Korsch on Marx on Gotha on Co-operatives

From Karl Korsch’s Introduction to the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1922)

“Equally complex and at first sight obscure motives lie behind Marx’s furious and relentless attack in section III on the one socio-economic demand the Gotha Programme makes — the demand for ‘establishing producers’ co-operatives with State aid’. Here, as with the iron law of wages, Marx’s fierce attack is not really against the call for producers’ cooperatives as such, but only against the particular role that they play in Lassalle’s system. In fact, ten years earlier Marx had actually included ‘the establishment of producers’ associations and other institutions of use to the working class’ among the practical demands of the I.W.A. statues, and in his Inaugural Address he hailed the co-operative movement, along with the ten-hour day, as ‘up to now the greatest victories of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property’. At that time he even emphatically demanded the ‘development of co-operative labour on a national scale’, aided by ‘the means of the State’. Here, too, there would superficially appear to be no real conflict between Marx’s position and the demand made by the draft Gotha Programme. In fact, however, this example of Marx’s anger is a vivid expression of a deep and substantive difference between his outlook and that of Lassalle. For Marx was only too well aware of the real nature of this scheme (amply demonstrated in any event by the rest of the Programme). The plan for associations of co-operatives conceived in the 1860s along ‘Lassallean’ lines (whatever Lassalle himself may originally have said when first advancing this demand) relied much more on State aid than on the creation of a co-operative economy itself. Its real aim was to use aid to the producers’ associations to change the ‘limited bourgeois state’ into a ‘socialist state that would fulfil the ethical idea of freedom’ — instead of seeking the necessary material preconditions for attaining a socialist society in the predominance of the political economy of the working class over the political economy of property (which may be furthered, among other things, by producers’ cooperatives). This was a flagrant violation of a major principle in the I.W.A. Declaration of Principles which stated that ‘the economic emancipation of the working class is the principle aim, which every political movement must serve to advance’. Marx in section III of the Critique seeks to demolish the key concept of ‘co-operatives based on State credit’ as a regression into crude ideological and utopian errors. (This idea has recently found its worthy successors in the equally empty notions of many German socialists about ‘socialization’ or ‘seizing real values’.) Marx reaffirms against these illusions the true materialist and revolutionary meaning of the words ‘producers’ associations on a national scale’ by saying: ‘That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale, in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with State aid’.”

The University of Utopia

Letters from Utopia, first published in Post-16 Educator (84). Download PDF

“The state of abundance is not a Utopian vision but the real possibility of conditions already in existence.” (Kay and Mott, Political Order and the Law of Labour, 1982, 1)

What follows is a series of short letters written by a student from the University of Utopia. Although a fictional account, the letters are written with the conviction that we are actually living in a state of abundance, rather than the scarcity imposed by the market economy and that global social needs can be met by our existing capacity to co-operate with one-another rather than compete. The five letters are based on our joint research and practice of co-operative higher education which we have been undertaking since 2010. They do not reflect the breadth of the research but instead offer one imaginary account that we are hopeful for and working on. A recently completed project1 brought together many people to produce a practical and theoretical framework for co-operative higher education, features of which we have tried to embed in the epistolary form that follows. We invite you to also read a recent paper2 that we have written which discusses our ongoing research in more detail.

Mike Neary and Joss Winn, June 2016.


Dear Mum,

I am writing to you from Utopia. At least that’s what the first couple of weeks has felt like. Since you and Dad left me at the student housing co-op, I’ve learned a lot about what makes this university different and I’m pretty sure I made the right choice to come here. I know we read the brochures about what makes a co-operative different to other types of organisation but it’s only in the last few days that I’ve really started to get it. The university is made up of four Schools: Life, Machines, Letters and Property.  I suppose the main thing I’ve noticed is the emphasis that members of the university place on the importance of democracy and what that means in terms of my role here. Although I’m just a first-year student, it seems that first and foremost I’m a member of the university, just like my teachers. In fact, it’s not just the students and teachers, but everyone is a member with an equal say in how the place runs. At first, I wondered how the place manages to run at all, but during orientation week I got a better sense of the long history of co-ops and how they tend to be good places to live and work and learn. It can’t always be easy, but people seem proud of their co-op and the role it has in society. Although it’s quite a new university, it’s part of an international movement of people who think that ‘common ownership’ (I still don’t really know what this means but it sounds good) and democratic control of their organisations is a good thing. It’s not just the university and my house that are co-ops either: the university canteen, the local health service and even a secondary school next to the university are co-ops, too, and they all try to work together. Oh, yes, I almost forgot… My bedroom furniture was designed and made by students from the university, too! I was told that by some second-year students in my house. They seem like good people. A few of us went out the other night and got to know each other. I met a nice girl called Ellie. She went to a co-op school so she knows much more about how everything works than I do. I’m really excited about being here. Can you tell!?!?!

