Image above: A tram in CNT colours, Barcelona, 1936. In an anarchist system the trams ran on time without bosses.
Political economy is the study of production and distribution of the material means necessary for society to function .
Anarchist communism specifically advocates for a stateless, classless society featuring democratic control of the means of production, where goods are distributed by the principle “from each according to ability to each according to need” .
The key organisational structures are community controlled industries and communes with decentralised planning of production and distribution. Furthermore, when larger scale coordination is required these organisations form federations. Federations are controlled from below with democratically elected, recallable delegates.
Social anarchism (as opposed to individualist tendencies) is a political philosophy that has historically been considered a form of anti-state libertarian socialism. Due to its primary development during the first international , the major concerns are the connection between the state and the capitalist class and the state’s role in reproducing private property norms.
“Today the government is composed of proprietors, or people of their class so entirely under their influence that the richest do not find it necessary to take an active part themselves.” – Errico Malatesta .
However, economic exploitation isn’t the only form of domination that
anarchists are interested in overcoming. The liberation of women for example was part of the anarchist rejection on hierarchy from the beginning and over time, wider social forms of domination have been incorporated into the general anarchist rejection of hierarchy .
As anarchist communists we consider ourselves as part of this project in rejecting both exploitation and domination as well as the systems of power which reproduce them wherever they may be found.
Given social anarchism’s primary development during the first international by figures like Mikhail Bakunin, its twin themes of anti-capitalism and anti-statism emerged, inspired partially by both Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Karl Marx. Just like the labour theory of value so central to marxism can be traced earlier to economists such as David Richardo , it’s no surprise that some anarchists support this theory as well.
So too can other notions utilised by many marxists such as the concept of scientific socialism be found earliest in Proudhon, the first person to call themselves an anarchist. “And just as the right of force and the right of artifice retreat before the steady advance of justice, and must finally be extinguished in equality, so the sovereignty of the will yields to the sovereignty of the reason, and must at last be lost in scientific socialism” .
The point is that all radical theory developed from this period share an interconnected history. Therefore it follows that any conception of social anarchist political economy must be found in its development alongside other contemporary radical tendencies.
Anarchist communists can look to the above period and practical examples to derive a concrete analysis of political economy. The role of anarchism within Spain is a useful case study as it’s one of the largest attempts at libertarian socialism in history.
Starting as a working class response to the Francoist fascists attempt to take state power, social revolution was attempted through organisations such as the syndicalist CNT. The CNT’s formal economic program within Spain was libertarian communism , however this wasn’t achieved universally due to the continued presence of the state and the money form.
Large parts of the industrial base and agrarian regions were collectivised in a short amount of time. Precise statistics on collectivisation are difficult to come by; all major industry and transportation were collectivised within Catalonia and over 400 agrarian collectives existed within Aragon .
Also large numbers of women entered the workforce  and trams in Barcelona operated more frequently compared to the previous economic order .
Despite the general success of collectivisation, significant problems arose. Due to the financial system not being collectivised and the further inability to abolish money in all areas of the revolution, competition persisted between different factories in the area of distribution.
This led to a general lack of coordination in distribution and a decline in solidarity within the working class. One strategy to minimise this was to share surpluses, “To this effect increasing efforts were made by the collectives not to compete with each other for profits but instead to share the surpluses across whole industries” .
As Deirdre Hogan notes “In Alcoy, for example, when the printing, paper and cardboard Syndicate was experiencing difficulties the 16 other Syndicates that made up the local Federation in Alcoy gave financial assistance that enabled the printing Syndicate to survive” .
These attempts ameliorated the issue but still reproduced the market logic that gave rise to its faults. Smaller, less efficient factories were often centralised into larger factories to improve efficiencies. The procurement of new machinery and reductions in energy use led to increases in output. Workers also gained access to greater levels of sanitary provisions, space, light and air in the larger modern facilities increasing their health outcomes .
What can Anarcho-communists learn from the Spanish Revolution and how does that apply today?
Much has been written about cooperatives and their transformative potential, the obvious benefit being workplace democracy. There’s also some evidence of lower failure rates compared to general capitalist enterprise .
