A visit to the collectivized factories in Barcelona carries one back to the early days of the Russian Revolution. There is the same thrill of new things being born, of a society in travail remaking itself before one’s eyes. There is the same enthusiasm of the workers who have now taken the reins of direction of production into their own hands. And yet the Spanish experiment is in some ways unique. It is an attempt of the Spanish people to reconstruct their economy while under immediate fire from Fascism. On the other hand while in Russia it was the Marxian Communists who were at the helm of the revolution, in Catalonia it is the Syndicalists who are the preponderant force in attempting to realize the workers’ dreams of a new social order to replace capitalism.
The generic term collectivization employed in Spain is a misnomer, since it has been used also to describe the operations of a Fascist regime taking over private industry on behalf of the State. A more exact term would be Syndicalization, indicating the taking over and running of the industrial enterprises by the unions or syndicates of workers. So far as the Anarcho-Syndicalists are concerned, syndicalization is as far from Fascist collectivization, on the one side, as it is from Soviet collectivization on the other.
Collectivization in Catalonia started as the answer of the workers to the Fascist revolt of July, 1936. Having disarmed the twelve thousand soldiers of Franco in the barracks of Barcelona, the workers found themselves involved in a war situation throughout Spain, so that the most pressing task was to manufacture all the arms and supplies needed by the front as soon as possible. Many of the industrial enterprises had been closed by the flight of the employers and administrators. In the crisis that followed the rebellion it seemed as though the regular State had been honeycombed with agents of reaction and was completely paralyzed.
At this juncture, the trade unions, which had been severely repressed in the days of reaction under Lerroux, from 1934 to 1936, found themselves with tremendous new forces at their disposal. The unionized workers began to possess themselves of the factories and to operate them. We can say here that only such as step enabled the Spanish Republic to survive and to supply its army with the necessary material for the struggle. in October, 1936, the Government of Catalonia, slowly reviving as a separate institution but now dominated by workers’ organizations, with the non-working class elements in the State trying hard to get back into favor with the people again, legalized the de facto seizure of the shops and factories by its famous Decree of Collectivization.
This decree classified industrial enterprises into two categories: those which were to remain collectivized in which the responsibility for the administration and direction of the plants pertained to the workers represented by an Enterprise Committee: and those which were to remain private concerns, the direction of which was to be left to the owner or administrator operating under workers’ control. All enterprises employed over one hundred workers and those whose owners were Fascists were collectivized, as well as certain other plants of an exceptional character even though having less than one hundred employed therein.
The new enterprises were to take on all the assets and liabilities of the old. The former owners or directors were to kept in place in administrative or technical posts where their collaboration was needed. The direction would be under a Council of the Enterprise elected by a general assembly of the workers and answerable for all their acts both to the workers of the plant and to a General Council of the Industry. In each collectivized enterprise there was to be an inspector named by the government in agreement with the workers there. In the council of the Enterprise the various central trade union bodies, C.N.T. and U.G.T., were to be proportionally represented. This Council was to name a director for the plant.
The General Council of the Industry, presided over by a member of the Economic Council of Catalonia, was to be composed of four representatives of the Councils of the Enterprises, eight representatives of the trade union centers (C.N.T. and U.G.T.) and four technicians. The functions of this General Council were to regulate the total production of the industry in question, to unify sale prices, to study the consumption of the different wares, to increase or diminish the number of factories as necessary, to administer the purchase of raw materials, to create sales centers, to carry on credit operations, and so forth. Above the General Council of the Industry was the Economic Council of Catalonia.
The decree of October 24th, 1936, also provided for those enterprises still in private hands. There committees of control were to be formed by the workers, employees and technicians in each concern. These committees of control had to watch the conditions of work and rigorously to check all income and outgo. They were to work in close contact with the owners so that the processes of production might be perfected and a steady stream of goods insured.
On the questions of whether property taken from former employers was to be compensated for or confiscated outright, or whether the legal title of the property actually belonged to the workers, the decree is not very clear. There is a provision that a careful accounting be made of the business of each enterprise and that under some circumstances certain former owners might be paid back the value of the capital taken from them.
To get the facts as to how Spanish collectivization is actually working out, I spent considerable time interviewing the local officials of the chief trade unions in Barcelona, these were all affiliated to the national Confederation of Labor, the C.N.T. and visiting the important plants of the region. Since the transport union, claiming one hundred thousand members, was one of the most important, I concentrated on an investigation of the enterprises under its jurisdiction, particularly the tramways, the autobusses and the taxicabs. Everywhere the officials were eager to give me all the data in the most helpful manner, to conduct me to the workshops and to allow me to speak to all the men I wished.
