WORKING TOWARDS UTOPIA Anarchist plans for Spain

Friday 26 November 2004, by Mintz Frank Goldbronn Frédéric

WORKING TOWARDS UTOPIA

Anarchist plans for Spain


Defence of the existing order is often based on nothing more than claims that any deviation would lead to tyranny or chaos. Yet history abounds with examples to the contrary. Revolt, and the aspiration to democracy and solidarity, are always simmering beneath the surface. For a few months during the Spanish civil war, parts of the country pursued a new of form of social organisation that rejected the rule of wealth, power and bureaucracy.
by FRÉDÉRIC GOLDBRONN and FRANCK MINTZ *


Nowadays, devotees of capitalism are happy to adorn themselves with a whiff of "Anarchist", Caron’s latest perfume. The word had very different connotations in 1936, when the Spanish workers carried out a far-reaching libertarian revolution in the areas where they defeated the generals’ revolt against the republic. In the words of a former member of the Iron Column militia (1), "Anarchists did not wage war for the pleasure of defending the bourgeois republic ... We fought for social revolution" (2).

Collectivisation of large sectors of industry, services and agriculture was one of the revolution’s most striking features. It was rooted in the strong political consciousness of the Spanish working class. While many workers belonged to the socialist UGT (General Union of Workers), the great majority were organised in the anarcho-syndicalist CNT (National Confederation of Labour). At that time, the total population of Spain was 24m. The anarchist union had over 1m members and - a unique occurrence in the history of trade unionism - only one paid official.

Two months before the military coup of 18 July 1936, the CNT congress in Saragossa passed a resolution that left no doubt about its intentions: "Once the violent phase of the revolution has been completed, private property, the state, the principle of authority, and consequently all the classes that divide men into exploiters and exploited, oppressors and oppressed, will be abolished. With all wealth socialised, producers’ organisations, free at last, will take over the direct administration of production and consumption" (3).

The workers implemented this programme spontaneously, without waiting for orders from on high. In Barcelona, for example, the executive committees of the CNT declared a general strike on 18 July 1936, but stopped short of calling for collectivisation. Yet on 21 July the Catalonian workers collectivised the railways. On the 25th they took over the trams, buses and metro, on the 26th electricity production, and on the 27th the shipping industry. The steel industry was immediately converted to the manufacture of armoured vehicles and grenades to supply the militias leaving for the Aragon front. Within a few days 70% of the industrial and commercial enterprises of Catalonia, a region containing two thirds of Spanish industry, had been collectivised (4).

The atmosphere of revolutionary jubilation was described by George Orwell in a famous eye-witness account: "The aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists ... Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black ... All this was queer and moving. There was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for" (5).

Franz Borkenau was one of many foreigners who felt the enormous attraction of the revolution. In an account of his travels in republican Spain, he reports the case of a young American entrepreneur whose business had been ruined by the revolution. Despite everything, he strongly supported the anarchists and admired their contempt for money. He refused to leave because he "loved the land and its people", and it mattered little to him that he had lost his property if the old order collapsed and gave way to "a higher, nobler and happier community of men" (6).

Wave of collectivisation

All in all, one and half to two and a half million people were involved in the wave of collectivisation (7), though precise figures are hard to come by. Although no general statistics are available and many archives were destroyed, much partial data published in the press, especially that of the unions, has survived. Above all, we have many accounts by people who took part in or observed the conflict.

In the collectivised enterprises, the director was replaced by an elected committee of union members. He was allowed to continue working, but with the same wages as all other employees. Some sectors, such as wood-working, were unified and completely reorganised under union auspices. In most foreign-owned companies (such as the telephone company and some large metallurgical, textile and food enterprises) the American, British, French, German or Belgian owners were left formally in charge as a concession to the western democracies, but management was taken over by workers’ committees. Only the banks escaped collectivisation. They were taken over directly by the government, which thus gained an important means of applying pressure on collective enterprises with cash-flow problems.

The socialised branches of the economy were reorganised along trade-union lines. Factory committees were elected by general assemblies of workers. They in turn sent delegates to local committees, the local committees to area committees, the area committees to regional committees and the regional committees to national committees. Disputes at local level were settled by the general assembly of workers. At a higher level, issues were decided by general meetings of delegates or by congresses. In practice, however, the CNT held power in Catalonia, because of its huge membership and influence.

