Gaston Leval

Gaston Leval: Some conclusions on the Spanish Collectives, principles and lessons

Friday 21 October 2005, by Leval Gaston

Gaston Leval spent many years in Spain and was the author of Nuestro Programa de Reconstrucción (Barcelona 1937), Social Reconstruction in Spain (Freedom Press 1938), L’Indispensable Revolution (Paris 1948) and Né Franco né Stalin (Milan 1952). His article is taken from the concluding chapter of the last of these books, the most thorough study yet made of the Spanish collectives. Taken from Anarchy N° 5, July 1961

It is necessary to complete saying that Leval did not put this part - one of the best of the Italian version - in his L’Espagne libertaire, translated in English by Vernon Richards. For this reason, we put it here.

Frank, CNT 91

Gaston Leval Some conclusions on the Spanish Collectives

Gaston Leval spent many years in Spain and was the author of Nuestro Programa de Reconstrucción (Barcelona 1937), Social Reconstruction in Spain (Freedom Press 1938), L’Indispensable Revolution (Paris 1948) and Né Franco né Stalin (Milan 1952). His article is taken from the concluding chapter of the last of these books, the most thorough study yet made of the Spanish collectives. Taken from Anarchy N° 5, July 1961

It is necessary to complete saying that Leval did not put this part - one of the best of the Italian version - in his L’Espagne libertaire, translated in English by Vernon Richards. For this reason, we put it here.

Frank, CNT 91

I want to call attention to a curious fact: the failure of the top, the directors, the guiding heads. I am referring not only to the socialist and communist politicians, but also to the better-known anarchist militants, the `leaders’. Spanish anarchism had a number of them. The ablest, Orobón Fernández, died shortly before the revolution. A real sociologist, he had a broad and profound grasp of politics and economics. Others were highly-cultured persons, fine agitators, some of them notable orators, good journalists and writers; Federica Montseny was one of the most intelligent women in the intellectual life of the country.

But from the start these militants were absorbed in the official duties they accepted despite their traditional repugnance to government. The idea of anti-fascist unity had led them to this position: It was necessary to keep quiet about principles, to make temporary concessions. Hindered thereby from continuing to act as guides, they remained apart from the great work of reconstruction from which the proletariat will learn such precious lessons for the future. Without doubt they could still have given useful advice, they could have offered general principles for action and co-ordination. They did not. Why? It was because they were primarily demolishers. The struggle against State and capitalism had led them to subordinate all their culture and prestige to a political orientation. None of the best-known militants - apart from Noja Ruiz, and latterly Santillán - was competent to meet the economic problems of revolution. A constructive mentality, that can grasp the essentials of a chaotic situation and harmonize them in a comprehensive vision, is not improvised overnight.

Even some of the intellectuals who stayed out of official positions took no part in the work of transforming the society. How then was success possible? The reason was nothing else than the positive intelligence of the people. This was our secret strength.

For decades, anarchist papers and reviews and pamphlets had been forming in militants a habit of acting individually, of taking initiative. They were not taught to wait for directives from above. They had always thought and acted for themselves-sometimes well, sometimes badly. Reading the paper, the review, the pamphlet, the book, each developed and enlarged his own personality. They were never given a dogma or a safe, uniform line of action. In the study of concrete problems, in the critique of economic and political ideas, clear ideas of revolution had gradually matured.

For some time, the problems of social reconstruction had been on the order of the day. Some of the better-known militants were rather scornful of the studies published by Puente, Besnard, Santillán, Orobón Fernández, Noja Ruiz, Leval. But many of the more serious, and perhaps basically more intelligent, workers read them avidly. A great number of the 60,000 readers of the libertarian review Studi followed with interest the detailed articles on the problems a revolution faces, in food supply, fuel, or agriculture. Many syndicalist groupings did likewise. And when at the Saragossa Congress in May 1936, a renowned militant, who always displayed an olympian indifference toward such questions-later, he was just as good minister as bad organiser-presented an exposition of libertarian communism which revealed the lack of substance in his thought, the workers and peasants assembled from all the provinces showed their disapproval; for they knew quite well that social life must be thought of and organized in a more methodical way. All this study, together with the need for men of will and action in the social struggle, gave birth to the qualities that made possible the marvellous achievements of the agrarian collectives and the industrial organization.