My first visit was to the tramway section of the transport industry in Barcelona. Before July, 1936, the wages for workers there averaged 260 pesetas per month, 270 pesetas for the skilled, the workers being divided into sixteen arbitrary categories. Technicians obtained 800 to 1,000 pesetas. (The peseta is now stabilized at 12 to the dollar in Spain, although in France one may get 40). The company itself was in the hands of first-class plunderers. The two chief heads drew 1,000 pesetas a day for each of the three divisions of the company (subway, tramway and autobus) and besides drew 30% of all the money taken in. Nine members of the Board of Directors got 6,000 pesetas a month for attending one meeting. In 1929 the bank of Catalonia bought over the tramway division from its former Belgian owners for 35 million pesetas; in 1936 it was capitalized at 180 million. Now all this capital has been seized, the exploiters have precipitously fled the country and the workers are in control. The new concern still pays municipal taxes. Under private hands the company used to pay only 700,000 pesetas in taxes; the collective has voluntarily raised its quota to 1,500,000.
A similar story can be told, by the way, concerning the subway of Barcelona. Before the workers took it over the annual deficit was 260,000 pesetas. Now, not only has the entire deficit been rubbed out but 600,000 pesetas profit in ten months has been recorded, in spite of the fact that many more workmen are employed, and over two million pesetas have been spent for new cars in the abnormal conditions of war and revolution.
Once the workers took over the tramway business, the union raised the pay of the employees to 400. p. a month for unskilled, 450 p. for skilled and office workers, 500p.-600p. for technicians and 1,200p. for the two engineers. The work-week became one of eight hours daily, six days a week. Six hundred more workers are employed now than before July. Of the 3,600 members in the union, 432 are retired workers drawing pensions of 270 p. a month. Those permanently sick draw 250 p. monthly, those temporarily ill get full pay. About 250-300 members are at the front and their jobs are being saved for them by others who do their work; many of the men refuse their one day off during the week so as to release others for the fight.
All the union members were of the opinion that the men were working as well if not better than when the enterprise was capitalistically controlled. In fact, the union is getting 30% more income out of the business than the private owners did in the old days, although the fares, in some cases, have been reduced and free transportation is given to 80,000 children.
I asked the workers, since they were toiling harder than before, just what did they consider were the benefits of Trade Union collectivization. The material benefits, they informed me, were not very great. They obtained work clothes, one summer and two winter uniforms each, worth 64 p. and 170 p. respectively, as did the office workers. They got two weeks vacation with pay and full salary when sick, but on the whole, since the cost of living had gone so high, their material conditions were not better. But what was decisive to them were the moral questions involved. They were now masters of their own destiny, they proudly declared, they controlled their own means of production, they had a future ahead of them. This was the attainment for which they were ready to give their lives.
The union men in Barcelona gleefully contrasted their syndicate with that of the tramway men in Madrid controlled by the General Labor Union (U.G.T.) of the Socialist-Stalinists. In Barcelona, they said, all the members of the regional and national committees are working men who must be taken from their jobs to become officers of the union. They draw the pay only of the average worker, as do those Syndicalists who are ministers in government. The dues of the members are 1 1/2 pesetas a month.
The Madrid union, on the other hand, the men in Barcelona affirmed, has not called a single meeting from July, 1936, to May (1937). The bureaucracy has been increased and all the old officials of the company have been kept on with the old pay. The National Committee of the U.G.T. has full power and works entirely from above, the executive nominating the men for the chief positions. However, I got the distinct impression that matters were not so much different with the C.N.T. in some respects, since the officials admitted that at the last C.N.T. Congress “elastic powers for emergencies” had been given to the National Executive, powers which that small body had used to call off the last general strike of the workers on May 3rd to May 7th without the consent of the men themselves.
The situation in the autobus division of the transport workers was quite in line with that in the tramways. Before the July upheaval the wages had been 12 1/2 p. a day for the driver, 10 1/2 p. for the conductor, 8 1/2 p. for the apprentice in the plant, and 13 1/2 p. for the technician. Now the pay was 15, 14, 13 1/2 and 15 pesetas respectively, and the men were paid for seven days although they worked only six.
In the plant manufacturing and repairing autobusses which used to employ 800 men but were now 1,400 were working in three shifts, I mingled among the workers to get their reactions directly. There was Juan M., a stocky man of about fourty who was working a a grinding machine near the door. He was glad to answer all questions. What changes had collectivization made? Well, today he worked with more pleasure that hitherto, and produced a little more. He had obtained a 35% increase in wages although it was true that the cost of living had gone up more than 50% recently. The men had asked for a raise but the union had refused to grant it. His friend, Fernando B., estimated that they produced at least 15% more than before and could have done much better if they had had the supplies.
