July 19, 1936 marks the 79th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Revolution, when anarchists across Spain took up arms against the reactionary Spanish military forces that were attempting to take over Spain. What ensued was a bloody civil war and the ultimate defeat of the Spanish anarchists three years later, as a result of an arms embargo, Communist treachery and a fascist military machine fuelled by weapons and military expertise from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Spanish anarchist movement began in the late 1860s, when the majority of the Spanish Federation of the International Workingmen’s Association (the so-called “First International”) adopted an anarchist stance, something which I discuss in much more detail in my new book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. I included several selections regarding the Spanish anarchist movement in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.
By the beginning of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, over 500,000 people belonged to anarchist affiliated organizations, primarily the anarcho-syndicalist trade union federation, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (the CNT, or ‘National Confederation of Workers’). Toward the end of the Civil War, over two million people belonged to these organizations, but by then they had been almost completely coopted by the Communist dominated Republican government, and had developed a bureaucratic structure that mirrored those of other left wing organizations (with the exception of the Stalinist Spanish Communist Party, whose authoritarian structure and methods were incomparable to other left organizations). In the following excerpt from my essay, “The Anarchist Current,” which forms the Afterword to Volume Three of the Anarchism anthology, I discuss the Spanish anarchist movement on the eve of the Revolution. I have created a page on the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, which includes additional material that I was unable to fit into Volume One.
Spanish Anarchism: Prelude to Revolution
The Spanish anarchist movement which Bakunin had helped inspire experienced its greatest triumphs and most tragic defeats during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War (1936-1939). The two most prominent anarchist groups in Spain were the Iberian Anarchist Federation (the FAI) and the anarcho-syndicalist trade union confederation, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (the CNT). The FAI was a federation of anarchist revolutionaries which sought to foment social revolution and to keep the CNT on an anarchist path. This “dual organization” model had been followed in Spain since the days of the First International, when Bakunin recruited Spanish radicals into his Alliance of Social Revolutionaries. Members of the Alliance were to ensure that the Spanish sections of the International adopted Bakunin’s collectivist anarchist program.
By the 1930s, the Spanish anarchist movement had moved toward an anarchist communist position, although the doctrine of “anarchism without adjectives,” which originated in the debates between the anarchist collectivists and anarchist communists in the 1890s, continued to be influential. Diego Abad de Santillán (1897-1983), who played a prominent role in the Argentine and Spanish anarchist movements, saw anarchism as representing a broad “humanistic craving” which “seeks to defend man’s dignity and freedom, regardless of circumstances and under every political system, past, present and future.” Anarchism must therefore be without adjectives because it is not tied to any particular economic or political system, nor is anarchy only possible at a certain stage of history or development. Abad de Santillán argued that anarchism “can survive and assert its right to exist alongside plough and team of oxen as readily as alongside the modern combine-harvester; its mission in the days of steam was the same as it is in the age of the electric motor or jet engine or the modern age of the computer and atomic power” (Volume Two, Selection 53).
Despite his endorsement of “anarchism without adjectives,” Abad de Santillán did not shy away from controversy. Although he participated in the anarcho-syndicalist movements in Argentina and Spain, he urged anarchists “not to forget that the Syndicate is, as an economic by-product of capitalist organization, a social phenomenon spawned by the needs of its day. Clinging to its structures after the revolution would be tantamount to clinging to the cause that spawned it: capitalism” (Volume One, Selection 94).
On the eve of the Spanish Revolution, when the CNT reaffirmed its commitment to libertarian communism (Volume One, Selection 124), Abad de Santillán argued not only that people should be free to choose between “communism, collectivism or mutualism,” but that “the prerequisite” of such freedom is a certain level of material abundance that can only be achieved through an integrated economic network of productive units (Volume One, Selection 125).