With the approaching centenary of the start of the Spanish Civil War, our East Anglia Regional Branch showed the film “Living Utopia, The Anarchists and the Spanish Revolution”. The ensuing discussion ranged from the nature of the "Spanish Revolution", anarchism, socialism, where the classical "mass working class" is today (China) and how to achieve socialism and the film became a topic on our own website discussion forum. This is a summary of the points made by forum members.
“The involvement of the anarchists in the Generalitat was, if anything, detrimental, what can be the place of the political revolution (the 'Parliamentary Road')?”
“In what way was it detrimental? I would have thought it made sense to have some control over the official machinery of government if only in order to prevent it being used against events on the ground -- as in fact happened after they were excluded and the so-called "Communists" took over control of it.
The lesson must be that it is vital to gain control of political power at some stage of the socialist revolution. Incidentally, I don't like the term "the parliamentary road". I know we have used it, but we shouldn't really as it gives the mistaken impression that we think socialism can be legislated into being by an Act of Parliament (or even a series of Acts, as most in fact of those who use the term envisage). Whereas in fact we only want to use parliament as a stepping stone to gaining control of political power to use it to uproot capitalism.”
Involvement in the Generalitat (Catalonian regional government) was detrimental to whom or what? I'm in agreement with Bookchin on this. The anarcho-syndicalists controlled the economy of Catalonia but they allowed the "socialists" to remain in control of a significant portion of the state machinery. This would come back to haunt them later, and would seem to confirm what we say about the necessity of gaining state power.
Bookchin's criticism is that the anarchists allowed political power to flow away from them and unwittingly gave it to their opponents. In which case, to return to the original question, it was the non-participation, not the participation, of the CNT in the regional government of Catalonia that would have been "detrimental". Bookchin makes a valid point but seems to be suggesting that the CNT did not enter the regional government of Catalonia but surely they did, even if only as the junior partner (as, for a while, did the POUM). Did they or didn't they?
According to Paul Preston (pg 235 onwards of 'The Spanish Civil War') there was some ambiguity with regards to the question of the relationship of state power and the power of the workers organisations.
President Companys, on 20th July 36, when met with a delegation of the CNT, offered to step down and to give total control to the CNT. Unsure of how to deal with the situation the CNT delegation allowed him to stay on. The CNT was then offered a place on the Anti-Fascist Militia Committee, which was in effect a sub-committee of the regional government. In September 36 this committee was dissolved as the CNT directly took a minority position in the regional government.
1. If it wasn't for the swift action that was lead by the CNT the military rising would have succeeded much more rapidly than it did, and it is doubtful that the repression would have been less.
2. Communism is a society where the "law of value" has been superseded.
3. Rationing and occasionally free access did exist within the collectives but the collectives exchanged commodities with other collectives according to the law of value. I.e goods are valued according to the amount of socially necessary labour time to reproduce them. There were "rich" collectives with more resources and "poor" ones. Therefore the problem of capitalism, that human labour gets allocated according to the needs of capital accumulation and not directly to solve human need, still persisted.
4. Strictly speaking, the revolution in the countryside was neither "libertarian" or "communist". Some peasants went along with it because it agreed with their communal values, others because they were afraid that if they did not they would be shot as fascists.
5. A significant amount of the population did think they were building the new society, and this gave them the necessary enthusiasm to continue the war effort. This enthusiasm was crushed after the "May Days"
6. I think the problem tracks back to the problem of "revolutionary unionism". See the last chapter of Vernon Richards "Lessons..." or I could elaborate if you need me to.
Could it have lead to socialism? In the conditions of the time, most notably the workers movement had already been defeated in the rest of Europe, the answer is absolutely not. But for the average prole the choice would have been to risk slaughter at the hands of the fascists, if you surrendered or not, or to rot away in a concentration camp in France. It's far to easy to pass smug judgment from the distance of history. Even now the "Spanish Revolution" does contain elements that inspire revolutionaries of today and the future.
Is workers controlled capitalism the route to socialism? I would say that something like that could possibly occur as the amount of conscious socialists increases, but in itself I don't think it necessarily would lead to socialism or that the route to socialism has to take this path.
