Theorizing an Anarchist Society (with Diego Abad de Santillan)

Theorizing an Anarchist Society (with Diego Abad de Santillan)

By studying a detailed blueprint of an anarchist society, as found in Diego Abad de Santillan’s After the Revolution (1937), we can better understand the ideology of anarcho-syndicalism; the problems which it seeks to address and its proposals for collective governing. 

Diego Abad de Santillan was among the most influential anarchists during the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s. The writer and economist, widely known for his radical activism across the world (most notably in Germany, Mexico, and Argentina), was asked by the Confederacion National del Trabajo (the National Confederation of Labor) at the height of its power to outline the specific organization of the new world in construction. Santillan, fixated on the theoretical dynamics of an anarchist economy, came back with The Economic Organism of the Revolution (1936), a 40-page manifesto which vividly describes the structure of a hypothetical anarchist society (specifically tailored around Spain). Although this document (now titled After the Revolution) never reached the level of influence that Santillan hoped, it still serves as required reading to anyone who seeks a heightened understanding of anarcho-syndicalist objectives. Reading the document also proves to be a useful exercise in political theory as it identifies the problems with (and alternatives to) the problematic capitalist structure which society still operates on. By studying Santillan’s proposals, as well his critiques of the contemporary system, we can better understand the problems we currently face and the solutions which may lay ahead.

Santillan describes a world based on cooperation rather than competition – a vision which is understandingly appealing to those who desire a peaceful society. He identifies the primary obstacles of this collectivist vision as government and capitalism; the two broad institutions which have enforced competition for the most recent glimpse of human history. These are also the very institutions which founded and sustain modern society, making Santillan’s proposal viable only to those who are disillusioned with the contemporary notion of prosperity. It is a text which is likely illegible to most others. Santillan asserts that freedom comes only from radical democracy and a lack of coercion from bureaucratic or economic forces. After being subjected to a society of minimal governmental democracy and economic totalitarianism, Santillan and the Catalan Anarchists sought a radical democratic reform. In Part 2 of After the Revolution, Santillan describes the basic structure of his proposed democratic society;

“In place of the capitalist, private owner and entrepreneur, after the Revolution we will have factory, shop or industrial Councils, constituted of workers, executives, and technicians in representation of the personnel of the enterprise, who will have the right to moderate and revoke their delegates. No one knows better than the workers themselves the capacity of each one in a determined establishment. There, where everybody knows everybody, the practice of democracy is possible. The factory Council in representation of the personnel in the same place of work will coordinate and cohere the work in their establishment and combine same with similar activities of other establishments or productive groups…There is complete autonomy without any intent of caprice in production, because the same has to respond to the necessities and possibilities in line with the exact knowledge of the conditions of each establishment and the needs and demands of the population.

The factory Councils will be combined by functional relation and form the syndicates of producers of similar goods, syndicates of trade or of industry; these new institutions have no proper authority in the internal structure of local establishments. They will provide for the modernizing of implements; attend to the fusion and coordination of factories, suppression of unproductive establishments, etc. The Syndicates are the representative organisms of local production and not only do they care for its preservation, but condition the future; creating schools of apprenticeship, research institutes, and experimental laboratories in accordance with their means and initiative. The Syndicates are co-leagued in accordance with the basic functions of economy, which we divide into eighteen sectors or general branches of activity necessary for the progressive march of a modern society.”

Click here to explore Santillan’s 1937 work, After the Revolution.

The anarchist society described by Santillan would enable popular participation on a level which is unimaginable to contemporary capitalist workers. A culture of capitalism and consumerism results in a passive population who simply does not question the greater management of the government or economy. Americans are encouraged to pay attention to politics once every four years but, besides that, hardly ever truly participate in the workings of the government. Furthermore, our role as workers in a capitalist society is to obey the orders of managers and make a fraction of their pay. In the anarchist society described by Santillan, industries are solely directed by the democratic Councils; hence enabling unprecedented economic democracy. Direct action of this scale would require a massive, widespread shift in how we perceive work, democracy, and society. It would require individuals to wish no longer to be passive workers, but rather an active voice in their industry. Such responsibility would theoretically result in a widespread shift of popular work relations. Not only would there be a dramatic change in the social relationship between workers, but also in the personal relationship one has with their position in life. Much of the dehumanization in capitalism derives from the worker’s inferior status and lack of control over their work. In a democratic economy, these issues would be resolved as every worker would have a voice in their industry, thus making their labor more personal and fulfilling. Popular control of the economy would also ensure the well-being of workers, since their needs and preferences would be considered in how their industry operates.

It may also be noting, as suggested in the title, that any such commune would likely require the abolition of global capitalism entirely. Any non-corrupted commune would require independence from outside influences such powerful governments and international corporations. However, the markets are inherently expansionist and impossible to be geographically contained. As seen throughout the past centuries, state-capitalist governments will go to great lengths to ensure the global economic landscape they desire. Hence, this outline is only applicable to a post-capitalist world, which the writers believed to be in the process through worldwide revolution. However, capitalism was never globally subdued, and the Catalan anarchists were violently suppressed by powerful state-capitalist forces. This story echoes that of every other society who rejected private property and global markets. The consolidation of power, though immoral and inherently corrupt, enables military strength which cannot be paralleled by a non-militaristic society. Therefore, any anarchist society which grows in the vicinity of an authoritarian power is doomed to fail or become corrupted.

These obstacles aside, I still find studying works such as these to be a valuable exercise in philosophy and political theory. They also respond to the common claims that there are no alternatives for capitalism and that anarchism lacks any specific proposals for the restructuring of society. As evident in Santillan’s After the Revolution, there are countless inherent flaws in the modern capitalist system – and many untried solutions to address them. However, our understanding of human social behavior is still highly underdeveloped, and there’s simply no way to truly predict how these many new elements would function in the context of the greater society. These are ideas which require testing and gradual development, as well as an enormous shift in popular culture and socioeconomic thought, which can only be achieved through time and universal solidarity. Nonetheless, even if we do not follow Santillan’s blueprint precisely, examining such radical proposals is crucial to seriously addressing the problems we currently face. Therefore, I would highly recommend this reading to anyone seeking a better understanding of the anarchist critique of modern democracy and capitalist society.


Image Source: “Jeanne Pissarro, Called Cocotte, Reading” by Camille Pissarro (1899)

A beautiful painting of an introspective woman; wife of famous anarchist painter, Camille Pissarro.

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