Last week, I received a Polish translation of a long essay I wrote over a decade ago on Spanish anarchism. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-9), an avowedly anarcho-socialist movement called the CNT won control over large parts of Spain. This gave them their big chance to try their alternative to capitalism and statism. To most economists, of course, there isn't any realistic alternative. Non-libertarian economists might not approve of my tone, but I think they'd accept the substance of my critique:
Suppose that there were a standard capitalist economy in which a class
of wealthy capitalists owned the means of production and hired the rest
of the population as wage laborers. Through extraordinary effort, the
workers in each factory save enough money to buy out their employers.
The capitalists' shares of stock change hands, so that the workers of
each firm now own and control their workplace. Question: Is this still
a "capitalist society"? Of course; there is still private property in
the means of production, it simply has different owners than before.
The economy functions the same as it always did: the workers at each
firm do their best to enrich themselves by selling desired products to
consumers; there is inequality due to both ability and luck; firms
compete for customers. Nothing changes but the recipient of the
This simple thought experiment reveals the dilemma of the anarcho-socialist. If the workers seize control of their plants and run them as
they wish, capitalism remains. The only way to suppress what socialists
most despise about capitalism - greed, inequality, and competition - is
to force the worker-owners to do something they are unlikely to do
voluntarily. To do so requires a state, an organization with sufficient
firepower to impose unselfishness, equality, and coordination upon
recalcitrant workers. One can call the state a council, a committee, a
union, or by any other euphemism, but the simple truth remains:
socialism requires a state.
A priori reasoning alone establishes this, but empiricists may be
skeptical. Surely there is some "middle way" which is both anarchist
and socialist? To the contrary; the experience of Spanish Anarchism
could give no clearer proof that insofar as collectivization was
anarchist, it was capitalist, and insofar as collectivization was
socialist, it was statist. The only solution to this dilemma, if
solution it may be called, is to retain the all-powerful state, but use
a new word to designate it.
The interesting thing about the economy of anarchist Spain is that it brightly illustrated both horns of my dilemma. The cities became capitalist and anarchist; the country became socialist and statist.
In the cities, unionized CNT workers took over their own places of employment - and acted like inexperienced capitalists:
An overwhelming body of evidence from a wide variety of sources confirms
that when the workers really controlled their factories, capitalism
merely changed it form; it did not cease to exist. Summarizing a CNT-
UGT textile conference, Fraser explains that, "experience had already
demonstrated that it was necessary to proceed rapidly towards a total
socialization of the industry if ownership of the means of production
was not once more to lead to man's exploitation of man. The works
councils did not in practice know what to do with the means of
production and lacked a plan for the whole industry; as far as the
market was concerned, the decree had changed none of the basic
capitalist defects 'except that whereas before it was the owners who
competed amongst themselves it is now the workers.'" Bolloten
records that, "According to Daniel Guerin, an authority on the Spanish
Anarchist movement, 'it appeared... that workers' self-management might
lead to a kind of egotistical particularlism, each enterprise being
concerned solely with its own interests... As a result, the excess
revenues of the bus company were used to support the street cars, which
were less profitable.' But, in actuality, there were many cases of
inequality that could not be so easily resolved."
...How, one might wonder,
could avowed socialists act so contrary to their principles? The
workers' behavior was not particularly different from that of wealthy
Marxist professors who live in luxury while denouncing the refusal of
the West to share its wealth with the Third World. Talk is cheap. When
the worker-owners had the option to enrich themselves, they seized it
with few regrets.
The orthodox state-socialists, even the CNT's would-be allies such as
the POUM, bitterly attacked the capitalist nature of worker-control...
Andrade tells Fraser a striking story about the funeral of a POUM
militant. "[T]he CNT undertakers' union presented the POUM with its
bill. The younger POUM militants took the bill to Andrade in amazement.
He called in the undertakers' representatives. '"What's this? You want
to collect a bill for your services while men are dying at the front,
eh?" I looked at the bill. "Moreover, you've raised your prices, this
is very expensive." "Yes," the man agreed, "we want to make
improvements - " I refused to pay and when, later, two members of the
union's committee turned up to press their case, we threw them out. But
the example made me reflect on a particular working-class attitude to
Inequality existed within collectives as well as between them.
Invariably, the participants attribute the tolerance of inequality to
the fact that it was impossible for one collective to impose equal wages
unless the other collectives did the same. As Fraser summarizes the
testimony of CNT militant Luis Santacana, "But the 'single' wage could
not be introduced in his plant because it was not made general
throughout the industry. Women in the factory continued to receive
wages between 15 per cent and 20 per cent lower than men, and manual
workers less than technicians." In other words, it was impossible
to impose equality so long as there was competition for workers. If one
firm refused to pay extra to skilled workers, they would quit and find a
job where egalitarian norms were not so strictly observed.
In the country, in contrast, CNT militants chaotically imposed Stalinist agricultural collectivization:
The Anarchist military was the
backbone of a new monopoly on the means of coercion which was a
government in everything but name. It then became possible to use the
peasantry like cattle, to make them work, feed them their subsistence,
and seize the "surplus." Bolloten approvingly quotes Kaminsky's account
"'The community is represented by the committee... All the money of
Alcora, about 100,000 pesetas, is in its hands. The committee exchanges
the products of the community for others goods that are lacking, but
what it cannot secure by exchange it purchases. Money, however, is
retained only as a makeshift and will be valid as long as other
communities have not followed Alcora's example.
"'The committee is paterfamilias. It owns everything; it directs
everything; it attends to everything. Every special desire must be
submitted to it for consideration; it alone has say..."
Fraser's interview with the farmer Navarro clearly indicates that the
Anarchist "committees" were governments in the standard sense of the
word. "Once the decision was taken, it was formally left to the
peasants to volunteer to join. Mariano Franco came from the front to
hold a meeting, saying that militiamen were threatening to take the
livestock of all those who remained outside the collective. As in Mas
de las Matas, all privately owned stocks of food had to be turned it."
Martinez, another farmer, adds further details. "He shared, however,
the generalized dislike for having to hand over all the produce to 'the
pile' and to get nothing except his rations in return. Another bad
thing was the way the militia columns requisitioned livestock from the
collective, issuing vouchers in return. Having been appointed livestock
delegate, he went on a couple of occasions to Caspe to try to 'cash in'
the vouchers unsuccessfully. As elsewhere, the abolition of money soon
led to the 'coining' of local money - a task the blacksmith carried out
by punching holes in tin disks until paper notes could be printed. The
'money' - 1.50 pesetas a day - was distributed, as the local
schoolmaster recalled, to collectivists to spend on their 'vices' - 'the
latter being anything superfluous to the basic requirements of keeping
alive.'" (For comparison, one farmer states that pre-war he earned
250 pesetas per month.)
Anarcho-socialists often point to the Spanish Civil War as a wonderfully informative social experiment. They're right, but only because the facts proved their theories horribly wrong.