Spain 1936: The Myth of the Anarchist Collectives

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The Spanish collectives of 1936 have been presented by the anarchists as the perfect model for revolution. According to them they allowed worker self—management of the economy, meant the abolition of bureaucracy, increased the efficiency of work and — wonder of wonders — they were “the work of the workers themselves ... led and oriented at all times by libertarians” (in the words of Gaston Leval, a bitter defender of anarchism and the CNT).

But not only the anarchists offer us the ‘paradise’ of collectives. Heribert Barrera — in 1936 a Catalan Republican, now a deputy in the Cortes - praises them as “an example of the mixed economy respectful of both liberty and human initiative” (!!!) while the Trotskyists of the POUM teach us that “the work of the collectives gave a deeper character to the Spanish revolution than to the Russian revolution”. In addition, G. Munis and the comrades of the FOR invent illusions about the “revolution­ary” and “profound” character of the collectives.

For our part, we find ourselves obliged, once again, to be spoilsports; the 1936 collectives were not a means for the prol­etarian revolution, but an instrument of the bourgeois counter-revolution; they were not the “organization of the new society”, but the last resort of the old which defend­ed itself with all its savagery.

In saying this, we are not trying to demor­alize our class. On the contrary; the best way to demoralize them is to make them struggle using false models of revolution. The very condition for the victory of their revolutionary aspirations is to free them completely from all false models, from all false paradises

What were the collectives?

In 1936, Spain, completely overtaken by the economic crisis which since 1929 had shaken world capitalism, went through particularly serious convulsions.

Every national capital suffered three types of social upheavals;

  • that coming from the fundamental contra­diction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat;
  • that stemming from the intense conflicts between distinct fractions of the same bourgeoisie;
  • that which produced the confrontation between imperialist blocs which each country had as the background to their share of political influence and markets.

In the Spain of 1936 those three convulsions came together with a bestial intensity, bringing Spanish capital to an extreme situation.

In the first place, the Spanish proletariat - still not defeated, unlike what had happened to their European brothers — posed an energetic struggle against exploitation, marked by extraordinary escalation in general strikes, revolts and insurrections which caused great alarm among the dominant class.

In the second place, the internal conflicts among the latter were growing daily. A backward economy, torn by formidable disequi­librium and as a result consumed with grea­ter intensity by the world crisis, is the best soil for the outbreak of conflicts bet­ween the bourgeoisie of the right (landowners, financiers, the military, church, all under Franco) and the bourgeoisie of the left (industrialists, urban middle classes, trade unions etc, directed by the Republic and the Popular Front).

Finally, the instability of Spanish capita­lism, made it easy prey for the imperialist appetites of the moment, which, stimulated by the crisis, needed new markets and new strategic positions on the road to domination. Germany and Italy found their pawn in Franco and hid behind the masks of ‘tradition’ and the ‘crusade against communism’ while Russia and the western powers — then brothers — found their bastion in the Republic and the Popular Front protected behind the screens of ‘anti— fascism’ and the ‘fight for the revolution’.

It is in this context that Franco’s revolt broke out on the famous 18 July 1936, which signified for the working class the culmina­tion of the super—exploitation and repression initiated by the Republic since 1931. The response of the working class was immediate and tremendous: the general strike; insurrec­tion; the arming of the masses and the expropriation and occupation of enterprises.

From the very first moment, all the bourgeoi­sie’s forces of the left, from the Republican parties to the CNT, tried to trap the workers into the snare of the ‘anti-fascist struggle’ and within that snare, to convert the expro­priation of enterprises into an end in it­self, in order to make the workers return to work with the illusion that the enterprises were theirs, that they were ‘collectivized’.

