Parliament or Democracy?

Parliament or democracy?

Throughout history there has been an alternative idea of democracy - this is the idea of direct democracy. It surfaced during the Paris Commune (in 1871), it surfaced in Russia during the early part of the revolution there, and it was put into large-scale practice in Spain between 1936-37. It is the method often used by workers in a strike; it is the method that often arises 'spontaneously' when people confront the State or the bosses. Direct democracy is the democracy that anarchists advocate.

Direct democracy is different to parliamentary democracy in a number of important ways:

1.Direct democracy is about 'originating' ideas as much as it is about 'approving' them. In parliamentary democracy, people are never asked for their own ideas - they are only asked to 'approve' or 'disapprove' of ideas already prepared for them. Direct democracy is radically different in that way. Direct democracy is based on the realistic notion that 'people know best how to look after their own situation'. We don't need specialists to tell us how to run our places of work or our communities. Anarchists argue that we are quite capable of doing this ourselves. All we need are the resources and the right to do this. Direct democracy is the method.

2.Direct democracy is based on delegation not representation. The crucial difference between delegation and representation is that delegates are only elected to implement specific decisions. Delegates do not have the right (like TDs or MPs) to change a decision previously made by an assembly of people. Delegates (unlike representatives) can be immediately recalled and dismissed from their mandate if they don't carry out the specific function allotted to them.

3.Direct democracy is as much about the workplace as it is about the community. In parliamentary democracy, the workplace is 'immune' to democracy (save what rights workers have won through their unions). In direct democracy, the operation of a factory or a plant or an office will be via a general assembly of all workers. This body will decide on conditions of work, will elect re-callable managers, and will organise how work is done. It will also elect people (as delegates) who will co-ordinate with the other places of work and with the broader community. Regional organisation will be managed through a federation of workplaces using a delegate structure.

Could such a form of democracy work and what would it be like? As mentioned earlier, Spain provides one of the best examples of how far we can go in organising a new type of society. The collectives that were built by the workers of Spain between 1936-37 were highly democratic 118 . But they also showed the massive potential that we have if freed from the constraints of capitalism. It seems obvious (though it is impossible under capitalism) that we should all have a say over the work we do, how we do it, when and in what way. When we do have these rights, the quality and nature of our work changes enormously - and this is one of the things that was achieved in Spain. Democracy and work should always go together - and it is one of the singular failures of parliamentary democracy that this has never occurred - nor is it ever likely to occur because of the threat it poses to capitalism and the rule of the boss.


The Spanish Revolution began in 1936 and was strongly influenced by anarchist ideas. It was a large-scale revolution and was without any doubt the most extensive workers' revolution in the 20th century - especially to the extent that Spanish society was transformed.

The Spanish Revolution was also particularly democratic - this was in part a reflection of the natural tendencies of popular revolutions, but it was also an expression of the wide influence of anarchist ideas which prioritised participation and mass assemblies in the struggle against Spanish capitalism.

Anarchist ideas are founded around the principle of 'means and ends'. We believe that the means we use will condition the ends we achieve. Anarchists want to build a free and democratic workers' society. As a result anarchists use methods that will build this within the struggle for change. Partly as a result of anarchist activity, the workers' movement in Spain was strongly influenced by the practice of democracy - this was a deliberate goal.

Anarchist methods of struggle set out to increase the self-activity and self-confidence of the working-class. For this reason anarchists oppose any involvement with the 'parliamentary road to socialism'. Parliamentary activity and 'electioneering' - in Spain as elsewhere - increases the passivity of workers and encourages people to believe that 'someone else' will bring socialism. Anarchists fundamentally oppose this notion. We know - and history seems to vindicate the view - that 'the emancipation of the workers can only be carried out by the workers themselves'.

The methods used by anarchists in Spain were conscious and thought-out. They are as relevant now as they were then. The main ones were as follows.

The anarchist strategy of direct action and direct democracy in Spain was concretised by the formation of the syndicalist CNT union in 1910. Syndicalism was an attempt to provide a link between the broader anarchist movement and the workers on the shop-floor. Its basic ideas revolved around all the workers being in one big union. All the employees in a workplace would join. They would link up with those in other jobs in the same area, and an area federation would be formed. Delegates from these would go forward to regional federations who were then united into a national federation. All the delegates of the CNT were elected and recallable. They were given a clear mandate and if they broke it they could be replaced with new delegates.

Every effort was made to prevent the growth of a bureaucracy of unaccountable full-time officials. There was only one full-time official in all of the CNT. Union work was done during working hours where possible, otherwise after work. This ensured that the officials of the union stayed in contact with the shop-floor.

