A Utopia Towards Peace? Notes on Marinaleda

by Samuel Grove

The avowedly communist Andalucian town of Marinaleda has fought state and private power for decades. But is it a model for others?

First published: 28 May, 2013 | Category: International, Philosophy and Theory, Vision/Strategy

If you haven’t heard of the Andalucian town of Marinaleda or know little of its politics, I very much suggest you find out, either by visiting it or by getting hold of Dan Hancox’s recent book on the topic. It was through the latter that I came to do the former. Already planning a holiday in Seville, a friend forwarded me a copy of the book, and being just a two hour coach ride from Seville, Marinaleda was too good an opportunity to miss. Here is why.

Spain is often assumed to lag behind the rest of Europe, perhaps not without good reason. Europe's bourgeois revolutions were more or less completed by the end of the nineteenth century, yet Spain's came only in the 1930s and even then wasn’t completed. To this day much of southern Spain is still basically feudal; rich aristocrats presiding over huge estates, leaving vast expanses of their land unused while the people who live on it struggle for food. In terms of political consciousness and action, however, the people of Marinaleda may be far in advance of the rest of Europe. The first struggle of the Marinaleños, in the late 1970s, was for control of their own water, but this was won so easily that they quickly moved onto a struggle for land. This was a harder fight, but after 12 years the local government gave in and granted them 1200 hectares of land. With this land they started a farming cooperative and, since 2000, a factory.

Thirty years of popular struggle has left its mark on the town. While the rest of Spain laments the control domestic oligarchs and foreign banks have over the country, all major decisions in Marinaleda are made democratically in weekly town meetings.  While the rest of Spain reels from the turbulence of a fully privatised housing market, housing in Marinaleda is fixed at €15 a month. While unemployment in Spain is over 27%, in Marinaleda it is 5%. While los indignados bemoan the dominance of the corporate media, Marinaleda has founded its own television and radio channels. These are among the reasons why so many people in Spain want to move to Marinaleda—there is a two year waiting list—and why so many people from around the world want to visit. In the words of one resident, Marinaleda has become ‘like a Mecca’ for socialists. 

It is platitudinous to say that Marinaleda’s achievements are impressive and that we have much to learn from its experience. The question is precisely what we can learn. I want to discuss what we can learn from Marinaleda with respect to four separate themes. These themes both characterise what it means to be on the left and define the challenge the left undertakes. I don’t suppose to come up with anything definitive; rather this should be read as an articulation of the thoughts milling around my head as I was touring the town and speaking to its people. Nevertheless I do think the case of Marinaleda can help us on the left to clarify what we want to achieve, and the challenges we face in doing so. 

The Left: Communism vs. Anarchism?

The themes I will discuss are:

•    Equality
•    Freedom
•    Organisation
•    Scale

One of the problems of debating these issues is that they are often subsumed into a larger and sometimes unhelpful debate between communism and anarchism. For instance, in the case of the first two themes, communists will often accuse anarchists of prizing ‘freedom’ over ‘equality’, while anarchists accuse communists of the reverse. Equally questions of ‘organisation’ and ‘scale’ are often articulated in a Manichean fashion—communists privilege hierarchical organisations to meet global challenges, while anarchists prefer horizontal formations at a local scale. 

The fact that we are discussing Marinaleda and Spain appears to make it even more sensible to frame the debate in this way. Spain is home to the first and most developed experiment in anarchism—during the Spanish Revolution of 1936-7. This experiment did not last long, but it had a profound effect on Spain’s political consciousness. Today the anarchist tradition remains strong. Spain's two largest unions, the CNT and the CGT, are anarchist and anarchism remains the principal inspiration for the student and Indignado movements. Antipathy towards communism—specifically the Stalinist variant many blame for the collapse of the anarchist experiment in the 1930s—still runs deep.  And yet Marinaleda, only 108km from Seville, is proudly and avowedly communist.[1] This is obvious from the moment one arrives. Street art and graffiti covers the town and much of it consists of affirmations of the town’s communism and declarations of solidarity with Venezuela, Cuba and the USSR.

