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(en) US, blackrosefed: WORKERS POWER AND THE SPANISH REVOLUTION part II. (2/3)
Mon, 5 Nov 2018 08:48:14 +0200
Montseny argued that Garcia Oliver's proposal to carry out the CNT's "libertarian
communist" program would mean the imposition of an "anarchist dictatorship" over the
population. Abad de Santillan focused on the danger of foreign intervention, pointing to
the presence off the coast of British warships. ---- In reply, Garcia Oliver pointed out
that he had never spoken of a "dictatorship" of anarchists or of the CNT. He objected to
calling the rule of the workers' unions a "dictatorship." He argued that, as the majority
labor organization, the CNT had an obligation to lead the way forward in the revolution
and he believed that the libertarian, democratic practices and ideology of the CNT unions
would be a guarantee that union governance of the society would not degenerate into an
authoritarian regime. He tagged Abad de Santillan's comments as just an appeal to fear. In
response to Vazquez, he said that at least the regional secretary acknowledged that a
revolution must be governed. But he insisted that the CNT must be in charge of making the
While Garcia Oliver was speaking, he noticed that Fidel Miró - another member of the
Nervio group and an activist in the Libertarian Youth - was moving from delegation to
delegation in the hall, lining up votes. When the vote was taken, the proposal for
collaboration with the Popular Front parties on the Anti-fascist Militia Committee got the
In his memoir, Garcia Oliver points out that the delegates had been gathered in haste,
without the opportunity to consult activists in the unions or discuss the implications of
what was being decided. Garcia Oliver believed that the meeting had been unduly influenced
by "petty bourgeois anarchist intellectuals" like Montseny and Abad de Santillan, who had
a certain influence through the anarchist press in Catalonia.
But why were the labor council delegates swayed by the remarks of Montseny and de
Santillan? Conceiving of union political power as a "CNT dictatorship" may be the result
of an ambiguity in the syndicalist concept of "prefigurative" politics. The idea that the
libertarian unions "prefigure" a society of self-management could be interpreted to mean
that the union itself takes over economic and political management of the society - and
syndicalists have sometimes talked in that way. This might lead to the conclusion that the
CNT itself would be the governing structure for the economy and polity. Hence a "CNT
But the syndicalist concept of prefigurative politics, of "building the new society in the
shell of the old," doesn't have to be interpreted that way. It could be understood to mean
that practices and habits of participatory democracy are built up through the mass union
organizations and then this is reflected in new structures of worker management of the
economy and structures of political governance, separate from the union itself. The
350,000-member CNT was the majority labor organization in Catalonia. It would have a great
influence over the direction taken by a structure of political power in which the FOUS and
UGT unions also participated, as minorities.
Montseny's talk of "CNT dictatorship" was tailored to appeal to anarchist prejudices. But
this did not properly frame the situation facing the CNT at this time. In the coming
months, the CNT would insist that its aim was "the triumph of the proletarian revolution."
Victory in this endeavor would require that the working class dissolve the institutional
basis of the power of classes that dominate and exploit the working class.
The social base of the Republican political parties in Spain was the small business and
professional/managerial classes. These social classes would inevitably oppose the
proletarian revolution, as it would dissolve their class privilege and power. Any power
retained by the Republican and Basque Nationalist party leaders in governance would be
used to obstruct the process of working class empowerment. Moreover, the Communist Party,
since the adoption of its "Popular Front" orientation, and the social-democratic wing of
the PSOE, were allied with these anti-fascist middle strata.
On the other hand, it was equally clear that a working class victory would require the
maximum of working class unity. The CNT could not ignore the 1.4 million workers in the
UGT. And in Catalonia, there were also the 70,000 workers in the POUM-controlled FOUS
unions. In a life or death struggle against the army, the masses of CNT members would
insist that the CNT work out an alliance with the other working class organizations. The
CNT had already committed itself to a "revolutionary workers' alliance" with the UGT at
its congress in May. The CNT-UGT unity in the uprising in Asturias in October 1934 was an
example that everyone was familiar with.
If the CNT could not come up with a practical program for a unified working class
political power, this would mean that the only alternative would be the strategy being
promoted by the Communists and the other Popular Front parties: a top-down unity of
leaders of the Popular Front parties through a rebuilt Republican state. No other option
was realistic. Either the CNT took political power jointly with the other unions, or the
need for unity in the struggle against the fascist army would lead to the Popular Front
solution. In that case, the Spanish state would be rebuilt - a hierarchical apparatus that
would be used to defend the interests of classes that dominate the working class.
