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The Spanish Revolution was a workers' social revolution that began during the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and resulted in the widespread implementation of anarchist and more broadly socialist organizational principles throughout various portions of the country for two to three years, primarily Catalonia, Aragon, Andalusia, and parts of the Levante. Much of Spain's economy was put under worker control; in anarchist strongholds like Catalonia, the figure was as high as 75%, but lower in areas with heavy Communist Party influence, as the Soviet-allied party actively resisted attempts at collectivization enactment. Factories were run through worker committees, agrarian areas became collectivised and run as libertarian communes. Even places like hotels, barber shops, and restaurants were collectivized and managed by their workers. Sam Dolgoff estimated that over 10 million people participated directly or at least indirectly in the Spanish Revolution, which he claimed "came closer to realizing the ideal of the free stateless society on a vast scale than any other revolution in history." Dolgoff quotes the French anarchist historian Gaston Leval (who was an active participant) to summarize the anarchist conception of the social revolution:
In Spain during almost three years, despite a civil war that took a million lives, despite the opposition of the political parties (republicans, left and right Catalan separatists, socialists, Communists, Basque and Valencian regionalists, petty bourgeoisie, etc.), this idea of libertarian communism was put into effect. Very quickly more than 60% of the land was 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 reorganized 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 coordinated 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 reorganization 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.
The collectivization effort was primarily orchestrated by the rank-and-file members of the Confederacin Nacional del Trabajo (CNT; English: National Confederation of Labor) and the Federacin Anarquista Ibrica (FAI; English: Iberian Anarchist Federation), with the two often abbreviated as CNT-FAI due to the affinity between the two organizations and the major role of the latter within the former in maintaining anarchist "purity." The non-anarchist socialist Unin General de Trabajadores (UGT; English: General Union of Workers) also participated in the implementation of collectivization, albeit to a far lesser degree.
The British author George Orwell, best known for his anti-authoritarian works Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, was a soldier in the militia of the CNT-allied Partido Obrero Unificacin Marxista (POUM; English: Workers' Party of Marxist Unification). Orwell meticulously documented his first-hand observations of the civil war, and expressed admiration for the social revolution in his book Homage to Catalonia.
I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life--snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.--had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master.
Continuing, Orwell describes the general feeling of the new society that was built within the shell of the old, offering specific elaborations on the effective destruction of hierarchical arrangements that he'd perceived in anarchist Spain.
This was in late December 1936, less than seven months ago as I write, and yet it is a period that has already receded into enormous distance. Later events have obliterated it much more completely than they have obliterated 1935, or 1905, for that matter. I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags and with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said 'Senor' or 'Don' or even 'šsted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' or 'Thou', and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos das'. Tipping had been forbidden by law since the time of Primo de Rivera; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no 'well-dressed' people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for...so far as one could judge the people were contented and hopeful. There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people, and no beggars except the gypsies. Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine."
Orwell was a democratic socialist and a libertarian sympathizer who expressed solidarity with the anarchist movement and social revolution, later commenting, "I had told everyone for a long time past that I was going to leave the P.O.U.M. As far as my purely personal preferences went I would have liked to join the Anarchists."
The most notable aspect of the social revolution was the establishment of a libertarian socialist economy based on coordination through decentralized and horizontal federations of participatory industrial collectives and agrarian communes. This was accomplished through widespread expropriation and collectivization of privately owned productive resources (and some smaller structures), in adherence to the anarchist belief that private property is authoritarian in nature. Spanish Civil War scholar (and anti-socialist) Burnett Bolloten writes of this process:
The economic changes that followed the military insurrection were no less dramatic than the political. In those provinces where the revolt had failed the workers of the two trade union federations, the Socialist UGT and the Anarchosyndicalist CNT, took into their hands a vast portion of the economy. Landed properties were seized; some were collectivized, others were distributed among the peasants, and notarial archives as well as registers of property were burnt in countless towns and villages. Railways, tramcars and buses, taxicabs and shipping, electric light and power companies, gasworks and waterworks, engineering and automobile assembly plants, mines and cement works, textile mills and paper factories, electrical and chemical concerns, glass bottle factories and perfumeries, food-processing plants and breweries, as well as a host of other enterprises, were confiscated or controlled by workmen's committees, either term possessing for the owners almost equal significance in practice. Motion-picture theatres and legitimate theatres, newspapers and printing shops, department stores and bars, were likewise sequestered or controlled as were the headquarters of business and professional associations and thousands of dwellings owned by the upper class.
The economic policies of the anarchist collectives were primarily operated according to the basic communist principle of "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need". In some places, money was entirely eliminated, to be replaced with vouchers and coupons distributed on the basis of needs rather than individual labor contributions. Bolloten writes of this process also:
In many communities money for internal use was abolished, because, in the opinion of Anarchists, 'money and power are diabolical philtres, which turn a man into a wolf, into a rabid enemy, instead of into a brother.' 'Here in Fraga [a small town in Aragon], you can throw banknotes into the street,' ran an article in a Libertarian paper, 'and no one will take any notice. Rockefeller, if you were to come to Fraga with your entire bank account you would not be able to buy a cup of coffee. Money, your God and your servant, has been abolished here, and the people are happy.' In those Libertarian communities where money was suppressed, wages were paid in coupons, the scale being determined by the size of the family. Locally produced goods, if abundant, such as bread, wine, and olive oil, were distributed freely, while other articles could be obtained by means of coupons at the communal depot. Surplus goods were exchanged with other Anarchist towns and villages, money being used only for transactions with those communities that had not adopted the new system.
