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An Anarchist FAQ - I.8 Does revolutionary Spain show that libertarian socialism can work in practice?
PDF version of Section I.
I.8 Does revolutionary Spain show that libertarian socialism can work in practice?
Yes. As Murray Bookchin puts it, "[i]n Spain, millions of people took large segments of the economy into their own hands, collectivised them, administered them, even abolished money and lived by communistic principles of work and distribution -- all of this in the midst of a terrible civil war, yet without producing the chaos or even the serious dislocations that were and still are predicted by authoritarian 'radicals.' Indeed, in many collectivised areas, the efficiency with which an enterprise worked by far exceeded that of a comparable one in nationalised or private sectors. This 'green shoot' of revolutionary reality has more meaning for us than the most persuasive theoretical arguments to the contrary. On this score it is not the anarchists who are the 'unrealistic day-dreamers,' but their opponents who have turned their backs to the facts or have shamelessly concealed them." ["Introductory Essay," in The Anarchist Collectives, Sam Dolgoff (ed.), p. xxxix]
Sam Dolgoff's book is by far the best English source on the Spanish collectives and deserves to be quoted at length (as we do below). He quotes French Anarchist Gaston Leval comments that in those areas which defeated the fascist uprising on the 19th of July 1936 a profound social revolution took place based, mostly, on anarchist ideas:
"In Spain, during almost three years, despite a civil war that took a million lives, despite the opposition of the political parties . . . this idea of libertarian communism was put into effect. Very quickly more than 60% of the land was very quickly collectively cultivated by the peasants themselves, without landlords, without bosses, and without instituting capitalist competition to spur production. In almost all the industries, factories, mills, workshops, transportation services, public services, and utilities, the rank and file workers, their revolutionary committees, and their syndicates reorganised and administered production, distribution, and public services without capitalists, high-salaried managers, or the authority of the state.
"Even more: the various agrarian and industrial collectives immediately instituted economic equality in accordance with the essential principle of communism, 'From each according to his ability and to each according to his needs.' They co-ordinated their efforts through free association in whole regions, created new wealth, increased production (especially in agriculture), built more schools, and bettered public services. They instituted not bourgeois formal democracy but genuine grass roots functional libertarian democracy, where each individual participated directly in the revolutionary reorganisation of social life. They replaced the war between men, 'survival of the fittest,' by the universal practice of mutual aid, and replaced rivalry by the principle of solidarity . . .
"This experience, in which about eight million people directly or indirectly participated, opened a new way of life to those who sought an alternative to anti-social capitalism on the one hand, and totalitarian state bogus socialism on the other." [Op. Cit., pp. 6-7]
Thus about eight million people directly or indirectly participated in the libertarian based new economy during the short time it was able to survive the military assaults of the fascists and the attacks and sabotage of the Communists. This in itself suggests that libertarian socialist ideas are of a practical nature.
Lest the reader think that Dolgoff and Bookchin are exaggerating the accomplishments and ignoring the failures of the Spanish collectives, in the following subsections we will present specific details and answer some objections often raised by misinformed critics. We will try to present an objective analysis of the revolution, its many successes, its strong points and weak points, the mistakes made and possible lessons to be drawn from the experience, both from the successes and the mistakes.
This libertarian influenced revolution has (generally) been ignored by historians, or its existence mentioned in passing. Some so-called historians and "objective investigators" have slandered it and lied about (when not ignoring) the role anarchists played in it. Communist histories are particularly unreliable (to use a polite word for their activities) but it seems that almost every political perspective has done this (including liberal, right-wing libertarian, Stalinist, Trotskyist, Marxist, and so on). Indeed, the myths generated by Marxists of various shades are quite extensive (see the appendix on "Marxists and Spanish Anarchism" for a reply to some of the more common ones).
Thus any attempt to investigate what actually occurred in Spain and the anarchists' role in it is subject to a great deal of difficulty. Moreover, the positive role that Anarchists played in the revolution and the positive results of our ideas when applied in practice are also downplayed, if not ignored. Indeed, the misrepresentations of the Spanish Anarchist movement are downright amazing (see Jerome R. Mintz's wonderful book The Anarchists of Casa Viejas for a refutation of the historians claims, a refutation based on oral history, as well as J. Romero Maura's, "The Spanish case", contained in Anarchism Today, edited by J. Joll and D. Apter. Both are essential reading to understand the distortions of historians about the Spanish anarchist movement).
All we can do here is present a summary of the social revolution that took place and attempt to explode a few of the myths that have been created around the work of the C.N.T. and F.A.I. during those years.
In addition, we must stress that this section of the FAQ can be nothing but an introduction to the Spanish Revolution. We concentrate on the economic and political aspects of the revolution as we cannot cover the social transformations that occurred. All across non-fascist Spain traditional social relationships between men and women, adults and children, individual and individual were transformed, revolutionised, in a libertarian way. C.N.T. militant Abel Paz gives a good indication of this when he wrote:
"Industry is in the hands of the workers and all the production centres conspicuously fly the red and black flags as well as inscriptions announcing that they have really become collectives. The revolution seems to be universal. Changes are also evident in social relations. The former barriers which used to separate men and woman arbitrarily have been destroyed. In the cafes and other public places there is a mingling of the sexes which would have been completely unimaginable before. The revolution has introduced a fraternal character to social relations which has deepened with practice and show clearly that the old world is dead." [Durruti: The People Armed, p. 243]
The social transformation empowered individuals and these, in turn, transformed society. Anarchist militant Enriqueta Rovira presents a vivid picture of the self-liberation the revolution generated:
"The atmosphere then [during the revolution], the feelings were very special. It was beautiful. A feeling of -- how shall I say it -- of power, not in the sense of domination, but in the sense of things being under our control, of under anyone's. Of possibility. We had everything. We had Barcelona: It was ours. You'd walk out in the streets, and they were ours -- here, CNT; there, comite this or that. It was totally different. Full of possibility. A feeling that we could, together, really do something. That we could make things different." [quoted by Martha A. Ackelsberg and Myrna Margulies Breithart, "Terrains of Protest: Striking City Women", pp. 151-176, Our Generation, vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 164-5]
Moreover, the transformation of society that occurred during the revolution extended to all areas of life and work. For example, the revolution saw "the creation of a health workers' union, a true experiment in socialised medicine. They provided medical assistance and opened hospitals and clinics." [Juan Gomez Casas, Anarchist Organisation: The History of the FAI, p. 192] We discuss this example in some detail in section I.5.12 and so will not do so here. Therefore, we must stress that this section of the FAQ is just an introduction to what happened and does not (indeed, cannot) discuss all aspects of the revolution. We just present an overview, bringing out the libertarian aspects of the revolution, the ways workers' self-management was organised, how the collectives organised and what they did.
Needless to say, many mistakes were made during the revolution. We point out and discuss some of them in what follows. Moreover, much of what happened did not correspond exactly with what many people consider as the essential steps in a communist (libertarian or otherwise) revolution. Economically, for example, few collectives reached beyond a mutualist or collectivist state. Politically, the fear of a fascist victory made many anarchists accept collaboration with the state as a lessor evil. However, to dismiss the Spanish Revolution because it did not meet the ideas laid out by a handful of revolutionaries would be sectarian and elitist nonsense. No working class revolution is pure, no mass struggle is without its contradictions, no attempt to change society will be perfect. "It is only those who do nothing who make no mistakes," as Kropotkin so correctly pointed out. [Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 143] The question is whether the revolution creates a system of institutions which will allow those involved to discuss the problems they face and correct the decisions they make. In this, the Spanish Revolution clearly succeeded, creating organisations based on the initiative, autonomy and power of working class people.
For more information about the social revolution, Sam Dolgoff's The Anarchist Collectives is an excellent starting place. Gaston Leval's Collectives in the Spanish Revolution is another essential text. Jose Pierat's Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and Vernon Richards' Lessons of the Spanish Revolution are excellent critical anarchist works on the revolution and the role of the anarchists. Robert Alexander's The Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War is a good general overview of the anarchist's role in the revolution and civil war, as is Burnett Bolloten's The Spanish Civil War. Noam Chomsky's excellent essay "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship" indicates how liberal books on the Spanish Civil War can be misleading, unfair and essentially ideological in nature (this classic essay can be found in The Chomsky Reader and American Power and the New Mandarins). George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia cannot be bettered as an introduction to the subject (Orwell was in the POUM militia at the Aragon Front and was in Barcelona during the May Days of 1937).
I.8.1 Wasn't the Spanish Revolution primarily a rural phenomenon and therefore inapplicable as a model for modern industrialised societies?
Quite the reverse. More urban workers took part in the revolution than in the countryside. So while it is true that collectivisation was extensive in rural areas, the revolution also made its mark in urban areas and in industry.
In total, the "regions most affected" by collectivisation "were Catalonia and Aragon, were about 70 per cent of the workforce was involved. The total for the whole of Republican territory was nearly 800,000 on the land and a little more than a million in industry. In Barcelona workers' committees took over all the services, the oil monopoly, the shipping companies, heavy engineering firms such as Volcano, the Ford motor company, chemical companies, the textile industry and a host of smaller enterprises. . . Services such as water, gas and electricity were working under new management within hours of the storming of the Atarazanas barracks . . .a conversion of appropriate factories to war production meant that metallurgical concerns had started to produce armed cars by 22 July . . . The industrial workers of Catalonia were the most skilled in Spain . . . One of the most impressive feats of those early days was the resurrection of the public transport system at a time when the streets were still littered and barricaded." Five days after the fighting had stopped, 700 tramcars rather than the usual 600, all painted in the colours of the CNT-FAI were operating in Barcelona." [Antony Beevor, The Spanish Civil War, pp. 91-2]
About 75% of Spanish industry was concentrated in Catalonia, the stronghold of the anarchist labour movement, and widespread collectivisation of factories took place there. However, collectivisation was not limited to Catalonia and took place all across urban as well as rural Republican Spain. As Sam Dolgoff rightly observes, "[t]his refutes decisively the allegation that anarchist organisational principles are not applicable to industrial areas, and if at all, only in primitive agrarian societies or in isolated experimental communities." [The Anarchist Collectives, pp. 7-8]
There had been a long tradition of peasant collectivism in the Iberian Peninsula, as there was among the Berbers and in the ancient Russian mir. The historians Costa and Reparaz maintain that a great many Iberian collectives can be traced to "a form of rural libertarian-communism [which] existed in the Iberian Peninsula before the Roman invasion. Not even five centuries of oppression by Catholic kings, the State and the Church have been able to eradicate the spontaneous tendency to establish libertarian communistic communities." [cited, Op. Cit., p. 20] So it is not surprising that there were collectives in the countryside.
According to Augustin Souchy, "[i]t is no simple matter to collectivise and place on firm foundations an industry employing almost a quarter of a million textile workers in scores of factories scattered in numerous cities. But the Barcelona syndicalist textile union accomplished this feat in a short time. It was a tremendously significant experiment. The dictatorship of the bosses was toppled, and wages, working conditions and production were determined by the workers and their elected delegates. All functionaries had to carry out the instructions of the membership and report back directly to the men on the job and union meetings. The collectivisation of the textile industry shatters once and for all the legend that the workers are incapable of administrating a great and complex corporation" [cited, Op. Cit., p. 94].
Moreover, Spain in the 1930s was not a "backward, peasant country," as is sometimes supposed. Between 1910 and 1930, the industrial working class more than doubled to over 2,500,000. This represented just over 26% of the working population (compared to 16% twenty years previously). In 1930, 45 per cent of the working population were engaged in agriculture. [Ronald Fraser, The Blood of Spain, p. 38] In Catalonia alone, 200,000 workers were employed in the textile industry and 70,000 in metal-working and machinery manufacturing. This was very different than the situation in Russia at the end of World War I, where the urban working class made up only 10% of the population.
Capitalist social relations had also penetrated agriculture much more thoroughly than in "backward, underdeveloped" countries by the 1930s. In Russia at the end of World War I, for example, agriculture mostly consisted of small farms on which peasant families worked mainly for their own subsistence, bartering or selling their surplus. In Spain, however, agriculture was oriented to the world market and by the 1930s approximately 90% of farm land was in the hands of the bourgeoisie. [Fraser, Op. Cit., p. 37] Spanish agribusiness also employed large numbers of labourers who did not own enough land to support themselves. The revolutionary labour movement in the Spanish countryside in the 1930s was precisely based on this large population of rural wage-earners (the socialist UGT land workers union had 451,000 members in 1933, 40% of its total membership, for example).
Therefore the Spanish Revolution cannot be dismissed as a product a of pre-industrial society. The urban collectivisations occurred predominately in the most heavily industrialised part of Spain and indicate that anarchist ideas are applicable to modern societies (indeed, the CNT organised most of the unionised urban working class). By 1936 agriculture itself was predominately capitalist (with 2% of the population owning 67% of the land). The revolution in Spain was the work (mostly) of rural and urban wage labourers (joined with poor peasants) fighting a well developed capitalist system.
Therefore, the anarchist revolution in Spain has many lessons for revolutionaries in developed capitalist countries and cannot be dismissed as a product of industrial backwardness.
Anarchism was introduced in Spain in 1868 by Giuseppi Fanelli, an associate of Michael Bakunin, and found fertile soil among both the workers and the peasants of Spain.
The peasants supported anarchism because of the rural tradition of Iberian collectivism mentioned in the last section. The urban workers supported it because its ideas of direct action, solidarity and free federation of unions corresponded to their needs in their struggle against capitalism and the state.
In addition, many Spanish workers were well aware of the dangers of centralisation and the republican tradition in Spain was very much influenced by federalist ideas (coming, in part, from Proudhon's work). The movement later spread back and forth between countryside and cities as union organisers and anarchist militants visited villages and as peasants came to industrial cities like Barcelona, looking for work.
Therefore, from the start anarchism in Spain was associated with the labour movement (as Bakunin desired) and so anarchists had a practical area to apply their ideas and spread the anarchist message. By applying their principles in everyday life, the anarchists in Spain ensured that anarchist ideas became commonplace and accepted in a large section of the population.
This acceptance of anarchism cannot be separated from the structure and tactics of the C.N.T. and its fore-runners. The practice of direct action and solidarity encouraged workers to rely on themselves to identify and solve their own problems. The decentralised structure of the anarchist unions had an educational effect of their members. By discussing issues, struggles, tactics, ideals and politics in their union assemblies, the members of the union educated themselves and, by the process of self-management in the struggle, prepared themselves for a free society. The very organisational structure of the C.N.T. ensured the dominance of anarchist ideas and the political evolution of the union membership. As one C.N.T. militant from Casas Viejas put it, new members "asked for too much, because they lacked education. They thought they could reach the sky without a ladder . . . they were beginning to learn . . . There was good faith but lack of education. For that reason we would submit ideas to the assembly, and the bad ideas would be thrown out." [quoted by J. Mintz, The Anarchists of Casas Viejas, p. 27]
It was by working in the union meetings that anarchists influenced their fellow workers. The idea that the anarchists, through the F.A.I, controlled the C.N.T is a myth. Not all anarchists in the C.N.T were members of the F.A.I, for example. Almost all F.A.I members were also rank-and-file members of the C.N.T. who took part in union meetings as equals. Anarchists were not members of the FAI indicate this. Jose Borras Casacarosa notes that "[o]ne has to recognise that the F.A.I. did not intervene in the C.N.T. from above or in an authoritarian manner as did other political parties in the unions. It did so from the base through militants . . . the decisions which determined the course taken by the C.N.T. were taken under constant pressure from these militants." Jose Campos notes that F.A.I. militants "tended to reject control of confederal committees and only accepted them on specific occassions . . . if someone proposed a motion in assembly, the other F.A.I. members would support it, usually successfully. It was the individual standing of the faista in open assembly." [quoted by Stuart Christie, We, the Anarchists, p. 62]
This explains the success of anarchism in the CNT. Anarchist ideas, principles and tactics, submitted to the union assemblies, proved to be good ideas and were not thrown out. The structure of the organisation, in other words, decisively influenced the content of the decisions reached as ideas, tactics, union policy and so on were discussed by the membership and those which best applied to the members lives were accepted and implemented. The C.N.T assemblies showed the validity of Bakunin's arguments for self-managed unions as a means of ensuring workers' control of their own destinies and organisations. As he put it, the union "sections could defend their rights and their autonomy [against union bureaucracy] in only one way: the workers called general membership meetings . . . In these great meetings of the sections, the items on the agenda were amply discussed and the most progressive opinion prevailed." [Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 247] The C.N.T was built on such "popular assemblies," with the same radicalising effect. It showed, in practice, that bosses (capitalist as well as union ones) were not needed -- workers can manage their own affairs directly. As a school for anarchism it could not be bettered as it showed that anarchist principles were not utopian. The C.N.T, by being based on workers' self-management of the class struggle, prepared its members for workers' self-management of the revolution and the new society.
