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Anarcho-syndicalism and the Property Question in light of current situations

When we think of the goals of anarcho-syndicalism, we know that it is the establishment of control of the working class over the means of production, the establishment of libertarian communism and of course, the elimination of the capitalist class. The capitalist class is the one that has property rights over the means of production, despite the fact that workers are the ones who create all the wealth. In capitalist society, working people are exploited in many ways due to their lack of access to capital; besides working to create the wealth that give business owners both profit and property rights, many of us pay rent, therefore we work so that another person can profit off ownership or attain ownership (as some of us rent to pay off a mortgage for another person). We give in all the money but another person owns the place we live and may try to claim possession of it, evicting us from our homes.

Although there exist various strands of anarchism – some of which most anarchists would even deny, like libertarian capitalism – the anarcho-syndicalist tradition has been fairly clear in terms of its views on private property. One of our main purposes, besides organizing in workplaces to further the class struggle, is to promote our finalist views, the idea of how the future society could be organized without capitalism.

When we talk about private property, we prefer collectivization and socialization. The very idea of property should be replaced by the idea that those that work a place or a piece of land have control over it (also with the participation of the society which is affected by this production). In terms of use of land, houses and so on, again, instead of private property, we favor the idea that no person should possess more than they actually use. Instead, those who actually use and maintain a place should be in possession of it.

Possession is not the same as ownership. Ownership implies the right to sell things and also to speculate and make profit. Possession means the actual use of something.

One movement which clearly embodies this idea is squatting. Around the world, many people have taken over disused spaces and actually use them for living or other purposes. With this act, we are taking money out of the capitalist cycle and instead of enslaving ourselves to pay rent to a capitalist, to pay for another person's property, or to pay interest to a bank, we are putting one of our anti-capitalist/anti-private property principles in practice. The idea ie that those who actually use a place and are factually in possession of it have a right to do so, especially in the case where an “owner” has abandoned it, cannot or does not make use of it. This can include cases where an „owner” owns many places only to profit from them, not for any other use.

Anybody who is slightly familiar with these types of anarchist thoughts already know this. They may also be aware of the long-time criticism of inherited wealth. Bakunin explained how this needs to be abolished as it gives part of humanity access to capital, in order to position themselves as profiteers of other people's labors. As the divisions between those with enormous capital and those without continues to condemn most people to a life of working for other's profit and continued property accumulation, we can see how Bakunin's criticism as so relevant today to understanding how capitalism works.

When we speak to working people about our vision, if we do, these things become obvious and basic points. (I say if we do because actually, not everybody who sees themselves in this tradition do this, convincing themselves that workers are only interested in present-day economic demands within the realm of the existing system.)

Whether or not somebody who adheres to this tradition speaks about it or not, we should all be clear that we are not struggling under red and black flags to create a more just division of private property under capitalism. For this, you can go to the left and do not need anarcho-syndicalism.

What current situation brings all these ideas to mind?

Myself and many colleagues who adhere to anarcho-syndicalism are quite rightfully extremely angry about the situation of our good comrades from Spain, the CNT-AIT. Currently, many unions of the CNT-AIT (but not all) are being sued for various „crimes”, including making public criticism of their former colleagues who went off to create organization, the CIT. In recent weeks, friends have pointed out some of their members' responses to the IWA's recent days of solidarity with the CNT-AIT.

The IWA Sections spread information about this situation, which really threatens the CNT-AIT in many ways. A few people might end up in jail, some unions might have to pay „damages” in amounts they cannot possibly pay and they may face eviction from their premises. As the ZSP in Wroclaw pointed out, when the Spanish Section of CIT did take over one property, they just sold it to the bank.

Most people I know who believe in anarcho-syndicalist ideas are outraged at this situation and, the more they know the facts, the clearer it becomes. However, looking through some repsonses of members of the Spanish Section of CIT really makes me question whether these people are actually familiar with the ideas behind the red and black flags or if they are nothing but theoretical.

Please look at some facts in light of what these people are saying. The most common claim is „these places are ours, give them back”. Let's examine this just a bit.

First, you need to look at each case individually to see how any place came into the property catalogue of CNT-CIT. Not all properties have the same origin. The CNT-CIT have tried to make claims to property that actually pre-date the foundation of the CNT in 1910. One such property was the venue for the last IWA Congress. The original building was the headquarters of the Spanish Section of the First International. After the death of Franco, comrades (including some still alive who spent time in jail for being part of the CNT), took all efforts to recover that property. They fixed it, maintained it etc. This was a large local effort. Later, when that building was destroyed, there was a deal with the municipality to replace it and the comrades signed it into the collective ownership of their organization. That organization was the CNT-AIT. If local people thought to do this, this is because they understood their organization as something that was their own and the „ownership” was just a legal title done because the system required this. And they understood that the local CNT-AIT would maintain this space and use it. When the old-timers would eventually pass, the organization would still remain and have this space as part of its collective legacy.

The CNT-AIT of Alcoi was one of many unions that were kicked out of the Federation that transfored into the Spanish Section of CIT. The current members of CNT-CIT talk about them, usually with the epitaths they gave to anybody who questioned certain things and they just explain „they were kicked out, so they have to give the place back”.

