An interview with Abel Paz - Miguel Riera, El Viejo Topo (2001)

An interview with Abel Paz - Miguel Riera, El Viejo Topo (2001)

An interview on the Spanish civil war and revolution conducted in 2001 with Abel Paz, former militant of the CNT, resistance fighter and the author of Durruti: The People Armed, in which he discusses, among other things, the collectives, the Moroccan question and technical innovation under self-management in industry under wartime conditions.

An Interview with Abel Paz – Miguel Riera, El Viejo Topo (2001)

Miguel Riera for El Viejo Topo (VT): Almost no one knows or believes that there was a revolution in Spain. Was there?

Abel Paz (AP): Yes, of course there was, although it has been hidden by lies. In any event, when you speak the truth sooner or later it is acknowledged. To begin with, we have to mention the Castilian Communes. The only historian who has seriously studied these Communes is Maravall. In 1519 we anticipated the revolution of 1789 by two centuries, because it was essentially the same revolution. Those people had a very advanced concept of democracy, they were talking about the imperative mandate, for instance. The councilor selected to represent the community, if he did not respect the popular will, his imperative mandate was immediately nullified, as took place in Segovia when a councilor voted for the taxes demanded by Charles V. In fact, this position was so radical that the only thing that anarchism did was to rediscover this historical tradition and extend it to 1936. You cannot speak of a revolution in Spain in 1936 without acknowledging the periods of history when this revolution was held in suspense. Malraux, speaking of the Spanish revolution, said that it was something that was held in suspense, that it could be seen coming all through the history of Spain.

VT: If one could say that the revolution had been held in suspense up until 1936, to judge by reality one could also say that the counterrevolution has felt right at home throughout history as well.

AP: Of course. For many people, the history of Spain begins with Ferdinand and Isabella, what happened before that does not exist. With the distinctive feature that, with Arab culture, Spain had already entered the modern era. With the Catholic monarchs, when the Jews and Arabs were expelled, Spain regressed two centuries, it plunged back into the middle ages. These were two centuries of backwardness for Spain. We still had feudal structures here. Aristocracy, a social concept that did not correspond with the one that prevailed in Europe. Latifundia…. Problems that we resolved in 1936.

VT: You resolved them?

AP: The Spanish people resolved them and they did so immediately. The republic attempted to implement an agrarian reform but it could not do so because it did not dare to confront the aristocracy that was in power. But we came, we occupied the land and created a collective, it was that simple. And if the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie wanted to join the collective, they were allowed to do so, if they had not been expelled. But those who wanted to join, those who accepted the reforms and the expropriation plans, were not expelled. The owner of a factory who was not afraid and who remained to form part of the collective was accepted. Sometimes he even participated in the management, but if he did not consent to do so, he was removed forthwith. There was no question of allowing any obstacles we might face to slow down our progress. In these respects, the Spanish revolution surpassed the Russian Revolution itself.

VT: What do you mean?

AP: The Russian Revolution survived for barely three months, while our revolution lasted until 1939. The economy was in the hands of the workers and power was completely decentralized. Local power had a face: the committees. In spite of the Generalitat, there were functioning committees in the towns and villages, there was a kind of direct democracy; parties were not prohibited but the latter had to send their representatives to the committee. There were no programs; the programs consisted in resolving the problems posed by the pressing needs of the people. Seven or eight representatives elected by the popular assembly had to comply with the popular will. If their policies were not successful, they were changed, and with some tinkering here and there, they worked. For example, the rail network was converted to run on electricity during and despite the war. The task was allocated by sectors and each municipal council assumed responsibility for the sector that crossed its territory. In three months the job was complete. Today such a thing is inconceivable. They gave work to the unemployed of each district. Their wages were paid by the town’s cooperative since their work was in the interest of all.

VT: Despite the shortages and difficulties?

AP: Despite everything. And when there is hunger, if everyone is hungry and no one is privileged in such a way as to not be hungry, then you will be happy with your hunger. You will share the collective misfortune; the problem arises when there is a group of people who are eating well and others are dying of hunger. Generally speaking, the people endured all these things because everyone suffered from them in an equal measure. I remember the Minister of Defense of the Generalitat. His wife went every morning to stand in line for bread, to collect her ration, when her husband, due to his position in the government, could have ordered the bread to be brought to his home, he was a very well-respected man. That is, equality was not a myth, it was a reality.

