Lessons of the collectives - Victor Alba

Published by Victor Alba, a former member of the POUM, in 2001, just before his death, this text addresses problems that the author believes will be faced by any resurgence of collectives of the kind formed in Spain during the Civil War, specifically problems of a “psychological” kind, warning that any future attempts to form collectives—in a society that has become an “amorphous mesocratic miasma” that has suppressed working class culture and militant traditions—will be dominated by a desire for more money and possessions rather than concerns about the environment, natural resources, and energy, for instance, which require the acceptance of “austerity”, and quality rather than quantity.

Submitted by Alias Recluse on December 29, 2015

Lessons of the Collectives – Victor Alba 1

After each setback suffered by the workers movement, it is traditional to say that the experience will help bring about future successes. That is not always how it works out: the failure of 1917 did not lead to trade union unity, nor did the disaster of 1934 lead to the consolidation of the Workers Alliance. This was not the case with the collectives, however. They were destroyed, but they did not fail. They nonetheless constituted an experiment, a test, and it is from this perspective that the pertinent lessons must be analyzed and deduced from the events themselves. The first thing we have to do is to perceive the actual situation of the time, stripped clean of all apologetics and calumny, and each person who engages in such an attempt must rid himself, in the context of this examination, of what we may very well refer to as ideological machismo, of that refusal to acknowledge mistakes and of the tendency to blame everyone else for what happened. This objective examination is what we shall embark upon here, with respect to the human, or psychological, aspects of the collectives.

The double price

Every transformative measure implicitly entails the risk of disorganization, improvisation, mistakes, and therefore suffering. The collectives can be considered, with regard to this aspect, as relatively innocuous; thanks to the deep roots of the long-held aspirations and characteristics of the Spanish workers movement—which had prepared its militants because the State had not offered any training at all to the dispossessed masses—the collectives functioned more efficiently than the entire economy did during the first years of the French and Russian Revolutions.

But another price had to be paid. While the forces that might have been able to prevent the collectivizations were in disarray on July 19, other forces arose which attempted to debilitate them and divert them from their original purpose. These forces, discussed in Chapter 9 [“Los adversarios” (“The Enemies”)], began, after May 1937, not only to dismantle the collectives, but to persecute and slander the forces that could have defended them, and also initiated a campaign of defamation against the collectives themselves. Hundreds of workers were assassinated and thousands imprisoned because they rallied to the defense of a revolution whose clearest expression was the collectivization of the means of production. Once the Civil War ended, the collectives were obviously erased by the Franco dictatorship, which also persecuted their supporters and leaders. As was the case with the other aspects of the repression under the Franco regime, the “authorities” did not act on their own initiative, but in response to the denunciations that they received. Some employers, when they returned to their businesses, were content to ignore what had taken place in them and did not engage in reprisals; they were the exception. Others fired their employees who were members of the enterprise committees and those whom they considered to be “reds”, but did not denounce them to the authorities. Others—undoubtedly the majority—denounced to the authorities the members of the enterprise committees of the businesses they had recovered. If someone who was named in one of these denunciations had not gone into exile, the police looked for him; if he was a member of the republican army during the Civil War, the denunciation was ultimately forwarded to the prisoner of war camp and he was transported to his native town, in order to appear before a council of war. Finally, there were some cases—exceptional ones—in which a member of an enterprise committee had been arrested after having been denounced for other activities and his employer, satisfied by the orderly conduct of the committee of which the accused individual had been a member, attempted to save him, and there were even cases where, if the employer had enough influence, he succeeded in getting him released from prison. The Count of Romanones succeeded in saving the members of the committee of the collective that administered his lands in Guadalajara, and even hired them to work for him. Truly a “rara avis”.

In his memoirs, Francesc Cambó pointed out that, in 1942, “while speaking with some factory workers, I lost my head.” They were discussing the case of those industrial employers who, ruined with the onset of the civil war, were rich when it ended, “thanks to the careful and faithful management of the workers committees that administered their enterprises. The latter had paid the company debts with depreciated red currency and concealed the existence of large stocks of commodities, which, after the war, could be sold by the business owners at a good profit. Why didn’t they give the workers a good cut of the profits?” And Cambó complained that they had denounced the workers on the committees instead, and had them thrown into prison.

The military prosecutor almost automatically called for a sentence of six to twelve years for anyone who was accused only of having been a member of an enterprise committee, for the crime of having “aided the rebellion”. But many of those who had been members of the enterprise committees were also militants and were involved in other activities, which added years to their sentences. In any event, anyone who was accused and arrested exclusively for having been a member of an enterprise committee had to spend, at least, between two and four years in jail, depending on how long it took before his trial finally took place. I have no figures about how many people found themselves in this situation.

Marx said that the more terrified the bourgeoisie was, the more ferocious it would prove to be when it unleashed its repression. In Spain, the collectives were a cause of panic, because they functioned relatively well, they did not fail, and they gave hope to and instilled a combative spirit in the workers. The bourgeoisie in the cities, and the big landowners in the countryside, were not content to recover “their” property. They took merciless revenge on the “collectivized” workers, for their past fears and also for the humiliation of seeing that their workers operated their enterprises as well as or better than they did. Since many members of the enterprise committees were able to flee to exile in France from Catalonia, it was the workers themselves who had to pay the price, and since these workers were necessary to run the enterprises recovered by their former owners, the cruel reprisals did not take place so much in prisons and labor camps, as in the enterprises themselves. The working conditions, hours and wages that were imposed after 1939 constituted a regression of decades. The “trade union” system of the Franco dictatorship, a bad imitation of Mussolini’s corporatism, made the workers pay for the “sin” of having wanted to be masters, until a new generation of workers and employers emerged that had not directly lived through that experience. And this double price that the proletariat paid for the collectives was matched by a corresponding double blackmail.