The capacity of the people. That is, intelligence plus will. This is the secret. In this, not even the humblest labourers were lacking. I knew many syndicalist committee members who understood the problems of revolution and economic organisation very clearly.They spoke intelligently about raw materials, imports, the need to improve or eliminate this or that branch of industry, the armed defence, and other matters. The prompt reaction against the Control Committees which threatened, in the big cities, to become a new parasitic bureaucracy; the rapid decision to resist the attacks of the 18th and 19th of July; the rise of untrained military leaders (Durruti, Ortiz, Mera, Ascaso and others) to command over professional military men, are all facts that support my conclusions.

When I made my first visit to the Aragon front, my attention was attracted by the countenances of many of the young men in the trenches. There was clarity, serenity, firmness in their eyes; they had the faces of thoughtful men. I rode back to Barcelona with a comrade-the region’s councillor for economics-who was going to Valencia to make a last desperate effort, through the central government, to save his companion, held by the fascists in Saragossa. He was a simple man,
in externals and in character. But a remarkable man. Although tormented by the fate of his companion, he explained to me about the new lands that had to be cultivated, about coal and iron and manganese mines that could be opened, about canals that ought to be dug, about trade with Catalonia, about the relations between collectivist and individualist peasants.

We spoke of electrification. He expounded to me a plan for a single network to unify the hydraulic resources and distribute the power equally among the socialised regions, and avoid the concentration of industry and the excessive, often unfair, specialisation of agriculture. His deep knowledge of the Spanish economy surprised me. He was a glass-maker, only 32 years old. Many ministers of economics and agriculture of the republic and the monarchy knew less than he about these subjects.

One day the secretary of the Peasants’ Federation of Levante said to me
"I want your advice, Gaston. We’ve been thinking of starting a bank . . _ "
"A bank of your own?" I asked.
"Yes. You see, we need money to keep things moving between our collectivized villages, and for trade with other towns. With the export of oranges stopped, it’s hard to get. Instead of helping, the government cuts the ground from under us.We’ve just about decided to have a bank of our own. The problem is whether we ought to start one with our own resources, or take over one that already exists . . ." "How would you take it over?"
"By operations to make it lose money and accept our intervention." I didn’t have time to look into the plan closely.Some months later, I saw this peasant again-this peasant with the common-man look and the beret. He’d got his bank. I was working on economic problems so they consulted me about everything. But how often nothing remained to be done, so well had they already planned it!

The revolution developed in extremely complicated circumstances. Attacks from within and without had to be fought off. It took fantastic efforts to put the anarchist principles into practice. But in many places it was done. The organisers found out how to get around everything. I repeat: it was possible because we had the intelligence of the people on our side.This is what finds the way, and meets the thousand needs of life and the revolution. It organised the militia and defeated fascism in the first phase of the war. It went to work instantly, to make armoured cars and rifles and guns.The initiative came from the people, above all from those influenced by the anarchists. For example the Aragon collectives: among their organisers I found only two lawyers, in Alcorina. They were not, strictly speaking, intellectuals. But if what they did, together with the peasant and worker comrades, was well done, it was no better than what could be seen in Esplús, Binéfar, Calanda and other collectives.What was a surprise was to find that a great many of these peasants were illiterate. But they had faith, practical common sense, the spirit of sacrifice„ the will to create a new world.

I don’t want to make a demagogic apology for ignorance. Those men had a mentality, a heart, a spirit, of a kind that education cannot give and official education often smothers. Spiritual culture is not always bookish, and still less academic. It can arise from the very conditions of living, and when it does, it is more dynamic.By adapting themselves to what was being done, by co-ordinating the work, by suggesting general directions, by warning a certain region of industry against particular errors, by complementing one activity with another and harmonising the whole, by stimulating here and correcting therein these ways great minds can undoubtedly be of immense service. In Spain they were lacking.It was not by the work of our intellectuals -more literary than sociological, more agitators than practical guides -that the future has been illuminated. And the peasants-libertarian or not-of Aragon, Levante, Castille, Estramadura, Andalusia, the workers of Catalonia, understood this and acted alone.

