Workers against work in the Spanish Revolution - Michael Seidman

Workers against work in the Spanish Revolution - Michael Seidman

The achievements of anarchist ‘self-management’ during the Spanish Civil War show that production can be organised without the bourgeoisie or Leninist parties. But any genuinely anti-capitalist revolution in the 21st century will not be about democratic self-management of capitalist industry. Rather, it will be about the transformation of society world-wide so people can collectively fulfill their needs without any external discipline. Consequently, we need to understand workers’ resistance to work during the Spanish revolution rather than to just praise the achievements of anarchist militants (especially when those ‘achievements’ even included the setting up of labour camps!).

Michael Seidman’s Workers against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona during the Popular Fronts is a 'must-read' for anyone who wants to learn from the disastrous outcomes of the revolutions of the 20th century. Here are some extracts:


When revolution erupted in Barcelona in 1936, union militants of the anarchosyndicalist CNT (Confederación Nacional de Trabajo) and the Marxist UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores) inherited a backward industrial structure that they were compelled to modernize under difficult conditions of civil war in Spain. These militants - whether anarchosyndicalist, Communist, or Socialist - copied elements from the Western and Soviet models of economic development and accumulation. While attempting to build the productive forces, they quickly encountered what I shall call workers’ resistance to work. The anarchosyndicalists of the CNT, the most important working-class organization in Barcelona, were forced to jettison their theories of workers’ democracy and participation to make the rank and file work harder and produce more. The anarchosyndicalists and Communists in the newly collectivized firms reestablished piecework, initiated severe controls on the shop floor, and embarked on an intensive campaign that included both odes to Stakhanovism and socialist realist art. ...

Pro-anarchist historians have argued that increasing state power was responsible for the demoralization of the workers in the Barcelonan collectives. According to these historians, in the early period of the revolution, when workers were able to control their workplaces, they labored with enthusiasm. Following May 1937, the state increased its intervention, and workers lost control in many enterprises. As a result, wage earners’ desires to sacrifice diminished and their enthusiasm declined. This pro-anarchist analysis actually inverts the process. The state - and coercive measures in general - grew in response to workers’ resistance to work. (from the Introduction)


Even in the first days of the Revolution anarchosyndicalist newspapers and radio broadcasts continually called for workers both to return confiscated cars and return to work: ...

The Confederación considered the Catalan regional government’s decree establishing a forty-hour week "ruinous, suicidal, and counterrevolutionary"; the reduction of work hours and increase of wages amounted to a "serious mistake."

During the Revolution, many workers were reluctant to attend union meetings or pay union dues. Frequently, assemblies merely ratified decisions taken by smaller groups of militants or technicians. Some workers felt coerced and were reluctant to speak, let alone protest, during meetings. ...

The Spanish Revolution resembled the Russian, where organizations claiming to represent the working class took over the privately owned productive forces from a bourgeoisie that had not developed a strong industrial economy. In Spain, as in the Soviet Union, the effort to rationalize the productive forces was accompanied by technocratic thought and methods propagated by Fábregas, Santillán, and other CNT and anarchosyndicalist thinkers. Like Soviet planners, the Spanish revolutionaries desired, at least in theory, to build enterprises on a large scale. They often employed the same methods, such as Taylorism, highly preferential treatment for managers and technicians, and strict control of rank-and-file workers. ...

Both revolutions attempted to free their industries from foreign capital and control and to develop the productive forces within the national framework. Despite its federalism, the ideology of the CNT called for a strong and economically independent Spain. Solidaridad Obrera declared in May 1937, ‘Spain for the Spanish and Our Revolution must be Spanish’. According to the CNT daily, the Spanish Revolution would produce "an ethnic and psychological transformation that has been, for many years, in the heart and soul of the race (raza)." ... In 1939 Peiró demanded a "national xenophobia," which would inspire all classes to rebuild the Spanish economy. Another CNT minister, Federica Montseny believed that "we are the true nationalists. We are a people ... who lead all nations." ...

The Spanish Revolution, like the Russian, also had its labor camps (campos de trabajo), initiated at the end of 1936 by Juan García Oliver, the CNT Minister of Justice. The CNT recruited guards for the "concentration camps," as they were also called, from within its own ranks. Certain militants feared that the CNT’s resignation from the government after May 1937 might delay this "very important project" of labor camps. ...

According to a CNT historian, "delinquents, reactionaries, subversives, and suspects were judged by popular tribunals composed of CNT militants and, if found guilty, jailed or condemned to forced labor. Fascists, soldiers who looted, drunkards, criminals, and even syndicalists who abused their power were put behind bars or in work camps where they were forced to build roads." (from Ch.4)


An examination of salary differences in the textile industry confirms the preferential treatment that the CNT and, of course, the UGT accorded to the skilled. Available statistics confirm that although there was some leveling of salaries, the militants in charge of the factories retained considerable wage differentials, ranging from 2:1 to 7:1. (from Ch.5)


The rank and file’s continuing exactions and actions revealed the productivist assumptions of anarchosyndicalist and Marxist theories of autogestion [workers’ control]. Without changing the nature of the factory itself or by merely rationalizing it, anarchosyndicalists and Marxists called on workers to participate and control their workplace. Union activists were asking workers to endorse enthusiastically their role as workers. In effect workers were being pressured to participate willingly in their own bondage as wage earners. It is hardly surprising that many of them were reluctant to take part in the developmental democracy of the Spanish Revolution, and it is little wonder that union militants often lamented the unattended factory assemblies and unpaid union dues. ...

