Iain McKay on the Spanish Revolution

I am a few weeks late for marking the anniversary of the Spanish Revolution, but here is a recent piece on that topic by Iain McKay. I included a chapter on Spanish anarchism and the Spanish Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Anti-Fascist and Anti-Capitalist

The Spanish Civil War is usually considered as a forerunner of the Second World War – a struggle between the Spanish Republic and Franco’s fascist forces. This is not quite the case for the Spanish Labour movement [which], thanks to the influence of anarchists, was the most revolutionary one in the world. The CNT, a mass anarcho-syndicalist union, rightly saw the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s as a product of capitalism’s fear of revolution.

To fight fascism effectively meant to fight the system that spawned it. Hence the CNT National Committee on 14 February 1936:

“We are not the defenders of the Republic, but we fight against fascism relentlessly, we will contribute all of the forces that we have to rout the historical executioners of the Spanish proletariat [… to] ensure that the defensive contribution of the masses leads in the direction of real social revolution, under the auspices of libertarian communism…”

“Either fascism or social revolution. Defeating the former is the duty of the whole proletariat and all those who love freedom, weapons in hand; that the revolution be social and libertarian must be the deepest concern of Confederates.”

In short, the CNT was not fighting fascism to maintain an exploitative and oppressive system in which a nominally democratic government protects an economic system mired in years of depression. It was fighting fascism for a better society – and it was this fear which had driven ruling classes across Europe to embrace fascism to protect themselves.

Spanish Revolution Timeline

These were the ideas which were commonplace in working class circles in many parts of Spain in 1936. Yet, as Noam Chomsky noted, the social revolution of 1936 dates back decades and starts in 1868 with the formation of the Spanish section of the International Workers’ Association. State repression soon saw this smashed but it was replaced by other union federations which suffered the same fate.

Then, in 1911 the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) was founded – and was quickly banned. Legalised again, it surged in membership as workers in Spain (as elsewhere) were radicalised by the First World War and the Russian Revolution. 1919 saw the CNT declare at its national congress that its objective was libertarian communism. It was soon banned by the quasi-fascist Primo de Rivera regime. While the CNT was banned in the 1920s, in 1927 the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) – a specially anarchist federation – was founded.

In 1931 the Second Republic was created. The CNT re-organises and leads countless strikes and revolts – all faced repression by the liberal republic. Two years later, in 1933, a right-wing government was elected and, again, numerous libertarian revolts were crushed and the CNT repressed. In 1934 an insurrection in Asturias and Catalonia called by the UGT-run Workers Alliance is crushed. 1936 is the year of civil war and revolution as 19th February sees the Popular Front elected. The CNT starts to re-organise. On 17th July the Army revolts against the Republic, starting in Morocco but soon spreads across Spain. The government is paralysed – the workers’ organisations, with the CNT and FAI at their head, respond and draw upon their years of experience in the class struggle to resist the army.

I cannot cover all the popular resistance and so will concentrate on what happened on the 19th of July in Barcelona. The troops started to leave their barracks around 5am, with the officers claiming to be defending the republic against (yet another) anarchist uprising. The CNT declares a general strike and factory sirens called the masses onto the streets. Libertarians seize weapons wherever they could and barricades are built — some assault and civil guards join the resistance. Fighting takes place all day and into the next. The Army revolt is finally ended with the storming of the final rebel barracks (the Andreu barracks).

All this, I must stress, was no spontaneous response. It was prepared and organised by libertarian “committees of defence” in Barcelona’s working-class neighbourhoods as well as by CNT unions – not to mention years of strikes, rent strikes, street fighting, etc. However, while the fighting was organised the subsequent Revolution was spontaneous – it was created by militants who had taken Kropotkin’s call to “act for yourselves” seriously.

The Revolution Begins

Where the army had been defeated, the people took the opportunity to transform society into one worthy of human beings. Anarchist militant Enriqueta Rovira paints a vivid picture:

“The atmosphere then, the feelings were very special. It was beautiful. A feeling of – how shall I say it – of power, not in the sense of domination, but in the sense of things being under our control, if under anyone’s. Of possibility. We had everything. We had Barcelona: It was ours. You’d walk out in the streets, and they were ours – here, CNT; there, comite this or that. It was totally different. Full of possibility. A feeling that we could, together, really do something. That we could make things different.”