Although the Republican state apparatus was temporarily disarmed, due to the revolt of the
old army and police, and the construction of a revolutionary labor militia, the state
apparatus still had considerable resources as long as it was left intact. It had social
legitimacy in the eyes of the Republican middle classes, and it had control over the
country's financial system, gold reserves and foreign currency and trade relationships.
Almost immediately after the coup the Communist Party began its campaign to rebuild the
This means that the real question the CNT faced was how to create a joint governing
structure for the country with the other unions, wiping away the old state apparatus and
institutionalizing working class power.
The CNT actually did come around to this conclusion, but it would take another six weeks
of debate in the union.
The Anti-fascist Militia Committee was not an organ of working class "dual power." The
Popular Front leaders in fact controlled the committee, just like the government. The
350,000-member CNT held only three out of 15 seats on the committee, with another two
representatives for the FAI. The UGT, which had only 100,000 members in Catalonia, also
had three seats. The Esquerra's farmers' union had one seat. The middle-class Republican
political parties had four representatives.
Within days of the military coup, a new political organization was formed in Catalonia -
the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya - PSUC).
This was formed from the merger of four small parties: the section of the PSOE in
Catalonia, the Catalan Communist Party (PCC), the Proletarian Party (a Catalan nationalist
worker group), and the Socialist Union (a social democratic group). The PSUC, with 6,000
members, became the affiliate of the Moscow-line Spanish Communist Party (PCE) in
Catalonia. The PSUC had two seats on the Anti-fascist Militia Committee, even though the
larger POUM had only one. (21)
The 70,000-member FOUS had no representatives. In August the CNT regional leaders in
Catalonia would enter into a deal with the UGT to allow only UGT and CNT union cards for
participation in the food rationing systems set up in the wake of the fascist coup. This
forced the dissolution of the FOUS. This was a sectarian error on the part of the leading
anarcho-syndicalists. The POUM's politics were closer to those of the CNT than the
Moscow-line Communists. The Communists would soon cement their control over the UGT in
Catalonia. Leaving the FOUS intact would have provided the CNT with an important ally.
The Anti-fascist Militia Committee proved to be ineffective. There was no unified policy
or real coordination. Each organization used its posts as it wanted. The Esquerra, PSUC
and POUM each had their own separate militia divisions, apart from the much larger union
militia of the CNT. Each of these four organizations ran its own militia command and
provided its own supply system for its militia. This was the pattern throughout Spain.
This was not an effective way to run the armed struggle against the fascist army. There
was a general failure at coordination.
The leading CNT activists and militia leaders saw that there was clearly a need for a
unified command and unified training and supply systems. If they couldn't do this for the
militia, there would inevitably be pressure to re-create a conventional army run by the
Republican state. Within days of the military coup, the Communist Party started beating
the drum for the re-creation of a conventional, top-down military.
The revolutionary militia system could only be saved if the CNT could find a way to create
a unified militia. The only way to do this would be to create a unified labor governance
structure for Spain. The unions needed to take power.
To counter the drive to rebuild the old hierarchical army, Garcia Oliver gave a speech on
August 10th, calling for a revolutionary people's army:
"A people's army growing out of the militia should be organized on new principles. We will
organize a revolutionary military school where we will train technical officers who will
not be carbon copies of the old officers, but rather simply technicians who will follow
the instructions of officers who have proven their loyalty to the people and the
At another regional plenary of the CNT in Catalonia in the last days of August, Garcia
Oliver, frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the Anti-fascist Militia Committee, once
again proposed that the CNT take power, abolishing the Generalitat, removing the political
party leaders from any role, and reducing the role of the UGT to a minority, in keeping
with its size in Catalonia. (23)
On August 31st, José Giral, the Republican prime minister in Madrid, told a member of the
CNT national committee: "Everything is in the hands of the CNT! The CNT directs the war as
it wants but without sharing in the supreme responsibilities. Govern! Take power!" (24)
Finally, at a national plenary of the CNT on September 3rd, at the insistence of the
regional delegation from Catalonia, the CNT decided to propose the formation of a
revolutionary labor government to replace the national Popular Front government: a
National Defense Council (Junta Nacional de Defensa) made up of seven delegates of the UGT
and seven of the CNT, with Largo Caballero as president(25). The national council would be
part of a federalist system with regional Councils of Defense. The authority of the
councils would be limited to the social self-defense function - "people's courts," police,
a unified People's Militia. The Defense Councils would have no authority to intervene in
the management of industry; industries would be managed by the workers. A Russian agent in
Spain wrote to the Soviet authorities: "The thought of creating such a council finds a
wide response even among the masses that are not under the anarchists' influence."(27) The
CNT proposed a unified People's Militia that would be controlled by "joint CNT-UGT
commissions."(26) Organized labor would have a monopoly of armed power in Spain.