The double blackmail

The collectives were hobbled, denatured and destroyed, as the Civil War progressed, thanks to a double blackmail that paralyzed the forces that would have otherwise defended them. It was this double blackmail that prevented the workers from refusing to accept, first, the interference of the State, then the manipulation of the enterprises, and finally the virtual nationalization of some of them.

The first blackmail, as I have already explained, was that of the Soviet arms. The republicans would not have dared to interfere with the collectives if they had not been able to count on communist support. The communists would not have been able to take the initiative in the campaign against the collectives, nor would they have been able to win the support of part of the middle class, if they had not been able to count on Soviet “aid”. It was the latter that provided them with the power to undertake their campaign against the collectives. By themselves, the communists were not a significant force, they did not have significant working class support among their ranks, they did not enjoy great prestige, nor did they have a long tradition of struggle. Even if we credit the exaggerated figures provided by the communists themselves concerning their supporters, the latter did not constitute even 2.5% of the organized working class; most of their militants were not industrial workers. It was Soviet aid—made possible by the defection of the capitalist democracies and by Negrín’s delivery of the Spanish gold reserves to Moscow—which gave the communists their power. Since the USSR was not interested in helping the collectives (for diplomatic reasons and because they revealed an alternative to the Soviet model), the communists wanted to destroy them. The republicans, who would not have been capable of destroying the collectives themselves, joined the communists and between them they annihilated the only experience of collective, non-statist property that had ever taken place in the world.

The blackmail of Soviet arms was possible because Spain was embroiled in a Civil War—the same Civil War that made the collectives possible. The Civil War reinforced this blackmail because it prevented the workers from fighting to defend the collectives. When they nonetheless wanted to do so (in May 1937), their own leaders advised them to disarm. Then, demoralized by this battle that was lost almost without a fight, no longer being able to resort to other means, such as protests and other kinds of pressure, because any such actions would have prejudiced the war effort and, automatically, created the conditions under which the collectives—or what remained of them—would be swept away by the Franco regime. This is what ultimately took place, but not due to working class defense of the collectives, but due to reasons dictated by Soviet diplomacy (beginning with the secret Stalin-Hitler negotiations) and to a certain extent also by the loss of the will to fight caused by the hamstringing of the collectives.

The double error

The very close connection between these two instances of blackmail shows that the possession of the economic instruments is not sufficient to transform society. The restrictions imposed on the collectives and the campaign against them were implemented by way of the press, the radio, political propaganda, diplomatic action, police activity and even the intervention of the armed forces (in Aragon, against the agrarian collectives). If all of those factors had been controlled by supporters of the collectives, it would not have been possible for them to be used against the collectives. If, on the 20th or the 21st of July, instead of being satisfied with the spontaneous collectives and local committees, the supporters of these institutions were to have proceeded to seize power, communist sabotage of the collectives would have been rendered impossible, because the blackmail of Soviet arms would have been impossible. With a foreign policy directed by the supporters of the collectives, the USSR would have been faced with the dilemma of either refusing to help the Republic, or aiding it with no strings attached. In any case, the Spanish gold reserves would not have been shipped to Moscow and, consequently, Moscow would not have been able to wield an ineluctable “argument” for the imposition of its policy and the sudden rise in the fortunes of the Spanish communist party.

The collectives were therefore indirect victims of the confusion between power and politics. The trade union movement in Spain was traditionally anti-capitalist, which had not prevented it from operating within capitalism, using the means of action that it had wrung from capitalism in order to combat the latter (organization, strikes, contracts, etc.). Likewise, even if one is against politics (as was anarchosyndicalism) and considers authority to be just as corrupting as private property, one must not renounce the use of the means that can be wrested from politics to combat the latter. The best way to diminish power is to seize it and, from that vantage point, disperse it and, at the same time, use it to defend that dispersion and to further its devolution to the people.

There was another mistake linked with the first one, mentioned above: that of not attracting the support of the middle class. Without this support, the communists would not have enjoyed such success in their campaigns against the collectives, they would not have been able to persuade Negrín to send the gold to Moscow, and they would not have had the cadres or the means to impose Soviet policy. In any event, without the middle class, they would have had to attempt to establish an open, declared dictatorship.

The workers movement, although it did not attack the interests of the middle class, did not implement a policy to win its support, either. This was quite possible, without prejudicing working class interests; it would even have benefited them. The workers movement could have incorporated a significant part of the middle class in its organizations, it could have established permanent links between the small- and medium-size private businesses and the collectivized economy, and it could have made greater use of the services of professionals. For the most part, it did not do so, perhaps because it identified the middle class with the worst aspects of politics and because it was the middle class in power that, for very complex reasons, attacked the workers movement during the Republic.

If the workers movement—all the working class organizations rather than just one of them—had seized power in July 1936 (in fact, it was there for the taking, since power was in the streets), the middle class, with its tendency to rally behind the most powerful force, would have followed the workers movement and the enemies of the collectives would not have found a base upon which they could raise themselves and which they could use as propaganda fodder and as soil within which to sow rumors against collective ownership.

