The Spanish Revolution and the Politics of Syndicalism Part 2

phoca_thumb_l_spanien62[1]The first level of organization developed was the Workers’ Committees of Control and Management. These control committees were spontaneously formed to deal with the immediate food shortages but they quickly spread into all areas of production. The committees, representing individual workplaces, were elected by workers and varied in size. Their responsibilities were never uniform across all factories but the main point of them was to oversee everything to do with production: the value of the products, the need for materials, the amount to produce, the pace and pattern of work, the wages and the general budget. The control committees were in a sense the entity by which the workers could take back administrative knowledge from management. As early as September of 1936 factory committees were developed in collectivized workplaces. These committees were made-up of elected workers who rotated every six months.

The factory committee’s were formed to deal with various workers’ concerns, such as the production process, wages, health and safety and vacation time. In one sense it may be helpful to think of the factory committees as fulfilling the role of a union representative. However, the factory committee’s duty, because the workers ran the collective, was also to ensure that everyone understood their responsibilities and paid their union dues. Blurring the lines between workers and management, the factory committees created a situation in which the mechanisms of workers’ control were also used to control workers.

In October of 1936 the Catalan government passed the Collectivization Decree that in the short term did little more than legalize the facts on the ground. However, the implications of the decree were significant. It limited collectivization to firms with over a hundred employees and possibly more importantly it created a new overarching authority to deal with the economic decisions . Up to this point workers’ committees had coordinated economic decisions through the Council of Enterprises, whose membership was nominated by workers. This imperfect system was now to be replaced by the Economic Council that was to be made up of members from the Council of Enterprises and members from the government, called controllers. These controllers were also appointed to each control committee. The overall production goals were to be determined by the Economic Council with little input from workers on the shop floor.

Working hours in most industries increased, as did the pace of production. The problem of socializing both production and consumption had not been dealt with in Barcelona. This was in stark contrast to the social revolution that was underway in rural communities in the Levante and Aragon. In many cases both production and consumption were socialized. Money was abandoned in favour of time chits or labour receipts.[4]

The rural collectives were faced with conditions, such as the lack of reliance on technicians, the smaller communities, the immediacy of what to do with large tracks of land, ease of access to materials and lack of concern over markets that made socialization easier. However, the rural collectives, as the revolution progressed, were subjected to increased centralization and rationalization. Unlike many rural collectives the wages across Barcelona varied wildly as some workers’ pay was tied to the success of the particular collective and others were based on piecework and still others were dictated by market forces. The CNT, in an attempt to deal with the varying conditions of work, tried to consolidate industries and then socialize production. As Souchy points out, “partial collectivization will in time degenerate into a kind of bourgeois cooperativism.”

However, consolidation, without the socialization of production and consumption, runs the risk of evolving into a state run bureaucracy. It is easy to see how workers’ resistance to this growing maze of bureaucratic control developed. While there can be no doubt that workers’ wages and conditions were vastly improved under self-management it is important to understand that workers’ self-management, as practiced by the CNT in Barcelona, was fraught with problems.

Most historians that sympathize with the Spanish Revolution have rather uncritical assessments of the collectivization and its outcomes. Those who do talk about some of the difficulties, such as Dogloff, Duran, Souchy, and Peirats, tend to explain away the problems as stemming from the realities of the war and the machinations of the communists and socialists. The result is a narrative where the revolution becomes slowly corrupted by outside forces. Here it is worth turning to Michael Seidman’s account of the failure of the Spanish Revolution.[5]Seidman’s argues that while the war certainly created increased demands, and consequently the need for discipline it was the CNT’s workerism that really drove the disciplinary measures and production demands.  As Seidman states, “the unions made it perfectly clear that the workers had to build a new society based on work. The Revolution must create a new dawn where work was essential. Whereas true art and science had been destroyed by capitalism, work was the only value that remains unblemished.” Because the CNT was the product of a capitalist system, its vision of the future could not escape a capitalist logic of work.

Thus, it is no surprise that the scientific management, espoused by Taylor, was admired by many in the CNT and applied to the automobile collective, CNT-UGT Collective Marathon. Seidman’s argument is that the inability of Spanish capitalists to modernize production resulted in, “low standard of living for many workers that inspired working-class organizations—with varying degrees of success—to concentrate, standardize, and modernize the backward industrial structure.”  Anarcho-syndicalism in Spain, for Seidman, was an ideology that espoused workers’ democratic control over work as the way in which to achieve rationalized and efficient production that would enrich society. Their goal was the creation of a new society based on work. [6]  This contradiction of workers’ control and increased production through rationality was at the heart of the CNT’s attempt to revolutionize Spanish production. The control committees, factory committees, council of enterprises, and economic councils were institutions that were developed to facilitate worker’s control over production and also mechanisms to ensure that production. These committees, as Richards’s states, had many masters.[7]

The CNT was in the end unable to resolve this contradiction because its utopian dreams of an efficient self-managed worker’s run society were based on dreams steeped in capitalist desires.[8]  The CNT faced not just strategic and tactical barriers in its revolutionary project, it also faced the inherent political limits of syndicalism. Either the CNT was to fully own the revolution by turning the contradictions of workers control into political questions – i.e. asserting political control over capital relations – or suffer the confusion of a depoliticized revolutionary undertaking.

The latter is of course what happened. The experiences of the CNT  lays out some of the debates and questions we should be revisiting in terms of political strategy, trade unions, and the concept of syndicalism.


[4] The competition between collectives was a source of major tension within the CNT. (Leval 1972, 55)

[5] While I find Seidman’s account fascinating and original (especially since it also comes from a left perspective) His account is not without it problems. He tends to paint workers as having a unitary identity rather uninvolved in the political and military battles swirling around them. The worker, in Seidman’s history, is a person rather unengaged and seemingly selfish.

[6] While Seidman’s interpretation is intriguing, I am not so sure it represents anarcho-syndicalism, in general or in Spain in particular, fairly. Abel Paz’s biography of Durruti describes a much more complex vision.

[7] I am tempted to quote Marx here “when two equal rights meet, force decides” When the rights of workers bumps up against the production demands of the revolution, discipline was enforced against the workers.

[8] I should probably add and old modes of dreaming.

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