The CNT's timing was off, however. For the first six weeks after the military coup,
ineffective liberals presided over the government in Madrid. By early September, however,
Largo Caballero, executive secretary of the UGT, had just been made prime minister. He had
said publicly that the revolution had to be put on hold to defeat the fascist army. Marcel
Rosenberg, the Soviet ambassador, warned Caballero that the CNT proposal would destroy the
"international legitimacy" of the Spanish Republic. Manuel Azaña, President of the
Republic, threatened to resign. To placate the Communists, CNT representatives met with
the Central Committee of the PCE and assured them that they would still be represented via
their trade union cadres in the UGT.
Largo Caballero and the Left Socialists had a history of wavering. They would talk about
"proletarian revolution" one moment, then scurry back to a moderate social-democratic
stance the next moment. To give Caballero some spine, they needed to put him over a
barrel. In Catalonia they had the power to simply wipe away the Generalitat government and
implement their proposal for a joint governing council with the other unions. Doing that
could have forced the UGT to agree to extend this solution to all of Spain. ---- Regional
defense councils were created in Asturias and Aragon. The Council of Asturias had 15
members, with the UGT in the majority. The middle-class Republicans were only given two
representatives. In Aragon the initiative to form a CNT-controlled Regional Defense
Council came from the CNT village unions in the zone of Aragon that had been liberated by
the labor militia.
But Catalonia was far more important than rural Aragon or Asturias. Catalonia had
three-fourths of Spain's industrial capacity and Spain's largest city. If the Generalitat
had been replaced with a working class governance structure, Caballero couldn't have
ignored this. But instead, the CNT of Catalonia went in the opposite direction. They
joined the Generalitat government on September 26th. This completely undermined the CNT's
bargaining leverage with Caballero because it told him they weren't serious about their
Defense Council proposal.
While the negotiations with the UGT for a National Defense Council were going on in
Madrid, Eduardo de Guzmán was editor of the CNT paper Castilla Libre in Madrid. In his
view, the initiative to form a working-class government in Madrid was hindered by the
CNT's failure to take power in Barcelona. Even if the complete implementation of
"libertarian communism" was not possible at the moment, it was possible to create "a
proletarian government - total working-class democracy in which all sectors of the
proletariat - but of the proletariat alone - would be represented....To make a revolution,
power must be seized. If the CNT had done so in Catalonia, it would have helped, not
hindered, our minority position in Madrid. But they believed that it was sufficient to
have taken the streets, to have seized arms. They completely overlooked the importance of
the state apparatus."
According to de Guzmán, "the petty bourgeoisie was inevitably opposed to the proletariat.
The Communists were recruiting in this class, and in alliance with the petty bourgeois
Republicans were bound to gain strength if the Generalitat and the central government were
reconstituted." He believed that it was a mistake for the CNT to have not pushed for a
working class government at the very beginning when there was no effective government in
Madrid at all. "A revolutionary moment of great promise had been lost," in his opinion. (28)
De Guzmán suggests that there was a confusion about "apoliticism" in the CNT. In his view
it should mean "simply not to participate in the farce of[parliamentary]elections." This
is not the same as saying that a polity - a structure of popular governance - is not
needed to replace the state. Just as syndicalists had always emphasized the continuity of
social production being maintained in a process of social transformation, the same
argument can be made for the political functions - making and enforcing the basic rules in
society. These are also necessary functions.
To respond to Socialist concerns about ensuring the loyalty of the "anti-fascist petty
bourgeoisie," the CNT, at another national plenary in mid-September, modified the National
Defense Council proposal so that it would be made up of five CNT delegates, five UGT
delegates, and four representatives of the Republican Parties. With this modification, one
of the smaller Republican parties - the Federal Republicans - endorsed the CNT proposal.
But Largo Caballero still refused this "leap outside the bounds of the Constitution." With
the CNT joining the Generalitat government, he knew the CNT wasn't serious. Caballero made
a counter proposal: The CNT would join the existing Popular Front government.
Finally, at yet another national plenary on September 28th, the treintista national
secretary of the CNT, Horacio Prieto, pushed for accepting Caballero's offer. The
delegation from Catalonia was adamantly opposed to this. The regional organization in
Catalonia was inconsistent - it opposed the CNT doing at the national level what it had
done in Catalonia.
Having failed to chart a coherent course for unifying the working class in building new
structures of governance, to replace the Republican state, the CNT finally joined the
national Popular Front government on November 4, receiving only four out of 18 posts in
the cabinet(29). At the first meeting of the new government, Joan Peiró proposed that the
government authorize the complete collectivization of the Spanish economy. This initiative
was blocked by the objections of the middle class Republicans, Basque Nationalists, and
their social-democratic and Communist allies.
