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Spain 1936, the end of anarchist syndicalism? - Subversion

Spain 1936, the end of anarchist syndicalism? - Subversion

Criticism of anarcho-syndicalism during the Spanish Civil War. From Subversion #18 (1996).

WORKERS' AND PEASANTS' COLLECTIVES IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR

This year is the 60th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, which began in July 1936 when General Franco led a fascist coup to replace the left-wing Republican government.

It was no coincidence that this happened at a time of intense class struggle in Spain. Limited concessions granted in the face of the struggle by the left wing of the ruling class - the 'Popular Front' government elected in February 1936 - had not succeeded in restoring the economic and social stability needed by capitalism. Strikes, demonstrations and political assassinations by the working class continued, as did land seizures and local insurrections in the countryside. The right wing of the ruling class recognised that strong-arm measures were needed, and acted accordingly.

Initially, across one half of Spain the right-wing coup was stalled by armed resistance from peasants and the working class, and only after three years of civil war was the fascist victory secured. But in one sense the revolt was an immediate success: the working class and peasants sacrificed the struggle for their own needs and demands and united with liberal and radical supporters of capitalism in a fight to defend one form of capitalist domination - democracy - against another - fascism.

However, that is not the aspect of the Spanish Civil War which we want to look at here. Instead, we want to focus on another important feature: the influence of anarchist ideas during the struggle in Spain.

ANARCHISM AND THE SPANISH 'REVOLUTION'

At the time of the Civil War, a popular idea amongst the Spanish working class and peasants was that each factory, area of land, etc., should be owned collectively by its workers, and that these 'collectives' should be linked with each other on a 'federal' basis - that is, without any superior central authority.

This basic idea had been propagated by anarchists in Spain for more than 50 years. When the Civil War began, peasants and working class people in those parts of the country which had not immediately fallen under fascist control seized the opportunity to turn anarchist ideal into reality.

Ever since then anarchists have regarded the Spanish 'Revolution' as the finest achievement in the history of the revolutionary movement - as the closest capitalism anywhere has come to being completely overthrown and replaced by a totally different form of society.

'SELF-MANAGED' CAPITALISM

The 'revolution' in the countryside has usually been seen as superior to the 'revolution' in the towns and cities. Anarchist historian and eyewitness of the collectives, Gaston Leval, describes the industrial collectives as simply another form of capitalism, managed by the workers themselves:

"Workers in each undertaking took over the factory, the works, or the workshop, the machines, raw materials, and taking advantage of the continuation of the money system and normal capitalist commercial relations, organised production on their own account, selling for their own benefit the produce of their labour."

We would add that in many cases the workers didn't actually take over production; they simply worked under the direction of 'their own' union bureaucrats with the old bosses retained as advisors.

The reactionary consequences of the working class taking sides in the fight between democracy and fascism, instead of pursuing the struggle for their own needs, was particularly evident in the way the industrial collectives operated. For the sake of the 'war effort' workers frequently chose to intensify their own exploitation - usually with the encouragement of their anarchist leaders.

In 1937, for example, the anarchist Government Minister in charge of the economy in Catalonia complained that the "state of tension and over-excitement" produced by the outbreak of the Civil War had "reduced to a dangerous degree the capacity and productivity of labour, increasing the costs of production so much that if this is not corrected rapidly and energetically we will be facing a dead-end street. For these reasons we must readjust the established work norms and increase the length of the working day."

However, although some anarchists are prepared to criticise the 'Government Anarchists' and the industrial collectives, all anarchists are unanimous that the rural collectives succeeded in achieving 'genuine socialisation', or, as it was popularly termed, 'libertarian communism'.

ORGANISING THE RURAL COLLECTIVES

What typically happened in the peasant villages was this. Once the fascist rebellion had been quelled locally, the inhabitants of the village got together in a big meeting. Anarchist militants took the initiative in proposing what to do. Everyone was invited to pool their land, livestock and tools in the collective: 'The concept 'yours and mine' will no longer exist...Everything will belong to everyone." Property belonging to fascist landlords and the Church was also expropriated for the collective's use. A committee was elected to supervise the running of the collective. Work was parcelled out among groups of 10 or 15 people, and co-ordinated by meetings of delegates nominated by each group.

