Building a socialist utopia in one village

Kenneth Good reviews Dan Hancox's The Village Against the World

This article is based on the book by Dan Hancox, The Village Against the World, published in 2013 by Verso in London. The village in question is Marinaleda in southern Andalusia, and its most prominent representative is Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, its elected mayor since 1979. They arose together in the wake of the collapse of Fascism in Spain in the 1970s. Marinaleda is only some 2,700 people, but it is located in a region steeped in socialism and anarchism, with the latter not just a theory but a popular mass movement.

Gordillo was 21 when first elected, and has been regularly re-elected competitively. Never a member of the Communist Party, he says that he is "a communist or communitarian", with his political beliefs ‘drawn from a mixture of Christ, Gandhi, Marx, Lenin and Che [Guevara]' (p. 13). For over three decades, he and the jornaleros, or landless day labourers, have struggled to build a veritable socialist utopia in Marinaleda. Such aims and determination placed them in opposition to the liberal capitalism, with its unemployment, homelessness and indebtedness, dominant almost everywhere. How they have done this, and largely succeeded in their aims, is relevant to social movements and protest action elsewhere.   

In contrast with protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Marinalenos believed in the primacy of organisation: ‘before utopia', and the land seizures and other actions that gave it birth, ‘came organisation' (p. 73). This combined together orthodox electoralism with strong, innovative, direct and participatory, democratic forms and practices. General assemblies, attended by an average of 200-400 people, held weekly or more frequently when issues were pressing, debated spending and resource allocation, with simple ‘hands up' voting, and constituted for Hancox ‘the heart of village life' (p. 77). The ‘foundation' organisation, significantly,  was a trade union, the Sindicato de Obreros del Campo (SOC), established in 1976, to respond directly to the precariousness of Andalusian rural life (p. 75).

Three years later, a political party, the Collective for Workers' Unity (CUT), was founded as a ‘partner organisation to SOC' by the rising jornaleros. Running as an ‘explicitly anti-capitalist' party, it won 78 per cent of the vote in the first free local elections in 1979, against the then centre-right party of the transition, the Union of the Democratic Centre, with 22 per cent. CUT has ‘maintained an absolute majority on the council ever since' (p. 76). The assembly, open to all workers regardless of political affinity, together with SOC and CUT, expressed for Gordillo the "power of poor people against the power of the rich", popular "counter-power" (p. 76). In Andalusia then about 50 per cent of the land was owned by two per cent of families.

Sanchez Gordillo upholds the Gandhian principle that peace is not just the absence of violence, but also ‘the practice of justice': an understanding which the shack-dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) also holds. Nonetheless, struggle was ‘the heritage of the Andalusian people', with a ‘combative pueblo'--the distinctive physical and human community--using crop-burnings, strikes and land occupations, against the landowners and their defenders, the Guardia Civil, an elite paramilitary set-up in the nineteenth century to combat banditry. Class hatred was a visceral reality in Spain, and freedom in such circumstances had sometimes to be ‘conquered with the blade of a machete', as Jose Marti, the Cuban revolutionary, recognised (p. 22).    

In August 1980 the village embarked on a "hunger strike against hunger", to inform the nation of the situation in Andalusia. The tactic and the timing represented for Hancox a ‘brave and canny choice'. The normal repression utilised by the Guardia Civil and the government would not work in this situation: nothing could silence, in Gordillo's words, "the voice of hundreds of empty stomachs..." The summer heat was then peaking above 38 degrees every day, and it was a perfect opportunity to win national media attention, as the mayor proclaimed that they had received "neither a telegram, nor a call...from the out-of-touch politicians busy sunning themselves on the beach."

Men, women and children were going without food. With doctors on hand just in case, they met every day at the assembly to decide whether to continue, and to discuss the messages that increasingly arrived. Utilising his charisma and growing notoriety, Sanchez Gordillo was ‘leading the pueblo, as much as it was leading him', notes Hancox. As the strike wore on, sympathy strikes occurred in neighbouring pueblos, and assemblies elsewhere discussed occupations and demonstrations. Eventually Spain's labour minister, Salvador Sanchez Teran and Seville's civil governor  returned from holiday, and announced a payment totalling 253 million pesetas (or some $1.6 million) for the Andalusian unemployed ‘to last until the December olive harvest', as Marinaleda had demanded (pp. 80-84).[i]

Ideas and direct action went together, expressing the anarchist tenet of the propaganda of the deed. Marinalenos declared their belief in ‘the sovereignty of food' as a human right: natural resources, Gordillo stressed, should be at the service of the communities of those who work them, which in turn necessitated substantial land reform. At the front of the mega-estate owning nobility in Andalusia was the Duchess of Alba, said to be worth some 3.2 billion euros, in receipt of 3 million euros a year in EU farm subsidies. Another was the Duke of Infantado, four times over a Spanish grandee, and owner of 17,000 hectares in Andalusia. Sanchez Gordillo proposed the expropriation of 1,200 hectares of his land, an area known as El Humoso. The damming of the Gentil river would irrigate a large area, providing 250 families with jobs. Feasibility studies supported this plan. In 1985, SOC labourers from Marinaleda and two nearby pueblos, started to occupy this almost idle land, used then for only wheat and sunflowers, looked after for its absentee owner by a few caretakers (pp. 6 and 96).