Throughout the month of October, Solidaridad Obrera, the CNT's daily paper in Barcelona,
had mounted a major campaign in favor of the proposal for a joint CNT-UGT National Defense
Council. Now that the CNT had opted for Popular Front collaboration, the CNT regional
committee wanted a less "intransigently revolutionary" line at Solidaridad Obrera. Among
the staff members who were fired due to their opposition to the policy of Popular Front
collaboration was a disabled journalist, Jaime Balius (30) and the paper's managing
editor, Liberto Callejas. Balius and Callejas would later surface in an attempt to revive
the labor defense council proposal in the spring of 1937.
Unions Move Towards Socialization from Below
There is no clearer expression of the revolutionary spirit of the CNT than the massive
expropriation of capitalist industry in Spain that took place during the summer of 1936,
and the direct management of industry by the workers during the civil war.
In the Barcelona area alone, more than 3,000 enterprises were seized by the unions. No
instructions for these takeovers were issued by the regional or national committees of the
CNT. They were carried out on the initiative of the activists in the local unions.
Expropriation was especially widespread in Catalonia with the CNT holding de facto armed
Burnett Bolloten was an American UPI reporter in Spain at the time. Among the industries
that Bolloten lists as "confiscated by the unions and controlled by worker committees"
were the following: railways, commercial shipping, streetcars and buses, taxicabs,
electric power companies, gas and water systems, glass-bottle factories and perfumeries,
textile mills and paper factories, mines and cement works, food processing plants and
breweries, motion picture theaters, live theaters and grand opera, newspapers and print
shops, department stores and hotels, deluxe restaurants and bars(31). In addition, motor
freight companies, bakeries, barber shops, the plate glass and mirror industry, the lumber
industry in the Pyrenees mountains, furniture-making, and hospitals were also
expropriated. The CNT national telephone industrial union seized the Spanish National
Telephone Co, the largest subsidiary of the American multinational ITT. In Valencia, the
CNT created an organization to manage the purchase, packing and export of the citrus crop
- Spain's largest source of foreign exchange earnings in the 1930s.
Thousands of houses of the wealthy were expropriated as were large apartment complexes.
There were also at least a couple thousand collectivized agricultural communities created
throughout the anti-fascist zone.
Before discussing the details of workers' self-management created by the unions, it is
useful to keep in mind what the CNT's aim was. Before the civil war, the CNT had never
advocated that workplaces or industries should become the collective private property of
The CNT advocated social ownership. All of the workplaces in an industry would be grouped
together into an industrial federation which would be responsible for managing that
industry. The industrial federations would be coordinated by regional and national
economics councils. Social ownership would be reflected in the development of social plans
to which the various industrial federations would be expected to adhere in their work.
Economic councils, Abad de Santillan wrote, would "receive their directives from below,
they make adjustments according to regional and national congresses."
According to Joan Ferrer, a bookkeeper who was the secretary of the CNT commercial workers
union in Barcelona:
"It was our idea in the CNT that everything should start from the worker, not - as with
the Communists - that everything should be run by the state. To this end we wanted to set
up industrial federations - textiles, metal-working, department stores, etc. - which would
be represented on an overall Economics Council which would direct the economy. Everything,
including economic planning, would thus remain in the hands of the workers."(32)
In the variation on this theme approved by the Zaragoza congress, there would also be
input to the social planning process about what to produce from the geographic resident
assemblies in the neighborhoods or villages and the regional and national People's
Congresses linking these resident assemblies together.
In the libertarian syndicalist view, socialization of the economy was to be constructed
"from below," through the direct activity of the workers themselves. There were two
aspects or phases to syndicalist socialization. The first phase was expropriation of
assets of the capitalists and creation of an industrial federation, suppressing market
competition between firms in the industry. The second phase would be the creation of
overall social planning. In fact, Spain never got to this second phase.
In a number of industries, the unions moved quickly to create an industrial federation,
merging the assets of the businesses in that industry. Where industrial federations were
set up, these were of two types. In some cases, the CNT union itself became the industrial
federation running an industry. In other cases, the industrial federation was a new
structure, apart from the union. This second type of industrial federation tended to
emerge where there was a strong UGT union. The industrial federation was formally separate
from the unions so that it could be an organization in which the CNT and UGT shared power.