VT: In what parts of Spain can it be said that a revolution took place?

AP: It affected the entire republican zone, although not to an equal extent. There were areas where the CNT was in the minority. Even so, collectivizations took place there, too. There were, for instance, some towns dominated by the CNT where everyone was equal. In other towns, socialist collectives existed alongside libertarian collectives; the socialist collectives respected private property and their methods were more authoritarian. But in general the collectives spread throughout the entire republic.

VT: What were the most significant characteristics of this revolution?

AP: Its most characteristic traits were actually expressed on October 6, 1934 in Asturias. There, the working class alliance between the CNT and the UGT was what caused the commune to emerge, collectivization was an agreement between socialists and anarchists that was intended to bring about libertarian socialism but in general it was the libertarian tendency that was most influential in that revolution. Up until that time the CNT had attempted to instigate movements of an insurrectionary character but it had never reached the rank and file of the UGT. This alliance was indispensable. In an active population of nine million workers, the UGT had about 1,200,000 members and the CNT about 1,500,000, which is far in excess of its current membership. The people were very active although the socialist bureaucracy squelched the trade union alliance. In the elections of 1936, however, the popular front candidates defeated the rightists. When the left came to power in that election the people who voted for them were not the same people who voted for them in 1931. Something had changed, the people had more experience. The parties of the left had come to power but the rank and file preserved their prerogatives to take action. They did not wait for an amnesty and immediately opened the doors of the prisons to free 80,000 prisoners. The peasants did not wait for the debate to begin all over again concerning agrarian reform and began to occupy the land. In the month of March 80,000 peasants in Estremadura, Andalusia and La Mancha seized the estates of big landowners. They did not seize the land for individual cultivation but for collectivization, they took it to work in common. In March 1936 the revolution had already begun in a peaceful way.

VT: But the government did not seem to be very pleased with what was beginning to take place.

AP: That is true, the Azaña government did not view these developments kindly. No politician wanted to be left behind by the actions of his followers, but they did not want to send in the civil guards to expel the peasants, either. And the agricultural communities began to grow. In the meantime the right was rapidly coming around to support a military coup. Having learned from the revolution of October it reinforced its alliances. On the other hand, when the plan for the military coup was hatched, the alliance between the CNT and the UGT had also been further reinforced.

VT: This incipient alliance constituted a terrible threat to the conservative classes. Perhaps it caused them to hasten their preparations for the coup.

AP: To some degree that is true, but one cannot separate the Spanish conflict from the international context of the time. It was an era that witnessed the rise of fascism, and the Moroccan crisis. Our conflict was not a domestic problem but was internationalized and it was from that moment on that we lost the war. Franco assured England and France that Spain would be a strong regime that would guarantee private property rights and respect their interests in the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, Spain is the most strategic location in the Mediterranean. It is in this context that one may state that from the very beginning the war was lost. Of course there was a revolution in Spain! But it took place within an international context in which it could not survive. There are some aspects of our war that have been buried in silence. The problem of Morocco, for example. Franco’s military power base was located in Morocco. When the conflict broke out in Spain the workers were unarmed. The republic did not give them arms. Even so, the workers defeated the rebels in Barcelona and Barcelona was at that time the beacon of Spain. If they had succeeded in taking Barcelona, all would have been lost from the very beginning, but because the fascists were defeated within 32 hours, everyone was instilled with courage and they were defeated in Madrid, too. When the news was broadcast over the radio that Goded had been taken prisoner in Barcelona and that the revolt had been suppressed there, they told Azaña: “President: the Catalonians have defeated the army. Goded has been taken prisoner.” Azaña replied: “That cannot be, it is just a story that is being spread by the Catalonians. Get me Companys on the phone. Listen, Lluís”—that is how he addressed him—“what is going on there in Barcelona?” Companys told him: “Nothing, except we are in charge.” “What do you mean, in charge? But what has happened? What is all this about Goded being a prisoner?” “Yes, yes. I have him here with me in my office.” “And how did that happen?” “Well, it’s like this, you see, those crazy anarchists have taken to the streets.” And that is how the whole business began. There was so much going on….

VT: You were telling me about Morocco….

