GASTON LEVAL : Libertarian socialism : a practical outline
Including 4 charts
Article mis en ligne le 27 février 2020

par Eric Vilain

Gaston Leval in English

• "Anarchists Behind Bars", Summer 1921
• "Collectives in Aragon", London, 1938
• "Social Reconstruction in Spain : Spain and the World", London, 1938
• "Collectives in Spain", Freedom Press, London, 1945 online
• "Ne Franco Ne Stalin", Milan, 1952
• "Collectives in the Spanish Revolution", Freedom Press, London, 1975 (originally in French, "Espagne Libertaire (1936 - 1939)", Editions du Cercle, 1971)


Gaston Leval’s political culture had been deeply marked by Spanish anarchism. Indeed, refusing to go to war in 1914, he moved to Spain where he joined the anarchist movement. In 1919, at the time of social unrest and martial law, he was imprisoned for five months, officially for “lack of papers”. As for many militants, the prison was for him a “revolutionary university”.

In 1921, at a clandestine plenum of the Federation of Anarchist Groups in Barcelona, he was appointed to join the CNT delegation to the founding congress of the Red International of Trade Unions (RILU), from July 3 to 19, 1921, in Moscow. He went there under the name of Gaston Leval, a pseudonym that he was to keep all his life afterwards.

He stayed several months in Russia, met with the main Bolshevik leaders, had a violent altercation with Bukharin about the way the debates in the congress were held, another altercation with Trotsky on the question of imprisoned Russian anarchists. He returned with a report which, together with that of Angel Pestaña, contributed greatly to dissuade the CNT from joining this annex of the Communist International.
Upon his return from Russia, Leval was imprisoned in Berlin and then expelled. At that time he was considered by French intelligence services to be a Bolshevik agent. It was at the Zaragoza congress in June 1922 that his report and that of Pestaña led to the CNT’s decision to break with the Red International of Labour Unions.

After a further stay in prison in Barcelona, Leval travelled all over Spain as a itinerant photographer, then became a teacher in La Coruña in a rationalist school set up by the CNT’s Seamen’s Union, which closed after Primo de Rivera’s coup d’état in September 1923.

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After his marriage in 1924, he and his wife crossed the Atlantic as stowaways on a cargo ship and settled in Uruguay and then Argentina. The couple lived there for three years in great misery, and had four children, one of whom died for lack of medical assistance. In Argentina, Leval was horrified by the violence of the internal struggles of the Argentinean libertarian movement.

From 1927 onwards, his situation improved when he found a job as a journalist and then as a French teacher in a college in Rosario. According to his biographer Florentino. Iglesias, these were “the most fruitful years of his life” : he developed a great theoretical activity and published his first books : Poetas y literatos franceses (1930), Problemas económicos de la revolución española (1932), El mundo hacia el abismo (1933), Infancia en cruz (1933), El prófugo (1935), among others. His Problemas económicos (Economic Problems) were particularly noted, for example by Isaac Puente and Luigi Fabbri. At the same time, he continued to write for the Spanish revolutionary press under the pseudonyms of Benito Gómez, Silvio Agreste and Gaston Leval.

He returned to Spain in 1934. As one of the main contributors to the newspaper Liberación, his influence in the debates of the Spanish libertarian movement reached its peak. In preparation for the CNT congress in Zaragoza in May 1936, he published a brochure entitled Estructuración y funcionamiento de la Sociedad Libertaria.

After the outbreak of the Civil War and the Revolution, he turned down the job offered to him by the Generalitat de Catalunya and accompanied David Antona to France to buy arms. In 1937 he was a member of the Los Solidarios (FAI) group in Barcelona and of the journalists’ section of the CNT union of liberal professions. For more than eight months he carefully studied the agrarian and industrial collectivization organised by the libertarian movement.

In 1938 he returned to France and, under the pseudonym Max Stephan, he resumed his collaboration with Le Libertaire and the SIA [Anarchist International Solidarity] newspaper, where he was responsible for the Spanish-language news. He also wrote articles for André Prudhommeaux’s L’Espagne nouvelle.

