Theory of Peasant Cooperatives

Chayanov, Alexander. 1991. The Theory of Peasant Cooperatives. Columbus: Ohio State University Press. [Intro and pp. 1-52.]

In these chapters, Alexander Chayanov revisits some of the same ground as Lenin and Kautsky, but he does so with a much more spatial sensibility. He still retains the ultimate faith in large-scale agriculture and the same technophilia as his comrade predecessors, but what drew my attention was his consideration of space and scale in the development of small and large-scale agriculture. His view of cooperatives is definitely an attempt to reconcile these two scales of agriculture in a way that preserves the cooperative as both an economic and a social project. This project, however, it should be pointed out, is a transitional one that will help pave the way for truly socialist agriculture (on an extensive scale).

The introduction by Viktor Danilov usefully situates Chayanov’s intervention in the long-standing debates and practice of cooperativism in Russia. In the run-up to the 1917 Revolution, the debate on agricultural cooperativism—there were (and are) various kinds—was waged between Tugan-Baranovskii and Prokopovich.

The latter saw cooperatives as useful but nonetheless limited mode of organizing peasant farmers within a capitalist system. But he believed that this “cooperative way of life” could provide a stepping-stone for a different mode of agricultural production (xv). What’s interesting is that he concluded his arguments by posing cooperatives as part and parcel of the gaining of political rights, “including the right of all citizens to combine freely in co-operatives and engage in autonomous activity” (xvi).

Tugan-Baranovskii, on the other hand, viewed cooperatives as a much more forceful challenge (or alternative) to capitalist social relations. The cooperative was not only self-defense against capitalism, but also a prefigurative alternative that would gravitate toward full collectivism. Still, he realized cooperatives “lived” in a capitalist system of market relations, particularly because of its participants, which mainly drew from the middle peasantry.

What Chayanov sought to elaborate was “the possibility – without making any special changes in the economic equilibrium and without substantially destroying the organizational plan of the small-scale rural economy of organizing some of its particular technical economic activities where large-scale production enjoys an undoubted advantage; organizing these activities up to the level of large-scale production by technically detaching them and merging them with similar activities being undertaken by neighbours, into a co-operative” (xxiv). This meant parsing out the various productive activities of the peasant economy and seeing how they could be cooperativized.

At the end of chapter two, he outlines the divisions: economic processes, biological processes, mechanical processes, and economic operations (selling/buying etc.). And within these broad categories he makes more subdivisions (50). Chayanov’s goal was to steer households and scale them larger: “Small-scale peasant households, when joined in co-operative associations achieve a scale and potential which is actually greater than those of the very largest private farms” (xxviii). But he was aware that not all processes should be scaled to a large size; some, he insisted, should remain small-scale.

In the first chapter, he lays out how agriculture differs from industry in its spatial dimensions. He notes that the centralization and concentration of capital with industry in relation to handicraft production can be condensed into a relatively small space (the factory, industrial park), but parallel concentrations of capital in agriculture have to be largely extended across space, which also introduces distance. A central problem for Chayanov was how to vertically concentrate agriculture. Danilov explains:

Either there is a powerful upsurge of production, accompanied by social progress, along the path of ‘vertical’ concentration, that is, along the path of growing diversity and interaction between different forms and scales of the organization of production processes and economic ties, both of the co-operative and the non-co-operative varieties. Or by contrast, production will stagnate and there will be social stalemate, if the path of ‘horizontal’ concentration is followed – assuming, of course, that this is not accompanied by something much worse (i.e. brutal coercion as happened under Stalin’s collectivization).

As for defining cooperative, Chayanov sites two authors:

Thus, for example, Tugan-Baranovskii defined co-operatives as follows:

A co-operative is an economic enterprise made up of several voluntarily associated individuals whose aim is not to obtain the maximum profit from the capital outlay but to increase the income derived from the work of its members, or to reduce the latter’s expenditure, by means of common economic management….

The definition given by K. Pazhitnov sounds entirely different:

A co-operative is a voluntary association of some individuals which aims, by its joint efforts, to combat the exploitation by capital and to improve the position of its members through the production, exchange and distribution of economic benefits, that is, as producers, consumers or sellers of manpower….

Chayanov says that these definitions show two possible components or varieties of cooperatives: cooperative enterprises and cooperative social movements. Although he chides those who try to combine both definitions/styles of cooperative, he believes Russian cooperatives need to have both elements built in to them.

He saw cooperatives as an alternative to the horizontal concentration of agriculture envisaged by Lenin wherein small producers would eventually become gobbled up by agrarian capitalists through differentiation and centralization into one massive capitalist operation staffed by exploited wage-earners. Although Chayanov understood that cooperatives would have to exist within a capitalist system (at least for a time), he argued that vertical concentration was the most favorable and productive course:

Therefore, the most important means of achieving concentration of peasant households has to be one of vertical concentration. It must take co-operative forms, since only in these forms will it be organically linked with agricultural production and capable of acquiring the necessary depth. In other words, the only path which is possible under our conditions for introducing into the peasant economy elements of a large-scale economy, of industrialization and of state planning, is the path of co-operative collectivization, the gradual and consecutive separation of particular sectors of specialization from individual households and their organization as public enterprise.

Another key quote linking finance and agriculture:

If, in relation to the most developed capitalist countries such as those in North America, for example, we add to all this the extensive development of mortgage credit, the financing of working capital for households and the commanding power of capital invested in transport, elevators, irrigation and other enterprises, then we begin to see new ways by which capitalism penetrates agriculture. It turns the farmer into a source of manpower working with means of production belonging to others; and it turns agriculture, despite its apparent diffusion and the autonomy of its small commodity producers, into an economic system controlled on capitalist principles by a number of very large enterprises, which in turn are under the control of the highest forms of finance capitalism. (7)

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