AP: Yes, on the night of July 18-19 Franco set his plans in motion. They were very dependent on those 35,000 men that Franco had in Africa, but they had to be transported to Spain. Azaña, with great equanimity, appointed Martínez Barrio to head an emergency government and ordered him to get in touch with the rebels. This was when Mola told him: you are too late, the rebellion cannot be stopped. So Azaña appointed José Giral to head a new government. The latter, without consulting Azaña, armed the socialist workers (but not the anarchist workers). They began to form militias in Madrid. He sent a telegram to Leon Blum asking him for arms to suppress the military coup. He was quite insistent in his request because France was committed to supply armaments to the Spanish people when they needed them, arms that had been paid for in advance by means of a deposit in the Bank of France. There was a signed treaty. But the French bourgeoisie refused. Blum went to London and there they told him not to get involved, and to let them kill each other in Spain. That is when the idea of the anti-intervention pact arose, which was a way of helping Franco and ditching the Republic. France, which was obliged to send aid, refused.

Morocco was a very important issue. Spain had not signed a protectorate with the Sultan. Spain was in Morocco because of pressure from England, which did not want France to have a base on the Straits of Gibraltar. Thus, Spain was supposed to be the policeman of Gibraltar. There was a treaty signed in 1904 between France and Spain that divided Morocco between them: according to the terms of this treaty, France agreed to help Spain if Spain could not guarantee order in Morocco. Spain agreed not to grant independence to its zone or to allow any other power to interfere there. Giral reminded the French of this treaty. This is where France could have played a major role, but did not do so. The fascists transported their troops to the peninsula with Hitler’s help. But this is where the anarchists intervened, forming a committee of militias, which was created on July 21, and the people that composed this committee took over the Ministry of Defense of the Generalitat. There they found a representative of the Arab League. An attempt was made to reach an agreement with the Moroccan resistance. This Arab League representative went to Geneva, where he spoke with other representatives of the League. They agreed to call for a rising of the Kabyles and to attempt to hinder Franco’s recruitment of Moroccans to reinforce his troops in Spain. An agreement to this effect was signed, but the Arabs of the Moroccan Action Committee were all men of means: landowners, bourgeoisie. They said: we agree with you Catalonians but what we have signed has to be ratified by the central government. Then a commission was dispatched to Madrid. Julián Gorkin, for the POUM, Jaume Miravitlles for the ERC, Aurelio Fernández for the CNT and Rafael Vidiella for the PSUC. In Madrid they were told: what gave you Catalonians the idea to get involved in international affairs? Largo Caballero got in touch with Blum, and Blum told him that he had nothing to say. Blum had many problems in French Morocco and the English had problems in Egypt: if we light the fuse in the Rif, uprisings could explode like a powder keg. The anarchists knew that it would be easy to bring about a revolution in the south because the people there were economically backward. And they knew it would be harder in the north because of the communists and socialists. The international problems were very complicated. Largo Caballero would later regret this. So would Blum, but much later. Largo Caballero attempted to cede Morocco to the English and the French in exchange for aid. All of this was linked to the problem that our war took place in an international context that we could consider to be the final chapter of a historical period in which, in a way, the honor of the proletariat was vindicated by the Spanish proletarians who carried out the most profound revolution in all of history, as I said, a revolution that was much more profound than the Russian Revolution. One could even say that the Spanish Revolution was connected to the Commune of the 1500s and with the Commune of Paris. It was the heir of all these historical processes.

VT: To what degree did the revolution penetrate the economic fabric of society?