The Madrid-Zaragoza-Alicante (MZA) was a large, privately owned railway that operated the
mainlines from Madrid to Barcelona and Valencia, and the mainline along the Mediterranean
coast. On July 20th, with street-fighting still going on in Barcelona, militants from the
CNT railway national industrial union told the management of the MZA they were fired. The
workers were taking over. The electric commuter railway operating out of Barcelona was
also seized, and the railways were merged together into a single network. This takeover
was initiated by the CNT union but the UGT soon came along. Each union had about an equal
proportion of the railway workforce. The train operating crews, who had a more militant
tradition, tended to belong to the CNT. The station agents, railway clerks, and
yardmasters tended to belong to the UGT.
The new organization formed to operate the railway network was called the Revolutionary
Railway Federation. The coordinating committee - called the Revolutionary Committee -
consisted of six UGT members and six CNT members. Except for a full-time executive
director, they all continued to work at their regular job. For each section of the railway
line and each station, a committee was formed of delegados elected by a local assembly. In
the bi-weekly assemblies, the proposals of the committee would be either approved or
disapproved by the workers.
The railways had been operating at a loss even before the civil war, due to growing
automobile use. To improve efficiency of the transport network, the railway federation
undertook to do an extensive survey of transport services with the assistance of the CNT
transport unions. They mapped the various bus, motor freight, and commercial shipping
services. They discovered that various poor rural areas had no public transport services.
Meanwhile, there was multiple duplication of services along the coastal corridor. As a
result, the CNT transport unions agreed on a plan to eliminate some services competing
with the railway such as the coastal maritime shipping line, and create new bus and motor
freight services for unserved rural areas. The railway built a new branch line in a rural
area of Aragon to serve both the villages and the nearby labor militia on the Aragon
More than a dozen electric power, gas and water companies were expropriated by the CNT and
UGT public utility unions. Initially the unions set up "control committees" after July
19th at the various companies, with the existing management still in place. The
expropriation by the unions didn't happen til the end of August. As with the railway
industry, an industrial federation separate from the unions was formed to take over
management of this industry. The UGT and CNT public utility industrial unions were about
an equal proportion of the workforce - each about 8,000 members in Catalonia.
Administrative councils for the gas, water and electric power divisions, each made up of
an equal number of CNT and UGT delegates, were responsible to periodic regional assemblies
of the workers (34)
There were also numerous industries where the CNT union itself became the industrial
federation, the organ of workers' self-management of the industry.
The CNT wood union in Catalonia seized and shut down the small cabinet-making shops, where
conditions were often cramped, inefficient and dangerous. These shops were replaced by a
new factory, the Double X. The union imported French machinery with the latest safety
devices. An existing large furniture factory was expropriated but expanded by adding two
new floors. Each of these factories employed about 200 people.
A FAI group in the wood union opposed the drive to consolidate the entire industry into a
single union-managed industrial operation. They advocated the creation of small,
autonomous production centers. Their critics described this as a throwback to the
pre-capitalist era of self-employed artisans. The FAI proposal was defeated.
The union also seized the furniture retail stores. The lumber operations in the Pyrenees
mountains were taken over. The union managed the entire industry from extracting the raw
material to sale of the finished product in showrooms.
The union believed that it should look after the overall well-being of its members. To
this end, the union built a gym with an Olympic-size swimming pool at the Double X
factory. In a mountain valley the union set up an agricultural operation to grow food for
the families of union members.
"The concept that prevailed," a wood union member recalled, "was that the working class
should have good furniture at cheap prices."(36)
With so many of the union militants away in the militia, there was a tendency for the wood
union to appoint former owners or their sons as administrative heads of sections. There
was some danger in having people in such positions who are in the habit of giving orders
and having others obey them. At the same time, the union committees were now transformed
into administrative councils for an organization running an industry. According to one
union member, discontent developed because the members felt they weren't involved in
decision-making whereas "the CNT tradition was to discuss and examine everything." One
problem, in his view, was the failure to produce a newsletter to keep members informed(37).
As in most cases of workers' self-management in Barcelona, no new shop stewards committees
were elected after the wood union committees were transformed into administrative councils
for management of the industry. A number of the CNT veterans interviewed by Ronald Fraser
for Blood of Spain believed that this failure to re-create a separate union organization
was a mistake.
Elimination of the class system is not merely a formal process of expropriation and
creation of a new organization. Job definitions need to be re-thought, power equalized
through learning new skills and workers taking over tasks formerly done by
"professionals." Ingrained habits of giving and obeying orders need to be broken down.
Because the new system inherits differences in skills, education and habits from
hierarchical systems of power, there is a danger of expertise and decision-making being
re-consolidated into some new hierarchy. Perhaps the union organization - separate from
the structure of self-management of the industry - was needed to look out for the
interests of the workers in the course of this process of transition.