But the insurrectionary days of July demon­strated to society that the workers’ struggle was not just against Franco, but at the same against the Republican state; the wor­kers went on strike, expropriated factories, armed themselves as an autonomous class to initiate an offensive against the whole capitalist state both Francoist and Republi­can. In order, therefore, to successfully pursue the insurrectional strike, the wor­kers could not simply expropriate the enter­prises and form militias and leave it at that but they had to simultaneously destroy the Francoist army as well as all the Repub­lican political forces (Azana, Companys, CP, CNT etc). Secondly, the class had to totally destroy the capitalist state raising over its ruins the power of the workers’ councils.

However, the key to the proletarian collapse and its recruitment into the barbarism of the civil war was in the Republican forces - above all the CNT and the POUM - who were able to stop the workers from taking the decisive step - THE DESTRUCTION OF THE CAPITALIST STATE — and who imprisoned the workers in the ‘collectivization of the economy’ and the ‘anti-fascist struggle’.

Catalanists, Popular Front, the POUM and above all the CNT managed to lock up the workers in the simple expropriation of enterprises, labelling these actions as ‘Revolutionary Collectives’. By remaining within the capitalist state, by leaving it intact, these actions not only became use­less to the workers but they became the means for their super—exploitation and control by capital: “As the power of the state remained in­tact, the Generalitat of Catalonia could calmly legalize the workers’ expropria­tions and join the chorus of all the ‘workers’ currents’ who had deceived the workers with the mystifications of expro­priation, workers’ control, land reform, depurations, maintaining however a crimi­nal silence about the terribly effective reality which was not so apparent, the existence of the capitalist state. That is why the workers’ expropriations were integrated within the framework of state capitalism.” (Bilan)

And thus we see that the CNT, which had never called for the spontaneous workers’ strike of 19 July, nor had ever called for the taking up of arms, immediately called for a return to work, and end to the strike, in other words to obstruct the workers’ assault on the capitalist state with the excuse that the factories were ‘’collectivized’. Gaston Leval in his book Libertarian Collec­tives in Spain reasons for us thus: “At the beginning of the fascist attack, the struggle and the state of alert mobi­lized the population for five or six days, at the end of which the CNT gave the order for the resumption of work. To prolong the strike would have been against the interests of those same workers who took responsibility for the situation.

Those beautiful ‘libertarian’ collectives which were a “revolution more profound than the Russian Revolution” - as the POUM always said — justified the return to work, the end of revolutionary will, the subjection of the workers to war production. In the conditions then of convulsion and extreme breakdown of the capitalist edifice, the radical facade of the collectives was the last resort to make the workers work and to save the exploitative order, as Osorio Gallardo (a royalist and rightist politician) has frankly recognized: “Let’s make an impartial judgement. The collectives were a necessity. Capitalism had lost all its moral authority and the owners could not give orders nor did the workers want to obey. In such a distres­sing situation either industry would lie abandoned or the Generalitat would seize it, establishing a soviet form of communism.

At the service of the capitalist economy

When we are told that the collectives were a model of ‘communism’ of ‘workers’ power’, that they were ‘a revolution more profound than the Russian’ we have to laugh; the quantity of information, facts and testimo­nials which speak to the contrary is over-whelming. Let’s see:

1. A large number of collectivisations were made with the agreement of their own bosses. Referring to the collectivization of the chocolate industry of Torrente (in Valencia) Gaston Leval, in the book cited above, tells us: “Motivated by the wish to modernize pro­duction (?) as much as to overcome the exploitation of man by man (sic), the CNT called an assembly on the first day of September 1936. The management were invited to participate in the collective as well as the workers. And they all agreed to come together to organise production, and life, on completely new bases.

The ‘completely new bases’ of life held up the pillars of the capitalist regime, as for example if we look at the Barcelona tramways collective: “Not only did (the collective) accept payment to the creditors of the company of debts which had been contracted, but also they dealt with the shareholders who were summoned to a general assembly.” (Leval, ibid)

Was this the profound revolution, which res­pected outstanding debts and the interests of shareholders? A strange way to organize production and life on completely new bases!

