The Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution (1936-1939)

CNT Anarchist militia

CNT Anarchist militia

Continuing with my installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, here I present my concluding remarks on the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. In Volume One of the Anarchism anthology, I included a chapter on the Spanish Revolution. I have also created a page on this blog on the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution which includes additional material that I was unable to fit into Volume One.

CNT at the barricades

The CNT in the Spanish Civil War

The greatest controversy in which Abad de Santillán was involved arose from the decisions by the CNT during the Spanish Civil War to accept posts in the Catalonian governing council in September 1936 and, in November 1936, the central government in Madrid. In December 1936, Abad de Santillán became the Councillor of Economy in the regional government in Catalonia (the Generalitat). Not only did the “militants” of the FAI fail to prevent this fatal compromise of anarchist principles, some of the CNT ministers were themselves members of the FAI (such as Juan García Oliver, who became the Minister of Justice in the Madrid government, and Abad de Santillán himself). The decision to join the government was engineered by the National Committee of the CNT (which became the de facto ruling council of the CNT during the course of the Civil War) in order to obtain arms and financing, neither of which were forthcoming.

The decision of the CNT leadership to join the Spanish government was sharply criticized by many well known anarchists, including Camillo Berneri, Sébastien Faure, and Alexander Schapiro. Writing for the IWA publication, The International, the Swedish anarcho-syndicalist Albert Jensen (1879-1957) pointed out that it was by way of revolution that the workers in Catalonia had prevented General Franco from seizing power when he began the military revolt against the republican government in July 1936. Anarchists and syndicalists stormed military barracks, seized weapons and began collectivizing industry, while the republican government was in a state of virtual collapse. However, in order to maintain a “united front” against fascism, and to avoid imposing their own de facto dictatorship, the CNT-FAI decided it was better to work within the republican government rather than against it.

The problem was that, as Jensen pointed out, during a civil war the government “must have recourse always to dictatorship,” governing by decree and imposing military discipline, so instead of imposing an “anarchist” dictatorship the CNT-FAI was propping up a “counter-revolutionary” dictatorship, which hardly constituted “loyalty to [anarchist] ideas” and principles. “Wounded unto death, the State received new life thanks to the governmental participation of the CNT-FAI.” If the CNT-FAI had to work with other anti-fascists, whether capitalists or the authoritarian Communists loyal to Moscow, it would have been better for the CNT-FAI to remain outside the government, taking the position that “under no pretext, would they tolerate any attack on the revolutionary accomplishments and that they would defend these with all the necessary means” (Volume One, Selection 127).


The Spanish Revolution

In the factories and in the countryside, in areas that did not immediately fall under fascist control, there was a far-reaching social revolution. Spanish peasants collectivized the land and workers took over their factories. In the factories, the workers in assembly would make policy decisions and elect delegates to coordinate production and distribution. In the countryside, village and town assemblies were held in which all members of the community were able to participate.

In “the agrarian regions and especially in Aragon,” observed Gaston Leval (1895-1978), “a new organism appeared: the Collective.” The collective was not a trade union or syndical organization, “for it encompasses all those who wish to join it whether they are producers in the classic economic sense or not.” Neither was it a commune or municipal council, as it “encompasses at the same time the Syndicate and municipal functions.” The “whole population,” not merely the producers, “takes part in [the] management” of the collective, dealing with all sorts of issues, “whether it is a question of policy for agriculture, for the creation of new industries, for social solidarity, medical service or public education” (Volume One, Selection 126).

Although the anarchist collectives were ultimately destroyed, first by the Stalinist Communists in republican areas, and then by the fascists as they subjugated all of Spain, they constitute the greatest achievement of the Spanish anarchist movement. Through the crucible of the social revolution itself, the Spanish people developed this new, more inclusive form of libertarian organization which transcended the limits of anarcho-syndicalist trade union and factory committee forms of organization, inspiring generations to come.

CNT final blow

Counter-Revolution in Spain

Those anarchists who attempted to work within the republican government were consistently outmaneuvered by the Republicans, Socialists and Communists. The areas in which anarchists were free to implement their ideas continued to shrink, but it was the May Days in Barcelona in 1937 that effectively marked the end of the anarchist social revolution in Spain. Factories and services under anarchist inspired workers’ self-management were attacked by Republican and Communist forces while they did battle with the anarchist militias, and several prominent anarchists were murdered, including Camillo Berneri and the Libertarian Youth leader, Alfredo Martinez. The CNT leadership negotiated a truce with the Republican government rather than engage in a “civil war” within the civil war. Hundreds of anarchists were killed in the fighting, and many more were imprisoned. The Socialists and Communists, unsuccessful in having the CNT declared illegal, forced them out of the government and continued their campaign of “decollectivization” and disarmament of the anarchist groups.

