Chapter 14: Notwithstanding “Circumstances”

Many researchers who belong to the Marxist tendency have attempted to lay all the blame for the defeat of the Spanish Revolution on the anarcho-syndicalist movement, maintaining that the governmental collaboration of leaders of the CNT and FAI was a consequence of anarchist ideology which rejects the taking of political power by the workers.1 However such a viewpoint is untenable. First of all, anarchist conceptions not only repudiate the creation of new, “proletarian” political authorities, but also envisage the liquidation of the old – a process which the leaders of the CNT acted to prevent. In any event, they acted in the way they did not “because of ” libertarian theory, but in spite of it.

Besides, it is incorrect to assert that the anarcho-syndicalist masses of Spain refused to carry out the social revolution only because their “leaders” called on them to put an end to the revolutionary process. The facts show that the hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file members of the CNT and FAI, who played an outstanding role in the organization of workers’ and peasants’ self-management, “did not consider themselves constrained by political maneuvering,” but took action independently at the level of the enterprise, the syndicate, or the commune without waiting for any orders or appeals. Namely, this autonomous creativity “from below” did not depend on the “leaders” and often took place in spite of them, thereby proving the power of the anarchist “ideé-force.”

Although anarcho-syndicalism was, first and foremost, an urban rather than a rural movement, the Revolution in the Spanish village on the whole went further than in the cities, where government pressure and concessions were more effective. Here the associations which were created (collectives) embraced not only the realm of production, but other spheres of life as well. Members of the collectives voluntarily combined their own land with the land seized from the estate owners and often pooled their own financial resources. Each family preserved a small garden exclusively for their own needs. The rights of those who wished to continue to work their land on an individual basis were usually respected, so long as they promised to do so only with their own efforts, without using hired labour. It’s difficult to exclude the possibility of moral pressure on “individuals” by fellow-villagers, but cases of direct physical compulsion were virtually unknown in the saga of Spanish “collectivization.”

The collectives often included all the inhabitants of a village or at least the overwhelming majority of them. In many collectives “family allowances” were introduced.

Monetary wealth was expropriated by revolutionary committees and deposited in banks. Some places issued their own money or coupons. Committees took over distribution, and prices were established collectively and controlled. Collective warehouses and stores were organized; frequently they were accommodated in former churches.

Social transformations were uncoordinated and took various forms. Often this was connected with peculiarities of the structure of land ownership. If in Aragon 80% of cultivated land belonged to large landowners, then in the Levant (Valencia region) and Catalonia small land-holdings predominated. And although there were a good many anarchists among these small owners, who also began to create collectives, there were greater obstacles in their path in the Levant and Catalonia. In these regions only the lands of the large estate owners were confiscated. But war-induced food shortages prompted the setting up of communal councils to take measures to limit private trade and to promote socialization.

This was followed by the creation of complete collectives, although these did not enjoy as much support from the local population as the Aragon collectives. Some of these collectives were very large and prosperous, but in the majority of them monetary relations were still retained.

In Aragon around 400 to 500 agricultural collectives were formed, in the regions of Valencia – 900, in Castile – 300, in Catalonia – 40, and in Estremadura – 30 collectives.

In Aragon at the end of 1936 and the beginning of 1937 between 300,000 and 400,000 people lived in agrarian collectives belonging to the Federation (until its destruction by republican troops, and then – also by the triumphant Francoists). Here to the maximum extent an anarchist social structure was put into effect – “without proprietors, casiques [local bosses], priests, and exploiters.”

The Aragonese collectives included up to 70% of the population of the region; approximately 60% of cultivated land was at their disposal. In February 1937 a congress of collectives in Caspe officially confirmed that persons who wished to farm individually, without joining a group and without using hired labour, had the right to do so, as long as they did not benefit from services provided by the collectives. Such individuals could only retain as much land as they could cultivate by their own efforts.