The Spanish Revolution also shows the importance of anarchist education and media. In a country with a very high illiteracy rate, huge quantities of literature on social revolution were disseminated and read out loud at meetings by those who could read to those who could not. Anarchist ideas were widely discussed. "There were tens of thousands of books, pamphlets and tracts, vast and daring cultural and popular educational experiments (the Ferrer schools) that reached into almost every village and hamlet throughout Spain." [The Anarchist Collectives, p. 27] The discussion of political, economic and social ideas was continuous, and "the centro [local union hall] became the gathering place to discuss social issues and to dream and plan for the future. Those who aspired to learn to read and write would sit around . . . studying." [Jerome R. Mintz, The Anarchists of Casas Viejas, p. 160] One anarchist militant described it as follows:
"With what joy the orators were received whenever a meeting was held . . . We spoke that night about everything: of the ruling inequality of the regime and of how one had a right to a life without selfishness, hatred, without wars and suffering. We were called on another occasion and a crowd gathered larger than the first time. That's how the pueblo started to evolve, fighting the present regime to win something by which they could sustain themselves, and dreaming of the day when it would be possible to create that society some depict in books, others by word of mouth. Avid for learning, they read everything, debated, discussed, and chatted about the different modes of perfect social existence." [Perez Cordon, quoted by Jerome R. Mintz, Op. Cit., p. 158]
Newspapers and periodicals were extremely important. By 1919, more than 50 towns in Andalusia had their own libertarian newspapers. By 1934 the C.N.T. (the anarcho-syndicalist labour union) had a membership of around one million and the anarchist press covered all of Spain. In Barcelona the C.N.T. published a daily, Solidaridad Obrera (Worker Solidarity), with a circulation of 30,000. The FAI's magazine Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty) had a circulation of 20,000. In Gijon there was Vida Obrera (Working Life), in Seville El Productor (The Producer), and in Saragossa Accion y Cultura (Action and Culture), each with a large circulation. There were many more.
As well as leading struggles, organising unions, and producing books, papers and periodicals, the anarchists also organised libertarian schools, cultural centres, co-operatives, anarchist groups (the F.A.I), youth groups (the Libertarian Youth) and women's organisations (the Free Women movement). They applied their ideas in all walks of life and so ensured that ordinary people saw that anarchism was practical and relevant to them.
This was the great strength of the Spanish Anarchist movement. It was a movement "that, in addition to possessing a revolutionary ideology [sic], was also capable of mobilising action around objectives firmly rooted in the life and conditions of the working class . . . It was this ability periodically to identify and express widely felt needs and feelings that, together with its presence at community level, formed the basis of the strength of radical anarchism, and enabled it to build a mass base of support." [Nick Rider, "The practice of direct action: the Barcelona rent strike of 1931", p. 99, from For Anarchism, pp. 79-105]
Historian Temma Kaplan stressed this in her work on the Andalusian anarchists. She argued that the anarchists were "rooted in" social life and created "a movement firmly based in working-class culture." They "formed trade unions, affinity groups such as housewives' sections, and broad cultural associations such as workers' circles, where the anarchist press was read and discussed." Their "great strength . . . lay in the merger of communal and militant trade union traditions. In towns where the vast majority of worked in agriculture, agricultural workers' unions came to be identified with the community as a whole . . . anarchism . . . show[ed] that the demands of agricultural workers and proletarians could be combined with community support to create an insurrectionary situation . . . It would be a mistake . . . to argue that 'village anarchism' in Andalusia was distinct from militant unionism, or that the movement was a surrogate religion." [Anarchists of Andalusia: 1868-1903, p. 211, p. 207, pp. 204-5]
The Spanish anarchists, before and after the C.N.T was formed, fought in and out of the factory for economic, social and political issues. This refusal of the anarchists to ignore any aspect of life ensured that they found many willing to hear their message, a message based around the ideas of individual liberty. Such a message could do nothing but radicalise workers for "the demands of the C.N.T went much further than those of any social democrat: with its emphasis on true equality, autogestion [self-management] and working class dignity, anarchosyndicalism made demands the capitalist system could not possibly grant to the workers." [J. Romero Maura, "The Spanish case", p. 79, from Anarchism Today, edited by J. Joll and D. Apter]
Strikes, due to the lack of strike funds, depended on mutual aid to be won, which fostered a strong sense of solidarity and class consciousness in the CNT membership. Strikes did not just involve workers. For example, workers in Jerez responded to bosses importing workers from Malaga "with a weapon of their own -- a boycott of those using strikebreakers. The most notable boycotts were against landowners near Jerez who also had commercial establishments in the city. The workers and their wives refused to buy there, and the women stationed themselves nearby to discourage other shoppers." [Jerome R. Mintz, Op. Cit., p. 102]
The structure and tactics of the C.N.T encouraged the politicisation, initiative and organisational skills of its members. It was a federal, decentralised body, based on direct discussion and decision making from the bottom up. "The C.N.T tradition was to discuss and examine everything", as one militant put it. In addition, the C.N.T created a viable and practical example of an alternative method by which society could be organised. A method which was based on the ability of ordinary people to direct society themselves and which showed in practice that special ruling authorities are undesirable and unnecessary.
The very structure of the C.N.T and the practical experience it provided its members in self-management produced a revolutionary working class the likes of which the world has rarely seen. As Jose Peirats points out, "above the union level, the C.N.T was an eminently political organisation . . ., a social and revolutionary organisation for agitation and insurrection." [Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, p. 239]
The C.N.T. was organised in such a way as to encourage solidarity and class consciousness. Its organisation was based on the sindicato unico (one union) which united all workers of the same workplace in the same union. Instead of organising by trade, and so dividing the workers into numerous different unions, the C.N.T united all workers in a workplace into the same organisation, all trades, skilled and unskilled, where in a single organisation and so solidarity was increased and encouraged as well as increasing their fighting power by eliminating divisions within the workforce. All the unions in an area were linked together into a local federation, the local federations into a regional federation and so on. As J. Romero Maura argues, the "territorial basis of organisation linkage brought all the workers from one area together and fomented working-class solidarity over and above corporate [industry or trade] solidarity." ["The Spanish case", p. 75, from Anarchism Today, edited by J. Joll and D. Apter]
Thus the structure of the C.N.T. encouraged class solidarity and consciousness. In addition, being based on direct action and self-management, the union ensured that working people became accustomed to managing their own struggles and acting for themselves, directly. This prepared them to manage their own personal and collective interests in a free society (as seen by the success of the self-managed collectives created in the revolution). Thus the process of self-managed struggle and direct action prepared people for the necessities of the social revolution and the an anarchist society -- it built, as Bakunin argued, the seeds of the future in the present.
In other words, "the route to radicalisation . . . came from direct involvement in struggle and in the design of alternative social institutions." Every strike and action empowered those involved and created a viable alternative to the existing system. For example, while the strikes and food protests in Barcelona at the end of the First World War "did not topple the government, patterns of organisation established then provided models for the anarchist movement for years to follow." [Martha A. Ackelsberg and Myrna Margulies Breithart, "Terrains of Protest: Striking City Women", pp. 151-176, Our Generation, vol. 19, No. 1, p. 164] The same could be said of every strike, which confirmed Bakunin's and Kropotkin's stress on the strike as not only creating class consciousness and confidence but also the structures necessary to not only fight capitalism, but to replace it.
It was the revolutionary nature of the C.N.T. that created a militant membership who were willing and able to use direct action to defend their liberty. Unlike the Marxist led German workers, organised in a centralised fashion and trained in the obedience required by hierarchy, who did nothing to stop Hitler, the Spanish working class (like their comrades in anarchist unions in Italy) took to the streets to stop fascism.
The revolution in Spain did not "just happen"; it was the result of nearly seventy years of persistent anarchist agitation and revolutionary struggle, including a long series of peasant uprisings, insurrections, industrial strikes, protests, sabotage and other forms of direct action that prepared the peasants and workers organise popular resistance to the attempted fascist coup in July 1937 and to take control of the economy when they had defeated it in the streets.
Marta A. Ackelsberg gives us an excellent short summary of how the industrial collectives where organised:
"In most collectivised industries, general assemblies of workers decided policy, while elected committees managed affairs on a day-to-day basis." [Free Women of Spain, p. 73]
The collectives were based on workers' democratic self-management of their workplaces, using productive assets that were under the custodianship of the entire working community and administered through federations of workers' associations. Augustin Souchy writes:
"The collectives organised during the Spanish Civil War were workers' economic associations without private property. The fact that collective plants were managed by those who worked in them did not mean that these establishments became their private property. The collective had no right to sell or rent all or any part of the collectivised factory or workshop, The rightful custodian was the C.N.T., the National Confederation of Workers Associations. But not even the C.N.T. had the right to do as it pleased. Everything had to be decided and ratified by the workers themselves through conferences and congresses." [cited in The Anarchist Collectives, p. 67]
According to Souchy, in Catalonia "every factory elected its administrative committee composed of its most capable workers. Depending on the size of the factory, the function of these committees included inner plant organisation, statistics, finance, correspondence, and relations with other factories and with the community. . . . Several months after collectivisation the textile industry of Barcelona was in far better shape than under capitalist management. Here was yet another example to show that grass roots socialism from below does not destroy initiative. Greed is not the only motivation in human relations." [Op. Cit., p 95]
Thus the individual collective was based on a mass assembly of those who worked there. This assembly nominated administrative staff who were mandated to implement the decisions of the assembly and who had to report back to, and were accountable to, that assembly. For example, in Castellon de la Plana "[e]very month the technical and administrative council presented the general assembly of the Syndicate with a report which was examined and discussed if necessary, and finally introduced when this majority thought it of use. Thus all the activities were known and controlled by all the workers. We find here a practical example of libertarian democracy." [Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, p. 303]
So, in general, the industrial collectives were organised from the bottom-up, with policy in the hands of workers' assemblies who elected the administration required, including workplace committees and managers. However, power rested the at base of the collective, with "all important decisions [being] taken by the general assemblies of the workers, . . . [which] were widely attended and regularly held. . . if an administrator did something which the general assembly had not authorised, he was likely to be deposed at the next meeting." An example of this process can be seen from the Casa Rivieria company. After the defeat of the army coup "a control committe (Comite de Control) was named by the Barcelona Metal Workers' Union to take over temporary control of the enterprises. . . A few weeks after July 19th, there was the first general assembly of the firm's workers . . . It elected an enterprise committee (Comite de Empresa) to take control of the firm on a more permanent basis. . . . Each of the four sections of the firm -- the three factories and the office staff -- held their own general assemblies at least once a week. There they discussed matters ranging from the most important affairs to the most trivial." [Robert Alexander, The Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, vol. 1, p. 469 and p. 532]
A plenum of syndicates met in December of 1936 and formulated norms for socialisation in which the inefficiency of the capitalist industrial system was analysed. The report of the plenum stated:
"The major defect of most small manufacturing shops is fragmentation and lack of technical/commercial preparation. This prevents their modernisation and consolidation into better and more efficient units of production, with better facilities and co-ordination. . . . For us, socialisation must correct these deficiencies and systems of organisation in every industry. . . . To socialise an industry, we must consolidate the different units of each branch of industry in accordance with a general and organic plan which will avoid competition and other difficulties impeding the good and efficient organisation of production and distribution. . ." [cited by Souchy, The Anarchist Collectives, p. 83]
As Souchy points out, this document is very important in the evolution of collectivisation, because it indicates a realisation that "workers must take into account that partial collectivisation will in time degenerate into a kind of bourgeois co-operativism," [Op. Cit., p. 83] as discussed earlier. Thus many collectives did not compete with each other for profits, as surpluses were pooled and distributed on a wider basis than the individual collective -- in most cases industry-wide.
We have already noted some examples of the improvements in efficiency realised by collectivisation during the Spanish Revolution ( section I.4.10). Another example was the baking industry. Souchy reports that, "[a]s in the rest of Spain, Barcelona's bread and cakes were baked mostly at night in hundreds of small bakeries. Most of them were in damp, gloomy cellars infested with roaches and rodents. All these bakeries were shut down. More and better bread and cake were baked in new bakeries equipped with new modern ovens and other equipment." [Op. Cit., p. 82]
Therefore, the collectives in Spain were marked by workplace democracy and a desire to co-operate within and across industries. This attempt at libertarian socialism, like all experiments, had its drawbacks as well as successes and these will be discussed in the next section as well as some of the conclusions drawn from the experience.
The methods of co-operation tried by the collectives varied considerably. Initially, there were very few attempts to co-ordinate economic activities beyond the workplace. This is hardly surprising, given that the overwhelming need was to restart production, convert a civilian economy to a wartime one and to ensure that the civilian population and militias were supplied with necessary goods. This, unsurprisingly enough, lead to a situation of anarchist mutualism developing, with many collectives selling the product of their own labour on the market (in other words, a form of simple commodity production).
This lead to some economic problems as there existed no framework of institutions between collectives to ensure efficient co-ordination of activity and so lead to pointless competition between collectives (which lead to even more problems). As there were initially no confederations of collectives nor mutual/communal banks this lead to the inequalities that initially existed between collectives (due to the fact that the collectives took over rich and poor capitalist firms) and it made the many ad hoc attempts at mutual aid between collectives difficult and temporary.
Therefore, the collectives were (initially) a form of "self-management straddling capitalism and socialism, which we maintain would not have occurred had the Revolution been able to extend itself fully under the direction of our syndicates." [Gaston Leval, Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, pp. 227-8] As economic and political development are closely related, the fact that the C.N.T. did not carry out the political aspect of the revolution meant that the revolution in the economy was doomed to failure. As Leval stresses, in "the industrial collectives, especially in the large towns, matters proceeded differently as a consequence of contradictory factors and of opposition created by the co-existence of social currents emanating from different social classes." [Op. Cit., p. 227]
Given that the C.N.T. program of libertarian communism recognised that a fully co-operative society must be based upon production for use, C.N.T. militants fought against this system of mutualism and for inter-workplace co-ordination. They managed to convince their fellow workers of the difficulties of mutualism by free debate and discussion within their unions and collectives.
Therefore, the degree of socialisation varied over time (as would be expected). Initially, after the initial defeat of Franco's forces, there was little formal co-ordination and organisation. The most important thing was to get production started again. However, the needs of co-ordination soon became obvious (as predicted in anarchist theory and the programme of the CNT). Gaston Leval gives the example of Hospitalet del Llobregat with regards to this process:
"Local industries went through stages almost universally adopted in that revolution . . . [I]n the first instance, comites nominated by the workers employed in them [were organised]. Production and sales continued in each one. But very soon it was clear that this situation gave rise to competition between the factories. . . creating rivalries which were incompatible with the socialist and libertarian outlook. So the CNT launched the watchword: 'All industries must be ramified in the Syndicates, completely socialised, and the regime of solidarity which we have always advocated be established once and for all.
"The idea won support immediately" [Op. Cit., pp. 291-2]
Another example was the woodworkers' union which a massive debate on socialisation and decided to do so (the shopworkers' union had a similar debate, but the majority of workers rejected socialisation). According to Ronald Fraser a "union delegate would go round the small shops, point out to the workers that the conditions were unhealthy and dangerous, that the revolution was changing all this, and secure their agreement to close down and move to the union-built Double-X and the 33 EU." [Ronald Fraser, Blood of Spain, p. 222]
This process went on in many different unions and collectives and, unsurprisingly, the forms of co-ordination agreed to lead to different forms of organisation in different areas and industries, as would be expected in a free society. However, the two most important forms can be termed syndicalisation and confederationalism (we will ignore the forms created by the collectivisation decree as these were not created by the workers themselves).
"Syndicalisation" (our term) meant that the C.N.T.'s industrial union ran the whole industry. This solution was tried by the woodworkers' union after extensive debate. One section of the union, "dominated by the F.A.I. [the anarchist federation], maintained that anarchist self-management meant that the workers should set up and operate autonomous centres of production so as to avoid the threat of bureaucratisation." [Ronald Fraser, Blood of Spain, p. 222] However, those in favour of syndicalisation won the day and production was organised in the hands of the union, with administration posts and delegate meetings elected by the rank and file.
However, the "major failure . . . (and which supported the original anarchist objection) was that the union became like a large firm . . . [and its] structure grew increasingly rigid." According to one militant, "From the outside it began to look like an American or German trust" and the workers found it difficult to secure any changes and "felt they weren't particularly involved in decision making."
