The industrialist and « productivist » turn

les anarchosyndicalistes espagnols des années 1930

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The following article requires a brief introduction. In what way can the « productivist » turn of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists of the 1930s shed light on the current period? The historical understanding of the process that has brought us to today is useful, especially if we want to try to learn from the past, which we must begin by analyzing. What about the trade unionism that is the subject of this dossier, when we look at it from a non-productivist point of view? Have all unions always defended productivism in the name of progress? What alternative experiences have proposed other ways of considering the defense of people, of workers? Kairos is not an anarchist newspaper. This does not prevent us from recognizing anarchism as an important socio-political current of the last two centuries, which was, more than others, so troublesome that it was radically fought against and finally removed from the books of official history(1).

Looking back at the 1936 revolution(2) and some of its preconditions is particularly instructive for our time. We think the following article illustrates this perfectly. Here we see an acceleration (in just a few years) of what had already happened in the rest of the European labor movement: the revolutionary anarcho-syndicalists took up the bourgeoisie’s program of industrial development. But with the particularity that in Spain, more widely and longer than elsewhere, the working classes were little seduced by the values of modernity and by the « spirit of capitalism », of which industrial « productivism » was only one aspect. Thus, as soon as the revolutionary process began in July 1936, tensions were palpable in the collectivized factories between workers attached to the anti-capitalist forms of life and struggle of previous years, and the syndicalists who wanted to apply the Scientific Organization of Work and Taylorism. The same tensions were at work between the factory and the fields, the company and the village, between a certain idleness cultivated as an art of living and the mechanical cadences at the service of the revolutionary tomorrows which sing. The terrible pressure of the war, combined with « productivist » propaganda, tried to cut short these tensions by promising victory over fascism and a bright future conquered by work for the industrial machine.

But have these tensions disappeared for good? Let’s look at the Spanish news, and elsewhere in Europe. The tension is back, what will be the dividing lines? It is very useful to look at experiences and episodes like these to better understand what is happening, taking into account what happened, so that it can happen differently, better if possible.

The arriero walked for a while in silence, his eyes fixed on his toes that sank into the dust with each step. Then he blurted out, detaching the words well, « ¡ Ca!, en América no se hase na’a que trabahar y de’cansar! » Hell, in America you only work and rest so you can get back to work. This is no life for a man. There is no pleasure in living there. An old sponge fisherman from Malaga told me this and he knew what he was talking about. It is not gold that people need, but bread and wine and… life. There, they just work and rest so they can get back to work… ». 
Excerpt from John Dos Passos’ youthful account written during his travels between 1916 and 1920: Rossinante takes to the road again, Grasset, 2005.

This mentality of resistance to the development of the economy itself, which Dos Passos captured at the beginning of the 20th century, was also perceived by Franz Borkenau in 1936–1937 during his stay in Spain. He reported on this in his book published in 1937(3):
« In Spain, the masses have not ceased to rebel against progress and Europeanization in all its forms […]. In the more « modern » countries, socialism has completely adopted the industrial and « progressive » options of the bourgeoisie. […]. During the 19th century, and even more clearly from the 20th, modern capitalism imported from abroad slowly penetrated Spain with the moderate help of the Basques and Catalans […] but with little or no participation by the Spaniards themselves. […] The revolt of the Spanish masses was not a struggle to improve their living conditions within the framework of an admired capitalist system, but a struggle against the first manifestations of a hated capitalism. [Whatever concessions have been made in recent decades to the needs of industrial progress, the Spanish worker has never resigned himself, like his English and German colleagues, to being a mere employee of industry. […] The American demand for more and more material is unknown in Spain. […] The tradition of struggle against oppression, the mentality of the brigand who abandons his village to live free, is infinitely more alive in Spain than that of the trade unionist who accepts long months of strike action in exchange for a little more material comfort. This is why the use of violence is never ruled out a priori by the Spanish masses, who, on the contrary, consider peaceful union action suspicious. To sum up, I would say that what offends the conscience of the Spanish workers and peasants is not the idea of a capitalism that would go on indefinitely, but the very appearance of this capitalism. This, for me, is the key to the privileged position of anarchism in Spain. »

This a priori refusal of capitalism was indeed embodied by one of the currents of the so-called communalist and individualist anarchism(4). One of its best-known representatives, Federico Urales(5), published in 1927 in La Revista Blanca — which he directed — an outspoken critique of industrial society:

« Capitalism is the son of industrialism. From capitalism was born an indolence that can be described as mechanical, that is, the fact of producing a lot with the least effort […]. The machines that were invented to produce a lot and cheaply first produced too many arms. […] It is in the villages that we must prepare for social transformation, because the products of the earth are the only ones that have a positive value. Industrial production is artificial; it often obeys misapplied calculations by the management which are not based on the needs of the community. If the workers of the big capitals take over the factories, nothing will come of it. But if the peasants take over the land in their villages, much will result! »

However, the anti-materialist underpinning will no longer be as decisive in the 1930s. This is related to the rise of anarcho-syndicalism from 1910, when the National Confederation of Labor (CNT) was created. In the CNT congress of May 1936 in Zaragoza, the main motion that was adopted noted that « two ways of interpreting the meaning of life and the forms of the post-revolutionary economy are stirring with a certain firmness in the very heart of the CNT.