The intellectuals, by their ineptitude in practical work, were inferior to the peasants who made no political speeches but knew how to organise the new life. Not even the authors of the syndicalist health organisation in Catalonia were intellectuals. A Basque doctor with a will of iron, and a few comrades working in the hospitals, did everything. In other regions, talented professional men aided the movement. But there, too, the initiative came from below. Alcoy’s industries, so well organised, were all managed by the workers, as were those of Elda and Castillon. In Carcagente, in Elda, in Granollers, in Binefar, in Jativa, in land transport, in marine transport, in the collectives of Castille, or in the semi-socialisation of Ripolls and Puigerda-the militants at the bottom did everything.
As for the government, they were as inept in organising the economy as in organising the war.


1. In juridical principles the collectives were something entirely new. They were not syndicates, nor were they municipalities in any traditional sense; they did not even very closely resemble the municipalities of the Middle Ages. Of the two, however, they were closer to the communal than the syndicalist spirit. Often they might just as well have been called communities, as for example the one in Binefar was. The collective was an entity; within it, occupational and professional groups, public services, trade and municipal functions were subordinate and dependent. In forms of organisations, in internal functioning, and in their specialised activities, however, they were autonomous.

2.The agrarian collectives, despite their name, were to all intents and purposes libertarian communist organisations. They applied the rule "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." Where money was abolished, a certain quantity of goods was Id. assured to each person; where money was retained, each family received a wage determined by the number of members.Though the technique varied, the moral principle and the practical results were the same.

3. In the agrarian collectives solidarity was carried to extreme lengths. Not only was every person assured of the necessities, but the district federations increasingly adopted the principle of mutual aid on an inter-collective scale. For this purpose they created common reserves to help out villages less favoured by nature.In Castille special institutions for this purpose were created. In industry this practice seems to have begun in Hospitalet, on the Catalan railways, and was applied later in Alcoy. Had the political compromise not impeded open socialisation, the practices of mutual aid would have been much less more generalised.

4. A conquest of enormous importance was the right of women to livelihood, regardless of occupation or function. In about half of the agrarian collectives, women received the same wages as men; in the rest women received less, apparently on the principle that they rarely lived alone.

5. The child’s right to livelihood was also ungrudgingly recognised : not as a state charity, but as a right no one dreamed of denying. The schools were open to children to the age of 14 or 15-the only guarantee that parents would not send their children to work sooner,and that education would really be universal.

6. In all the agrarian collectives of Aragon, Catalonia, Levante, Castille, Andalusia, and Estramadura, the workers formed groups to divide the labour or the land; usually they were assigned to definite areas. Delegates elected by the work-groups met with the collective’s delegate for agriculture to plan out the work. This typical organisation arose quite spontaneously, by local initiative.

7.In addition to these methods -and similar meetings of specialised groups- the collective as a whole met in a weekly or bi-weekly or monthly assembly. This too was a spontaneous innovation. The assembly reviewed the activities of the councillors it named, and discussed special cases and unforseen problems. All inhabitants-men and women, producers and non-producers-took part in the discussion and decisions. In many cases the `individualists’ (non-collective members)
had equal rights in the assembly.

8. In land cultivation the most significant advances were: the rapidly increased use of machinery and irrigation; greater diversification; and forestation. In stock-raising: the selection and multiplication of breeds; the adaptation of breeds to local conditions; and large-scale construction of collective stock barns.

9. Production and trade were brought into increasing harmony and distribution became more and more unified; first district unification, then regional unification, and finally the creation of a national federation. The district (comarca) was the basis of trade. In exceptional cases an isolated commune managed its own, on authority of the district federation which kept an eye on the commune and could intervene if its trading practices were harmful to the general economy. In Aragon the Federation of Collectives, founded in January 1937, began to co-ordinate trade among the communes of the region, and to create a system of mutual aid. The tendency to unity became more distinct with the adoption of a single "producer’s card" and a single "consumer’s card" -which implied suppression of all money, local and national-by a decision of the February 1937 Congress. Co-ordination of trade with other regions, and abroad, improved steadily. When disparities in exchange, or exceptionally high prices, created surpluses, they were used by the Regional Federation to help the poorer collectives. Solidarity thus extended beyond the district.