FREE ACCESS

A few collectives distributed their produce on the communist basis of free access - 'to each according to their needs'. A resident of Magdalena de Pulpis explained the system in his village:

"Everyone works and everyone has the right to what he needs free of charge. He simply goes to the store where provisions and all other necessities are supplied. Everything is distributed freely with only a notation of what he took."

For the first time in their lives people could help themselves to whatever they needed. And that's exactly what they did. Free access was not abused by 'greed' or 'gluttony'. Another of the collectives' eyewitnesses, Augustin Souchy, describes the situation in Muniesa:

"The bakery was open. Anyone can come for whatever bread he wants. 'Are there not abuses of this?' 'No,' answers the old man who gives out the bread. 'Everyone takes as much as they actually need.' Wine is also distributed freely, not rationed. 'Doesn't anyone get drunk?' 'Until now there has not been a single case of drunkenness'."

(This was also partly a reflection of an anarchist puritanism which in other places led them to ban tobacco and even coffee).

THE WAGES SYSTEM

However, distribution of goods on a communist basis (i.e. free access) was not the norm. In the vast majority of collectives the level of consumption was not governed by people's freely-chosen needs and desires, but, just as it is under capitalism, by the amount of money people had in their pockets. Only goods in abundant supply could be taken freely. Everything else had to be bought from wages paid by the collective to its members.

THE FAMILY WAGE AND THE OPPRESSION OF WOMEN

The 'family wage' - which oppresses women by making them economically dependent on the male head of the household - was adopted by almost all the collectives. Each male collectivist received so much in wages per day for himself, plus a smaller amount for his wife and each child. For women in fact, the Spanish 'Revolution' could hardly have been less revolutionary.

It did not challenge the family as an economic unit of society, nor the sexual division of labour between men and women. "It is eleven o'clock in the morning. The gong sounds. Mass? It is to remind the women to prepare the midday meal." Women also remained regarded as inferior social beings, frowned on, for example, if they joined the men in the local cafe for a drink after work.

THE PROLIFERATION OF MONEY

The equal family wage was generally not paid in the national currency, which most collectives discarded for internal use. In its place the collectives substituted other means of exchange, issuing their own local currency in the form of vouchers, tokens, rationing booklets, certificates, coupons, etc. Far from being abolished, as money would be in a communist revolution, during the Spanish 'Revolution' money proliferated as never before!

But the creation of literally hundreds of different local currencies soon caused problems. Few collectives were self-sufficient, but trade among the collectives was hampered by the lack of a universally acceptable currency. In 1937 the Aragon Federation of Peasant Collectives had to reintroduce a standard currency in the form of a uniform rationing booklet for all the Aragon Collectives. It also established its own bank - run by the Bank Workers' Union of course!

THE EXCHANGE OF GOODS

Not all the transactions between collectives were effected by money. Central warehouses were set up where collectives exchanged their surplus produce among themselves for the goods they lacked. Under this system 'hard cash' was frequently absent. However, the relative proportions in which goods were bartered was still determined by monetary values. For example how many sacks of flour a collective could obtain in exchange for a ton of potatoes was worked out by calculating the value of both in monetary terms. Just as under capitalism, prices were "based on the cost of raw materials, the work involved, general expenses and the resources of the collectivists".

This was not a communist system of production for use and distribution according to need, but a capitalist system of rival enterprises trading their products according to their exchange value. No matter how desperately they needed them, collectives couldn't obtain the goods they required until they had produced enough to exchange for them, since they were not allowed to withdraw a sum of goods worth more than those they had deposited. This frequently led to great hardship among the less wealthy collectives.