This is part of the whole scandal. It turns out that very few people really want to know any details about the purges that went on but we can say that the round of expulsions that preceded the current situation needs to be looked out. When there was corruption in some unions in Andalucia (which was proven by the internal commission), including buying votes and diverting union funds into another union, it wound up that the unions that exposed it and complained about it where the ones expelled, not the ones who actually did these things.

Further, when some of the unions in Andalucia made a common poster or sticker with some of the expelled unions, since they had had a common campaign for years, there were motions to expel those unions.

When one woman called some people reformists at a demonstration at Madrid, they blamed another person (one of the more active people), demanding his expulsion and, when his union did not do this, they tried a number of times to kick out a whole federation of 500 members.

The explanation that „people were kicked out” and therefore lost their property, does not satisfy me at all. Especially as there was an ideological context for many of the expulsions and one of the underlying motives for these expulsions might have been to take away these spaces and cash in on them.

Coming back to the issue of property and property rights, the CNT-AIT in Alcoi uses its space. It is an important space in the local community. The people there do all the work. There is no CIT presence in that city.

Taking into account of all the above, this situation should be viewed in light of the idea that places belong to the people who actually use them and maintain them. Supporting the view that an anarcho-syndicalist space whose traditions go back almost 150 years should be wiped off the face of the earth and sold for some other purposes just because the current leadership of CNT-CIT did not want to be federated with the CNT-AIT is nothing more than asserting the property rights of those who came into „ownership” by rights of possessing a piece of paper, over the moral and actual rights of the people doing the work, many of whom have been involved in creating and maintaining the space for decades.

As mentioned, the legal situation (as opposed to the factual state of use and possession) is different in different cases. Some offices which are being claimed were property of the CNT-AIT. The CNT-AIT has never ceded any property willingly to CNT-CIT. Why should it? The unions in these places exist, make use and maintain the spaces. They are in factual possession of these places. In some cases, years of contributions of dues helped to pay for them or equalled their entire worth. In some cases, this may be inherited wealth from the legacy of the CNT-AIT (pre-Franco).

As somebody who is very active in tenants' rights issues and a squatting movement, we see these questions all the time. There may be a place which is abandoned and disused for years, but only when it is squatted, in other words, actually used by a person to put a roof over their head, usually requiring lots of investment of time and money for repairs, only then sometimes the „owner” remembers about this and tries to put the person using it into the street. The „owner” (in our case the city), does not want to really use this place but just out of the principles related to its deed of ownership forbids others from using it.

The places that are in the possession of the CNT-AIT were in their possession, sometimes for decades and just because the CNT-CIT wants to take possession of all the assets and bankrupt the CNT-AIT doesn't mean that this should happen. This looks very much like a complete contradiction of any anarcho-syndicalist principles. Anarcho-syndicalists are not fighting for the rights of property owners to evict people. They are fighting for the rights of those who actual do the work to control the workplace and I would say that the rights of those who actually possess, use and maintain spaces to do so.

This type of argumentation like „they should leave because we are the owners” has nothing to do with anarcho-syndicalist ideas. Especially when the intention of these actions is actually to try to stop the CNT-AIT from functioning in a few dozen smaller towns where they constitute the majority or the entirety of the anarcho-syndicalist movement. In other words, the real motivation of the CNT-CIT is to castigate, threaten and try to financially destroy a group of anarcho-syndicalists who did not agree with the internal practices of the central organs of CNT-CIT, nor with their strategic direction.

It is quite remarkable and disheartening to see that apparently some wavers of black and red flags find this all to be reasonable.

This article is meant to focus on the question of our positions on property and what that means in practice. We don't live in a world where we can always practice our anarcho-syndicalist ideas but in this case, it was a choice, originating from executives, property managers and lawyers, that the CNT-CIT would choose not to take an anarcho-syndicalist approach but instead to resort to the capitalist property laws and the state to take action against people they don't agree with.

What would an anarcho-syndicalist approach have been? Anarchism in general believes in free association. You don't agree with this or that organization – be in an organization you agree with.
The CNT-CIT didn't agree with the IWA, so it went off to create something different. The CNT-AIT prefer to be in the IWA, so they are.

Both members of the CNT-CIT and CNT-AIT contributed to the building of the former organization. In CNT-AIT there are plenty of members who were part of CNT from before Franco's death or in the organization since the 70s or 80s. They spent a large part of their lives dedicated to building their local organizations. In situations like this, they should be left with at least what they built up locally. CNT-CIT tries to take everything, even privatizing the IWA archives and refusing all requests to release them or even allow access.

This is not an example of the anarchism we seek to create. We talk to people about how the anarchist, self-organized society will work without courts and the state, but in practice, some people refuse to solve issues in this way, instead running to the state and resorting to the most repressive means.

In this situation, how can people claim to be promoting anarcho-syndicalism?

Laure Akai
ZSP Warsaw Union

* The 16th Congress of ZSP (April 30, 2023) decided to publish articles about this situation especially in the context of anarcho-syndicalist theory and practice. We will be disseminating these articles in solidarity with the CNT-AIT and in promotion of the ideas of anarcho-syndicalism.