Handicraft workshops and other types of local industry in the Aragonese villages, as well as shops and institutions of education and culture, were also socialized. In these villages there were strong, ancient, communal traditions, and their preservation made it easier to bring people together in free territorial and economic communities, appropriate for an anarcho-communist society.

Inside the collectives there was an absence of any kind of hierarchy and all members possessed equal rights. The main decision-making body was the regular general meeting of the members, which convened usually once a month. For the on-going coordination of communal and economic life, committees were elected, often based on the former revolutionary committees. Their members – generally delegates from the various sections – did not enjoy any special privileges and did not receive any special reward for this work. All of them, except secretaries and bookkeepers, had to continue their normal work activity. Each adult member of the collective (with the exception of pregnant women) worked. Labour was organized on the basis of self-management. Brigades, composed of from five to ten people, made decisions about all basic work-related questions at meetings held every evening.

Delegates elected at these meetings also carried out functions of coordination and exchange of information with other brigades. In many collectives the principle of rotation of jobs was put into practice, and workers moved from one section to another according to the requirements of the moment. Industrial enterprises were included in the communal structure, which facilitated the integration of industry and the rural economy. Collectives were joined together through regional federations.

The circulation of currency was gradually liquidated. In the first weeks after their creation, many collectives abolished the remuneration of labour and introduced unlimited free consumption of all goods from the common stores. But under conditions of war and shortages, this turned out not to be an easy matter, especially since currency still circulated outside the collectives. In September 1936 the majority of communes converted to the so-called “family allowance” system. Each family in the collective received an equal sum of money (depending on the collective, this was approximately 7 – 10 pesetas for the head of the family, 50% more for his wife, and 15% more for each additional member of the family). These allowances were intended only for the purchase of food and objects of consumption and were not to be put into savings. In many communes coupons were introduced in place of the national currency. In others there were cards or tokens. Under war conditions, certain types of food products were rationed almost everywhere, while others (wine, butter, etc.) were available in virtually unlimited supply in many places. Until a final decision about abolishing money “in a third of the 510 villages and towns adopting collectivization in Aragon, money was abolished and goods were available free of charge from the collective’s store upon presentation of a consumer’s booklet,” and “in two thirds a replacement currency was put to use: bonds, coupons, tokens, etc. which were valid only within the confines of the communes issuing them.”

The first occasion in the activity of individual communes in which a certain parochial tendency displayed itself had to do with the initial inequality of collectives: some of them started off being more prosperous, others poorer. As confirmed by an eye-witness – the German syndicalist Souchy – in the beginning some collectives opposed the idea of economic planning under the slogan of “self-sufficiency.”

The complete independence of collectives from one another, and differences in the distribution systems of the communes, made it difficult to coordinate their economic activity. The anarchists – proponents of intensifying the social revolution – applied themselves to solving this problem, including Durruti, who personally campaigned for “collectives.” In February 1937 in the town of Caspe a congress of the Aragon collectives was held with the participation of hundreds of delegates. The participants agreed to step up propaganda on behalf of “collectivization,” to create experimental farms and technical schools, and to organize mutual aid between collectives so that machines and labour power could be shared. The boundaries between settlements were eliminated and limits on communal ownership were also abolished. The federated collectives decided to coordinate exchanges with the external world, creating for this purpose a common stock of products intended for exchange rather than the internal consumption of the communes, and also started the gathering of statistics about possible exchange products. Finally, it was proposed to completely do away with any form of money circulation inside the collectives and their federation and the introduction of a universal consumer booklet (normally upon the presentation of this booklet, items of consumption were given out free of charge). These booklets were to help to establish the real requirements of each of the inhabitants of the region, in order that production could be geared to the concrete needs of people, thereby moving to the anarchocommunist practice of “planning from below.”

