Friday, 22 July 2011

Translating a jaw-dropping naivety into a political practicality.

Someone asked me recently whether I would like to go to Barcelona. I would love to, if I were up to travelling. I would not be going for the football, nor for the Sagrada Familia of Gaudi, or to look down on the city-scape from Montjuic. I would be going for one reason, and that is to stand where, seventy-five years ago, there was a free society, a revolutionary anarchist society run without capitalism, without superstition, without hierarchy, and without money, and what is more a society which was not imposed upon the ordinary people but was set up by them. There was freedom, genuine freedom from control and from domination by anyone; it was a freedom compared to which our modern ‘freedom’ with all its commercial exploitation, its media control, its I-got-mine-so-screw-you, and its bourgeois party-politics looks like an utter sham.

This story of what has been called ‘the greatest experiment in workers’ self-management Western Europe has ever seen’ – an experiment which worked and which, when it was eventually snuffed out, had not failed of itself – has been largely ignored in popular history. Everyone has heard of the communist International Brigades, but so efficient was, on the one hand, fascist Dictator Franco at wiping out the history of the workers’ struggle in Spain and, on the other hand, communist propaganda at portraying communism as to all intents and purposes the sole opposition to fascism in the Spanish Civil War, that the fact that workers’ Spain was a product of the popularity of anarchism has been brushed under the carpet. There were large numbers of good, honest, organised socialists and communists of course, and they made common cause with the anarchists when the army revolted and Franco tried to seize power by force, but the driving ideals of workers’ and peasants’ self-determination and anti-statism were thanks to Catalonia's anarchists. A sceptically-smiling commentator in a recent American documentary[1] says “Anarchism as a political philosophy is almost jaw-droppingly naïve – freedom is a good inclination, suspicion of state power is a good inclination, the question is how is that to translate into practical politics?” and, like ‘jesting Pilate’, does not stay for an answer! Perhaps this is because the practical politics of Catalonia were below his horizon, below his radar?

Only more recently has this history – the translation of ‘jaw-dropping’ naivety into practical politics and a working system – started to be rediscovered and re-stated. The Spanish language documentary Living Utopia is one such rediscovery, as is this clip from another documentary in which we hear the voices of such veteran anarchists of the Barcelona era as Josep Costa, Federica Montseny, and Eduardo Pons Prades. Rather than attempt to tell the story myself I suggest you watch those documentaries. But I will pick out some points from them, because I am going to dare to take issue with my comrades from 75 years ago!
Women from anarchist militia groups...

... my beautiful sisters, I love you so much! 

Here is an extract from one, including a quotation from Federica Montseny[2]. The question raised is that of cooperation with central government structures.

Helpless, the Catalan Government offered power to the Anarchists but, true to their principles, they refused it. The Anarchists believed that out of this revolutionary explosion the people would create their own free society without state, church, or capitalism. Federica Montseny was a famous anarchist orator. “Had we taken power because we were the majority it would have meant betraying a pact of common struggle we had, in a way, sealed with the blood of so many of our men from many different sides – communists, socialists, syndicalists, and above all anarchists – it would have meant betraying that pact and doing in Catalonia what Lenin and Trotsky had done in the Soviet Union with the take-over of power by the Bolsheviks. We didn’t do it and we have been criticised many times for it. With hindsight who knows, perhaps, perhaps we should have done it.” Some anarchists now feel that their refusal to take power was the beginning of their undoing. At that time the anarchists had no doubt about their main objective – to defeat fascism. But for them the campaign was not just against the army rebels, but against capitalism itself.

My critique here is that it was not their non-participation that was at fault. It was force majeur by and large that ended their great experiment. The force majeur took several forms: Franco’s Nazi-equipped army, the non intervention but covert support of the fascist uprising and coup by ‘democracies’ such as the United Kingdom, and Stalin’s hi-jacking of the republican cause, for example. They did right to trust the people – the majority of the people trusted and supported them. They did right to give free voice in free assemblies to the ordinary communists, socialists, and non-aligned anti-fascists who had fought side-by-side with them.

My next extract contains the words of Eduardo Pons Prades, an anarchist youth of the time, explaining the system of vouchers which existed at the time, when money had been abolished:

“What did these vouchers represent? Well, they had to represent hours of production, the hours spent by a carpenter building a piece of furniture, or the hours spent by a peasant harvesting or working in the fields. Everything was calculated in hours of production. The peasants liked it because it meant making them equal to the industrial workers, making all work equal.”

My critique of the voucher system and barter system which existed when money had been abolished is very simple. I have no quarrel at all with the fact that at the same time profiteering had been abolished and commodities were now affordable by people who had been at the extremity of poverty. I say however that both straight barter and vouchers take the exact place of currency, establishing a price for things, a fixed exchange quantum; pricing is an insidiously capitalist principle and leads inevitably to the market principle of supply and demand. What should replace money is the social value of mutual aid. Entitlement to the basics of life is not directly tied to a measure such as number of hours worked, but rather to the principle that if a community makes shoes everyone eats, and if a community makes bread everyone is shod. Work is undertaken freely, I stress freely with no price attached, because it makes sense that everyone should eat and be shod, that is the societal value of work, the value of work as mutual aid, not its quantifiable price.

