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Marinaleda: the communist village that still withstands capitalism

For four decades a Spanish village and its remarkable mayor have expropriated and collectivised land, running their socialist project as a giant co-operative, where everyone toils in common for the same wage – and it's working, reports SEAN MELEADY

LEFT-WING political parties are doing better in Spain than in much of Europe, with the PSOE (socialists) emerging as the largest party in the last two general elections. In 2019, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez retained power by doing a deal with the more left-wing Unidas Podemos alliance and Catalan nationalists.

However Spain is still very much part of the international capitalist system. That is apart from one Andalusian village.

Marinaleda is 70 miles east of Seville and has a long history of Roman and Arab occupations as well as banditry during the 19th century. During the civil war in the 1930s the Republican-supporting mayor was assassinated by Franco’s fascists along with his son and 30 other residents. By the 1960s emigration, both internally to Catalonia and internationally to France and Switzerland, became epidemic in the poor agricultural region.

However, it was in the late 1970s following the death of Franco that things really began to change, when the Union of Farm Workers was founded in the village in 1977, starting a long-running land struggle culminating in the occupation of the nearby Bocatinaja estate the following year.

In the first post-Franco local elections the Colectivo de Unidad de los Trabajadores (CUT) or Workers Unity Collective, a left-wing coalition with strong links with rural trade unionism, won nine of the 11 council seats.

Symbolically the new council renamed streets that had been named after Falangist (Spanish fascist) leaders after the martyred Chilean socialist leader Salvador Allende and communist guerilla icon Che Guevara. There was also an intensification of the struggle against local landowners, with 700 people involved in a 13-day hunger strike in 1980 under the slogan “land for those who work on it.”

This was followed up by the occupation of Cordobilla marsh in 1984 to demand the irrigation of the El Humoso farm owned by the Duke of Infantado. Eventually local activists took over the farm and by 1985 there were at least 100 local land occupations.

In 1991 the CUT were victorious. They were offered 1,200 hectares of the El Humoso farm which was turned into a co-operative based around the production of olives, artichokes, green beans and broccoli. Crops were selected by the co-operative that would need the greatest amount of human labour thereby living up to the collective’s philosophy of creating jobs rather than profit.

Every member of the co-operative earns the same daily salary of €47 (£39.40) for six-and-a-half hours’ work — which is more than double the Spanish minimum wage. Workers are called out in groups via loudspeaker. Decisions about the co-operative including, for example, which crops to farm, are made collectively in village general assemblies. Residents aren’t forced to become members of the co-operative and those who don’t sign up can still play an active part in the political struggle.

As a result of the co-operative, unemployment in Marinaleda is very low in a region which had around 36 per cent unemployment during the post-2008 financial crisis (up to 56 per cent for those aged 18 to 24) compared to 27 per cent in Spain as a whole. In fact during the crisis, when the profitable Spanish construction trade collapsed, unemployment figures in Marinaleda were arguably only caused by internal migrants from other parts of Spain.

Housing in Marinaleda is very different to the Spanish norm. The  Ayuntamento, as the local government is known, has bought and expropriated thousands of square metres of land in order to convert it into communal property. Prospective residents have to donate 450 days of their own work to the construction of their new homes using materials provided by the local administration and assistance from professional builders.

The hours spent by the resident on construction are then deducted from the total cost of their house — with a monthly payment of €15.52 (£13.20) to achieve ownership. More than 350 homes have been built in this co-operative fashion in a village of less than 3,000 people. Homes are three bedrooms with a patio. However in order to preserve the special character of the project residents cannot sell their homes.

Marinaleda has few police officers with supporters of the “communist village” arguing that with little unemployment and inequality there is very little crime. Avenida Da Libertad is the main thoroughfare through the village with the man attractions including an amphitheatre, workers’ sports ground, house of culture, vegetable canning factory, a library and the “Sindactio” trade union bar. There are also seven privately owned bars and cafes in the village — but multinationals are not welcome.

On the streets graffiti and murals are even more overtly political, calling for agrarian reform, demilitarisation, an end to homophobia and solidarity with a variety of struggles in Palestine, Catalonia, the Basque country and Colombia, alongside the hammer and sickle, Andalusian flag and that of the Spanish Second Republic.

Red Sundays are one of the most important rituals in the village when villagers gather at 8am outside the Sindactio in order to undertake voluntary work. Activities include street repairs, painting and landscaping.

Marinaleda residents developed the idea for Red Sundays following a speech by then Prime Minster and Andalusian native Felipe Gonzalez accusing Andalusian farmers of laziness.

The extraordinary development of this “communist utopia” as it is often referred to in the Spanish and international media is largely credited to one man: Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo. A secondary school history teacher and a village native, born in 1952, Gordillo was in his mid-20s when Franco died and the struggle against the landlords intensified.

In 1979 Gordillo became the first elected mayor of Marinaleda — a position he has held ever since. In his books and speeches Gordillo has articulated a unique philosophy inspired by Christ, Gandhi, Marx, Lenin and Che Guevara — but also the long history of Andalusian peasant uprisings and anarchism in the region.

After 40 years of leading his very own Andalusian revolution Gordillo’s position still looks strong. In 2019’s general election the Unidas Podemos left-wing bloc won 63 per cent of the vote in the village followed by the centre-left PSOE.

Although Gordillo is sympathetic towards Podemos, he is critical of the PSOE — blaming their inaction in the face of Spain’s massive social problems for the rise of Vox, the first significant post-Franco far-right party. Vox, who were founded in Andalusia, shockingly came third in Marinaleda — beating the conservative People’s Party into fourth place.

In 2012 Gordillo attracted considerable domestic and international media attention. Marinadela’s mayor led raids on supermarkets in Seville and Cadiz taking food such as sugar, pasta and milk to give to food banks.

Although Gordillo himself did not personally take any of the food items he stood outside in the car parks while members of his union conducted the raids. Gordillo, at the time a member of the Andalusian parliament, had immunity from prosecution but some of those taking part were jailed.

Gordillo stated he was happy to waive his immunity and go to prison for the cause if necessary — and the law eventually caught up with Marinaleda’s mayor when he was imprisoned for occupying military land near Seville the following year.

Gordillo has been called by the world’s media “the Robin Hood Mayor,” “The Don Quixote of the Spanish Crisis” and “Spain’s William Wallace.” However the man himself has stated that although he has never been a member of the Spanish Communist Party he identifies as a communist and communitarian.

Surely, Gordillo and Marinaleda’s legend will only grow: in an increasingly unstable neoliberal capitalist world at least one Spanish village is promoting an alternative which, after 40 years, stands unbroken.

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