The activity of the Aragonese collectives was very successful. Even according to official data, the harvest in the region in 1937 grew by 20% at a time when there was a decrease in many other areas of the country. In Aragon roads, schools, hospitals, farms, and cultural institutions were built – in many settlements for the first time; the mechanization of labour was also applied. The inhabitants received access to medical services and free, anti-authoritarian education (physicians and teachers became full-fledged members of the collectives). Many collectives did not pay taxes. They preferred to support the Front directly and voluntarily.

Social transformations in the Spanish cities took place in a more uncoordinated fashion. On the one hand, the majority of industrial enterprises were occupied by the workers and passed under their control. On the other hand, the transition from the expropriation of enterprises by unions and collectives to full-scale socialization of industry did not take place, since commodity-money relations had not been done away with and money remained in the hands of the capitalists and the State. According to the eye-witness Gaston Leval, “very often workers in Barcelona and Valencia took over the factory, the workshop, the machines, and the raw materials and, taking advantage of the preservation of the monetary system and normal capitalist commercial relations, they organized production on their own account, selling the products of their labour for their own benefit.”

The pressure to compromise with the government did not allow the workers “to do more, and this distorted everything right from the start. This was ... not real socialization, but a workers’ neo-capitalism, a self-management vacillating between capitalism and socialism, which would not have happened – it should be emphasized – if the Revolution could have been carried out to completion under the direction of our Syndicates.” “We did not organize the economic body which did the planning. We were satisfied to chase the owners out of the factories and set up committees for control. We did not undertake any attempt to establish links between ourselves or coordinate the economy in a practical way. We worked without any plan, really not knowing what we were doing,” admitted Abad de Santillan, who dealt with economic questions in the CNT.

The socialization of distribution was not implemented in the cities, which soon had repercussions. In Barcelona, after the formation of the Catalan Central Committee of Militias, a Central Committee for Food Supply was created which included representatives of various political forces. It organized the supply of provisions for the Front and for hospitals, opened stores, and maintained a network of “people’s cafeterias.” But the system of private commerce was retained and towards the end of the year in Barcelona there such phenomena appeared as a shortage of food items, a speculative rise in prices, and other abuses. Already in December 1936 one syndicate of workers of the distribution sector of the CNT called on the workers of stores and shops to fight against speculation, by keeping a close watch on the owners to make sure they were not selling goods “to the wrong customers,” and also by not allowing arbitrary increases in prices.

Workers continued to receive wages. In a number of cases it was possible to inaugurate the so-called “family allowance,” namely equal pay for each worker with supplements for the members of his family (for example, in Barcelona). But more often matters were limited to reducing gaps in the scale of wages and a significant increase in the rates for the lowest-paid categories.

Nevertheless, in a number of places and branches of industry, syndicalization moved beyond the level of individual enterprises and spread to whole sectors. So-called “groups” of enterprises began to operate in a coordinated way like a single enterprise (in this manner were organized, for example, all the branches of industry in Alcoy; the supply of gas, water, and electricity in Catalonia; the streetcars in Barcelona; in various places – transport and public health facilities).

The anarcho-syndicalist unions strived to continue and deepen the revolutionary transformations, in spite of the war situation and the concessions of the “leaders.” Thus, one syndicate of the woodworking sector stressed that anarchists from the very beginning could realize their own will: “to replace the regime which died on July 19 with another which is more humane and equal – libertarian communism.” In Barcelona and in Catalonia “this transformation has begun.”

However “other organizations exploited the enthusiasm of the members of the CNT and FAI” to divert the “popular trend” in the direction of new defeats. As a result, “instead of proceeding to genuine expropriation, which would have satisfied the widespread desires of the people, the owners were forced to pay wages on a weekly basis and the daily pay increased but the hourly pay decreased – and this at the height of the war!” In enterprises which had already been confiscated, a large number of “parasitical bureaucrats” and control committees made their appearance – which were not involved in production as such. Moreover the collectives which sprang up in industry found themselves in an unequal situation. They tended to resemble co-operatives, trying to compete at their own risk, which gave rise to “two classes: the new rich and ever-present poor.”