2. The collectives played into the hands of the unions and bourgeois politicians in the reconstruction of the capitalist economy:

  • they served to concentrate firms: “We have taken charge of very small companies with an insignificant number of workers, without a trace of union acti­vity, whose inactivity threatened the economy.” (Newsheet of the Wood Industry Union, CNT, Barcelona 1936)
  • they rationalized the economy: “As a first step we have established industry’s financial stability by organi­zing a General Council for the Economy, where each branch has two delegates. Excess resources will serve to help the industries in deficit so that they receive primary materials and other elements of production.” (CNT, Barcelona 1936)
  • they centralized surplus value and credit in order to channel them according to the necessities of the war economy: “In every collectivized company, 50 per cent of profits will be earmarked for the conservation of their own resources and the other 50 per cent will pass to the control of the regional or local Economic Council to which they correspond.” (State­ment of the CNT on Collectives, Dec. 1936)

As can be seen, not one cent of the profits to the workers. But that’s all right! Gaston Leval justifies it with the greatest cynicism: “We can rightly ask why the profits are not divided among the workers, to whose efforts they are owed. We reply: because they are reserved for the aims of social solidarity.” ‘Social solidarity’ with exploitation, with the war economy, with the most terrible misery!

3. Collectives held themselves back from foreign capital in Spain; according to the POUM, “in order not to worry friendly coun­tries”. We translate that as: to subordinate themselves to the imperial powers which supported the Republican side. Marvellous and profound revolution!

4. The organs which gave birth to and direc­ted the collectives (trade unions, political parties, committees) were fully integrated into the capitalist state: “The factory committees and the control committees of the expropriated factories are transforming themselves into organs for the activation of production, and because of that, their class significance becomes blurred. We are not dealing here with organs created in the course of an insurrectional strike in order to destroy the state, but organs oriented towards the organization of war, an essential condition to allow the survival and rein­forcement of the said state.” (Bilan)

As for parties and unions, not only were the forces of the Popular Front integrated into the state, but the more ‘workerist’ and ‘radical’ organizations were too; the CNT participated in the Economic Council of Catalonia with four delegates, in the govern­ment of the Generalitat with three ministries and in the central government at Madrid with another three. But not only did they participate to the full at the top of the state, but also at the base itself, town by town, factory by factory, neighbourhood by neigh­bourhood. Republican Spain saw hundreds of mayors, councillors, administrators, police chiefs, military officials, who were ‘liber­tarians’...

But these forces were not only an integral part of the state through their direct par­ticipation in it. It was the entire body of politics which they defended that made them flesh and blood of the capitalist order. That philosophy which secured the action of the collectives at all times was ANTI—FASCIST UNITY, which justified the sacrifice of wor­kers at the war front and super—exploitation in the rearguard. Gaston Leval explains to us clearly this policy which, among others, the CNT supported: “We have to defend those liberties — so relative but so worthy as they were — represented by the Republic.

Gaston Leval ‘forgets’ the ‘worthy’, workers’ ‘liberty’ which was represented by the Republican repression against workers’ strikes (remember Casas Viejas, Alto Llobregat, Asturias etc). “It was not a question of making a social revolution, nor of implanting libertarian communism, nor of making an offensive against capitalism, the state or political parties; it was an attempt to stop the triumph of fascism.” (Gaston Leval)

But then why the devil do the CNT, anarchists and co. criticize the Spanish CP? Because they defend the same programme! Their pro­gramme is in fact the same: it is the defence of capitalism behind the humbug of anti—fascism!

5. The ‘revolutionary, ‘anti-capitalist’, ‘libertarian’ etc. nature of the collectives was conveniently endorsed by the capitalist state, who recognized them through the Collectivizations Decree (24 October 1936) and co-ordinated them by the constitution of the Economic Council. And guess who signed both decrees? It was Senor Tarradellas, today the brand new president of the Generalitat of Catalonia!

