Karl Korsch 1939

Collectivization in Spain

First Published: in Living Marxism, Vol. IV, No. 6, April 1939, pp. 178-182.
Transcribed: by Adam Burton, for marxists.org 2012;

In a previous issue[1] we have endeavored to refute one of the main fallacies that conceal from the international-working class the particular importance of that new phase of the Spanish revolution which was inaugurated by the events of July 19, 1936. In spite of the rapidly increasing amount of literature on Spain today there is not available up to now any full report of what from our point of view we would call the real contents of the present struggles in revolutionary Spain. Of course, one would not expect such information on the really interesting facts from those progressively-minded people who even today go on to interpret the intensified class struggles, wars, and civil wars of contemporary history as so many expressions of an ideological struggle between a fascist and a democratic ''principle". Yet the actual content of that so-called spiritual struggle is not revealed any better by those apparently objective and realistic historians who dismiss the civil war aspects of the present developments in Spain (not to speak of the less conspicuous conflicts between the various groups of the loyalist popular front) as a very subordinate phase of that battle between various imperialistic groups that according to them constitutes the essence of all present-day political developments on a worldwide scale. As against both the "idealistic" and the "realistic" superficiality of the bourgeois historians, the proletarian reader is referred once more to the illuminating report of the first seven months of so-called collectivization in revolutionary Spain published by the Spanish workers themselves for the express purpose to break the conspiracy of silence and distortion by which of all the aspects of the recent events in Spain just this one truly revolutionary aspect has been almost entirely annihilated.[2]

For the first time since the postwar revolutionary period led to various experiments in socialization in Soviet Russia, Hungary, and Germany the struggle of the Spanish workers against capitalism as described here shows us a new type of transition from capitalist to communal methods of production that has been achieved, though incompletely, in an imposing variety of forms. The significance of this revolutionary experience is not impaired even though all of these advances toward a new, free, communal economy were in the meantime nullified and destroyed. The revolutionary achievements of the workers were frustrated either from without by the advancing counter-revolution, or from the inside by their apparent allies within the antifascist front. The workers were forced into abandoning the fruits of their struggle either by open suppression or, more often, under pretext of the "higher necessity" of disciplined warfare. To a large extent the revolutionary achievements of the first hour were even sacrificed voluntarily by their very initiators in a vain attempt to further thereby the main aim of the common struggle against fascism.

Even so, the endeavors of the Spanish workers on the social and economic front have not been entirely in vain. The violent liquidation of the Paris Commune of 1871 and, an epoch later, of the Hungarian and Bavarian Soviet revolutions, as well as the slower, less obvious self-liquidation of the first revolutionary content of Russian Soviet socialism have not annihilated the significance of any of those great attempts of the past to establish and test a new type of state for the transition to socialism. Similarly the ultimate destruction of the here described collectivization measures by friend and foe in from the historical importance of the present-day Spain detracts nothing new, free type of communal production attempted here for the first time on a larger scale. The study of this movement, its conceptions and methods, its successes and failures, and the consequent recognition of its strength and weakness is therefore of lasting importance to that class conscious and revolutionary section of the international proletariat to whom the book is expressly addressed and to whom it gives a careful account of this effort at self-emancipation begun by the Spanish working class. Moreover, this careful account of the methods and results of collectivization in the industrially most advanced province of Spain, authorized by the leading labor organizations of Catalonia (the syndicalist C. N. T. and the anarchist F. A. I.), is of general theoretical importance as a historical source book of the first rank. The editors endeavor, as far as possible to let "the Spanish revolutionists speak for themselves." Besides a number of short sketches necessary to complete the picture, the collection offered by them contains original documents, decrees of expropriation, reports of the syndicates (unions), resolutions, statutes, etc., and reports, interviews and accounts on the various industries and localities by the functionaries of the revolutionary movement. This character of a pure source book is followed consistently in style and material and thus a work has resulted which is intensely human while meeting the most rigid requirements of scientific objectivity. These simple reports and narratives of the common folk in city and village, never dry or boresome, in their pathos unblurred by pretentious retouching reproduce the voice of the Spanish revolution, the action of the proletariat, as it is and together with the documentary material lend authenticity and veracity to the work. It is almost superfluous for the authors to declare at the end that "in this book will be found neither praise nor slander, neither exaggerations nor protestations." "We have simply allowed the Spanish worker to tell the whole world what he has done to maintain and defend his freedom and welfare."

Of the four parts of the book the first deals with the general character of the "new collective economy" and, in an annexed short review of "Catalonian Economy", explains the commanding position of Barcelona in the Spanish economy as a whole and the ensuing decisive role of the industrial workers of Catalonia in the social struggles of the Spanish working class. In the second part the methods and results of collective labor in the different branches of industry are presented. The third and fourth parts give a description, by geographical districts, cities and villages, of the rise and operation of a more or less completed communal economy.

