Gaston Leval

Gaston Leval

Born in the 1890s, Gaston Leval became a war-resister before the Great War, and in 1915 sought refuge from military service in Spain, where he entered the syndicalist movement and became so accepted that he was named a member of the Spanish delegation to the Red Trade Union International Congress in Moscow in 1921. Under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera he left Spain for Argentina, where he remained from 1923 to 1936, when he returned to Spain and decided that his contribution to its revolution should be to observe the experiments in social transformation going on in towns and cities alike and to make a record for posterity. Out of this emerged a number of early pamphlets, followed by his major work, Collectives in the Spanish Civil War. For the past twenty years Leval, who returned to France when an amnesty for war-resisters was granted after World War II, has been editing his monthly journal, Cahiers de l’Humanisme Libertaire


Collectives in Spain

Social Reconstruction in Spain: Spain and the World

Anarchists Behind Bars

Collectives in Aragon

Ne Franco ne Stalin


Gaston Leval: Collectives in the Spanish Revolution (excerpt)

To the north of the province of Teruel, Mas de las Matas is the chief village of the canton bearing its name, which comprises 19 villages. It had 2300 inhabitants. The most important of the surrounding localities were Aquaviva with 2000 inhabitants, Mirambel (1400), La Ginebrosa (1300). Only six villages were entirely collectivized by May 1937, four were almost completely, and for five others collectivization was 50 per cent. Three others were about to collectivize and only one village was hesitating. Very soon all the villages were 100 per cent collectivized.

Here the libertarian movement preceded the syndicalist movement. Smallholdings were widespread, and did not favour the emergence of associations of wage earners. And in Mas de las Matas, where thanks to irrigation life was relatively comfortable compared with the surrounding villages, which were more or less without water and life was hard, libertarian ideas took root from the beginnings of the century, not so much on class issues as for reasons of human conscience. If groups were started to fight against the exploitation of man by man, for equality and social justice and against subjection by the State, their inspiration was above all humanity. It was the last generation of these men who were at the head of the collectivist organization of the canton.

Under the monarchy liberal tendencies predominated. The Republic of 1931 brought about some changes, so mild that they disappointed most of the population. The result was that they tended towards the revolutionary Left; in 1932 the first CNT Syndicate was created and on the 8th December of the same year, in an insurrectional coup which covered Aragon and a large part of Catalonia, libertarian communism was proclaimed. The Civil Guard, at the orders of the republic as it had previously been in the service of the monarchy, put down this first attempt in two days, and the Syndicate was closed until the eve of the legislative elections in February 1936 which gave victory to the Popular Front. The Syndicate was then immediately reconstituted.

Five months later the local fascists were defeated without a struggle and towards mid-September our comrades launched the idea of an agrarian Collective. The initiative was accepted unanimously at a meeting of the Syndicate. It was therefore necessary to set up a separate group. A list of those who had already joined of their own accord was circulated and within a fortnight 200 families had joined. At the time of my visit the number had risen to 550 out of a total of 600 families comprising the population of the village. The remaining 50 families belonged to the socialist UGT and obeyed the instructions issued by their leaders.

Throughout the canton the same principle was applied. One was free to join the Collective or to carry on cultivating the land individually. The various stages of socialization achieved by the different villages were proof of this freedom of choice.

In none of these villages was there a written list of rules. Simply each month the assembly of members of each Collective would indicate to the Commission consisting of five elected members, the general lines to follow on specific problems that bad been openly discussed.

In spite of that, my recollection of Mas de las Matas is linked, quite unconsciously, to the happy Icaria to which the Utopians, and especially Etienne Cabet, have often referred. The faces and the behaviour of the people, the attitude of the women seated on the thresholds of their homes, or knitting and talking outside their houses, were peaceful and happy. One guessed that underlying it was a good way of life. Let us seek to discover what it was.

In Mas de las Matas 32 groups of workers were set up; they were more or less of the same size, determined by the tasks to be undertaken, or the extent of the agricultural areas to be worked which were limited by their capricious encirclement by the mountains. Bach group cultivated some of the irrigated land and some of the dry lands. Thus the pleasant and less pleasant, heavy, work was equitably shared by everybody.