The workers did not go back to being wage-slaves but expropriated their workplaces. The days and weeks following the 19th of July saw the collectivisation of industry and the land. About eight million people directly or indirectly participated, with over 60% of the land collectively cultivated by the peasants without landlords while in Catalonia almost all the industries run by workers and their committees, without capitalists, well-paid managers or the state. Every branch of industry was taken over and run by their workers – factories, mills, workshops, transportation, public services, health care, utilities, even football teams. As visitor Emma Goldman recounted:

“I was especially impressed with the replies to my questions as to what actually had the workers gained by the collectivisation [. . .] the answer always was, first, greater freedom. And only secondly, more wages and less time of work. In two years in Russia I never heard any workers express this idea of greater freedom.”

The Spanish Revolution created a socialism which was based on workers’ control rather than, as in the Russian Revolution, controlled workers. The new collectives were structured like the CNT and its strikes and so based on, as historian Martha A. Ackelsberg put it, “general assemblies of workers [which] decided policy, while elected committees managed affairs on a day-to-day basis”. The collectives showed that capitalists were not needed for investment and innovation either, for “they maintained, if not increased, agricultural production, often introducing new patterns of cultivation and fertilisation […] collectivists built chicken coups, barns, and other facilities for the care and feeding of the community’s animals. Federations of collectives co-ordinated the construction of roads, schools, bridges, canals and dams.”

While individual workplaces were taken over by their workers, federations were seen as a means to co-ordinate and socialise the economy. The CNT was well aware of the need “[t]o socialise an industry” as “partial collectivisation will in time degenerate into a kind of bourgeois co-operativism”. As anarchist theorists had predicted, the process of federation and socialisation took time and developed unevenly. However, as CNT militant Saturnino Carod reminds us:

“For it can never be forgotten that it was the working class and peasantry which, by demonstrating their ability to run industry and agriculture collectively, allowed the republic to continue the struggle for thirty-two months. It was they who created a war industry, who kept agricultural production increasing, who formed militias […] Without their creative endeavour, the republic could not have fought the war”.

Getting the economy running again was not the pressing task facing the members of the CNT. Franco had only been defeated across two-thirds of Spain and so the defence of the revolution predicted by anarchist thinkers had an even greater urgency. This led to the organisation of militias by the CNT and other unions and parties. However, the CNT’s armed forces were based on libertarian principles as militant Buenaventura Durruti summarised:

“I don’t believe—and everything happening around us confirms this— that you can run a workers’ militia according to classical military rules. I believe that discipline, coordination, and planning are indispensable, but we shouldn’t define them in the terms of the world that we’re destroying. We have to build on new foundations.”

It should be noted that only the CNT militias were democratic, those organised by Marxist parties like the POUM and PSUC were modelled on the [Soviet] Red Army.

As well as organising militias to free those under Army rule elsewhere in Spain, the workers of the CNT took the initiative in creating war industries by the conversion of existing industry to produce home-made armed vehicles, grenades, etc. However, it was not forgotten that a key measure to defend the revolution and defeat the forces of reaction was the interest and active participation of the many rather than power to a few. As Pilar Vivancos, a collective member, put it:

“It was marvellous to live in a collective, a free society where one could say what one thought, where if the village committee seemed unsatisfactory one could say. The committee took no big decisions without calling the whole village together in a general assembly. All this was wonderful.”

As well as transforming the economy, the social revolution also looked to transform all aspects of social life. Women activists of the CNT and FAI created the Mujeres Libres (Free Women) movement which was organised to fight against the “triple enslavement to ignorance, as women, and as producers” and recognised the interwoven nature of social oppressions and hierarchies:

We could not separate the women’s problem from the social problem, nor could we deny [its] significance […] by converting women into a simple instrument for any organisation, even our own libertarian organisation. The intention […] was much much broader: […] to empower women to make of them individuals capable of contributing to the structuring of the future society, individuals who have learned to be self-determining”

This was needed because, in spite of a theoretical awareness of the need for sexual equality, many male anarchists in Spain practiced manarchy in action. Thus patriarchy within the libertarian movement also had to be combated as Kyralina, a Mujeres Libres activist, argued:

“All those compañeros, however radical they may be in cafes, unions, and even affinity groups, seem to drop their costumes as lovers of female liberation at the doors of their homes. Inside, they behave with their compañeras just like common husbands.”