The next person I approached—he was working at a lathe told me he was an Anarchist long in the movement. “The wages are not enough,” was his opinion. “We used to have the boss, now it is the union.” He seemed to think that the syndicates were taking the position that the exploiter used to occupy. Emphatically he underlined the point that many bureaucrats were in the union who did nothing for the workers. Yes, the men worked harder, but the organization of the work was not so good because of the poor leadership. This man’s experience with syndicalization was making him more confirmed than ever in his Anarchists opposition to union organization.
The autobus plant was remarkable in the improvements in production that the workers had made on their own initiative. Many of the auto parts in the past had had to be imported, now they were all made on the premises, including an entirely new diesel engine of ninety horsepower. Considerable new machinery also had been bought and separate electronic motors placed on each machine. Two new busses were being built each week, busses which were the result of collective suggestions of the men.
Similar technological improvements had been made by the workmen in the taxi plant. They had taken over a building of the old fair grounds and had installed modern machinery worth 3 1/2 million pesetas for the making of spare parts alone. The results of their efforts to obtain self-sufficiency were proudly shown me by the men. They insisted that much of the stuff was now being made better and cheaper than the parts which they had previously been forced to import. They handed me a crank case which, they said, used to cost 600 pesetas, when all spare parts had to be imported; now they were making better crank cases costing only 210 pesetas. New motors were being placed in cars in two hours, whereas hitherto the car was wont to be tied up for a week.
Several important inventions had been developed by the workmen. For example, in cleaning cars the plant used to consume 200 litres of gasoline a day; now it used less than 5 litres, thanks to a new cleaning device put into operation. Prior to this apparatus, it used to take a whole day to clean a motor, now one half an hour was enough. Again, through another invention, the time it took to limber up new motors was reduced from two days for each motor to two hours for twelve motors. None of these inventors have been specially rewarded, nor did they expect any rewards. They modestly told me they were glad to donate it for the “cause.”
The story of the taximen is an inspiring one. Before the July days, the men worked on a 25% commission basis. Over 2,650 cabs were put into the streets making very fierce the competition among the drivers, the average income being about 70 p. per week for a twelve hour shift each day or night. The men were fired if they did not bring in a certain income. Now only 700 taxis are put into the field under a system whereby no man is discharged but each works about 24 hours a week for 90 p. soon to be raised to 100 p. The union, to meet the rising cost of living, is also initiating a system of purchasing food for its members and selling it at cost (the economato system).
The taxi union is one of the most militant in Barcelona. Before the July days it had to go underground and its membership fell drastically. Now it has 17,000 members in Catalonia, 4,300 of them in Barcelona. When, during the July revolt, for six or seven weeks no taxis ran in the city in order to paralyze the activities of the Fascist, the trade union decided to pay the men the wages lost, amounting to 6 million pesetas. This money was taken from the treasury of the Generality. In this union widows of workers who have been killed from any cause receive 80 pesetas a week for the rest of their lives!
Collectivization in Catalonia has created certain contradictions which must be solved if the Revolution is not to be wrecked by this experiment. In the first place the Syndicalists do not conceive of this collectivization, in opposition to others in Leftist Spain who tolerate it for the time being, as some transition point necessitated both by the flight of the employers and the duty of spurring war production. Since the program of Syndicalists is hostile to all States, even a Workers’ State, they are opposed to all State ownership and operation of industries, on the one hand, and to the workers possessing the State, on the other. The workers must own and operate the industries directly through their own unions.
But since it is the State that conducts the war against Fascism and must look after a multitude of economic duties connected with that struggle, the Syndicalists are forced to support the State while making no effort to take it over. Thus, as we have seen for example, the tramway union has voluntarily doubled its taxes and turned over 1,500,000 pesetas annually to elements in the government of Barcelona who can use that money for the equipment of the very guards who may be called on to take the factories away from the workers, as they did the Telephone Central on May 3rd.
Since it is the State that alone can carry on the most concentrated struggle against Fascism, the State can then put in its claims for the co-ordination of industry not only for the war but for the interests of society generally. And thus there has arisen a pressing demand for the municipalization and nationalization of industry. This is a demand that the Syndicalists find increasingly difficult to reject since there is no question about the fact that the independent control of the industries by the unions, now divided into two rival centers, has not led to the most efficient co-ordination of forces, nor to any degree of adequate national planning at a time when planning economy is vital to the conduct of the war. This was dolefully illustrated in the textile industry of Catalonia where the factory committees scandalously competed with each other in the open markets, to the great glee of the speculators, and used up the capital at hand without regard to the purchase of raw materials for the continuation of production.