Yet, I want to avoid recapitulating this long-standing debate. We are all, on the left, committed to ‘equality’, ‘freedom’, ‘organisation’ and the ‘universality’ of the struggle. Differences emerge either as a matter of degree, or, as I will be arguing in this discussion, because these themes are themselves characterised by deep internal tensions. These tensions pose a problem for all of us—communists and anarchists alike. 

i)                Equality: Passive vs. Active

In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy 'proving' that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the 'mystique' of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all. (Orwell, 1938, 290) 

George Orwell’s neat distinction between the ‘idea’ of socialism and its bureaucratic form masks the fact that this antagonism is built into very concept of ‘equality’ in the first place.  The political theorist Jacques Rancière helps us to understand why. Rancière distinguishes between ‘passive’ and ‘active’ equality. 'Passive' equality concerns distribution and makes people recipients of something (rights, welfare, opportunities). Political agency is thus confined to the agent that carries out the distribution, typically the state. 'Active' equality is concerned with the moments when ordinary people become political agents themselves through their active struggle for equality. ‘Active' equality often gives rise to ‘passive' equality: the rights and privileges we receive today were won when people decided to struggle for equality. Marinaleda is no different. 

The most impressive aspect of the Marinaleda story is undoubtedly the commitment and tireless resolve of its activism. Twelve years is a long time to fight for land, and especially exhausting when you consider the lengths that Marinaleños have gone to win it. I spoke with one of the activists of the original struggle, Nikolas, who now runs the union bar. He recounted to me, with a great deal of passion (‘Sam, I have goosebumps every time I tell this story’), the stories of the demonstrations, marches, occupations and hunger strikes that took place during this period. Without recording equipment, and struggling with his heavy Andalucian accent, allow me to borrow from Hancox’s interview with the town’s charismatic mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, which provides a fairly close approximation to Nikolas’s account:

We saw that the Duke of Infantal had the most lands – 17,000 hectares between Andalucía and Extremadura. So we fought the Duke for twelve years! We occupied his land, we cut off roads, and at the same time we pressured the government. We went to Malaga and Sevilla airports and shut them down: we broke the airport fence and went into the landing strip. The police threw us out, and we’d do it again. We went to the Andalucían government in Sevilla, to the national government in Madrid, we did demonstrations on foot; all of this struggle was meant to pressure the Duke and pressure the government, so those lands would be given to us. (Gordillo, cited in Hancox, 2012, 21) 

The activists collectivised the land and shared the proceeds equally. Today the salary in the cooperatives is €1200 a month for all employees, regardless of job role. This might not seem a lot, but when one considers that housing costs as little as €15 a month, it is more than liveable. Likewise the town makes every effort to ensure everyone has access to its amenities (free internet, water) and facilities (cheap day care). Among the most impressive of these are the sporting facilities. While the town comprises barely 2000 people, its sporting facilities rival those of any London borough: two immaculate football pitches, a basketball court, squash and tennis courts, volleyball and a swimming pool. All free to use (or pretty much free—the swimming pool has a nominal yearly fee). Visitors to Marinaleda are often put up for the night in the sports centre. Having not arranged a place to stay myself, it was the first place I visited. I arrived to find 15-20 young girls, between the ages of about 8-13, enjoying a basketball training session. I know that in Spain sport is not so gender marked as it is in Britain, but it was impressive to see nonetheless.