Lots of love to you and Dad. X


Dear Mum,

I hope you are well?  After four months, this place is starting to become less strange. More familiar.

I am made to feel like a researcher with something to offer, rather than an undergraduate student with everything to learn.  There is learning, of course, lots of it and in different situations, not only in lectures, in fact there are no lectures. Last week I was having lunch and my teacher asked me to collaborate on a project about the chemistry of cooking and the politics of food, including the cause of hunger and malnutrition.  Afterwards, when we were cleaning up the kitchen, I thought about designing a kitchen that would avoid wasting food. This ties in with another project I am working on, building a house for visitors to Utopia. I want to design a contemporary croft out of concrete. My School: Life, is holding a competition. The best house design is going to be built by the students and teachers.  This project connects my interest with concrete as a concept and as a building material. I was interviewing a visitor to Utopia to get ideas for my building. She asked me, ‘what subjects are you studying’. I said, ‘I am not studying subjects. I am studying Life.  And next year I am studying Machines’. She was incredulous, not least when I told her we didn’t have exams but produced work to be read and seen in public as acts of collaboration and generosity. I have to be honest but I find my allocated work project less interesting. It’s with the School of Property. I have no interest in law or bureaucracy. I just want to build things. My tutor asked me what laws are needed to build a new society not based on private property but a unity of purpose and social defence. I told him I would think about it. If I get time. I don’t have any time. Or space. I am knackered. The pace of work is too slow.  I don’t get to the computers until next year when I start on Machines. Writing letters is part of the pedagogy, or the science of teaching, as they call it here. One of the Schools is called Letters, which extends to the humanities and the arts.  My tutor says writing letters allows for more critical reflection which is essential for learning. I am not so sure. My handwriting is rubbish and my favourite pen burst in my pocket so my shirt has an ink stain. I told Ellie it was tie dye. She said, ‘Do you think I am stupid?’ I said, ‘No, I think you are the smartest person I have ever met’.

Lots of love to you and to Dad. x


Dear Mum,

Thanks for the money you sent me. It is very kind but I don’t really need it here. Other than to buy more soap and some chocolate and fruit and beer.

As you know I was never interested in money, but the idea of the commonwealth is different. It is based on creating a new form of social value based on human purpose in the natural world. Like people and the planet. For now, we can’t avoid life with coinage, so we all make a financial contribution to Utopia’s commonwealth.  I raised my contribution from saving some of my wages when I worked before coming to Utopia and some crowdfunding and the money you gave me.  As you know this pays for accommodation and meals as well as the teacher’s salaries.  The annual accounts are a teaching object in the classes on Property. Money is the universal form of property. The university has reserves from donations and a levy from the international co-operative movement, for whom education is a core principle. My contribution is like an investment in the life of the university and if any profits are made at the end of the year I can draw down a dividend, or leave it in the fund to accumulate. The teachers pay a contribution to the commonwealth from their wages, which mounts up like a pension fund. I can earn money by working in the university to help the teachers teach and on necessary tasks to maintain the buildings. At Utopia doing is promoted above having. I might even leave the university with money in my pocket rather than a mountain of debt.  So the Commonwealth is not just an idea but a living source of value. Part of this is experimenting with new forms of social value, like labour time banks and other sharing schemes. I told Ellie that I loved her and I wouldn’t share her with anyone. I believe in free education but not in free love. Does that make me a conservative? I want to be radical, but it is hard.

Lots of love to you and Dad x


Dear Mum,

I’m pleased that the warmer weather has arrived. I bet you and Dad are enjoying being out in the garden more. It certainly makes my job here more enjoyable as I’ve started to work in the university gardens, too. It’s a funny thing, you know. All members of the university work for it in some way, including students, but it doesn’t feel like ordinary work when it’s an organisation that you collectively own and control. Through this work, I’m getting a different view of the way things run around here, too. There are quite a lot of meetings to discuss all aspects of the University, but we usually come to decisions quite quickly (although some topics can drag on!). Rules really matter though and I’m realising that democracy needs people to be actively involved and have the right information at hand so we can make good decisions. It’s not just our internal rules that I’m learning about but also the way we have to operate within the law and how the law is reflected in forms of regulation and in our university’s administration. It’s all connected, which is why it seems important to understand law and politics and the economy as what my teacher referred to as ‘social forms’, rather than things in themselves (i.e. natural). Does that make sense?

