Spontaneity in the Spanish Revolution - Enric Mompó

Article looking at the role played by 'spontaneity' in the workers' rebellions of the Spanish Civil War.

Of all historical phenomena, spontaneity is one of the most complex. Some speak of “great personalities”, and we know their ambitions and what they think, since they represent the interests of society’s ruling classes. Others study history through the lens of political organizations, parties, trade unions, legislatures . . . .

But the consciousness, the desires and the thought processes of society’s immense majority, so often constrained and overwhelmed by official thought, has hardly ever been subjected to in-depth study. The study of everyday life is a relatively new field for historians, despite the fact that it is here that we can discover many keys to understanding historical processes. Researchers still harbor many prejudices concerning this field of study. The student often approaches the facts of everyday life and spontaneity hamstrung by the distorting handicap of a narrow dogmatism. For some, spontaneity is a kind of panacea for the ills of humanity; others scorn it and go so far as to consider that history is always decided by small minorities with the means to enforce their will, while the rest of humanity is reduced to an amorphous mass that obeys the directives of the elites in a puppet-like fashion. Both concepts are erroneous because they simplify the historical process and reduce it to a stereotype.

Numerous social revolutions occurred all over the world during the 20th century, among which the Spanish revolution undoubtedly stands out as one of the most emblematic and controversial. Spontaneity is one of its most significant traits, and it is through an examination of this aspect that we can make great progress towards resolving many of the controversies concerning the Spanish revolution. It was not mere caprice that led the French historian Pierre Broué to characterize the Spanish revolution as a “headless hydra”. In both the Russian and the German revolutions there were groups that embodied the consciousness of the aspirations of the masses. In the Spanish revolution, on the other hand, there is a profound gap between the spontaneous expressions of the aspirations of the masses and the organizations of that era. This featureindicates a field of study few have seriously addressed. Most of the achievements of the Spanish revolution did not figure in the programs of the parties and trade unions. The working class and the impoverished peasantry created political and economic institutions almost from scratch on their own initiative, without waiting for anyone to tell them what to do. This spontaneous quality can help us understand not only the degree and the nature of their consciousness as individuals, but also as a social class. We will therefore be able to understand its prejudices and lack of experience as well as its positive qualities. The Spanish revolution is one of the best examples we know for the study of this phenomenon, its nature, its virtues, and also its limitations.

The spontaneous actions of the Spanish revolution did not materialize out of thin air. There were numerous precedents in the prerevolutionary period. The moderate policies of the Socialist Party during its coalition with the republicans, between 1931 and 1936, provoked frequent spontaneous mobilizations among the lower classes in the countryside and the cities, who were impatient with the slow pace and inefficacy of reform. In contrast to the PSOE, anarcho-syndicalism (the CNT) and especially the FAI created a veritable cult of spontaneity, convinced that the revolution could only be brought about by the conscious actions of small minorities of militants whose activities were limited to provoking the responses of the working class population. The former rejected direct action and sought to attain its goals through parliamentary methods; the latter rejected the conscious organization of the masses. The truth is that it was the miserable living conditions of the workers that led them to try to solve their problems by their own efforts. The timid agrarian reform, for example, implemented by the first socialist government of the republic (1931-1933), was frequently punctuated by land occupations and bloody clashes with the civil guards. Lacking organizations capable of channeling and sustaining their struggles, these conflicts against a much better trained and equipped adversary usually ended in defeat.

An entire book could be written about all the spontaneous outbreaks of the Spanish workers during the prerevolutionary period. The limitations of this essay prevent us from devoting as much of our attention to this topic as we would like. We shall therefore focus on two culminating moments of the process whereby spontaneous action escaped the bounds of organizations and leaders: the Asturian October of 1934 and the period extending from the victory of the Popular Front to the outbreak of the civil war (February-July 1936).

In the first case, the socialists’ call for a peaceful general strike in order to prevent the rightists from acceding to cabinet posts in the government (which the socialists considered to be the first step towards fascism) was answered by the Asturian miners with an insurrection. The right (CEDA) scoffed at the threats of the socialist leaders who insinuated that they would unleash the revolution, knowing that it was all just hot air. They did not, however, reckon with the workers (especially the Asturians) and their willingness to do everything possible to oppose what they considered to be a threat to themselves and their organizations. While in the rest of the country the left (except for the CNT majority, which remained neutral and did not want to have anything to do with what the socialists and the other workers organizations were doing) was crushed or restricted its efforts to heeding the call for the general strike issued by the PSOE and the UGT, the Asturian miners, under the leadership of their local party sections and trade unions, translated their leaders’ appeal as a call for a revolutionary uprising. Within hours the miners, armed with a few rifles and the traditional sticks of dynamite, took control of the region after defeating police detachments and surrounding the soldiers and besieging them in their barracks. Local committees were immediately organized everywhere (Workers Alliances) that replaced the State and undertook the management of the new revolutionary order. They formed militias, assured the supply of necessities for the population, and kept the factories and mines in operation. They manufactured trucks and armor plate, and even began making synthetic fuel from coal to compensate for a shortage of gasoline. The Commune, despite its isolation from the rest of the country, managed to survive for more than 15 days against more numerous government troops.

