Can anarchism work? People ask the question with reference to all sorts of things, but a common enough one is economics. The failure of the Soviet-style planned economies, in particular, is a dismissal of the idea that socialism of any kind (particularly the stateless variety) could ever work. How would anti-authoritarian socialists run an economy on the scale of a region or country?
The answer, it turns out, can be found in this book — not a work of abstract theory, but a masterpiece of economic and political history written by an eyewitness to the events described.
Gaston Leval, a French syndicalist writer, went to Spain during the civil war to defend the nascent socialist Republic against fascists. Once there, he realized that the war was about more than that — behind the front lines, particularly in territory controlled by the anarcho-syndicalist Confederacion Nacional de Trabajo (CNT), a real social revolution of the sort dreamed of for a century was taking place. In some ways, it was what the syndicalists had always talked about — a democratically run trade union learns how to run industry by running itself, then simply takes over industry and runs it along democratic lines. Yet the experiments made necessary by the conditions of war led to unexpected developments. It wasn’t that the syndicalists went authoritarian; to the contrary, the pressures of the immediate situation led the libertarian socialists, communists, and anarchists in the CNT-FAI to consult with the locals and one another, debate, and experiment in a manner that produced bold new policies unheard of in Europe before (and, for the most part, since).
The libertarian socialist economy was built with freedom and equality as its core principles; from these principles, different localities launched their own experiments in socialist economics, yet also coordinated with one another and copied the more successful ones. The end result was staggering and sounds like science fiction: peasants were granted their own plots of land in a bourgeois revolution, but then voluntarily integrated into a socialist economy through positive incentives; powerful and democratic collectives were established that governed industry within municipalities and coordinated relations between them; attempts were made to socialize money and (with mixed success) to abolish it; universal provision of basic needs (including, for the first time ever, health care and education) and a family stipend became standard across anarchist Spain; small businesses were voluntarily vertically integrated with others in the same industry to form worker-controlled companies with larger, cleaner facilities, more efficient processes, and greater leisure time for workers; and industry and agriculture alike came under democratic control, with experiments in both elected/recallable managers and totally flat structures. Remarkably, the result of these experiments was not to crash the economy, but to bolster it — both agricultural and industrial output grew as a result of anarchist rulerlessness and libertarian socialism.
Leval knew when he started that the Republic was going to lose the war — in no small part due to the abandonment of the Revolution by Western liberal democracies and the backstabbing of the USSR — so he set out to record what he was seeing so it could be preserved for future generations of libertarian socialists. The resulting book was only published years later, but draws on detailed notes he took at the time with direct access to the historical records and account books of the revolutionaries. The result is a thoroughly researched book packed with both direct observations and statistical data — and a must-read for any libertarian socialist who wants to take seriously the challenges involved in establishing an economy truly run by and for ordinary working people.