AP: In Catalonia, one could say that all industry was collectivized. Then the problem of the foreign investors arose, who began to make demands and complain to their ambassadors…. We must recall that the 45% of the Spanish economy was monopolized by foreign capital, a figure that is approximately the same as that of Cuba just before its revolution. And a revolution seeks to affect everything because if there are pockets of poverty then it is not a revolution. We collectivized the trolleys, the subway, industry…. Here, almost all industry was concentrated in the textile sector, there was no heavy industry and we had to create it with 50 factories for the production of armaments. It is curious that within fifteen days after the beginning of the revolution, TNT, dynamite and mortar shells were being manufactured. Previously, there were major factories but they did not have large concentrations of workers. The committee of militias formed a commission and unified three trade union federations: the Chemical, Metal and Mining industries were combined to form the war industry. The latter was headed by Eugenio Vallejo, a metal worker, who within a short time collected all the lathes and drills available from among all the many small industrial shops scattered all over Catalonia and managed to concentrate ten factories on large industrial sites where 150,000 workers were employed on three shifts. That is, the major industrial concentration that the bourgeoisie was incapable of carrying out was carried out by us, by all the workers. All of this was administered by the factory committees and the trade unions up until 1939. There was an official manager from the Ministry of Defense which sought to intervene. It named directors for the factory and when they arrived they occupied offices, but nothing more. Not one bullet or one gun left these factories without the signature of the defense committee. It could leave without the signature of the director but not without that of the committee. They were always managed by assemblies. This was the most that could be achieved in a partial revolution like ours. The textile industry worked the same way: with factory committees coordinated by the council of the economy, appointed by the trade unions. Then there was a crisis involving shortages of raw materials. Production was curtailed because of the embargo. Those who had the most success were the Valencians, who were very well organized. The communist Minister of Agriculture tried to intervene in their activities without success. Valencia exported citrus fruits to England and with the proceeds from these sales bought what it needed. Despite the interference of the Minister of Agriculture, this operation continued until the end of the war. There were problems with regard to supplies, and food in particular. In Valencia the technical council processed the tubers of the chufa plant, subjected them to chemical treatments and managed to extract a kind of milk of high enough quality to feed to babies. It also subjected vegetable fibers to chemical treatment. Then the Americans invented nylon by utilizing the same procedure. This was a working class revolution. And the workers did not have a lot of technical knowledge but they did have practical knowledge. Thus, working class training institutes were formed for kids like me. There, you were immersed in specialized studies of economics, chemistry, and very concrete studies. And this training produced a large number of young people who were in a position to help improve agriculture, in Aragón, for example. There, all agriculture was collectivized. And these youths instilled in the peasants a zeal for studying agronomy, in order to improve the cultivation of the land, and to form experimental farms. All of this would create the essential basis for the economy of the revolution. It was in Aragón where the collectivization of the land was most extensive.

VT: And what about where you were, in Catalonia?

AP: In Catalonia we clashed with Catalanist organizations like the ERC, and the picture was different. The small landowners had their fields scattered in minifundia, with a parcel here and another parcel there. There was a great advantage in uniting all the parcels of land to produce more with less effort. This is what happened in Aragón, but to a lesser extent in Catalonia. Líster stupidly said that the collectives were imposed by force. There were always people who were clearly against the collectives. But our ambition was to eliminate private property, the exploitation of man by man. And to provide women with opportunities that they had never had before…. For example, some of the first things that the collectives provided were collective laundries, nurseries, and schools, where there were none before. Women had more free time. In one collective where I lived, the young women used this time to stage plays and other kinds of performances, or other cultural events…. Those who were most knowledgeable helped those who were less knowledgeable.

VT: Were the expropriations of the factories very traumatic?

AP: Not at all: sometimes the bosses remained and collaborated but generally when the employers and technical staff saw that the workers had gone into the streets and defeated the army they disappeared. When the comrades entered the factories, all they found was the machines. The workers found that they were alone and they said to themselves: What do we do? And they set to work by forming committees to operate the factories. I had the good fortune to have all kinds of experiences. I worked as a boilermaker, I studied in a workers training institute, I lived in the countryside…. The manager of the boiler works had fifty workers but he was a very good-natured fellow. When the shop was collectivized he showed up and said: I am staying, what should I do? I am a technician, do you want my advice? And there he was, earning a wage like everyone else. And later he went to jail like everyone else. They even collectivized the barbershops. I was surprised when, during the carnation revolution in Portugal, I arrived there by airplane, and as I was leaving the airport I saw a guy shining shoes. I said to myself, what kind of revolution is this? And I asked the fellow, what are you doing shining shoes? It is my job, he responded. The revolution has not yet liberated you from the shoebox? And he gave the box a kick. That’s the end of that, now everyone can shine their own shoes at home.

VT: And what happened to the foreign-owned enterprises?

AP: They remained under workers control until the end of the war. But it is curious, the records of that era are kept in the chamber of commerce…. When the owners returned again, in 1939, they found that their factories had a surplus and were producing more than they had produced before the war. Now the records of that era have been disclosed. From the economic point of view it was not a failure, because it was not a state managed economy but one that was under self-management. It was not Tito-style self-management: there was no self-management in Russia, either. One of the biggest mistakes was when they created the factory committees and they directly ordered the miners to immediately begin to produce a stockpile of ore, the state inspectors arrived and their interference resulted in the paralysis of the early days of soviet industry. The former trade union structure is the backbone for the development of the workers economy. This structure did not exist in Russia, so they had to invent it and it was a peasants revolution more than anything else. We provided solutions for many problems that would be posed later. For example, Tito copied many things from our economy, unfortunately with an authoritarian and centralist character.