People here are elected for a period to take the lead on things such as running the courses, overseeing money, and representing different types of members at committee meetings. It’s a big responsibility and I heard that last year, members voted to remove someone from their role because they didn’t listen to anyone! He’s gone back to teaching in the School of Property. I was in a seminar the other day where we were discussing ‘bureaucracy’ and it occurred to me that there’s plenty of it here but actually in a good way. It seems to help protect what people care about in their organisation and if someone really wants to change the way things are done, then we can discuss it and vote at the next general meeting (I think that’s how it works, or maybe there are other meetings where it gets discussed first).  Well, as you can probably tell, I’ve been here nine months and I’m still figuring it all out. Some days I learn more in a committee meeting than I do in a seminar. Sometimes the committee meetings remind me of the type of discussions that were held in the Occupy movement that we studied last term. That’s a good thing, I guess.

As I mentioned on the phone, I don’t think I’ll be home for summer. It’s been agreed that I’ll be working with one of my teachers on a photography project about concrete buildings (can’t wait!) and Ellie has got a part-time job at her old school, helping run outdoor activities for kids.

Lots of love to you and Dad x


Dear Mum,

You asked me what have I learned over the last year. I learned universities are not about teaching and learning, but producing knowledge. My teachers talk about knowledge as an object of social value: something much more than value for money. I learned to develop a critical frame of mind. Not just through my own work but in reviewing the work of others. There are no grades or marks here, but a judgement by students and teachers on whether the work is ready for the world. If it is ready, then it gets published or put on show in an exhibition or as a public installation. If not then we redraft and resubmit, pull it apart and put it back together. We are taught to see the review as part of the process of the production of knowledge rather than as an assessment. As an act of collaboration with our teachers and with each other.

All of our work involves collaboration, a sort of intellectual solidarity.  This way of working does not forget that we are at the same time individuals in a collective context. We are not all the same, and our idiosyncrasies are allowed to flourish. For example, my interest in concrete as a philosophical concept and as a construction material. Maybe I will become an architect. My favourite building style is Brutalism.

Collaboration extends to other school work like maintaining the buildings. Not out of any sense of idealism about the dignity of labour, but the more of us working together the faster it can get done, especially the more menial and mundane tasks.  This sense of solidarity extends beyond the university. Next year I am going to the University of Mondragon as part of an exchange visit, working in their Electronics factory. This will form part of my studentship in the School of Machines.

In the curricula, Machines comes after Life. Life grounds knowledge in a relationship between humanity-in-nature, beyond the human intellectual and the cognitive to include the knowingness of the non-human world. Maybe this is the most important thing that I have learned.  Letters deals with art and humanities and the importance of aesthetics. Property deals with different forms of social wealth and how they are expressed in the law and the physical environment.

I also learned about democracy and the importance of everyone having an equal say in how the university operates. Coming to a decision can take a very long time, but when we get there it feels like the right decision. The discussions are a learning process. Sometimes I feel like we have reached the right decision even if I do not agree with it, if that doesn’t sound too weird.

We are encouraged to retain our commitment to the University of Utopia when we leave. They have established a society of friends to support this long term relationship. So, in a sense, students will never leave this place, at least not in our minds and in our hearts.

And I learned about personal commitment and the way in which we can show solidarity towards each other, to the extent that we can become mirrors for each other’s individual needs. For a while Ellie had taken on that role for me, but it is too much for one person. We cried when we realised we were over, but laughed when we saw the world we had opened for each other.

Did you and Dad ever feel like this?

In Solidarity. X



  1. http://socialsciencecentre.org.uk/blog/2016/05/05/isrf-funded-project-on-co-operative-higher-education/ []
  2. http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/23051/ []


Source: Nathaniel Dorsky (2005) Devotional Cinema, 2nd ed., Berkley: Tuumba Press, 24-25.

“For alchemy to take place in a film, the form must include the expression of its own materiality, and this materiality must be in union with its subject matter. If this union is not present, if the film’s literalness is so overwhelming, so illustrative, that it obliterates the medium it is composed of, then one is seduced into a dream state of belief or absorption that, though effective on that level, lacks the necessary ingredients for transmutation. Such a film denies its totality. It denies the fact of what it is actually made of.

The instinct to express the union of material and subject occurs at the beginning of known human expression. The devotional cave art in southern France and northern Spain often plays with the contours of the cave walls to enhance the hallucination of the bison or horse depicted on them. Egyptian sculpture is as much about the unceasing nature of stone as it is about the unceasing glance engraved on that stone. In French religious stone carving of the late twelfth century, the stone itself is luminous, as both material and expression. The stained glass of the same period was born out of a love of the elemental glory oflight, color, and glass, while at the same time relating biblical tales or the lives of saints. Similarly, Bach’s organ chorale preludes are as much an expression of skeletal fingers pressing down on ivory keys and releasing air through pipes as they are melodic evocations of prayer. Mozart, born into the age of classicism, wedded his classical style to the human metabolism in every detail. The texture of the instrumentation, the key changes, and the depiction of conversation and emotion through melodic line are the music itself and at the same time are a primordial mirror or example of what it is to be fully human. We hear ourselves at our alchemical best.