The CNT experienced rapid growth from the time of its formation. By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936 it had almost two million members. Its strongholds were in Catatonia and in Andalusia. It also had large followings in Galicia, Asturias, Levant, Saragossa and Madrid. Its main strength was among textile, building and wood workers as well as amongst agricultural labourers. As it preached social revolution it was subject to vicious repression not only under the semi-dictatorship which ruled in Spain until 1931 but also the 'reforming' governments which followed. The Popular Front Government in particular, with its social democratic and Stalinist supporters, showed no mercy to the anarchist movement.

The revolution that overtook Spain in July 1936 119 occurred initially as a response to the attempted coup by the military led by General Franco. The response to the coup in Catalonia, and Aragon and in many other places where the anarchists were strong, was the fruition of years of direct action and direct democracy in the Spanish workers' movement. Immediately the popular movement that had resisted the fascists moved beyond the notion of restoring 'parliamentary democracy' and began to implement a new democratic society.

ON THE LAND: Collectivisation of the land was extensive. Close on two thirds of all land in the Republican zone (that area controlled by the anti-fascist forces) was taken over. In all between five and seven million peasants were involved. The major areas were Aragon where there were 450 collectives, the Levant (the area around Valencia) with 900 collectives and Castille (the area surrounding Madrid) with 300 collectives. Not only was the land collectivised but in the villages workshops were set up where the local trades-people could produce tools, furniture, etc. Bakers, butchers, barbers and so on also decided to collectivise.

Collectivisation was voluntary and thus quite different from the forced "collectivisation" presided over by Stalin in Russia. Usually a meeting was called in the village (most collectives were centred on a particular village) and all present would agree to pool together whatever land, tools and animals they had. This 'pool' would be added to what had already been taken from the big landowners. The land was divided into rational units and groups of workers were assigned to work them. Each group had its delegate who represented their views at meetings of the collective. A management committee was also elected and was responsible for the overall running of the collective. They would look after the buying of materials, exchanges with other areas, distributing the produce and necessary public works such as the building of schools. Each collective held regular general meetings of all its participants. If you didn't want to join the collective you were given some land but only as much as you could work yourself. You were not allowed to employ workers.

Production was changed by the Revolution but so was distribution. This was altered so as to be on the basis of what people needed. In many areas money was abolished. People come to the collective store (often churches which had been turned into warehouses) and got what was available. If there were shortages, rationing was introduced to ensure that everyone got their fair share. But it was usually the case that production increased under the new system, thereby eliminating shortages.

In agricultural terms the revolution occurred at a good time. Harvests that would normally have been sold off to make big profits for a few landowners were instead distributed to those in need. Doctors, bakers, barbers, etc. were given what they needed in return for their services. Where money was not abolished a 'family wage' was introduced so that payment was on the basis of need and not the number of hours worked.

Production increased greatly. Technicians and agronomists helped the peasants to make better use of the land. Modern scientific methods were introduced and in some areas yields increased by as much as 50%. There was enough to feed the collectivists and the militias in their areas. Often there was enough for exchange with other collectives in the cities for machinery. In addition food was handed over to the supply committees who looked after distribution in the urban areas.

Federations of collectives were established, the most successful being in Aragon. In June 1937 a plenum of Regional Federations of Peasants was held. Its aim was the formation of a national federation 'for the co-ordination and extension of the collectivist movement and also to ensure an equitable distribution of the produce of the land, not only between the collectives but for the whole country'. Unfortunately many collectives were smashed, not by Franco's army but by the soldiers of the Stalinist General Lister, before this could be done.

The collectivists were not only concerned with their material well being. They had a deep commitment to education and as a result of their efforts many children received an education for the first time. This was not the usual schooling either. The methods of Francisco Ferrer, the world famous anarchist educationalist, were employed. Children were given basic literacy skills and after that inquisitive skills were encouraged. Old people were also looked after and where necessary special homes for them were built. Refugees from the fascist controlled areas were looked after too.

IN THE CITY: In industry the situation was a little different. The collectivisation was not as extensive in urban areas but it still occurred on a huge scale. In Barcelona over 3,000 enterprises were collectivised. All the public services, not only in Catalonia but throughout the Republican zone, were taken over and run by committees of workers.

To give some idea of the extent of the collectivisation here is a list provided by one observer 120 . He says

'railways, traincars and buses, taxicabs and shipping, electric light and power companies, gasworks and waterworks, engineering and automobile assembly plants, mines and cement works, textile mills and paper factories, electrical and chemical concerns, glass bottle factories and perfumeries, food processing plants and breweries were confiscated and controlled by workmen's (sic) committees, either term possessing for the owners almost equal significance ... Motion picture theatres and legitimate theatres, newspapers and printing, shops, department stores and hotels, deluxe restaurants and bars were likewise sequestered.'

Often the workplaces were seized because the owners had fled or had stopped production to sabotage the revolution. But the workers did not stop with these workplaces - all major places of work were taken over. Some were run and controlled by the workers. In others "control committees" were established to ensure that production was maintained (these existed to exercise a power of veto on the decisions of the boss in cases where the workers had not taken over the actual power of management).

