Anarchism and Worker's Self Management in Revolutionary Spain By Frank Mintz [Book Review]

My father-in-law worked for most of his life as a digger driver in a building worker’s co-operative. Nothing too remarkable in that, you might think. Some businesses in our society have an element of co-operation or collective-ownership built into them. The vast majority don’t. What is remarkable is how in 1936 in Spain perhaps as much as half of the economy, both rural and urban, was transformed almost overnight into an experiment in co-operative economics. The army had just risen in revolt against the democratic government, aided and abetted by fascists and other right-wingers, intent on destroying any and all anti-establishment political movements. Ordinary people resisted wherever they could and succeeded initially in defeating the army in most of Spain. They then embarked on the collectivisation of society, without any encouragement or guidance from the powers that be or political leaders. They acted on their own initiative and in the face of actual and potential antagonistic violence from army, landowners and employers. Many of these co-operative enterprises would continue in existence until the fascist triumph in 1939. How could this happen and how could its importance have been neglected and overlooked by so many for so long? Frank Mintz attempts to come to grips with these questions in this volume.

This volume is a revised edition, and I must own up to not having read the previous ones. Nonetheless, the impression that you get is that Mintz has moved away somewhat from explaining and justifying the collectives to exposing how the middle-class republicans, the communists and the government attempted to undermine them almost from their very beginnings. That this very government contained self-appointed anarchist representatives is hard to credit, were it not so uncontestedly true. Mintz points out that at no time was their appointment voted on by either the F.A.I. or the C.N.T. Instead the rank and file were presented with a fait accompli, which they then had to decide to accept, reject or ignore. All of this in the middle of a genocidal civil war. In the circumstances few were in a position, or felt themselves to be in a position, to put up too much resistance to the incursions of the new state authorities.

Mintz emphasises, and comes up with examples to back up his case, that the move towards collectivisation was an uncoordinated, grass-roots affair supported by people from many walks of life and nearly all political sections on the republican side. There was initially as much support from socialists, communists, the non-aligned and even traditionalists as there was from anarchists. He argues persuasively, however, that the impetus was anarchist, that decades of anarchist propaganda had permeated throughout all strands of working-class and peasant politics and that when the time was right collective-ownership seemed the natural route to take.

The increasingly communist-dominated government, acting under orders from Moscow, was opposed to all of this and by degree attempted to overturn the collectives and return the appropriated lands and businesses back to their original owners. This met with resistance in many areas, which was put down by a mixture of deception, threats and brute force. The anarchists in government went along with all of this. They firmly believed that the war needed to be won first before the revolution could proceed. To be fair to them, they tried to rein in the worst excesses of the counter-revolution but in the end they became the prisoners of their own decision to play the game of governmental politics. Throughout the Levante and in Aragon and Catalonia collectives were disbanded or destroyed, particularly those of a more anarchist bent. The Stalinist Lister commanded troops in Aragon in particular who inflicted enormous harm to the rural economy by their actions. After the wreckers had done their work and departed, in many cases the collectives were reinstated, but the damage had been done, both to the physical fabric of many collectives and to the morale of workers and peasants and of militiamen at the front.

Mintz is not always the most objective of writers and you do get the impression that he has gone looking for proof of his thesis to the exclusion of all else. Having said that, he didn’t have too far to look, and ever since the events of the Spanish Civil War anarchists have had real difficulty explaining away the failure of the leadership to see their own folly and the failure of the rank and file to remove that leadership and resist consistently. Mintz gets a bit carried away at times. When he tells us to devote our lives exclusively to the revolution and stop wasting time with “excessive drinking, drug use, empty-headed books, obsession with animal rights, Esperanto, sexual communes and so on”, there is a strong temptation to tell him to mind his own business. Even a small amount of unnecessary moralistic lecturing can have an adverse effect upon a readership quite capable of making up their own minds about the benefits of an evening’s drinking or Esperanto.

One of the best aspects of this book is to be found in the appendices, where we are given examples of widely disparate collectives, from farmers to locksmiths, fishermen to fruit growers. They were all beset by huge practical difficulties caused by the war, disruption of the economy, blockades and boycotts, absence of manpower and political interference. Mintz tells us at one point of the importance of women in the running of the co-operatives, in part owing to the absence of so many men on the front lines, yet we are given relatively little information on the problems of equal pay, of anti-female discrimination in an often mysogynistic society and of how all this was overcome in the collectives, if indeed it was.

In some respects I found this book a bit unstructured and directionless, but its subject matter rises above such criticisms. Taken in conjunction with works by Gaston Leval, Jose Peirats, Sam Dolgoff and others it helps provide a picture of a quite spectacular time and place in human history which has been neglected, distorted and forgotten. Let us hope that the example of worker’s self-management in revolutionary Spain will be remembered once again.


[Published by AK Press, 2013.]