Socialismo: The Marxist Victories in Spain

In the 1930s, labor leaders and workers in Spain formed communes where a general assembly elected members of a governing committee. Most of these members performed the same tasks as everyone else, but met at the end of the day to discuss, organize, and plan. Both the committee and regular workers could call for a general assembly meeting. Within the communes there was an emphasis on educating oneself by studying the arts and sciences while off-duty. Workers were paid only for working; there were no handouts. There were thousands of communes and hundreds of thousands of members.[1]

1931 saw the end of Spain’s monarchy, and in 1936 the Popular Front ousted conservatives from power. The common people celebrated by freeing prisoners, refusing to pay rent to landlords, and seizing land from owners and working it for themselves. When General Francisco Franco attempted to seize power in a coup, Madrid, Barcelona, and most other major cities erupted into violence as the people stole weapons from armories and attacked Franco’s forces. It was a storm of such fury that in many places, like Aragon, Castile, the Levant, Catalonia, and Andalusia, the authorities found that

…they simply not longer existed. The State, the police, the army, the administration, all seemed to have lost their raison d’être. The Civil Guard had been driven off or liquidated and the victorious workers were maintaining order… committees distributed foodstuffs from barricades transformed into canteens, and then opened communal restaurants. Local administration was organized by neighborhood committees, and war committees saw to the departure of the workers’ militia to the front.[2]  

George Orwell joined the anarchists. He wrote of Barcelona:

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 the red and black flag of the Anarchists… Every shop and cafe had been collectivized… Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal.[3]

Rudolf Rocker wrote, “Everyone who visited Barcelona…was surprised at the freedom of public life and the absence of any arrangements for suppressing the free expression of opinion.”[4]

Orwell wrote of Aragon:

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 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. Of course such a state of affairs could not last. It was simply a temporary and local phase in an enormous game that is being played over the surface of the earth. But it lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it. However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy ‘proving’ that Socialism means no more than planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the ‘mystique’ of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all.[5]

Membrilla was “perhaps the poorest village of Spain, but…the most just.” It had an elected council that established committees to oversee village life. Food, clothing, and tools were passed out equally, and money was abolished.[6]

Despite many challenges, like government restriction of credit, the socialist communities performed well economically; they even had social projects for the elderly, children, and disabled.[7] Unfortunately, the Spanish anarchists were bitterly divided over whether to take part in national politics, and those that did were forced into an alliance with political parties (and even Stalin in Russia) to survive against Franco.[8] In the end, Franco was victorious, crushed the popular movement and the communes, and reigned as dictator for 36 years. The anarchist committees and collectivized workplaces were dismantled “with the same energy as in the U.S.S.R.”[9] Picasso, who once said, “I am a Communist and my painting is Communist painting,”[10] depicted the ruin Franco brought to Spain in his drawing The Dream and Lie of Franco.

Picasso wrote in Why I Joined the Communist Party (1944), “I have become a Communist because our party strives more than any other to know and to build a better world, to make men clearer thinkers, more free and more happy.”

Socialism in Spain and the early Soviet Union did not fail because it is in the nature of socialism to fail. It was crushed by external forces. People desire to own their workplaces communally and run them democratically, and can do so successfully indefinitely, but this is unlikely to succeed long-term unless the workers also own the government. A State controlled by the few, by political parties, the upper class, capitalists, authoritarian socialists, or fascists, will pose a severe threat to anticapitalist enterprises.

Marx saw cooperatives as a

…victory of the political economy of labor over the political economy of property. We speak of the co-operative movement, especially the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold “hands.” The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labor need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the laboring man himself; and that, like slave labor, like serf labor, hired labor is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labor plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart.

But he knew that capitalist political power would stand in the way.

To save the industrious masses, co-operative labor ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means. Yet the lords of the land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defense and perpetuation of their economic monopolies. So far from promoting, they will continue to lay every possible impediment in the way of the emancipation of labor…. To conquer political power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes.[11]

Today, socialism has reemerged in Spain.

Take the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, one of Spain’s most profitable companies. Mondragon has 85,000 workers in a network of over one hundred cooperatives. No, it is not a perfect democratic workplace. It owns traditional companies in low-wage countries, where workers are not owners nor voters. Only 40% of its workers are worker-owners, democracy is nevertheless stronger than in capitalist firms.[12] Yet the ratio between the highest salary and the lowest is 6.5 to 1. In rough economic times, worker-owners decide democratically how much their pay should be reduced or how many fewer hours they should work.[13] Capitalist dictators are not around to fire people en masse. Further, Mondragon has the ability to transfer workers or wealth from successful cooperatives to ones that are struggling. Mondragon was founded in the 1950s, but not one of its companies went out of business or bankrupt until the board of directors voted to allow one to do so in 2013.

Spain also boasts a “little communist village,” Marinaleda, population 2,700. Since the late 1970s, Marinaleda, located in one of Spain’s poorest regions, transformed itself. It had over 60% unemployment, and many went without food for days. Largely thanks to the efforts of longtime mayor Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo—who as mayor organized occupations of military-owned land, the takeover of a palace, hunger strikes, a march across Spain to urge other mayors not to pay city debts, and the raiding of supermarkets for food like rice and beans to help the starving—Marinaleda is often called a utopia. Unemployment doesn’t exist, as anyone can work for the farming cooperative, which divides up profits to all workers, but reinvests surpluses to expand employment. Residents work six and a half hours a day for double Spain’s minimum wage. Crops like wheat are avoided: “wheat could be harvested with a machine, overseen by a few laborers; in Marinaleda, crops like artichokes and tomatoes were chosen precisely because they needed lots of labour. Why, the logic runs, should “efficiency” be the most important value in society, to the detriment of human life?”[14] The town has a handful of privately-owned enterprises that exist alongside the cooperative. While there is no unemployment here, the region as a whole—Andalusia—has mass unemployment, 36% in 2013 (55% for those 24 and younger). Other towns, like Somonte, have taken note and are copying Marinaleda’s farming cooperative.[15] After Spain’s housing crash, residents of Marinaleda could get a new home built for free, only paying about $19 a month afterwards for the rest of their lives—the home cannot be sold.[16]

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[1] Guerin, 122, 134

[2] Guerin, 127

[3] Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

[4] Chomsky, Anarchism, 55

[5] Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

[6] Chomsky, Anarchism, 100

[7] Chomsky, Anarchism, 64-65

[8] Guerin, 128-129

[9] Chomsky, Anarchism, 54


[11] See Guerin

[12] See Wright, 240-246.

[13] Imagine, 78.