Even the diplomatic situation would have been clarified had the supporters of the collectives won the support of parts of the middle class. As long as the situation in the Republican zone was ambiguous and power was not clearly in the hands of one or another faction, foreign governments could also be ambiguous. The collectives, in conjunction with a democratic working class power, one that would respect the middle class and could count on its support, would have seemed less dangerous than Soviet meddling. In any event, with the Spanish gold in their hands, the working class power would have been capable of obtaining, perhaps even illegally if need be, or perhaps legally, as many weapons (and at a better price) as Moscow delivered and probably more, as many as would have been needed to win the war.

It would undoubtedly have been necessary to make some concessions. These concessions would have been temporary, however, and in any case they would have been less destructive to the collectives than the concessions which the collectives were forced to make by the diktat of the communists and Negrín.

We are still paying for this double blackmail and this double error—which were very closely related—many years later. Not only due to the loss of the war and the forty years of Franco’s dictatorship, not only due to the destruction of the collectives in 1937-1938, but also because the consequences of these events would for many years allow those who destroyed the collectives to pass the buck to those who totally eliminated them after 1939. For the communists would not have been able to pursue the politics that they conducted under Franco and during the transition, they would not have been able to take over the workers commissions founded by the Catholic brotherhoods, they would not have had the power to be joint authors of social pacts, if they had not been capable of capitalizing, as opposed to the forces that were most determined to prevent social change, on the role they played during the Civil War. Thus, because they destroyed the collectives in 1937-1938, in 1976 they were perceived to be capable of preventing new outbreaks of similar movements (under other forms and other names). Perhaps they did not perform this role under orders from Moscow, but by virtue of their own native disposition. In any event, their role after 1976 was directly derived from their role in the Civil War and with respect to the collectives.

An “anomalous” experience

With respect to the question of “outbreaks of similar movements”: when considering them it is of fundamental importance to emphasize their heritage. The collectives were not decreed—I am referring to the first wave of collectives, that of July 21-22, 1936. They did not obey a decision from above. Their spontaneous character was the necessary condition for their success. Anyone who lived through that experience knows this (although very few people are left who can testify to this fact). It is a fact that was not found in papers or documents, but which was obvious. It is impossible to say whether or not, in the future, situations will arise in which collectives or their equivalent will be formed, or if there will be other conditions in which an organization, an institution or a movement will once again attempt to “implement” something worthy of the name of collectivization. A civil war is not necessary to create conditions that would be favorable for such a project. Such conditions might arise from unforeseeable circumstances. I think that the Spanish experience allows us to state that, in order for such a project to be successful, the collectives, the self-management, or whatever name may be given to such institutions in the future, must be spontaneous, they must respond to the fragmented and dispersed but convergent decisions of the workers, and not to laws or pre-determined programs. Of course, the collectivization of the means of production can be ordered by decree, but if it does not respond to the desire of the workers to be masters, if this desire does not exist or if it is not felt to be satisfied by the collectives, the latter will not be successful. The collectives of 1936 were successful. Given the circumstances, they proved the essential point: that the workers could administer the enterprises just as or even more effectively than the employers or managers, or executives, as they are called today.

J. Oltra Picó was one person who, in the name of the POUM, analyzed the collectives of 1936. In 1946, barely ten years after the experiences in question, he wrote: “The first obstacles put in the way of the collectives were due, of course, to the bourgeoisie, although after the decree on the collectives was published their rights were reduced to the ownership of those businesses employing fewer than one hundred workers. Another stumbling block was the foreign businesses and, which was even worse, the foreign interests that were alleged or seemed to exist. Countless Catalonian and Spanish capitalists had no compunction, in order to save or conceal their own business interests, about placing them under the conservatorship of foreign consulates, resorting to the most bizarre and shameful deals. As a result of these machinations, we were deprived of access to raw materials, and capital was exported during the first months of the civil war. Later, the deceitful artifices and scams that were concealed behind the shelter of foreign interests were exposed. Another stumbling block was comprised by Spanish interests based outside of Catalonia and the interests of institutions connected with the central government. The workshops of Nuevo Vulcan, located in the port of Barcelona, had to be exempted from collectivization, because a shipbuilding firm that was connected with the central government was opposed to its collectivization, and threatened to stop paying the wages of its workers. The Council of the Economy had to yield when faced with the prospect of these workers being deprived of their wages, which would then have to be defrayed by the Generalitat. Those sectors comprising what we may call big industry, however, such as textiles, metallurgy and chemicals, were for the most part collectivized and a few horizontally and vertically amalgamated industrial concentrations were formed, such as the Catalonian Lead Workers Trade Union, which concentrated the production, manufacture and sale of that metal throughout Catalonia, or the Association of Refrigeration Construction Enterprises, which combined the manufacture, sale and installation of refrigeration equipment in Catalonia and also maintained a monopoly on imports affecting that industry, or the Metallurgical Production Trade Union, an enterprise that combined the manufacture, distribution and sale of scales, balances, metal furniture, etc. Other industrial amalgamations of lesser importance were also formed. Thus, a vast movement of industrial concentration arose, which would have been able to produce magnificent results if its directive institutions had been centralized and if it could have counted on the economic means it needed to develop”.

It cannot be deduced from the above testimony that the workers of the year 2000 would be just as effective as administrators as their employers, nor can it be said that they want to be the masters of the enterprises in which they work. It all depends on their tradition of trade union education, on the militant spirit imbued in them by the workers movement. Of course, the mere desire of the workers to be masters is not enough to ensure the victory of the collectives; nor is it enough for the workers to have a long tradition of trade union militancy behind them. Both of these conditions were present in the experience of 1936. It was an anomalous experience, however, which took place under anomalous conditions. There is no way to know whether, if the Civil War was won, and once the enthusiasm it provoked had subsided, the desire to the masters would have persisted or if, in a normal situation, conflicts might have arisen that had been set aside during the Civil War and which might have threatened the continued existence of the collectives. In any event, one thing is unquestionable: the workers were capable of effectively administering the enterprises … at least in the economic world of more than sixty years ago, an economic world that was relatively simple compared to today’s complex world, with its globalization, its multinationals and mergers and the new technological means available.

