Workers' control in the 1936-37 Spanish Revolution


John McNair

I propose to give an account of what I saw while in Spain, and of the further developments since my return. The work of economic reconstruction commenced immediately after the various barracks and buildings occupied by the fascists had been retaken by the armed workers, and it is being carried on parallel with the military activities against fascism. There was no question of patching up the capitalist framework — it was realised by the workers at the very outset that capitalism had failed in every respect and that a new social order would have to be established.

In order that the taking over of industry should be carried out on a scientific basis, the various working-class organisations decided to form an Economic Council which would function as the central advisory body on all questions of economic control, the decisions of this Council to be legalised by the Government. These Economic Councils have been set up in various parts of Spain which are under the control of the workers, but we shall deal with their development in Catalonia as, in this province, the whole of the territory has been freed and it is thus possible for them to function normally.

The Economic Council of Catalonia consists of 15 members, 10 elected by the various trades union, the CNT, the UGT, the FAI and the POUM and five by the purely political parties. Each member of the Council is called upon to deal with a particular branch of economic activity such as Metallurgy, Textiles, Banking, Food Supplies, etc. The particular job of each member is to apply the programme indicated below to the particular branch of industry under his control.

1. Reorganisation of production in accordance with the needs of the consumers, suppressing or modifying unnecessary industries and stimulating energetically the creation of new industries which it will Á be useful and necessary to develop in Spain following the change in the value of the peseta.

2. The establishment of a strict control on export and import trade to prevent foreign attacks on the new economic order.

3. The collectivisation of large estates and agricultural undertakings which will be worked by the Peasants Syndicate with the aid of the Government and the compulsory adhesion of agriculturists who exploit medium or small farms.

4. The partial devaluation of urban property by means of rent reductions or the establishment of equivalent taxes where it is not deemed advisable to reduce the amount of the rent.

5. The collectivisation of all the principal industries, public services and all forms of transport.

6. The immediate taking over and collectivisation of all undertakings abandoned by their owners.

7. The intensification of the co-operative system in the distribution of all commodities and especially the co-operative exploitation of all the important distributing undertakings.

8. The immediate workers’ control of the banking system with the ultimate aim of the nationalisation of the banks.

9. The full control by the workers’ syndicates of all small undertakings which remain in the form of private property.

10. The immediate absorption by agriculture and industry of the unemployed. To assist this process, agricultural products will be immediately distributed at controlled prices; the return to the land of those workers who can be absorbed by the new agricultural methods of work will be hastened and so will also the creation of important industries to produce manufactured articles which it may be difficult to import, and the complete electrification of the whole of Catalonia, including all the railways.

11. The rapid suppression of all forms of taxation in order to institute one unique tax on revenue.

It will be seen that the above programme provides for the taking over of almost all forms of industry, and the immediate measures adopted by the works during the transition period are as follows:

Each industry is controlled by a Committee of Workmen elected through their unions, whose job it is to develop and direct the undertaking along its particular line and to produce most economically and efficiently the various products for which the particular industry exists.

During the time of transition, however, and in view of the imperious necessities of the moment, a homogeneity of action is imposed which is brought into being by the following measures:

1. The election of a General Committee of Direction and Control, on which are represented delegates from each trade union.

2. Election of smaller committees at the head of each section of the undertaking.

3. Publication of the salaries paid to the high directors of the concern. Suppression of these salaries. Suppression of the office of director in all the concerns taken over. Levelling up of wages.

4. Suppression of the Board of Directors and the expropriation of the concern taken over. (NB to avoid diplomatic difficulties no foreign concerns have been taken over).

5. Preparation of the 36-hour week. The 40-hour week has already been decreed by the government.

6. Modernisation of all sanitary arrangements etc.

7. The publication of the financial situation of the concern, together with a complete list of the stock.

8. The fixing of a definite programme of work, especially in those industries working for the military defence of the workers.

