Capitalism in Catalonia?

Capitalism in Catalonia?

James Donald claims that the anarchists of Catalonia frequently and spectacularly failed to live up their ideals. In some cases, this is true. For example, the CNT did join the government in the name of anti-fascist unity. Moreover, some anarchists did commit acts of terror although James Donald's claims of "killing fields" are just figments of his imagination. He also claims that the CNT imposed socialism by violence, and that they engaged in brutal exploitation. As can be seen from the referenced pages, nothing of the kind actually happened.

However, James claims that "the most interesting thing is what happened when they did live up to their libertarian ideals" and states the following:

"Two months before the revolution, the CNT voted that collectives should be free each to pursue its own goals, that industry should be collectivized rather than socialized or nationalized, but they expected that people would spontaneously act in a socialist fashion."

This, however, is all nonsense. James Donald is refering to the CNT congress of May 1936 at which no such thing was discussed. As Frazer points out, "was doubtful that the CNT had seriously envisaged collectivisation of industry. . .before this time." [p. 212] In fact, the CNT argued that industry should be socialised and run by the unions on behalf of society. They did oppose nationalisation as a new form of capitalism, but they wholeheartedly supported socialisation and federations of communes. The individual workplaces would be self-managed, but the CNT's program called for the construction of "libertarian communism." This would mean that the economy as a whole would be socialized, it would not consist of producers operating independently of each other on the basis of market exchange. Instead, workers would manage the industry they work in as a kind of "subcontract" from the whole community.

The collectives were a compromise that resulted because the CNT collaborated in the name of anti-fascist unity. The concept of "collectivization" was suggested by Joan Fabregas, a Catalan nationalist of middle class origin who had joined the CNT after July of '36.

"Up to that moment, I had never heard of collectivization as a solution for industry -- the department stores were being run by the union," says Joan Ferrer, the 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..." [Blood of Spain, p. 212.)

Therefore, James Donald starts his discussion with nonsense.

Moving on, he claims that "But the workers did not spontaneously act in a socialist fashion. Instead collectives and individuals acted in a capitalist fashion, each pursuing profit in competition with all the others. This led to highly unsocialist outcomes, outcomes that many in the CNT found unacceptable."

Firstly, it should be noted that "pursuing profit" is not acting in a "capitalist manner" - employing others and getting them to produce a profit for you is. For anarchists, socialism is about individuals cooperating together to maximise their own benefits and freedom. In this sense, the collectives were distinctly anti-capitalist. They showed that workers, when free to choose, will not work for a capitalist.

He then quotes Frazer as follows (Blood of Spain, page 231):

"In February 1937, four months after the [collectivization and socialization] decrees approval, a joint CNT-UGT textile union conference agreed that the experience demonstrated that the collectivization of individual plants had been mistaken, and that it was necessary to proceed to the total socialization of industry if ownership of the means of production was not once more to lead to the exploitation of man by man."

It should be noted that there was no such thing as a "socialisation" decree as James Donald is well aware. There was only the "collectivisation" decree, which many anarchists considered as holding back the revolution. As Gaston Level argues, the decree "legalising collectivisation", "distorted everything from the start" by ensuring that the revolution could not be extended fully under workplace control (see his book Collectives in the Spanish Revolution for more discussion).

The problems of collectivisation were noted by the unions:

"The woodworkers' union weighed in with its criticism of the state of affairs, alleging that, while small, insolvent workshops were left to struggle as best they could, the collectivization of profitable enterprises was leading to 'nothing other than the creation of two classes; the new rich and the eternal poor. We refuse the idea that there should be rich and poor collectives. And that is the real problem of collectivization'."

As would be obvious, before the revolution there was rich and poor capitalist firms. The collectives which were created reflected this. As there were few attempts made at creating federal structures between workplaces to allow for mutual aid it is hardly surprising that many workplaces ended up becoming self-managed cooperatives, looking after their own interests exclusively. However, as we will discuss later, this lack of cooperation between workplaces resulted in the collectives sacrficing their own interests and freedoms in the long run. As, we may point out, predicted in anarchist theory.