Another, Soledad, stressed that [i]t was essential that we work and struggle together, because otherwise, there would be no social revolution. But we needed our own organisation to fight for ourselves.” This was based, to use the words of Lucia Sanchez Saornil, empowerment (capacitación):

“It is not [the man] who is called upon to set out the roles and responsibilities of the woman in society, no matter how elevated he might consider them to be. No, the anarchist way is to allow the woman to act freely herself, without tutors or external pressures; that she may develop in the direction that her nature and her faculties dictate.”

With this perspective Mujeres Libres were active across Republican Spain and created alternatives which undercut patriarchy wherever it raised its ugly head – including in the CNT and FAI.

Thus a new world was created across Spain, one which transformed every aspect of life – from the economic to the personal. A world which George Orwell vividly recounted when he arrived in Barcelona in December 1936:

“The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. […] It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists […] Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”

An Incomplete Revolution

After 19th July, the members of the CNT started to build the beginnings of Anarchy. Workplaces and land expropriated and collectivised under workers control while union- and party-based militias were organised to defeat Franco’s forces.

Yet, was the State smashed and replaced by a federation of workers’ organisations as anarchism had long argued? No – the CNT in Barcelona decided to cooperate with other anti-fascist groups in a Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias. As they later recounted, the leadership of the CNT decided “not to speak about Libertarian Communism as long as part of Spain was in the hands of the fascists.” This eventually led to the CNT joining the Catalan and Spanish governments [where they] were quickly marginalised.

The question is: why? Was this anarchist theory or the situation facing anarchists? As anarchist theory was ignored, it must be the second.

For, lest we forget, immediately after the defeat of the Army in Barcelona the CNT was isolated – it had no idea what the situation was elsewhere, even elsewhere in Catalonia. Then there was the danger of fighting on two fronts if libertarian communism was declared as there was a distinct possibility of having to fight Franco and the Republican State in that case. Then there was the fear of wider foreign intervention against the revolution beyond the help Franco received from Germany and Italy. Finally, there was optimism in the membership who had just defeated the Army in Barcelona and so were willing to tolerate the remnants of the State for a short period while Franco was defeated – particularly as there was so much else to do like organise militias and an economy.

All these factors help explain the decision to ignore Anarchist theory rather than push for libertarian communism even if it does not justify it nor make it correct.

The Counter-Revolution

Ultimately, the decision of the CNT to avoid fighting on two fronts did not mean it did not happen. The remnants of the State and the capitalist class regrouped and pursued a counter-revolution. At its head was the Communist Party – and this party soon created a civil war within the civil war.

In Spain, it sided with the urban and rural petit-bourgeois and bourgeois to (finally) get a mass base and undermined the gains of the revolution while USSR shaped Government Policy by supplying weapons (and to get its claws on Spanish gold). The attack on the revolution reached its climax in the May Days of 1937 which began with a government attack on Barcelona’s collectivised telephone exchange. This saw CNT members raise barricades across the city while the Communist and State forces assassinated anarchist activists (including Italian anarchist and refugee from Mussolini, Camilo Berneri). Elsewhere, saw the destruction of the rural collectives by use of troops and tanks while falsely claiming the peasants were forced to join – at the same time praising Stalin’s collectivisation!

As well as using troops and tanks against peasants rather than Franco’s troops, the State denied resources and weapons to libertarian troops and collectives. George Orwell stated the obvious:

“A government which sends boys of fifteen to the front with rifles forty years old and keeps its biggest men and newest weapons in the rear is manifestly more afraid of the revolution than the fascists”

Finally, I should note the political repression and trials of radicals – starting with the dissident Marxists of the POUM as “Trotsky-Fascists” (although Trotsky had few, if any, kind words for the party). It was experiencing this at first hand which forced Orwell – a member of the POUM militia – to flee Spain.

Lessons of the Revolution

Yes, ultimately the revolution was defeated but it must be stressed that every political grouping failed – anarchists, socialists, Stalinists, the POUM and the handful of Trotskyists.

In areas were the socialist UGT was bigger than the CNT the revolution was correspondingly less. As anarchist Abel Paz notes “in Madrid, thanks to the Socialist Party, bourgeois structures were left intact and even fortified: a semi-dead state received a new lease on life and no dual power was created to neutralise it.” In terms of the Stalinists, they defeated the revolution, replaced the militias with an army, placated the bourgeoisie but Franco still won. So the Communist solution completely failed – the People Armed won the revolution, the People’s Army lost the war.