We could speak at length of these events, but we are prevented from doing so by constraints imposed by the limitations of our essay. It must nonetheless be pointed out that the right’s attempt to seize power was foiled by neither the threats of the socialist leaders nor the general strike, nor much less by the CNT’s neutrality (except in Asturias, where it disobeyed the orders of its national leaders and joined the insurrection). It was the Commune that delivered the deathblow to the plans of the reactionaries. Despite the defeat of the revolutionaries, their heroic exploits made the left’s victory in the elections of February 1936 possible. Paradoxically, the flag of the Popular Front, defended and supported by all the workers organizations without exception, symbolized the antithesis of everything the Asturian insurrection represented. The fissure that had opened between the workers leaders and the rank and file would soon re-emerge with the spontaneous action of the workers.

With the left’s electoral victory, the proposal to grant an amnesty for the 30,000 prisoners of the October insurrection was immediately put into effect by the revolutionary masses. The prisons were attacked even before the new government was formed. Between February and July, despite the Popular Front’s appeals for moderation, strikes, demonstrations and land occupations proceeded without interruption. The situation became even more serious in June and July. “In June-July an average of between 10 and 20 strikes took place daily. On some days there were from 400,000 to 450,000 strikers. And 95% of the strikes that took place between February and July of 1936 were won by the workers. Huge workers demonstrations filled the streets demanding bread, jobs, land, the defeat of fascism and the total victory of the revolution. . . . The occupation of the streets, the factories and the land, and the incessant strike activity, drove the urban and agricultural proletariat towards higher forms of political struggle” (Fernando Claudín, The Crisis of the Communist Movement, p. 174). In this way the urban proletariat and the impoverished peasantry expressed their determination not to wait for the government to fulfill its timid promises of reform. The increasing instability and the manifest inability of the Popular Front government to control the situation reflected the fact that the republic had become a fiction that no longer represented the interests of any social class.

The July Days
The military uprising was launched based on the assumption that it would be a walkover. The army, embodying the interests of the owning classes, demanded the authoritarian reform of the republic and the mechanisms necessary for ending the revolutionary threat. The walkover, however, soon became a long and bloody civil war. In the first weeks of the conflict the social geography of the republican zone underwent an extraordinary transformation. The State institutions were reduced to a phantom existence. The whole territory was covered with a multitude of revolutionary institutions that quickly became the sole real power recognized by the population. The economy was collectivized, while improvised militias replaced what remained of the old army and police. How did this come about?

If we restrict our attention to the programs and press of the parties and trade unions, we discover that none of this was planned or foreseen. Revolutionary committees, collectivizations . . . none of this was included in any organization’s program. Without exception, it took weeks for all of themto react, and when they did it was in a makeshift and chaotic way. The parties and trade unions that were members of the Popular Front remained faithful to their alliance with the dismantled republican government. The socialist left was rudderless, adapting to circumstances. The PCE came face-to-face with a revolution that had not figured in its Kremlin-dictated schemes. Anarcho-syndicalism, master of the situation in Catalonia and other regions, without a program and without a policy to confront the challenge posed by power, was obliged to improvise one by making pacts with its allies of the moment. The outcome of this juggling act was that its leaders refused to take power where the revolutionary masses had placed power in their hands. Since, however, they could not just hand this power back to the old authorities as if nothing had happened, they created a contradictory institution that ruled over life in revolutionary Catalonia for three months: the Central Committee of Antifascist Militias.

In the first moments of the military uprising, improvisation, confusion and the lack of clear priorities caused cities like Saragossa and Seville to fall into the hands of the rebels. Some historians have attributed the initial defeat of the uprising to the intervention of sections of the army, the police and the Civil Guard that remained faithful to the government. Others thought that it was the action of the revolutionary militants that prevented the success of the coup. Both views contain a kernel of truth and both are mistaken. It is true that in certain cities such as Barcelona the sympathy of the Civil Guard for the republican side was a factor of great importance, but no less important was the fact that vacillations in its ranks were neutralized by the ardor of the revolutionary workers who confronted the army columns. Without this pressure it is more than doubtful that the rest of the army and the police battalions would have continued to be loyal to a moribund government totally without any power. Another fact that put an end to their plans to turn the situation to their advantage was the rapid decomposition of the troops who had remained loyal and were contaminated with revolutionary enthusiasm.