The anarcho-syndicalists hoped to wrest economic activity from under the control of the estate. They were convinced “the petty bourgeoisie, represented in the government and similar official bodies,” bureaucrats, functionaries, and “useless agents and middlemen” were incapable of ensuring the normal operation and development of the economy. The unions and their organizations had an obligation “to control the whole of production and manage it.” As, for example, one of the syndicates of the woodworking sector explained, the anarcho-syndicalists recognized the Generalitat’s decree about collectivization, but in practice tried to impute to it a different orientation. “We agreed with the collectivization of all branches of industry, but with a single financial centre, switching to an egalitarian distribution system. We did not agree that some collectives should be rich and others poor... .”

The syndicates and federations of the CNT actively discussed plans for socialization of the economy. The federation which included the unions of workers of water, gas, and electrical utilities worked out a plan for collectivizing the supply of electrical power. Representatives of the textile federations of the CNT and the UGT, holding a joint meeting, resolved “to go over to full collectivization of the textile sector in Catalonia” and approved a system of self- management for it. The participants of a local plenum of syndicates of the CNT in Barcelona declared the necessity of “implementing the socialization of branches of industry on a nation-wide scale.” They proposed a scheme of organizing self-management at all levels, including councils for factories, sections, and branches as well as an overall Economic Council. Each section of an industrial branch would have to make a complete and detailed study of the situation in its branch and provide the Economic Council with a plan for socialization with a precise data on current capacity and productivity, number of workers, raw materials on hand, markets for sales, and possibilities for economic development. On January 1 1937 a national congress of the transport industry discussed the question of nationalization or socialization of its sector.

In the Levant the regional federation of peasants and the united syndicate of workers in the fruit export business issued an appeal to the peasants growing oranges and other fruits, which constituted one of the basic sources of foreign currency. The existing state of affairs, in which each population centre or syndicate engaged independently in the export business and disposed of the monies earned, and which resulted in rivalries, was termed “unfortunate.”

The syndicates called for the creation of a “central organ” with a common reserve of products and a mutual aid fund, controlled by the peasants themselves. Subsequently the peasant federations of the Levant succeeded in unifying about one half of the production of oranges; up to 70% of the harvest was routed through its trade organization to the European markets. [281]

In February 1937 a congress of the Catalan CNT approved a plan for re-structuring the industrial syndicates, which would embrace and control the whole cycle of production – from the cultivation of crops or extraction of raw materials to the distribution of the finished products. In Catalonia an economic survey of local syndicates and associations was organized. In this way information was gathered to serve for the creation of “revolutionary economics” with a system of “planning from below.” These statistics included, specifically, data about the geographical location and climate, traditions of the social-revolutionary movement, the economic situation and economic links of the locality, the housing situation, possibilities for the future, etc.

The gradual reversal of the Revolution from 1937 on did not allow plans for wide-scale socialization to be implemented. Under wartime conditions, the government was always more oriented to establishing State control over economic activity or even direct nationalization of industries, especially industries producing essential military goods. Correspondingly, the notion spread among some of the activists of forming a separate syndicalist managerial sector, run by the CNT, with autonomous structures of coordination and planning, to provide overall direction for the industrial federations and economic councils, with its own bank, etc. This concept was approved at the National Economic Congress of the CNT in Valencia in January 1938. In spite of all its suspended and incomplete projects, the significance of the social transformations brought about by the anarcho-syndicalist workers of Spain can scarcely be overestimated. These transformations have no equal in history on such a scale. Anarcho-syndicalism put into practice much of what had been “envisaged at all its congresses: workers’ control of factory and field, the planned development of production, equality in economic relations and in the possibility of adopting constructive decisions... All this took place outside the framework of the Republican government...”

In Aragon especially the possibility of implementing libertarian communism was demonstrated in principle.