In the end, the major difference between the union-run industry and a capitalist firm organisationally appeared to be that workers could vote for (and recall) the industry management at relatively regular General Assembly meetings. While a vast improvement on capitalism, it is hardly the best example of participatory self-management in action although the economic problems caused by the Civil War and Stalinist led counter-revolution obviously would have had an effect on the internal structure of any industry and so we cannot say that the form of organisation created was totally responsible for any marginalisation that took place.
The other important form of co-operation was what we will term "confederalisation." This form of co-operation was practised by the Badalona textile industry (and had been defeated in the woodworkers' union). It was based upon each workplace being run by its elected management, sold its own production, got its own orders and received the proceeds. However, everything each mill did was reported to the union which charted progress and kept statistics. If the union felt that a particular factory was not acting in the best interests of the industry as a whole, it was informed and asked to change course. According to one militant, the union "acted more as a socialist control of collectivised industry than as a direct hierarchised executive" [Op. Cit., p. 229]
This system ensured that the "dangers of the big 'union trust' as of the atomised collective were avoided" [Fraser, Op. Cit., p. 229] as well as maximising decentralisation of power. Unlike the syndicalisation experiment in the woodworkers' industry, this scheme was based on horizontal links between workplaces (via the C.N.T. union) and allowed a maximum of self-management and mutual aid. The ideas of an anarchist economy sketched in section I.3 reflects in many ways the actual experiments in self-management which occurred during the Spanish Revolution.
Therefore, the industrial collectives co-ordinated their activity in many ways, with varying degrees of direct democracy and success. As would be expected, mistakes were made and different solutions found. When reading this section of the FAQ its important to remember that an anarchist society can hardly be produced "overnight" and so it is hardly surprising that the workers of the C.N.T. faced numerous problems and had to develop their self-management experiment as objective conditions allowed them to.
Unfortunately, thanks to fascist aggression and Communist Party back-stabbing, the experiment did not last long enough to fully answer all the questions we have about the viability of the solutions they tried. Given the time, however, we are sure they would have solved the problems they faced.
Jose Peirats describes collectivisation among the peasantry as follows:
"The expropriated lands were turned over to the peasant syndicates, and it was these syndicates that organised the first collectives. Generally the holdings of small property owners were respected, always on the condition that only they or their families would work the land, without employing wage labour. In areas like Catalonia, where the tradition of petty peasant ownership prevailed, the land holdings were scattered. There were no great estates. Many of these peasants, together with the C.N.T., organised collectives, pooling their land, animals, tools, chickens, grain, fertiliser, and even their harvested crops.
"Privately owned farms located in the midst of collectives interfered with efficient cultivation by splitting up the collectives into disconnected parcels. To induce owners to move, they were given more or even better land located on the perimeter of the collective.
"The collectivist who had nothing to contribute to the collective was admitted with the same rights and the same duties as the others. In some collectives, those joining had to contribute their money (Girondella in Catalonia, Lagunarrotta in Aragon, and Cervera del Maestra in Valencia)." [cited The Anarchist Collectives, p. 112]
Peirats also notes that in conducting their internal affairs, all the collectives scrupulously and zealously observed democratic procedures. For example, "Hospitalet de Llobregat held regular general membership meetings every three months to review production and attend to new business. The administrative council, and all other committees, submitted full reports on all matters. The meeting approved, disapproved, made corrections, issued instructions, etc." [Ibid., p. 119]
Dolgoff observes that "supreme power was vested in, and actually exercised by, the membership in general assemblies, and all power derived from, and flowed back to, the grass roots organisations of the people" and quotes Gaston Leval:
"Regular general membership meetings were convoked weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. . . and these meetings were completely free of the tensions and recriminations which inevitably emerge when the power of decisions is vested in a few individuals -- even if democratically elected. The Assemblies were open for everyone to participate in the proceedings. Democracy embraced all social life. In most cases, even the 'individualists' who were not members of the collective could participate in the discussions, and they were listened to by the collectivists." [Op. Cit., p 119f]
It was in these face-to-face assemblies that decisions upon the distribution of resources were decided both within and without the collective. Here, when considering the importance of mutual aid, appeals were made to an individual's sense of empathy. As one activist remembers:
"There were, of course, those who didn't want to share and who said that each collective should take care of itself. But they were usually convinced in the assemblies. We would try to speak to them in terms they understood. We'd ask, 'Did you think it was fair when the cacique [local boss] let people starve if there wasn't enough work?' and they said, 'Of course not.' They would eventually come around. Don't forget, there were three hundred thousand collectivists [in Aragon], but only ten thousand of us had been members of the C.N.T.. We had a lot of educating to do." [Felix Carrasquer, quoted by Martha A. Ackelsberg in Free Women of Spain, p. 79]
In addition, regional federations of collectives were formed in many areas of Spain (for example, in Aragon and the Levant). The federations were created at congresses to which the collectives in an area sent delegates. These congresses agreed a series of general rules about how the federation would operate and what commitments the affiliated collectives would have to each other. The congress elected an administration council, which took responsibility for implementing agreed policy.
These federations had many tasks. They ensured the distribution of surplus produce to the front line and to the cities, cutting out middlemen and ensuring the end of exploitation. They also arranged for exchanges between collectives to take place. In addition, the federations allowed the individual collectives to pool resources together in order to improve the infrastructure of the area (building roads, canals, hospitals and so on) and invest in means of production which no one collective could afford.
In this way individual collectives pooled their resources, increased and improved the means of production they had access to as well as improving the social infrastructure of their regions. All this, combined with an increase of consumption at the point of production and the feeding of militia men and women fighting the fascists at the front.
Rural collectivisations allowed the potential creative energy that existed among the rural workers and peasants to be unleashed, an energy that had been wasted under private property. The popular assemblies allowed community problems and improvements to be identified and solved directly, drawing upon the ideas and experiences of everyone and enriched by discussion and debate. This enabled rural Spain to be transformed from one marked by poverty and fear, into one of hope and experimentation (see the next section for a few examples of this experimentation).
Therefore self-management in collectives combined with co-operation in rural federations allowed an improvement in quality of rural life. From a purely economic viewpoint, production increased and as Benjamin Martin summarises, "[t]hough it is impossible to generalise about the rural land take-overs, there is little doubt that the quality of life for most peasants who participated in co-operatives and collectives notably improved." [The Agony of Modernisation, p. 394]
More importantly, however, this improvement in the quality of life included an increase in freedom as well as in consumption. To requote the member of the Beceite collective in Aragon we cited in section A.5.6, "it was marvellous. . . to live in a collective, a free society where one could say what one thought, where if the village committee seemed unsatisfactory one could say. The committee took no big decisions without calling the whole village together in a general assembly. All this was wonderful." [Ronald Fraser, Blood of Spain, p. 288]
Here are a few examples cited by Jose Peirats:
"In Montblanc the collective dug up the old useless vines and planted new vineyards. The land, improved by modern cultivation with tractors, yielded much bigger and better crops. . . . Many Aragon collectives built new roads and repaired old ones, installed modern flour mills, and processed agricultural and animal waste into useful industrial products. Many of these improvements were first initiated by the collectives. Some villages, like Calanda, built parks and baths. Almost all collectives established libraries, schools, and cultural centres." [cited The Anarchist Collectives, p. 116]
Gaston Leval points out that "the Peasant Federation of Levant . . . produced more than half of the total orange crop in Spain: almost four million kilos (1 kilo equals about 2 and one-fourth pounds). It then transported and sold through its own commercial organisation (no middlemen) more than 70% of the crop. (The Federations's commercial organisation included its own warehouses, trucks, and boats. Early in 1938 the export section established its own agencies in France: Marseilles, Perpignan, bordeaux, Cherbourg, and Paris.) Out of a total of 47,000 hectares in all Spain devoted to rice production, the collective in the Province of Valencia cultivated 30,000 hectares." [cited in Ibid., p. 124]
To quote Peirats again:
"Preoccupation with cultural and pedagogical innovations was an event without precedent in rural Spain. The Amposta collectivists organised classes for semi-literates, kindergartens, and even a school of arts and professions. The Seros schools were free to all neighbours, collectivists or not. Grau installed a school named after its most illustrious citizen, Joaquin Costa. The Calanda collective (pop. only 4,500) schooled 1,233 children. The best students were sent to the Lyceum in Caspe, with all expenses paid by the collective. The Alcoriza (pop. 4,000) school was attended by 600 children. Many of the schools were installed in abandoned convents. In Granadella (pop. 2,000), classes were conducted in the abandoned barracks of the Civil Guards. Graus organised a print library and a school of arts and professions, attended by 60 pupils. The same building housed a school of fine arts and high grade museum. In some villages a cinema was installed for the first time. The Penalba cinema was installed in a church. Viladecana built an experimental agricultural laboratory.
"The collectives voluntarily contributed enormous stocks of provisions and other supplies to the fighting troops. Utiel sent 1,490 litres of oil and 300 bushels of potatoes to the Madrid front (in addition to huge stocks of beans, rice, buckwheat, etc.). Porales de Tujana sent great quantities of bread, oil, flour, and potatoes to the front, and eggs, meat, and milk to the military hospital.
"The efforts of the collectives take on added significance when we take into account that their youngest and most vigorous workers were fighting in the trenches. 200 members of the little collective of Vilaboi were at the front; from Viledecans, 60; Amposta, 300; and Calande, 500." [Ibid., pp. 116-120]
Peirats sums up the accomplishments of the agricultural collectives as follows:
"In distribution the collectives' co-operatives eliminated middlemen, small merchants, wholesalers, and profiteers, thus greatly reducing consumer prices. The collectives eliminated most of the parasitic elements from rural life, and would have wiped them out altogether if they were not protected by corrupt officials and by the political parties. Non-collectivised areas benefited indirectly from the lower prices as well as from free services often rendered by the collectives (laundries, cinemas, schools, barber and beauty parlours, etc.)." [Ibid., p114]
Leval emphasises the following achievements (among others):
"In the agrarian collectives solidarity was practised to the greatest degree. 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 Castile 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 more generalised. . . A conquest of enormous importance was the right of women to livelihood, regardless of occupation or function. In about half of the agrarian collectives, the women received the same wages as men; in the rest the women received less, apparently on the principle that they rarely live alone. . . In all the agrarian collectives of Aragon, Catalonia, Levant, Castile, Andalusia, and Estremadura, 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. . . In addition . . . the collective as a whole met in weekly, bi-weekly or monthly assembly . . . The assembly reviewed the activities of the councillors it named, and discussed special cases and unforeseen problems. All inhabitants -- men and women, producers and non-producers -- took part in the discussion and decisions . . . 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." [Ibid., pp. 166-167]
Martha A. Ackelsberg sums up the experience well:
"The achievements of these collectives were extensive. In many areas they maintained, if not increased, agricultural production [not forgetting that many young men were at the front line], often introducing new patterns of cultivation and fertilisation. . . collectivists built chicken coups, barns, and other facilities for the care and feeding of the community's animals. Federations of collectives co-ordinated the construction of roads, schools, bridges, canals and dams. Some of these remain to this day as lasting contributions of the collectives to the infrastructure of rural Spain." [The Free Women of Spain, p. 79]
She also points to inter-collective solidarity, noting that the "collectivists also arranged for the transfer of surplus produce from wealthier collectives to those experiencing shortages." [Ibid.]
Therefore, as well as significant economic achievements, the collectives ensured social and political ones too. Solidarity was practised and previously marginalised people took direct and full management of the affairs of their communities, transforming them to meet their own needs and desires.
No, it is not. The myth that the rural collectives were created by "terror," organised and carried out by the anarchist militia, was started by the Stalinists of the Spanish Communist Party. More recently, some right-wing Libertarians have warmed up and repeated these Stalinist fabrications. Anarchists have been disproving these allegations since 1936 and it is worthwhile to do so again here.
As Vernon Richards notes, "[h]owever discredited Stalinism may appear to be today the fact remains that the Stalinist lies and interpretation of the Spanish Civil War still prevail, presumably because it suits the political prejudices of those historians who are currently interpreting it." [Introduction to Gaston Leval's Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, p. 11] Here we shall present evidence to refute claims that the rural collectives were created by force.
Firstly, we should point out that rural collectives were created in many different areas of Spain, such as the Levant (900 collectives), Castile (300) and Estremadera (30), where the anarchist militia did not exist. In Catalonia, for example, the C.N.T. militia passed through many villages on its way to Aragon and only around 40 collectives were created unlike the 450 in Aragon. In other words, the rural collectivisation process occurred independently of the existence of anarchist troops, with the majority of the 1,700 rural collectives created in areas without a predominance of anarchist troops.
One historian, Ronald Fraser, seems to imply that the Aragon Collectives were imposed upon the Aragon population. As he puts it the "collectivisation, carried out under the general cover, if not necessarily the direct agency, of C.N.T. militia columns, represented a revolutionary minority's attempt to control not only production but consumption for egalitarian purposes and the needs of the war." [Blood of Spain, p. 370] Notice that he does not suggest that the anarchist militia actually imposed the collectives, a claim for which there is little or no evidence. Moreover, Fraser presents a somewhat contradictory narrative to the facts he presents. On the one hand, he talks of a policy of "obligatory" collectivistion imposed on the peasants by the C.N.T., while on the other hand he presents extensive evidence that the collectives did not have a 100% membership rate. How can collectivisation be obligatory if people remain outside the collectives? Similarly, he talks of how some C.N.T. militia leaders justified forced collectivisation in terms of the war effort while acknowledging the official C.N.T. policy of opposing forced collectivisation, an opposition expressed in practice as only around 5% of the collectives were total (and expressed in his own book as collectivists interviewed continually note that people remained outside their collectives!).
Thus Fraser's attempts to paint the Aragon collectives as a form of "war communism" imposed upon the population by the C.N.T. and obligatory for all fails to co-incidence with the evidence he presents.
Earlier he states that "[t]here was no need to dragoon them [the peasants] at pistol point [into collectives]: the coercive climate, in which 'fascists' were being shot, was sufficient. 'Spontaneous' and 'forced' collectives existed, as did willing and unwilling collectivists within them." [Op. Cit., p.349] Therefore, his suggestion that the Aragon collectives were imposed upon the rural population is based upon the insight that there was a "coercive climate" in Aragon at the time. Of course a civil war against fascism would produce a "coercive climate," particularly at the front line, and so the C.N.T. can hardly be blamed for that. In addition, in a life and death struggle against fascism, in which the fascists were systematically murdering vast numbers of anarchists, socialists and republicans in the areas under their control, it is hardly surprising that some anarchist troops took the law into their own hands and murdered some of those who supported and would help the fascists. Given what was going on in fascist Spain, and the experience of fascism in Germany and Italy, the C.N.T. militia knew exactly what would happen to them and their friends and family if they lost.
The question does arise, however, of whether the climate was made so coercive by the war and the nearness of the anarchist militia that individual choice was impossible.
The facts speak for themselves -- rural collectivisation in Aragon embraced more than 70% of the population in the area saved from fascism. Around 30% of the population felt safe enough not to join a collective, a sizeable percentage.
If the collectives had been created by anarchist terror or force, we would expect a figure of 100% membership in the collectives. This was not the case, indicating the basically voluntary nature of the experiment (we should point out that other figures suggest a lower number of collectivists which makes the forced collectivisation argument even less likely). Historian Antony Beevor (while noting that there "had undoubtedly been pressure, and no doubt force was used on some occasions in the fervour after the rising") just stated the obvious when he wrote that "the very fact that every village was a mixture of collectivists and individualists shows that peasants had not been forced into communal farming at the point of a gun." [The Spanish Civil War, p. 206] In addition, if the C.N.T. militia had forced peasants into collectives we would expect the membership of the collectives to peak almost overnight, not grow slowly over time. However, this is what happened:
"At the regional congress of collectives, held at Caspe in mid-February 1937, nearly 80 000 collectivists were represented from 'almost all the villages of the region.' This, however, was but a beginning. By the end of April the number of collectivists had risen to 140 000; by the end of the first week of May to 180 000; and by the end of June to 300 000." [Graham Kelsey, "Anarchism in Aragon," pp. 60-82, Spain in Conflict 1931-1939, Martin Blinkhorn (ed.), p. 61]
If the collectives had been created by force, then their membership would have been 300 000 in February, 1937, not increasing steadily to reach that number four months later. Neither can it be claimed that the increase was due to new villages being collectivised, as almost all villages had sent delegates in February. This indicates that many peasants joined the collectives because of the advantages associated with common labour, the increased resources it placed at their hands and the fact that the surplus wealth which had in the previous system been monopolised by the few was used instead to raise the standard of living of the entire community.