I can explain this a little better by quoting a comment I wrote for Alex Knight’s blog The End of Capitalism:

I quote from [Alex Knight]: “unpaid and stolen labor and resources”, in which [he includes] “women’s housework”. As I said, I am familiar with the Marxist view of the value of labour, as opposed to the market/capitalist view of its price. I use the term ‘price’ deliberately; although the Newspeak of capitalist propaganda always talks of ‘value’ it actually means ‘price’, and its use of the former term subverts and suppresses the distinction between true value and ‘price’. ‘Price’ is surely the correct term for the monetary (or other exchange equivalent) quantum applied to a given commodity, based on the law of supply and demand. In a market economy, labour is seen as a commodity and is subjected to that law. When my fellow feminists, in the past, insisted on recognition of the traditional roles of housework by a monetary equivalent in order that it should have ‘equal value’ with the work done by people in paid employment, I argued then and there that what they were doing was surrendering it entirely to capitalism, acknowledging it as a commodity, and insisting not on a value but a price.

There is plenty of work that is done for nothing. A banal example is someone giving up free time to help in a charity shop. Is it appropriate to attempt to measure the ‘value’ of that work by the equivalent wages of a shop worker for the hours spent? To give what I consider is a better example, although a very minor one, if I see someone carrying two bags of heavy shopping and I offer to carry one for her, what I am doing is definitely work. It is unpaid, but it is definitely NOT stolen. Its value is not the equivalent in a porter’s wages for the time spent, its true value is social, its true value is in its worth as mutual aid.

The value of ‘unpaid’ housework, no matter who does it, no matter if it is done by a woman, or by a man, or by a partnership in some agreed or ad hoc proportion, or by a family unit, or by any communal unit, is not the equivalent in a domestic servant’s wages for the time spent. Its value is – similar to the bag-carrying example – its importance in terms of mutual aid. To brand it “unpaid and stolen” is to accept a capitalist definition of it, even if one is supposedly opposing that definition; it is to degrade it and to ignore its vital, societal place in mutual aid.

If we are truly to embrace the mutuality implicit in the visions of, say, Kropotkin or Murray Bookchin, we are going to have to get our heads round the true value of various forms of work NOW, rather than continuing to think of them in terms of ‘market value’.

I hope it is becoming clearer to my regular readers just how radical I believe the concept of ‘freedom’ to be, how it goes far beyond its glib use by politicians, petty nationalists, and others. It is, as I have stated many times, total and inclusive. One last thing (and I’ll never tire of saying this either) it is not something I can teach you or give you, it is something you have to learn and seize for yourselves. I only ask you to realise that there are historical lessons to discover and to profit by, that there are mistakes not to make a second time, that there are wonderful women and men of the past from whom to draw inspiration. It is not the supposed hopeless idealism of such radicalism which causes it to fail, but rather the might which vested interest and reaction throws against it. Remember that Franco had thousands of anarchists summarily executed. I sincerely believe it is not for us anarchists to explain our concept of freedom, which is self-evident, but for people of other philosophies to justify their appropriation of the word. A revolutionary act is one which forces oppression to show its hand.


[1] Emma Goldman – An Exceedingly Dangerous Woman. This is a disinterested and fair non-anarchist analysis of the life of the famous Russian-Jewish-American Anarchist who once said “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution”.

[2] Federica Montseny herself did accept a government post as Minister of Health and Social Policy in the Spanish Republican Government. A short biography of her has this to say:

She was the first ever female minister in the Spanish government, and as minister she aimed to transform public health to meet the needs of the poor and working class. To that end, she supported decentralized, locally responsive and preventative health care programs that mobilized the entire working class for the war effort. She was influenced by the anarchist sex reform movement, which since the 1920’s had focused on reproductive rights, and was minister in 1936 when Dr. Félix Martí Ibáńez, the anarchist director general of Health and Social Assistance of the Generalitat de Catalunya, issued the Eugenic Reform of Abortion, a decree effectively making abortion on demand legal in Catalonia.

Given her family libertarian tradition, the decision to enter the Popular Front government was especially difficult. Although joining the government was a move encouraged by the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), this collaboration with the government in order to present a united front to the Fascist threat posed by Francisco Franco’s rebel armies, was widely questioned during and long after the war was over. Notably, she was involved in polemics with Emma Goldman, and the recipient of the harsh criticism in Camillo Berneri’s open letter of 1937. For many anarchists, the topic of collaboration — with both Marxists and governments — is still a contentious one.”


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