It should also be noted that anarchist thinkers have long argued that the transformation of a society, removing the legacy of centuries of hierarchy, oppression and exploitation, would take time. Kropotkin, for example, stressed that anarchists "do not believe that in any country the Revolution will be accomplished at a stroke, in the twinkling of a eye, as some socialists dream." Moreover, "[n]o fallacy more harmful has ever been spread than the fallacy of a 'One-day Revolution.'" [The Conquest of Bread, p. 81] Bakunin argued that a "more or less prolonged transitional period" would "naturally follow in the wake of the great social crisis" implied by social revolution. [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 412] As such, the problems facing the collectives were not unsurprising and, equally unsurprising, the CNT looked into ways of solving them. This is particularly the case as the collectives themselves were not what the CNT had advocated before the revolution and were an unplanned product of the situation the anarchists found themselves in after July 19th.

Therefore, most anarchists would support Malatesta's claim that "[t]o organise a [libertarian] communist society on a large scale it would be necessary to transform all economic life radically, such as methods of production, of exchange and consumption; and all this could not be achieved other than gradually, as the objective circumstances permitted and to the extent that the masses understood what advantages could be gained and were able to act for themselves." [Life and Ideas, p. 36] The discussions in the unions James highlights were a part of this process, and express popular participation in the economy.

However, moving on James Donald cites cites Juan Andrade, of the POUM executive (POUM was anti-Stalinist communist, not libertarian socialist) on the nature of the collectives:

"[...] the collectives were treated as private, not social property [...]

"[...] Had it gone on like that, there would have been enormous problems later, with great disparities of wages and new social classes being formed. We also wanted to collectivize but quite differently [from the libertarian socialists], so that the countries resources were administered socially, not as individual property."

It should be pointed out that the POUM would have nationalised the collectives which would have created its own problems. However, these problems which Andrade mentions were being combated by the CNT and would probably been solved if it had not been for the compromises resulting from collaboration.

James Donald, in an attempt to prove his point, says that "In Catalonia, while the libertarian socialists had power, the theaters were initially collectivized, but not socialized, (unlike some other industries) which meant that at first there was a free market in entertainment -- at first the people went to see what they wanted to see, rather than what their masters decided would be good for them to see."

As the socialised industries were run by democratically elected management committees, it is not a case of "what their masters decided would be good for them to see" but in fact what the self-managed workplaces decided to put on. As there would be little point in playing to empty theaters, the workforces would have put on what was popular. Yet again, James Donald misrepresents the nature of self-management.

He continues and presents an example of a singer who gets a pay rise far above the rest of the rest of the theatre staff. He then states that "if you have liberty, you will not have equality. He [the singer] was able to get 750 pesetas because he was free to leave or to refuse to work as directed, same reason as I get rather good pay today."

An argument which in no way undermines the anarchist idea of equality. Anarchists desire social equality, not "equality of outcome" as such. Many anarchists have expressed support for the idea of equal wages but only when those affected agree to it. In this case, this was not possible but the threater was still run on an egalitarian manner of one worker, one vote.

He then does on to argue that "If the workers are free to organize as they choose and use capital as they choose, they will use it for profit, and you will have a free market system that will turn back into capitalism in two or three years -- indeed it only took two or three months for alarmingly powerful signs of capitalism to reappear in Catalonia."

Under capitalism workers are, however, not free to organise as they choose and use capital as they choose. The capitalists have that particular liberty. Yet again, James Donald indiciates the authoritarian nature of capitalism. As for his claim that if workers are free to organise then capitalism will be the result that is just conjecture on his part. The assumptions are clear. James Donald refuses to take into consideration that cooperation between workplaces can "profit" the workers more than competiting together.

This can be seen from Catalonia, where, because collectives did not cooperate, the Communists managed to gain control of the economy because of their control of credit. The collectives, by acting as James Donald suggests, ended up undermining their own freedom and self-interest. Exactly as happens in capitalism.

