Some Conclusions on the Spanish Collectives

GASTON LEVAL spent many years in Spain and was the author of
Nuestro Programa de Reconstruction (Barcelona 1937), Social Recon-
struction in Spain (Freedom Press 1938), LTndispensable Revolution
(Paris 1948) and Ne Franco me Stalin (Milan 1952). His article is taken
from the concluding chapter of the last of these books, the most thorough
study yet made of the Spanish collectives.

I want to call attention to a curious fact: the failure of the top, the
directors, the guiding heads. I am referring not only to the socialist
and communist politicians, but also to the better-known anarchist mili-
tants, the 'leaders'. Spanish anarchism had a number of them. The
ablest, Orobon Fernandez, died shortly before the revolution. A real
sociologist, he had a broad and profound grasp of politics and economics.
Others were highly-cultured persons, fine agitators, some of them notable
orators, good journalists and writers; Federica Montseny was one of
the most intelligent women in the intellectual life of the country.

But from the start these militants were absorbed in the official duties
they accepted despite their traditional repugnance to government The
idea of anti-fascist unity had led them to this position : It was necessary
to keep quiet about principles, to make temporary concessions. Hin-
dered thereby from continuing to act as guides, they remained apart
from the great work of reconstruction from which the proletariat will
learn such precious lessons for the future. Without doubt they could
still have given useful advice, they could have offered general principles
for action and co-ordination. They did not. Why? It was because
they were primariliy demolishers. The struggle against State and
capitalism had led them to subordinate all their culture and prestige
to a political orientation. None of the best-known militants—apart
from Noja Ruiz, and latterly Santillan— was competent to meet the
economic problems of revolution. A constructive mentality, that can
grasp the essentials of a chaotic situation and harmonize them in a
comprehensive vision, is not improvised overnight.

Even some of the intellectuals who stayed out of official positions
took no part in the work of transforming the society. How then was
success possible? The reason was nothing else than the positive intelli-
gence of the people. This was our secret strength.

For decades, anarchist papers and reviews and pamphlets had been
forming in militants a habit of acting individually, of taking initiative.
They were not taught to wait for directives from above. They had
always thought and acted for themselves — sometimes well, sometimes
badly. Reading the paper, the review, the pamphlet, the book, each
developed and enlarged his own personality. They were never given
a dogma or a safe, uniform line of action. In the study of concrete
problems, in the critique of economic and political ideas, clear ideas of
revolution had gradually matured.

For some time, the problems of social reconstruction had been on
the order of the day. Some of the better-known militants were rather
scornful of the studies published by Puente, Besnard, Santillan, Orobon
Fernandez, Noja Ruiz, Leval. But many of the more serious, and
perhaps basically more intelligent, workers read them avidly. A great
number of the 60,000 readers of the libertarian review Studi followed
with interest the detailed articles on the problems a revolution faces,
in food supply, fuel, or agriculture. Many syndicalist groupings did
likewise. And when at the Saragossa Congress in May 1936, a
renowned militant, who always displayed an olympian indifference
toward such questions — later, he was just as good minister as bad
organiser — presented an exposition of libertarian communism which
revealed the lack of substance in his thought, the workers and peasants
assembled from all the provinces showed their disapproval; for they
knew quite well that social life must be thought of and organized in
a more methodical way. All this study, together with the need for
men of will and action in the social struggle, gave birth to the qualities
that made possible the marvellous achievements of the agrarian collec-
tives and the industrial organization.

The capacity of the people. That is, intelligence plus will. This
is the secret. In this, not even the humblest labourers were lacking. I
knew many syndicalist committee members who understood the prob-
lems of revolution and economic organisation very clearly. They spoke
intelligently about raw materials, imports, the need to improve or
eliminate this or that branch of industry, the armed defence, and other
matters. The prompt reaction against the Control Committees which
threatened, in the big cities, to become a new parasitic bureaucracy;
the rapid decision to resist the attacks of the 18th and 19th of July;
the rise of untrained military leaders (Durruti, Ortiz, Mera, Ascaso and
others) to command over professional military men, are all facts that
support my conclusions.