The retreat of the leaders of the CNT and the FAI from the idea of “total revolution” and their concessions to the governments and parties of the Popular Front provoked bitter resistance and direct insubordination among the rank-and-file anarcho-syndicalists. Information about such happenings are fragmentary, and systematic investigations of organized opposition in the CNT, FAI, and Federation of Libertarian Youth do not exist up to this time. Therefore it is very difficult to gauge the real scale of opposition. Briefly summarizing the scattered information available, it is possible to distinguish three basic forms of such resistance. In the first place, this was resistance on the part of the lowest level unions of the CNT to the politics of nationalization (statification) of economic and social life, and a defense of gains in the area of workers’ self-management. Clashes between the republican authorities, on the one hand, and the unions and “collectives” on the other, were constantly flaring up. At the beginning of 1937 the Minister of Agriculture of Catalonia opposed plans for the socialization of distribution as proposed by the CNT syndicates in Barcelona. A sharp crisis was provoked by the efforts of the government to take over control of the economic activity of the workerp easant collectives of the orange plantations of the Valencia region. The Minister of Commerce Juan López, a member of the CNT, in support of the Minister of Agriculture – the communist Uribe, issued a decree at the beginning of 1937 about government control over the exports of agricultural collectives. However, a number of Valencian co-operatives refused to recognize his decree. The government sent military-police units with artillery and tanks against the strategic villages of Tulluera and Alfara, but the peasants, armed with hunting rifles and two old cannons, offered stubborn resistance. They were supported by the inhabitants of the neighbouring districts of Jativa, Carcagente, Gandia, and Sueca, forming the “Gandia Front.” The peasants of the villages of Catarroja, Liria, Moncada. Paterna, and Burriana formed the “Vilanesa Front.” To the aid of the collectives rush two battalions of the libertarian “Iron Column” and two battalions of the CNT columns, vacating the Teruel – Segorbe sector of the Front. Fighting in the region of Cullera continued for four days, after which the government forces attempted a flanking manoeuvre. After the intervention of the CNT an agreement was reached for a cease-fire and the mutual release of prisoners. The collectives of the Levant retained control over the production and export of oranges. Information exists about the strike launched by the union of workers in the entertainment industry of Barcelona early in 1938 (despite pressure from the leadership of the CNTFAI), in opposition to the introduction of State control of their sector. In the same category it is possible to include the protests of soldiers of the anarchist militias against their militarization and absorption into the regular army. As a result of the resultant crisis, the Catalan Regional Committee of the CNT was compelled to consent to allowing soldiers unwilling to submit to army orders to quit the Front. In the second place, a whole series of anarcho-syndicalist publications appeared which openly and quite severely criticized the “collaborationist” and “concessionist” course of the CNT and FAI committees. These publications denounced the winding down of the Revolution on the pretext of “antifascist unity” and collaboration with the government. The most important of these was the newspaper Ideas, which started coming out on December 29 1936. It was published by the local organizations of the CNT and FAI of Bajo Llobregat, and its editor was Liberto Calejas, formerly director of the Catalan CNT’s organ Solidaridad Obrera, but forced to vacate this post because of disagreements with the progovernment policies of the leadership of the CNT and FAI. Ideas became the centre of attraction of the whole revolutionary opposition inside the anarcho-syndicalist movement.

Among the writers who contributed blistering critiques were such well known anarchists as José Alberola, Felipe Alaiz, José Peirats, Severino Campos, Floreal Ocaña, Francisco Carreño, Jaime Balius, etc. Among the other oppositional anarchist publications it is possible to name Acracia in Lerida (editor – Peirats), Ciudad i Campo in Tortosa, Nosotros in Valencia; and also the organs of the Catalan Libertarian Youth (FIJL) – Ruta and Esfuerzo; and the newspapers of the Friends of Durruti (La Noche, and after May 1937 – El Amigo del Pueblo). All these publications were read with interest by the rank-and-file activists of the anarcho-syndicalist movement and enjoyed their support.