The divide, which appeared in Spanish anarchism from its beginnings, implicitly covered two ways of pushing back against capitalism: one from the territory of daily life (the neighborhood and the rural commune); the other from the workplace (the factory).

In the text of the motion of the congress, which wanted to be conciliatory, the individual, the commune and the trade union constituted the three pillars of the future libertarian society. But for some years now, the syndicalist tendency had been gaining the upper hand, and this shift was embodied in the trajectory of one of the main intellectuals of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI): Diego Abad de Santillán. He himself had long preferred the rural municipality, and had opposed the domination of the sindicato in the anarchist movement. He wrote in 1931(6):

« Modern industrialism, in the manner of Ford, is pure fascism, a legitimized despotism. In the great rationalized factories, the individual is nothing, the machine is everything. Those of us who love freedom are not only enemies of state fascism but also of economic fascism. »

Two years later, he began a dramatic about-face and described modern industry as « a source of pride for the human species linked to the domination of nature. He noted with approval that « Taylorization had eliminated the unproductive movements of the individual. Then he praised the Ford factory « where speculation has ended, the health of the staff is guaranteed and salaries are increasing. The result is better than that of a tiny company in Barcelona ».

Santillán was inspired by the conclusions of the Argentine Anarchist Congress of Rosario of August 1932, where it was considered decisive « to adapt anarchism to the technical demands of the industrial society ». Commenting on his strategy of the years 1934–1936, he wrote after the Civil War:

« First of all, we had to raise the industrial and agricultural level of the country; we felt capable of giving this impulse but through the instrument we had, the trade union organization. »

In 1934, he set the framework for this « impulse » as follows:

« It seems to us that in our libertarian circles there is some confusion between what is social conviviality, grouping by affinity, and the economic function. The old visions […] on the free communes act on the mentality of certain comrades. […] The future is completely different. In the factory, we do not look for affinity, as in the couple or in friendship […]. In the factory, what interests us above all else is our fellow worker who knows his job and performs it without creating difficulties inherent in inexperience or ignorance of how the whole thing works. »

In March 1936, Abad de Santillán published his book :

« Economic Organization of the Revolution. How we live and how we could live in Spain ». It was a question of defining a « practical way of immediate realization of a libertarian socialism founded on the trade union and the federation of industry, as opposed to the « paradisiacal utopianism » of a certain anarchism resting, him, on the free commune ». He argued in 1976 that « after having represented the condition of possibility of an eventual liberation of humanity, scientific and technical progress has become its protagonist [.…]. The great revolution today is reform; the barricade has fulfilled its mission, assuming that it had one. »

And he went on to urge anarchists to end the « ruralist utopia » and adapt to the modern economy:

« Both modern industry and modern agriculture place limits on the « do what you want » approach to economics. Modern industry is a mechanism that has its own rhythm. The human rhythm does not determine the rhythm of the machine; it is the rhythm of the machine that determines the rhythm of man. [Economic localism has passed and must pass, where it has not yet done so, to the museum of antiquities. »

In order to achieve libertarian socialism, he said, it was necessary to get rid of « the tendency to live without working […], which has been present throughout Spanish history », and that « leisure, laziness and degrading parasitism [fussent] be eliminated ».

In his Economic Organism of the Revolution, the FAI intellectual and future Minister of Economy of Catalonia argued that:

« After so many centuries of exploitation of man by man, […] the formula « He who does not work does not eat » appears to men emancipated from ignorance […] as the most adequate expression of justice and freedom. […] For us, the realization of this formula is of primary importance.… All those who consider it right that man should live by the sweat of his brow, and not by the sweat of others’ brow, constitute in fact one « party », and must form one battle front. »

« Either we want welfare, in which case we must accept, with all its consequences, the industrial economic machine; or we do not want it, and then we can wave the banner of economic communalism. »

And he concluded : « We see for us, libertarian anarchists, succeeding the fall of capitalism a long and painful period of work.