The voluntary nature of the collectives is again emphasised by the number of collectives which allowed smallholders to remain outside. According to evidence Fraser presents (on page 366), an F.A.I. schoolteacher is quoted as saying that the forcing of smallholders into the collective "wasn't a widespread problem, because there weren't more than twenty or so villages where collectivisation was total and no one was allowed to remain outside..." Instead of forcing the minority in a village to agree with the wishes of the majority, the vast majority (95%) of Aragon collectives stuck to their libertarian principles and allowed those who did not wish to join to remain outside.
So, only around 20 were "total" collectives (out of 450) and around 30% of the population felt safe enough not to join. In other words, in the vast majority of collectives those joining could see that those who did not were safe. These figures should not be discounted, as they give an indication of the basically spontaneous and voluntary nature of the movement. As was the composition of the new municipal councils created after July 19th. As Graham Kesley notes, "[w]hat is immediately noticeable from the results is that although the region has often been branded as one controlled by anarchists to the total exclusion of all other forces, the C.N.T. was far from enjoying the degree of absolute domination often implied and inferred." [Anarchosyndicalism, Libertarian Communism and the State, p. 198]
In his account of the rural revolution, Burnett Bolloten notes that it "embraced more than 70 percent of the population" in liberated Aragon and that "many of the 450 collectives of the region were largely voluntary" although "it must be emphasised that this singular development was in some measure due to the presence of militiamen from the neighbouring region of Catalonia, the immense majority of whom were members of the C.N.T. and F.A.I." [The Spanish Civil War, p. 74]
As Gaston Leval points out, "it is true that the presence of these forces . . . favoured indirectly these constructive achievements by preventing active resistance by the supporters of the bourgeois republic and of fascism." [Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, p. 90]
In other words, the presence of the militia changed the balance of class forces in Aragon by destroying the capitalist state (i.e. the local bosses - caciques - could not get state aid to protect their property) and many landless workers took over the land. The presence of the militia ensured that land could be taken over by destroying the capitalist "monopoly of force" that existed before the revolution (the power of which will be highlighted below) and so the C.N.T. militia allowed the possibility of experimentation by the Aragonese population.
This class war in the countryside is reflected by Bolloten's statement that "[if] the individual farmer viewed with dismay the swift and widespread collectivisation of agriculture, the farm workers of the Anarchosyndicalist C.N.T. and the Socialist UGT saw it as the commencement of a new era." [The Spanish Civil War, p. 63] Both were mass organisations and supported collectivisation.
Therefore, anarchist militia allowed the rural working class to abolish the artificial scarcity of land created by private property (and enforced by the state). The rural bosses obviously viewed with horror the possibility that they could not exploit day workers' labour. As Bolloten points out "the collective system of agriculture threaten[ed] to drain the rural labour market of wage workers." [Op. Cit., p. 62] Little wonder the richer peasants and landowners hated the collectives.
Bolloten also quotes a report on the district of Valderrobes which indicates popular support for the collectives:
"Collectivisation was nevertheless opposed by opponents on the right and adversaries on the left. If the eternally idle who have been expropriated had been asked what they thought of collectivisation, some would have replied that it was robbery and others a dictatorship. But, for the elderly, the day workers, the tenant farmers and small proprietors who had always been under the thumb of the big landowners and heartless usurers, it appeared as salvation" [Op. Cit., p. 71]
However, most historians ignore the differences in class that existed in the countryside. They ignore it and explain the rise in collectives in Aragon (and ignore those elsewhere) as the result of the C.N.T. militia. Fraser, for example, states that "[v]ery rapidly collectives . . . began to spring up. It did not happen on instructions from the C.N.T. leadership -- no more than had the [industrial] collectives in Barcelona. Here, as there, the initiative came from C.N.T. militants; here, as there, the 'climate' for social revolution in the rearguard was created by C.N.T. armed strength: the anarcho-syndicalists' domination of the streets of Barcelona was re-enacted in Aragon as the C.N.T. militia columns, manned mainly by Catalan anarcho-syndicalist workers, poured in. Where a nucleus of anarcho-syndicalists existed in a village, it seized the moment to carry out the long-awaited revolution and collectivised spontaneously. Where there was none, villagers could find themselves under considerable pressure from the militias to collectivise. . ." [Op. Cit., p. 347]
In other words, he implies that the revolution was mostly imported into Aragon from Catalonia. However, the majority of C.N.T. column leaders were opposed to the setting up of the Council of Aragon (a confederation for the collectives) [Fraser, Op. Cit., p. 350]. Hardly an example of Catalan C.N.T. imposed social revolution. The evidence we have suggests that the Aragon C.N.T. was a widespread and popular organisation, suggesting that the idea that the collectives were imported into Aragon by the Catalan C.N.T. is simply false.
Fraser states that in "some [of the Aragonese villages] there was a flourishing C.N.T., in others the UGT was strongest, and in only too many there was no unionisation at all." [Blood of Spain, p. 348] The question arises of how extensive was that strength. The evidence we have suggests that it was extensive, strong and growing, so indicating that rural Aragon was not without a C.N.T. base, a base that makes the suggestion of imposed collectives a false one.
Murray Bookchin summarises the strength of the C.N.T. in rural Aragon as follows:
"The authentic peasant base of the C.N.T. [by the 1930s] now lay in Aragon . . .[C.N.T. growth in Zaragoza] provided a springboard for a highly effective libertarian agitation in lower Aragon, particularly among the impoverished labourers and debt-ridden peasantry of the dry steppes region." [The Spanish Anarchists, p. 203]
Graham Kelsey, in his social history of the C.N.T. in Aragon between 1930 and 1937, provides the necessary evidence to more than back Bookchin's claim of C.N.T. growth. Kesley points out that as well as the "spread of libertarian groups and the increasing consciousness among C.N.T. members of libertarian theories . . .contribu[ting] to the growth of the anarchosyndicalist movement in Aragon" the existence of "agrarian unrest" also played an important role in that growth [Anarchosyndicalism, Libertarian Communism and the State, pp. 80-81]. This all lead to the "revitalisation of the C.N.T. network in Aragon" [p. 82] and so by 1936, the C.N.T. had built upon the "foundations laid in 1933. . . [and] had finally succeeded in translating the very great strength of the urban trade-union organisation in Zaragoza into a regional network of considerable extent." [Op. Cit., p. 134]
Kelsey and other historians note the long history of anarchism in Aragon, dating back to the late 1860s. However, before the 1910s there had been little gains in rural Aragon by the C.N.T. due to the power of local bosses (called caciques):
"Local landowners and small industrialists, the caciques of provincial Aragon, made every effort to enforce the closure of these first rural anarchosyndicalist cells [created after 1915]. By the time of the first rural congress of the Aragonese C.N.T. confederation in the summer of 1923, much of the progress achieved through the organisation's considerable propaganda efforts had been countered by repression elsewhere." [Graham Kelsey, "Anarchism in Aragon," p. 62]
A C.N.T. activist indicates the power of these bosses and how difficult it was to be a union member in Aragon:
"Repression is not the same in the large cities as it is in the villages where everyone knows everybody else and where the Civil Guards are immediately notified of a comrade's slightest movement. Neither friends nor relatives are spared. All those who do not serve the state's repressive forces unconditionally are pursued, persecuted and on occasions beaten up." [cited by Kelsey, Op. Cit., p. 74]
However, while there were some successes in organising rural unions, even in 1931 "propaganda campaigns which led to the establishment of scores of village trade-union cells, were followed by a counter-offensive from village caciques which forced them to close." [Ibid. p. 67] But even in the face of this repression the C.N.T. grew and "from the end of 1932. . . [there was] a successful expansion of the anarchosyndicalist movement into several parts of the region where previously it had never penetrated." [Kesley, Anarchosyndicalism, Libertarian Communism and the State, p. 185]
This growth was built upon in 1936, with increased rural activism which had slowly eroded the power of the caciques (which in part explains their support for the fascist coup). After the election of the Popular Front, years of anarchist propaganda and organisation paid off with a massive increase in rural membership in the C.N.T.:
"The dramatic growth in rural anarcho-syndicalist support in the six weeks since the general election was emphasised in the [Aragon C.N.T.'s April] congress's agenda. . . the congress directed its attention to rural problems . . . [and agreed a programme which was] exactly what was to happen four months later in liberated Aragon." [Kesley, "Anarchism in Aragon", p. 76]
In the aftermath of a regional congress, held in Zaragoza at the start of April, a series of intensive propaganda campaigns was organised through each of the provinces of the regional confederation. Many meetings were held in villages which had never before heard anarcho- syndicalist propaganda. This was very successful and by the beginning of June, 1936, the number of Aragon unions had topped 400, compared to only 278 one month earlier (an increase of over 40% in 4 weeks). [Ibid., pp. 75-76]
This increase in union membership reflects increased social struggle by the Aragonese working population and their attempts to improve their standard of living, which was very low for most of the population. A journalist from the conservative-Catholic Heraldo de Aragon visited lower Aragon in the summer of 1935 and noted "[t]he hunger in many homes, where the men are not working, is beginning to encourage the youth to subscribe to misleading teachings." [cited by Kesley, Ibid., p. 74]
Little wonder, then, the growth in C.N.T. membership and social struggle Kesley indicates:
"Evidence of a different kind was also available that militant trade unionism in Aragon was on the increase. In the five months between mid-February and mid-July 1936 the province of Zaragoza experienced over seventy strikes, more than had previously been recorded in any entire year, and things were clearly no different in the other two provinces . . . the great majority of these strikes were occurring in provincial towns and villages. Strikes racked the provinces and in at least three instances were actually transformed into general strikes." [Ibid., p. 76]
Therefore, in the spring and summer of 1936, we see a massive growth in C.N.T. membership which reflects growing militant struggle by the urban and rural population of Aragon. Years of C.N.T. propaganda and organising had ensured this growth in C.N.T. influence, a growth which is also reflected in the creation of collectives in liberated Aragon during the revolution. Therefore, the construction of a collectivised society was founded directly upon the emergence, during the five years of the Second Republic, of a mass trade-union movement infused by libertarian, anarchist principles. These collectives were constructed in accordance with the programme agreed at the Aragon C.N.T. conference of April 1936 which reflected the wishes of the rural membership of the unions within Aragon (and due to the rapid growth of the C.N.T. afterwards obviously reflected popular feelings in the area).
In the words of Graham Kesley, "libertarian dominance in post-insurrection Aragon itself reflected the predominance that anarchists had secured before the war; by the summer of 1936 the C.N.T. had succeeded in establishing throughout Aragon a mass trade-union movement of strictly libertarian orientation, upon which widespread and well-supported network the extensive collective experiment was to be founded." [Ibid., p. 61]
Additional evidence that supports a high level of C.N.T. support in rural Aragon can be provided by the fact that it was Aragon that was the centre of the December 1933 insurrection organised by the C.N.T. As Bookchin notes, "only Aragon rose on any significant scale, particularly Saragossa . . . many of the villages declared libertarian communism and perhaps the heaviest fighting took place between the vineyard workers in Rioja and the authorities" [M. Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 238]
It is unlikely for the C.N.T. to organise an insurrection in an area within which it had little support or influence. According to Kesley's in-depth social history of Aragon, "it was precisely those areas which had most important in December 1933 . . . which were now [in 1936], in seeking to create a new pattern of economic and social organisation, to form the basis of libertarian Aragon." [G. Kesley, Anarchosyndicalism, Libertarian Communism and the State, p. 161] After the revolt, thousands of workers were jailed, with the authorities having to re-open closed prisons and turn at least one disused monastery into a jail due to the numbers arrested.
Therefore, it can be seen that the majority of collectives in Aragon were the product of C.N.T. (and UGT) influenced workers taking the opportunity to create a new form of social life, a form marked by its voluntary and directly democratic nature. For from being unknown in rural Aragon, the C.N.T. was well established and growing at a fast rate - "Spreading out from its urban base... the C.N.T., first in 1933 and then more extensively in 1936, succeeded in converting an essentially urban organisation into a truly regional confederation." [Ibid., p. 184]
Therefore the evidence suggests that historians like Fraser are wrong to imply that the Aragon collectives were created by the C.N.T. militia and enforced upon a unwilling population. The Aragon collectives were the natural result of years of anarchist activity within rural Aragon and directly related to the massive growth in the C.N.T. between 1930 and 1936. Thus Kesley is correct to state that:
"Libertarian communism and agrarian collectivisation were not economic terms or social principles enforced upon a hostile population by special teams of urban anarchosyndicalists . . ." [G. Kesley, Op. Cit., p. 161]
This is not to suggest that there were no examples of people joining collectives involuntarily because of the "coercive climate" of the front line. And, of course, there were villages which did not have a C.N.T. union within them before the war and so created a collective because of the existence of the C.N.T. militia. But these can be considered as exceptions to the rule.
Moreover, the way the C.N.T. handled such a situation is noteworthy. Fraser indicates such a situation in the village of Alloza. In the autumn of 1936, representatives of the C.N.T. district committee had come to suggest that the villagers collectivise (we would like to stress here that the C.N.T. militia which had passed through the village had made no attempt to create a collective there).
A village assembly was called and the C.N.T. explained their ideas and suggested how to organise the collective. However, who would join and how the villagers would organise the collective was left totally up to them (the C.N.T. representatives "stressed that no one was to be maltreated"). Within the collective, self-management was the rule.
According to one member, "[o]nce the work groups were established on a friendly basis and worked their own lands, everyone got on well enough," he recalled. "There was no need for coercion, no need for discipline and punishment. . . A collective wasn't a bad idea at all." [Op. Cit., p. 360] This collective, like the vast majority, was voluntary and democratic - "I couldn't oblige him to join; we weren't living under a dictatorship." [Op. Cit., p. 362] In other words, no force was used to create the collective and the collective was organised by local people directly.
Of course, as with any public good (to use economic jargon), all members of the community had to pay for the war effort and feed the militia. As Kesely notes, "[t]he military insurrection had come at a critical moment in the agricultural calendar. Throughout lower Aragon there were fields of grain ready for harvesting. . . At the assembly in Albalate de Cinca the opening clause of the agreed programme had required everyone in the district, independent farmers and collectivists alike, to contribute equally to the war effort, thereby emphasising one of the most important considerations in the period immediately following the rebellion."
In addition, the collectives controlled the price of crops in order to ensure that speculation and inflation were controlled. However, these policies as with the equal duties of individualists and collectivists in the war effort were enforced upon the collectives by the war.
Lastly, in support of the popular nature of the rural collectives, we will indicate the effects of the suppression of the collectives in August 1937 by the Communists, namely the collapse of the rural economy. This sheds considerable light on the question of popular attitudes to the collectives.
In October, the Communist-controlled Regional Delegation of Agrarian Reform acknowledged that "in the majority of villages agricultural work was paralysed causing great harm to our agrarian economy." This is confirmed by Jose Silva, a Communist Party member and general secretary of the Institute of Agrarian Reform, who commented that after Lister had attacked Aragon, "labour in the fields was suspended almost entirely, and a quarter of the land had not been prepared at the time for sowing." At a meeting of the agrarian commission of the Aragonese Communist Party (October 9th, 1937), Jose Silva emphasised "the little incentive to work of the entire peasant population" and that the situation brought about by the dissolution of the collectives was "grave and critical." [quoted by Bolloten, Op. Cit., p. 530]
Jose Peirats explains the reasons for this economic collapse as a result of popular boycott:
"When it came time to prepare for the next harvest, smallholders could not by themselves work the property on which they had been installed [by the communists]. Dispossessed peasants, intransigent collectivists, refused to work in a system of private property, and were even less willing to rent out their labour." [Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, p. 258]
If the collectives were unpopular, created by anarchist force, then why did the economy collapse after the suppression? If Lister had overturned a totalitarian anarchist regime, why did the peasants not reap the benefit of their toil? Could it be because the collectives were essentially a spontaneous Aragonese development and supported by most of the population there? This analysis is backed up by Yaacov Oved's statement (from a paper submitted to the XII Congress of Sociology, Madrid, July 1990):
"Those who were responsible for this policy [of "freeing" the Aragon Collectivists], were convinced that the farmers would greet it joyfully because they had been coerced into joining the collectives. But they were proven wrong. Except for the rich estate owners who were glad to get their land back, most of the members of the agricultural collectives objected and lacking all motivation they were reluctant to resume the same effort of in the agricultural work. This phenomenon was so widespread that the authorities and the communist minister of agriculture were forced to retreat from their hostile policy." [Yaacov Oved, Communismo Libertario and Communalism in the Spanish Collectivisations (1936-1939)]
Even in the face of Communist repression, most of the collectives kept going. This, if nothing else, proves that the collectives were popular institutions. As Yaacov Oved argues in relation to the breaking up of the collectives:
"Through the widespread reluctance of collectivists to co-operate with the new policy it became evident that most members had voluntarily joined the collectives and as soon as the policy was changed a new wave of collectives was established. However, the wheel could not be turned back. An atmosphere of distrust prevailed between the collectives and the authorities and every initiative was curtailed" [Op. Cit.]
Jose Peirats sums up the situation after the communist attack on the collectives and the legalisation of the collectives as follows:
"It is very possible that this second phase of collectivisation better reflects the sincere convictions of the members. They had undergone a sever test and those who had withstood it were proven collectivists. Yet it would be facile to label as anti-collectivists those who abandoned the collectives in this second phase. Fear, official coercion and insecurity weighed heavily in the decisions of much of the Aragonese peasantry." [Op. Cit., p. 258]
While the collectives had existed, there was a 20% increase in production (and this is compared to the pre-war harvest which had been "a good crop." [Fraser, p. 370]); after the destruction of the collectives, the economy collapsed. Hardly the result that would be expected if the collectives were forced upon an unwilling peasantry. The forced collectivisation by Stalin in Russia resulted in a famine. Only the victory of fascism made it possible to restore the so-called "natural order" of capitalist property in the Spanish countryside. The same land-owners who welcomed the Communist repression of the collectives also, we are sure, welcomed the fascists who ensured a lasting victory of property over liberty.
So, overall, the evidence suggests that the Aragon collectives, like their counterparts in the Levante, Catalonia and so on, were popular organisations, created by and for the rural population and, essentially, an expression of a spontaneous and popular social revolution. Claims that the anarchist militia created them by force of arms are false. While acts of violence did occur and some acts of coercion did take place (against C.N.T. policy, we may add) these are the exceptions to the rule. Bolloten's summary best fits the facts:
"But in spite of the cleavages between doctrine and practice that plagued the Spanish Anarchists whenever they collided with the realities of power, it cannot be overemphasised that notwithstanding the many instances of coercion and violence, the revolution of July 1936 distinguished itself from all others by the generally spontaneous and far-reaching character of its collectivist movement and by its promise of moral and spiritual renewal. Nothing like this spontaneous movement had ever occurred before." [Op. Cit., p. 78]
Yes. In contradiction to the old capitalist claim that no one will innovate unless private property exists, the workers and peasants exhibited much more incentive and creativity under libertarian socialism than they had under the private enterprise system. This is apparent from Gaston Leval's description of the results of collectivisation in Cargagente:
"Carcagente is situated in the southern part of the province of Valencia. The climate of the region is particularly suited for the cultivation of oranges. . . . All of the socialised land, without exception, is cultivated with infinite care. The orchards are thoroughly weeded. To assure that the trees will get all the nourishment needed, the peasants are incessantly cleaning the soil. 'Before,' they told me with pride, 'all this belonged to the rich and was worked by miserably paid labourers. The land was neglected and the owners had to buy immense quantities of chemical fertilisers, although they could have gotten much better yields by cleaning the soil. . . .' With pride, they showed me trees that had been grafted to produce better fruit.
"In many places I observed plants growing in the shade of the orange trees. 'What is this?,' I asked. I learned that the Levant peasants (famous for their ingenuity) have abundantly planted potatoes among the orange groves. The peasants demonstrate more intelligence than all the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Agriculture combined. They do more than just plant potatoes. Throughout the whole region of the Levant, wherever the soil is suitable, they grow crops. They take advantage of the four month [fallow period] in the rice fields. Had the Minister of Agriculture followed the example of these peasants throughout the Republican zone, the bread shortage problem would have been overcome in a few months." [cited in Dolgoff, Anarchist Collectives, p. 153]
This is just one from a multitude of examples presented in the accounts of both the industrial and rural collectives (for more see section C.2.3 in which we present more examples to refute that charge that "workers' control would stifle innovation" and I.8.6). The available evidence proves that the membership of the collectives showed a keen awareness of the importance of investment and innovation in order to increase production and to make work both lighter and more interesting and that the collectives allowed that awareness to be expressed freely. The Spanish collectives indicate that, given the chance, everyone will take an interest in their own affairs and express a desire to use their minds to improve their surroundings. In fact, capitalism distorts what innovation exists under hierarchy by channelling it purely in how to save money and maximise investor profit, ignoring other, more important, issues.
As Gaston Leval argues, self-management encouraged innovation:
"The theoreticians and partisans of the liberal economy affirm that competition stimulates initiative and, consequently, the creative spirit and invention without which it remains dormant. Numerous observations made by the writer in the Collectives, factories and socialised workshops permit him to take quite the opposite view. For in a Collective, in a grouping where each individual is stimulated by the wish to be of service to his fellow beings research, the desire for technical perfection and so on are also stimulated. But they also have as a consequence that other individuals join those who were first to get together. Furthermore, when, in present society, an individualist inventor discovers something, it is used only by the capitalist or the individual employing him, whereas in the case of an inventor living in a community not only is his discovery taken up and developed by others, but is immediately applied for the common good. I am convinced that this superiority would very soon manifest itself in a socialised society." [Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, p. 247]
Therefore the actual experiences of self-management in Spain supports the points made in section I.4.11. Freed from hierarchy, individuals will creatively interact with the world to improve their circumstances. This is not due to "market forces" but because the human mind is an active agent and unless crushed by authority it can no more stop thinking and acting than the Earth stop revolving round the Sun. In addition, the Collectives indicate that self-management allows ideas to be enriched by discussion, as Bakunin argued:
"The greatest intelligence would not be equal to a comprehension of the whole. Thence results... the necessity of the division and association of labour. I receive and I give - such is human life. Each directs and is directed in his turn. Therefore there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination" [God and the State, p. 33]
The experience of self-management proved Bakunin's point that society is more intelligent than even the most intelligent individual simply because of the wealth of viewpoints, experience and thoughts contained there. Capitalism impoverishes individuals and society by its artificial boundaries and authority structures.
Just because something is good does not mean that it will survive.
For example, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis failed but that does not mean that the uprising was a bad cause or that the Nazi regime was correct, far from it. Similarly, while the experiments in workers' self-management and communal living undertaken across Republican Spain is one of the most important social experiments in a free society ever undertaken, this cannot change the fact that Franco's forces and the Communists had access to more and better weapons.
Faced with the aggression and terrorism of Franco, and behind him the military might of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the treachery of the Communists, and the aloofness of the Western bourgeois "republics" (whose policy of "non-intervention" was strangely ignored when their citizens aided Franco) it is amazing the revolution lasted as long as it did.
This does not excuse the actions of the anarchists themselves. As is well known, the C.N.T. co-operated with the other anti-fascist parties and trade unions on the Republican side (see next section). This co-operation lead to the C.N.T. joining the anti-fascist government and "anarchists" becoming ministers of state. This co-operation, more than anything, helped ensure the defeat of the revolution. While much of the blame can be places at the door of the would-be "leaders," who like most leaders started to think themselves irreplaceable and spokespersons for the organisations there were members of, it must be stated that the rank-and-file of the movement did little to stop them. Most of the militant anarchists were at the front-line (and so excluded from union and collective meetings) and so could not influence their fellow workers (it is no surprise that the "Friends of Durruti" group were mostly ex-militia men). However, it seems that the mirage of anti-fascist unity proved too much for the majority of C.N.T. members (see section I.8.12).
Some anarchists still maintain that the Spanish anarchist movement had no choice and that collaboration (while having unfortunate eeffects) was the only choice available. This view was defended by Sam Dolgoff and finds some support in the writings of Gaston Leval, August Souchy and many other anarchists. However, most anarchists today oppose collaboration and think it was a terrible mistake (at the time, this position was held by the majority of non-Spanish anarchists plus a large minority of the Spanish movement, becoming a majority as the implications of collaboration became clear). This viewpoint finds its best expression in Vernon Richard's Lessons of the Spanish Revolution and, in part, in such works as Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution by Jose Peirats and Anarchist Organisation: The History of the F.A.I by Juan Gomaz Casas as well as in a host of pamphlets and articles written by anarchists ever since.
So, regardless of how good a social system is, objective facts will overcome that experiment. Saturnino Carod (a leader of a C.N.T. Militia column at the Aragon Front) sums up the successes of the revolution as well as its objective limitations:
"Always expecting to be stabbed in the back, always knowing that if we created problems, only the enemy across the lines would stand to gain. It was a tragedy for the anarcho-syndicalist movement; but it was a tragedy for something greater -- the Spanish people. For it can never be forgotten that it was the working class and peasantry which, by demonstrating their ability to run industry and agriculture collectively, allowed the republic to continue the struggle for thirty-two months. It was they who created a war industry, who kept agricultural production increasing, who formed militias and later joined the army. Without their creative endeavour, the republic could not have fought the war . . ." [quoted by Fraser, Blood of Spain, p. 394]
As is well know, in September 1936 the C.N.T joined the Catalan government, followed by the central government in November. This followed on from the decision made on July the 21st to not speak of Libertarian Communism until after Franco had been defeated. In other words, to collaborate with other anti-fascist parties and unions in a common front against fascism.
This, initially, involved the C.N.T agreeing to join a "Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias" proposed by the leader of the Catalan government, Louis Companys. This committee was made up of representatives of various anti-fascist parties and groups. From this it was only a matter of time until the C.N.T joined an official government as no other means of co-ordinating activities existed (see section I.8.13).
The question must arise, why did the C.N.T decide to collaborate with the state, forsaking its principles and, in its own way, contribute to the counter-revolution and the loosing of the war. This is an important question. Indeed, it is one Marxists always throw up in arguments with anarchists or in anti-anarchist diatribes. Does the failure of the C.N.T to implement anarchism after July 19th mean that anarchist politics are flawed? Or, rather, does the experience of the C.N.T and F.A.I during the Spanish revolution indicate a failure of anarchists rather than of anarchism, a mistake made under difficult objective circumstances and one which anarchists have learnt from? Needless to say, anarchists argue that the latter answer is the correct one. In other words, as Vernon Richards argues, "the basis of [his] criticism is not that anarchist ideas were proved to be unworkable by the Spanish experience, but that the Spanish anarchists and syndicalists failed to put their theories to the test, adopting instead the tactics of the enemy." [Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, p. 14] The writers of this FAQ agree.
So, why did the CNT collaborate with the state during the Spanish Civil War? Simply put, rather than being the fault of anarchist theory (as Marxists like to claim), its roots can be discovered in the situation facing the Catalan anarchists on July 20th. The objective conditions facing the leading militants of the CNT and FAI influenced the decisions they took, decisions which they later justified by mis-using anarchist theory.
What was the situation facing the Catalan anarchists on July 20th? Simply put, it was an unknown situation. Jose Peirats quotes from the report made by the C.N.T to the International Workers Association as follows:
"Levante was defenceless and uncertain . . . We were in a minority in Madrid. The situation in Andalusia was unknown . . . There was no information from the North, and we assumed the rest of Spain was in the hands of the fascists. The enemy was in Aragon, at the gates of Catalonia. The nervousness of foreign consular officials led to the presence of a great number of war ships around our ports." [quoted in Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, p. 180]
He also notes that:
"According to the report, the CNT was in absolute control of Catalonia in July 19, 1936, but its strength was less in Levante and still less in central Spain where the central government and the traditional parties were dominant. In the north of Spain the situation was confused. The CNT could have mounted an insurrection on its own 'with probable success' but such a takeover would have led to a struggle on three fronts: against the fascists, the government and foreign capitalism. In view of the difficulty of such an undertaking, collaboration with other antifascist groups was the only alternative." [Op. Cit., p. 179]
In the words of the CNT report itself:
"The CNT showed a conscientious scrupulousness in the face of a difficult alternative: to destroy completely the State in Catalonia, to declare war against the Rebels [i.e. the fascists], the government, foreign capitalism, and thus assuming complete control of Catalan society; or collaborating in the responsibilities of government with the other antifascist fractions." [quoted by Robert Alexander, The Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, vol. 2, p. 1156]
Moreover, as Gaston Leval later argued, given that the "general preoccupation [of the majority of the population was] to defeat the fascists . . . the anarchists would, if they came out against the state, provoke the antagonism . . . of the majority of the people, who would accuse them of collaborating with Franco." Implementing an anarchist revolution would, in all likelihood, also "result . . . [in] the instant closing of the frontier and the blockade by sea by both fascists and the democratic countries. The supply of arms would be completely cut off, and the anarchists would rightly be held responsible for the disastrous consequences." [quoted in The Anarchist Collectives, p. 52 and p. 53]
While the supporters of Lenin and Trotsky will constantly point out the objective circumstances in which their heroes made their decisions during the Russian Revolution, they rarely mention those facing the anarchists in Spain on the 20th of July, 1936. It seems hypocritical to point to the Russian Civil War as the explanation of all of Bolshevism's crimes against the working class (indeed, humanity) while remaining silent on the forces facing the C.N.T-F.A.I at the start of the Spanish Civil War. The fact that if the CNT had decided to implement libertarian communism in Catalonia they would have to face the fascists (commanding the bulk of the Spanish army), the Republican government (commanding the rest) plus those sections in Catalonia which supported it is rarely mentioned. Moreover, when the decision to collaborate was made it was immediately after the defeat of the army uprising in Barcelona -- the situation in the rest of the country was uncertain and when the social revolution was in its early days.
Stuart Christie indicates the dilemma facing the leadership of the CNT at the time:
"The higher committees of the CNT-FAI-FIJL in Catalonia saw themselves caught on the horns of a dilemma: social revolution, fascism or bourgeois democracy. Either they committed themselves to the solutions offered by social revolution, regardless of the difficulties involved in fighting both fascism and international capitalism, or, through fear of fascism (or of the people), they sacrificed their anarchist principles and revolutionary objectives to bolster, to become, part of the bourgeois state . . . Faced with an imperfect state of affairs and preferring defeat to a possibly Pyrrhic victory, the Catalan anarchist leadership renounced anarchism in the name of expediency and removed the social transformation of Spain from their agenda.
"But what the CNT-FAI leaders failed to grasp was that the decision whether or not to implement Libertarian Communism, was not theirs to make. Anarchism was not something which could be transformed from theory into practice by organisational decree . . . [the] spontaneous defensive movement of 19 July had developed a political direct of its own." [We, the Anarchists!, p. 99]
Given that the pro-fascist army still controlled a third or more of Spain (including Aragon) and that the CNT was not the dominant force in the centre and north of Spain, it was decided that a war on three fronts would only aid Franco. Moreover, it was a distinct possibility that by introducing libertarian communism in Catalonia, Aragon and elsewhere, the workers' militias and self-managed industries would have been starved of weapons, resources and credit. That isolation was a real problem can be seen from De Santillan's later comments on why the CNT joined the government:
"The Militias Committee guaranteed the supremacy of the people in arms . . . but we were told and it was repeated to us endlessly that as long as we persisted in retaining it, that is, as long as we persisted in propping up the power of the people, weapons would not come to Catalonia, now would we be granted the foreign currency to obtain them from abroad, nor would we be supplied with the raw materials for our industry. And since losing the war meant losing everything and returning to a state like that prevailed in the Spain of Ferdinand VII, and in the conviction that the drive given by us and our people could not vanish completely from the new economic life, we quit the Militias Committee to join the Generalidad government." [quoted by Stuart Christie, Op. Cit., p. 109]
It was decided to collaborate and reject the basic ideas of anarchism until the war was over. A terrible mistake, but one which can be understood given the circumstances in which it was made. This is not, we stress, to justify the decision but rather to explain it and place it in context. Ultimately, the experience of the Civil War saw a blockade of Republic by both "democratic" and fascist governments, the starving of the militias and self-managed collectives of resources and credit as well as a war on two fronts when the State felt strong enough to try and crush the CNT and the semi-revolution its members had started. Unfortunately, the anarchist movement did not have a crystal-ball with which to see the future. Ultimately, even faced with the danger of fascism, the liberals, the right-wing socialists and communists preferred to undermine the anti-fascist struggle by attacking the CNT. In this, history proved Durruti totally correct:
"For us it is a matter of crushing Fascism once and for all. Yes, and in spite of the Government.
"No government in the world fights Fascism to the death. When the bourgeoisie sees power slipping from its grasp, it has recourse to Fascism to maintain itself. The liberal government of Spain could have rendered the fascist elements powerless long ago. Instead it compromised and dallied. Even now at this moment, there are men in this Government who want to go easy on the rebels. You can never tell, you know-- he laughed -- the present Government might yet need these rebellious forces to crush the workers' movement . . .
"We know what we want. To us it means nothing that there is a Soviet Union somewhere in the world, for the sake of whose peace and tranquillity the workers of Germany and China were sacrificed to Fascist barbarians by Stalin. We want revolution here in Spain, right now, not maybe after the next European war. We are giving Hitler and Mussolini far more worry to-day with our revolution than the whole Red Army of Russia. We are setting an example to the German and Italian working class on how to deal with fascism.
"I do not expect any help for a libertarian revolution from any Government in the world. Maybe the conflicting interests of the various imperialisms might have some influence in our struggle. That is quite possible . . . But we expect no help, not even from our own Government, in the last analysis."
"You will be sitting on a pile of ruins if you are victorious," said [the journalist] van Paasen.
Durruti answered: "We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a time. For, you must not forget, we can also build. It is we the workers who built these palaces and cities here in Spain and in America and everywhere. We, the workers, can build others to take their place. And better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute." [quoted by Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, pp. 193-4f]
Isolation, the uneven support for a libertarian revolution across Spain and the dangers of fascism were real problems, but they do not excuse the libertarian movement for its mistakes. As we discuss in sections I.8.11 and I.8.13, the biggest of these mistakes was forgetting basic anarchist ideas and an anarchist approach to the problems facing the Spanish people. If these ideas had been applied in Spain, the outcome of the Civil War and Revolution would have been different.
In summary, while the decision to collaborate is one that can be understood (due to the circumstances under which it was made), it cannot be justified in terms of anarchist theory. Indeed, as we argue in the next section, attempts by the CNT leadership to justify the decision in terms of anarchist principles are not convincing and cannot be done without making a mockery of anarchism.
I.8.11 Was the decision to collaborate a product of anarchist theory, so showing anarchism is flawed?
As we indicated in the last section, the decision to collaborate with the state was made by the CNT due to the fear of isolation. The possibility that by declaring libertarian communism, the CNT would have had to fight the Republican government and foreign interventions as well as the military coup influenced the decision reached by the militants of Catalan anarchism. They argued that such a situation would only aid Franco.
Rather than being the product of anarchist ideology, the decision was made in light of the immediate danger of fascism and the situation in other parts of the country. The fact is that the circumstances in which the decision to collaborate was made are rarely mentioned by Marxists, who prefer to quote CNT militant Garcia Oliver's comment from over a year later:
"The CNT and the FAI decided on collaboration and democracy, renouncing revolutionary totalitarianism which would lead to the strangulation of the revolution by the anarchist and Confederal dictatorship. We had to choose, between Libertarian Communism, which meant anarchist dictatorship, and democracy, which meant collaboration." [quoted by Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, p. 34]
It is this quote, and quotes like it, which is ritualistically trotted out by Marxists when attacking anarchist ideas. They argue that they expose the bankruptcy of anarchist theory. So convinced of this, they rarely bother discussing the problems facing the CNT after the defeat of the military coup we discussed in the last section nor do they compare these quotes to the anarchist theory they claim inspired them. There are good reasons for this. Firstly, if they presented the objective circumstances the CNT found itself it then their readers may see that the decision, while wrong, is understandable and had nothing to do with anarchist theory. Secondly, by comparing these quotes to anarchist theory they would soon see how at odds they are with it. Indeed, they invoke anarchism to justify conclusions the exact opposite of that theory.
So what can be made of Garcia Oliver's argument?
As Abel Paz notes, "[i]t is clear that the explanations given . . . were designed for their political effect, hiding the atmosphere in which these decisions were taken. These declarations were made a year later when the CNT were already far removed from their original positions It is also the period when they had become involved in the policy of collaboration which lead taking part in the Central Government. But in a certain way they shed light on the unknown factors which weighted so heavily on these who took part in the historic Plenum." [Durruti: The People Armed, p. 215]
For example, when the decision was made, the revolution had not started yet. The street fighting had just ended and the Plenum decided "not to speak about Libertarian Communism as long as part of Spain was in the hands of the fascists." [Mariano R. Vesquez, quoted by Paz, Op. Cit., p.214] The revolution took place from below in the days following the decision, independently of the wishes of the Plenum. In the words of Abel Paz:
"When the workers reached their workplaces . . . they found them deserted . . . The major centres of production had been abandoned by their owners . . . The CNT and its leaders had certainly not foreseen this situation; if they had, they had, they would have given appropriate guidance to the workers when they called off the General Strike and ordered a return to work. What happened next was the result of the workers' spontaneous decision to take matters into their own hands.
"Finding the factories deserted, and no instructions from their unions, they resolved to operate the machines themselves." [The Spanish Civil War, pp. 54-5]
The rank and file of the CNT, on their own initiative, took advantage of the collapse of state power to transform the economy and social life of Catalonia. Paz stresses that "no orders were given for expropriation or colectivisation -- which proved that the union, which represented the will of the their members until July 18th, had now been overtaken by events" and the "union leaders of the CNT committees were confronted with a revolution that they had not foreseen . . . the workers and peasants had bypassed their leaders and taken collective action." [Op. Cit., p. 40 and p. 56]
As the revolution had not yet begun and the CNT Plenum had decided not to call for its start, it is difficult to see how "libertarian communism" (i.e. the revolution) could "lead to the strangulation of the revolution" (i.e. libertarian communism). In other words, this particular rationale put forward by Garica Oliver could not reflect the real thoughts of those present at the CNT plenum and so, in fact, was a later justification for the CNT's actions.
Similarly, Libertarian Communism is based on self-management, by its nature opposed to dictatorship. According to the CNT's resolution at its congress in Zaragonza in May, 1936, "the foundation of this administration will be the Commune" which is "autonomous" and "federated at regional and national levels." The commune "will undertake to adhere to whatever general norms [that] may be agreed by majority vote after free debate." It stressed the free nature of society aimed at by the CNT:
"The inhabitants of a commune are to debate among themselves their internal problems . . . Federations are to deliberate over major problems affecting a country or province and all communes are to be represented at their reunions and assemblies, thereby enabling their delegates to convey the democratic viewpoint of their respective communes . . . every commune which is implicated will have its right to have its say . . . On matters of a regional nature, it is the duty of the regional federation to implement agreements . . . So the starting point is the individual, moving on through the commune, to the federation and right on up finally to the confederation." [quoted by Jose Peirats, The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, vol. 1, pp. 106-7]
Hardly a picture of "anarchist dictatorship"! Indeed, it is far more "democratic" than the capitalist state Oliver describes as "democracy."
Clearly, these often quoted words of Garcia Oliver cannot be taken at face value. Made in 1937, they present an attempt to misuse anarchist ideals to defend the anti-anarchist activities of the CNT leadership rather than a meaningful explanation of the decisions made on the 20th of July, 1936.
Moreover, the decision made then clearly stated that Libertarian Communism would be back on the agenda once Franco was defeated. Oliver's comments were applicable after Franco was defeated just as much as when they were made. The real reasons for the decision to collaborate lies elsewhere, namely in the objective circumstances facing the CNT after the defeat of the army in Barcelona, July 20th, 1936, and not in anarchist theory.
This can clearly been seen from the report made by the CNT to the International Workers Association to justify the decision to forget anarchist theory and collaborate with bourgeois parties and join the government. The report states that "the CNT, loyal to its ideals and its purely anarchist nature, did not attack the forms of the State, nor try publicly to penetrate or dominate it . . . none of the political or juridical institutions were abolished." [quoted by Robert Alexander, The Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, vol. 2, p. 1156]
In other words, according to this report, "anarchist" ideals do not, in fact, mean the destruction of the state, but rather the ignoring of the state. That this is nonsense, concocted to justify the CNT leaderships' betrayal of its ideals, is clear. To do so we just need to look at Bakunin and Kropotkin and look at the activities of the CNT before the start of the war.
Bakunin had argued that "the revolution must set out from the first to radically and totally destroy the State" and that the "natural and necessary consequence of this destruction" will include the "dissolution of army, magistracy, bureaucracy, police and priesthood." Capital would be expropriated (i.e. the "confiscation of all productive capital and means of production on behalf of workers' associations, who are to put them to use") and the state replaced by "the federative Alliance of all working men's associations" which "will constitute the Commune." [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 170] Similarly, Kropotkin had stressed that the "Commune . . . must break the State and replace it by the Federation." [Words of a Rebel, p. 83]
Thus anarchism has always been clear on what to do with the state, and it is obviously not what the CNT did to it! Nor had the CNT always taken this perspective. Before the start of the Civil War, the CNT had organised numerous insurrections against the state. For example, in the spontaneous revolt of CNT miners in January 1932, the workers "seized town halls, raised the black-and-red flags of the CNT, and declared communismo liberatario." In Tarassa, the same year, the workers again "seiz[ed] town halls" and the town "swept by street fighting." The revolt in January 1933 began with "assaults by Anarchist action groups . . . on Barcelona's military barracks . . . Serious fighting occurred in working-class barrios and the outlying areas of Barcelona . . . Uprising occurred in Tarassa, Sardanola-Ripollet, Lerida, in several pueblos in Valencia province, and in Andalusia." In December 1933, the workers "reared barricades, attacked public buildings, and engaged in heavy street fighting . . . many villages declared libertarian communism." [Murray Bookchin, The Spanish Anarchists, p. 225, p. 226, p. 227 and p. 238]
It seems that the CNT leadership's loyalty to "its ideals and its purely anarchist nature" which necessitated "not attack[ing] the forms of the State" was a very recent development! That enemies of anarchism quote Garcia Oliver's words from 1937 or from this document and others like it in order to draw conclusions about anarchist theory says more about their politics than about anarchism!
As can be seen, the rationales later developed to justify the betrayal of anarchist ideas and the revolutionary workers of Spain have no real relationship to anarchist theory. They were created to justify a non-anarchist approach to the struggle against fascism, an approach based on ignoring struggle from below and instead forging alliances with parties and unions at the top (in the style of the UGT "Workers' Alliance" the CNT had correctly argued against before the war).
Rather than trying to cement a unity with other organisations at the top level, the leadership of the CNT should have applied their anarchist ideas by inciting the oppressed to enlarge and consolidate their gains (which they did anyway). This would have liberated all the potential energy within the country (and elsewhere), energy that clearly existed as can be seen from the spontaneous collectivisations that occurred after the fateful Plenum of July 20th and the creation of volunteer workers' militia columns sent to liberate those parts of Spain which had fallen to Franco.
The role of anarchists, therefore, was that of "inciting the people to abolish capitalistic property and the institutions through which it exercises its power for the exploitation of the majority by a minority" and "to support, to incite and encourage the development of the social revolution and to frustrate any attempts by the bourgeois capitalist state to reorganise itself, which it would seek to do." This would involve "seeking to destroy bourgeois institutions through the creation of revolutionary organisms." [Vernon Richards, Op. Cit., p. 44, p. 46 and p. 193]
In other words, to encourage, what Bakunin called the "federation of the standing barricades," made up of "delegates . . . vested with binding mandates and accountable and revocable at all times") which could have been the initial framework for both defending and extending the revolution (to "defend the revolution" a "communal militia" would be organised, the revolution would "radiate . . . outwards" and communes would "federate . . . for common defence.") [Michael Bakunin, No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 155 and p. 142] The equivalent of the "Sections" of the French Revolution, what Kropotkin argued "laid the foundations of a new, free, social organisation" and expressed "the principles of anarchism." [The Great French Revolution, vol. 1, p. 206 and p. 204] Indeed, such an organisation already existing in embryo in the CNT's barrios defence committees which had led and co-ordinated the struggle against the military coup throughout the city.
Later, a delegate meeting from the various workplaces (CNT and UGT organised as well as unorganised ones) would have to had been arranged to organise, to again quote Bakunin, "the federal Alliance of workers associations" which would "constitute the Commune" and complement the "federation of the standing barricades." [Op. Cit., p. 155] In more modern terminology, a federation of workers' councils combined with a federation of workers' militias and community assemblies. Without this, the revolution was doomed as was the war against Franco's forces.
Such a development, applying the basic ideas of anarchism (and as expounded in the CNT's May resolution on Libertarian Communism), was not an impossibility. After all, the CNT-FAI organised something similar in Aragon. The fear that if libertarian communism was implemented then a civil war within the anti-fascist forces would occur (so aiding Franco) was a real one. Unfortunately, the conclusion draw from that fear, namely to win the war against Franco before talking about the revolution, was the wrong one. After all, a civil war within the Republican side did occur, when the state had recovered enough to do start it. Similarly, with the fear of a blockade by foreign governments. This happened away, confirming Durruti's comment that he "did not expect help for a libertarian revolution from any government in the world . . . not even from our own government in the last analysis." [quoted by Vernon Richards, Op. Cit., p. 194f] Organising a full and proper delegate meeting in the first days of the revolution would have allowed these ideas to be discussed by the whole membership of the CNT and, perhaps, a different decision may have been reached on the subject of collaboration.
By thinking they could postpone the revolution until after the war, the CNT leadership made two mistakes. Firstly, they should have known that their members would hardly miss this opportunity to implement their ideas so making their decision redundant (and a statist backlash inevitable). Secondly, they abandoned their anarchist ideas, failing to understand that the struggle against fascism would never be effective without the active participation of the working class. Such participation could never be achieved by placing the war before the revolution and by working in top-down, statist structures or within a state.
Indeed, the mistake made by the CNT, while understandable, cannot be justified given that their consequences had been predicted by numerous anarchists beforehand, including Kropotkin decades previously in an essay on the Paris Commune. In that essay he refutes the two assumptions of the CNT leadership -- first, of placing the war before the revolution and, second, that the struggle could be waged by authoritarian structures or a state.
Kropotkin had explicitly attacked the mentality and logic begin the official CNT line of not mentioning Libertarian Communism "until such time as we had captured that part of Spain that was in the hands of the rebels." Kropotkin had lambasted those who had argued "Let us first make sure of victory, and then see what can be done." His comments are worth quoting at length:
"Make sure of victory! As if there were any way of transforming society into a free commune without laying hands upon property! As if there were any way of defeating the enemy so long as the great mass of the people is not directly interested in the triumph of the revolution, in witnessing the arrival it of material, moral and intellectual well-being for all! They sought to consolidate the Commune first of all while postponing the social revolution for later on, while the only effective way of proceeding was to consolidate the Commune by the social revolution!
"It was the same with the governmental principle. In proclaiming the free Commune, the people of Paris proclaimed an essential anarchist principle . . . If we admit, in fact, that a central government is absolutely useless to regulate the relations of communes between each other, why do we grant its necessity to regulate the mutual relations of the groups that constitute the Commune? . . . A government within the Commune has no more right to exist than a government over the Commune." [Words of a Rebel, p. 97]
Kropotkin's argument was sound, as the CNT discovered. By waiting until victory in the war they were defeated. Kropotkin also indicated the inevitable effects of the CNT's actions in co-operating with the state and joining representative bodies. In his words:
"Paris . . . sent her devoted sons to the Hotel-de-Ville [the town hall]. Indeed, immobilised there by fetters of red tape, forced to discuss when action was needed, and losing the sensitivity that comes from continual contact with the masses, they saw themselves reduced to impotence. Paralysed by their distancing from the revolutionary centre -- the people -- they themselves paralysed the popular initiative." [Op. Cit., pp. 97-8]
Which, in a nutshell, was what happened to the leading militants of the CNT who collaborated with the state. Kropotkin was proved right, as was anarchist theory from Bakunin onwards. As Vernon Richards argues, "there can be no excuse" for the CNT's decision, as "they were not mistakes of judgement but the deliberate abandonment of the principles of the CNT." [Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, pp. 41-2] It seems difficult to blame anarchist theory for the decisions of the CNT when that theory argues the opposite position.
However, while the experience of Spain confirms anarchist theory negatively, it also confirms it positively by the Council of Aragon. The Council of Aragon was created by a meeting of delegates from CNT unions, village collectives and militia columns to protect the new society the people of Aragon were building. Its creation exposes as false the claim that anarchism failed in during the Spanish Civil War. In Aragon, the CNT did follow the ideas of anarchism, abolishing both the state and capitalism. If they had followed this example in Catalonia, the outcome of the Civil War may have been different.
In spite of opposition from the two Catalan militia leaders, the Aragonese delegates at the Bujaraloz assembly, encouraged by Durruti, supported the proposals and the Regional Defence Council of AragÑn was born with the specific objective of implementing libertarian communism. The meeting also decided to press for the setting up of a National Defence Committee which would link together a series of regional bodies that were organised on principles similar to the one now established in Aragon.
The formation of the Regional Defence Council was an affirmation of commitment to the principles of libertarian communism. This principled stand for revolutionary social and economic change stands at odds with the claims that the Spanish Civil War indicates the failure of anarchism. After all, in Aragon the CNT did act in accordance with anarchist theory and its own history and politics.
Therefore, the activities of the CNT during the Civil War cannot be used to discredit anarchism although it can be used to show that anarchists can and do make terrible decisions in difficult circumstances. That Marxists always point to this event in anarchist history is unsurprising, for it was a terrible mistake.