Finally, there also existed opposition groups. Thus, in Valencia some sections of the FAI and Libertarian Youth were grouped around the publication Nosotros which took a strong position against participation in the government.

In the same place in December 1936 manifestos were frequently distributed signed by the Iconoclasta group. They contained harsh criticism of the persons representing the CNT in the government and other organs of the State. It is likely these manifestos received a favourable response from members of the CNT, since the National Committee of the CNT considered it necessary to react in a brusque manner, denouncing its “undisciplined and irresponsible” critics which “do not represent anyone.”

The most important of the regional federations of libertarian youth – the Libertarian Youth of Catalonia – openly took a position against participation in the government, turning away from anarchist ideas, giving in to “circumstances,” and the collaboration of the “leaders.” After taking an active part in the events of May 1937, Libertarian Youth passed over into open opposition, refusing to submit to the decisions of the leadership of the CNT and FAI and concluding an agreement with the youth organizations of the antifascist parties. In response the leaders of the anarcho-syndicalist movement threatened sanctions against the “undisciplined” organ of Libertarian Youth – the newspaper Ruta.

In the spring of 1937 a section of the anarcho-syndicalists, dissatisfied with policies of the committees of the CNT and FAI, along with former soldiers of the militias, created the “Friends of Durruti” group, which included as many as four or five thousand members. They condemned the refusal to proclaim libertarian communism, participation in the government, and collaboration with socialists, communists, and bourgeois republicans. The members of the group also criticized both “orthodox” and reformist notions of anarchism, and called for a further development of anarchist theory and tactics, which would be based on the following fundamental positions: “the free city” (commune), management of the economy by syndicates, creation of a revolutionary committee for the defense of the Revolution, and coordination of the activities of local committees of defense.

But the Friends of Durruti did not become a centre of attraction for other oppositional groups in the anarchist movement, which criticized them for having an inclination for authoritarian methods. These groups, active in the FAI and CNT (Ideas and The Incorrigibles from Baja Llobregat, Los Quijotes del Ideal in Barcelona, Acracia in Lerida, etc.), advocated a return to the traditional principles and ideals of anarcho-syndicalism, resisting plans to transform the organizations into a political party and attempts at unifying and centralizing the libertarian movement. Thus, at the end of 1937 the prominent anarchists Santana Calero, Severino Campos, and Peirats published a brochure on behalf of “the main oppositional current of the conscious part of the libertarian movement.” Accusing the “leaders” of betraying the “ideological principles of anarchism,” violating the “essence of anarchism” in the name of “the demands of circumstances,” and “poisoning the lungs and brain of the body of the CNT-FAI with their stinking abomination of a policy,” they called for deliverance from being “strangled by statification and centralization.”

Like the Friends of Durruti, the supporters of a return to orthodox anarcho-syndicalism did not envisage any field of action for themselves other than the mass libertarian organizations – the CNT and FAI. Working among rank-and-file activists, they tried to alter the official line of the movement by speaking out at plenums and conferences. At the national plenum of regional committees of the CNT, FAI, and FIJL in October 1938, the opponents of “collaboration” tried to give battle one last time to the policy of taking part in government. A delegate of the Catalan “Libertarian Youth” declared: “Trying to insinuate yourself inside the State in order to destroy it, is like sending your wife and sister to a brothel in order to liquidate prostitution,” and Xena, a representative of the Catalan FAI, stormed out of the meeting hall as a sign of protest against the stated possibility of participation of the Federation in politics. However the opposition did not succeed in getting the changes they sought. It remained fragmented and organizationally inchoate. As usual the activists were encumbered with their faith in “their own organization” and any sort of appeal to the masses outside of its framework seemed inconceivable. Moreover, in Spanish anarcho-syndicalism there was no experience of systematic, coordinated fractional struggle, which could have helped the oppositionists to remove the leadership of the CNT and FAI committees.

  • 1. One of the first to make this assertion was the Trotskyist writer F. Morrow in 1938. See: F. Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain (Atlanta, 1974).