When I made my first visit to the Aragon front, my attention was
attracted by the countenances of many of the young men in the trenches.
There was clarity, serenity, firmness in their eyes; they had the faces
of thoughtful men. I rode back to Barcelona with a comrade — the
region's councillor for economics — who was going to Valencia to make
a last desperate effort, through the central government, to save his
companion, held by the fascists in Saragossa. He was a simple man,
in externals and in character. But a remarkable man. Although tor-
mented by the fate of his companion, he explained to me about the
new lands that had to be cultivated, about coal and iron and manganese
mines that could be opened, about canals that ought to be dug, about
trade with Catalonia, about the relations between collectivist and indivi-
dualist peasants.

t We spoke of electrification. He expounded to me a plan for a
single network to unify the hydraulic resources and distribute the power
equally among the socialised regions, and avoid the concentration of
industry and the excessive, often unfair, specialisation of agriculture
His deep knowledge of the Spanish economy surprised me. He was a
glass-maker, only 32 years old. Many ministers of economics and agri-
culture of the republic and the monarchy knew less than he about these

One day the secretary of the Peasants' Federation of Levante said
to me:

"I want your advice, Gaston. We've been thinking of starting a
"A bank of your own?" I asked.

"Yes. You see, we need money to keep things moving between
our collectivized villages, and for trade with other towns. With the
export of oranges stopped, it's hard to get. Instead of helping, the
government cuts the ground from under us. We've just about decided
to have a bank of our own. The problem is whether we ought to
start one with our own resources, or take over one that already exists

"How would you take it over?"

"By operations to make it lose money and accept our intervention."
I didn't have time to look into the plan closely. Some months later,

I saw this peasant again— this peasant with the common-man look and

the beret. He'd got his bank.

I was working on economic problems so they consulted me about
everything. But how often nothing remained to be done, so well had
they already planned it !

The revolution developed in extremely complicated circumstances.
Attacks from within and without had to be fought off. It took fantastic
efforts to put the anarchist principles into practice. But in many places
it was done. The organisers found out how to get around everything.
I repeat : it was possible because we had the intelligence of the people
on our side. This is what finds the way, and meets the thousand needs
of life and the revolution. It organised the militia and defeated fascism
in the first phase of the war. It went to work instantly, to make
armoured cars and rifles and guns. The initiative came from the people,
above all from those influenced by the anarchists. For example the
Aragon collectives : among their organisers I found only two lawyers,
in Alconna. They were not, strictly speaking, intellectuals. But if
what they did, together with the peasant and worker comrades, was
well done, it was no better than what could be seen in Esplus, Binefar,
Calanda and other collectives. What was a surprise was to find that a
great many of these peasants were illiterate. But they had faith, practi-
cal common sense, the spirit of sacrifice,, the will to create a new world.

I don't want to make a demagogic apology for ignorance. Those
men had a mentality, a heart, a spirit, of a kind that education cannot
give and official education often smothers. Spiritual culture is not
always bookish, and still less academic. It can arise from the very
conditions of living, and when it does, it is more dynamic. By adapting
themselves to what was being done, by co-ordinating the work, by
suggesting general directions, by warning a certain region of industry
against particular errors, by complementing one activity with another
and harmonising the whole, by stimulating here and correcting there —
in these ways great minds can undoubtedly be of immense service. In
Spain they were lacking. It was not by the work of our intellectuals
—more literary than sociological, more agitators than practical guides
—that the future has been illuminated. And the peasants— libertarian
or not— of Aragon, Levante, Castille, Estramadura, Andalusia, the
workers of Catalonia, understood this and acted alone.