The experience of the collectives is not typical, of course, since it occurred at the beginning of a civil war, and it is not likely that such circumstances will be repeated. What was done in Spain can indeed serve as a precedent, but it cannot be set up as something to be imitated, except in the sense that we must avoid the mistakes that were committed and learn from what was done right.

Obviously, any similar hypothetical experience will have to proceed to stages of its development that could not be assayed in Spain because of a lack of time. In this sense, the Spanish experience can be considered to be useful, above all, for the first stages.

Another lesson that we should learn is that the communists, where they held sway or influenced those who were in command, were opposed to the very idea of the collectives, because the latter granted the workers participation in power, and the communists preferred to sacrifice this participation rather than submit to it, especially if this sacrifice was advantageous for Soviet diplomacy. This was true in 1937 and it continued to be true until the collapse of the USSR. This was proven by the dissident communists, such as Tito in Belgrade and Dubcek in Prague; the former, by breaking with Moscow, used the Spanish experience of some of his comrades who had been in the international brigades to attempt to organize industry on a foundation different from that of the Soviets, and the latter, in the Prague Spring, in 1968, was beginning to avail himself of the Spanish lesson by democratizing the State enterprises, before the USSR intervened militarily. In both cases, subsequent events nipped these attempts in the bud. The Spanish experience of 1936 was therefore not sterile as far as the international workers movement is concerned. Was it sterile for the Spanish workers movement?

Is there such a thing as a “normal” situation?

The Civil War was followed by harsh repression, whose main victims were the workers. Franco’s State placed itself at the service of the returning employers and business owners. We have already seen what Cambó thought about this. In Spain, for almost forty years, no one spoke openly about the collectives, except for the propagandists of the regime, who depicted them as “theft” or a “communist maneuver”. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, interest in the collectives was manifested among those who had no experience of them. This interest first arose among certain students who managed to obtain permission to write theses about them. This interest spread, to some extent, in a vacuum, due to a lack of documentation. Later, they were studied openly, and during and after the transition books were published about them; thus, a phenomenon that, when it was actually a living reality, lacked all “respectability” (Catalonian and Spanish republican intellectuals, during the war, paid no attention to it), became intellectually and politically respectable. Studies were published concerning previously-unmentioned topics, such as that of the agrarian collectives, demonstrating that the peasants wanted the land, and were prepared, by their long struggles and their organization, to exploit it more efficiently than the big landlords, as well as to administer the rural municipalities better than the local political bosses or the caciques.

In normal circumstances the dilemma of having to sacrifice everything, including social experiments, to the cause of victory, would not exist, because there would be no war. Sacrifices will undoubtedly have to be made, but they will not be matters of life or death, but of convenience, of larger or smaller incomes, of more or less work, and even these sacrifices would only be temporary, for if a system of collectives cannot produce equal or better results than private property, but with less work and more well-being, then it would not be justified.

No one should think, however, that self-management (the name that was applied during the 1970s to the equivalent of collectivization) will encounter enemies only among the capitalists. Under any circumstances, the question of power will be posed (if not with respect to the communists, who are more or less extinct, then with the political parties and employers associations). That is, what was already obvious in 1936 will once again become evident: it is not enough to control the economy or an important part of the economy; it is also necessary to control those mechanisms that can be set in motion to oppose the success of the experiment: banks, diplomacy, bureaucracy. Whether it is destroyed, replaced or conquered, power is an unavoidable factor of self-management, if the latter is not to be reduced to a handful of bankrupt enterprises. Those successes it has enjoyed in a few isolated cases are due precisely to the small scale of the businesses involved, which did not threaten those who pulled the strings of economic and political power.

In this sense, it can be stated that there is no such thing as a “normal” situation, and that every situation that can be favorable for a large-scale collectivist experience is an anomalous situation, whether it takes the form of a war or other unforeseeable circumstances: serious economic crisis, serious political crisis, disarray in the instruments of power, or—which, for the time being, is most unlikely—the reappearance of a working class consciousness that would assume the supreme goal of turning workers into masters.

Some exceptional cases

Contemporary workers, and even those of the recent past, are not like those of the more distant past, those of 1936. The latter, in Spain, had nothing to lose but their chains, as Marx said. In fact, however, there was more that they could lose: their trade union training, their experience as militants, a century of working class education that had been accumulated generation after generation. Their chains have been turned to gold and today the workers are afraid to lose their homes, refrigerators, TVs, cars and motorcycles, and even their cell phones, almost all of which was purchased on credit. If they lose their jobs, they lose almost everything. However, they can no longer lose their working class education, their trade union militancy, the experience of generations, because they do not retain the slightest trace of these things. All of society, in the industrial countries, has become an amorphous mesocratic miasma.

It is precisely the fact that they might lose those tangible things and that they do not take the intangible things into account that has given rise to a few cases of something that might be called self-management (or, if we use the terminology from more than sixty years ago, collectivization). I shall cite a few cases that I know about, although there must be many more that I am unaware of.