VT: With regard to the question of whether a kind of self-management that is guided by the market or one that is totally planned is better, in the case of the Spanish revolution there was a peculiarity, which is that the needs of the war imposed a certain manner of production. But in circumstances without a war, would the revolution have opted for an economy of self-management with a market?

AP: I don’t think so. No, because in Spain a mixed system had to exist as a minimum. Otherwise we would have closed ourselves off within a kind of autarchy. We did not have such great pretensions, either. The people only wanted to live, even if they had to live in poverty, but with dignity. It did not matter to them if they had to wear rope sandals but they at least wanted that much, a piece of bread with olive oil and a clove of garlic. A lot of barter took place. Aragón carried out many exchanges with Tortosa, for rice. The important thing was to satisfy the basic needs. We gave a value to things that had nothing to do with the Marxist concept of value, or with the capitalist one. We created a non-accumulable currency without any intrinsic value at all, the coupons. In the collective everything is already paid for. The only control exercised over you was that of the community, that of having to work. If you wanted to go to visit another collective on Sunday, you used the coupons because you were not a member of the other collective. If you wanted to have coffee somewhere else you paid with coupons. But they were not money. They were just elements of control. With them you could not buy sandals or pants because the collective already gave you those things. You cannot say: I have 10,000 pesetas in coupons. What are you going to buy, if there is nothing that you can buy with them? In our collective we had olive oil. It was hard to calculate the quantities that we would offer in exchange for other products but we had another view of the matter. For the people of Tortosa thought that the oil they received from us was worth more than the rice they gave us in exchange.

VT: Was money totally eliminated in the collectives?

AP: Yes, in many locations in the countryside it ceased to exist. In industry, however, the question was more complicated. The problem of rent, for example, was solved. With food there were no problems, you could eat in the factory or in the popular kitchens. A married man with two children could earn the equivalent of four persons. A single person earned less, of course. If a single person was taking care of his mother he earned a bonus. This was a family wage that was less arbitrary than the conventional form of the wage.

VT: In any case, nothing is left of the revolution, not even a memory? The military defeat erased all of it.

AP: We won the revolution, what we lost was the war. The revolution consisted in the fact that the workers became masters of the instruments of labor and did not falter in their management of the means of production. The revolution did not fail, it was defeated militarily. Perhaps with the passage of time it would have developed a paralyzing bureaucracy but we will never know. There are victories that are defeats and there are defeats that are victories. If the Russian revolution was a victory, who won? The workers? No. On the other hand, the Commune of Paris was a great working class victory. Ours, too. It was a revolutionary victory although it ended with a military defeat. We pushed the revolution as far as we could.

VT: The fact that this revolution that you experienced, that so many people who are still alive experienced, has sunk into oblivion, is truly incomprehensible.

AP: Some people wanted it to be forgotten. There was a political will to conceal it. Yes, because there was a lot of fear. Anarchism is very deeply rooted in Spain. Pride and resistance are values native to our people. Among us, anarchy is a natural disposition that is born from rebellion against injustice, it is not just a theory. Human beings of all eras will always have this spirit of rebellion. Today there is a kind of virtual anarchism in the squatted buildings, among the draft resisters, in the feminist struggle, in all the partial struggles, and it is good that this is developing in parallel with the political struggle because a political party would suppress all of this. In this respect I am somewhat optimistic, I think that anarchy can undergo a resurgence because we are still rebels. What is modernity to others is actually a fashion trend. I would like to see a platform created that would unite the squats, the ecologists, the feminists … in a pact of solidarity. These are the new forms of organization. There is a lot of anarchism in the streets, in the individual, but this cannot be organized. I would like to hope that the future will not be barbarism, but socialism. Capitalism does not know where it is going: it has lost all its direction and I want to be optimistic, and that is why I think that the third world will have many lessons to teach us.

Interview conducted by Miguel Riera with Abel Paz published in February 2001 in El Viejo Topo, issue number 149.

Translated from the Spanish original in October 2013.

Spanish original available online at: