"The Spanish Revolution". Among today’s anarchists and radical activists, those three words alone have the power to conjure visions of triumph and heroism. Maybe you picture a group of enthusiastic CNT militia members crammed onto the back of a truck repainted black and red, fists raised in solidarity with their well-wishers who line the streets of Barcelona; some think of George Orwell, shot through the neck while fighting the fascists on the Aragon front; others think of Ernest Hemingway, pissed drunk at a cafe in Madrid, slurring through some rant about hunting or booze; or maybe you emotionally sing the strains of the anarchist battle hymn ‘Las Barricadas’. (Embarrassingly, my version always ends up sounding like the ‘Imperial March’ from Star Wars.)
We all know the story (roughly, anyway): Franco, Morocco, July 19th, CNT militias, the POUM (pronounced "poom"), Stalin, the UGT, the PSUC (aptly pronounced "pee-suck"), Durruti, the International Brigades, and the Falangists (usually pronounced "fascists"). Yet this list covers only the military and political aspects of the struggle. Behind the lines, in Republican-held zones, blossomed the social revolution: agrarian collectives and syndicalised industry. This, too, is fairly well-known amongst anarchists, as is the fate of these admirable accomplishments. (Here, phrases like "Communist treachery" and "Stalinist counter-revolutionaries" are useful.)
But what were these collectives and self-managed factories actually like? How was work organised and carried out? How was consumption organised? More to the point: What can the experiences of the Spanish comrades teach us about goals, vision, tactics and strategies? That is, before we adopt pages from the anarchist play book, we would do well to critically examine the contexts and outcomes of those plays.
No doubt many readers are familiar with the question of anarchist participation in the Republican government. Another well-worn argument concerns military tactics and strategy, as well as wider concerns about hierarchical discipline and militarization of the militias. These will be set aside to pursue the narrower issue of the economic accomplishments of the Revolution.
And we shall see, not surprisingly, that these revolutionaries deserve credit and unbridled respect for the incredible advancements they made in libertarian economic organisation. However, we shall also see that some of their actions and institutions need to be rejected — and in fact they have been rejected by many anti-authoritarian activists who have come since. Indeed, entire movements (like the women’s movement) have emerged to address injustices of a type to which the Spanish Revolution was not immune. The purpose of the present essay is to help illuminate those troublesome features of the Spanish accomplishments. In so doing, I rely on a set of insights and analyses which will be familiar to anyone acquainted with participatory economics (Parecon)*, which I think can be fairly described as a modern anarchist economic vision. To expropriate a line from the bard: I have come to praise anarchism, not to bury it. Thus, we shall begin with a short description of the revolutionary economy, followed by a discussion of various lessons which can be drawn from the Spanish experience.
The Workers’ Committees which arose locally throughout Spain, and which took up arms to defeat the right-wing revolt, soon found themselves the only organised social actors in large parts of Republican Spain. Wealthy landowners having fled or been killed, the Committees held general assemblies in villages in order to redistribute land. At these meetings the anarchists generally advocated for collectivisation and many of their neighbours responded with enthusiasm. Those families who did not want to join the collectives, called individualists, were each allotted family-sized plots which they then worked without hired help. (Collectivists generally respected these dissidents and hoped that the positive example of the collective would win them over; often that was indeed the case.) Meanwhile, collectivists pooled their personal possessions — such as money, work animals and tools — and set to work on the liberated land in crews of five to ten workers. Work assignments were decided by a council of elected delegates and work days were the same duration for everyone (usually eight or nine hours).
Initially, these newly-formed collectives abolished money and in its place consumption was reorganised according to the long-held vision of anarchist communism. This can be described as "to each according to their need", or perhaps more accurately "take what you feel you need". In any case, the demands of the Civil War soon revealed this approach to be irresponsible. Consequently, in an effort to provide more supplies for the militias (and also to stop instances of cheating) a rationing system was typically introduced. This centered around a uniform daily wage denominated in pesetas (which was not redeemable for the official peseta of Republican Spain). Adjustments were made according to a worker’s family size. For example, an unmarried collectivist might get 10 pesetas a day; a married couple 17 pesetas, plus 4 pesetas per child. Additional measures were taken to ensure that those villagers who were unable to work received credits also. All of these guaranteed wages were earmarked in advance for several types of consumer product. Thus, every week families received a week’s worth of grocery credits, a week’s worth of clothing credits, a week’s worth of credits for wine, etc. Credits could be saved from week to week if necessary to purchase a valuable item, though they were not transferable to other types of goods or to other people. In this way, individual differences in consumption desires were accommodated, though this was decidedly limited in scope as there were scarcely twenty different items to be bought in most places, owing to a long-standing lack of economic development.
Many villages had some level of light industry — olive presses, flour mills, bakeries, sandal factories, construction, and so on. These operations were frequently integrated with the collective, and all the workers therein receiving equal consumption rights. With the village economy integrated in this way, both production and consumption were socialised. Elected (and recallable) councils dealt with finding outlets for the village’s surplus goods as well as purchasing things the collective required but which were not produced locally. In addition, these councils took care of rationalising existing workplaces while also establishing new industries if needed. Amazingly, all this was done while organising supplies to be sent to the militias at the front.
So, we have seen that the anarchist collectives eventually rejected the model of anarchist communism, expressed in the slogan "From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs". Each worker took on an equal share of the work to be done, and there were, in effect, punishments if one did not perform one’s duties. These ranged from social disapproval to expulsion. And, as we have also seen, consumption was more or less equally allotted. While this system was austere (and the pressing needs of the war certainly justified that), it wasn’t unfair. Fairness was ensured through the Workers’ Councils, where collective members could voice their differing needs and preferences or explain unique circumstances which might justify adjustments to work load or consumption.
Meanwhile, in the more industrialised areas of Republican Spain, like Barcelona, revolutionaries faced a different set of circumstances. Capitalist owners of industry were expropriated and Workers’ Councils established self-management in many anarchist-influenced workplaces. However, it was immediately clear that use of the official Spanish currency could not be abolished, as it was essential to the highly commerce-oriented role of industry. The official currency was still in use in large parts of Republican Spain, where the revolution hadn’t taken hold (the Basque region, for example). These areas, as well as foreign countries, constituted the market for industrial production
Despite this obstacle which hampered the advancement of the economic revolution, tremendous strides were made in the advancement of workers’ control of industry. Elected and recallable Workers’ Councils took over the functioning of vast swaths of industry. The full value of their labour accrued to the workers along with decisions over investment, marketing and planning. And, initial steps were taken toward integrating the rural collectives with urban industries. This step was necessitated by the Republican government’s deliberate withholding of raw materials and currency — an attack which focused on those factories which did not produce badly-needed weapons. Thus, in response, the desperate industrial Workers’ Councils intensified their efforts to barter their products for those of the rural agricultural collectives, thus sidestepping the market.
While the spirit of spontaneity was strong in the Spanish anarchist movement, there was an underlying commitment to preparation and planning which long preceded the Revolution’s successes. The years before the Revolution saw a virtual cottage industry of anarchist vision, whose stand-out text was Diego Abad de Santillan’s After the Revolution. Gaston Leval comments: "The new form of organisation had already been clearly thought out by our comrades when they were engaged in underground propaganda during the Republic" (145).** And, if planning and pre-figuring was normal, anarchists were not shy about modifying and changing their goals as circumstances required. Leval, again: "If the pragmatic methods to which they had to have recourse may appear to be insufficient, and sometimes unsound … the development tending to eliminate these contradictions was taking place rapidly … and progress was being rapidly made towards unifying and decisive improvements." (198). Developments and innovations were unfolding well into the period of collectivisation and anarchists didn’t hold back in sharing their insights and solutions: "In July 1937, 1000 members of the Levante Collectives had been sent to Castile to help and to advise their less experienced comrades. As a result…. great strides were made in a minimum of time." (183). All this points to the self-critical, pragmatic aspect of the movement, as well as the importance placed on insights derived from anarchist vision: "The need to control and to foresee events was understood from the first day" (193).
Virtually all contemporary observers were struck by the ability of the anarchists to harness and propel the tremendous outpouring of solidarity and sacrifice exhibited by the workers. Throughout revolutionary Spain, common people made great efforts with their bodies and minds, motivated by nothing more than a desire to see the revolution carried through. Certainly some of this solidarity stems precisely from the threat of a totalitarian state should the war be lost. However, it is clear that the accomplishments of the revolution spurred efforts of such great enthusiasm that propaganda was often thought to be redundant.
In considering the divvying of work it is obvious that rural collectivists made efforts to balance the onerousness of jobs, thus not overtaxing people’s enthusiasm. That is, solidarity was not over-exploited so as to make the most enthusiastic people work the most distained jobs. Instead, efforts were made to share the more difficult tasks. In Mas de las Matas, peasant labour crews were organized into work crews which aimed to balance time on easily worked land with time spent working in more difficult conditions (138). Meanwhile, in syndicalised industry, there was further concern for countering capitalist tendencies toward de-skilling workers; thus Leval reports on plans among Barcelona’s industrial workers to send workers to technical schools "so that they do not continue to be, as has been the case hitherto, simple mindless cogs in a machine" (262).
Democratic economic planning:
Once collectives had been established and federated with the goal of integrating their economies, the possibilities for large-scale economic planning arose. This was accomplished through workers’ councils and regional committees. Typically, elected (and recallable) administrative commissionaires made decisions on production and consumption. These decisions could be made on a local level if the affected population was localised, or it could be at a higher-level council such as Valencia’s regional council deciding to build a new juice factory to meet demand summed at a regional level (156). The extent and nature of this planning procedure was well illustrated in Castellon de la Plana, a large town of 50,000: "Every 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 approved or turned down by a majority. Modifications were introduced when this majority thought it of use" (303).
Collectives faced pressures on all sides: many of the able-bodied were with the militia, plus these localities were attempting to provision those same fighters. All this created an urgent need to get the most production out of the existing inputs of labour, physical plant and raw materials. Consequently, great strides were made in rationalising and taking advantage of economies of scale. Throughout the reports on the agricultural collectives, redundant workplaces are eliminated. In one locale, four bakeries operated where there had been six before the revolution (94). In Aragon, the labour force was integrated above the local level, so that neighboring collectives would borrow and lend members as needs arose. Leval reveals the extent of this integration: When farming villages were approached by representatives from revolutionary areas outside Aragon, "the reply they got was, ‘Comrade, what we have here does not belong to us; you must get in touch with the secretariat of the regional Federation in Madrid.’ … for it was understood that respecting decisions taken ensured the success of the whole enterprise." (186)
We have thus far seen that the Spanish anarchists had vision. They had dynamic goals, flexible strategy, and sought useful methods of analysis. They also fostered tremendous enthusiasm and solidarity. And they wisely re-organized their workforce and resources for maximum efficiency while instituting some level of democratic economic planning which included production, consumption and even, to some degree, investment planning. But, from the writings available to us, it is clear that certain problems arose alongside the new revolutionary institutions. Some of these were noticed, and remarked upon, by the anarchists themselves. Others did not overly trouble contemporary observers.
Tom Wetzel writes that "Anarchists are clearer about the structures of control — worker and community assemblies, and horizontal federations of these — than about the principles of allocation or economic planning," Indeed, Abad de Santillan’s book mentioned above spells out an array of structures for an anarchist economy — workers’ councils, federations, etc. — but is silent on processes. This may strike modern anarchists as odd, accustomed as we are to efforts toward consensus decision making, gender balance and the like. Yet, observers of the Spanish collectives give scant attention to procedural questions, leaving the impression that issues of process were not a large part of the agenda of council meetings. There is, for instance, no indication that any collective was concerned about the possibility that women may not be properly heard at meetings, though concern was certainly voiced about the need for the collectives’ assemblies to hear the views of (male) individualists who were not members of the collective. (It would, of course, be wrong to take this lack of evidence as proof that there was no concern for women’s participation. However, the lack of recorded discussion itself strongly indicates that such issues were not given the same importance as they typically are given today.)
Gender, kinship and morality:
Modern students of the Revolution are immediately struck with Spanish anarchism’s outdated response to the gender question. While the Revolution certainly ignited feminist struggle (which was completely ignored by Leval and other male observers), certain facts give an indication of how significant the obstacles were for women. For instance, women’s wages in the revolutionary agrarian collectives were typically equal to half or three quarters of the wages of their male comrades — a fact that is reported (repeatedly) without comment by Leval and other observers. Neither is there any mention of kinship institutions coming under scrutiny at collective meetings. In fact, the revolutionary economy of the villages was predicated on traditional families, as consumption was organised along the basic unit of the household. Unmarried women were for the most part expected to remain living with their parents as adults, and the economy reflected this and other traditional expectations. Souchy writes of the village of Beceite: "The gong sounds … to remind the women to prepare the midday meal."