The Spainish labour movement clearly vindicated the anarchist critique of Marxism. While the anarchist influenced unions remained militant, the socialists soon became as reformist as Bakunin predicted:

“the workers […] will send common workers […] to […] Legislative Assemblies. […] The worker-deputies, transplanted into a bourgeois environment, into an atmosphere of purely bourgeois political ideas, will in fact cease to be workers and, becoming Statesmen, they will become bourgeois, and perhaps even more bourgeois than the Bourgeois themselves. For men do not make their situations; on the contrary, men are made by them”.

Indeed, it was the libertarian labour movement which was the innovative trend – so much so, many Marxists often point to the Spanish Revolution as an example of socialist revolution! As such, Engels was completely wrong when he proclaimed in the 1870s that “we may safely predict that the new departure will not come from these ‘anarchist’ spouters, but from the small body of intelligent and energetic workmen who, in 1872, remained true to the [Marxist dominated wing of the] International.”

The reasons are clear enough – as anarchists had long argued, organising and fighting on the economic plain radicalised those involved rather than producing the apathy and reformism associated with electioneering. Likewise, the anarchist critique involved all social hierarchies and oppressions which meant – to use the words of historian J. Romero Maura – that “the demands of the CNT went much further than those of any social democrat: with its emphasis on true equality, autogestion [self-management] and working class dignity, anarcho-syndicalism made demands the capitalist system could not possibly grant to the workers.”

It should also be noted that Anarchism itself had predicted the failure of the revolution. Kropotkin, for example, had repeatedly stressed that “a new form of economic organisation will necessarily require a new form of political structure” but the CNT refused to do this out of a desire to promote anti-fascist unity. However, in practice this cooperation within non-worker organisations did little to aid the revolution nor even the fight against fascism. As Kropotkin had suggested:

“what means can the State provide to abolish this monopoly that the working class could not find in its own strength and groups? […] Could its governmental machine, developed for the creation and upholding of these [class] privileges, now be used to abolish them? Would not the new function require new organs? And these new organs would they not have to be created by the workers themselves, in their unions, their federations, completely outside the State?”

The experience of 1936 reinforces this argument for Anarchists did not fully apply Anarchist ideas and disaster resulted. In short, as British anarchist Vernon Richards put it, the CNT-FAI “failed to put their theories to the test, adopting the tactics of the enemy”. Rather than, to use Bakunin’s words, creating “the federative Alliance of all working men’s associations “in order to “constitute the Commune” and so “the federation of insurgent associations” to “organise a revolutionary force capable of defeating reaction,” the CNT in Barcelona [joined the] Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias. Instead of [joining] this body it should have called a full plenum of CNT unions and neighbourhood defence committees with delegates invited from the [socialist] UGT and unorganised workplaces. Only this would have built the popular federations which could have successfully resisted Franco and defended the revolution.

The decision to work with other anti-fascist parties and unions was understandable but such co-operation had to be based on popular organisation from below. Anti-Fascism is not enough – the need remains to destroy the system which spawns it. As Scottish Anarchist Ethel McDonald put it:

“Fascism is not something new, some new force of evil opposed to society, but is only the old enemy, Capitalism, under a new and fearful sounding name [. . .] Anti-Fascism is the new slogan by which the working class is being betrayed.”

However, the most important lesson of the revolution is that libertarian socialism worked – but this is usually downplayed or ignored by “objective” historians. As Noam Chomsky argues, “there is more than enough evidence to show that a deep bias against social revolution and a commitment to the values and social order of liberal bourgeois democracy has led the author to misrepresent crucial events and to overlook major historical currents.” The revolution shows that products and services can be provided to workers, by workers without bosses and bureaucrats. It shows that there is a viable alternative to both privatisation and nationalisation in the form of socialisation and associationism.

This is why the Spanish Revolution should be remembered today. As Orwell put it, it was “a foretaste of Socialism […] the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilised life – snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. – had simply ceased to exist […] no one owned anyone else as his master […] One had breathed the air of equality”. It shows that a genuine socialist alternative exists and works. As Durruti memorably put it at the Aragon Front:

“We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a time. For, you must not forget, we can also build. It is we the workers who built these palaces and cities here in Spain and in America and everywhere. We, the workers, can build others to take their place. And better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute.”

These words, like the revolution that inspired them, should inspire all seekers of liberty today.