However by functioning within a market, distributional competition remains and can lead to the reproduction of an owner, non-owner dialectic within the cooperative. This is a result of market pressure that forces the creation of non-owner positions through outsourcing.
The prominent contemporary cooperative, Mondragon, in Spain offers an example of this: “Mondragon outsourced production to affiliated subsidiary companies in China, Mexico, Poland, Brazil or the Czech Republic in order to profit from cheap unskilled or semi-skilled labour, while many of the 120 linked enterprises are not organised as cooperatives” .
This is a modern variant of what happened in Spain as internal and external solidarity is eroded within the working class. Although cooperatives are certainly preferable to hierarchical property relations, they are insufficient for the kind of economic transformation to society anarcho-communists want. Distribution must be organised around need and not market competition.
Another issue with preserving the market is that wage disparity amongst industries remain, therefore differences within consumption persists. Demand for goods and services can only be realised by those who work and the wage disparity amongst industries and geographic areas would mean that certain products could only be attained by the highest paid.
As Gaston Leval notes “Too often in Barcelona and Valencia, workers in each undertaking took over the factory, the works, or the workshop, the machines, raw materials, and taking advantage of the continuation of the money system and normal capitalist commercial relations, organised production on their own account, selling for their own benefit the produce of their labour.”
He concludes that “There was not, therefore, true socialisation, but a workers’ neo-capitalism, a self-management straddling capitalism and socialism, which we maintain would not have occurred had the Revolution been able to extend itself fully under the direction of our Syndicates”  .
Kropotkin further demonstrates the issues about unequal remuneration between skilled and unskilled workers: “Yes, but to establish this distinction is to maintain all the in-equalities of our existing society.
It is to trace out beforehand a demarcation between the worker and those who claim to rule him. It is still to divide society into two clearly defined classes: an aristocracy of knowledge above, a horny-handed democracy below; one class devoted to the service of the other; one class toiling with its hands to nourish and clothe the other, whilst that other profits by its leisure to learn how to dominate those who toil for it” .
Any attempt to preserve market economics will maintain some form of uneven division of remuneration between industries as well as between those that cannot work for whatever reason, instrumentally measuring a person’s worth and preserving prior economic injustice. This is at best a transitory state of affairs – especially during a revolution – with a tension between its emancipation of the worker in their workplace and their exploitation and competition with other workers in the external market.
Due to the inevitable unevenness of a revolution, including the need for its international dimension, it is unlikely that communism could be established all at once and so a hybrid economic system will develop like it did in some areas of Spain. This was further complicated by the preservation of the republican state and its usage of currency as opposed to free consumption.
The role of the anarcho-communist organisation is to prepare and advocate for as swift a change to communism as possible to minimise the impacts of these contradictions, including retaining power at the base of the society amongst producers. This helps the revolution to maintain its liberatory potential. Leaving production for exchange intact maintains the general logic of the old capitalist system and anarcho-communists ought to struggle against this.
In 1937, February 14 – 15, the Constitutive Congress of the Aragon Federation of Collectives made a major decision to abolish money, demonstrating a concrete commitment to libertarian communism. 
Even though money was abolished in Aragon, no one system predominated to replace it, instead the various towns organised broadly under the principle of “free consumption”. This wasn’t without its limits, as free consumption was only applied to goods of abundance. Other goods (which differed between towns) were distributed under supervision from whatever local distributional collectives predominated. Simple forms of distribution were used, backed by rigorous accounting books to track the abundant and rationed goods as they were given as needed .
The ability of the Aragon collectives to institute free consumption of goods, however constrained by the material conditions, shows that the need for intermediary steps are not necessary and where possible should be avoided.
This also demonstrates that production can be organised by workers themselves, without the mediation of a state apparatus.
The introduction of women into the workplace during the revolution was a necessary and welcomed development. However, in practice this led to a larger amount of work for women as women were still often required to do the majority of the social reproductive labour at home. Childcare was provided by some collectives to improve this, though not broadly enough .