And the sexual revolution that often accompanies massive social upheaval is nowhere evident, particularly in rural areas. Indeed, in the town of Rubi, there was said to be an active effort to prevent sexual liberation among young people (Leval, 299). This doesn’t seem that surprising when one learns that anarchists in many rural areas had been viewed as moral leaders in their communities, since well before the Revolution. In contrast to traditional economic and religious elites who led debased and debauched lives, anarchists had often advocated, and practiced, abstention around such sinful subjects as sex, booze and coffee. Indeed, Leval’s comment about the town of Andorra generalises: "work was the major occupation…there was no place in the rules for the demand for personal freedom or for the autonomy of the individual" (125). I shall leave it to the reader to decide the proper attitude toward sexual liberation (not to mention caffeine), but suffice it to say that anarchists (and others) have long been at work attempting to overcome whatever short-comings the Spanish comrades exhibited on this subject.
The attitude of Spanish anarchists toward markets is perhaps best described as ambiguous. On one level, it seems that Spanish anarchists had a long-standing aversion to markets. Gerald Brenan notes this opposition among pre-Revolutionary anarchists, citing their "condemnation of co-operatives, friendly societies and strike funds ‘as tending to increase egoism in the workers’" (Brenan, 178). Similarly, several months into the Revolution, the workers of Valencia "realized that a partial collectivization would degenerate over time into a kind of bourgeois cooperativism" (Peirats, 125).
Yet, working against this was the fact that anarchists had a serious commitment to both village autonomy and worker/peasant control of the full value of the products of their labour. The result was that collectives sent all of their surplus goods to the cantonal capital where elected councils were responsible for bartering those goods with surplus goods from other collectives. Leval relates: "The profits from the sale of various commodities provided the municipal Council with the resources needed for other communal tasks" (288). Peirats’ observations are germane: "Once the economic necessities of the collective itself were covered, the surplus was sold or bartered on the external market, directly or by way of confederal organizations" (Peirats, 141). "Barter was not rigorously regulated. In some places items were valued in terms of July 19th prices: in others, according to current prices in the free market. Among the Aragonese collectives there was not much control over what was exchanged" (Peirats, 143).
While it is evident that various councils did engage in planning, it is clear that once products had left the locality, they were exchanged with an eye toward maximising returns. While it is true that profits thus derived were often sent to the front or shared with less profitable collectives, this was not enough to overcome several negative effects of markets. And these negative effects were by no means unrecognised by the collectivists. Souchy reports on a dispute involving two collectives in Aragon, where one collective refused to pay the pre-Revolutionary rate for the electricity supplied by a neighboring collective. The electricity-producing collective insisted on the old rate, which entailed payment for workers’ wages, plus profit on top of that. Unable to resolve the issue otherwise, the matter was taken to court.
Spanish anarchists thus sought, but did not achieve, the elimination of the market. This failure occurred partly because total collectivisation was not possible, but also partly because the anarchists lacked the theoretical tools to readily identify all the aspects of markets which undermine efforts at self-management, equality and solidarity. Thus the challenge for anarchists forming economic vision is to conceptualise the economy so as to highlight what needs to be created or abolished. Of course, Parecon is one answer to this challenge.
Red Bureacracy / Co-ordinator problems:
Attitudes toward gender issues aside, it is the Spanish revolutionaries’ response to bureaucratic tendencies which is most surprising. Compared to today’s anarchists, the Spanish anarchists had a considerable blind spot in regard to hierarchies arising from concentration of work skills, the role of experts, and the like. A few examples should illustrate:
Item: In Rubi: "The member with the highest professional experience was nominated as the technical councillor, with the task of supervising and guiding all the work on the various sites. And accountancy was put in the hands of the specialist deemed the most able" (297).
Item: In Alicante’s syndicalised construction industry, "it was from among the employers that the site managers were selected". These former employers "had a greater sense of duty than that of the average worker, accustomed to being given orders and not to taking responsibilities". Perhaps it’s not surprising that in this syndicate "it was not possible to put into operation at one stroke the absolute equality of wages" (307-308).