Another industry that was totally re-organized was hair-cutting. Before July 19th, there
had been 1,100 hairdressing parlors in Barcelona, most of them extremely marginal. The
5,000 assistant hairdressers were among the lowest-paid workers in Barcelona. The
Generalitat had decreed a 40-hour week and 15 percent wage increase after July 19th - one
of the Esquerra's attempts to woo worker support. This spelled ruin for many hairdressing
shops. A general assembly was held and it was agreed to shut down all the unprofitable
shops. The 1,100 shops were replaced by a network of 235 neighborhood haircutting centers,
with better equipment and lighting than the old shops. Due to the efficiencies gained, it
was possible to raise wages by 40 percent. The entire network was run through assemblies
of the CNT barber's union. The former owners became members of the union. (38)
To some critics, the socialization of the haircutting industry was a mistake: "What in
reality was being collectivized?," asked Sebastia Clara, a treintista government employee
in Catalonia; "A pair of scissors, a razor, a couple of barber's chairs. And what was the
result? All those small owners ... now turned against us." (39)
Clara's comment overlooks the efficiency gains captured as higher wages for the workers
and the idea that socialization is not just about physical assets but changing social
power relationships. The aim of the libertarian syndicalist movement was to do away with
the subordination of workers inherent in being hired to work for a boss for wages.
Health care was another industry transformed by the revolution. A new 7000-member CNT
sindicato unico for the health industry in Barcelona - including 3,200 male nurses - was
created in September, 1936. The various professions were organized as "sections" of the
health union. This union expropriated the hospitals and created and managed a new
socialized health care system in Catalonia.
Before July, medical practices were typically owned by a senior physician, and the younger
doctors were hired as assistants. Medical services were focused on wealthier
neighborhoods. Poor villages often had no doctor. The new system was intended to provide a
more equitable distribution of health resources. If a poor village didn't have a doctor,
the health union would find one.
The health union tried to do away with private practices but was not able to get the
majority of doctors to agree to this. All of the doctors were required to work three hours
a day for the health union, which left them with enough time in the day to see private
patients. When working for the union, all doctors were paid the same pay rate - but their
hourly rate was about four times a typical worker's wage.
The government provided some funds to help pay for the socialized health care system in
Catalonia, but this was not sufficient to cover all costs. Although visits to the new
network of outpatient clinics were free, the health union charged fees for office visits
to doctors and for surgery. As a result, many unions, collectivized industries and village
collectives entered into special agreements with the health union to provide free health
care for their members and their families. The health union ran dental clinics and also
took over research and manufacture of pharmaceuticals.
This socialized health care system was expanded throughout the anti-fascist zone through
the work of the 40,000-member CNT national industrial federation for health care,
consisting of 40 local unions. (40)
The main part of the public transit system in Barcelona was the streetcar system, which
operated 60 routes throughout the metropolitan area. This system was operated by Barcelona
Tramways, owned mainly by Belgian investors. Of the 7,000 employees of this company, 6,500
belonged to the CNT transport sindicato unico.
On July 20th an armed group from the CNT transit union discovered that the top management
of Barcelona Tramways had fled. A mass meeting of the transit workers was held the
following day and the assembly voted overwhelmingly to expropriate the transit companies
in the name of the people. Three private bus companies, two funiculars, and the subway
were taken over along with the streetcar company.
The streetcar system had been badly mauled in the street fighting - tracks had been
damaged, overhead wires were knocked down in places, equipment boxes were shot up, and
streetcar tracks were blocked by barricades. Working night and day, the transit workers
got the streetcar network working within five days. Over time the streetcars were
repainted in the diagonally divided red and black paint scheme of the CNT. Prior to July
19th, equipment boxes of the electric power company in the middle of streets made it
necessary for Barcelona streetcars to negotiate tight curves around them; this had been a
source of derailments. After the union takeover, the workers arranged with the worker-run
public utility federation to relocate the electric power equipment so that the tracks
could be straightened out.
The various modes - buses, subway, streetcars - were separate union "sections", as were
the repair depots. These all were managed through elected committees, answerable to
assemblies of the workers. An engineer was elected to each administrative committee, to
facilitate consultation between manual workers and engineers. There was an overall
assembly for decisions that affected the transit-system as a whole. There was no top
manager or executive director.
Barcelona Tramways had operated with a fare zone system which meant that it cost more for
people in the outer working class suburbs to get into the city center. The worker-run
transit operation switched to a flat fare throughout the metropolitan area, to equalize
fare costs to riders. Despite this lowering of the fare, the worker-run transit system
operated at a profit. A large amount of French and American machine tools were purchased,
to make the transit operation largely self-sufficient in spare parts. The CNT transport
union entered into an arrangement with the new health union to ensure free medical care
for transit workers and their families.