There were nevertheless considerable differences between collectivised enterprises. In the Catalonian railways, for example, where all employees were paid an annual wage of 5,000 pesetas, highly skilled staff were awarded an extra 2,000 pesetas. In 1938 the single wage was the rule in the building sector in Lerida, whereas in Barcelona engineers still earned ten times as much as labourers. In one of Catalonia’s most important sectors, the textile industry, a 40-hour week was introduced and wage differentials between technicians and operators were abolished, as was piece-work for women. But in most cases the difference between men’s and women’s income persisted.

Despite all the efforts of the collectivised enterprises to modernise production, things got worse as the months went. In the economic sector as in others, war ate away at the revolution. Raw materials were in increasingly short supply and outlets became few and far between as the rebel armies gained ground. With all efforts concentrated on arms manufacture, production collapsed in other sectors, bringing mass redundancies, shortages of consumer goods, lack of foreign currency and galloping inflation.

Faced with this situation, not all collectives were equal. In late December 1936, the wood-workers’ union indignantly called for all industries to pool their resources, to arrive at fair shares for all: "We cannot accept that some collectivised enterprises should be poor while others are rich" (8). An article published in February 1938 gives an idea of the differences: "Most collectivised industries pay 120 to 140 pesetas a week, and the rural collectives 70 on average. At the same time, workers in the arms industry earn 200 pesetas and more" (9). Given such disparities, some revolutionaries began to talk of the threat of "workers’ neo-capitalism" (10).

In October 1936 the Generalitat (Catalonian government) sanctioned the existence of the collectives by decree and attempted to plan their activities. It decided to appoint government "inspectors" in collectivised enterprises. As the anarchists’ political influence waned, the inspectors were used to reassert state control of the economy.

Rural reform

Rural collectives were also formed "without any person, party or organisation giving instructions to that end" (11). Mainly, the large estates were collectivised, their owners having fled to the nationalist zone or been summarily executed. In Aragon, where the initiative was taken from the end of July 1936 by militiamen from the Durutti Column (12), the movement encompassed nearly all the villages and the federation of collectives comprised half a million peasants.

Property deeds were piled up on village squares and burnt. Peasants brought all their possessions into the collective: land, tools, plough animals and other livestock. In some villages, money was abolished and replaced by vouchers. The vouchers were not a new form of money: they could be used only to buy limited quantities of consumer goods, and not to acquire the means of production.

Money as such was stored by the committee and used to buy, outside the collective, goods that were in short supply and could not be obtained through barter. On a visit to the collective in Alcora, a country town with 5,000 inhabitants, a German historian and journalist, Hanns Erich Kaminski, observed: "They hate money. They would like to ban it by force but are prepared to use it as a last resort until the rest of the world follows Alcora’s example."

Contrary to the Soviet model, membership of the collective was voluntary. It was seen as a mean of defeating the enemy. Those who preferred the family farm continued to work their land, but were not allowed to exploit the labour of others or use collective services. The two forms of production often coexisted, not without conflict, as in Catalonia, where share-croppers became owners of their plots. Collectivisation helped to avoid splitting land into tiny holdings and to modernise farming methods.

Farm labourers, who a few years before had been breaking machines in protest against unemployment and falling wages, now willingly used them to lighten their work. The use of fertilisers and poultry farming were developed, together with irrigation systems, pilot farms and roads. In the Valencia region, the marketing of oranges was reorganised under union auspices, and exports brought in large amounts of foreign currency. Churches that had not been burned down were turned into warehouses, meeting halls, theatres or hospitals (13). According to the anarchist credo, education and culture were the basis of all emancipation. Schools, libraries and cultural associations sprang up in the remotest villages.

The general assembly of peasants elected an administrative committee whose members received no material advantages. Work was done in teams without foremen, this function having been abolished. In many cases the municipal councils merged with the committees, which in practice became the organs of local power. The general mode of remuneration was the family wage. Where money had been abolished, it was paid in vouchers.

In Asco, Catalonia, for example, members of collectives were issued with a family voucher books containing cards for various goods. The cards were of different colours so that people unable to read could easily tell them apart. Goods could be obtained only once a day in the various supply centres. The date of purchase was ticked off on the back of the card. School-teachers, engineers and doctors, whose services were free of charge, were paid by the collectives (14).