Item: In the industrial center of Alcoy: "A comrade whose ability for this kind of work was recognized was put at the head of the sales section. He supervised work in his section…" "The personnel of the whole industry was divided into specialties: manual workers, designers and technicians" (234-235).
Item: In Granollers: "The economic section of the commune set up a ‘technical bureau’ consisting of three experts, and which in agreement with the syndical Economic Council, steered the work of the industrial undertakings." This was the same town where technicians "considered themselves a class apart", according to Leval (287).
Item: Two comrades (one CNT, one UGT) "were in charge of the general secretariat" in Graus and were "also entrusted with propaganda" (97).
While there are some indications that for certain economic roles it was felt unwise for just one person to fill them (that of an "eminent doctor" for example ), the anarchists’ response was typically to rotate the role in question. Otherwise, filling it with a reliable anarchist was evidently the back-up plan. (Thus, Souchy writes: "the Chief of Police was the well-known anarchist Eroles".) Yet another solution (this one out of the Parecon playbook) would be to work to eliminate all undesirable roles by redrawing their constituent tasks and spreading those tasks into balanced job complexes.
This blind spot concerning bureaucracy has its echoes down to the present and is well illustrated by Sam Dolgoff in his memoirs. Dolgoff, the late anarchist militant and veteran of the International Brigades, approvingly cites Spanish militia leader Buenaventura Durruti’s own investigations into the alleged formation of a bureaucracy within the CNT’s administrative offices. Durruti’s findings are reported by his biographer:
"…the national headquarters of the CNT were not centralized. All the people working in the national headquarters and in the organization were employed, not by the National Committee, but were elected by and accountable to the plant assemblies. They were paid not by the National Committee, but by enterprises in which they were employed…."
"Both Augustin Souchy, who administered the Foreign Information Bureau of the CNT, and one of his coworkers, Abe Bluestein, of New York, told [m]e that everyone working in the National Headquarters from responsible officials to porters and maintenance workers were paid the same equal wages. Durruti and others who investigated were convinced that there was no bureaucracy in the CNT anywhere" (see Dolgoff).
At risk of belabouring a point, it is doubtful that many of today’s anarchists would view such traditional work roles ("responsible officials" and "porters") as evidence of victory over bureaucratic tendencies. That this attitude existed among the Spanish comrades is perhaps understandable given that the Russian Revolution, which offers a litany of lessons about bureaucracy, was at the time very poorly understood in Spain, to say nothing of elsewhere. (However, Dolgoff, it should be noted, was writing in the 1980’s.)
In closing, it bears repeating that the Spanish Revolution, as the high water mark of libertarian organisation, provides a host of lessons for today’s anti-authoritarians. And, as we have seen, sifting through the Spanish experience for useful insights is in fact part of a long-standing anarchist tradition. So too is the promotion of anarchist vision. I hope this essay can help stimulate both of those tendencies.
* Readers unfamiliar with the Parecon model can find out more at: http://www.zmag.org/parecon/indexnew.htm
** [A note on sources: Primary documents (i.e. first-hand accounts) concerning the structure and dynamics of the Spanish collectives and syndicates are frustratingly small in number, though much of what there is has been translated into English. In all practicality, the works of Gaston Leval, Augustin Souchy and Jose Peirats represent all that is available for examining the Revolution’s economic aspects in any detail. Leval’s work is by far the best of the lot, and I make extensive use of it above. However, even Leval’s work is beset with minor problems including a lack of detail on matters of procedure as well as in the quality of the English translation.]
(Unless otherwise noted, all page numbers refer to Leval.)
-Gerald Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth. Cambridge University Press, 1976 (first published 1943).
-Sam Dolgoff, Fragments: A memoir. 1986. (See excerpt online at:http://flag.blackened.net/liberty/dolgoff-controv.html)
-Gaston Leval, Collectives in the Spanish Revolution. Freedom Press.
-Jose Peirats, Anarchists in Spanish Revolution. Freedom Press.
-Augustin Souchy, With the Peasants of Aragon. (available online at: www.anarchosyndicalism.net)
-Tom Wetzel, "About Anarchism". ZNet, Aug. 29, 2003. Online at:
Dave Markland lives in Vancouver and is a member of the Vancouver Participatory Economics Collective. (http://vanparecon.resist.ca)