On 21 June 1938, he was arrested for his insubordination in 1914. Military justice sentenced him on 22 November to four and a half years in prison. In June 1939, the Revolution Prolétarienne [founded in 1925 by Pierre Monatte] created the Committee of the Friends of Piller [Gaston’s real name] to help his wife and three children and obtain his liberation. Incarcerated in Clairvaux (where Kropotkin had also been incarcerated for three years), Gaston Leval escaped on August 14, 1940. On October 14, 1944, under the name of Nicasio Casanova, he was one of the CNT speakers, along with Ramon Alvarez, at the first meeting held in Paris by the CNT-UGT Trade Union Alliance.

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Defending a “libertarian socialism” modernized in the light of the Spanish experience, he questioned the social architecture imagined by Pierre Besnard, which he considered abstract, but also the thought of Pierre Kropotkin and Malatesta’s “voluntarism”. Concerning Pierre Besnard, I have no recollection of specific criticisms Leval would have made against him. Besnard was the author of a 100-page brochure entitled Le Monde nouveau, Organisation d’une société anarchiste [1], published by the CGT-SR in 1934. Twenty-five years before Leval, he developed an organizational scheme for an anarchist society.

The gossipers of the anarchist movement used to say of Pierre Besnard that his vision of revolutionary society was that of a stationmaster. This was probably a perfidious allusion to the fact that he was a railwayman. However, it is not entirely false if, from the stationmaster’s point of view, one has the image of a man who wants trains to arrive and depart on time and that everything is well organized. Besnard thought that we should not wait until the revolution took place to start thinking about how things would be organized. Reading Le Monde nouveau may give the impression of a finely-tuned vision of what the future society should be, a vision that would fit in with the countless utopian projects that Western thought has given us to read since Thomas More, the inventor of the word.

But Besnard himself anticipates these objections, since from the very beginning of his book he asks the question : “Should we draw up the building plan for the world revolution ?” For him, there is no hesitation : the answer is yes. This “building plan” consists simply in laying down the indispensable conditions for the success of the revolution ; the establishment of “a close and indispensable alliance between the two main elements of the revolution : the peasants and the workers” ; the realization of “the synthesis of the constructive forces of the revolution : manpower, technology and science, in order to be able to ensure collective life, in all its complexity, and the continuous development of the new order”.

Utopia, from this point of view, is not on the side of Besnard or the revolutionary syndicalists and anarcho-syndicalists of whom he was only the spokesman : it was with the Bolsheviks who carried out a coup d’état in the revolution without the slightest construction project, without the slightest idea of what they were going to achieve : their approach to the “alliance” with the peasantry resulted in one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of the 20th century ; their approach to the relationship between “labour, technology and science” was to hand over power to “specialists” and to create an unbelievable state bourgeoisie.

Besnard is in line with the great anarchist authors, notably Bakunin, who tells us that in the hypothesis of a revolution, the incapacity of the working class to realize an alliance with the peasantry could provoke the reconstitution of a system of domination, this time based on bureaucracy : the “state officials” and the “red bureaucracy”. The advent of the state bureaucracy would thus be the price to pay for the failure of the alliance with the peasantry. A premonitory analysis made during the Franco-Prussian War, of which the Bolsheviks will unfortunately demonstrate the relevance some 45 years later.

We find in Besnard the same argumentation, the same ideas, developed in a slightly more precise way than Leval in his 1959 text, probably inspired by Leval’s own 1932 writing, Problémas económicos de la revolución española, which could in turn have served as a model for the text that Leval published in 1936 in preparation for the Zaragoza congress : Estructuración y funcionamiento de la Sociedad Libertaria. A comparative study of these different texts would be seriously worthwhile.

It is not surprising that anarchist militants publish texts in which they reflect on the way a libertarian society is built. Contrary to popular belief, anarchists are organizational maniacs, and their state of mind is far from that of Marx, who thought that the recipes for the cooking pots of revolution should not be prepared. On the contrary, they think that the more one prepares today, the more likely one is to avoid the mess on the day of the revolution. The comparison between the appalling mess caused by the irresponsible policies of the Bolshevik party and the almost instantaneous organisation of that part of the Spanish economy which escaped fascism will suffice to show that the anarchists are right. It is by no means a question of falling into utopia, but of taking as a starting point the real elements available today and simulating what would be possible on the basis of these elements.

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Les Syndicats ouvriers et la révolution sociale (1930) was translated into Spanish the following year. Le Monde nouveau (1934), which is its complement, was translated the same year. Both books were known to Spanish libertarian activists. In a way Besnard describes before the Spanish Revolution the achievements that the latter was to bring about. Gaston Leval, who amassed an impressive amount of documents during the events, describes in Collectives in the Spanish Revolution what the revolution actually achieved.