In each workplace an assembly of all the workers was the basic unit. Within the factory workers would elect delegates to represent them on day-to-day issues. Anything of overall importance had to go to the assembly. This would elect a committee of between five and fifteen workers, which would elect a manager to oversee the day-to-day running of the workplace. Within each industry there was an Industrial Council which had representatives of the two main unions (CNT and UGT) and representatives from the committees. Technicians were also on these committees to provide technical advice. The job of the Industrial Council was to set out an overall plan for the industry.

The Barcelona trams are a good example of what workers achieved when they took over:

Out of the 7,000 workers on the tramways at the time of the Revolution, some 6,500 were members of the CNT. Because of the street battles, all transport had been brought to a halt. The transport syndicate (as unions of the CNT were known) appointed a commission of seven to occupy the administrative offices while others inspected the tracks and drew up a plan of repair work that needed to be done. Five days after the fighting stopped 700 tramcars, instead of the usual 600, all painted in the black and red colours of the CNT, were operating on the streets of Barcelona.

With the profit motive gone, safety became more important and the number of accidents was reduced. Fares were lowered and services improved. In 1936, over 183 million passengers were carried. By 1937 this had gone up to over 233 million. The trams were running so efficiently that the workers were able to give money to other sections of urban transport. Wages were equalised for all workers and increased over the previous rates. For the first time free medical care was provided for the work force.

Extensive reorganisation took place to make industry more efficient. Many uneconomic small plants, which were usually unhealthy, were closed down and production was concentrated in those plants with the best equipment. In Catalonia 70 foundries were closed down. The number of tanning plants was reduced from 71 to 40 and the whole wood industry was reorganised by the CNT Woodworkers Union.

In 1937 the central government admitted that the war industry of Catalonia produced ten times more than the rest of Spanish industry put together and that this output could have been quadrupled if Catalonia had the access to the necessary means of purchasing raw materials.

As with the examples of rural collectivisation, distribution was also changed. Many parasitic 'middlemen' were cut out of distribution. The wholesale business in fish and eggs was taken over as were the principal fruit and vegetable markets. The milk trade in Barcelona was collectivised which saw over 70 un-hygienic pasteurising plants closed down. Everywhere supply committees were set up. All of this made the middle classes very unhappy. To them, with their notions of becoming bigger bosses, the revolution was a step backwards.

Equalisation funds were established to help out the poorer collectives. Indeed there were many problems. Many markets were cut off in the fascist zone and some foreign markets were also temporarily lost. Raw materials were often scarce, as sources of supply had been cut off; there was the added problem that money was held back from the collectives by the central government (for political reasons). This was one serious, though artificial, short-coming of the collectivisation - its lack of credit facilities which would have allowed investment and future planning. (During the Revolution the banks had not been seized and the gold reserve already referred to stayed in the hands of the government. The CNT did hatch a plan to seize it, but backed down at the last moment).

Despite all this, production was increased and living standards for many working class people improved. In October 1936 the government was forced to recognise the collectivisation by passing a decree that recognised the fait accompli. It was also an attempt to control future collectivisation.

This is only a very brief look at the collectivisation that happened. But in keeping with anarchist beliefs the revolution did not stop there. For the first time in Spain many workers had the benefit of a health service - organised by the CNT Federation of Health Workers. The Federation consisted of 40,000 health workers - nurses, doctors, administrators and orderlies. Once again the major success was in Catalonia where it ensured that all of the 2.5 million inhabitants had adequate health care. Victims of the Civil War were also treated. A programme of preventive medicine was also established based on local community health centres. At their 1937 Congress these workers developed a health plan for a future anarchist Spain which could have been implemented if the revolution had been successful.


The importance of the workers' collectives in Spain lie in the example that they provide. Elitist opinion since time immemorial has portrayed 'popular rule' as an impossibility on the one hand, or as a state of affairs that is likely to result in a shambles, on the other. The workers of Spain showed this to be entirely false - and showed this on a grand scale. Now as much as then, they offer us a concrete idea of how society can be organised by workers in a democratic and free way. This is viable alternative.

Despite the power of such an example we are still faced with a difficult and tough struggle ahead - how to end the capitalist system with its greed, its misery and its competition. Now is as good a time as any to consider how we should conduct this struggle, what its aims should be, and what methods we should use. We must aim for revolution and we must aim for real democracy. These are the essential goals, the points that we must reach before we can ever change anything. To do this, we argue as anarchists that we must build where we are actually strong - at work and in the community. Our methods must build on class solidarity, they must use direct action, they must aim to increase the self-activity of workers and the poor; they must always encourage participation.

About one thing we have no doubts. Parliament will not bring us the change that we now need. Parliament is a means of diffusing democracy, of channelling real struggles into a safe dead-end. Time and time again it has become a graveyard for the workers' movement. That is a mistake we must not repeat again.

From the pamphlet Parliament or Democracy?

Parliament or Democracy

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