 In contrast to various other ''socialization decrees" of recent European history the collectivization decree of the Catalonian Economic Council of October 10, 1936, reprinted in full on pages 32-42, is but the legalization of changes in industry and transport that had already been accomplished in fact. "It contains no special directions that transcend the limits already set by the spontaneous movement of the workers." There were no lengthy investigations on the "tasks and limits of collectivizations," no arbitrarily selected body of learned experts, lacking all real authority such as the notorious "Permanent Special Commission" of the French February revolution of 1848, or its faithful copy, the German "Socialization Commission" of 1918-19. The syndicalist and anarchist labor movement of Spain, well prepared for this task by many years of incessant discussion carried into the remotest corners of the country, were better informed and possessed a much more realistic conception of the necessary steps to achieve their economic aims than had been shown, in similar situations, by the so-called "Marxist" labor movement in other parts of Europe. It is true that in this first heroic phase the Spanish movement to a certain extent, neglected the political and juridical safeguarding of the new economic and social conditions it had achieved. Even this initial mistake, which could be only partially remedied later, was difficult to avoid under the conditions. Except for the "Committees of Anti-Fascist Militias" formed by representatives of the libertarian labor movement themselves there was at that early time neither an executive authority nor a parliament.[3] Nor were there any large capitalist proprietors to be expropriated. A considerable portion of the largest enterprises were owned by foreign capital. Its representatives, like the native large capitalists, had been more or less open supporters of the rebelling generals. Both groups fled as soon as the Franco rebellion in Barcelona had failed unless they had anticipated that possibility and, like Juan March and Francois Cambo, had shrewdly abandoned the country they consecrated to civil war. The offensive against capital inaugurated by the Catalonian workers immediately after the heroic suppression of the Franco revolt resembled a war against an invisible enemy. The directors of the great railroads, of the urban transportation companies, of the shipping firms in the harbor of Barcelona, the owners of the textile factories in Tarrasa and Sabadell had disappeared and it was exceptional when during the seizure of the street car system of Barcelona the workers found in the administration buildings of the big monopolistic concerns a lonely, trembling creature whose life and liberty they could spare by a magnanimous impulse.

Thus the Catalonian proletariat established itself at will in the capitalist plants and offices that had been deserted by their erstwhile masters. The collectivized enterprises after seizure by the workers operated in similar fashion as "the stock companies of capitalist economy." The general meetings of the workers proceeded to elect councils in which all activities of the plants are represented—production, administration, technical service, etc. Permanent connection with the rest of industry was maintained by the representatives of the trade union central bodies, who also participated in the sessions of the councils. The business management itself was left to a director selected by the workers of each shop, in the more important enterprises subject to the consent of the general council of the respective industry; there is no reason why he should not be the former owner, manager or director, of the socialized enterprise.

However, this external similarity by no means signifies that collectivization did not essentially change the system of production of the industrial and commercial enterprises. It merely demonstrates the relative ease with which under equally fortunate circumstances as had offered themselves here — deep and far reaching changes in production management and wage payment can be accomplished without great formal and organizational transformations. Once the resistance of the former economic and political rulers was completely eliminated for a time, the armed workers could proceed directly from their military task to the positive one of continuing and transforming production for which they had prepared themselves in what had seemed to many observers to be boundless and "utopian" dreams in the preceding period.

Even for that most intricate problem of socialism, the collectivization of agriculture, these workers had prepared a completely realistic program unmarred by haste, exaggeration or psychological blunders. The resolution on the collectivization of the land which had been passed by the congress of the C. N. T. in Madrid in June, 1931, and which since, through all the vicissitudes of an advancing and retreating revolutionary movement, had been spread and carefully explained throughout the land by anarchist and syndicalist propagandists, gave now practical guidance for action in July and August, 1936 to the agricultural laborers and small tenant farmers left entirely to their own initiative, unhampered by any external authority or tutelage. The concrete forms in which this task was solved by the agricultural producers themselves is illustrated by a resolution of the full meeting of the Catalonian agricultural workers and by the regulations and organization plans subsequently adopted by various districts and communes in the agricultural year 1936-37.