For film to partake in this luminosity and elemental glory, and thereby lay the ground for devotion, it must obey its own materiality.”

HE White Paper, the HERB, and Co-operative Higher Education

Yesterday, my colleague Mike Neary and I met with Dan Cook (who wrote a very good consultancy report for the Co-operative College on Co-operative Universities in 2013), Ian Snaith, a Lawyer and legal scholar specialising in co-operatives, and Smita Jamdar, a Lawyer who specialises in education. Our intention was to look at the new Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) in some detail, thinking about three scenarios:

  1. The conversion of an existing university to a co-operative
  2. The creation of a new co-operative university (a so-called ‘challenger institution’ to use the aggressive new parlance)1
  3. The possibility of a foreign co-operative university (e.g. Mondragon) accrediting degrees that are offered by a co-operative in the UK.

In summary, we agreed there will be no real barriers to any of these scenarios should the HERB go through Parliament as it is.

Following our meeting, Dan has published a detailed blog post which annotates the HERB and is well worth a read. There is more work to be done on examining the new legislation and in particular making sure it will fairly accommodate all types of new HEIs, and not just private, profit-making businesses. There are likely to be small changes to the proposed legislation  that could actually support the creation of co-operative universities and this is one of the things we’ll be focusing on in the future.

  1. What to call new forms of higher education? ‘Alternative providers’? ‘Challenger institutions’? I attended a conference last week where people were avoiding the use of ‘alternative’ because they didn’t want their vision of new forms of HE to be confused with the practices of some ‘alternative providers’ and had opted for ‘heterodox universities’ as an overarching term. Personally, I think ‘co-operative higher education’ avoids all of this and benefits from being an already existing organisational form that has a long, progressive social history – longer than most universities. []

What we leave behind

Book coverMy dad, Nigel Winn, died quite suddenly of cancer in 2006 aged 56. Since his death I have been meaning to collect his writing and publish a selection of his poetry. It’s taken me ten years to make time for this, in between having a daughter, getting married, building a house, chasing and holding onto employment and also trying to come to terms with the loss, too.

Dad left behind a collection of poems, a short play and other pieces of writing. He was a bricklayer and carpenter most of his life but started writing actively during the period 1996-2006. During that time, he studied for a BA in English Literature at the University of Lincoln, where he gained a First Class degree. He went on to teach at the university, and was popular among students. Following his death, colleagues established the annual Nigel Winn Memorial Prize for Creative Writing.

His work is quite autobiographical and therefore especially meaningful to those who were close to him. I used Lulu to self-publish this selection of his poetry. It’s very satisfying for me and my family to have a physical copy of his published work and I think that people who knew Nigel may like to purchase a hardback copy of the book, too. It is priced £8.93 + postage which is the lowest price available to me. I make £0.06p on every copy sold because Lulu won’t allow me to reduce the author’s profit to £0 for some reason. A PDF proof of the book can be downloaded here. Thank you for reading it. He was a really good man.

Nigel Winn
Nigel Winn, Sutton-on-Sea, 2005.

Learning to listen

For the past six months, I have been learning to play the (classical) guitar. I played electric guitar for a couple of years when I was a teenager and have tried to return to playing a few times since then. This time, I have the benefit of a superb teacher who has reminded me (now from the point of view of being a student), how inspiring and encouraging a teacher can be who still finds enjoyment in what they teach and wants to pass that excitement and curiosity onto others. I am approaching it as an education in music, with the guitar being the instrument through which I hopefully come to understand and appreciate music more fully. It seems to be working.

I am not studying towards particular music grades, but it is interesting to see what pieces of music are aligned with each grade. The piece below is one of the select few to be included in the syllabus/repertoire for Trinity’s Performance Diploma. It is for the Fellowship level (FTCL), “equivalent in standard to a postgraduate course at a conservatoire or university.” I really like a number of pieces on the FTCL list, but Sonata for Guitar, Op. 47 (1976) by Alberto Ginastera, stands out as a current favourite. The video below is interesting because it shows the complexity of the score as the music is being played. I may never be able to play something as difficult as this, but that’s not really the point. I’m learning to listen as well as play and compose, and that has already opened up a new world to me.