Serfdom in Catalonia?

Serfdom in Catalonia?

Here James Donald attempts to show how the CNT "enserfed" the peasants in Catalonia. He correctly points out that a "serf is bound to the land. He is not free to leave if he objects to his masters mistreatment." and goes on to say that "Every socialist revolution has led to the reintroduction of serfdom". He then quotes Ronald Fraser, page 367 and the testimony of two eyewitnesses, which indicates that their collective was a horrific dictatorship. He then takes this testimony as typical of all the Aragon collectives.

However, there are a few problems with James Donald argument. The first, and the most basic, is that his example is from Aragon and not Catalonia. You would think that he would get basics like this correct. He does not present any evidence of serfdom in Catalonia, which is strange considering his title.

Moving on, he quotes Ronald Fraser's summary of this one collective:

"For detractors of Aragon collectives, Fernando's experience was more or less typical: For supporters exceptional, but undeniable."

Fair enough. The question arises, was this a typical experience? The answer is a most definite no. Lets look at the other collectives in Aragon that Fraser documents. He describes another three, all of which were democratic and voluntary. According to one member of the Beceite collective, "it was live in a collective, a free society where one could say what one thought, where if the village committee seemed unsatisfactory one could say. The committee took no big decisions without calling the whole village together in a general assembly. All this was wonderful" (p. 288).

In the another collective, an eye-witness states that "Once the work groups were established on a friendly basis and worked their own lands, everyone got on well enough, he recalled. There was no need for coercion, no need for discipline and punishment.... A collective wasn't a bad idea at all" [p. 360]

How about on a wider scale. The one collective James Donald takes as "typical" was a "total" one, i.e. no one was allowed outside. Was this typical? Not at all. According to Fraser (on page 366), an FAI schoolteacher stated that forced collectivisation "wasn't a widespread problem, because there weren't more than twenty or so villages where collectivisation was total and no one was allowed to remain outside..."

There were 450 collectives in Aragon, meaning that 95% of collectives were voluntary. Hence, an example of one the 5% that were "total" is hardly typical. It should also be noted that 70% of the population of Aragon joined collectives, again indicating their basically voluntary nature. Both these facts James Donald ignores.

Lastly, James Donald says the following:

"Fraser also concludes that peasants were generally not free to leave the collectives, though he implies that in a great many cases they were restrained by less blatant and drastic means than were used to restrain Fernando Aragon. They were not allowed to have any money, food reserves, or means of transport, making it impossible to travel without permission."

I think its fair to quote Ronald Fraser and his conclusions on whether people could leave the collectives. He concludes as follows:

"Conditions obviously varied from collective to collective and, as in many other aspects, generalisation is impossible" [p. 368]

To state, then, "Fraser also concludes" is a downright lie, as can be seen from the above quote.

Lastly, I think that it is worth pointing out some details about the eyewitness whose statements James Donald uses to build his "case." For someone who was confined to his village by the committee, Aragon seemed to know what was happening at the front lines. Fraser quotes him on page 135 saying that the anarchist Red and Black column and the POUM militia would sit back and laugh when the other went into battle. So how does he know that if he was "enserfed" in his village?

Fraser points out that, for "extraneous reasons" he could not "talk to supporters and detractors of the collectives... in the Angues collective... The testimony of Fernando ARAGON and his wife -- a view of the inherent undemocratic dangers contained within the collectivisation experiment -- must stand on its own" (p. 369)

This means that out of 300,000 people and 450 collectives, James Donald takes as "typical" the testimony of two people in one collective. Testimony that could not be checked at that!

That is really impressive!

Historian Antony Beevor (while noting that there "had undoubtedly been pressure, and no doubt force was used on some occasions in the fervour after the rising") just stated the obvious when he wrote that "the very fact that every village was a mixture of collectivists and individualists shows that peasants had not been forced into communal farming at the point of a gun." [The Spanish Civil War, p. 206]

There is one last test which we can apply to see if James Donald's case is true. In August, 1937, the Republican Government sent communist troops under the command of the Communist Lister to dissolve the Aragon collectives. If the collectives in Aragon were as James Donald describes them you would imagine that the Aragonese would have welcomed the troops with open arms. However, this is not quite true. As the non-anarchist historian Oved points out:

"Those who were responsible for this policy [of attacking the Aragon Collectives], were convinced that the farmers would greet it joyfully because they had been coerced into joining the collectives. But they were proven wrong. Except for the rich estate owners who were glad to get their land back, most of the members of the agricultural collectives objected and lacking all motivation they were relucant to resume the same effort of in the agricultural work. This phenomenon was so widespread that the authoritorities and the communist minister of agriculture were forced to retreat from their hostile policy" [Yaacov Oved, Communismo Libertario and Communalism in the Spanish Collectivisations (1936-1939)]

This is backed up by Bolloten who notes that the result was of Lister's activities was "a pall of dismay and apprehension descended upon the agricultural labourers. Work in the fields was abandoned in many places or only carried on apathetically, and there was danger that a substantial portion of the harvest, vital for the war effort, would be left to rot" [The Grand Camouflage, p. 196] It should also be noted that the output from the Aragon collectives was 20% higher than before their creation. This combined with the virtual collapse of production after Lister "liberated" the area indicates that the collectives were popular and did not "enserf" anyone. Even the Communists had to redress the situation and changes its policy - the breakdown of the economy resulted in a decree being passed wich legalized collectives "during the current agricultural year."

Yet again, we see that James Donald's case falls apart on closer inspection.


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