Due to war-time restrictions on automobile travel, ridership increased by 62 percent the
first year on the worker-managed transit network. It was not possible to obtain new
streetcars. To accommodate the increased ridership, the workers redesigned the layout of
the maintenance facility, to reduce the downtime for streetcars during routine
maintenance. A number of junked streetcars were rebuilt and put back into service. New,
light-weight cars were built for the two funiculars.
After the passage of the Generalitat collectivization decree in October, 1936, the transit
network, which was being managed by the union, was re-organized as the United Public
Service Collective, formally separate from the CNT union. In some sections of the
collective where there was a UGT union - as on the subway - the UGT had delegates on the
administrative committees. Before July 19th, the peones (track laborers) were the lowest
paid workers and the skilled workers made 50 percent more. After the seizure of the
industry, all workers other than the skilled workers received the same pay, and the
skilled workers (such as machinists) received only 6 percent more. The workers volunteered
on Sundays in workshops set up by the transit union to build war materials for the labor
In September, a conference was held in Barcelona to work out a general solution for the
expropriated workplaces in the economy as a whole. How far could the CNT proceed towards
socialization? What should the CNT do with the expropriated firms? Typically, facilities
were managed by the union when they were expropriated.
The idea of converting expropriated enterprises into cooperatives, operating in a market
economy, had never been advocated by the CNT before the war. For the first time, this idea
was proposed at this conference as a temporary stop-gap solution, until full socialization
could be implemented. The use of the word "collective" to describe this stop-gap solution
was proposed at this conference by Joan Fábregas, a Catalan nationalist accountant who
joined the CNT after July 1936.
"Up to that moment, I had never heard of collectivization as a solution for industry - the
department stores were being run by the union," recalled Joan Ferrer, the CNT commercial
union secretary. "What the new system meant was that each collectivized firm would retain
its individual character, but with the ultimate objective of federating all enterprises
within the same industry." (42)
At that conference, the more powerful unions, such as transportation, public utilities,
woodworkers, and public entertainment, which had already proceeded to the first phase of
socialization - consolidation of an entire industry into an industrial federation - wanted
to continue on this path. The smaller, weaker unions wanted to convert the expropriated
enterprises into cooperatives.
The self-managed collectives were a great affirmation of the capacity of the working class
to manage production. According to Victor Alba - a member of the POUM during the revolution:
"The collectives of 1936 not only didn't fail, but they were a success. Given the
circumstances, they demonstrated the principle that workers can administer enterprises
with equal or more efficiency than their employers." (43)
Nonetheless, the incompleteness of the revolution - the continued existence of the market
and the state, the failure to create a system of popular social planning - created problems.
One problem that emerged was the inequality between collectives due to differences in the
inherited equipment, access to markets, or other differences in their situation. For
example, first-phase socialization was not carried out initially in the textile industry
in Barcelona. Each firm continued as a separate collective. According to Josep Costa,
secretary of the CNT textile union in the nearby suburb of Badalona:
"We didn't see the Barcelona textile collectives as models for our experience. Individual
collectivized mills acted there from the beginning as though they were completely
autonomous units, marketing their own products as they could and paying little heed to the
general situation. It caused a horrific problem. It was a sort of popular capitalism." (44)
In Badalona, the CNT union coordinated all the mills throughout the town.
The textile industry, like other manufacturing industries in Catalonia, had produced
mainly for the Spanish market. With a third of the country in the hands of the fascist
army, industry in Catalonia lost much of its market. Catalonia's industrial output fell by
30 percent during the first year of collectivization.
Finally, in February, 1937 a joint CNT-UGT textile industry congress was held in Catalonia
to establish a Textile Industry Council - an industrial federation that would introduce
coordination and end competition between workplaces. The congress agreed that
collectivization of individual plants had been a mistake and that it was necessary to
proceed rapidly towards complete socialization of the industry.
Often collectives dealt with the loss of markets by working shorter hours or paying people
who weren't working. According to Abad de Santillan, more than 15,000 people were still
being paid for non-work in Catalonia in December, 1936. As he noted, it was socially
inefficient to have a large number of people under-employed or unemployed; the society was
losing the work they could do. A system of social planning would have allowed them to
re-allocate jobs in accordance with demand and need for output.
Abad de Santillan re-asserted the original position of the CNT in favor of a socialized
"We are an anti-capitalist, anti-proprietor movement. We have seen in the private
ownership of the instruments of labor, of factories, of the means of transport, in the
capitalist apparatus of distribution, the primary cause of misery and injustice. We wanted
the socialization of all the wealth in order that not a single individual should be left
on the margin of the banquet of life." (45)
In a socialized economy, the local union and the industrial federations are not
"proprietors" of industries but "only administrators at the service of the entire
society," de Santillan said.