Following the same logic, Abad de Santillán imagined the world of abundance for all that could come about:

« To the work imposed by nature is added that which the development of civilization, which generalizes the use of things formerly reserved for the rich, makes necessary. […]. Not so long ago, the automobile was a rarity that aroused envy wherever it went. Today, it is an indispensable quasi-proletarian vehicle that must be available to all, absolutely all the inhabitants of a country who need it […]. To preserve and increase the benefits of civilization, to multiply the productivity of the soil, to make physical effort less brutal, to embellish life, it is essential to work. […]. As long as a single Spaniard does not have decent clothes, the textile factories of Catalonia will not close their doors. Salvation lies in work, and the day will come when the workers will want this salvation. »

Thus, in May 1936, just before the outbreak of the revolutionary process that we know, Santillán announced:

 » [il] It is not necessary to destroy the existing technical organization of capitalist society, we must use it. The revolution must put an end to private ownership of factories, but if factories are to exist, and in our opinion they must, it is necessary to know how they work. The fact that they become collective property does not change the essence of production or the method of production. It is the distribution of products that will change and become more equitable.

Michael Seidman(7) thinks that this « abrupt about-face […] was surely induced by the crisis which led many militants […] to think that the fall of capitalism was inescapable and that they had to be able to manage the economic transition towards libertarian communism. […]. Spain had to accomplish in a few years what capitalism had not been able to do for decades. »

Capitalism was not understood as a mode of production but « only » as a mode of distribution8 , as the system of exploitation of one class by another

Three observations stand out:

- From an undeniable will to break with capitalism and to banish material misery once and for all, the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist leaders of the 1930s — like their European counterparts — rallied to the theory of the proletariat carried by traditional Marxism, which dissociated industrialism and capitalism, and criticized « Capital » from the point of view of « Labor ». In this framework, the union became the entity that prefigured the emancipated society to come, from being an instrument of struggle against the capitalists.

- Capitalism was not understood as a mode of production but « only » as a mode of distribution(8) as the system of exploitation of one class by another, where a minority captures the social wealth for its own benefit, the whole being based on the principle of private property and the free market, guaranteed by the state. There was thus no « evil » in the eyes of the anarchists(9) to take again to their account the industrial development and its production, including with its most advanced technical and social modernizations (OST, fordism), since they redirected them towards the satisfaction of the needs of the laboring population.

- At that time, productive labor was conceived as the generic activity of men and not as the substance of capitalist value. Even today, the engine of capitalism remains a clandestine truth(10). But it is regrettable that the anarcho-syndicalists no longer wanted to look at what was becoming obvious in France or in the USA, where the workers had long been revolting against timekeeping, the chain and overwork. It was already clear at that time that the rationalization of work was at the expense of its quality; that its purpose was not to relieve people but to bend them to the ever more infernal pace of production.

We see here how a society that is still very agricultural, a priori little colonized by the « spirit of capitalism » and very marked by the miserable life imposed on workers, is invited to get rid of capitalism by tipping over into productivism and consumerism — that is to say, in reality, by passing from one stage of capitalist development to another. And in this perspective, an economistic conception of the world, centered on work, is decisive. The new converts to the economy did not realize that they were participating in the dissolution of the links between men that capitalism operates, in order to substitute those that pass through the work.

While many works have dealt with doctrinal issues and the vicissitudes of the anarchists’ relationship to power, few works to our knowledge offer a very thorough critique of the CNT’s economic choices and especially of its management of collectivized enterprises, where it had free rein from August 1936 until the end of the civil war, especially in Barcelona.

Michael Seidman is the only one to point out that the CNT had to face the resistance to work of Barcelona’s workers and employees, and to relate this phenomenon to the industrialist and productivist option of the anarcho-syndicalists.

It is not an insult to the Spanish libertarian movement to proceed to a flattening of its options and strategies, without fearing to break the excess of romanticism that obscures the picture. The trick is to be able to discern what is the result of the misguidedness of an era and what is attributable to the intrinsic limitations of the movement.