However, to use this to generalise about anarchism is false as it, firstly, requires a dismissal of the objective circumstances the decision was made in (see last section) and, secondly, it means ignoring anarchist theory and history. It also gives the impression that anarchism as a revolutionary theory must be evaluated purely from one event in its history. The experiences of the Makhnovists in the Ukraine, the U.S.I and U.A.I. in the factory occupations of 1920 and fighting fascism in Italy, the insurrections of the C.N.T. during the 1930s, the Council of Aragon created by the CNT in the Spanish Revolution and so on, are all ignored when evaluating anarchism. Hardly convincing, although handy for Marxists. As is clear from, for example, the experiences of the Makhnovists and the Council of Aragon, that anarchism has been applied successfully on a large scale, both politically and economically, in revolutionary situations.
As Emma Goldman argued, the "contention that there is something wrong with Anarchism . . . because the leading comrades in Spain failed Anarchism seems to be very faulty reasoning . . . the failure of one or several individuals can never take away from the depth and truth of an ideal." [Vision on Fire, p. 299] This is even more the case when anarchists can point to anarchist theory and other examples of anarchism in action which fully followed anarchist ideas. That opponents of anarchism fail to mention these examples suggests their case against anarchism, based on the experience of the CNT in the Spanish Civil War, is deeply flawed.
Rather than show the failure of anarchism, the experience of the Spanish Revolution indicates the failure of anarchists to apply their ideas in practice. Faced with extremely difficult circumstances, they compromised their ideas in the name of anti-fascist unity. Sadly, their compromises confirmed (rather than refuted) anarchist theory as they led to the defeat of both the revolution and the civil war.
A few words have to be said about the development of the CNT and FAI post 19th of July. It is clear that the CNT and FAI changed in nature and were the not same organisations as they were before July 1936. Both organisations became more centralised and bureaucratic, with the membership excluded from many major decisions. As Peirats argues:
"In the CNT and among militant anarchists there had been a tradition of the most scrupulous respect for the deliberations and decisions of the assemblies, the grassroots of the federalist organisation. Those who held administrative office had been merely the mandatories of those decisions. The regular motions adopted by the National congresses spelled out to the Confederation and its representative committees ineluctable obligations of a basic and general nature incumbent upon very affiliated member regardless of locality or region. And the forming of such general motions was the direct responsibility of all of the unions by means of motions adopted at their respective general assemblies. Similarly, the Regional or Local Congresses would establish the guidelines of requirement and problems that obtained only at regional or local levels. In both instances, sovereignty resided always with the assemblies of workers whether in their unions or in their groups.
"This sense of rigorous, everyday federalist procedure was abruptly amended from the very outset of the revolutionary phase. . . This amendment of the norms of the organisation was explained away by reference to the exceptional turn of events, which required a greater agility of decisions and resolutions, which is to say a necessary departure from the circuitous procedures of federalist practice which operated from the bottom upwards." [The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, vol. 1, p. 213]
In other words, the CNT had become increasingly hierarchical, with the higher committees becoming transformed into executive bodies rather than administrative ones ("it is safe to assert that the significant resolutions in the organisation were adopted by the committees, very rarely by the mass constituency. Certainly, circumstances required quick decisions from the organisation, and it was necessary to take precautions to prevent damaging leaks. These necessities tempted the committees to abandon the federalist procedures of the organisation." [Jose Peirats, Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, p. 188]).
Ironically, rather than the "anarchist leaders" of the CNT failing to "seize power" as Trotsky and his followers lament, they did -- in their own organisations. Such a development proved to be a disaster and re-enforced the anarchist critique against hierarchical and centralised organisations. The CNT higher committees became isolated from the membership, pursued their own policies and compromised and paralysed the creative work being done by the rank and file -- as predicted in anarchist theory. However, be that as it may, as we will indicate below, it would be false to assert that these higher committees simply imposed the decision to collaborate on their memberships (as, for example, Vernon Richards seems to imply in his Lessons of the Spanish Revolution). While it is true that the committees presented many decisions as a fait accompli the rank-and-file of the C.N.T and F.A.I did not simply follow orders and ratify all decisions blindly.
In any revolutionary situation decisions have to be made fast and sometimes without consulting the base of the organisation. However, such decisions must be accountable to the membership who must discuss and ratify them (this was the policy within the CNT militias, for example). The experience of the CNT and FAI in countless strikes, insurrections and campaigns had proven the decentralised, federal structure was more than capable of pursuing the class war -- revolution is no exception as it is the class war in its most concentrated form. In other words, the organisational principles of the CNT and FAI were more than adequate for a revolutionary situation.
The centralising tendencies, therefore, cannot be blamed on the exception circumstances of the war. Rather, it is the policy of collaboration which explains them. Unlike the numerous strikes and revolts that occurred before July 19th, 1936, the CNT higher committees had started to work within the state structure. This, by its very nature, must generate hierarchical and centralising tendencies as those involved must adapt to the states basic structure and form. The violations of CNT policy flowed from the initial decision to compromise in the name of "anti-fascist unity" and a vicious circle developed -- each compromise pushed the CNT leadership further into the arms of the state, which increased hierarchical tendencies, which in turn isolated these higher committees of the CNT from the masses, which in turn encouraged a conciliatory policy by those committees.
This centralising and hierarchical tendency did not mean that the higher committees of the CNT simply imposed their will on the rest of the organisation. It is very clear that the decision to collaborate had, initially, the passive support of the majority of the CNT and FAI (probably because they thought the war would be over after a few weeks or months). This can be seen from various facts. As visiting French anarchist Sebastian Faure noted, while "effective participation in central authority has had the approval of the majority within the unions and in the groups affiliated to the FAI, that decision has in many places encountered the opposition of a fairly substantial minority. Thus there has been no unanimity." [quoted by Jose Peirats, The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, vol. 1, p. 183]
In the words of Peirats:
"Were all of the militants of the same mind? . . . Excepting some vocal minorities which expressed their protests in their press organs and through committees, gatherings, plenums and assemblies, the dismal truth is that the bulk of the membership was in thrall to a certain fatalism which was itself a direct consequence of the tragic realities of the war." [Op. Cit., p. 181]
"We have already seen how, on the economic plane, militant anarchism forged ahead, undaunted, with its work of transforming the economy. It is not to be doubted -- for to do so would have been to display ignorance of the psychology of libertarian rank and file of the CNT -- that a muffled contest, occasionally erupting at plenums and assemblies and manifest in some press organs broke out as soon as the backsliding began. In this connection, the body of opinion hostile to any possible deviation in tactics and principles was able to count throughout upon spirited champions." [Op. Cit., p. 210]
Thus, within the libertarian movement, there was a substantial minority who opposed the policy of collaboration and made their opinions known in various publications and meetings. While many (if not most) revolutionary anarchists volunteered for the militias and so were not active in their unions as before, there were various groups (such as Catalan Libertarian Youth, the Friends of Durruti, other FAI groups, and so on) which were opposed to collaboration and argued their case openly in the streets, collectives, organisational meetings and so on. Moreover, outside the libertarian movement the two tiny Trotskyist groups also argued against collaboration, as did sections of the POUM. Therefore it is impossible to state that the CNT membership were unaware of the arguments against the dominant policy. Also the Catalan CNT's higher committees, for example, after the May Days of 1937 could not get union assemblies or plenums to expel the Friends of Durruti nor to get them to withhold financial support for the Libertarian Youth, who opposed collaboration vigorously in their publications, nor get them to call upon various groups of workers to stop distributing opposition publications in the public transit system or with the daily milk. [Abe Bluestein in Gomez Casas's Anarchist Organisation: The History of the FAI, p. 10]
This suggests that in spite of centralising tendencies, the higher committees of the CNT were still subject to some degree of popular influence and control and should not be seen as having dictatorial powers over the organisation. While many decisions were presented as fait accompli to the union plenums (often called by the committees at short notice), in violation of past CNT procedures, the plenums could not be railroaded into any ratifying any decision the committees wanted. The objective circumstances associated with the war against Franco and fascism convinced most C.N.T. members and libertarian activists that working with other parties and unions within the state was the only feasible option. To do otherwise was to weaken the war effort by provoking another Civil War in the anti-Franco camp. While such a policy did not work (when it was strong enough the Republican state did start a civil war against the C.N.T. which gutted the struggle against fascism) it cannot be argued that it was imposed upon the membership nor that they did not hear opposing positions. Sadly, the call for anti-fascist unity dominated the minds of the libertarian movement.
In the early stages, the majority of rank-and-file militants believed that the war would be over in a matter of weeks. After all, a few days had been sufficient to rout the army in Barcelona and other industrial centres. This inclined them to, firstly, tolerate (indeed, support) the collaboration of the CNT with the "Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias" and, secondly, to start expropriating capitalism in the belief that the revolution would soon be back on track (the opportunity to start introducing anarchist ideas was simply too good to waste, regardless of the wishes of the CNT Plenum). They believed that the revolution and libertarian communism, as debated and adopted by the CNT's Zaragoza Congress of May that year, was an inseparable aspect of the struggle against economic and social oppression and proceeded appropriately. The ignoring of the state, rather than its destruction, was seen as a short-term compromise, soon to be corrected. Sadly, there were wrong -- collaboration had a logic all its own, one which got worse as the war dragged on (and soon it was too late).
Which, we must note indicates the superficial nature of most Marxist attacks on anarchism using the CNT as the key evidence. After all, it was the anarchists and anarchist influenced members of the CNT who organised the collectives, militias and started the transformation of Spanish society. They did so inspired by anarchism and in an anarchist way. To praise their actions, while attacking "anarchism", shows a lack of logic -- it was anarchism which inspired these actions. Indeed, these actions have more in common with anarchist ideas than the actions and rationales of the CNT leadership. Thus, to attack "anarchism" by pointing to the anti-anarchist actions of a few leaders while ignoring the anarchist actions of the majority is flawed.
Therefore, to summarise, it is clear that while the internal structure of the CNT was undermined and authoritarian tendencies increased by its collaboration with the state, the CNT was not transformed into a mere appendage to the higher committees of the organisation. The union plenums could and did reject the calls made by the leadership of the CNT. Support for "anti-fascist unity" was widespread among the CNT membership (in spite of the activities and arguments of large minority of anarchists) and was reflected in the policy of collaboration pursued by the organisation. While the CNT higher committees were transformed into a bureaucratic leadership, increasingly isolated from the rank and file, it cannot be argued that their power was absolute nor totally at odds with the wishes of the membership. Ironically, but unsurprisingly, the divergences from the C.N.T's previous libertarian organisational principles confirmed anarchist theory and became a drag on the revolution and a factor in its defeat.
As we argued in section I.8.11, the initial compromise with the state, the initial betrayal of anarchist theory and CNT policy, contained all the rest. Moreover, rather than refute anarchism, the experience of the CNT after it had rejected anarchist theory confirmed the principles of anarchism -- centralised, hierarchical organisations hindered and ultimately destroyed the revolution.
The experience of the C.N.T and F.A.I suggests that those, like Leninists, who argue for more centralisation and for "democratic" hierarchical structures have refused to understand, let alone learn from, history. The increased centralisation within the C.N.T aided and empowered the leadership (a minority) and disempowered the membership (the majority). Rather than federalism hindering the revolution, it, as always, was centralism which did so.
Therefore, in spite of a sizeable minority of anarchists within the C.N.T and F.A.I arguing against the dominate policy of "anti-fascist unity" and political collaboration, this policy was basically agreed to by the C.N.T membership and was not imposed upon them. The membership of the C.N.T could, and did, reject suggestions of the leadership and so, in spite of the centralisation of power that occurred in the C.N.T due to the policy of collaboration, it cannot be argued that this policy was alien to the wishes of the rank-and-file.
The most important political lesson learned from the Spanish Revolution is that a revolution cannot compromise with existing power structures. In this, it just confirmed anarchist theory.
The Spanish Revolution is a clear example of the old maxim, "those who only make half a revolution dig their own graves." Essentially, the most important political lesson of the Spanish Revolution is that a social revolution will only succeed if it follows an anarchist path and does not seek to compromise in the name of fighting a "greater evil." As Kropotin put it, a "revolution that stops half-way is sure to be soon defeated." [The Great French Revolution, vol. 2, p. 553]
On the 20th of July, after the fascist coup had been defeated in Barcelona, the C.N.T. sent a delegation of its members to meet the leader of the Catalan Government. A plenum of C.N.T union shop stewards, in the light of the fascist coup, agreed that libertarian communism would be "put off" until Franco had been defeated (the rank and file ignored them and collectivised their workplaces). They organised a delegation to visit the Catalan president to discuss the situation:
"The delegation. . . was intransigent . . . Either Companys [the Catalan president] must accept the creation of a Central Committee [of Anti-Fascist Militias] as the ruling organisation or the C.N.T. would consult the rank and file and expose the real situation to the workers. Companys backed down." [Abel Paz, Durruti: the people Armed, p. 216, our emphasis]
The C.N.T committee members used their new-found influence in the eyes of Spain to unite with the leaders of other organisations/parties but not the rank and file. This process lead to the creation of the "Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias", in which political parties as well as labour unions were represented. This committee was not made up of mandated delegates from workplaces, communities or barricades, but of representatives of existing organisations, nominated by committees. Instead of a genuine confederal body (made up of mandated delegates from workplace, militia and neighbourhood assemblies) the C.N.T. created a body which was not accountable to, nor could reflect the ideas of, ordinary working class people expressed in their assemblies. The state and government was not abolished by self-management, only ignored.
This first betrayal of anarchist principles led to all the rest, and so to the defeat of the revolution and the civil war. As Emma Goldman argued, the Spanish anarchists had "come to realise that once they went into the so-called united-front, they could do nothing else but go further. In other words, the one mistake, the one wrong step inevitably led to others as it always does. I am more than ever convinced that if the comrades had remained firm on their own grounds they would have remained stronger than they are now. But I repeat, once they had made common cause for the period of the anti-Fascist war, they were driven by the logic of events to go further." [Vision on Fire, pp. 100-1]
The most obvious problem, of course, was that collaboration with the state ensured that a federation of workers' associations could not be created to co-ordinate the struggle against fascism and the social revolution. As Stuart Christie argues, "[b]y imposing their leadership from above, these partisan committees suffocated the mushrooming popular autonomous revolutionary centres -- the grass-roots factory and local revolutionary committees -- and prevented them from proving themselves as an efficient and viable means of co-ordinating communications, defence and provisioning. They also prevented the Local Revolutionary committees from integrating with each other to form a regional, provincial and national federal network which would facilitate the revolutionary task of social and economic reconstruction." [We, the Anarchists!, pp. 99-100] Without such a federation, it was only a matter of time before the C.N.T joined the bourgeois government.
Rather than being an example of "dual power" as many Trotskyists maintain, the "Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias" created on July 20th, 1936, was, in fact, an organ of class collaboration and a handicap to the revolution. Stuart Christie was correct to call it an "artificial and hybrid creation," a "compromise, an artificial political solution, an officially sanctioned appendage of the Generalidad government" which "drew the CNT-FAI leadership inexorably into the State apparatus, until then its principal enemy." [Op. Cit., p. 105] Only a true federation of delegates from the fields, factories and workplaces could have been the framework of a true organisation of (to use Bakunin's expression) "the social (and, by consequence, anti-political) power of the working masses." [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, pp. 197-8]
Therefore, the C.N.T forgot a basic principle of anarchism, namely "the destruction . . . of the States." Instead, like the Paris Commune, the C.N.T thought that "in order to combat . . . reaction, they had to organise themselves in reactionary Jacobin fashion, forgetting or sacrificing what they themselves knew were the first conditions of revolutionary socialism." The real basis of the revolution, the basic principle of anarchism, was that the "future social organisation must be made solely from the bottom upwards, by the free association or federation of workers, firstly in their unions, then in communes, regions, nations and finally in a great federation, international and universal." [Bakunin, Op. Cit., p. 198, p. 202 and p. 204] By not doing this, by working in a top-down compromise body rather than creating a federation of workers' councils, the C.N.T leadership could not help eventually sacrificing the revolution in favour of the war.
Of course, if a full plenum of CNT unions and barrios defence committees, with delegates invited from UGT and unorganised workplaces, had taken place there is no guarantee that the decision reached would have been in line with anarchist theory. The feelings for antifascist unity were strong. However, the decision would have been fully discussed by the rank and file of the union, under the influence of the revolutionary anarchists who were later to join the militias and leave for the front. It is likely, given the wave of colllectivisation and what happened in Aragon, that the decision would have been different and the first step would have made to turn this plenum into the basis of a free federation of workers associations -- i.e. the framework of an anarchist and self-managed society -- which could have smashed the state and ensured no other appeared to take its place.
