Issue 54, February 2006
(on a small scale)
By Nell Schaefer
Free Women of Spain
By Martha Ackelsberg
1991, AK Press
In Free Women of Spain, Martha Ackelsberg uses the short-lived success of the anarcho-syndicalist movement during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 to illustrate anarchist contributions to past and present social movements. She focuses on Mujeres Libres, an autonomous women’s group within this movement, to discuss the operation and theoretical grounding of feminist movements. Using meeting notes and journal articles of various anarcho-syndicalist groups, interviews with women involved in the movement, and the writings of various anarchist theorists, Ackelsberg recreates the atmosphere of excitement and possibility that flourished as Spanish society underwent major social and political change during the tumultuous years of the Civil War. Ackelsberg argues, and I agree, that Mujeres Libres’ anarchist vision can aid present social movements, yet I believe that a subscription to anarchism as another Leftist ideology has the potential to be divisive.
Referencing Spanish writers from the period such as Isaac Puente and Ricardo Mella as well as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Michael Bakunin and Emma Goldman, Ackelsberg outlines the principle tenets of anarchism: a commitment to egalitarianism and a fundamental opposition to domination, a belief that means must be consistent with ends, and a conviction that people will organize themselves into small, autonomous groups based on need. Anarchists are committed to direct action and believe that “people cannot be directed into a future society but must create it themselves.” Change must be realized through individual action, and people must learn that they have the individual power to create a different society.
Steeped in these ideas and rooted in the communalist-anarchist tradition, Spanish anarchism held that individual potential is realized “only in and through community.” Individuals must live within collective communities that allow each person the autonomy to form her own identity: “I don’t exist without your existence, but my existence is also indispensable to yours.” These communities must be non-hierarchical and regulated by mutual aid for each individual to realize his or her full potential.
Yet an underlying theme of failed idealism is present in the work; throughout this short span of time characterized for the anarchist movement by the non-hierarchical, egalitarian organization and operation of society, a gender hierarchy remained. Women did not often work outside the home, and thus did not have the same access to unions as their husbands did. Most women assumed the traditional role of housekeeper: cooking, cleaning and raising the children. “No matter how militant even the most committed [male] anarchists were in the streets, they expected to be ‘masters’ in their homes.”
Though women were allowed to participate in activism within the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), the main anarcho-syndicalist trade union federation, and other unions, many “men did not seem to take [them] seriously” even in this more public/political context. Women were not given any substantial responsibility and very few occupied leadership positions within these organizations. And in rural collectives, a traditional sexual division of labor still dominated.
Mercedes Comaposada, Lucia Sanchez Saornil and Amparo Poch y Gascon, three educated and politically active women of the working class, initiated Mujeres Libres to struggle against this structured gender inequality. They strove to create an autonomous female community to empower women to realize their individual potential within the larger anarcho-syndicalist movement.
Mujeres Libres sought to educate women through their journal, which first appeared in May 1936, and through the literacy and general education programs they established throughout Spain within their national federation, officially formed in 1937. Classes and articles highlighted women’s participation in the public sphere and encouraged women’s activity within the libertarian movement. Mujeres Libres organized employment and apprenticeship programs that trained women for positions that had previously been reserved for men. They also ran maternity clinics and opened and maintained child-care centers for women who worked and were active in unions.
Mujeres Libres implored the larger movement to recognize that women were not merely mothers, as men were not merely producers, but had multifaceted identities that could not be served solely through the existing federated unions and cultural centers of the CNT. Ackelsberg holds that “no one should be forced to choose among aspects of her or his identity as the price for political or communal belonging” and thus commends Mujeres Libres for addressing issues of class and gender simultaneously. The women of Mujeres Libres were not trying to make their struggle for gender equality take precedence over their class struggle as workers, but simply acknowledged the necessity of abolishing all forms of hierarchy. Their goal was to address all facets of individual identity, an approach that would be necessary for a new, just society to emerge.
Although Mujeres Libres committed themselves to the emancipation of women, they maintained that they were not a “feminist” group. They associated feminism with a bourgeois ideology that was opposed to men and did not challenge existing institutions. They perceived feminists as wealthy women working simply to reverse the gender hierarchy rather than abolish it. They believed a social revolution required a broader focus than feminism offered, that “sexual struggle could not be separated from class struggle or from the anarchist vision as a whole.”
Ackelsberg uses Mujeres Libres’ anarchist vision, which recognized the multidimensional character of subordination, as a counter-example to Leftist monocausal paradigms such as liberal individualism, Marxist socialism and radical feminism. (I will subsequently assign “monocausal” to social theories that identify one determining factor, such as class or race, as the root of social ills.)