Sport is a good example of how recipiency can encourage participation. However it often doesn’t. Nikolas mentioned to me that some of the younger people of the town, who have no memory of the original struggle, are more complacent about what they have. This was worrying because what Marinaleda does have is still quite precarious. The future of Marinaleda depends not just upon the levels of activism it can mobilise against external threats, but also the levels of internal activism its residents can maintain day-to-day, week-to-week. The signs, in this regard, are good. Marinaleda is defined, first and foremost, by its commitment to direct democracy. All major decisions for the town, including those concerning the factory and farm, are made collectively in the assembly hall. The meetings take place about 3 times a month and are attended by about 300-400 people. Anyone can speak—you simply put your hand up—and according to Nikolas, everyone is eager to join in. Antonio, one of the factory workers, explained to me that the cooperatives are run in more or less the same way, with workers equally eager to have a say in the way they are run. 

ii)                  Freedom: Individual vs. Collective

The left is not simply concerned with equality. As Corey Robin reminds us, all the great modern movements of the left have...

...posited a nexus between freedom and equality. Marching out of the family, the factory, and the field, where unfreedom and inequality are the flipsides of the same coin, they have made freedom and equality the irreducible yet mutually reinforcing parts of a single whole’. (Robin, 2011, 9) 

Freedom for Marinaleños is freedom from the aristocrat—at whose mercy the people had been for so many years; from the church—there is a church in Marinaleda but it is very small and poorly attended; from corporations—private businesses do exist in Marinaleda, but they are local; and, above all, from outside interference, be it external control over water and land or the whims of the market. 

When freedom is understood in a collective sense, it coincides with equality—partly what we mean by freedom in a collective sense is freedom from inequality. To this degree ‘collective freedom’ is a condition of individual freedom. It has been understood at least as far back as Rousseau that bigotry radiates from hierarchy.[2] It was difficult to ascertain the townspeople’s attitudes to issues of race, gender and sexuality in such a short space of time. However it was noticeable that a lot of the art and graffiti around the town pronounced the equality and liberty of different races, women and homosexuals. Equally both Nikolas and Antonio made a point of emphasising the role that women had played in the struggle and the running of the factory respectively.

                                                   (“Homophobia—Never More”)

However in other ways ‘collective freedom’ evidently does place restrictions on ‘individual freedom’. For instance certain steps have been made to ensure that Marinaleda maintains its freedom from the perils of capital. While people have reasonable ownership of their houses (they can decorate it as they wish and so on) they are not allowed to sell or rent it for profit. There are also rules regarding employment in the cooperatives: strictly one job per household. 

Freedom from fascism is still prominent in the minds of those that can remember it. This might inform the premium people place on tolerance of the minority of dissenters that live there. ‘We just let them be, if they are not interested in getting involved that’s up to them’ Nikolas told me. This same sentiment was expressed to me several other times in the course of my stay. On the other side the dissenters that I spoke to were not hesitant to convey to me their dissatisfaction. ‘There is no respect anymore in this town’ an old man told me in a cafe. ‘When did things change?’ I asked. ‘30 years ago everything changed’ he replied. ‘We have been going backwards ever since’. After he left I recounted the conversation to the friendly waitress, Pania. She laughed. ‘Haha, he is always so miserable, just ignore him’. The next day I spoke to someone equally opposed to the town’s politics, but no less vague. ‘It’s all lies’ he said. ‘Don’t listen to anything people tell you’. His counsel wasn’t delivered in a hushed whisper in my ear, but loudly and derisorily in front of about ten other people. If he was speaking the truth, then he evidently wasn’t afraid who heard it. 

Tolerance is a desirable commodity, particularly in such a small town.  It is also something quite easy to maintain when those opposed to the democratic arrangement pose no danger. And at present they don’t. In the Municipal elections the Izquierda Unida has nine councillors to the opposition’s two, and the latter are social democrats. Outside of elections the opposition expresses dissatisfaction, as Nikolas had said, largely by not taking part. Presumably certain measures would have to be taken to defend themselves, were passive withdrawal to shift to something more threatening. 

iii)                Organisation: Hierarchy vs. Horizontalism

 At a surface level it is easy to compare horizontal, non-hierarchical forms of organisation favourably against hierarchical party structures. The problem is that power relationships have a nasty habit of infiltrating even the most idealistic formations, and when they are not formally recognised (in elected positions and so on) they are much harder to hold to account. Secondly a dogmatic commitment to horizontalism can stifle movements oriented around disciplined action for specific objectives. 