Conclusions

The experience of Spain in the 1930s shows that it is not enough to just oppose fascism for, after all, defending the status quo is hardly inspiring. This helps explain the often limited appeal of campaigns today against the far-right in which the critique of the social problems which the right blame on scapegoats is muted in the interest of widening the campaign. This portrays the left as being part of the problem rather than the solution by linking it with those who benefit from the system. As Chomsky noted long ago:

“Why should a liberal intellectual be so persuaded of the virtues of a political system of four-year dictatorship? The answer seems all too plain.”

It also shows that revolutions cannot be half-made. Even in the face of immanent threat of Franco’s troops, the so-called anti-fascist parties spent time and resources crushing the revolution and the CNT-FAI. It is hard to not draw the conclusion that the Republicans seemed to prefer fascism to anarchism. As such, attempts to limit the revolution were a fatal error by the CNT-FAI leadership.

However, we must not forget that Anarchists failed, not Anarchism. Unlike the Russian Revolution, which failed because Marxist theory was applied, in Spain the revolution failed because [anarchist] theory was not applied. Yet for all the errors and limitations, the social revolution of 1936 was Anarchy in Action and remains an inspiration for today – although, of course, one to be learned from rather than idolised.

Iain McKay

Gaston Leval: The Achievements of the Spanish Revolution

This year’s anniversary of the Spanish Revolution and civil war sees the republication by PM Press of Gaston Leval’s eyewitness account, Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, with a new introduction by Pedro García-Guirao and a preface by Stuart Christie. I included excerpts from Leval’s book in the chapter on the Spanish Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Here I reproduce some of Leval’s reflections on the achievements of the Spanish Revolution, taken from the concluding chapter of his book.

Gaston Leval (1976)

The Achievements of the Spanish Revolution

We have said and repeated that the fascist attack created a favourable situation for the libertarian sector to take over an important part of the general situation and of almost the whole economy. Nevertheless the repercussions were only favourable, for negative and positive consequences were about equally balanced. On the one hand many militants, often the best, were, because of the war, mobilised and many died at the front. It was also the best who were missing from the Syndicates, in the Collectives, in the villages where they exercised a salutary influence. And on the other hand, the number of those who became a part of the government bureaucracy were also numerous enough for their absence to be felt.

One of the dominant characteristics which impresses whoever studies the Spanish Revolution is its many sidedness. This revolution was guided by certain very clear and very definite principles, which involved the general expropriation of the holders of social I wealth, the seizure by the workers of the organisational structures of production and distribution, the direct administration of public services, the establishment of the libertarian communist principle. But the uniformity of these principles did not prevent a diversity in the methods for their application, so much so that one can talk of “diversity within unity” and of a surprisingly diversified federalism.

In a very short time, in the agrarian regions and especially in Aragon, a new organism appeared: the Collective. Nobody had spoken about it before. The three instruments of social reconstruction foreseen among those libertarians who had expressed themselves on a -possible future were firstly the Syndicate, then the Cooperative, which did not win many supporters, and final ‘ on a rather large scale, the commune, or communal organisation. Some foreshadowed-and this writer was among them-that a new and complementary organism could and should appear, especially in the countryside, seeing that the Syndicate had not assumed the importance it had in the towns, and the kind of life, of work and production, did not fit into an organic monolithic structure which was contrary to the multiformity of daily life.

We have seen how that Collective was born with characteristics of its own. It is not the Syndicate, for it encompasses all those who wish to join it whether they are producers in the classic economic sense or not. Then it brings them together at the complete human individual level and not just at a craft level. Within it, from the first moment, the rights and duties are the same for everybody; there are no longer professional categories in mutual opposition making the producers into privileged consumers compared with those, such as housewives, who are not producers in the classical definition of the word.

Neither is the Collective the municipal Council or what is called the Commune, the municipality. For it parts company with the political party traditions on which the commune is normally based. It encompasses at the same time the Syndicate and municipal functions. It is all-embracing. Each of its activities is organised within its organism, and the whole population takes part in its management, whether it is a question of a policy for agriculture, for the creation of new industries, for social solidarity, medical service or public education. In this general activity the Collective brings each and everybody to an awareness of life in the round, and everyone to the practical necessity of mutual understanding.

Compared with the Collective the Syndicate has simply a secondary or subordinate role. It is striking to observe how in the agricultural districts, it was more often than not spontaneously relegated, almost forgotten, in spite of the efforts that the libertarian syndicalists and the anarcho-syndicalists, had previously made. The Collective replaced them. The word itself was born spontaneously and spread into all the regions of Spain where the agrarian revolution had been brought about. And the word “collectivist” was adopted just as quickly and spread with the same spontaneity.