Myrtille Gonzalbo,

This article is an extract from a longer text published in the Bulletin Sortir de l’économie n°4(http://sortirdeleconomie.ouvaton. org). A revised and expanded version is available on our own website: http://

Notes et références
  1. Rappelons par exemple que le 1er mai est la commémoration du « massacre de Haymarket » le 4 mai 1886, où plusieurs leaders anarchistes états-uniens furent injustement accusés d’un attentat, jugés puis pendus (certains des accusés virent la peine de mort commuée en peine de prison, puis libérés, le jugement étant cassé en 1893). Ils avaient mobilisé les foules pour la réduction de la journée de travail à 8 heures, étape vers l’abolition du salariat réclamée par les anarchistes. L’attentat perpétré par des inconnus qui ne furent jamais retrouvés eut pour effet de casser le mouvement ouvrier et de détruire le mouvement anarchiste aux USA.
  2. Sur la guerre civile espagnole de 1936 et sa signification, voir le livre de George Orwell, Hommage à la Catalogne, Paris, éd. 10/18, [1938] 1982, et notamment ses deux derniers chapitres d’analyse politique. Orwell partit en décembre 1936 en Espagne et s’engagea dans les rangs du POUM (Parti Ouvrier d’Unification Marxiste) pour combattre l’armée du général Franco, soutenu par les droites espagnoles. Il observa que les communistes alliés à l’Union Soviétique se retournèrent contre le mouvement ouvrier et anarchiste et le persécutèrent sans relâche. Il en retint une détestation pour la socialdémocratie frileuse et menteuse et le communisme soviétique dont le caractère totalitaire lui servit d’ingrédient pour son livre 1984.
  3. Franz Borkenau, Spanish Cockpit. Rapport sur les conflits sociaux et politiques en Espagne (1936–1937), Champ Libre, Paris, 1979.
  4. Selon Chris Ealham, le courant anarchiste individualiste était animé depuis le XIXe siècle par une myriade de petits groupes très autonomes, en lutte permanente contre l’autorité, le capitalisme et l’État. La tradition libertaire dans cette ville datait de la décennie 1860 et fut véhiculée par les groupes d’affinité comprenant entre quatre et vingt membres qui provenaient du même quartier et se faisaient entière confiance. Ils propageaient une culture de résistance à l’éthique du travail et aux rituels quotidiens de la société capitaliste. On trouvait parmi eux des pacifistes, des naturistes et des végétariens, des espérantistes, mais aussi des activistes pratiquant la vie de bohême, le brigandage, « l’acte individuel antisocial » et l’illégalisme; ils ne reculaient pas devant l’usage de la violence. Le terreau de ces groupes anarchistes était la culture des quartiers (barrios) dont le « code moral » justifiait le « délit économique » pour finir le mois, et dont la pratique « d’action directe » remontait aux années 1830. Ce courant optait pour la propagande par le fait et pour la voie insurrectionnelle. Il s’opposait violemment à toute organisation, restant dans un premier temps à distance de la classe ouvrière. La lourde répression que ces groupes subirent les rendit inopérants.
  5. Alias Juan Montseny. Les tentatives insurrectionnalistes des années trente pour proclamer le communisme libertaire furent soutenues en 1932 par la conférencière Federica Montseny, fille de Juan : « Nous devons, nous les anarchistes, déplacer nos activités dans les campagnes, dans les villages ruraux, d’où partiront les phalanges révolutionnaires pour en finir avec l’hégémonie des villes, foyers de corruption et de stérilisation des mouvements. […] Nous n’avons pas besoin des villes pour faire la révolution, [elles] sont le lieu de concentration des forces capitalistes. »
  6. Diego Abad de Santillán, El anarquismo y la revolución en España : Escritos 1930–1938, Antonio Elorza, Madrid, 1976, p. 46
  7. Auteur de : Ouvriers contre le travail. Barcelone et Paris pendant les fronts populaires, Editions Senonevero, 2010.
  8. Pour le marxisme « traditionnel », le passage du capitalisme au socialisme est vu comme une transformation du mode de distribution plutôt que comme une transformation du mode de production. Sur la question voir Moishe Postone, Temps, travail et domination sociale, Ed. Mille et une nuits, 2009.
  9. Pas plus qu’il n’y en eut pour le reste du mouvement ouvrier. La question est toujours d’actualité.
  10. Travail et valeur sont les formes historiquement spécifiques organisant les rapports sociaux capitalistes. La fonction du travail dans le mode de production capitaliste est de permettre à l’argent de faire plus d’argent, les besoins des hommes étant secondaires. Ce qui est produit – et comment il l’est – n’a aucune importance, pourvu que l’extraction de survaleur à partir du travail vivant ne soit jamais interrompue et que cela se fasse au moindre coût.
  11. Les Giménologues sont un petit groupe d’amis, historiens amateurs, qui ont publié Les Fils de la nuit. Souvenirs de la guerre d’Espagne 1936–1939, Ed. L’Insomniaque, 2006, à partir du récit d’Antoine Gimenez, milicien volontaire dans la colonne Durruti. Ils s’intéressent tout particulièrement aux causes et à la nature de l’expérience révolutionnaire espagnole des années trente. Pour en savoir plus :

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