She criticizes liberal individualism for viewing diverse individuals as “mere bearers of interests” and ignoring their unique identities, in an attempt to forge a single model of universal citizenship. She argues that Marxist socialism views individuals only according to class and that radical feminism reduces individuals to simple gender distinctions. This adherence to a single explanation of social problems caused a damaging split in the Left between feminism and socialism, as feminism lost its class analysis and socialism lost its gender analysis. Ackelsberg endorses a “politics of diversity”: the “challenge is to develop a conception of politics and political life that moves beyond both individualism and a narrow class or gender analysis.”
She encourages the anarchist idea of creating collective communities that allow each individual to realize his or her full potential beyond a monocausal identity. Each person has a complex identity, she argues, informed by many diverse communities. Individuals should not have to choose a single group to whom they are loyal, but are “capable of multiple commitments to a variety of collectivities.” The key is to define these collectivities not in hierarchical opposition to one another but as existing equally; a multifaceted individual is a member of many communities that are not better or worse than one another but that equally serve an individual’s varied needs. She maintains that a successful movement must incorporate diverse collectivities “under a larger umbrella that respects the differences among them…and can take advantage of the power that comes from united action.”
Although Ackelsberg critiques liberal individualism, Marxist socialism, and radical feminism as monocausal, anarchism, as yet another “ism,” can be considered as such. She states, “Domination in all its forms…is for anarchists the source of all social evil.” Though a non-hierarchical vision can be employed in many facets of society, whether in the home or in unions, rooting all social evil in one phenomenon may not be effective. Subscribing to yet another ideology does not seem to correspond with her formulation of identity as a multidimensional process rooted in diverse collectivities nor her conception of a politics of diversity.
Yet Ackelsberg further argues that anarchism can “accommodate multiple relationships of domination and subordination without necessarily insisting that one is more fundamental than the others.” And in its commitment to allowing each individual to develop his or her potential without placing these unique identities in a hierarchy, anarchism does account for diverse views. On the other hand, is it not possible for an individual committed to domination to develop within a collectivity?
Ackelsberg describes anarchists as convinced that identities, including male and female characteristics, are not based on an inherent human nature but are social constructs. Yet in their vision to establish communities of individuals that operate non-hierarchically and allow for a realization of individual potentiality, they make a fundamental assumption about human nature. Anarchism assumes each person must be committed to egalitarianism, not domination. The theory holds that if individuals were allowed to act outside of hierarchical institutions they would not have the desire to dominate others nor would there be dependency upon these institutions.
Yet human history seems to be driven by the desire for power and the political workings of our world are a constant vying for domination. As small communities or tribes expand, how often does an individual come along who wants to impose his or her will upon the group? Driven either by a want for power or a desire to impose ones’ beliefs on others as if those beliefs were superior. In fact, advantageous positioning can be seen across species: whether it is the chief of a tribe or the alpha-male of a wolf pack.
Furthermore, although many institutional structures have become extra-human today, large-scale interactions between people have required such hierarchical organization as societies have grown more complex and expanded across the globe. The case of Mujeres Libres is an anomaly; at its height a broad anarchist organization of society only existed for a few months before the demands of fighting the fascist rebels, backed by Hitler, Mussolini and U.S. oil companies, limited the movement.
Throughout her work Ackelsberg declares that she has conducted this study so “we cannot only learn from, but be empowered by, our history.” Her study of Mujeres Libres is a call for change within the feminist movement and the Left. She sees feminists today as “struggling against the claim that feminism is a white, middle-class movement” and thinks they should consider Mujeres Libres’ anarchist vision of female emancipation that did not focus exclusively on gender hierarchy, but all forms of hierarchy.
Ackelsberg acknowledges Mujeres Libres as an exception with her mention of its short-lived nature and existence in the midst of a brutal Civil War. But I agree with Ackelsberg that there is room within contemporary Western society to realize the anarchist vision. Anarchist social organization does, in fact, exist. There are groups that deny hierarchy and operate by consensus, empowering their members to find their voices. These individuals engage in direct action, organizing skillshares, dumpster-diving and managing common property such as urban gardens. The small scale should not invalidate the principles of these collective communities.
Ackelsberg’s recognition of varied and complex identities and social analyses is also instructive for current organizing on the Left. Specific ideologies can all too often obstruct necessary compromise within coalitions. To create an effective social movement that can work across gender, class, and race distinctions, those who subscribe to monocausal theories must at least be able to put aside their differences and work together. Yet I disagree with Ackelsberg in calling for a broad subscription to “anarchism” as the umbrella under which all social analyses can be accommodated. A strong commitment to just another “ism” can cause these very same personal ideological divisions.
Other articles by Nell Schaefer.