Bryan Caplan  

How the Economy of Anarchist Spain Really Worked

Snap Judgments vs. Apathy... When Is Uncertainty an Argumen...
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 dividends.

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.'"[130] 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."[131]

...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 the revolution.'"[135]


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."[137] 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 of Alcora.

"'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..."[144]


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.'"[145] (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.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Nitpicker writes:

Ah, but if everyone was free to act as he wished, then would everyone really be free to act as he wished?.... Never mind. 'Twas a good read.

doc Merlin writes:

I've said it to socialists anarchists, that socialist anarchy turns into capitalism if state force isn't used and if state force is used it turns into fascism.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"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"

No - what is, for an anarchist, the main problem of capitalism (the inequality of power between bosses and employess) disappears.

You can argue that, after some time, the hierarchical companies will reapper, but if only the property (or "possession") rights of workers collectives or of self-employed workers are recognized this will not occur.

Yes, can be argued that the organizations (whatever their name) who recognize the rights of workers collectives and self-employed but not of traditional capitalist companies are a "state with other name" but exactly the same thing can be said about the "protective agencies" in anarcho-capitalism.

[I expect that you can understand my confuse english]

Snorri Godhi writes:

Miguel Madeira:
You can argue that, after some time, the hierarchical companies will reapper, but if only the property (or "possession") rights of workers collectives or of self-employed workers are recognized this will not occur.

As a matter of fact, the property rights of workers collectives and of self-employed workers are already recognized in every Western country, and in most non-Western countries as well. So we already have some kind of anarchism, apparently.

Snorri Godhi writes:

Bryan Caplan:
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.

Actually, there is an alternative, though one that I would not recommend: the abolition of large-scale division of labor. If we returned to hunting+gathering or subsistence agriculture or feudalism, then we'd need neither free markets nor central planning. (Though perhaps feudalism counts as central planning on a small scale.) Of course, most of us would die of starvation and disease, but technically speaking it counts as an alternative.

Bill Woolsey writes:

Miquel Madeira has an important point.

What free market economists think is important about capitalism--the use of prices to provide the signals and incentives to coordinate a large scale division of labor--is not even understood as an issue among anarcho-socialists. That something must coordinate a large scale division of labor and that it is a difficult problem is not given serious consideration. Some intervention about the organization of firms? Can't specialize regarding labor, control, and investment? Perhaps a bad idea, but the scheme of social coordination remains--what is essential about capitalism.

If one never even seriously considers the coordination problem, then it is really not much different than the issues arising in independent hunting-gathering bands. Does the top status male treat everyone else as partners, or is he a tyrant who treats them as slaves? What is the relationship between the men and women? Partners, or do the men dominant the women? It is these small group, face-to-face relationships that are our natural focus. Equality? Or tradition? Yes, should all be equality in this small group. Working as a team. Leaders arise spontaneously. The followers follow by example.

But the free market economist may say, fine. Still, how do we demark the boundaries between these groups? Which group controls what resource? And how are their specialized activities coordinated?

Miguel Madeira writes:

Some years ago, I wrote something about that (how an anarco-socialist economy could be different both from capitalism and statism):

or, for the very few readers how are not proficient in Portuguese:

Tracy Wilkinson writes:

...what is, for an anarchist, the main problem of capitalism (the inequality of power between bosses and employess) disappears.

So what happens to a would-be worker who wishes to join a collective? I assume that in the anarchist world people will still die of old age and children will still grow up into adulthood. Is there not an inequality of power between would-be workers and the worker-collective? Particularly where a worker-collective uses equipment that would be too expensive or is too rare for every would-be worker to easily acquire one. Examples being a mine, or an MRI scanner.

Yancey Ward writes:

I think it important to understand that anarcho-socialists don't believe in the ownership of capital one is not actively using. As bulldozer driver, the bulldozer only belongs to me while I am the one driving it. I cannot hire someone to drive it for me while retaining ownership and a portion of it's output.

Now, I still find the anarchist label a bit loony for the same reason I have always found it loony in the case of anarcho-capitalists- both camps still find a need to enforce their laws of property in some collective fashion.

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

Those interested in how Spain 'worked' in those years will want to read Stephen Koch's 'The Breaking Point; Hemingway, Dos Passos and the Murder of Jose Robles.

paine writes:

i'm amazed you can't make the distinction between a more general institutional arrangement that is based on commodity production ie production
by the collective unified action of a group of
associated producers for the market
and a sub category of that
called capitalistic production

if you right glibertarians simply want to fudge away the serious distinctions here fine
but when you oppose state sponsored oligopoly
to stateless market economy
and then conflate all market economy
with production by means of wage labor
in private firms held by another class
fine that appropriate the product as theirs by ownership...
come on

a sawmill co operative is not much like general motors

to establish the limits of co operative market production
hardly require stateless conditions

and this egalitarian fetish hardly defines
the necessity for a workers' state

i'm amazed at the self deluding obfuscation
its childs play if that's the level you're operating at

pewee hermann economics

Dain writes:

The anarchist Murray Bookchin was also no fan of worker-owners and their proprietary interests.

Tracy W writes:

paine: - who is conflating market economy with production by means of wage labour? I think most libertarians would regard salaried labour and self-employed labour as being part of a market economy.

And why are you defining capitalist production as a subset of commodity production? Can't capitalism produce one-off products, such as a specialised building, as much as commodities?
And is a person working singly to proudce a product for market not a capitalist?

Your definitions of capitalism are confusing and appear arbitrary to me. You appear remarkably ill-qualified to criticise others for obfuscation.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top