The intellectuals, by their ineptitude in practical work, were inferior
to the peasants who made no political speeches but knew how to
organise the new life. Not even the authors of the syndicalist health
organisation in Catalonia were intellectuals. A Basque doctor with
a will of iron, and a few comrades working in the hospitals, did every-
thing. In other regions, talented professional men aided the movement.
But there, too, the initiative came from below. Alcoy's industries, so
well organised, were all managed by the workers, as were those of
Elda and Castillon. In Carcagente, in Elda, in Granollers, in Binefar,
in Jativa, in land transport, in marine transport, in the collectives of
Castille, or in the semi-socialisation of Ripolls and Puigerda — the mili-
tants at the bottom did everything.

As for the government, they were as inept in organising the economy
as in organising the war.


1. In juridical principles the collectives were something entirely
new. They were not syndicates, nor were they municipalities in any
traditional sense; they did not even very closely resemble the municipali-
ties of the Middle Ages. Of the two, however, they were closer to
the communal than the syndicalist spirit. Often they might just as
well have been called communities, as for example the one in Binefar
was. The collective was an entity; within it, occupational and profes-
sional groups, public services, trade and municipal functions were sub-
ordinate and dependent. In forms of organisation, in internal function-
ing, and in their specialised activities, however, they were autonomous.

2. The agrarian collectives, despite their name, were to all intents
and purposes libertarian communist organisations. They applied the
rule "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his
needs." Where money was abolished, a certain quantity of goods was
assured to each person; where money was retained, each family received
a wage determined by the number of members. Though the technique
varied, the moral principle and the practical results were the same.

3. In the agrarian collectives solidarity was carried to extreme
lengths. 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 Castille 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.

4. A conquest of enormous importance was the right of women
to livelihood, regardless of occupation or function. In about half of
the agrarian collectives, women received the same wages as men; in
the rest women received less, apparently on the principle that they
rarely lived alone.

5. The child's right to livelihood was also ungrudgingly recog-
nised : not as a state charity, but as a right no one dreamed of denying.
The schools were open to children to the age of 14 or 15 — the only
guarantee that parents would not send their children to work sooner,
and that education would really be universal.

6. In all the agrarian collectives of Aragon, Catalonia, Levante,
Castille, Andalusia, and Estramadura, 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.

7. In addition to these methods— and similar meetings of special-
ised groups — the collective as a whole met in a weekly or bi-weekly
or monthly assembly. This too was a spontaneous innovation. The
assembly reviewed the activities of the councillors it named, and dis-
cussed special cases and unforseen problems. All inhabitants— men and
women, producers and non-producers— -took part in the discussion and
decisions. In many cases the 'individualists' (non-collective members)
had equal rights in the assembly.

8. 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.

9. Production and trade were brought into increasing harmony
and distribution became more and more unified; first district unification.
then regional unification, and finally the creation of a national federation.
The district (comarca) was the basis of trade. In exceptional cases an
isolated commune managed its own, on authority of the district federa-
tion which kept an eye on the commune and could intervene if its trading
practices were harmful to the general economy. In Aragon the Federa-
tion of Collectives, founded in January 1937, began to co-ordinate trade
among the communes of the region, and to create a system of mutual
aid. The tendency to unity became more distinct with the adoption
of a single "producer's card" and a single "consumer's card" — which
implied suppression of all money, local and national — by a decision of
the February 1937 Congress. Co-ordination of trade with other regions,
and abroad, improved steadily. When disparities in exchange, or
exceptionally high prices, created surpluses, they were used by the
Regional Federation to help the poorer collectives. Solidarity thus
extended beyond the district.

10. Industrial concentration — the elimination of small workshops
and uneconomical factories — was a characteristic feature of collectivi-
sation both in the rural communes and in the cities. Labour was
rationalised on the basis of social need — in Alcoy's industries and in
those of Hospitalet, in Barcelona's municipal transport and in the Aragon


11. The first step toward socialisation was frequently the dividing
up of large estates (as in the Segorbe and Granollers districts and a
number of Aragon villages). In certain other cases the first step was
to force the municipalities to grant immediate reforms (municipalisation
of land-rent and of medicine in Elda, Benicarlo, Castillone, Alcaniz,

Caspe, etc.).