Bolloten supplements this analysis through quotation of anarchist journalist Augustin Souchy's remark that "The characteristic of the majority of CNT collectives is the family wage. Wages are paid according to the needs of the members and not according to the labor performed by each worker." This focus on provision for the needs of members rather than individual remuneration effectively rendered these conditions anarcho-communist in nature.
Despite the critics clamoring for "maximum efficiency" rather than revolutionary methods, anarchist collectives often produced more than before the collectivization. In Aragon, for instance, the productivity increased by 20%. The newly liberated zones worked on entirely libertarian principles; decisions were made through councils of ordinary citizens without any sort of bureaucracy (it should be noted that the CNT-FAI leadership was at this time not nearly as radical as the rank and file members responsible for these sweeping changes). In addition to the economic revolution, there was a spirit of cultural revolution. Traditions some viewed as oppressive were done away with. For instance, women were legally permitted to have abortions, and the idea of "free love" became widely prevalent. In many ways, this spirit of cultural liberation prefigured that of the "New Left" movements of the 1960s.
As the war dragged on, the spirit of the revolution's early days flagged. In part, this was due to the policies of the Communist Party of Spain, which took its cues from the foreign ministry of Stalin's Soviet Union, the source of most of the foreign aid received by the Republican side. The Communist policy was that the war was not the time for the revolution, that until victory in the war was won the goal had to be the defeat of the Franco forces, not the abolition of capitalism, which was to be addressed once the war had been won. The other left-wing parties, particularly the anarchists and POUM, disagreed vehemently with this; to them the war and the revolution were one and the same. Militias of parties and groups which had spoken out too vociferously in opposition to the Soviet position on the war soon found further aid to have been cut off. Partially because of this, the situation in most Republican-held areas slowly began to revert largely to its prewar conditions; in many ways the "revolution" was over well before the triumph of the Franco forces in early 1939.
Criticism of the Spanish Revolution has primarily centered around allegations of coercion by anarchist participants (primarily in the rural collectives of Aragon), which critics charge run contrary to libertarian organizational principles. Bolloten claims that CNT-FAI reports overplayed the voluntary nature of collectivization, and ignored the more widespread realities of coercion of outright force as the primary characteristic of anarchist organization.
"Although CNT-FAI publications cited numerous cases of peasant proprietors and tenant farmers who had adhered voluntarily to the collective system, there can be no doubt that an incomparably larger number doggedly opposed it or accepted it only under extreme duress...The fact is...that many small owners and tenant farmers were forced to join the collective farms before they had an opportunity to make up their minds freely."
He also emphasizes the generally coercive nature of the war climate and anarchist military organization and presence in many portions of the countryside as being an element in the establishment of collectivization, even if outright force or blatant coercion was not used to bind participants against their will.
"Even if the peasant proprietor and tenant farmer were not compelled to adhere to the collective system, there were several factors that made life difficult for recalcitrants; for not only were they prevented from employing hired labor and disposing freely as their crops, as has already been seen, but they were often denied all benefits enjoyed by members...Moreover, the tenant farmer, who had believed himself freed from the payment of rent by the execution or flight of the landowner or of his steward, was often compelled to continue such payment to the village committee. All these factors combined to exert a pressure almost as powerful as the butt of the rifle, and eventually forced the small owners and tenant farmers in many villages to relinquish their land and other possessions to the collective farms."
This charge had previously been made by historian Ronald Fraser in his Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War, who commented that direct force was not necessary in the context of an otherwise coercive war climate.
"[V]illagers could find themselves under considerable pressure to collectivize - even if for different reasons. There was no need to dragoon them at pistol point: the coercive climate, in which 'fascists' were being shot, was sufficient. 'Spontaneous' and 'forced' collectives existed, as did willing and unwilling collectivists within them. Forced collectivization ran contrary to libertarian ideals. Anything that was forced could not be libertarian. Obligatory collectivization was justified, in some libertarians' eyes, by a reasoning closer to war communism than to libertarian communism: the need to feed the columns at the front."
Anarchist sympathizers counter that the presence of a "coercive climate" was an unavoidable aspect of the war that the anarchists cannot be fairly blamed for, and that the presence of deliberate coercion or direct force was minimal, as evidenced by a generally peaceful mixture of collectivists and individualist dissenters who had opted not to participate in collective organization. The latter sentiment is expressed by historian Antony Beevor in his Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.
"The justification for this operation (whose –very harsh measures– shocked even some Party members) was that since all the collectives had been established by force, Lister was merely liberating the peasants. There had undoubtedly been pressure, and no doubt force was used on some occasions in the fervor after the rising. But the very fact that every village was a mixture of collectivists and individualists shows that the peasants had not been forced into communal farming at the point of a gun."
Historian Graham Kelsey also maintains that the anarchist collectives were primarily maintained through libertarian principles of voluntary association and organization, and that the decision to join and participate was generally based on a rational and balanced choice made after the destabilization and effective absence of capitalism as a powerful factor in the region.
"Libertarian communism and agrarian collectivization were not economic terms or social principles enforced upon a hostile population by special teams of urban anarchosyndicalists, but a pattern of existence and a means of rural organization adopted from agricultural experience by rural anarchists and adopted by local committees as the single most sensible alternative to the part-feudal, part-capitalist mode of organization that had just collapsed."
There is also focus placed by pro-anarchist analysts on the many decades of organization and shorter period of CNT-FAI agitation that was to serve as a foundation for high membership levels throughout anarchist Spain, which is often referred to as a basis for the popularity of the anarchist collectives, rather than any presence of force or coercion that allegedly compelled unwilling persons to involuntarily participate.
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