One could advance the hypothesis that these two words — collective and collectivism — better expressed the people’s moral, human, fraternal feelings than did the terms Syndicates and syndicalism. A question of euphony perhaps, and of a breadth of views, of humanism: man as something more than the producer. The need for syndicates no longer exists when there are no more employers.

If we pass from Aragon to the Levante we see Collectives emerging there too but not as such a spontaneous, one might almost say instant, creation. It was the agricultural and sometimes the non-agricultural, syndicates which were there at the beginning, not to found other Syndicates, and this is most significant, but to found Collectives. And those who joined these Collectives, Often without belonging to the Syndicates, were also collectivists and acted and behaved as well as anybody else. Let us hasten to add that the groups of organisers often consisted of men who had until then been active in the Syndicates or even in libertarian groups.

But there were some cases where the Commune fulfilled the role of the Collective. Among the examples we have given one especially recalls Granollers, Hospitalet, Fraga, Binefar, and many places in Castile. We also find municipalities which had been reconstructed to conform with governmental decisions (January 1937) and had, as a result, played a more or less important, more or less subordinate, role; and in the Levante the Syndicate and the Collective in the end linked their activities. But in that region the role of the Syndicate was often to become more important, both through direct participation and as inspirer and guide, which it was not in Aragon.

Finally we see in Castile, the Collectives being started in large numbers, under ‘the impulse of militant workers and even intellectuals who left Madrid and spread out into the countryside.

This plasticity, this variety of ways of acting allowed for the creation of true socialism, in each place according to the situation, circumstances of time and place, and for the resolution of a great number of problems which an authoritarian concept, too rigid, too bureaucratic would have only made more complicated with, in the end, a dictatorship reducing everything to a uniform pattern. The variety of methods used reflected the variety of the facets of life. Often in the same region, villages with similar forms of production, with a somewhat similar social history, would start by socialising the local industries and end with agriculture, while others would start with the socialisation of agriculture and end with that of local industries. In some cases, in the Levante for instance, we have seen it start with distribution then proceed towards socialisation of production, which was the opposite procedure to most other places.

But it is remarkable that this diversity of organisational structures did not prevent membership of the same regional federations nor, through them, national coordination, practical solidarity, whether it concerned our Collectives, mixed Syndical Collectives or communities at different stages of municipalisation.

The general law was universal solidarity. We have underlined, in passing, that the Charters or Statutes in which the principles were defined and from which stemmed the practical attitude of each and all, made no mention of the rights and liberty of the individual. Not that the Collectives had ignored these rights, but simply because the respect of these rights went without saying, and that they were already recognized by the standard of life guaranteed to everybody, in their access to consumer goods, to well-being and culture, to the attention, consideration and human responsibilities of which each one, as a member of the Collective, was assured. It was known, so why mention it? In return, for this to be possible, everyone had to carry out his duty, do his work like the other comrades, show solidarity according to the ethic of a universal mutual aid.

One was the guarantee of the other. It is for this reason we so often read that same sentence in the Charters though there had been no previous discussion between Collectives hundreds of kilometres apart: “Anyone not having any work in his trade will help comrades in other activities who might need his help.” This was supra-professional solidarity in practice.

Going deeply into these matters it could perhaps be said that they were developing a new concept of liberty. In the village Collectives in their natural state, and in the small towns where everybody knew one another and were interdependent, liberty did not consist in being a parasite, and not interesting oneself in anything. Liberty only existed as a function of practical activity. To be is to do, Bakunin wrote. To be is to realise, voluntarily, Liberty is secured not only when one demands the rights of the “self” against others, but when it is a natural consequence of solidarity. Men who are interdependent feel free among themselves and naturally respect each other’s liberty. Furthermore so far as collective life is concerned, the freedom of each is the right to participate spontaneously with one’s thought, one’s heart, one’s will, one’s initiative to the full extent of one’s capacities. A negative liberty is not liberty: it is nothingness.

This concept of liberty gave rise to a new morality-unless it was this new ethic that gave rise to another concept of liberty. It explains why when the author sought information about changes, and improvements introduced in the lives of everyone, they did not speak of “liberty” though they were libertarians, but, and they did so with deep joy, of the results of their work, experiments, and research on which they were engaged; on the increase in production. No, they were no longer thinking of liberty in the way workers in capitalist factories or day workers on the land of the owner-employer think.