This contemporary article (from 1937), by someone who had an intimate knowledge of Spain and what was happening there, explains why the Spanish revolution was not going to succeed and what would have happened had the CNT succeeded in implementing its plan for trade union control of the Spanish economy:
“The Spanish Revolution - and a revolution is taking place - is limited by the following conditions:
1. The unsocialist outlook of the population of Spain.
2. The unsocialist outlook of the population of the rest of Europe.
3. The low level of the economic development of Spain, working for the eventual defeat of revolutionary action that is limited to Spain.
“Functioning for any length of time in the midst of the world market, the industrial enterprise taken over by the Catalonian trade union and coordinated into a national system through the "Federation of Industry," must undergo the same influences that act on any producers' cooperative. They must "pay." They must be profitable in the capitalist sense, the only sense possible or go under. Effected on a national scale, complemented by the State or Federation monopoly of the country's foreign trade and by this single control of the economic-financial activity of the nation, such "socialization" might work again, in the capitalist sense.
For as a result of this monopoly, the national "cooperative" would assure itself of a constant market at home and thus subtract itself, on the domestic field, from the laws of competition. But the national "cooperative" will not be able to escape the laws of competition in the international arena. There it will have to stand up against all comers all other sellers and buyers in order to dispose of its goods at a profit and to pay for credit. .... In order to be able to do that, the National Federation of Industry its central control will have to adopt toward its workers the erstwhile free cooperators the same attitude that any capitalist entrepreneur takes to his employees. The national cooperative soon the national capitalist will have to squeeze out of the producers working in the total national enterprise enough surplus-value to realize at least an average rate of profit on the world market. It will have to do that or drop out of the world market and collapse into backward self-sufficiency. “
Sad but true. That was the tragedy of the Spanish Revolution. It was never going to succeed. From the beginning foreign intervention (or non-intervention) shaped the outcome of the conflict. If Germany had not supplied an airlift to Franco's forces in Morocco (the first major airlift of its kind) they would have remained stuck there, as the Navy remained loyal to the Republic and the planes the rebels had were not sufficient for the job.
But without the initial actions of the syndicalists the republic would have initially lost a whole lot more of ground and very likely not been able to hold out for as long as it did. The "Revolution" was forced by the actions of the military, and would not have happened when it did had the rising of the military not taken place. The workers were right to resist, as the fascist repression was no less severe in areas which did not offer up a fight.
Their success was to show the world what was possible, if only for a short while and in an incomplete form. This success still lives on today.
Vernon Richards wrote:
“To be consistent, the anarcho-syndicalist must, we believe, hold the view that the reason why the workers are not revolutionary is that their trade unions are reformist and reactionary; and that their structure prevents control from below and openly encourages the emergence of a bureacracy which openly takes over all initiative in its own hands, etc. This seems to us a mistaken view. It assumes that the worker, by definition, must be revolutionary instead of recognising that he is as much the product (and the victim) of the society he lives in as we all are more or less. And trade unions, just like other self-contained concentrations of human beings, such as prisons armies, and hospitals, are small scale copies of existing society with its qualities as well as its faults.
In other words, the trade unions are what they are because the workers are what they are, and not vice versa. And for this reason, those anarchists who are less interested in the revolutionary workers' organisation, consider the problem of the organisation as secondary to that of the individual; that there is today no shortage of people able to absorb themselves in the day to day negotiations between worker and employer, but there are only too few to point out the futility of such action as an end in itself. And we have no fears that when sufficient workers have become revolutionaries they will, if they think it necessary, build their own organisations. This is quite different from creating the revolutionary organisation first and then looking for the revolutionaries (in the reformist trade unions in which most workers are to be found) afterwards.”
The workers had no alternative but to resist the fascist action to overthrow political democracy. In fact the only practicable outcome of some benefit to the working class there would have been the consolidation of political democracy, which would have allowed them to organise to fight the class struggle on the economic front and for socialist and other ideas to be propagated and discussed. But this was not to be either, due to the intervention of outside dictatorial powers. Germany and Italy on the fascist side, and Russia on the Republican side though this presented a problem since Russia wasn't really in favour of political democracy.
A statement that appeared in the May 1937 Socialist Standard (Robert Baltrop in The Monument mistakenly says it appear in March) gave general support to defending political democracy but left it up to workers on the ground in Spain to decide how best to try to defend it. Barltrop said it caused a controversy, from two different directions: those who said it did not go far enough in its support for those (literally) fighting for democracy and those who said it went too far. The same sort of issue came up 60 or so years later over the movements for political democracy in Eastern Europe though not complicated by the question of armed resistance.