In the Federal District of Mexico, for example, a glass factory went bankrupt during the 1970s, and, to prevent its workers from becoming unemployed, a Christian trade union reached an agreement whereby those who were owed back wages were paid off with collective ownership (or cooperative property, officially) of the factory. It seems that it ran smoothly for a few years, always under the direction not of the workers themselves but of directors appointed by the trade union, and with the help of committees and assemblies.

In Tower, Wales, a coal mine closed and in 1994 the conservative government authorized the miners to purchase the mine from the bankrupt enterprise, using their severance pay. Thus, 249 miners became mine owners; in three years, they made a profit, with an increase in the lowest wages and the suppression of about half of the more or less managerial positions, and with the help of the advice of a financial advisor and the decisions made by the miners assembly. (An Anglo-French documentary film about this experience, “Charbons ardents”, was produced in 1999.)

More interesting, because it takes place in the prototypical country of ultraliberal capitalism, is the initiative of a political science professor, John Logue, in Ohio, an industrial state in decline. He founded the Ohio Employees Ownership Center. In a quarter century, this organization has helped 8% of the workers in Ohio’s private sector to become owners, in whole or in part, of 11,000 American enterprises, including such powerful corporations as United Airlines, or Blue Ridge Paper Products, with 2,200 workers in six factories. Its directors claim that what lies behind the excellent results of an enterprise of this type is not just the fact that it is owned by the workers, but its systems of workers participation and training. There has been no sign, however, of any significant environmental initiatives, for instance, implemented by these worker-owned enterprises. And the same can be said of the other experiences of this kind depicted above, or other experiences that have taken place to the best of our knowledge.

This poses problems that are not so much technical problems of administration or economics, as cultural and psychological issues, involving training, education and cultural perspective, that is, precisely those points where the difference between today’s worker and the workers of sixty years ago is most profound, the difference between the wage earner of today and the proletarian of yesterday.

Another aspect that is not often taken into account is that of the American pension funds, which form a significant proportion of the shareholder claims on the companies traded on Wall Street. These funds exercise important financial and stock market pressure throughout the world, and the companies in which they have invested figure among the leading forces of globalization, that is, in the forefront of a new technique of financial colonialism. The fact that the American worker-owners of these funds have not imposed the condition that they do not participate in the financing of companies whose activities are harmful to the environment or well-being of the workers of other countries is a clear indicator of the new middle class mentality expressed by the class we used to call the proletariat.

Yet another very recent manifestation of this transformation of mentality is the tendency of many companies to give “stock options” to their workers, long after such options had been given to executives. Thus converted into shareholders of the company that employs them, the workers have no interest at all in becoming their own masters, since, through their shares, they already consider themselves to be part-owners. Rather than measures implemented to save capitalism in its confrontation with an adversary that is now almost non-existent, this development involves tactics that we may say are normal in the business world for the purpose of increasing productivity and profits, while its psychological consequences are decisively negative with respect to the possibility, in an unforeseeable future, for a resurgence of collectivization.

Unresolved issues

If the collectives of 1936 were to have survived and if they had been able to stabilize in a “normal” situation—that is, if they had won the Civil War, which would have entailed the collapse of the communists and the supporters of Negrín—problems most likely would have been posed which are characteristic of any experience of this type, in any place or time. I will refrain from examining the question of technical problems (finance, credit, foreign trade, modernization of plant, patents, etc.) because everyone has technical or juridical solutions to the degree that they possess political power or a decisive influence over the latter. I shall restrict my discussion to cultural or psychological problems, since they are in reality the ones that characterized the experiences of the collectives of 1936 and distinguished them from more recent forms of workers self-management (as we have seen in the brief review of the experiences in Mexico, Wales and the United States).

It would not take much time for the problem of the dual role of the trade unions, which I discussed above, to be addressed: coordinators and administrators, on the one hand, and defenders of the workers, on the other. There can be no doubt that the trade unions will have to be separated from their administrative functions, or other institutions must be created (which can hardly be called trade unions, but that is what they would be) which would be responsible for defending the workers and exercising, if necessary, the right to strike, which the collectives must never abolish on the pretext that the workers are now owners.

No less important is the question of the generalization of the collectives, which should be carried out on two terrains. On the one hand, they must include all major enterprises (those which would not fall under the categories of small or medium-sized enterprises), including those owned by foreign interests. On the other hand, all the workers, including those who are employed in the collectivized enterprises, must be at the same level. It is imperative that no efforts be spared to prevent collectivization from constituting the first stages of the formation of a working class aristocracy, higher paid and enjoying a higher standard of living. This might require occasional subsidies for the small and medium-size enterprises, as paradoxical as this may sound, or else some kind of assistance on the part of the collective enterprises for the workers in the private enterprises, or the limitation of the profits that the collective enterprises can distribute to their own workers. In any case, the standard of living of the workers will have to be homogenous.

Small and medium-size enterprises will have to accept—over the long term this will be to their advantage—their incorporation into a general system of controlled foreign trade. Likewise, the major collectivized enterprises, at the same time that they will be expanding by virtue of mergers for technical reasons and efficiency, must be prepared to encourage the collectivization of small and medium-size enterprises in those sectors of economic life in which the smaller enterprise can be more effective or more suitable in some other respect than a large one, in building maintenance, repairs, artisanal production, and frequently in distribution (regardless of the fact that today, with the so-called “big-box stores”, this would seem illusory). The collectives must know how to avoid—and this will not be easy—the traps that capitalism, with its tendency for constant expansion and infinite growth, will open up before it.

