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A Town Called Marinaleda

Around 100km east of Seville in Spain lies a small town of 2,700 people called Marinaleda. It’s one of many agriculture-based towns and villages in the province of Seville, surrounded by mile upon mile of flat, agricultural plains. What makes Marinaleda different, indeed from anywhere else in Spain and possibly Europe too, is that for the past thirty years it has been a centre of continuing labour struggle and a place where a living, developing and actual form of existing socialism has emerged. I had the fortune of visiting the town last week and at a time of deep economic crisis and political cynicism I couldn’t have been more impressed by its unique socialist achievements.

In the 1970s and 1980s, in a struggle for jobs and a more just form of agriculture, workers in Marinaleda were involved in various occupations and expropriations of agricultural land from local landowners and their vast estates that are typical of the region. The occupations were led by a young, charismatic, radical socialist called Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, who led the Sindicato de Obreros del Campo (SOT) (Agricultural Workers’ Union). In 1979 the SOT activists established the Colectivo de Unidad de los Trabajadores – Bloque Andaluz de Izquierdas (CUT) (Collective for the Unity of Workers – Andalusian Left Block) in order to stand in the 1979 local elections. Standing on a radical socialist platform of agricultural reform, CUT representatives were immediately elected, and Sánchez Gordillo became alcalde (mayor). Since that day the party has had a majority on the local council for just over thirty years. In 1986 CUT became part of Izquierda Unida (IU) (United Left), the main political grouping of socialist/communist/green parties in Spain. Marinaleda Council currently has seven IU councillors and four from the reformist Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party). Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo who typically wears a Palestinian keffiyeh (scarf), given to him when he visited Palestine, is a history teacher in the town and, as well as being alcalde, is an IU member of the Andalusian Parliament, national spokesperson of CUT and Secretary for Housing on the Federal Executive Committee of IU.

Marinaleda hit the news when its workers successfully expropriated a 3,000 acre estate from the Duke of Infantado in 1991. El Humoso, as the estate is known, was turned over to local people and now comprises eight agricultural co-operatives where the majority of local people work. The co-operatives concentrate on labour intensive crop production such as artichokes, peppers, beans and also wheat and olive groves. Every worker gets paid the same wage – €47 for a six and a half hour working day. This is in contrast to much of the agriculture in the local area outside Marinaleda which is based on the production of highly capital intensive sunflower and wheat. According to official statistics there are 130 registered unemployed in the town, which, during a time of deep economic crisis and unemployment in Spain, must be the lowest in the country and is effectively a situation of full employment. Marinaleda is a fine example of social ownership and employment creation going hand in hand

As well as radical agricultural reform, Marinaleda has also developed an utterly unique form of truly socialist housing provision. In contrast to the rampant speculation and financial madness that characterises and has ruined the Spanish housing market, much of the high quality housing in Marinaleda has been built by local people themselves who have subsequently become the owners of the houses at minimal cost. The houses are built on municipal land, with materials provided by local and regional government. Local people pay just €15 a month while contributing an agreed number of working hours per month to the construction of the houses. There’s a clear agreement that they can not sell the houses at any time in the future. The system means that house owners do not have mortgages and there is no possibility of financial speculation. The work that people do building the houses is translated into wages and subtracted from the cost of the house construction. The Council runs a series of workshops which specialise in teaching bricklaying, electrical engineering, plumbing, carpentry, ecological agriculture, all of which are used for the benefit of the social housing programme.

As an example of Marinaleda’s socialist ideology and believing that power has to be put into the hands of local people, the local Council has created General Assemblies where around 400 to 600 local people meet 25 to 30 times a year to voice their concerns and vote on issues. Local Assemblies also take place in specific streets or localities within the town when issues arise. In addition, there are Action Groups on specific issues such as culture, festivals, town planning, sport, ecology and peace. A further example of the Council’s form of local democracy is the use of “participatory budgets” whereby each year the Council’s proposed investments and expenditures are taken to local areas for discussion. On “Red Sundays” local people do voluntary work to improve the streets, gardens, houses and other worthwhile work, thereby not only improving the local area but also raising the collective consciousness of local people.

Another example of the town’s radical socialist policies is that some years ago the Council decided not to have a local police force, meaning that it can save significant amounts of financial resources (around €260,000 per year) which can be used for other more beneficial forms of social provision. This must be a unique policy stance in Spain, if not the rest of Europe, and one which appears to have been successful.

On my admittedly brief and impressionistic visit to Marinaleda the social and educational provision in the town seems impressive. There are modern schools, a health centre that is comprehensively resourced so that people don’t have to travel to get standard treatment, an active ayuntamiento (Council building), a modern and well-equipped sports centre, home services for the elderly, a pensioners’ centre, a large cultural centre, a swimming pool, a football stadium, and an immaculately looked after nature park and gardens. Perhaps most impressive is the town’s nursery which opens from 7am to 4pm and costs just €12 per month per child, which includes breakfast and lunch for the children – a huge support for working parents. The breadth of social provision is way above what one would expect in a town with a population of just 2,700.

The town also has its own radio and television service, recognising the need to oppose the mainstream and conservative media. While providing a wide range of music, chat, news and cultural programmes, Radio/TV Marinaleda promotes an alternative ideology based on solidarity, generosity and collective spirit. Radio and television are important aspects of the Council’s policy towards the diffusion of alternative political philosophies based on radical socialist thinking and a range of solidarity activity, especially with regard to support for the struggles in Palestine, Western Sahara and parts of Latin America. As I walked around the town I saw streets named after Che Guevara and Salvador Allende, and others named Solidarity, Fraternity and Hope. Together with many political murals and graffiti, these all play their part in raising political consciousness and providing alternative values to those promoted by capitalism.

On the town’s official coat of arms it states “Marinaleda – Una Utopia Hacia La Paz” (a Utopia towards Peace). Emphasising the republican nature of the town the shield has no crown and is coloured green, red and white. Green representing collective utopia, white representing peace and red representing active and continuing social struggle. The coat of arms also features a dove, a drawing of the town emphasising its collective nature, and the sun and fields its environmental priorities.

One fascinating aspect of the town which struck me strongly was that there is next to no commercial advertising in the streets. The little local shops had no advertising outside or in their windows and even the bars had almost no beer adverts outside. I don’t know if it’s a deliberate policy but I can only assume that it must be given the dominance of advertising which disfigures the rest of Spain. If so, it’s highly refreshing to see a town devoid of oppressive commercialism.

In an era of rampant global neo-liberalism and economic crisis, Marinaleda and the radical political path it has followed is a wonderful example of what can be done when people struggle together to pursue truly radical socialist policies. For someone like myself who still believes in the hope of a society based on socialist equality, justice and development, the people of Marinaleda deserve the highest praise and support for what they have achieved over the past thirty years. We can only hope they continue to develop in the future. At a time when cynicism is so endemic in politics, Marinaleda provides a wonderful and refreshing example of what can still be done. Another and better world is indeed possible.

DOUGLAS HAMILTON lives in Cadiz, Spain. He can be reached at: douglascuba@yahoo.com

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