The system generated its own forms of administrative hassle. Kaminski tells of a young man from Alcora who wanted to visit his fiancée in the neighbouring village but needed to secure the committee’s consent to exchange his vouchers for money in order to pay the coach fare. The anarchists’ ascetic view of the new society often accorded well with traditional Spanish puritanism and male chauvinism. It goes some way to explaining the paradox of the family wage, which left women "the most oppressed beings in Spain, utterly dependent on men" (15).

The collectives eventually clashed with political forces hostile to the revolution, including its enemies within the republican camp. Weak in July 1936, the influence of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) grew along with Soviet aid. It pursued Moscow’s strategy of alliance with the petite bourgeoisie and middle classes against fascism. Borkenau commented that the communists did not support the workers against the "kulaks". Rather, they took the kulaks’ side against the unions. Vicente Uribe, the communist minister of agriculture, had no scruples about entrusting the marketing of oranges in the Levante to a body that was the rival of the union committee and had been allied, before the war, with the Catholic regionalist, conservative right.

In May 1937 the communists and the Generalitat tried to seize the strategic positions occupied by the anarchists and the anti-Stalinist Poum (United Marxist Workers’ Party). Following bloody clashes in Barcelona, the Generalitat repealed the October 1936 decree on collectivisation and took direct control of defence and policing throughout Catalonia. In August 1937 the mines and the iron and steel industry were placed under exclusive state control, while General Lister’s communist troops attempted to dismantle the Aragon collectives by the use of terror. Weakened and besieged on all sides, the collectives nevertheless survived until Franco’s troops arrived.

For Kaminski, the entry of anarchist ministers into the republican government exemplified "life’s eternal betrayal of the spirit". Such questions were made redundant by Franco’s victory. Libertarian Spain passed into history, draped in red and black, a survivor of the disillusion of the 20th century. Once upon a time, a people recognising "neither God nor master" joyfully set fire to its banknotes. In an age when money rules all, some find that a heart-warming thought.


* Frédéric Goldbronn is a film director and Frank Mintz a historian, author of L’autogestion dans l’Espagne révolutionnaire, Maspero, Paris, 1976.

(1) An anarchist militia containing hundreds of freed prisoners who played a prominent role in the fighting on the Teruel front.

(2) Patricio Martinez Armero, quoted in Abel Paz, La Colonne de Fer, Editions Libertad-CNT, Paris, 1997.

(3) Resolutions of the CNT Saragossa congress, May 1936 (pamphlet).

(4) Carlos Semprun Maura, Révolution et contre-révolution en Catalogne, Editions Mame, Tours, 1974.

(5) Georges Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, Secker & Warburg, London, 1938.

(6) Franz Borkenau, The Spanish cockpit : an eye-witness account of the political and social conflicts of the Spanish civil war, Faber and Faber, London, 1937.

(7) See Frank Mintz, Autogestion et anarcho-syndicalisme, Editions CNT, Paris, 1999.

(8) Carlos Semprun Maura, op. cit.

(9) Article by Agustin Souchy in the CNT newspaper Solidaridad Obrera, February 1938.

(10) Gaston Leval, Espagne libertaire (1936-1939): l’oeuvre constructive de la revolution espagnole, Editions du Cercle, 1971.

(11) Abad de Santillan, Por que perdimos la guerra : una contribucion a la historia de la tragedia espanola, Iman, Buenos Aires, 1940.

(12) Buenaventura Durruti, born in 1896, was a leader of the UGT and then of the CGT. Following Franco’s putsch in 1936, he headed a militia that played a major role in the battle for Barcelona, then in Aragon, and finally on the Madrid front. It was there, on 20 November, that he was fatally wounded, in controversial circumstances.

(13) According to the historian Burnett Bolloten, thousands of members of the clergy and landed gentry were massacred, often in reprisal for massacres by the nationalists. See The Spanish revolution : the Left and the struggle for power during the Civil War, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

(14) Hanns Erich Kaminski, Ceux de Barcelone, Editions Denoel, 1937.

(15) Ibid.

Translated by Barry Smerin


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