It is unavoidable to conclude that the collectives didn’t mean even the minimal attack on bourgeois order, but that they were a form which the latter adopted in order to reorganize the economy and to main­tain exploitation at a moment of extreme social tension and enormous radicalization which did not allow them to use the traditio­nal methods: “Faced with a class conflagration capita­lism cannot even as much as think of hav­ing recourse to the classic methods of legality. What menaces it is the INDEPENDENCE of the proletarian struggle which is a condition for the next revolu­tionary epoch leading to the abolition of bourgeois domination. As a consequence capitalism must reknit the web of its control over the exploited. The threads of this web, which before were the magis­tracy, the police, the prisons, are changed in the extreme situation of Barce­lona, into Militia Committees, socialized industries, workers unions, vigilante patrols, etc.” (Bilan)

The implantation of the war economy

Having once seen the collectives’ nature as capitalist instruments we begin to see the role which they play, which was to implant within the workers a draconian war economy that would facilitate the enormous expense and drain on resources which the imperialist war, unleashed in Spain between 1936—9, involved.

Briefly, the war economy meant three things:

  • militarization of labour
  • rationing
  • channelling all production towards one exclusive, totalitarian and monolithic end: WAR

The cover provided by the collectives allowed the bourgeoisie to impose upon the workers a military work discipline, the extension of the working day, the creation of free extra hours of work...

A bourgeois journalist sings delightedly of the ‘atmosphere’ prevailing in the Barcelona Ford factory: “We did not hear any discus­sions, nor even controversies. The war came first, and for that they were working and worked incessantly ... optimistic and satis­fied, it did not matter to them that their Committee — made up of worker comrades like themselves - might establish rigid targets and determine more hours of work. What was important was to vanquish fascism.

The collectives’ statutes clearly defined the implantation of the militarization of labour: “Article 24: all are obliged to work without time limit according to what is needed for the good of the collective; Article 25: every collectivist is obliged, apart from the work he normally may be assigned, to help where his help is needed in all urgent or unexpected work.” (Jativa Collective, Valencia)

In the collectives’ ‘assemblies’ more and more the methods of the barracks were imposed ‘democratica1ly’. It was agreed to organize a workshop to which the women would go to work instead of wasting their time gossiping in the streets... “It has just been decided that in each workshop there would be a woman delegate who is to take charge of controlling the girl apprentices, who, if they fall short twice without a reason will be expelled without any appeal” (Tamarite Collective, Huesca).

Regarding rationing, a Catalan periodical of the period explains to us shamelessly the ‘democratic’ method of imposing it upon the proletariat: “In all countries citizens are obliged to save everything from precious metals to potato skins. Public authority demands this rigorous regime ... But here in Catalonia the government is quiet because it has no need to ask, it is the people who completely spontaneously carry out voluntar­ily and consciously a rigorous rationing.

The first law of the ‘ultra—revolutionary’ Council of Aragon (Durruti and other satraps) was “For purposes of supplying the collectivists there will be established a rationing system.” These rationings, imposed by “revolutionary means” and “consciously accep­ted by the citizens” meant indescribable misery for the workers and for all the popu­lation. Gaston Leval without shame acknowledges: “In the majority of collectives there was almost always a lack of meat, and frequently even of potatoes” (op_cit).

Finally, the barracks discipline, the ratio­ning which the bourgeoisie imposed using the collectives as a front, had only one end: to sacrifice all economic and human resources to the bloody god of imperialist war:

  • in the Mas de las Matas Collective (Barce­lona) and following a proposal by the CNT we read: “The wine warehouse installations were adapted to make 96% proof alcohol, indispensable for medical use at the Fronts. The purchase of clothes, cars, etc destined for consumption by the collectivists was also limited, but these resources would not be used as luxuries, but for the Front.
  • in the Alicante collectives: “The govern­ment, recognizing the progress made by the collectives in the province gave responsi­bility for armaments production to the unionized factories of Alcoy, for cloth to the socialized textile industry and for shoes to the Elda industry, also in liberta­rian hands, with the aim of arming, clothing and shoeing the troops” (Gaston Leval, ibid).