James Donald continues:

"If this problem is solved by 'coordination' that forcibly prevents them from acting in the way most profitable to each particular person or small group, then you have a single all powerful monopoly state, and it is back to the killing fields, as also happened on a grand scale in Catalonia."

Firstly, we should point out that James Donald's account of "killing fields" has been discredited and exposed as the nonsense it is. If interested, click here. However, what is interesting is that all the examples of terror in Catalonia he gives occured well before the period being discussed here. In other words, his attempt to suggest that the CNT created a "single all powerful monopoly state" which killed people "on a grand scale" is just a lie. He has no evidence to back this up.

Secondly, anarchists do support the idea of coordination between workplaces but not of the kind James Donald suggests. We argue for a confederation of workplaces which send delegates to conferences to discuss common problems and ensure the maximum profit for all. This was applied to the textile factories of Badlona, for example. This coordination, voluntary accepted, would overcome the problems which face workers under capitalism - namely, sackings, bad conditions, and so on.

As capitalism, as noted, does not allow workers to organise freely this obviously suggests that some sort of powerful state is required to enforce the property owners monopoly of power over their capital. Hence, by James' own logic, capitalism requires a state and powerful hierarchies - as we see in "actually existing capitalism."

He then states that "Some of the anarchists were sincere, and genuinely sought to find a middle course between capitalism on the one hand and killing fields on the other hand." Again, we have to ask "what killing fields?" - where are these killing fields which James Donald claims the CNT ran? He has presented no evidence of mass murder organised on a vast scale and indeed, he has presented no evidence of murders after September 1936. But, we forget, facts are not important for James Donald (as can be seen from a few extracts of one debates on usenet recently [May-June, 1996].

He then, because he obviously likes the words, states that "They did not find it, despite vast and varied experimentation both with free markets and with killing fields." We will just say that repeating falsehoods will not make them true.

He then states that "If you permit people to do what they wish to do, then the voting does not count for anything, because the minority simply refuses to comply. If you force people to work at the job by the threat of violence, then the vote also does not count for anything, because people are too frightened to vote in a politically incorrect manner."

Of course, in capitalism you do not have this "problem". This is because workplaces are dictatorships were people are expected just to follow orders or leave. Very libertarian. However, James seems to think that people will always leave if the vote does not go their way. Is everyone that childish? We doubt it. We would suggest that most people would agree to democratic decisions because they took part in deciding them. Sure, they are free to leave but few would in practice. If they don't leave everytime their boss makes a decision they don't like, they won't when their workmates make a similar decision.

He then states that "All three of these problems (liberty rendering the vote impotent, violence crushing individual liberty, and an atmosphere of violence perverting the vote) happened in Catalonia. At first the problems were mostly liberty frustrating socialism. Later socialism crushed liberty." But all his examples of violence occur before the collectives were created and months before the time he claims "socialism crushed liberty". Funny that.

More importantly, what sort of liberty is James defending here? He claims that democracy is violated by liberty, but surely voluntary democracies are more libertarian than voluntary dictatorships. Is he claiming that capitalism (management by a non-elected elite) is more libertarian than anarchism (management by workplace assemblies and elected managers)? Looks like it - how very libertarian!

Perhaps sensing that he is on weak ground, James Donald tries to defend capitalist hiearchy. He states that "Entrepreneurs do not exercise power because they own capital. They mostly do not. They exercise power over other people's capital and other people's labor, because they made it pay better than others, so other people chose to put assets in their power, and other people chose to work for them. The shareholders only fire the management when the company is in grave crisis."

In other words, he admits that capitalism is based on a few giving the orders and controling the work of others. In other words, capitalism is based on government, archy. That someone who claims to be an anarchist supports this is a strange sight. In addition, we should note that as well as controling the labour of workers, the manager also controls the product of their labour and the capital they use. So workers do not control the capital they use and so are not free. They are controled by others. As an attack on socialism, James Donald has presented more than enough arguments for why capitalism is authoritarian.