The blessings of water made it possible to grow large quantities of vegetables and fruit. The other, less fortunate, villages could only grow cereals, mainly corn-nine quintals per hectare, perhaps less – and olives. In all the Collectives of the canton the groups of workers chose their delegates, and nominated their administrative Commissions. And just as the delegates in Mas de las Matas who always set the example, met weekly to organize the work to be done, a similar procedure was adopted in the other collectivized villages. As everywhere, efforts were constantly being coordinated.

At the time of my visit it had not been found possible to increase the area under cultivation. Full use was already being made of the irrigated lands. But the dry lands which had hitherto been used only for grazing livestock, were earmarked for growing cereals and to this end they had started to fold the sheep on the mountain slopes, now freely available, where there was enough vegetation to feed them. At the same time a start was made to get ready the land for sowing corn, oats and rye…

It was an easier matter to increase the herds. The numbers of sheep were increased by 25 per cent; breeding sows doubled from 30 to 60, and milch cows from 18 to 24 (there was no suitable pasture in the area for cattle). A large number of piglets were purchased in Catalonia and were distributed among the population, since there was no time or labour to construct collective piggeries, the work on which, however, was due to start at any moment. Meanwhile each family raised one or two pigs which would be slaughtered in one large operation and salted and then distributed on the basis of the needs of each household.

But production was not limited to agriculture and livestock. In this chief village of the canton, as in all collectivized chief villages and villages of any size, small industries sprang up: building, boot and shoe making, the manufacture of clothing and slippers, meat processing, etc. … As in Graus and many other places, these specialties constituted a section of what was called the ‘general Collective’ which operated for the general good.

If then the agrarian section needed to purchase certain tools it would apply, through its delegate, to the administrative Commission which would then issue him with a voucher for the delegate of the metal workers to whom their requirements were explained. The order was at the same time entered in the account book of the engineering section. If a family needed furniture they would also get in touch with the administrative section who would hand them an order voucher for the delegate of the cabinet makers, or the carpenters (woodworkers all belonged to a single Syndicate). Such was the mechanism by which the activities of each group of producers was checked as well as the expenditure by each family. Neither official currency (pesetas) nor local money was used in any Collective in the canton. Socialization of commerce was one of the first stages. But it was not complete. At the time of my visit there were still two recalcitrant grocers whose businesses were in a bad way because of a lack of supplies. But generally speaking municipal stores also replaced the former system of distribution.

Let us look more closely into the functioning of a collectivized village. It is difficult to describe adequately by the written word this large scale movement which comprises agrarian socialization. In Mas de las Matas as in every collectivized village one was confronted by red and black placards affixed not only to all the workshops, communal stores, hotels and so on but also to the cantonal warehouses for chemical products, cement, raw materials for the various industries, where the collectivists from other cantonal villages came to replenish their stocks in accordance with the norms established by their delegates at fraternal meetings. In the shop of a former well-to-do fascist tradesman who disappeared there were stacks of clothing intended for the inhabitants of the canton. Elsewhere was the section for general supplies where vouchers were supplied to individuals on request and also where requests by each family were entered on a card index.

In the cantonal distillery – a new initiative – they were extracting alcohol and tartaric acid from the residue of grapes sent there from all the villages. And those villages had set up an administrative Commission for the distillery which met periodically. When one visited the factory one would be shown the technical improvements introduced to produce 90° alcohol which was required in medicine and for surgical operations at the front.

In the tailor’s workshop, men and women workers were engaged in cutting and making suits to measure for comrades who had ordered them. On the racks, wool or corduroy garments, each with its label bearing the name of the consignee were waiting to be dealt with on the sewing machines.

Women bought their meat in a well appointed, marble lined establishment. Bread which was formerly baked at home by the overworked housewives was being kneaded and baked in the collective bakehouses.

At the cafe everybody was entitled to have two cups of roasted chicory (that was all there was), two refreshments, or two lemonades, daily.

On a visit to the surroundings one would discover a nursery where vegetable seedlings were being raised, in huge quantities for planting out throughout the canton, by a family who previously had prospered in this business but who had joined the Collective from the beginning.

In the dressmaking workshop not only were women’s clothes made up but, as in many other villages, young women were learning to sew for themselves and their families to be.

