The village Marinaleda, in impoverished Andalusia, used to suffer terrible economic and social hardships. Then in the 1970s, led by a charismatic mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, the village declared itself a communist utopia and took farmland to provide for everyone. Could it be the answer to modern capitalism’s failings?
Sánchez Gordillo described Marinaleda – which has no municipal police and full employment – as a “utopia for peace”, acutely observing that “we have learned that it is not enough to define utopia, nor is it enough to fight against the reactionary forces. One must build it here and now, brick by brick, patiently but steadily, until we can make the old dreams a reality: that there will be bread for all, freedom among citizens, and culture; and to be able to read with respect the word ‘peace ‘. We sincerely believe that there is no future that is not built in the present.” Transforming human society “brick by brick”, for the betterment and wellbeing of every one of its citizens, is exactly what Blake’s vision of Golgonooza is all about.
In the village, striking political murals and inspiring revolutionary slogans adorn the town’s whitewashed walls and streets are named after Latin American leftists. Every few weeks, the town hall declares a Red Sunday over a bullhorn and volunteers clean the streets or do odd jobs.
Sánchez Gordillo was first elected mayor of Marinaleda in 1979 (a position he has held ever since – re-elected time after time with an overwhelming majority), and in the following year 700 people staged a 13-day hunger strike, demanding better pay and stricter regulation of the old system of employment.
The success of this action led to intensification of the land struggle, with further occupations of large landowners’ estates under the slogan “Land to those who work on it”. In 1984, the Cordobilla marsh was occupied for 30 days to demand irrigation for a farm called El Humoso, the property of the Duke of Infantado, facilitating its later expropriation. The next year, the occupation of estates increased in number, and in 1991 a 1,200 hectare tract of El Humoso farm was handed over to Marinaleda for the use of the population, followed by many occupations of government buildings and institutions.
In August 2012 the mayor achieved a new level of notoriety by leading a series of expropriations from supermarkets, marching into supermarkets and taking bread, rice, olive oil and other basic supplies in order to donate them to food banks for Andalusians who could not feed themselves. For this he became a superstar, appearing not only on the cover of Spanish newspapers, but in the world’s media, as “the Robin Hood mayor”. As he explained, the action “was to draw attention to the fact there are so many people in Spain who have a hard time getting enough to eat right now. We wanted to say, in the 21st century in Spain, ‘this problem exists’. Gandhi would have supported it.”
“We believe the land should belong to the community that works it, and not in the dead hands of the nobility. It is true we form part of a tradition, but we’re doing something new here too: we’re insisting that natural resources should be at the service of people, that they have a natural right to the land, and that land is not something to be marketed. Food should not be speculated with either. It is a basic human right. We also believe in the [common] sovereignty of [food] as a way of profoundly changing agriculture in the world, not just one particular place.”
Sánchez Gordillo’s philosophy, outlined in his 1980 book Andaluces, Levantaos and in countless speeches and interviews since, is one which is unique to him, though grounded firmly in the historic struggles and uprisings of the peasant pueblos of Andalusia, and their remarkably deep-seated tendency towards anarchism. “I have never belonged to the communist party of the hammer and sickle, but I am a communist or communitarian,” Sánchez Gordillo said in an interview in 2011, adding that his political beliefs were drawn from those of Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Marx, Lenin and Che Guevara.
Mr Sánchez Gordillo believes Spain’s deep recession is the fault of its government. “Unfortunately, this government’s policies have not been directed towards the people’s problems; they were directed towards the banks’ problems,” he says.
“People are more important than banks, particularly when the profits are received by a handful of bankers who have speculated with basic human rights. The money they’ve provided doesn’t reach the base of the social pyramid, which is why the economy is paralysed. It’s the small property holders and businesses who have been hurt the most. [We have] six million unemployed and twice that number living in poverty.”
He laments that the village’s initiatives are not being adopted elsewhere in the country and even across the world. And it seems Mr Sánchez Gordillo may not be alone in seeing Marinaleda as spearheading a global change “towards a peaceful Utopia” – as the road signs leading into the village pronounce. Support for moderate to hard-left politics is certainly growing in Spain. The Communist-led coalition to which Mr Sánchez Gordillo’s party belongs, the United Left, gained 15.6 per cent of the votes in a recent poll, more than double than at the 2011 elections.
Even more excitingly, in May 2016 United Left and Spain’s anti-austerity party Podemos announced that they would combine forces to run on a joint platform for Spain’s June elections. In a statement, party representatives said the alliance aimed to “recover the country” in favour of the “working classes and social majorities.” Watch this space!