MARKET COMPETITION

As well as trading among themselves, collectives also had to find markets for their goods in competition with non-collectivised enterprises. A common consequence of this system has always been that goods which cannot be sold profitably end up being stockpiled or destroyed, while elsewhere people have to do without those goods because they don't have the means to buy them. The consequences of the Spanish collectives' capitalist mode of operation conformed to this pattern; for example:
"The warehouses owned by the SICEP (Syndicate of the Footwear Industry in Elda and Petrel) in Elda, Valencia and Barcelona, as well as the factory warehouses, were full of unsold goods, valued at some 10 million pesetas."

Such spectacles would be eradicated for ever in a communist society, where goods would not be produced to be sold for profit via the market, but to directly satisfy people's needs.

THE END OF THE COLLECTIVES

The Spanish collectives were eventually destroyed by in-fighting among the anti-fascists and by the fascist victory itself. One can only speculate about how they might have developed had they survived the Civil War. Our guess is that their basically capitalist nature would have become even more obvious.

In the capitalist economy market competition forces every enterprise to try to produce its goods as cheaply as possible so as to undercut its rivals. The Spanish collectives, trading with each other and competing with non-collectivised enterprises, would inevitably have been subject to the same pressures.

One of the ways in which capitalist enterprises try to cut costs is by increasing the exploitation of the workforce, for example by cutting wages, or increasing the intensity of work, or lengthening working hours.

Where this happens in enterprises owned and run by an individual boss or the state, workers can identify their enemy and fight against their exploitation. This is far less likely to happen where the entire workforce itself is the collective owner and manager of the enterprise, as was the case with the Spanish collectives. The workforce has a vested interest in the profitability of the capital which it collectively owns; it identifies with and willingly organises its own exploitation. It has to, in fact, to keep itself in business.

THE END OF ANARCHISM

Many present-day anarchists still stand for the type of self-managed capitalism established by the industrial and agricultural collectives during the Spanish Civil War. Because of this, we oppose them as resolutely as we oppose supporters of any other pro-capitalist ideology.

From the point of view of working class people's needs, self-managed capitalism is a dead-end, just as reactionary as private or state capitalism. The communist society we are fighting for can only be established by the complete destruction of ALL property, money, wages and markets - whatever their form.

The information and quotes in this article come from The Anarchist Collectives by Sam Dolgoff, Collectives In The Spanish Revolution by Gaston Leval, The Spanish Revolution by Stanley Payne, and With The Peasants Of Aragon by Augustin Souchy.

Comments

888
Feb 16 2010 07:38

Well that was not a very intelligent article, instead of looking at the tendencies towards communism within the collectives, it just goes on about how the Spanish ""Revolution"" doesn't match up to Subversion's impossibly high standard of TOTAL MAGICAL COMMUNISM RIGHT NOW (no interest in how that is to be achieved, the process of movement towards communism, or anything). Some kind of purist ultra-idealism?

Steven.
Feb 16 2010 10:42

I sympathise with the thrust of this article, but agree with some of those criticisms above.

The article does mention the limited areas which introduced something very close to communism. However, this could clearly only happen in areas with a surplus of essential goods. This was not the case everywhere. However, many of the anarchists would have wanted to establish libertarian communism where possible, but the article does not seem to acknowledge this - it seems to present the capitalist self-management as an end in itself.

Also, it doesn't distinguish between those anarchists who abandoned the revolution and joined the government to those who attempted to further the revolution, which might have been more instructive.

Joseph Kay
Feb 16 2010 12:32

to be honest it just reads as radical posturing. if there's a way you could build libertarian communism in one country i'd like to hear it. the CNT hadn't been aiming for 'collectives' in a capitalist economy, but 'free municipalities' in the countryside and 'free unions' in the cities:

Isaac Puente wrote:
The union: in it combine spontaneiously the workers from factories and all places of collective exploitation.

And the free municipality: an assembly with roots stretching back into the past where, again in spontaneity, inhabitants of village and hamlet combine together, and which points the way to the solution of problems in social life in the countryside.