A placard attracts one’s attention. It reads: ‘Popular Bookshop’. It is in fact a library. On its shelves were from six to ten copies of different works of sociology, literature, general works on cultural and scientific subjects made available to everybody, including the individualists. There were also to be found in large numbers text books for schools (history, geography, arithmetic), story books, novels and readers for the young and for adults; then there were exercise books, and excellent printed courses for learning how to draw, with excellent examples to follow based on the most modern teaching techniques. Here too, though the spirit and practice of general solidarity inspired the conduct and behaviour of each and all, every family was allocated a small plot of land on which to grow vegetables and fruit and to raise rabbits. This supplemented the food supply arrangements which in any case were not rigid; things were so arranged that everybody had a choice. Thus rationing was not synonymous with bureaucratic conformity.

The scale for consumption – foodstuffs, clothing, footwear, etc. – had previously been marked on the family carnet. But following the resolution of the Congress in Caspe, it was thought preferable to use the standard booklet produced by the regional Federation of Collectives for all the Collectives, in order to avoid excessive differences depending on the relative prosperity or poverty of the villages and even of the cantons.

When therefore clothing was also rationed it was not because in this part of Aragon the Collectives lacked the necessary resources to buy them. They generally had enough goods, especially corn, to barter for cloth, machines and all that was produced in Catalonia, where manufacturing industries predominated. But things were strained by the war effort. And furthermore the value of the corn, meat, vegetables, and oil supplied without payment to support those on the fighting front was enormous. Supplies, without payment, were also sent to Madrid which was besieged by the Fascist armies. It was also a fact that some industrial regions badly socialized or lacking raw materials to produce certain goods could not honour the barter arrangements made.

Medical care and pharmaceutical products were free. Furthermore, as well as the public library referred to, there was another, operated by the Syndicate and the Libertarian Youth. School attendance was compulsory up to the age of 14. In a group of masias (small farmhouses), built on the mountain slopes some distance from the village, a school was opened for older children who had never before sat at a school desk. And in Mas de las Matas two new classes had just been improvised, each to deal with 50 children whose education was entrusted to two young women who had taken a course in advanced studies in Saragossa and Valencia. Public entertainment was free both for collectivists and individualists. On the basis of the agreements made throughout Aragon, as well as in Castile and the Levante, no Collective could conduct business on its own account. In this way any possibility of speculation that could arise in that agitated war period was avoided, as well as the kind of competition which so often manifested itself among the collectivized factories in Barcelona, especially in the textile industry.

These measures of a moral nature, ran parallel with the sense of organization which emerged in most of the socialized villages. Each village Collective communicated to the can tonal Comite a list of its surplus goods and of those it needed. Thus each village in the canton of Mas de las Matas had a current account in the books kept in the chief village in which it was entered what it supplied and what it received. At the same time the cantonal Comite knew exactly what stocks of wine, meat, oil, corn, potatoes, sugar beet – widely grown in Aragon – were available in each village.

Furthermore if the village which supplied the oil did not need the wine offered, it could ask for other goods. These would be supplied and that village’s surpluses would be sent to Mas de las Matas where they would beheld in reserve for eventual barter with other Collectives in the canton. It was a kind of clearing-house. Thus through the intermediary of the general Warehouse or the communal depot, barter within and outside the village was possible at all times.

This system of compensation was carried out without the least reticence for the spirit of speculation had disappeared. Any village which was going through particular difficulties and had nothing to barter was not thereby condemned to poverty or to having to raise loans on which the interest charges and repayments would grievously jeopardise its economic situation for years to come.

In the interdependent cantons the problem did not present itself in these terms. Thus for instance in that of Mas de las Matas the main economic resources of Seno and of La Ginebrosa had, that year, been destroyed by hailstorms. Under a capitalist regime it would have resulted in untold privations, even to emigration for several years for some of the men. In a regime of strict justice, loans secured with difficulty could be a permanent millstone round their necks. Under the regime of libertarian solidarity, the difficulty was shared by the effort of the whole canton. Foodstuffs, vegetable plants, seeds, were all supplied in a fraternal manner, without mortgages, and without contracting debts. The revolution had created a new civilization.

Compiled by George Woodcock

This article from, which went offline in 2006

One Response to “Gaston Leval”

  1. tijdschriftdeas Says:

    J’ai prêté un article sur Gaston Leval, en hollandais, mais quand même, c’est aussi un langue… Vous pouvez le trouver sur mon site « Libertaire orde » (Ordre libertaire) par le link direct ; voir :
    Thom Holterman

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