Reading this book reminded me of visiting republican areas such as the Bogside in Derry in the 80s and 90s. As I walked the streets of Derry with SF councillor Mary Nelis I saw a landscape not unlike my own in east Manchester, except for the shadow of the British army in the background. The occupation of this part of Ireland spurred on a wonderful rich culture of language, art and history which was part of the republican opposition to the British presence.
In The Village against the World there are many parallels, except they are opposing their own government and not an occupying force. Dan found out about Marinaleda from a Spanish travel book and decided to travel there and find out what was happening in a village dubbed a “communist utopia.”
Marinaleda is a small Andalusian village of only 2,700 people. Andalucia is an agricultural region that has not changed over the last 100 years. It has a history of peasants rebelling against the landed aristocracy particularly during the period after the death of fascist dictator Franco. Their actions were undertaken to secure some land so that they could do the basics including feeding themselves and so they took on the might of the Spanish government :
“As Spain began its slow, careful transition from fascism to liberal democracy, the people of Marinaleda formed a political party and a trade union, and began fighting for land and freedom. “
Their actions varied from marches and pickets to hunger strikes which for some meant a prison sentence. But in 1991 they achieved their goal and were granted 1200 hectares of the local noble’s land, for which he was paid by the Spanish government.
Central to this struggle was Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo who in 1979 became the first elected mayor of the town, a position he has continually held since then. He defined his politics; “I have never belonged to the Communist Party of the hammer and sickle, but I am a communist or communitarian.” His influences are as diverse as Christ, Gandhi and Che.
Dan described his interview with the mayor; “He spoke that day with range and passion, for hours about the struggle he has led the village through, its general assemblies and hunger strikes, its cultural opportunities and collective personality, and the inhumanity of the capitalist world outside, as well as the misery of its crisis.”
Andalusia has been hit hard by the economic crisis. In 2013 unemployment was 36% with young people being affected much worse at a rate of 55%. The housing boom has now gone, leaving local people facing eviction from their homes by the banks. The government has freed up labour laws so that employers can hire and fire at will.
Like much of western Europe people in Spain have become disillusioned with the political system that allows bankers to destroy peoples lives and communities whilst not taking any responsibility for the economic crisis. Out of this crisis Spanish people have created their own reform movement – the indignados – with its cry for real democracy now or iDemocracia Real YA!
After the locals got their 1200 acres they went on to cultivate the land producing crops that could be part of a processing industry that would give work to the locals. It is a co-operative that aims not to redistribute the profits but to provide more jobs. It is not just about jobs either: they have created a community with self- built houses, a cultural centre, a worker’s stadium, tennis courts, a gym, an outdoor swimming pool, nurseries and schools.
But Marinaleda is part of a country that is going into meltdown and this is having an effect on their community as funding is cut and they are affected by the same economic forces. But it is also being seen as an alternative for the millions of Spanish people who are rejecting the established political order.
Dan compares the experience of going to Marinaledo to the response of Orwell going to Republican Spain in 1936 as “the strange and moving experience” of believing in a revolution. I think that many people had that response when they went to Derry or Belfast in the 80s and 90s or maybe were involved in the Miners Strike in 1984/5. It is the kind of experience that keeps you going if you are an activist.
For those of us who are socialists we are always looking to create a better world whether it is as trade union activists fighting for decent lives at work or in our neighbourhoods to stop the destruction of trees. Our history is one of people believing that we can create a more equal and just society, the big problem is maintaining the optimism to do so in an increasingly cynical world.
The Village Against the World is a fascinating book because for the people of Marinaleda they have created a little utopia in a small part of Spain. It will be interesting to see how it develops as Spain and the world lurch from one crisis to the next.
The Village Against the World published by Verso £9.99
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