Any modern anarchist strategy – if it’s to be emancipatory – requires a dismantling of norms and economic relations that reproduce patriarchal domination. The “double day” for women must be avoided by equalising socially reproductive labour at home and in the workforce. It cannot rely on a naive economic strategy, or just be assumed like it was at the time, that revolution will inevitably change the condition of women .
The autonomous women’s organisation, Mujeres Libres was the major exception to this belief in inevitable change in gender relations and focused on developing childcare, educational and maternity programs for women. The same goes for any other form of domination whether it be racism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, or any hierarchical system that oppresses and limits people’s liberation.
Finally the CNT made the mistake of collaborating with the remnants of the state, although it was in the name of anti-fascist unity. This led to a situation of dual-power between the collectivised industries and the state. Over time the state was able to slowly regain control, to the anarchists’ detriment. They should have abolished the state when they had the chance, as there can never be unity between anarchists and the state. This came to a head when the government attacked the CNT controlled telephone exchange in Barcelona, leading to street violence. So much for anti-fascist unity .
The Spanish revolution does demonstrate decisively that a mass anarchist society is possible. The social revolution was constrained by state collaboration, preservation of production for exchange (which eroded solidarity), the failure of its international expansion and patriarchal norms which meant women entering the workforce performed double labour.
Despite this the working class in Spain were able to control industry efficiently and improve conditions, all the while fighting a war against fascism. It’s an example of what is concretely possible and any anarchist communist analysis of political economy needs to take seriously both the successes and failures of the revolution.
This article is an expanded edition of the original which was first published in Sydney Anarco-Communists Bulletin #1.
- Frederick Engels, 1878, Anti-Dühring, https://libcom.org/library/anti-duhring-engels-political-economy
- Levy, C., & Adams, M. S. (Eds.). 2019, The Palgrave Handbook of Anarchism. P.102
- Lucien van der Walt, 2016, “Global Anarchism and Syndicalism: Theory, History, Resistance”, Anarchist Studies 24.1, P.91-92
- Errico Malatesta, 1891, Anarchy, https://www.marxists.org/archive/malatesta/1891/xx/anarchy.htm
- Angela Wigger, 2014, A critical appraisal of what could be an anarchist political economy, Management, business, anarchism volume 14, number 4, Ephemera Journal
- David Richardo, 1817, On The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, Chapter 1: On Value
- Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, 1840, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/pierre-joseph-proudhon-what-is-property-an-inquiry-into-the-principle-of-right-and-of-governmen#toc41
- Isaac Puente, Libertarian Communism, p. 2, https://libcom.org/files/Libertarian%20communism%20-%20Isaac%20Puente.pdf
- Statistical information on socialisation in the Spanish Revolution, 2006, https://libcom.org/library/statistical-information-on-socialisation-in-the-spanish-revolution
- Deirdre Hogan, Industrial collectivisation during the Spanish revolution, P.6 https://libcom.org/files/Industrial%20collectivisation%20during%20the%20Spanish%20revolution.pdf
- ibid, p. 5
- ibid, p. 4
- ibid, p. 4
- ibid, p. 4
- Richard D. Wolff, Worker Cooperatives and WSDEs, https://www.rdwolff.com/faq_worker_coops_wdes
- Angela Wigger, 2014, A critical appraisal of what could be an anarchist political economy; Management, Business, Anarchism Volume 14, Number 4, Ephemera Journal
- ibid, Part 3, Ch.11
- Pëtr Kropotkin, 1920, The Wage System, Part III – Unequal Remuneration
- Gaston Leval, 1972, Collectives in the Spanish revolution, Part 2, Ch.5, https://libcom.org/library/collectives-leval-2
- Gaston Leval, 1972, Collectives in the Spanish revolution, Part 2, Ch.8, https://libcom.org/library/collectives-leval-2
- Deirdre Hogan, Industrial collectivisation during the Spanish revolution, P.6 – 7 https://libcom.org/files/Industrial%20collectivisation%20during%20the%20Spanish%20revolution.pdf
- Liz Willis, Solidarity Pamphlet #48,
- ibid, P.9