Now, he claims that people choose to work for capitalists. This is not unsurprising because the capitalists have a monopoly over the law in society which protects their private property. This means that working class people have little option but to get a job. They "chose" to work for a capitalist because otherwise they will starve. The capitalist monopoly as expressed in the law ensures that this is the case.

He then states that "Collectives, normally in the form of large partnerships, are perfectly consistent with capitalism, and indeed are very common." Which is totally false. The self-employed make up less than 10% of the working population of a capitalist economy. Cooperatives are by no means "very common" precisely because capitalism is set up in a way that ensures the success of authoritarian workplaces run for the profit of capitalists.

Of course, it must be pointed out that capitalism is based on wage labour and so co-operatives are not "consistent" with it. Anarchists have argued this since Proudhon. Interestingly, two politically very different people would agree. Karl Marx, for example, argued as follows: "Let us suppose the workers are themselves in possession of their respective means of production and exchange their commodities with one another. These commodities would not be products of capital." [Capital, vol. 3, p. 276] Of course, it could be argued that neither Proudhon, Bakunin nor Marx (being socialists) understood what capitalism and socialism really are. However, the idea that (market) syndicalism was basically the same as capitalism was one rejected by such a noted ideologue of capitalism as Ludwig von Mises. He argued while syndicalism was "not genuine socialism, that is, centralised socialism," it would be "misleading" (as he had previously done in 1920) to call syndicalism workers' capitalism. [Socialism, p. 270, p. 274fn] It should be noted that Murray Rothbard, another leading right-“libertarian”, agreed with von Mises. With the end of Stalinism, he argued for the transfer of industry from the state bureaucracy to workers by means of "private, negotiable shares" as ownership was "not to be granted to collectives or co-operatives or workers or peasants holistically, which would only bring back the ills of socialism in a decentralised and chaotic syndicalist form." [The Logic of Action II, pp. 210-1]

So the notion that cooperatives equals capitalism is one disputed by both socialists (libertarian and authoritarian) and supporters of capitalism. Something James, strangely, fails to mention...

Then, in usual James Donald fashion he states that "I am sure many such partnerships continued to flourish during Pinochet's terror, and did not cause him to lose any sleep whatsoever." However, unions and working class political parties did cause him to lose sleep. Both were crushed by state terror in the pursuit of "economic liberty" (i.e. capitalism). Of course, for the working class of Chile Pincohet's dictatorship resulted in increased poverty and repression, but this must be price for such "liberty" for the few.

Notice that he does not mention "violence crushing individual liberty, and an atmosphere of violence perverting the vote" when he talks about Pincohet's Chile. We can easily imagine workers in Chile putting up with bad conditions, pay cuts, etc because they fear that their boss would report them to the secret police as a "communist." However, Pincohet did introduce "economic liberty" (for those that count at least...).

He then claims that "if collectives interacted by the free market, as they did at first in Catalonia, some would prosper and some would go broke. To maintain equality during these kinds of free market reorganization, during capitalism's creative destruction, to ensure that successful cooperatives did not 'exploit' other folk by setting onerous conditions before one could become a full partner, would require a vastly powerful central body that would find itself meddling in the fine details of interactions between one person and another and their management of capital."

That's his theory, at least. The practice is different. If collectives did cooperate together to ensure that economic depression and unemployment did not rip society apart, then a "vastly powerful central body" is not required. What is required is dialogue and cooperation between workplaces to ensure that the relevent information is passed between workplaces and that each workplace agrees to mutually share their plant with others. This means that if a worker from one factory in the collectives joins another, they are given equal rights because they are part of the same set of collectives. In other words, James Donald is just repeating the usual nonsense that authoritarians come out with when people try to increase freedom. Of course, James Donald does not follow the logic of his argument through - if a "vastly powerful central body" is required to stop workplaces creating their own rules then such a body is also required to enforce capitalist's property rights (otherwise workers would ignore them). Bosses "meddling in the fine details" of workers activities and in the management of work are well known and documented (as would be expected in a capitalist system).