The problem of nationalization versus syndicalization can also be put as a problem of workers versus peasants. Spain is predominantly a peasant country. The factories must consider the needs, the income and the welfare of the peasantry as well as those of the proletariat. It was for this reason that in 1921 Lenin fought the program of the “Workers Opposition” that declared that the unions and not the Soviets in Russia should run the factories. Had the unions operated the factories there would have been great danger of an immediate rupture of the alliance between the workers and peasants cemented in the Soviets which bodies would have then been shorn of much of their power.
Giving power to the Soviets in a peasant country like Russia, the Spanish Syndicalists reply, has actually destroyed the trade union movement and has led to the bureaucratic system responsible for so much of Russia’s ills today. It is, indeed, a moot question whether the program of the “Workers Opposition” would not be more correct in a Western industrial country and it is a further question whether Spain does not fit in rather with such Western countries where the peasants follow the lead of the unions than with a country such as Russia.
Under collectivization as practiced in Spain, each union owns the capital in its particular industry. This means that the barbers union has felt that it was entitled to dispose of the funds in its hands in its own way. Hence some unions were able to pay higher wages and give better benefits than others. Here is resurrected the basis for new rivalries and differences among workmen. Advanced workers find it difficult to justify this disparity in wealth among the syndicates and thus, only last March, the C.N.T. Congress founded local, regional and national economic committees which collect all the excess profits made by each collectivized industry. Henceforth, no union can do what it wants with its property but must first submit all such questions to the general council of the confederation.
In a growing spirit of solidarity, all the syndicates in Barcelona are contributing to a 5 million peseta fund for helping agricultural collectives. The transport union, to cite another example, has the duty of looking after the unemployed dockers thrown out of work by the Fascist-Democratic-Soviet blockade around Spain. These dockers are drawing full pay while unemployed and in return are used by other sections of the transport union whenever needed.
Only now are the unions beginning to talk of a basic minimum family wage, a wage which all workers are to get on the basis of the needs of their family, regardless of what kind of work they do. This, in turn, implies a new theory that the unions must pool all resources and that each union works for all the people and not for itself. But if the union works for the whole nation, it is hard for it to persist in denying that nation a voice in the management of the factories for the welfare of all.
Because it ignores the general community and the State, the union has also ignored the problems of consumption, especially the question of the rising cost of living and the speculation prevalent in the cities. With all the vaunted workers control and collectivization the standard of the proletariat is actually no better, if not considerably worse, than before. Prices of wheat have risen from 26 p., June, 1936, for a sack of 60 kilos, to 108 p. in May; flour has gone from 44 p. per sack of 100 kilos to 126 pesetas. So long as syndicalization makes no effort to control the State, it can not effectively control foreign and domestic prices nor eradicate speculation.
Syndicalization, too, has ignored the problem of unemployment. The unions take care of their own members, but are slow to understand the needs of the youth coming of working age who must find a creative place in society. Now this youth is at the front, but obviously this is no permanent solution.
Viewpoints on the question of syndicalization differ among the leading proletarian bodies. The Anarcho-Syndicalists believe that the unions must own as well as possess the enterprises and that no State is necessary for general control even temporarily. Then there is the position of the Socialists and Stalinists who advocate the municipalization or nationalization of all industries even though the State is not yet a Workers State building Socialism. Connected with this viewpoint is that of the bourgeois Republican parties, the Izquerda and Esquerra and others who believe that collectivization is necessary as a temporary measure to defeat Fascism, but that Spain must return to a modernized form of capitalism and that municipalization or nationalization as a form of State capitalism is proper as a transition point to turning back the factories, wherever possible, to their private owners.
Finally, there is the position of the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (P.O.U.M.) that there should be formed a workers’ and peasants’ government as in Russia which, through revolutionary “Juntas” (Soviets), should take over all the industries under the leadership of the proletariat. As a transition to this step the P.O.U.M. has called for a Trade Union Government, C.N.T.-U.G.T., in Spain and in Catalonia.
Certainly, if the unions took over the state then the difference between syndicalization and nationalization would be greatly reduced. Furthermore, as the unions executed the serious task of conducting the war and running the entire nation they would have to be transformed into political bodies similar to soviets or factory councils. This would eliminate the differences between syndicalization and sovietization. Thus a trade union regime in Spain would be a form of government never tried hitherto and one pregnant with great possibilities.