For Hancox, this was land reform from below, through patient and peaceful  direct action. Each morning the people of Marinaleda marched the ten miles from the village to El Humoso, and in the evening they walked back, ‘in a stream four or five people wide and several hundred long'. This continued for a month interspersed with ‘countless lawsuits for trespassing, roadblocks and related incidents'. They carried out over 100 occupations of El Humoso during the 1980s, at one point camping there for three months. The approach of the 1992 Seville Universal Exposition intensified the official hype of civic pride, and Marinaleda took their fight to the regional capital, where they were blasted by water cannons. But with tens of millions already spent on this high-profile vanity project, with many valuable tourists anticipated, the village finally broke the Andalusian government's resolve. After long negotiations behind closed doors, they were granted the 1,200 hectares in 1991. The Duke was quietly paid off by Seville, and the people of Marinaleda became landlords: for the first time, says Hancox, Andalusian farm labourers got the land that was rightfully theirs (pp. 96-99).        

This was a foundational success, but substantive reform required much more big changes in farming practices and the development of an extensive democratic cooperative. Marinaleda believed in the unity of work and the autonomy of the pueblo, and land ownership could now make a reality of this idea. The Duke's lands gave employment to a tiny few, when regional unemployment was around 36 per cent, and Marinaleda had a history of 65 per cent of its people being without work: at the time of Franco's death, 90 per cent of jornaleros had to feed themselves and their families on only two months of work a year (pp. 11 and 118). In sharp contrast with the owners of the great estates who planted wheat which was harvested by machine, the Marinaleda cooperative selected crops that needed the greatest amount of human labour to create as much work as possible--various kinds of beans and peppers, artichoke and broccoli, crops that could be processed, canned and bottled, as an addition to the ubiquitous olives--Spain's production is the world's largest--and an oil processing factory. "Our aim", said Gordillo, "was not to create profits, but jobs".  Any surplus was reinvested to create more jobs. Everyone in the coop earned the same wage: 47 euros a day for six and a half hours of work. This was more than double the Spanish minimum wage. Workers participated in decisions about crop selection and harvest timing. This was not mere subsistence farming--the bulk of El Humoso's produce was sold outside the village. When Sanchez Gordillo visited Venezuela in 2012, he persuaded the government of Hugo Chavez to buy olive oil from Marinaleda, reputedly of high quality (pp. 79, 115 and 122).   

Private ownership is an accepted part of socialist village life, with some seven privately owned bars and cafes. If anyone wanted to open a little family business of any kind, Hancox was told, no one would stand in their way. The casitas, 350 self-built family homes, constitute ‘one of the village's greatest achievements'. They are not at all like the small and flimsy structures built by the state for the poor in South Africa. Each house normally incorporated three bedrooms, bathroom, living room, kitchen and courtyard. The regional government provides the basic material for the houses and architectural assistance, the villagers build the houses themselves, and pay a nominal 15 euros a month as a so-called mortgage.

Legally the cooperative owns the houses, but residents were free to renovate as they wished. The main point, Hancox was told, was to ensure that no one had the opportunity to accumulate capital or to speculate on their property. The common facilities were equally good. "We believe that public well-being should never have a limit", Gordillo said in 2012. Private well-being should be limited, but "the well-being of a collectivity should be limitless." Wireless internet was free. Swimming in the public pool costs three euros a year. The child day-care centre costs 12 euros a month, and the children eat there. Evening classes in Spanish were offered to the village's small emigre population, mostly British (19, 24, 128 and 143). The cooperative had its own TV station, and no police force exists in the village.

All of this had resulted from decades of collective struggle. Sanchez Gordillo himself had survived two assassinations and many jail sentences. Like AbM, the village upheld the principle of autonomy, and Gordillo had ringingly declared that "the power of elites, even when they called themselves leftists, is always a tyranny" (pp. 28 and 31). But they had relied on the regional government to gain ownership of El Humoso and to assist in the construction of the cooperative. In what Hancox dubs a ‘set of paradoxes', the village, for long a combative pueblo, opposes the intrusion of the state, and demands its substantial financial aid (p. 144). El Humoso and the cooperative could not have been acquired by journaleros in any other way.