Given this disastrous turn of events, Abad de Santillán had second thoughts about the CNT’s policy of collaboration. By April 1937, he had already ceased being a member of the Catalonian cabinet. The following year he denounced those “anarchists” who had used their positions within the movement “as a springboard to defect to the other side where the pickings are easier and the thorns less sharp,” obtaining “high positions of political and economic privilege.” The CNT-FAI’s participation “in political power,” which he had also once “thought advisable due to circumstances, in light of the war,” had demonstrated “yet again what Kropotkin once said of the parliamentary socialists: ‘You mean to conquer the State, but the State will end up conquering you’” (Volume One, Selection 128).

Abad de Santillán noted that the self-styled anarchist “avant-garde,” who fancied themselves the “best trained, most prestigious, sharpest witted,” himself included, were not “in the vanguard of economic and social change” but instead “proved a hindrance, a brake, a hurdle to that change.” He had to admit that the “broad masses” of the Spanish people “were better prepared than their supposed mentors and guides when it came to revolutionary reconstruction.” For Abad de Santillán, by “standing with the State and thus against the people,” anarchists who were working within the Republican government were “not only committing an irreparable act of betrayal of the revolution,” they were “also betraying the war effort, because we are denying it the active support of the people,” who were becoming increasingly alienated from the Republican government as it sought to dismantle the anarchist collectives and other organs of self-management that had been created by the people themselves (Volume One, Selection 128).

Under the pressure of civil war, the CNT-FAI came more and more to resemble a conventional political party. The CNT’s National Committee would negotiate with the Republican government, and then present whatever deals they could get to the membership as a fait accompli. In effect, the “inverse” pyramidal federalist structure of the CNT was turned upside down, as the CNT began to function as a top-down political organization. The anarchist militias were dissolved, broken up or absorbed into the Communist dominated Republican army and subjected to strict military discipline (Richards, 1972).

Looking back on the Revolution and Civil War, José Peirats (1908-1989), active in the CNT and later its historian, believed that “those of us who consistently opposed collaboration with the government had as our only alternative a principled, heroic defeat.” Nevertheless, he was sympathetic to those principled anarchists for whom “the only solution was to leave an indelible mark on the present without compromising the future,” through their “constructive revolutionary experiments like the collectives, artistic and cultural achievements, new models of free, communal living.” This entailed “staying out of intrigues, avoiding complicity with the counterrevolution within the government, protecting the organization and its militants from the vainglory of rulers or the pride of the newly rich.” The seemingly insurmountable difficulties in maintaining these revolutionary achievements in the midst of civil war caused Peirats to question not these achievements, but “the idea of revolution” itself, conceived as a mass armed uprising seeking to overthrow the existing regime which inevitably degenerates into civil war (Peirats: 188-189), a critique further developed by Luc Bonet (Volume Three, Selection 12). This process of rethinking revolution was to be continued by many anarchists after the Spanish Revolution and the Second World War.

Robert Graham

Peirats CNT Spanish Revolution

Building the Revolution in Greece

The New Anarchism (1974-2012)

The New Anarchism

Below I reproduce excerpts from a recent report at Truthout by Joshua Stephens on the constructive efforts by Greek anarchists to create alternatives to capitalism and the nation-state. The approaches they have been developing since the uprising in 2008 are similar to those proposed by Alexander Berkman based on his experiences during the Russian Revolution. Directly democratic popular assemblies formed the basis of the anarchist collectives during the Spanish Revolution, and were later championed by Murray Bookchin. Stephens refers to Colin Ward, whose ground breaking article on anarchism as a theory of organization is included in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Anarchist alternatives to capitalism and hierarchical organization are well documented in all three volumes of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, now on sale at AK Press.

Joshua Stephen’s on the situation in Greece:

“On the first day of the uprising, we smashed the police stations,” an anarchist in Thessaloniki told me last spring.  “On the second, we smashed the banks.  On the third, there was nothing left to smash, and we were suddenly faced with the fact that we didn’t really know what to do.”  It seems to have been a widespread frustration.  The occupations of academic and political institutions that occurred amidst the uprising gave way to what are called Popular Assemblies in some 70 neighborhoods across Athens.

About half of these are still operating, composed of an often unlikely spectrum of participants.  Anarchists, local workers, even municipal employees and officeholders all collaborate off the political grid in democratically administering needs, redistributing available resources and bolstering existing struggles against both austerity and the steady creep of fascism.