Both kinds of organisation, run on federal and democratic principles, will be soveriegn in their decision making, without being beholden to any higher body, their only obligation being to federate one with another as dictated by the economic requirement for liaison and communications bodies organised in industrial federations.

these 'spontaneous combinations' of workers sound a lot like a federated system of councils (although i think it's silly calling them unions, since the same word was used for unspontaneous, organised unions like the CNT). The goal of this mode of organisation was libertarian communism:

Isaac Puente wrote:
a system of human co-existence that attempts to find a way to solve the economic problem without using the state or politics, in accordance with the well-known formula: From each according to his/her abilities, to each according to her/his needs.

yes this wasn't achieved. yes, layers in the CNT were drawn into class collaboration and this needs to be accounted for. but given as there were actively anti-libertarian communist forces on the republican side reversing collectivisations, reimposing state control and property relations and so on this wasn't even an attempt at communism in one whole country, so slagging it off for failure is pretty facile. more to the point it fails as theory becuse it teaches us nothing from one of "the most advanced model of proletarian power in all time."

Spikymike
Feb 27 2010 15:11

There was a short letter from John Crump providing some balance to this article and a more severe criticism from NH(ACF) with a considered reply from Subversion in Subversion 19 which might usefully be added to this.

It is worth pointing out however, as the Subversion reply does, that uncritical anarchist support for the model of the Spanish collectives, subsequent co-ops and other forms of self-managed capitalism has persisted for some decades since 1936.

At the time of the article in Subversion Abraham Guillen's 'Anarchist Economics:an alternative for a world in crisis' was still promoting such uncritical ideas and being distributed by SoFed's forerunners.

I appreciate that SolFed and other class struggle anarchists today are more critical but an understanding of the fundamental need to destroy the world of exchange value derived from Marx's basic analysis and our actual experience of the modern world is still not embedded in the wider anarchist and libertarian movement.

Joseph Kay
Feb 27 2010 16:43

Well if people take the limit of what was achieved in Spain and turn it into a blueprint that's a problem, since although it was probably the most far-reaching revolution in history any future revolution will need to go further. But I think there's also such thing as uncritical criticism, failing to unpick the competing tendencies, the way different models of organisation exerted different material pressures and so on. A similar method could declare workers' councils obsolete on account of the Bolshevik counter-revolution.

Juan Conatz
Feb 27 2010 21:29
Quote:
There was a short letter from John Crump providing some balance to this article and a more severe criticism from NH(ACF) with a considered reply from Subversion in Subversion 19 which might usefully be added to this.

I know in 19 there was some letters and then a Subversion reply, but as far as I know, it's not online or I would have added it already.

star city anarchist
Apr 11 2010 06:38

I agree that its pretty unbalanced to not look at those who strived for a better Spain.

I also wanna add the obvious, people were also fighting a war. Its difficult to do things at all, much less in an ideal way when there is a war going on.

Also, I think the suggestion that workers should have, I guess ignored fascism is ridiculous. i mean, entering the government, cooperating with liberals, whatever. I don't know enough about the history to judge all that, but a democratic state is better than a fascist one and to say that they should have gone about locally building the most radical cooperatives possible and I guess that would magically have defeated fascism.

A possible interesting critique here was really drenched in nonsense.

also, jesus christ are we to expect perfection from people 6 months or 2 years into any new process. shit takes time.

Devrim
Apr 11 2010 07:11
Quote:
I also wanna add the obvious, people were also fighting a war. Its difficult to do things at all, much less in an ideal way when there is a war going on.

Trotsky had something very poignant to say on this. It also could equally be applied to the Russian revolution, and Kronstadt, which he probably didn't intend.

Trotsky wrote:
We have already heard from some Anarchist theoreticians that at the time of such "exceptional" circumstances as war and revolution, it is necessary to renounce the principles of one’s own program. Such revolutionists bear a close resemblance to raincoats that leak only when it rains, i.e., in "exceptional" circumstances, but during dry weather they remain waterproof with complete success

Revolutions will always be made in times of war, and foreign intervention. It is their nature. The real test for revolutionaries is not those who can hold true to their principles today, but those who can hold onto them at the point where the situation demands it.

