Franz Borkenau

The agrarian question in the Spanish civil war




The agrarian question should have been at the centre of the preoccupations of the progressive elements during the Spanish civil war. On the contrary, it didn't get the attention it deserved and, when it did, it was often treated in an appaling why by all of them.

This is an extract from Frank Borkenau, The Spanish Cockpit, 1937,



Other problems too turn upon this inextricable agrarian question. It is a question to which many journalists and foreign observers pay very little attention, but it seems to me to be in reality almost the crucial point of the whole movement. In practice very little seems to have changed in the conditions of landed property since August. But instead a major political conflict has arisen about the conditions created in the countryside during the first month of the movement.

Investigation has become much more difficult since. Neutral journalists simply do not get permits now to go and investigate on the spot. Still, from newspapers, travellers' tales, and occasional observations during my own trip to Malaga, I found I could get a fair amount of information. Rents to the large Iandowners have been paid nowhere. The effect of this abolition of rents ought to be enormous because the usual arrangement is that 50 per cent. of the total crop is paid as rent in kind In practice the effect is diminished by requisitioning, direct and indirect, such as has been described in the case of the CLUEA. The large expropriated estates remain on the hands of the committees, or rather, with the decline of the committees, in the hands of the municipalities, which run them by the labor of the old workers under the old conditions. But sometimes, as on some wheat farm in La Mancha, or on the sugar-cane farms of Malaga, they have been collectivized by the labourers and are worked by them under their own management. Peasant property, on the whole, has not been touched, with the exception of the land of friends of the insurgents. The crops of the peasant go still largely to the local merchants, who make splendid profits from them. But in a certain not altogether insignificant number of cases peasant lands have been 'collettivized' by the anarchists. Sometimes such collectivized farms seem to work fairly well; one famous case is the collectivization of a couple of orange-groves in the province of Murcia. Very often they do not work well at all. (I described such utterly unsatisfactory collectivization, in Castro del Rio, in the diary of my first journey; this particular village has since been occupied by the rebels.) The communists have started a big campaign against these collectivizations, which, they contend, are mostly forced upon the peasants by the anarchists against their will. And what insufficient attention is given to the agrarian problem is centred, in all parties, upon the question of the peasant ‘collectivities'.

The communists have undoubtedlyundoubtely a very strong case. Collectivization, without introduction of modern agricultural engines for large-scale production, such as tractors, cannot appeal to the peasant, must remain inefficient, and is likely to muddle up things in the villages, where the situation is already difficult enough. It is difficult to decide how far, in individual cases, these collectivizations are voluntary and how far enforced. What really matters is how far these new economic units have a chance to succeed, and in consequence to appeal to the peasant in a reasonably near future. I think the scepticism of the communists in this respect is well justified. Capital is needed to make large collectivized estates practicable, and, in addition, competent advice and leadership. Neither is available under the conditions of civil war. As things stand premature agricultural collectivizations are rather the last remnants of the old anarchist faith, which attempted to base a new society on moral enthusiasm and force only, irrespective of immediate practical conditions. The Ministry of Agriculture tries an alternative policy: it has at its disposal a certain amount of foreign exchange and uses it to acquire agricultural implements, mostly fertilizers, which it puts into the hands of individual landowners. It did so first at prices considerably lower than its own costs, and does so now at cost prices, i.e. still at prices considerably lower than ordinary market prices. Still, fertilizers are not within the reach of the average Spanish peasant (who would be more apt, in his destitution, to welcome collectivization than the small stratum of wealthy peasants). Again, in the problem of collectivization and agricultural implements, the communists play the wealthy peasants against the poor and against the anarchists. The attempts of the anarchists are childish.

But the worst thing about the whole matter of collectivization is the attention it gets at all. Collectivization is a pet idea of the anarchists and consequently makes a fit bone of contention between them and their adversaries. But that does not mean that it is the most important aspect of the agrarian problem. Busy with their wild antagonism, both communists and anarchists forget that the peasant is completely in the dark about the official policy concerning the expropriated land, both of the large landowners and of those smaller peasants who have fled or been executed as enemies of the regime. Sometimes this oblivion of the central problem is almost grotesque. The province of Jaen is one where at least 90 per cent. of the land not only belongs to grandees, but is managed as large estates. At the congress of the Unified Socialist Youth a young peasant from this province got up and at some length discussed the matter of the collectivization of the miserable lots which the peasants of his district prefer to hold in private ownership rather than to have collectively managed. But he forgot to mention the enormous estates which had remained in the hands of such municipalities as Andujar and Bailen, and which, if dealt with either by collectivization or popular division, would make the peasants forget altogether the argument about their miserable holdings, from which they draw starvation crops. The Spanish revolution set out to give the peasant the land of the grandee, individually or collectively. Instead of doing so it has landed itself in the impasse of discussing whether the peasants' own land ought to be owned individually or collectively. And the blindness as to this central problem is the same among communists, socialists, and anarchists, not to mention the POUM, which prefers to remain in the lofty realm of Marxist abstractions.

Still worse, the peasant is not sure, at present, about the fate of the crops of his own land. Requisitions are an inevitable necessity of war, whether done openly or under the screen of currency inflation. The peasant does not know clearly, however, what he is expected to give; and does not know in what way he will later be rewarded. He is left in uncertainty and growing restlessness. The wealthy peasants of the huerta de Valencia and similar districts may be at least indifferent to a success of the insurgents. But this is not the case in the larger part of Spain. Wherever the insurgents advance, thousands and thousands of peasants leave their homes. They do so not only to avoid bombs and shells; else they would hide in the mountains and come back after a few days. They flee because they are dead-scared of the rebels. They have listened to the tales of peasants from villages occupied by the Franco troops; those peasants tell of executions and of ruthless oppression.

The large majority of the Spanish peasants are poor, and they are used to regard the landowner, the police, the troops, and even the priests as their natural enemies, against whom they now seek shelter behind the lines of the republican army. But at the same time these peasants have given very few volunteers indeed to the Government troops, and even the spontaneous defence of their own villages has now, in contrast to the first months, become rather the exception than the rule. They know from what to flee, but they hardly know for what to fight. The insurgents would take much from them, but the republic has given them nothing substantial. Their attItude is in accordance with this situation.


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