On this subject we would like to make an observation to which we attach great philosophical and practical importance. The theoreticians and partisans of the liberal economy affirm that competition stimulates initiative and, consequently, the creative spirit and invention without which it remains dormant. Numerous observations made by the writer in the Collectives, factories and socialised workshops permit him to take quite the opposite view. For in a Collective, in a grouping where each individual is stimulated by the wish to be of service to his fellow beings, research, the desire for technical perfection and so on are also stimulated. But they also have as a consequence that other individuals join those who were the first to get together. Furthermore when, in present society, an individualist inventor discovers something, it is used only by the capitalist or the individual employing him, whereas in the case of an inventor living in a community not only is his discovery taken up and developed by others, but is immediately applied for the common good. I am convinced that this superiority would very soon manifest itself in a socialised society.

Gaston Leval

A Living Utopia – Spanish Anarchism and Revolution

A documentary with English subtitles on Spanish anarchism and the Spanish Revolution. This time you can click on the play button to watch the film. Viva la anarquia!

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).

farmerCNT

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

Buenaventura Durruti: A New World in Our Hearts (Spain 1936)

Durruti

Buenaventura Durruti (1896-1936) was one of the leading militants of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI). When armed thugs in the pay of Spanish capitalists began attacking the anarchists in Spain in 1919-1923, culminating in the assassinations of Salvador Seguí and Francisco Comes of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT in 1923 and the imposition of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship, Durruti and other anarchists retaliated, assassinating the corrupt and extremely authoritarian Spanish Cardinal Soldevila. Durruti spent many years in exile, returning to Spain in 1931, where he robbed banks to provide financial support for the anarchist movement and was involved in the FAI’s failed Catalonian uprising of January 1932.

When Spanish fascists attempted to overthrow the Republican government on July 19, 1936, Durruti and other anarchists helped put down the uprising in Barcelona by successfully attacking the military barracks there. Durruti became a member of the Anti-Fascist Militias’ Committee and led the “Durruti” Column to the Zaragoza front. The Durruti column was able to liberate much of Aragon, where numerous anarchist collectives were established. It was while Durruti was fighting in Aragon that he was interviewed by Pierre van Passen, a reporter from the Toronto Star newspaper. Below I reproduce excerpts from the original newspaper article (an English translation of a French translation of the original English article can be found in Daniel Guerin’s No Gods No Masters).

Durruti had no illusions regarding the Republican government and was well aware that the anarchists could not expect to receive any support from other countries. He also anticipated Nazi Germany’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War. He was confident that the Spanish working class would be able to rebuild from the ruins of civil war because they carried “a new world” in their hearts. He was accidentally shot during the defence of Madrid in December 1936, and did not live to see the crushing of the anarchist social revolution in Spain.

The Spanish Revolution: A New World in Our Hearts

For us it is a question of crushing fascism once and for all. Yes, and in spite of government.

No government in the world fights fascism to the death. When the bourgeoisie sees power slipping from its grasp it has recourse to fascism to maintain itself. The liberal government of Spain could have rendered the fascist elements powerless long ago. Instead it temporised and compromised and dallied. Even now at this moment, there are men in this government who want to go easy with the rebels. You can never tell, you know — the present government might yet need these rebellious forces to crush the workers’ movement…

We know what we want. To us it means nothing that there is a Soviet Union somewhere in the world, for the sake of whose peace and tranquillity the workers of Germany and China were sacrificed to fascist barbarism by Stalin. We want the revolution here in Spain, right now, not maybe after the next European war. We are giving Hitler and Mussolini far more worry today with our revolution than the whole Red Army of Russia. We are setting an example to the German and Italian working class how to deal with fascism.

I do not expect any help for a libertarian revolution from any government in the world. Maybe the conflicting interests in the various imperialisms might have some influence on our struggle. That is quite possible. Franco is doing his best to drag Europe into the conflict. He will not hesitate to pitch Germany in against us. But we expect no help, not even from our government in the last analysis.

[Van Paasen interjects: ‘You will be sitting on a pile of ruins if you are victorious.’]

We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a time. For you must not forget, we can also build. It is we who built the palaces and cities here in Spain and America and everywhere. We, the workers, can build others to take their place. And better ones. We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth. There is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world, here in our hearts. That world is growing this minute.

Aragon, September 1936

Durruti's Funeral