As we have seen, all these problems are, despite their appearance, more psychological than technical or strictly economic, since their solution will depend on the will, the preparation, the culture and the tradition of struggle of the workers and on what they decide in their collectivized enterprises, on the one hand, and in the trade unions, on the other.

In any situation, the collectivized enterprise must be flexible enough, even though it is part of an extensive system, to preserve its individuality. And this individuality will have to come not from what it produces, but from how it produces it. It will therefore have to prepared to take risks by experimenting constantly with new methods of production and labor processes, for the purpose not only of achieving greater efficiency, but also of reducing boredom, routine and fatigue, increasing the human interest of the job, and raising the level of diversity in the productive process. If the collectivized enterprise will mean simply that the workers will vote in assemblies about matters of administration and that they should have higher wages, it will not fulfill its function, which consists, above all, in humanizing labor, in which labor contributes to giving meaning to the life of the workers. There are no recipes for this, it is a question of experimentation, testing, making mistakes, going back to the drawing board, and always at the initiative of the workers.

This, in turn, means that the collectivized enterprise must intervene—as an enterprise or by way of the trade unions or other means—in the formation of educational systems and the encouragement of cultural activity (without, however, trying to control it), so that new generations of “collectivized” workers will come to work free of the prejudices and of the mentality that capitalist society had imposed on the generations prior to the establishment of collectivization. It must be able to do this with so much libertarian spirit that it will even be able to go so far as to determine that the collectivized economy will help those who criticize it by written or spoken word. That is what capitalism does with those who criticize it; it is inconceivable that, as a matter of principle, something that has to be better than capitalism should be less liberal.

This means that the collectives must have influence in society and that this influence must not be limited to the influence they exercise by their mere existence—which would not be minor—but must be voluntary and conscious. What should be done, for example, with regard to the age of retirement, with the desire of workers over the age of 65 to continue to work and with the simultaneous desire of young workers to ascend the occupational ladder and take the places of the older workers? Is it possible to conceive a system of collectives in which men who are over 40 years old will find it hard to get a job, or in which women will be paid less, for the same work, than men?

Basically, the collective system, in order to be victorious, will have to transform itself into the axis and motor of a profound change of mentality, so that people will be educated to be people rather than producers and consumers. It will have to desacralize labor while simultaneously integrating labor into life as a whole, converting it into a game and a challenge instead of a routine. If the collectives do not transform the life of the “collectivizers” into an adventure, if they do not make it possible for every worker to have his own biography when he dies, they will have failed, however much they may increase productivity. The collectives must prove not only that they are better administrators than capitalism, but that they are more capable of using the instruments that capitalist society was able to produce but which it did not want to utilize for the general benefit (or only did so involuntarily or indirectly).

In the dubious hypothesis that the desire for collectivization will reemerge, a whole series of problems would be posed that, while the phenomena to which they refer may have existed in 1936, were not perceived as problems in Spain at the time. For example, problems related to ecology, natural resources, and energy. In 1936 things seemed much more simple than they do today, although even then the contradictions that would decades later break through the surface had already set down deep roots.

Let us not deceive ourselves: if “collectivizers” were to exist today, it is most likely that they would tend to sacrifice ecological equilibrium for productivity, expand production instead of encouraging austerity, obtain raw materials at a good price and sell manufactured products at a high price. Educated by capitalism in its 21st century version, these “collectivizers” would perceive the vices of capitalism as virtues. They will lack the tradition of struggle and working class education, and they will have mortgage payments to make.

This is where politics, power and its consequence, the capacity for planning, have a fundamental role. The collectives must be libertarian in the domain of labor, at the level of the enterprise, and the libertarian spirit must inspire everything they do and all their proposals. The economy, however—capitalist or collectivist, in this case—demands always more measures that one would have to be naive to believe could be applied voluntarily, measures of austerity, of the reduction of energy consumption and replacement of non-renewable raw materials with renewable ones, even if this means an increase in price and the reduction of consumption and profits. To participate in the transition from a society of producers who consume to produce to a society of human beings who produce and consume to live as human beings will demand, no matter what anyone says, austerity. It is far from certain that the mere conviction—if such a conviction were to exist—of the need for austerity will suffice to procure the acceptance of austerity and the adoption of the measures necessary to implement it. If it does not suffice, what should be done? Should we allow capitalist contradictions to persist, transplanted in a society of collectives? Should we continue, in order to assure the success of the collectives, to exploit the Third World and to endanger the well-being of future generations? Should we allow the survival of our obsessions with cars, motorcycles, vacation homes, mass tourism and what they call the “communication society”, a deceitful name, because there is increasingly less communications among the components of this society?

If the collectivized enterprises were compelled to take up the burden of planning, they would have to be ready to uphold democracy within their organizations at any price and to use their influence to bring about the austerity without which their experiment will fail, not because they are worse administrators, but because their administration would be short-sighted and egocentric, like capitalist administration.

Capitalism without capitalists?

Some collective systems that fail to encompass the essential sectors of the industrial economy will necessarily be reduced to the role of capitalist enterprises without capitalists, since they will have to exist in a capitalist society, one in which capitalism will impose its systems of production, distribution and of capitalization.

Similarly, some collective systems, even the most extensive ones, located in a single country surrounded by a capitalist world, at least if capitalism comes to terms with them, will be compelled to become, outside their borders, anyway, capitalisms without capitalists. Inside their borders there might be democracy and self-management, within each enterprise and even in planning institutions at the national level (to the slight extent that we can still speak of national economies), but they will have no other choice than to accept the capitalist rules of the game when the time arrives to export goods, to acquire raw materials, to seek international financing or to negotiate patent rights.