Only the main points of the detailed and exact manner of presenting- the collectivization in the most important single industries — transport, textile, food and others — that take up the second part of the book can be discussed here. These chapters show not only the new social organization of the industries, but mark distinctly the beginnings of the great successes resulting from the economic and social initiative of the libertarian labor movement for the workers themselves and even more so in maintaining and expanding production. We read of the abolition of inhuman working conditions, of wage increases and reduction in hours, of various new forms of equalizing wages between various types of workers, skilled and unskilled, male and female, adults and juveniles, of "salaire unique" and "salaire familial." We see how the question of raising and improving production in every industry assumes increasing importance from week to week. We read of entirely new industries such as the optical industry, called into being by the revolution itself. We hear of the process by which some branches of industries lacking unobtainable foreign raw materials, or not necessary for the immediate needs of the population were now quickly adapted to procuring the more pressing war materials. We are told the pathetic story of those poorest strata of the working class who voluntarily sacrificed their at last improved conditions in order to assist in war production and to aid the war victims and refugees from Franco-occupied territory.

However, these negative virtues of sacrifice and self denial under which the great achievements of the revolutionary Spanish workers in the last two years has too often been submerged by their more or less sympathetic foreign observers, do not claim our main interest in this matter. Our main interest in this first period of Spanish collectivization is in the important role played by the particular type of trade unions most characteristically represented by the workers of Catalonia and Valencia that until recently was attacked and despised by the prosperous trade unions of England and the powerful Marxist organizations of middle and eastern Europe as a Utopian form doomed to failure in any serious situation. These syndicalist formations, anti-party and anti-centralistic, were entirely based on the free action of the working masses. Their whole business, routine as well as emergency activities, had been managed from the outset not by professional officialdom, but by the elite of the workers in the respective industries. That same conscious elite represented by revolutionary acting committees, created by the fighting workers within and without the unions to meet the various problems as they arose, furnished the initiative, endurance, example, and activity for the basic achievements of the new revolutionary period. This historic lesson of Spanish collectivization is of permanent importance for the organizational and tactical developement of the revolutionary movement.

The energy of the anti-State attitude of the revolutionary Spanish proletariat, unhampered by self created organizational or ideological obstacles explains all their surprising successes in the face of overwhelming difficulties. It explains the fact, unprecedented by any previous European experience, that revolutionary collectivization in Spain from the outset and as a matter of course was extended to the State and municipal enterprises as well as to private capitalist concerns. In this connection the account of the collectivization of the State Petroleum Monopoly and of the public services (light, power, and water works) generally is of the greatest interest. Even the otherwise somewhat exuberant description of the rapid "100% collectivization of the barber shops" and of the equally successful "social regulation of street-trade" in Barcelona, eloquently testify to the peculiar creative power of the revolution even in a sphere whose very existence conflicts with it though they add very little to the real solution of such difficult border problems of the proletarian revolution as those dealing with handicraft and commerce. The real contributions of the Spanish revolution to these questions are only indirectly touched in connection with the already mentioned problem of agricultural production and in the discussion (contained in parts 4 and 5) of the various forms in which collectivization has been achieved on a local scale by measures more or less affecting the entire production and mode of existence of the smaller cities and country districts.

The no longer theoretical but purely descriptive character of these last two parts prevents rendition of even a small fraction of its rich contents in this short review. Each of these fourteen small narratives, apparently sketch-like, but touching all essential problems of society, reports the more or less typical yet peculiar features of the new life under the varying local conditions based on the general development of the country. The description starts with the advanced industrial conditions in the textile center, Tarrasa, near the capital, with its 40,000 inhabitants of whom 14,000 were workers, 11,000 of whom were organized in the syndicalist C.N.T., while the rest were in the social-democratic U.G.T. From there through various intermediate stages it moves down to the poorest, most primitive, small and smallest villages of Catalonia, Aragon and LaMancha, located far from all industrial and urban culture, yet deeply affected by the new life. Here the publishers remark: "And we notice continually that great and real revolutionary progress was made in the small, thinly populated cities and villages, a more important progress undoubtedly than in the cities with the greater populations." This praise of simplicity and poverty is in strange contrast to the materialistic ideas of the Marxist movement but has long been characteristic of this other form of labor movement which in the trenches of the Spanish civil war and in the equally heroic endurance of the suffering populations of Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia carried on the struggle of the working class temporarily defeated everywhere in the rest of Europe. The sentiment here described reaches its climax in the concluding sketch about a little country town situated in a thinly populated province of La Manche. There the workers were at all times utterly deprived of modern material and cultural comfort. Nevertheless, they had all been organized in their syndicates since 1920 and had now been among the first to completely adopt the new life of libertarian communism. Referring to this experience, the book ends in the pathetic statement: "Membrilla is perhaps the poorest city in Spain, but it is the justest."


[1] See Living Marxism, Vol. IV, No. 3, May 1938, pp. 76-82. [Economics and Politics in Spain]
[2] See Collectivizations. L'oeuvre constructive de la Revolution Espagnole. Receuil de documents. Editions C. N. T. — F. A.I., 1937, 244 pages.
[3] For a more detailed description see the previously mentioned article, Economics and Politics in Revolutionary Spain in Living Marxism, No. 3, May 1938.