The collectives as instruments of super-exploitation

The most palpable demonstration of the anti—worker character of the sinister anar­chist ‘collectives’ is that through them the Republican bourgeoisie reduced to unbearable limits the working and human conditions of the workers:

  • Wages — these were reduced between July 1936 and December 1938 by a face value of 30%, while the reduction in their purchasing power was much more: more than 200%;
  • Prices - went from 168.8 in January 1936 (1913 being 100) to some 564 in November 1937 and 687.8 in February 1938.
  • Unemployment — despite the enormous squandering of people at the Fronts which reduced the total amounts of unemployed, the rate went up some 39% between January 1936 and November 1937.
  • The working week - climbed to 48 hours (in 1931 it was around 44, in July 1936 the Generalitat, in order to calm the class struggle decreed a 40—hour week, but after a few weeks it disappeared off the map with the excuse of the war effort and ‘collectivization’). The number of free extra hours increased the working day by another 30%.

It was precisely the so—called ‘workers’ forces’ (CP, UGT, POUM and especially the CNT) who clamoured with more earnestness for the super—exploitation and the impoverish­ment of the workers’ situation.

Peiro, hack of the CNT, wrote in August 1936 “For the needs of the nation a 40—hour week is not enough, in fact it could not be more inopportune.” The CNT slogans were among the more ‘favourable’ to the workers: “War, produce, sell. Nothing of wage demands or of demands of any other type. Everything has to be subordinate to the war. In all production which may have direct or indirect relation to the anti—fascist war it is not possible to demand that the bases of work, salary or working day be respected. Workers cannot ask special remunerations for the extra hours necessary for the anti—fascist war, and must increase production to a level above that of the period before the 19 July.

The PCE screamed: “No to strikes in democra­tic Spain; not one idle worker in the rear—guard.

Naturally, the collectives, as an instrument of ‘workers’ power’ and ‘socialization’ in the hands of the state were the excuse which made the workers swallow this brutal reduc­tion in their living conditions.

Thus in the Graus collective (Huesca): ”girls will not be paid a wage for their work, given that their needs are already covered by the family wage.

In the Hospitalet collective (Barcelona): “Understanding the need for an exceptional effort we will reject the increase of 5 per cent in wages and the reduction of the work­ing day decreed by the government.” More popish than their own government!


Looking back at this sad historical exper­ience which the Spanish proletariat suffered, denouncing the great myth of the collectives with which the bourgeoisie was able to deceive them, it is not a question of intel­lectualism or erudition. It is a vital necessity to avoid falling again into the same trap. To defeat us, and to make us swallow measures of super—exploitation, of unemployment, of sacrifice, the bourgeoisie uses deception: it will disguise itself as ‘worker’ and ‘popular’ (in 1936 the bourgeoi­sie made calluses on their hands and dressed as workers); the factories were proclaimed ‘socialised’ and ‘self-managed’; it calls for every type of interclassist solidarity such as the banner of ‘anti—fascism’, the ‘defence of democracy’, ‘anti—terrorist struggle’... it gives to the workers the false impression of their being ‘free’, of their controlling the economy, etc. But behind so much democracy, ‘participation’, and ‘self—management’, there hides intact, more powerful and strengthened than ever, the apparatus of the bourgeois state around which the capitalist relations of production maintain themselves and worsen in all their savagery.

Today, when the fatal laws of a senile capitalism are leading it towards war, it is the ‘smile’ , the ‘confidence in the citizens’, the ‘most profound democracy’, self—management: this is the great theatre through which capitalism asks for more and more sacrifices, more and more unemployment, more and more misery, more and more blood on the battle fields. From the punished are born the wise. The ‘collectives’ of 1936 were one more of the fraudulent models, one more of the para­dises, one more of the beautiful illusions through which capitalism dragged workers to defeat and slaughter. The lesson of those events must serve the proletarians of today to avoid the traps which capital will hold out to them, and in so’ doing enable them to advance towards their definitive liberation.


(Translated from Accion Proletaria, no.20, 1978)

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