James Donald scare stories aside, we should look at what happened in the socialised woodworkers industry in Catalonia. This should give us a clear example if James Donald's comments are true. It should be pointed out that this industry is not an example of socialised production which anarchists necessarily support. As Fraser points out, the FAI proposal of "autonomous centres of production" was rejected by the majority of the union in favour of "the union [running] everything" [Blood of Spain, p. 222]

The result? "The major failure. . .(and which supported the original anarchist objection) was that the union became like a large firm" "From the outside it began to look like an American or German trust"[p. 222]

In other words, it ended up looking like the workplaces James Donald thinks express "liberty" - but with an important difference, the workers could elect and and sack their managers as well as a say in the running of th industry. Hence anarchism extends and increases freedom in comparsion to capitalism.

James claims that "And once again we are back to actually-existent-socialism." but, as can be seen, even the most centralised socialised industry became like a capitalist company run by an elected management committee. Which makes his next claim ("To prevent people from volunteering to be 'exploited' you have to have a vastly powerful central power with authority to meddle in the petty details of pretty much everything.") sound pretty silly. In Catalonia, it did not happen inspite of the compromises caused by the war against fascism.

He ends by saying that:

" Now one can reasonably say that much of the bad stuff that happened in Catalonia was done by people who were monsters, not done as a logical consequence of the principles of libertarian socialism, but the reason the monsters were able to take power and act freely is that the those who sincerely believed in libertarian socialism wanted something that was logically impossible, and had no clear idea how to get it, and so they allowed those who knew what they wanted and how to get it to do as they pleased."

It should be asked, what "monsters" is James talking about? The anarchists who put their lives on the line fighting the fascist coup? And where is the evidence that these monsters "took power" as a result of the socialisation of industry? None whatsoever. In fact, the colectives and the socialisation occured after the CNT decided to collaborate. Hence there is no relationship between these two events. As we have noted, James Donald presents no evidence linking the leaders of the CNT with "killing fields" or any evidence said fields actually existed outside his head.

Now, it could be argued that the CNT introduced socialisation because it say that the collectives were turning into capitalism. However, the socialised industries were not created by state action but by democratic union decisions. Sometimes when union militants suggested socialisation, the workforce rejected the offer. For example, the workers in the stores refused suggestions to socialise. As Joan Ferrer, secretary of the CNT commercial employees' union points out:

"It was understandable. Only a few months before, the traditional relationship between employer and worker had been overthrown. Now the workers were being asked to make a new leap - to the concept of collective ownership. It was a lot to expect the latter to happen overnight" [Op. Cit, p. 220]

Hence, far from introducing "socialism" by force, the CNT membership introduced it themselves when they became convinced of the need for it and saw that it was in their interests to do so.

Lastly, we should point out what happened when collectives did act as James Donald suggests. By not cooperating together, collectives ended up become run by the state. By not cooperating together, they ended up "accepting 'vast sums' of money against imaginary capital assests from the Generalitat's 'pawn bank'" [p.231] which meant "that many collectives had mortgaged themselves to the Generalitat's 'pawn bank' to pay their workers wages" [p.578] this allowed the PSUC (the stalinists) to "centralise the collectives under Generalitit (or PSUC) control" [p. 578]

In other words, by acting as "capitalist" firms, collectives ended up being controlled by the state. By pursuing that James Donald claims was in their self-interest, they ended up being subjected to a new set of bosses - state capitalist instead of private capitalist. This little fact neatly exposes the reasons why capitalism is not in our self-interests nor supports freedom, no matter how much James Donald says it does. Anarchism hates capitalism because it leads to the many sacrificing their freedom and denying their self-interest to the few.

So was there capitalism in Catalonia? No, as argued above the workers managed their own workplaces and did not work for a capitalist. What "capitalistic" activity which did exist ended up in destroying the freedom of those who practiced them. As anarchists have long argued, cooperation is in our self-interest and encourages liberty far more than competition (even non-capitalist competition!).


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