Political affairs in Marinaleda are divided between two organizations: The union (Sindicato de Obreros del Campo—SOC) and the political party the union established (Colectivo de Unidad de los Trabajadores—CUT). Each has its own formal, hierarchical structure and elected delegates. It is important to note that these organizations precede everything else. The struggles for water and land were undertaken with a clear purpose set out by the union; to establish ‘the sovereignty of food, meaning that food was a right and not a business [and] that natural resources should be at the service of the communities that work them, and who use them’. (SOC’s mission statement cited in Hancox, 2012, 20-21) There was to be no replay of the disputes over collectivization that happened during the civil war. 

The flipside of the unity associated with hierarchical structures is that they can suffocate the energy of the rank and file. One of the great virtues of more informal, horizontal formations is that they are more able to draw upon and stimulate human creativity and ingenuity. This is particularly on display in Seville, where anarchist groups and cooperatives operating out of the old industrial warehouses (espacio abiertos) of Plaza Pumarejo and Pasaje Mallol are thriving. 

Marinaleda is hardly a model of a stale Soviet bureaucracy, however. One of the more creative expressions of spontaneity comes once a month with Domingo Rojo (‘Red Sunday’). Someone in the assembly will suggest a way in which the town could be improved, and then a team of volunteers will carry it out. This can involve anything from mundane jobs like cleaning the streets or housing repairs, to actually building houses and undertaking art projects (the famous Che mural being one such example). More recently they have added Domingo Verde (‘Green Sunday’) in an effort to make the town more ecologically friendly.

iv)                Scale: Local vs. Global

One of the first questions facing the Russian revolutionaries in 1917 was the relationship the new Soviet Union should have with the rest of the world. Should it maintain its commitment to internationalism as Marx had insisted? Or should it concentrate on establishing and protecting socialism in Russia? I do not want to review an old and very well rehearsed debate here. But it is useful to recall its outlines, if only to recognise how, even on a much smaller scale, these issues reproduce themselves. 

Marinaleños are vehemently and understandably proud of their history and achievements. While the town's art pays homage to the global struggle, everyone I spoke to insisted on the importance of finding their own way and of drawing upon the pedagogy of their own experience in meeting the challenges of the future. It is difficult to begrudge them this. Their achievements have been exceptional not just in terms of being impressive, but also in terms of how unlikely they have been. There is no analogue to Marinaleda in the rest of the country. Neighbouring towns, such as Estepa and Osuna, show no sign of being affected by it. Among the political activists I spoke to in Seville (almost all of whom were anarchists) few expressed much awareness or enthusiasm. 

At the same time Marinaleños are acutely conscious of what is happening in Spain and the rest of the world. Were they not it is difficult to imagine what their TV and radio stations could broadcast about four hours every day.[3]We believe that the solution for our locality or the country is also a good solution for the globe', their media website proclaims, and Marinaleda uses its television and radio stations to export its story nationally and internationally. Media is also a means of inviting global solidarity. Marinaleda TV has recently welcomed delegations from Venezuela, Cuba and, just a few months ago, Che Guevara’s daughter.

Concern for politics beyond Marinaleda is also understandable from a local perspective. The town’s industry is not immune to the economic crisis engulfing Spain (a fall in demand for goods) or the perils of free trade and foreign competition (being undercut by Costa Rican food companies, for example). Rather than keeping themselves to themselves Marinaleños have sent delegations to marches and participated in direct action across Spain. One of the more high profile actions in recent years was the raiding of supermarkets in the towns of Écija and Arcos de la Frontera. This was a bold move that drew headlines in the Spanish press and caught the attention of the international media. Gordillo was quoted in El Pais saying that ‘People have to do something for the families that are struggling to eat every day’. If this was a publicity stunt, as conservatives in Spain insisted, it was one that carried great risks, both immediately for those carrying out the raids, and more broadly in terms of potentially provoking conflict with a state so far happy to tolerate it.