10. Industrial concentration-the elimination of small workshops and uneconomical factories-was a characteristic feature of collectivisation both in the rural communes and in the cities. Labour was rationalised on the basis of social need-in Alcoy’s industries and in those of Hospitalet, in Barcelona’s municipal transport and in the Aragon collectives.

11.The first step toward socialisation was frequently the dividing up of lare estates (as in the Segorbe and Granollers districts and a number of- Aragon villages). In certain other cases the first step was to force the municipalities to grant immediate reforms (municipalisation of land-rent and of medicine in Elda, Benicarló, Castellón, Alcañiz, Caspe, etc.).

12. Education advanced at an unprecedented pace. Most of the partly or wholly socialised collectives and municipalities built at least one school. By 1938, for example, every collective in the Levante Federation had its own school.

13. The number of collectives increased steadily. The movement originated and progressed swiftly in Aragon, conquered part of Catalonia, then moved on to Levante and later Castille. According to reliable testimony the accomplishments in Castille may indeed have surpassed Levante and Aragon. Estramadura and the part of Andalusia not conquered immediately by the fascists-especially the province of Jaén -also had their collectives. The character of the collectives varied of course with local conditions.

14. We lack exact figures on the total number of collectives in Spain. Based on the incomplete statistics of the Congress in Aragon in February 1937, and on data gathered during my stay in this region, there were at least 400; In Levante in 1938 there were 500.To these must be added those of the other regions.The development and growth of the movement can be gauged from these figures: by February 1937 the District of Angués had 36 (figures given at the Congress).By June of the same year it had 57. In my investigation I found only two collectives which had failed: Boltaña and Ainsa, in Northern Aragon.

15. Sometimes the collective was supplemented by other forms of socialisation. After I left Carcagente, trade was socialised. In Alcoy consumers co-operatives arose to round out the syndicalist organisation of production. There were other instances of the same kind.
16. The collectives were not created single-handed by the libertarian movement. Although their juridical principles were strictly anarchist, a great many collectives were created spontaneously by people remote from our movement ("libertarians" without being aware of it). Most of the Castille and Estramadura collectives were organised by Catholic and Socialist peasants; in some cases of course they may have been inspired by the propaganda of isolated anarchist militants. Although their organisation opposed the movement officially, many members of the UGT entered or organised collectives, as did republicans who sincerely wanted to achieve liberty and justice.

17. Small land-owners were respected. Their inclusion in the consumer’s card system and in the collective trading, the resolutions taken in respect to them, all attest to this.There were just two restric tions: they could not have more land than they could cultivate, and they could not carry on private trade. Membership of the collective was voluntary: the "individualists" joined only if and when they were persuaded of the advantages of working in common.

18.The chief obstacles to the collectives were
(a) The existence of conservative strata, and parties and organisations representing them. Republicans of all factions, Socialist of left and right (Largo Caballero and Prieto), Stalinist Communists, and often the POUMists. (Before their expulsion from the Catalan government-the Generalidad-the POUMISTS were not a truly revolutionary party. They became so when driven into opposition. Even in June 1937, a manifesto distributed by the Aragon section of the POUM attacked the collectives). The UGT was the principal instrument of the various politicians.
(b) The opposition of certain small landowners (Catalan and Pyrenean peasants).
(c) The fear, even among some members of collectives, that the government would destroy the organisations once the war was over. Many who were not really reactionary, and many small landowners who would otherwise have joined the collectives, held back on this account.
(d) The open attack on the collectives: by which is not meant the obviously destructive acts of the Franco troops wherever they advanced. In Castile the attack on the Collectives was conducted, arms in hand, by Communist troops. In the Valencia region, there were battles in which even armoured cars took part. In the Huesca province the Karl Marx brigade persecuted the collectives.The Macia Companys brigade did the same in Teruel province.(But both always fled from combat with the fascists.The Karl Marx brigade always remained inactive, while our troops fought for Huesca and other important points; the Marxist troops reserved themselves for the rearguard. The second gave up Vivel del Rio and other coal regions of Utrillos without a fight. These soldiers, who ran in panic before a small attack that other forces easily contained, were intrepid warriors against the unarmed peasants) of the collectives).

19.In the work of creation, transformation and socialisation, the peasant demonstrated a social conscience much superior to that of the city worker.