It was Bakunin again who said that one cannot overthrow a social order without having a clear idea of what one wants to put in its place : “A political program is only valuable when, leaving vague generalities behind, it determines precisely which institutions it proposes in place of those it wants to overthrow or reform” (Writing against Marx). On this question, Bakunin, Besnard or Leval are not “outsiders” in the labour and libertarian movement : they are simply taking up the great tradition of the International Workers’ Association which, on many occasions, affirmed that the “resistance societies” (i.e., the unions) are the “embryos of those great labour companies which will one day replace the companies of capitalists with legions of wage workers under their orders".

The starting point for this constructive attitude was James Guillaume, the author of Ideas on Social Organization, published in 1876 and republished in 1921 by the Librairie du travail, with a preface by Marie Guillot (1880-1934). All those who tried to define the economic and social character of the libertarian society were inspired by this work : Pierre Besnard in Le Monde Nouveau and in Les syndicats ouvriers et la révolution sociale, 1930 (Workers’ unions and the social revolution), Isaac Puente in El Communismo Libertario in 1931 and Gaston Leval in Pratique du Socialisme Libertaire, 1959.

Leval’s 1959 pamphlet is reminiscent of the many texts written by anarchist authors who wanted to anticipate the functioning of a libertarian society. It was not until 1971 that Gaston Leval made in Collectives in the Spanish Revolution the revelation that these anticipations could be translated into reality.

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After the civil war in Spain and the Second World War, Leval had become hostile to revolutionary violence. He had come to the conviction that the state now had such repressive power that the working class no longer had the means to oppose it. This was the simple statement of what he thought was a fact, not a sign of his adhesion to pacifism and reformism. The working class had to adapt to this situation, to develop new strategies. His exceptional past as a revolutionary militant would be enough to incite to modesty those who would be tempted to blame him for this new attitude.

Gaston Leval now envisaged the alternative to capitalism in the multiplication of production and consumption cooperatives, as he wrote in Le Libertaire of 22 November 1946, while maintaining the objective of a complete socialisation of the economy. He advocated the rejection of the word “anarchist”, marred by too many ambiguities according to him, in favour of the word “libertarian”, which provoked a controversy. Georges Fontenis’ tendency supported Leval in his desire to “dust off” anarchism, but he always remained distant from his thinking, which he considered too “anti-Marxist” and inclined to “a certain reformism, a certain possibilism,” as Fontenis wrote in his Memoirs. Leval was reproached for his pro-American tendencies, whereas the line of the Anarchist Federation was that of the “3rd revolutionary front” (neither USA nor USSR). [2]

In March 1950, when he was threatened with further prosecution for his insubordination in 1914-1918, the Anarchist Federation Self-Defence Commission exfiltrated him to Belgium. He then settled in Brussels, where he made contact with the Iberian Anarchist Federation in exile. From March 28 to April 18, 1952, he published in Le Libertaire a study on The Rebellious Man by Albert Camus, to whom he opposed Bakunin. Camus replied to him in the number of June 5. That was Leval’s last collaboration with Le Libertaire.

Back in France at the end of 1952, Gaston Leval regularized his situation and worked as a proof reader. He was admitted to the proof reader’s CGT union on October 1, 1952, and practiced the profession for a few months in Geneva in 1954 at the International Labour Office.

Hostile to the Libertarian Communist Federation, he joined the new Anarchist Federation in 1954-1955, then left it to found the Libertarian Socialist Group, which had as its organ the Cahiers du socialisme libertaire (October 1955-May 1963). In 1963, Gaston Leval’s group was renamed Groupe humaniste libertaire and the title of his newspaper was consequently changed to Cahiers de l’humanisme libertaire (June 1963-November 1975), then Civilisation libertaire (December 1975-February 1984), publishing a total of 254 issues.

In the Cahiers de l’humanisme libertaire, Gaston Leval developed at leisure the ideas that had been his since the post-war period : the impossibility of a violent revolution, the need for popular counter-institutions preparing a gradual alternative to the market and the State. During May ‘68, he took part in several debates in the great amphitheatre of the occupied Sorbonne, but his “possibilist” thinking had, on the whole, little impact in the context of the revolutionary renewal of the post-May period. The Humanist Libertarian Group disappeared in 1976.

René Berthier
February 2020