9. The employment of the former experts and technicians who are in sympathy with the ideals of the workers, and they are numerous. Some of them indeed have been elected as members of the Workmen’s Committee of Control.

The total result of the taking over of the industries by the workers has been that the rate of production of all essentials is even now greater than before the rising.

We shall now examine in detail the functioning of several branches of the new economy, commencing with what is in many respects the most important, namely, banking.

Banking, which came to a complete standstill with the military insurrection, has once more started to function by order of the legal government. Naturally finance has had to adapt itself to the new conditions created by the civil war. High finance, which was sympathetic towards the reactionaries and even gave them active support, has had to be subordinated to the interests of the people. The administration of the banks and other financial institutions has been taken over by committees of employees and a government representative.

Sums may be withdrawn from banking accounts only when intended for the payment of salaries and wages, to cover running costs and general works expenses. Private depositors, however, are permitted to withdraw a sufficient amount to cover their personal expenses within the limits imposed by the Committee of Control. The Stock Exchange is closed and speculation is prohibited. Exchange transactions are also prohibited and foreign currency may be obtained only for travelling expenses. The work of the Workers’ Committees of Control has prevented any financial panic, any increase of prices or any hoarding of money.

As we have seen, all the large estates have been taken over by the people and the medium and small properties have been left in the hands of the peasants.

A law has been passed providing for the compulsory trade union organisation of the peasants. The reason for this law was the absence of a comprehensive agricultural organisation to regulate and control the necessary preparation and distribution of products intended for consumption.

The principal object of this new law is to ensure that all agricultural activities are governed by the general food requirements of the population, to stimulate the productivity to the point necessary to provide adequate food supplies, and to ensure the peasants against any risk or usurious exploitation.

The trades unions created by this law, together with those already in existence, will supervise work in the following sections:

A. The necessary preparation and sale of agricultural products.

B. The acquisition of supplies.

C. Mutual insurance.

D. Credit fund.

The trades unions controlling the exploitation of land which has been taken over have created sections for collective work. They are grouped into municipal federations which look after the distribution of food in the following manner:

1. Sales to local trade unions.

2. The creation of central offices for the preparation of the agricultural produce.

3. Establishment of distributing centres in all towns and villages.

4. Insurance fund against risks together with credit funds opened in the Agricultural and Co-operative Credit Bank under the control of the Peasants’ Union and the Government.

The organisation of agricultural work on a co-operative and collectivist basis has been accepted by the people as the most effective way of deriving the fullest benefit from the agricultural exploitation of the land and the improvement in the standard of living.

The same principles which have been applied to banking and agriculture have also been successfully carried out in the workers’ control of industry.

The following is a list of the industries which have been taken over and run under workers’ control on a collectivist basis:

The railway companies; the omnibuses and trams; the underground; the petroleum, automobile and steamship companies; all public services, including electricity, gas, water, etc; all munition factories; the hospitals, theatres, cinemas, etc.

The results of this co-operative, collectivist control are that production has been increased enormously, in spite of the fact that large numbers of the workers are fighting on the various fronts, and, further, the increased production has been attained more economically on account of the fact that highly paid and often useless directors have been displaced and their places taken by experts and technicians who have proved their sympathy with the aims of the workers. In many cases these experts have been co-opted on to the committees of control and as a result there is a complete absence of friction between the office staffs and the workers, which naturally increases production and reduces costs.

Finally, behind all this is the fact that the workers realise now, for the first time in Spanish history, that they are working for themselves. They see quite clearly that the increase in production will not cause unemployment, as in capitalist countries, but will result in shorter hours and improved conditions of working. Even now the hours are 40 per week, to be reduced to 36, with an increase in wages of 15 per cent. In spite of this, however, the workers are voluntarily working 12 to 14 hours per day without extra pay, to increase further the rate of production, and they are forgoing their wage advance of 15 per cent., which is going to the wives and dependants of the armed workers at the front.

They are doing all this because they know that they are in control of the new economic order and can afford to build durably and well.