Book Review: Collectives in the Spanish Revolution (Gaston Leval)

Submitted by hadrian on Sat, 08/06/2016 - 03:09


Nowadays, anarchism is a movement on the fringes of society. Anarchists are repeatedly ridiculed by people who know nothing about anarchism, its history, or the constructive work that many anarchists are still working on. Even in the heydays of the movement, anarchists had to fight against almost impossible odds. I've written on what was, without a doubt, the most impressive and influential time in the history of the anarchist movement before. Already during the Spanish Civil War, many anarchists have tried to describe the constructive work the Spanish anarchists engaged in. Gaston Leval travelled to many towns and cities in Spain to collect data and get a first-hand account. He published several books on the topic. His book Espagne Libertaire (1936-1939) was published in France in 1971. Vernon Richards, the Italian-English Anarchist who also helped found the newspaper Spain and the World, translated this monumental book into English. It was published by Freedom Press in 1975.

A Brave New World

In the modern day and age, our society is turning into an awkward combination of the frightening worlds described by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World and George Orwell in 1984. At the one hand, we've been taught to assuage the pain of living in a stressful world by imbibing cheap and mind-numbing entertainment while, at the same time, we've invited the cameras into our homes ourselves. If we refuse to participate in Huxley's collective destruction of the human spirit, we are quickly put under constant surveillance. The militarization of the police and increasing repression of social movements throughout the world shows the ruling classes are terrified of a possible revolt. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who had himself been a member of the French national assembly, described that "the fear of the people is the evil of all those who belong to authority: for power, the people are the enemy." The Spanish workers had felt the brunt of repression for decades but, contrary to our generation, many of them had a vision of a world where there would be no ruling class. In 1936, for a very short period of time, they were able to realize many of their dreams.

Anarchists are often asked about their vision of what the world should be and it's clear people are really demanding a blueprint for the new society. However, anarchists are reluctant to make blueprints. After all, every blueprint may be out of date by tomorrow. Furthermore, a blueprint that would work well in one place may well be disastrous in another. Gaston Leval's description of the collectives in Spain only shows too well the necessity and beauty of diversity. There are a few general trends throughout his book, such as solidarity and mutual aid, but the various collectives have great variety of solutions to their problems. Some collectives were able to abolish money completely, others saw the need to keep money for the time being because of shortages caused by the war. Other collectives decided to make certain goods available freely and rationed those that were most scarce. In the field of book-keeping and organisation there are other variations that either come from the general character of the people in a collective or from the necessities imposed by material conditions. Nevertheless, whatever the specific organisation, all collectives put solidarity before narrow-minded self-interest. The Spanish collectivists were well aware of the benefits cooperation brings to all involved. In this, the Spanish collectives easily reached a perfection far beyond anything capitalism has ever been able to provide.

Collectives in the Spanish Revolution is not the only documentary material available about the Spanish Revolution. Both Anarchists and people outside the movement have, during and after the revolution, written about this fascinating topic. While some people outside the movement have tried to provide an honest account, we often see that people simply don't understand - or even try to understand - the sociology of the Spanish Revolution. There is a big difference between thinking like a state and thinking like an anarchist and one cannot hope to understand the revolution without trying to understand what moves anarchists.

Amongst anarchists, one of the best known writers on the Spanish Revolution is Emma Goldman. She published multiple articles on the collectives in Spain and the World. Compared to those articles, Gaston Leval is more distant and analytical. Where articles in Spain and the World, especially before the May Days, were full of hope, Gaston's book was written after the revolution had long since been crushed by a coalition of Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. He finishes several chapters on a collective with a summary note on how the collective ceased to exist and the name of the notorious Stalinist general Líster is mentioned more than once.

In spite of the painful end of the Spanish Revolution - and it is quite likely it was a Quixotic struggle from the start, given the lack of support from the international working class - Gaston Leval is, justly, full of praise of the achievements he had been able to observe. He compares the enormous effectivity of the Spanish anarchists in organising both production and the war effort and compares this to the disastrous policies of Lenin and Stalin in Russia. The Spanish anarchists were able to maintain industrial production at a high level while realising their own emancipation. On the other hand, the authoritarian nature of the Bolshevik reaction had ground the Russian economy to a halt. It is, undoubtedly, this achievement of liberty that gives the Spanish anarchists a lasting appeal to anarchists to this day. In the words of Gaston himself, their achievements "[emerge] as a beacon light of which all revolutionaries who seek mankind's emancipation, and not its subjection to a new slavery, will have to follow."


Leval's work is filled with accounts of inspiring achievements but, unfortunately, is also rather long-winded. It misses the young enthusiasm of the articles in Spain and the World. Nevertheless, a selection of chapters now and again may certainly boost morale for the anarchist who despairs over contemporary events. The sacrifice of the Spanish anarchists should be a lasting inspiration and we should certainly learn from what they did well. That is not to say they did not make mistakes. In the end, every revolution is an experiment which is deeply seated in the social and economic conditions of its time. Nevertheless, there are some lessons we can and should most certainly learn from past revolutions. One of the most important insights continues to be the validity of the anti-authoritarian stance. The government cannot and will not be a tool for liberation. The Spanish anarchists experienced this first-hand while showing the liberating power of self-liberation. Another very important insight is the necessity for spontaneous organisation during the revolution. As Leval mentions, the collectives were not prepared or planned before the Spanish Revolution began but arose out of the free initiative of the people themselves. If there is another revolution, we can only hope it carries the liberating spirit of the Spanish revolution. Only the spirit of freedom can give us a brave new world where humans can reach their full potential, instead of being drugged out on easy entertainment or power.


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