In a way, these international realities—increasingly more determinant to the degree that so-called globalization progresses—will remain beyond the reach of the collectives. Collectivization in one country might be able to change, over the long run, the society of that country, but it will not change the society of the rest of the world. While it is true that a successful experience might encourage similar attempts in other countries, this would be a matter of chance and would take place over the long term.

There are, however, other aspects of the collective system that will depend on the will of the collectivizers, aspects that must not be overlooked, even if they were not present in the Spain of 1936. If we want the collectives to be successful in a hypothetical future, these aspects must be taken into account, and we must look in advance for ways to inject guarantees and “vaccines” into the collectives against the threats that these aspects entail, since they will constitute, so to speak, contagions or infections that come from the capitalist world, from the system within which and against which the collectivized enterprises are formed and the collectivized workers are educated. A few questions will suffice to make anyone understand the scope and the importance of these aspects and the dangers they entail if we do not address them adequately.

Let us imagine an economy whose key industries are collectivized and most of whose workers work in enterprises which had passed into their possession. Will they be prepared to sacrifice part of their profits to prevent the pollution of the water and the air, and to prevent their enterprises’ products or methods of production from disrupting ecological equilibrium? Will they want to do without certain materials or goods that are harmful to the environment or to human life, such as aerosols and many plastics? Will collectivized laboratories refuse to produce drugs that generate a lot of revenue but are of doubtful therapeutic value? Will a collectivized enterprise that produces alcoholic beverages seek to increase its production, and therefore foment alcoholism, or will a collectivized cigarette company continue to advertise its products? Will the agrarian collectives in certain countries renounce the cultivation of, let us say, the poppy from which opium is derived? What will happen to a collectivized hotel chain: will it continue to attempt to encourage mass tourism, despite its damage to the environment, the countryside and even the economy? And the collectivized enterprises that manufacture consumer goods—will they continue to advertise these products, polluting the press, the radio and the television (and now the Internet) with their ads? Will the workers in a collectivized automobile factory resign themselves to scale back their production of cars and reinvest their profits in the production of other things that are more necessary and less harmful than the private automobile? Will a collectivized trucking company refuse to seek out more business, and let the railroad industry expand its operations and thus improve customer service for its passengers? Will a collectivized construction enterprise resign itself to refrain from building any more highways, which are so harmful to the economy and unnecessary in a society with few private automobiles? Will any collectivized enterprises establish schools for apprentices, for example, to train immigrant workers, so that they can earn as much as the native workers? Will they resist the temptation to assign these workers to the dirtiest, hardest jobs, which no one else wants? What action will be taken by a collectivized enterprise that uses raw materials produced in other countries by workers who are underpaid or subjected to forced labor or slavery? Will they refuse to use, even if this would mean economic damage, products from a country under a dictatorship? Will they consent to pay higher taxes to assist the development of the Third World and to help the latter become a competitor and even, with the passage of time, to have its own collectivized enterprises? Will a collectivized enterprise continue to manufacture plastic bottles, even though it knows they are harmful to the environment and that their manufacture consumes disproportionate amounts of non-renewable energy and raw materials? What role will the consumer have in deciding what the collective enterprises must produce, what prices they will charge, etc.? Will the workers want to sacrifice part of their profits to give work to unemployed workers, or to save unprofitable but necessary enterprises? Will they be willing to reduce the length of the working day, even if this reduces their income, in order to give employment to workers who have been idled by plant closures or layoffs? Will they consent to allow part of their profits to be used to finance the construction and maintenance of laboratories and to underwrite research, not so much in order to increase productivity as to improve product quality and to discover forms of production that are less burdensome on natural resources? Will they succeed in eliminating those capitalist vices known as overtime, piecework and production quotas? What will happen to a collectivized specialty metals enterprise if it receives contracts to produce weapons for a dictatorship, a racist government or a country that will use these weapons to crush a revolution? Will a collectivized shipping company refuse to deliver products to a country under a dictatorship?

It is useless to say that none of these questions will arise because the mentality of the “collectivized” workers will be different or that the trade unions will prevent these issues from arising or will come up with the right answers. The “collectivized” workers—this bears repeating—will have a mentality conditioned by capitalism, and by the currently visible decline of the impact of the workers movement on society, and they will perceive the desire to possess more and earn more money to be the two goals that the collectives will have to satisfy and which will be their reason for existence. To avoid posing these questions, to ignore them or to set them aside while saying, “the trade unions will solve them” or “talking about this plays into the hands of the enemies of the collectives” is futile. The questions will still be there.

In fact, they are the very same questions that have led capitalism to the crisis it has dissimulated with flights forward such as globalization, or the “communication society” and other contemptible vulgarities. It is precisely because capitalism cannot find a solution to its fundamental crisis—that of its reason for existence, today—that the collectives might come to be seen as necessary some day. This will only be the case, however, if they provide the solutions that capitalism can no longer offer, and not if they are a capitalism without the capitalists, and nothing more.

These are not silly questions. Only by admitting their reality will it be possible to find the vital solutions for the workers of the era and the society in which they are posed before it is too late. The workers can be the masters of society only if they know how to resolve the problems that the capitalists cannot solve. Better administration is not enough. It is necessary—whenever and under whatever circumstances—to place the economy at the service of humanity. This must be the mission of the collectives, apart from the contingency of resolving immediate problems—pay for the next Saturday in 1936, unemployment now. And this mission can only be fulfilled by facing up to our problems and ceasing to be afraid of words.