Devrim

Django
Apr 11 2010 08:39
Star City Anarchist wrote:
Also, I think the suggestion that workers should have, I guess ignored fascism is ridiculous. i mean, entering the government, cooperating with liberals, whatever. I don't know enough about the history to judge all that, but a democratic state is better than a fascist one and to say that they should have gone about locally building the most radical cooperatives possible and I guess that would magically have defeated fascism.

The problem with this is that it was the democratic republic which crushed the Spanish revolution, and joining the government did nothing to stop this process.

Its not about ignoring fascism (which the workers didn't when they started carrying out the collectivisations), its about understanding that democratic republics ultimately have the same class interests as fascists, as class societies, and as the Spanish Revolution showed are perfectly capable of putting down revolutions themselves.

Joseph Kay
Apr 11 2010 12:47
Django wrote:
Its not about ignoring fascism (which the workers didn't when they started carrying out the collectivisations), its about understanding that democratic republics ultimately have the same class interests as fascists, as class societies, and as the Spanish Revolution showed are perfectly capable of putting down revolutions themselves.

the best elements within it were saying this all along, certainly from Casas Veijas in 1934(?) when the democratic republic carried out a massacre. but unfortunately the CNT's organising model had been inhereted from non-anarcho-syndicalism; recruit and represent as many workers as possible. the historical novelty was that the majority were revolutionaries, unlike in say the French CGT, but the logic of representation meant the question was posed in those terms: CNT dictatorship or collaboration with other representatives? rejecting Bolshevism meant they did the latter. unfortunately they didn't reject the logic of representation itself and throw up the organs that Rudoph Rocker had celebrated as the negation of the state, workers' councils. of course that would have still been (libertarian) socialism in one country and would have presumably fallen short of the standards demanded in the article.

the alternative to collaboration didn't mean ignoring fascism. it meant pushing forward with communisation and smashing any forces of reaction, be they the republican state or Franco's army. the over-riding lesson of Spain is what Django says, from a class point of view fascism and democracy are the same - and the latter was also willing to use force against the working class acting in its own interests. consequently class collaboration is always counter-productive.

Dano
Apr 11 2010 21:45

It's also important to notice that, despite CNT's goal of libertarian communism, it's membership was composed of not only anarcho-communists but also anarcho-collectivists (Durruti being one of them) who didn't seek to abolish the wage system at all, and a system of vouchers, coupons, and even some kind of banks would be a necessary part of anarcho-collectivism. So, I believe it's important to consider this fact in these critics and to study how these two tendencies could have influenced the collectives' economical organization.

Joseph Kay
Apr 11 2010 22:25

good point, and that division probably cut accross the reformist/revolutionary split to an extent too

Dano
Oct 2 2010 21:30

Hey, look at this:

It's anarchist money used in Hijar during the Civil War! eek
With a picture of Ascaso and a half-circled A! confused

(I got it from here.)

Lugius
Oct 30 2013 22:18
Quote:
It did not challenge the family as an economic unit of society, nor the sexual division of labour between men and women. "It is eleven o'clock in the morning. The gong sounds. Mass? It is to remind the women to prepare the midday meal." Women also remained regarded as inferior social beings, frowned on, for example, if they joined the men in the local cafe for a drink after work.

Then how does one explian Mujeres Libres?

Spikymike
Nov 1 2013 15:23

The Subversion 19 follow-up discussion of this article is now available on-line here.

klas batalo
Jun 30 2017 20:03
Spikymike wrote:
There was a short letter from John Crump providing some balance to this article and a more severe criticism from NH(ACF) with a considered reply from Subversion in Subversion 19 which might usefully be added to this.

Are these available anywhere?

Spikymike
Aug 2 2017 14:20

klas, As I said above here: http://libcom.org/library/subversion-19