The CNT's failure to consolidate political power was itself a reason for the
incompleteness of the economic revolution. The Generalitat government controlled foreign
credits and the financial system. Over time, the collectivized industry became heavily
indebted to the government. This was eventually used to secure ever more state control in
the later years of the civil war, as the Communist Party gained increasing power and moved
towards a nationalized economy.
The CNT's wage aim in the revolution was the sueldo unico ("single wage"). If implemented,
this would have meant that everyone would be paid at the same hourly rate. A CNT textile
union activist explained the rationale for the sueldo unico:
"We libertarians have a maxim which is binding: each shall produce according to his
abilities, each shall consume according to his needs. Production is like a clock - each
part is interdependent. If one part fails the clock will no longer show the hour. It's
very difficult to determine which of the workers fulfilling so many different tasks is the
most important. The miner digging out the coal, the worker transporting it to the factory,
the stoker shoveling it into the factory furnace. Without any of them the process would
stop. All should be paid the same wage; the only difference should depend on whether a man
is single or is married and has a family; in the latter case, he should get so much extra
per dependent." (46)
The sueldo unico was implemented in some industries and localities. One such location was
the city of Hospitalet de Llobregat, a working class suburb on the south edge of Barelona.
Textiles were the largest industry but there were also blast furnaces, foundries and
metal-working plants. The CNT unions in Hospitalet were part of the labor council of Bajo
Llobregat which had advocated overthrowing the Generalitat government in July of '36. In
the city of Hospitalet the CNT did sweep away the old city government, replacing it with a
revolutionary committee. The CNT revolutionary committee held various neighborhood
assemblies to get feedback. This did not quite equal the pre-war CNT idea of a "free
municipality" because the geographic assemblies did not elect the new municipal council;
it was controlled by the unions.
Due to differences in the economic situation of collectives, the Hospitalet CNT decided to
implement the sueldo unico by proceeding to socialization of the town's economy, with the
more well-off collectives cross-subsidizing the less well-off(47).
The Revolutionary Railway Federation also initially equalized the wages of all the railway
workers. At that time, the guards at railway grade crossings in Spain were usually women.
They were the lowest paid railway workers. These female workers gained the most from the
wage equalization on the railways. Later on, however, the railway federation needed to
hire several engineers. They were forced to pay these engineers about 2.5 times the wage
paid to the other workers.
Under a market economy, educated professionals could use their scarce expertise to demand
higher wages and other privileges. This could be dealt with over time in a socialized
economy with a system of free education for workers and a systematic campaign to upgrade
workers' skills. But it would take time to do that, and a socialized economy hadn't yet
Wage equality between men and women doing the same work was only achieved sporadically and
was most likely in industries where Mujeres Libres had organized women's groups. Mujeres
Libres had been formed as a national organization in the spring of 1936. In Catalonia,
Mujeres Libres came out of a women's caucus in the CNT unions.
In the early '30s the CNT metallurgical sindicato unico in Barcelona began paying Soledad
Estorach a small stipend as an organizer. The union was worried about the lack of
involvement of women workers in the union. Estorach discovered that if women tried to
speak at CNT union meetings, they'd be laughed at by the men. The problem wasn't just the
male chauvinist attitudes of the men.
Estorach came to believe that it was necessary for women to have their own autonomous
organization - a safe space where they could study social issues, learn public speaking,
and become prepared to be activists. Only then would women be able to hold their own with
the men in union meetings. The result was a women's caucus in the CNT in Catalonia. The
women's caucus also organized child care so that women activists could attend union
meetings and get elected as delegates.
Mujeres Libres stated that its purpose was to liberate women from the "triple enslavement"
of "ignorance, enslavement as women, and enslavement as workers." The women who founded
Mujeres Libres did not use the label "feminist." They were as class conscious as their
male counterparts. And to them, "feminism" was a movement for women to gain access to
elite positions in the professions, management, government. During the revolution and war
they recruited nearly 30,000 working class women.
Despite their loyalty to the CNT movement, the young women who formed Mujeres Libres
insisted that women's liberation was distinct from working class liberation, and refused
to be just a subordinate appendage - a "women's auxiliary" - of the FAI and CNT. They
didn't believe that the men could liberate women. The leaders of the FAI and CNT, on the
other hand, insisted that an autonomous women's movement was "divisive."
One area of change in gender relations in Spain during the war was the big increase in
women working in industry. As men went off to fight in the anti-fascist people's army,
women were recruited to take their place.
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