With social conditions worsening in Spain, under the impact of global capitalist crisis and the austerity polices of a conservative government in Madrid, Gordillo has maintained his combative style. Poverty levels had risen by 15 per cent, unemployment had reached 27 per cent nationally, and tens of thousands had been evicted from their homes between 2007 and 2012: in Andalusia some 36 per cent had been rendered jobless. Gordillo drew attention to this desperation by organising the theft of food from supermarkets, distributing the goods to homeless families in Seville. In one reported incident, ‘union activists, cheered on by supporters, piled food into supermarket carts and walked out without paying while Sanchez Gordillo stood outside.'

Seven arrests were made in two such raids, while Gordillo, as an elected member of the Andalusian regional parliament (representing the United Left coalition), had immunity. In August 2012 he embarked on a march across the region to persuade local leaders to ignore debt repayments. Under a ‘Can't pay, won't pay' banner, he aimed to embarrass governments and energise anti-austerity campaigners.[ii] The official ignorance and complacency Gordillo was challenging was indicated then by Maria Dolores de Cospedal, general secretary of the ruling Popular Party, who claimed that its supporters ‘would go hungry rather than fail to pay their mortgage'.[iii]         

In the first three months of 2013, 14 suicides attributed to economic hardship had been reported in the media. It was two years since the indignados (the outraged) had taken over public squares around the country to protest against an economy being run for the benefit of the bankers not the people. They were followed by the Mortgage Victims' Platform  (PAH). Evictions were a frequent part of daily reality for the urban poor in South Africa, and in Spain they had been running at some 500 orders a day. 

PAH was Cospedal's immediate target. Through their campaigning, they were making a great public service, ‘transforming the isolating stigma of eviction into a groundswell of popular outrage that is fuelling practical action.' The law proscribed that a person could lose their house and still carry mortgage debt with them for life. PAH had gathered 1.4 million signatures to force the government to debate its proposal to change this draconian provision. PAH had ‘huge popular support', and was assessed as the country's most important social movement.[iv] Gordillo had long seen the issues of land, housing and poverty as ramifying into those of real democracy, and was on a rising tide in campaigning boldly for debt cancellation.  

The Significance of Marinaleda

Hancox has produced an important and accessible book. There is perhaps a little too much on Gordillo's charisma, and not enough on dissident voices, such as those who support the mainstream Socialist party which holds two of the seats on the town council. But he identifies an urbane and educated young member of the cooperative who appears capable of replacing Sanchez Gordillo should that become necessary. Edgar stresses that Marinaleda's economy was ‘overwelmingly reliant on government subsidies' and that the cooperative was currently finding it hard to meet its bills-- problems far from unique in Spain today. He criticises what he calls ‘its Soviet-era imagery' and sees its protest tactics of occupations, blockages and strikes as backward, judgements that many activists in South Africa would disagree with.[v]      

Marinaleda's main achievements appear to lie in three interrelated areas: it is not leaderless, it has from the start stressed organisation and the power of organised workers, and it has endured. Edgar agrees and notes Slavoj Zizek's warning to Wall Street Occupiers that ‘what matters is the day after, when we have to return to normal lives'. He sees too that socialist Marinaleda has ‘defined the fabric of the normal life of its residents, day after day, for 30 years' and Gordillo has been continuously re-elected as mayor against a functioning opposition. Edgar emphasises that ‘things don't have to work completely or forever' in order to have meaning.

Recent studies have recognised the contrasting style of the Occupy movement in the United States. They made ‘a conscious choice to forswear a concrete policy agenda' and the political alignments that would accompany it. It was strong on what it was against, the plutocratic one per cent, but weak on what it was for. It was similar with its aim to create a leaderless movement. After reading this work, Sandbu is left with the feeling that ‘Occupy wasted its chance as a political movement.'

It could have put its ‘people power' behind a number of clear and present political issues, such as tax reforms and mortgage debt, but embraced instead procedures of participatory democracy in large open spaces, such as the so-called ‘people's  microphone' (the crowd repeating speakers' words).[vi] Marinaleda is only one village, but its achievements are concrete and durable. They show the poor in many places that success can be won through sustained struggle based on democratic political organisation.


[i] David Edgar estimates a larger award of 25 million euros. ‘The Village Against the World, a Review', Guardian Online, 10 October 2013.

[ii] Reuters in Madrid, ‘Spanish Robin Hood Mayor', Guardian Online, 15 August 2012, and Edgar, op.cit.

[iii] Katharine Ainger, ‘In Spain They Are All Indignados Nowadays', Guardian Online, 28 April 2013.

[iv] Ainger, op.cit., and Carlos Deletos, ‘Victims No Longer: Spain's Anti-eviction Movement', Open Democracy, 17 December 2013.

[v] Hancox's cover offers a colourful picture of Marinaleda with a large mural of Che among the rising casitas and a large olive tree.

[vi] Review article by Martin Sandbu, ‘Talkin' ‘bout a Revolution', Financial Times Online, 19 April 2013.

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