Faced with sabotage, theft, absenteeism, lateness, false illness, and other forms of working-class resistance to work and workspace, the unions and the collectives cooperated to establish strict rules and regulations that equaled or surpassed the controls imposed by capitalist enterprises. ...

In January 1938 at its economic session, the CNT determined ... "All workers and employees will have a file where the details of their professional and social personalities will be registered." Even as early as March 1937, when the CNT was participating in the government, all citizens between eighteen and forty-five (only soldiers, functionaries, and invalids were exempted) had to possess a "work certificate." The authorities could ask for this card "at any time" and would assign those who did not carry it to fortification work. If violators were found in "cafés, theaters, and other places of amusement," they could be jailed for thirty days. (from Ch.6)


In response to workers’ resistance, the union militants disregarded their democratic ideology of workers’ control and opted for coercive techniques to increase production. Many collectives gave technicians the power to set production levels; piecework reappeared, and incentives tied pay to production. The new managers established strict control of the sick, severe surveillance of the rank and file during worktime, and frequent inspections. Firings and dismissals for poor performance and "immorality," that is, low productivity, occurred. ...

At the end of 1938, Felipe Alaiz - a faísta who was elected editor of Solidaridad Obrera in 1931 and was later named director of Tierra y Libertad - defined the "essential problem of Spain" as "the problem of not working. " Enlarging the focus, Alaiz reiterated: "If we do not work, we will lose everything, even if we win the war." ...

The Confederación itself praised the "sublime song of work." The anarchosyndicalist militants came to accept uncritically a value that in other European countries had accompanied the rise of the bourgeoisie, and they lauded the union as the basis of the new economy because its productive capacity was supposedly superior to that of private property: "The union is the form par excellence that permits the extraction of the maximum of efficiency and output from its members." The Confederación fervently desired to "lay the foundations of a society based on love of work"; activists composed poems dedicated to work as "the divine sun" that "gives light to nations." The future society would not revolve around religion, sex, art, or play: the workers would be central, and it was certain that they must labor. ...

The workers’ refusal to participate enthusiastically in workers’ control demonstrated that their class consciousness differed from that of their new industrial managers. For the union militants, class consciousness meant active participation in the building of socialism or libertarian communism; many workers expressed their class consciousness by avoiding the space, time, and demands of wage labor.

Despite their proclaimed Marxism, even historians of the extreme Left - Trotskyists, pure anarchists, and autonomes - have viewed the conflicts of the Spanish Revolution as essentially political. Some have criticized the CNT leadership for its participation in government, increasing bureaucratization, and compromises with other parties and unions, particularly with the Communists. Extreme leftists have often seen Los amigos de Durruti, a group that was active in the street fighting of May 1937, as offering an alternative to the CNT’s compromises and bureaucratization. Los amigos proposed to strengthen the collectives at the expense of the private property still remaining in Catalonia, and it desired to revitalize the CNT so that the Confederación could exercise a revolutionary dictatorship against the Republican and Communist opposition. Nonetheless, it is difficult to believe that even the extremists of Los amigos offered a response to the fundamental problems of the Spanish Revolution. As the CNT and the UGT did, this group called for more work, sacrifices, the end of salary increases, and even "forced labor" (trabajo obligatorio). Los amigos de Durruti failed, of course, to take power, but its type of anarchobolshevik program would not have resolved the differences between the militants and the base. Like its opponents, Los amigos offered basically political solutions to problems that had deep social and economic roots. ...

The militants used coercion to force the workers to work harder both to win the war and to build the new society. The war merely reinforced, but did not create, the need for coercive methods. The war was thus not the cause of the coercion and repression of the rank and file but, like the militants’ vision of the future, the result of a long historical process with prewar roots.

Ironically, after the defeat of the Left, Franco’s governments adopted many aspects of the militants’ vision of the future. After two generations of stagnation, in the late 1950s the means of production began again to be rationalized and modernized. Spain strengthened its agriculture, improved its infrastructure, and developed its industrial base. New needs - such as the automobile and the telephone - were refashioned, and no longer could CNT militants lament that "Spanish backwardness derived, to a great degree, from racial laziness that leaves [the Spaniard] satisfied with a crust of bread." Cars began to be mass-produced, and the anarchosyndicalist project of cities of large apartment complexes and massive automobile circulation was partially realized. Considering the ability of postwar Spain to achieve much of the CNT and UGT militants’ dream, it is no wonder that anarchosyndicalist and other large-scale, working-class, revolutionary movements have nearly disappeared in present-day Spain. (from Ch.7)


The full book and other Michael Seidman articles are at http://libcom.org/tags/michael-seidman, as is Gilles Dauve's thought-provoking When Insurrections Die.

Comments

Juan Conatz
Jun 30 2011 06:19

So is this a review? By who?