Conclusion: Possible vs. Impossible

In this essay I have tried to draw attention to problems that the left confronts in general, and the particular ways that Marinaleda has endeavoured to overcome them. In the process I have tried to go beyond what I described in the introduction as a superficial debate between communism and anarchism. However the differences between communism and anarchism are not always superficial. In particular the way communists and anarchists locate themselves in relation to the state is one of the most critical questions the left faces. It is also a question that Marinaleda doesn’t provide even a partial answer to. 

Ironically for a town that calls itself communist, it is precisely the fact that it hasn’t—so far—had to confront the full force of the state that Marinaleda has been able to remain faithful to many of the tenets of Spanish anarchism.[4] If Marinaleda was any larger, its contradictory relationship to the state—denouncing and disrupting the latter while also demanding financial support from it—would not be sustainable. Larger still, and it surely would feel the state's full force—as Spanish Republicans found out when they challenged the hegemony of the ruling class in the 1930s. 

If the people of Marinaleda deserve enormous credit for what they have achieved over the last 30 years, we also have to accept that these successes have come only in the most exceptional of circumstances. Could we imagine any other scenario in which a national or regional government would tolerate a town abolishing the police? For this reason, among others, Marinaleda is routinely fetishized for its uniqueness—‘a communist oasis in a capitalist desert’, and so on. Indeed Marinaleños themselves are keen to cultivate this image, as in the town’s motto: ‘Una Utopia Hacia la Paz’ (‘A Utopia Towards Peace’). 

At the same time, and as extraordinary as Marinaleda is, it was many of its very ordinary features that were, for me, among the most inspiring. Apologists for the status quo will always try to make us to believe that something like Marinaleda is not possible. Not because of the contingent forces that capital can bring to bear upon it, but because of its supposed internal contradictions—it goes against human nature. And yet Marinaleda remains very naturally human. When I asked Nikolas what challenges they faced in running the town democratically, he expressed his irritation that sometimes neighbours would bring their disagreements with each other into the assembly hall—‘but then it’s just a matter of switching the chairs around’ he added. I asked the same question to Antonio and he began talking about international competition. When I clarified that I meant internal challenges, he shrugged:

None really. I might be the one designated to deliver instructions from time to time, but everyone knows what they are doing. For God’s sake—the women upstairs have been working here for 12 years! They don’t need anyone telling them what to do. 

This didn’t sound revolutionary. It sounded like common sense. 

I’d like to give special thanks to Omeila Bignami and Vittorio Xpery for their cooperation, company, and conversation during a very memorable couple of days.

Samuel Grove is an independent researcher and journalist.

 

References

Dan Hancox. 2012. Utopia and the Valley of Tears: A Journey Through the Spanish Crisis.

George Orwell. 1938 (1980). Homage to Catalonia, Secker &Warburg/Octopus.

Corey Robin. 2011. The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, Oxford University Press..



[1] In Spain the word ‘communism’ is more akin to the term ‘socialism’ in England. In Spain, a ‘socialist’ is equivalent to our ‘social democrat’.

[2] I am thinking particularly of this extract from A Discourse on Inequality “...citizens only allow themselves to be oppressed only so far as they are impelled by blind ambition; and fixing their eyes below rather than above themselves, come to love domination more than independence, and agree to wear chains for the sake of imposing chains on others in turn. It is difficult to reduce to obedience a man who has no wish to command." (Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1754 (1984). A Discourse on Inequality, Penguin Books, 133)

[3] Although to be fair this isn’t four hours of original material. They also broadcast Telesur.

[4] For a discussion of different approaches to the state, see John Molyneux’s Anarchism: A Marxist Criticism, Bookmarks, 2011.

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