The basic idea of anarchism, the need to create a federation of workers councils, was ignored. In the name of "antifascist" unity, the C.N.T worked with parties and classes which hated both them and the revolution. In the words of Sam Dolgoff "both before and after July 19th, an unwavering determination to crush the revolutionary movement was the leitmotif behind the policies of the Republican government; irrespective of the party in power." [The Anarchist Collectives, p. 40] Without creating a means to organise the "social power" of the working class, the CNT was defenceless against these parties once the state had re-organised itself.
To justify their collaboration, the leaders of the C.N.T-F.A.I argued that not collaborating would have lead to a civil war within the civil war, so allowing Franco easy victory. In practice, while paying lip service to the revolution, the Communists and republicans attacked the collectives, murdered anarchists, cut supplies to collectivised industries (even war industries) and disbanded the anarchist militias after refusing to give them weapons and ammunition (preferring to arm the Civil Guard in the rearguard in order to crush the C.N.T. and so the revolution). By collaborating, a civil war was not avoided. One occurred anyway, with the working class as its victims, as soon as the state felt strong enough.
Garcia Oliver (the first ever, and hopefully last, "anarchist" minister of justice) stated in 1937 that collaboration was necessary and that the C.N.T. had "renounc[ed] revolutionary totalitarianism, which would lead to the strangulation of the revolution by anarchist and Confederal [C.N.T.] dictatorship. We had confidence in the word and in the person of a Catalan democrat" Companys (who had in the past jailed anarchists). Which means that only by working with the state, politicians and capitalists can an anarchist revolution be truly libertarian! Furthermore, in the words of Vernon Richards:
"This argument contains . . . two fundamental mistakes, which many of the leaders of the CNT-FAI have since recognised, but for which there can be no excuse, since they were not mistakes of judgement but the deliberate abandonment of the principles of the CNT. Firstly, that an armed struggle against fascism or any other form of reaction could be waged more successfully within the framework of the State and subordinating all else, including the transformation of the economic and social structure of the country, to winning the war. Secondly, that it was essential, and possible, to collaborate with political parties -- that is politicians -- honestly and sincerely, and at a time when power was in the hands of the two workers organisations. . .
"All the initiative . . . was in the hands of the workers. The politicians were like generals without armies floundering in a desert of futility. Collaboration with them could not, by any stretch of the imagination, strengthen resistance to Franco. On the contrary, it was clear that collaboration with political parties meant the recreation of governmental institutions and the transferring of initiative from the armed workers to a central body with executive powers. By removing the initiative from the workers, the responsibility for the conduct of the struggle and its objectives were also transferred to a governing hierarchy, and this could not have other than an adverse effect on the morale of the revolutionary fighters." [Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, p. 42]
The dilemma of "anarchist dictatorship" or "collaboration" raised in 1937 was fundamentally wrong. It was never a case of banning parties, and other organisations under an anarchist system, far from it. Full rights of free speech, organisation and so on should have existed for all but the parties would only have as much influence as they exerted in union, workplace, community and militia assemblies, as should be the case! "Collaboration" yes, but within the rank and file and within organisations organised in an anarchist manner. Anarchism does not respect the "freedom" to be a boss or politician.
In his history of the F.A.I., Juan Gomaz Casas (an active F.A.I. member in 1936) makes this clear:
"How else could libertarian communism be brought about? It would always signify dissolution of the old parties dedicated to the idea of power, or at least make it impossible for them to pursue their politics aimed at seizure of power. There will always be pockets of opposition to new experiences and therefore resistance to joining 'the spontaneity of the unanimous masses.' In addition, the masses would have complete freedom of expression in the unions and in the economic organisations of the revolution as well as their political organisations in the district and communities." [Anarchist Organisation: the History of the F.A.I., p. 188f]
Instead of this "collaboration" from the bottom up, by means of a federation of workers' associations, community assemblies and militia columns as argued for by anarchists from Bakunin onwards, the C.N.T. and F.A.I. committees favoured "collaboration" from the top down. The leaders ignored the state and co-operated with other trade unions officials as well as political parties in the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias. In other words, they ignored their political ideas in favour of a united front against what they considered the greater evil, namely fascism. This inevitably lead the way to counter-revolution, the destruction of the militias and collectives, as they was no means by which these groups could co-ordinate their activities independently of the state.
In particular, the continued existence of the state ensured that economic confederalism between collectives (i.e. extending the revolution under the direction of the syndicates) could not develop naturally nor be developed far enough in all places. Due to the political compromises of the C.N.T. the tendencies to co-ordination and mutual aid could not develop freely (see next section).
It is clear that the defeat in Spain was due to a failure not of anarchist theory and tactics but a failure of anarchists to apply their theory and tactics. Instead of destroying the state, the C.N.T.-F.A.I. ignored it. For a revolution to be successful it needs to create organisations which can effectively replace the state and the market; that is, to create a widespread libertarian organisation for social and economic decision-making through which working class people can start to set their own agendas. Only by going this route can the state and capitalism be effectively smashed.
In building the new world we must destroy the old one. Revolutions are authoritarian by their very nature, but only in respect to structures and social relations which promote injustice, hierarchy and inequality. It is not "authoritarian" to destroy authority and not tyrannical to dethrone tyrants! Revolutions, above all else, must be libertarian in respect to the oppressed. That is, they must develop structures that involve the great majority of the population, who have previously been excluded from decision-making about social and economic issues. As such, a revolution is the most libertarian thing ever.
As the Friends of Durruti argued a "revolution requires the absolute domination of the workers' organisations." ["The Friends of Durruti accuse", from Class War on the Home Front, p. 34] Only this, the creation of viable anarchist social organisations, can ensure that the state and capitalism can be destroyed and replaced with a just system based on liberty, equality and solidarity. Just as Bakunin, Kropotkin and a host of other anarchist thinkers had argued decades previously.
Thus the most important lesson gained from the Spanish Revolution is simply the correctness of anarchist theory on the need to organise the "social power" of the working class by a free federation of workers associations to destroy the state. Without this, no revolution can be lasting. As Gomez Casas correctly argues, "if instead of condemning that experience [of collaboration], the movement continues to look for excuses for it, the same course will be repeated in the future . . . exceptional circumstances will again put . . . anarchism on [its] knees before the State." [Op. Cit., p. 251]
The second important lesson is on the nature of anti-fascism. The C.N.T. leadership, along with many (if not most) of the rank-and-file, were totally blinded by the question of anti-fascist unity, leading them to support a "democratic" state against a "fascist" one. While the basis of a new world was being created around them by the working class, inspiring the fight against fascism, the C.N.T. leaders collaborated with the system that spawns fascism. Indeed, while the anti-fascist feelings of the CNT leadership were sincere, the same cannot be said of their "allies" (who seemed happier attacking the gains of the semi-revolution than fighting fascism). As the Friends of Durruti make clear, "Democracy defeated the Spanish people, not Fascism." [Class War on the Home Front, p. 30]
To be opposed to fascism is not enough, you also have to be anti-capitalist. As Durruti stressed, "[n]o government in the world fights fascism to the death. When the bourgeoisie sees power slipping from its grasp, it has recourse to fascism to maintain itself." [quoted Vernon Richards, Op. Cit., p. 193f]
In Spain, anti-fascism destroyed the revolution, not fascism. As the Scottish Anarchist Ethal McDonald argued at the time, "Fascism is not something new, some new force of evil opposed to society, but is only the old enemy, Capitalism, under a new and fearful sounding name . . . Anti-Fascism is the new slogan by which the working class is being betrayed." [Workers Free Press, Oct 1937]
Thirdly, the argument of the CNT that Libertarian Communism can wait until after the war was a false one. Fascism can only be defeated by ending the system that spawned it (i.e. capitalism). In addition, in terms of morale and inspiration, the struggle against fascism could only be effective if it was also a struggle for something better -- namely a free society. To fight fascism for a capitalist democracy which had repressed the working class would hardly inspire those at the front. Similarly, the only hope for workers' self-management was to push the revolution as far as possible, i.e. to introduce libertarian communism while fighting fascism. The idea of waiting for libertarian communism ultimately meant sacrificing it for the war effort.
Fourthly, the role of anarchists in a social revolution is to always encourage organisation "from below" (to use one of Bakunin's favourite expressions), revolutionary organisations which can effectively smash the state. Bakunin himself argued (as noted above) in favour of workers' councils, complemented by community assemblies (the federation of the barricades) and a self-managed militia. This model is still applicable today and was successfully applied in Aragon by the CNT.
Therefore, the political lessons gained from the experience of the C.N.T come as no surprise. They, in general, confirm anarchist theory. As Bakunin argued, no revolution is possible unless the state is smashed, capital expropriated and a free federation of workers' associations created as the framework of libertarian socialism. Rather than refuting anarchism, the experience of the Spanish Revolution confirms it.
The most important lesson from the revolution is the fact that ordinary people took over the management of industry and did an amazing job of keeping (and improving!) production in the face of the direst circumstances. Not only did workers create a war industry from almost nothing in Catalonia, they also improved working conditions and innovated with new techniques and processes. The Spanish Revolution shows that self-management is possible and that the constructive powers of ordinary people inspired by an ideal can transform society.
>From the point of view of individual freedom, its clear that self-management allowed previously marginalised people to take an active part in the decisions that affected them. Egalitarian organisations provided the framework for a massive increase in participation and individual self-government, which expressed itself in the extensive innovations carried out by the Collectives. The Collectives indicate, in Stirner's words, that "[o]nly in the union can you assert yourself as unique, because the union does not possess you, but you possess it or make it of use to you." [The Ego and Its Own, p. 312] A fact Emma Goldman confirmed from her visits to collectives and discussions with their members:
"I was especially impressed with the relies to my questions as to what actually had the workers gained by the collectivisation . . . the answer always was, first, greater freedom. And only secondly, more wages and less time of work. In two years in Russia [1920-21] I never heard any workers express this idea of greater freedom." [Vision on Fire, p. 62]
As predicted in anarchist theory, and borne out by actual experience, there exists large untapped reserves of energy and initiative in the ordinary person which self-management can call forth. The collectives proved Kropotkin's argument that co-operative work is more productive and that if the economists wish to prove "their thesis in favour of private property against all other forms of possession, should not the economists demonstrate that under the form of communal property land never produces such rich harvests as when the possession is private. But this they could not prove; in fact, it is the contrary that has been observed." [The Conquest of Bread, p. 146]
Therefore, five important lessons from the actual experience of a libertarian socialist economy can be derived:
Firstly, that an anarchist society cannot be created overnight, but is a product of many different influences as well as the objective conditions. In this the anarchist collectives confirmed the ideas of anarchist thinkers like Bakunin and Kropotkin (see section I.2).
The lesson from every revolution is that the mistakes made in the process of liberation by people themselves are always minor compared to the results of creating institutions for people. The Spanish Revolution is a clear example of this, with the "collectivisation decree" causing more harm than good. Luckily, the Spanish anarchists recognised the importance of having the freedom to make mistakes, as can be seen by the many different forms of collectives and federations tried.
The actual process in Spain towards industrial co-ordination and so socialisation was dependent on the wishes of the workers involved -- as would be expected in a true social revolution. As Bakunin argued, the "revolution should not only be made for the people's sake; it should also be made by the people." [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 141] The problems faced by a social revolution will be solved in the interests of the working class only if working class people solve them themselves. For this to happen it requires working class people to manage their own affairs directly -- and this implies anarchism, not centralisation or state control/ownership. The experience of the collectives in Spain supports this basic idea of anarchism.
Secondly, that self-management allowed a massive increase in innovation and new ideas.
The Spanish Revolution is clear proof of the anarchist case against hierarchy and validates Isaac Puente words that in "a free collective each benefits from accumulated knowledge and specialised experiences of all, and vice versa. There is a reciprocal relationship wherein information is in continuous circulation." [cited in The Anarchist Collectives, p. 32]
Thirdly, the importance of decentralisation of management.
The woodworkers' union experience indicates that when an industry becomes centralised, the administration of industry becomes constantly merged in fewer hands which leads to ordinary workers being marginalised. This can happen even in democratically run industries and soon result in apathy developing within it. This was predicted by Kropotkin and other anarchist theorists (and by many F.A.I. members in Spain at the time). While undoubtedly better than capitalist hierarchy, such democratically run industries are only close approximations to anarchist ideas of self-management. Importantly, however, the collectivisation experiments also indicate that co-operation need not imply centralisation (as can be seen from the Badelona collectives).
Fourthly, the importance of building links of solidarity between workplaces as soon as possible.
While the importance of starting production after the fascist uprising made attempts at co-ordination seem of secondary importance to the collectives, the competition that initially occurred between workplaces helped the state to undermine self-management. Because there was no People's Bank or other communistic body to co-ordinate credit and production, state control of credit and the gold reserves made it easier for the Republican state (through its monopoly of credit) to undermine the revolution and control the collectives and (effectively) nationalise them in time (Durruti and a few others planned to seize the gold reserves but were advised not to by De Santillan).
This attack on the revolution started when the Catalan State issued a decree legalising (and so controlling) the collectives in October 1936 (the famous "Collectivisation Decree"). The counter-revolution also withheld funds for collectivised industries, even war industries, until they agreed to come under state control. The industrial organisation created by this decree was a compromise between anarchist ideas and those of other parties (particularly the communists) and in the words of Gaston Leval, "the decree had the baneful effect of preventing the workers' syndicates from extending their gains. It set back the revolution in industry." [The Anarchist Collectives, p. 54]
And lastly, that an economic revolution can only succeed if the existing state is destroyed. As Kropotkin argued, "a new form of economic organisation will necessarily require a new form of political structure" -- capitalism needs the state, socialism needs anarchy. [Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 181] Without the new political structure, the new economic organisation cannot develop to its full potential.
Due to the failure to consolidate the revolution politically, it was lost economically. The decree "legalising collectivisation" "distorted everything right from the start" [Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, p. 227] and helped undermine the revolution by ensuring that the mutualism of the collectives did not develop freely into libertarian communism ("The collectives lost the economic freedom they had won at the beginning" due to the decree, as one participant put it. [Ronald Fraser, Blood of Spain, p. 230]).
As Fraser notes, it "was doubtful that the C.N.T. had seriously envisaged collectivisation of industry. . .before this time." [Op. Cit., p. 212] C.N.T. policy was opposed to the collectivisation decree. As an eyewitness pointed out, the C.N.T.'s "policy was thus not the same as that pursued by the decree." [Op. Cit., p. 213] Indeed, leading anarchists like Abad de Santillan opposed it and urged people to ignore it:
"I was an enemy of the decree because I considered it premature . . . when I became councillor, I had no intention of taking into account or carrying out the decree: I intended to allow our great people to carry on the task as they best saw fit, according to their own inspiration." [Op. Cit., p. 212]
However, with the revolution lost politically, the C.N.T. was soon forced to compromise and support the decree (the C.N.T. did propose more libertarian forms of co-ordination between workplaces but these were undermined by the state). A lack of effective mutual aid organisations allowed the state to gain power over the collectives and so undermine and destroy self-management. Working class control over the economy (important as it is) does not automatically destroy the state. In other words, the economic aspects of the revolution cannot be considered in isolation from its political ones.
However, these points do not diminish the successes of the Spanish revolution. As Gaston Leval argued, "in spite of these shortcomings [caused lack of complete socialisation] . . . the important fact is that the factories went on working, the workshops and works produced without the owners, capitalists, shareholders and without high management executives." [Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, p. 228]
Beyond doubt, these months of economic liberty in Spain show not only that libertarian socialism works and that working class people can manage and run society ourselves but that it can improve the quality of life and increase freedom. Given the time and breathing space, the experiment would undoubtedly have ironed out its problems. Even in the very difficult environment of a civil war (and with resistance of almost all other parties and unions) the workers and peasants of Spain showed that a better society is possible. They gave a concrete example of what was previously just a vision, a world which was more humane, more free, more equitable and more civilised than that run by capitalists, managers, politicians and bureaucrats.
Anarchist FAQ Index
Table of Contents
Section A - What is anarchism?
Section B - Why do anarchists oppose the current system?
Section C - What are the myths of capitalist economics?
Section D - How do statism and capitalism affect society?
Section E - What do anarchists think causes ecological problems?
Section F - Is "anarcho"-capitalism a type of anarchism?
Section G - Is individualist anarchism capitalistic?
Section H - Why do anarchists oppose state socialism?
Section I - What would an anarchist society look like?
Section J - What do anarchists do?
Appendix - Anarchism and "Anarcho"-capitalism
Appendix - The Symbols of Anarchy
Appendix - Anarchism and Marxism
Appendix - The Russian Revolution