12. Education advanced at an unprecedented pace. Most of the

partly or wholly socialised collectives and municipalities built at least
one school. By 1938, for example, every collective in the Levant©

Federation had its own school.

13. The number of collectives increased steadily. The movement
originated and progressed swiftly in Aragon, conquered part of Catalonia,
then moved on to Levante and later Castille. According to reliable
testimony the accomplishments in Castille may indeed have surpassed
Levante and Aragon. Estramadura and the part of Andalusia not
conquered immediately by the fascists — especially the province of Jaen
— also had their collectives. The character of the collectives varied of
course with local conditions.

14. We lack exact figures on the total number of collectives in
Spain. Based on the incomplete statistics of the Congress in Aragon
in February 1937, and on data gathered during my stay in this region,
there were at least 400. In Levante in 1938 there were 500. To these
must be added those of the other regions. The development and growth
of the movement can be gauged from these figures : by February 1937
the District of Angues had 36 (figures given at the Congress). By June
of the same year it had 57. In my investigation I found only two
collectives which had failed : Boltona and Ainsa, in Northern Aragon.
15. Sometimes the collective was supplemented by other forms of
socialisation. After I left Carcagente, trade was socialised. In Alcoy
consumers co-operatives arose to round out the syndicalist organisation
of production. There were other instances of the same kind.

16. The collectives were not created single-handed by the liber-
tarian movement. Although their juridical principles were strictly
anarchist, a great many collectives were created spontaneously by people
remote from our movement ("libertarians" without being aware of it).
Most of the Castille and Estramadura collectives were organised by
Catholic and Socialist peasants; in some cases of course they may have
been inspired by the propaganda of isolated anarchist militants. Although
their organisation opposed the movement officially, many members of
the UGT entered or organised collectives, as did republicans who
sincerely wanted to achieve liberty and justice.

17. Small land-owners were respected. Their inclusion in the
consumer's card system and in the collective trading, the resolutions
taken in respect to them, all attest to this. There were just two restric-
tions: they could not have more land than they could cultivate, and
they could not carry on private trade. Membership of the collective
was voluntary: the "individualists" joined only if and when they were
persuaded of the advantages of working in common.

1 8. The chief obstacles to the collectives were :

(a) The existence of conservative strata, and parties and organ-
isations representing them. Republicans of all factions,
Socialist of left and right (Largo Caballero and Prieto),
Stalinist Communists, and often the POUMists. (Before
their expulsion from the Catalan government— the
Generalidad— the POUMISTS were not a truly revolution-
ary party. They became so when driven into opposition.
Even in June 1937, a manifesto distributed by the Aragon
section of the POUM attacked the collectives). The UGT
was the principal instrument of the various politicians.

(b) The opposition of certain small landowners (Catalan and
Pyrenean peasants).

(c) The fear, even among some members of collectives, that
the government would destroy the organisations once the
war was over. Many who were not really reactionary, and
many small landowners who would otherwise have joined
the collectives, held back on this account.

(d) The open attack on the collectives : by which is not meant
the obviously destructive acts of the Franco troops wherever
they advanced. In Castile the attack on the Collectives
was conducted, arms in hand, by Communist troops. In
the Valencia region, there were battles in which even
armoured cars took part. In the Huesca province the
Karl Marx brigade persecuted the collectives. The Macia-
Companys brigade did the same in Teruel province. (But
both always fled from combat with the fascists. The Karl
Marx brigade always remained inactive, while our troops
fought for Huesca and other important points; the Marxist
troops reserved themselves for the rearguard. The second
gave up Vivel del Rio and other coal regions of Utrillos
without a fight. These soldiers, who ran in panic before
a small attack that other forces easily contained, were
intrepid warriors against the unarmed peasants) of the

19. In the work of creation, transformation and socialisation, the
peasant demonstrated a social conscience much superior to that of the
city worker.

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Jun 4 2016 12:36


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