The open door

It appears to be evident that the opportunity to collectivize enterprises will not arrive as a consequence of mass social carnage or a “historic night”, but by way of partial changes, increasingly greater tensions building up in society, and the aggravation of economic conditions, which are today dissimulated under the bombastic phraseology of the misnamed “liberal economy”. It is therefore necessary for those who want to improve real conditions by way of a change in the structure of property to get to work right now, when they are still in a very small minority, to open doors to the future.

In practical terms this means that we have to try to ensure that the laws do not contain any provisions that make collectivizes impossible, even if it is not entirely certain, indeed it is far from certain, that they can be created in a strictly legal way. We have to strive to see to it that constitutions, labor laws, codes and rules do not contain any legal obstacles and, instead, do not rule out the possibility that the forms of ownership of the major means of production might pass into the hands of the workers.

The fact that this possibility, which is now hypothetical, might someday become a reality will depend on the action of what remains of the workers movement and especially the trade union movement. If the trade unions do not restrict their activities to the defense of the immediate interests of their members, but extend their field of action to an attempt to open up these doors, and then to keep them open and take advantage of the opportunities that arise, then the collectives, when they do appear, will entail fewer sacrifices and less struggle. It will be necessary to obtain a consensus of all the trade union federations and their international organizations concerning their final goals, prioritizing the collectivization of the major means of production and ruling out nationalization as a false solution to the problems of the economy. They will have to bring pressure to bear to municipalize the public services, urban real estate and housing as soon as possible, so that the collectives of the future can avoid the questions of jurisdiction that arose in Spain in 1936. It will be necessary for the trade unions and the consumer organizations to play a role that is not merely consultative in the system of economic planning that will eventually have to be established, when the illusions of globalization and other deceitful phantoms disseminated by the leaders of capitalism have been dispelled. In the few nationalized or state-owned enterprises that still remain, their workers will have to obtain decisive representation, and they will also have to be conceded more autonomy, and they must systematically oppose the privatization of their companies.

The workers movement, and especially the trade union movement, must establish very close connections with the middle class, which is becoming more numerous with each passing day, and the trade unions should promote the creation of authentic organizations of consumers and neighbors. In view of the expanding power of corporations—many of them with significant percentages of their shares held by pension funds—it would not be a bad idea to study a way to collectivize these corporations in such a way that the interests of the pension funds and the small shareholders will not be jeopardized, so that these elements would not have any reason to oppose collectivization.

Doors will have to be opened, of course, but the workers must also be prepared so that, when the time comes, they will want to cross the threshold of these doors, and they must be educated in such a way that when they do cross these thresholds they will do so successfully. That is, the trade union movement must learn from its old traditions and extend its influence by means of cultural centers, libraries, publishing houses, schools, etc., and it must cultivate its own experts, who would delineate all the possible models of situations in which the collectives might find themselves and the solutions to the problems they might face in those situations. The workers will spontaneously decide, with reference to the circumstances, if they want to collectivize or not; if they choose to do so, they must have plans of action that will allow them to avoid the risks posed by improvisation and they must capitalize on the experiences of 1936 and the European nationalizations after World War Two. Just knowing that they possess such plans will incite them to aspire to create collectives.

On this terrain, optimism would be a luxury that the workers will not be able to afford. Nor should it be assumed that everything will work out thanks to the workers’ capacity for improvisation; nor should we believe that people are good by definition and that the “collectivized” workers will therefore act altruistically, generously and with discernment.

If such optimism is unjustified, that would still be no reason to fail to take advantage of the opportunity to collectivize, should the opportunity arise. The only way not to squander this opportunity will consist in being prepared for everything in advance, based on the assumption that the workers will be corrupted by the new type of capitalism—one that is more corrupting than the capitalism of the past and the present. It will therefore be necessary to plan in advance to provide guarantees and safeguards against the consequences of this corruption. If, at the moment of truth, the workers do in fact turn out to be better people than the kind of people capitalism tried to make of them, then everything will be just fine.

In each person there is always, to express it in religious terms, one part angel and the other part devil. This is a fact that novelists have always known, but one that ideologies tend to ignore. We have to learn to reject the Manichaeism of ideologies, and accept the fact that not all of the enemies of the collectives are devils and that not all of the advocates of the collectives are angels, and that both enemies and advocates are part devil and part angel. Capitalism brings out and cultivates the diabolical part of each person. The collectives, and everything that they bring in their wake in society, must bring out and cultivate the angelic part of each person. They must do so, however, without every forgetting that the diabolical part will always be there, lying in wait.

There is nothing simple about this. It is largely incompatible with the ideological convictions, received ideas and prejudices that we call “sacred principles”. Overcoming all this would seem to be a small price to pay compared to the price that the “collectivized” workers of 1936 paid to bequeath their lesson to us, to give us what the workers movement most desperately needs and will need in the future, in this new century: a hope that is not based on faith, but on reason and on the well-founded confidence that everything will be prepared when the time comes to turn this hope into reality.

Victor Alba

Translated in December 2015 from the Spanish text available online at the website of the Fundación Andreu Nin: http://fundanin.org/alba2.htm.

The Spanish text was originally published as Chapter 10 of Los colectivizadores (Laertes, Barcelona, 2001, 281 p.).

  • 1 The following text is Chapter 10 of Victor Alba’s book, Los colectivizadores [The Collectivizers]. This chapter was originally entitled, “Las lecciones del experimento” [The Lessons of the Experiment] (Note added by the editors of the Andreu Nin Foundation).