Their strategy can be read in a short 1958 article by Colin Ward in the British anarchist journal Freedom, entitled “The Unwritten Handbook”:  “The choice between libertarian and authoritarian solutions occurs every day and in every way, and the extent to which we choose, or accept…  or lack the imagination and inventiveness to discover alternatives to the authoritarian solutions to small problems is the extent to which we are their powerless victims in big affairs.”  When a round of austerity measures included a new and often unaffordable property tax in electricity bills, many Greeks saw their power abruptly cut.  Popular Assemblies began compiling lists of households without power, ranking them based on vulnerability (age, the presence of infants, etc.), and deploying qualified people to restore electricity, illegally.

On a cool April evening in the neighborhood of Peristeri, assembly participants debated models for localizing economic transactions through alternative currencies and non-monetary programs like time-banks.  Over drinks following a talk I gave last spring, the bulk of the questions from local anarchists known the world over for bravado and street warfare were about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, an overwhelmingly liberal phenomena back home, hardly considered political (much less radical).  In Greece, however, forging direct relationships with the agricultural sector amounts to a fuck-you to the International Monetary Fund and its threats of import cutoffs, issued to leverage passage of austerity measures.

During my few days on the ground in Athens this trip, I was invited to an anti-fascist march organized by the Popular Assemblies of south Athens.  It marked what felt like an expansion of their role into directly confronting Golden Dawn, where the state has proved either unwilling or unable to tread. “If we don’t resist in every neighborhood, they will soon become our prisons” could be heard reverberating off the facades of buildings.

Counting by tens, I estimated roughly a thousand marching from the commercial plaza adjacent to the Dafni Metro, winding through a number of its various neighborhoods before reaching a former military installation occupied and renamed Asyrmatos Greek for “wireless,” referring to the towering antennas jutting out of what is now a sizable community garden and community-managed conservatory.

In the adjacent neighborhood of Aghios Dimitrios, where much of the march was organized, the Popular Assembly meets weekly in theatrical space of a local municipal building.  On the surface, it appears quite innocuous, as though it’s scheduled through an arrangement with the local government.  I was surprised to learn that each week’s meeting is a sort of micro-occupation; participants simply walk in and seize the space, with zero visible pushback from employees, and no police response.  “In 2008 (during the uprising), we seized the building for a month,” one local told me.  “So, I think that, for them, two hours a week is a bargain.”

The oldest Popular Assembly in Athens operates in the neighborhood of Petralona, the site of a recent, widely publicized murder of a Pakistani man at the hands of fascists.  When I visited with them last spring, they were opening a kitchen and cafe space for educating people about nutrition and food production, and operating an extensive calendar of peer-led health and mental health events, inspired in part by Mexico’s Zapatistas.  Today, they operate medical, dental and eye clinics in coordination with other Popular Assemblies, based on non-monetary mutual aid.

As we weaved through commercial corridors and narrow neighborhood  arteries last week, all of this seemed to be shifting from a sort of quiet mode of survival into an overt assertion of power.  Scattered action commanded the attention of onlookers.  Quarter-sheet fliers were tossed into open bus windows, open supermarkets and even into the day’s light breeze, scattering like ticker tape. Two masked young women darted out of the crowd periodically, spray-painting a stencil onto walls featuring a sort of close-up frontal image of a boy with his fist forward, reading “The sons of Adolf will receive a red and black punch” (a reference to the colors of the traditional anarchist flag).

The smell of fresh spray paint hung in the air, the fire to its smoke appearing on walls, the sides of buses, and a newly favorite target in the country’s crisis establishments set up to buy people’s gold.  These entrepreneurs are referred to as mavragoriters a termcoined during Greece’s years under Nazi occupation. “They were Greeks, usually friends of or sympathetic to the Nazis, and they took advantage of the crisis and the starvation that existed all over the country,” explained a young woman, who asked not to be named.  “It reached a point where they were buying houses in exchange for two bottles of olive oil, or quantities of rice.”

The subtext of the young woman’s description seems the soul of the Popular Assemblies:  dignity.  She later pointed me to a communique posted at Indymedia Athens, in which anarchists in the city set about countering the neoliberal mantra heard around the country, and the ethics of the mavragoriters “No job is a shame.”  The Popular Assemblies appear to operate from the inverse that appears in the communique “Shame is not a job.” Surviving merely to revive histories of foreign occupation or homegrown fascism, for them, is a path without hope.

Joshua Stephens is a board member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies, and has been active in anti-capitalist, international solidarity and worker-cooperative movements across the last two decades.  He currently divides his time between the northeastern US and various parts of the Mediterranean.

Anarchist Demonstration in Athens

Anarchist Demonstration in Athens


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