalist monad, of separating the technical element from the capital element in production. These are therefore social experiments of great interest for socialism, because they serve to demonstrate ever more clearly the truth that the capitalist is by no means necessary, and that the spirit of initiative — the economic vital impulse — is not deadened by the fact that the directors and technicians of a firm are mere wage earners, without direct interest in squeezing every last penny of performance.

If even these forms of capitalist cooperation can offer confirmation of the claims made by socialist propaganda, then all the more so for consumer cooperatives. The Turin Alliance and others like it have acquired a marked class character, and are closely linked to the development of the proletariat.

Consumption is a relatively neutral field of social activity. The people are split into two classes according to production, not consumption. Only politically, not economically, can consumption also become a field of struggle, insofar as the State — the governmental and executive body of the capitalist bourgeoisie — with protectionism and with customs barriers regulates the consumption of the production of national capitalism. Since most people remain consumers, they all — with the exception of those whose consumption is enabled by their speculation — find themselves in league with protests against price increases, despite differences regarding which methods of struggle they endorse and what political ends they pursue. Therefore, given these social aspects of consumption, it certainly cannot be said that cooperatives are in essence socialist, and it would be naive and very damaging to suggest that that is all there is to the socialist project.

That said, putting aside the enormous benefits that cooperatives bring to all consumers (which were outlined well by O. P. in past issues [3]), cooperatives in the style of the Turin Alliance are grand experiments through which socialists can refine their sense of social responsibility. The enthusiastic words with which Georges Sorel praised the the reconstructive role of the trade unions in a past era could be applied, with still more justification, to cooperatives like these today. [4] For consumer cooperatives are an attempt to take hold of socialist economic reality; and although they unfortunately have to deal with several problems that arise from their heterogeneous composition — their members bound together despite their differences, in a condition of life and social development to which they have partly to adapt, and which partly shapes them — they also vibrate with a life of their own, barely constrained, and cause irreparable rips in the system.

After all, capitalism does not exist historically as a bourgeois essence either; what there is in fact is a bourgeois superstructure. It is the concrete form taken by economic development some time after the new class established itself as a political power, because of the effort it made to dig its roots ever deeper into the world. And just as with the economic nuclei of capitalist potential within the remaining feudal organism, who because of their hardships were the first to wedge and rip feudalism apart; so with the economic nuclei created and nurtured by the proletariat for the purposes of their class at the very core of bourgeois society: they can become a powerful tool to break down their host.

From this point of view, even consumer cooperatives can, if we want them to, take on a revolutionary role. They are, even in their present form, a kind of weld between the present and the future. Developed, strengthened, and multiplied, they could become like so many weapons aimed against the bourgeois system. Just as the present war differs from past wars in that it entirely absorbs national activity, so the proletarian revolution will differ from the bourgeois revolution in the immediate, most profound repercussion it will have on international activity. Therefore, the more consumer organizations that the proletariat can succeed in creating, the more easily it will be able to overcome the terrible crisis that will accompany and follow the act of its emancipation.

[1] For more on coops, see: “A meeting between V. I. Lenin and P. A. Kropotkin” (1917). [web] — A. B. 

[2] Alfredo Rocco would become a member of the Fascist Party of Italy, founded in 1922, from 1923 until his death in 1935. 

[3] The O. P. reference is to Ottavio Pastore, author of “The Socialist Value of Cooperation” and “The Next Future” (1916) in previous editions of the same publication. Gramsci’s collaboration with “The Cooperative Alliance” takes place in the period in which it was managed under by a committe in which Pastore was a prominent member. 

[4] Georges Sorel was a French writer and defender of unions. In 1903 he was translated for Italian audiences expressing himself thus: “To sum up all my thoughts in one formula, I would say that the whole future of socialism lies in the autonomous development of workers’ unions.” Gramsci would take from Sorel the idea that “the proletariat has a need to express itself in forms of its own, giving life to its own institutions.” (L’Ordine Nuovo, 11 October 1919).