In some cities, such as Barcelona, the workers managed to seize the arms stockpiled in barracks abandoned by the army. Henceforth, armed and conscious of their command over the situation, the revolutionary workers refused to allow what they considered to be their victory to be snatched away by a government they did not trust and which they blamed for the fact that the military uprising was successful in other parts of the country. The discredited republican institutions, without means of coercion, collapsed, unable to offer any serious resistance at all. “Where, then, was the General Staff of the ‘rabble’? In reality, there was no General Staff, but a decentralized initiative, inspired by the workers trade unions, by the revolutionary neighborhood committees, and by the enthusiastic force of a multitude of men, women and children who ambushed the enemy, made the decision to raise barricades, making every cobblestone passed from hand to hand asign of their resolve to crush the rebels” (Abel Paz, Durruti: The People Armed).

The refusal of the workers organizations to exercise the power that fell into their hands was the cause of the proliferation of a multitude of local governing bodies in the republican zone, each led by improvised juntas, that replaced the government until the latter was reconstituted. At the same time, the rank and file militants of the workers parties and trade unions proceeded to create revolutionary committees in the towns and cities. While the government had practically disappeared, a situation of dual power arose featuring the leadership, which was prepared to honor its commitments to the Popular Front, and the rank and file, which had spontaneously begun to carry out its revolution. “In those first weeks after July 20, the parties and organizations could not even control their own members” (Diego Abad de Santillan, Why We Lost the War, p. 93).

Political Spontaneity
The collapse of the State apparatus paved the way for the appearance of revolutionary institutions. This does not mean, however, that there was a clear awareness on the part of the workers vanguard of the necessity of putting an end to the republic. The libertarian or socialist militants did not trust the government, but they were also aware of the fact that their organizations supported or collaborated with it. Ultimately, power was in the hands of the workers parties and trade unions, and the republican politicians no longer possessed any political weight; they posed no threat, unlike the military rebels.

The committees arose spontaneously. The proof of this was their heterogeneity, their different names and diverse modes of operation. All of them, however, had one thing in common: their will to seize power, organizing the struggle against the enemy, pursuing its sympathizers, setting up popular tribunals, administering everyday life in their localities, assuming the responsibility for providing for the population’s livelihood. They were a kind of miniature government. G. Munis called them “committee-governments” in order to emphasize their determination to create a new revolutionary order.

“The common man therefore had the impression that not only was he the owner of the abandoned businesses, but also of the municipal or private institutions that were abandoned or paralyzed” (Victor Alba, The Collectivized Worker, p. 73).

In a few weeks the revolutionary instinct of the workers implemented the democratic measures the republic could not or did not want to implement during the five years of its existence. The working class rank and file militants did not hesitate to exercise the power of the revolutionary dictatorship at the local level, a power refused by their leaders. It is this spontaneity that reveals the socialist nature of the Spanish revolution.

“Of all possible alternatives, they chose the one that most faithfully reflected their desires and which appeared to respond to their interests: they took charge. In the street there were thousands of armed workers. As for the workplace, they controlled the factories. Without arms, this would not have been possible. With arms alone, nothing would have changed. The workers, without needing instructions from anyone, understood that these two things were related” (Victor Alba, The Collectivized Worker, p. 65).

Some historians have criticized the work of the committees because of the excesses for which they were responsible. The facts must be considered, however, within the context of a combination of war and an absence of State power, a situation favorable for the eruption of hatred nourished by centuries of exploitation and poverty.

The revolutionary committees often encountered the incomprehension and even the hostility of their leaders. There was no party or trade union that was prepared to transform itself into the basic structure of revolutionary power, as was the case with the soviets in Russia. The left socialists allowed themselves to be swept along with the tide, but were not ready to break their alliance with the republicans in order to devote themselves to the revolution. Without definite convictions, their leader, Largo Caballero, expected that after the exhaustion of his partners in power the government would fall into his hands like a ripe fruit. The committees were still a lesser evil that had prevented a quick rebel victory, but they had to disappear to make way for a new reconstituted republic. The communists, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, denied the socialist character of the revolution and saw the committees as the fruit of the radical excesses of the masses, who had been deceived by anarcho-syndicalist and POUMist demagogy. The CNT and FAI argued for the syndicalist essence of the revolution. In their schema, the committees played no concrete role at all: the trade unions were the real channels for the expression of the workers’ demands.

Some Spanish politicians asserted that the soviet structures were foreign to the nature of the Spanish revolution. If we examine the nature of the committees we see many similarities. Among others, the fact that they exercised power. What, then, were the differences? Mainly their inability to transform themselves into a form of power structured from the bottom up. But this was not an innate failing of theirs, but a consequence of the refusal of the workers organizations to transform themselves into the cornerstone of revolutionary power.

The committees were formed spontaneously, in the crucible of the revolution, but one more element was necessary for them to make the qualitative leap from exercising power at the local level to becoming a real State power. In some zones the committees created coordinating bodies, but these cases were the exceptions that prove the rule. The path to national federation was blocked. Although the rank and file militants remained loyal to their committees and were mistrustful of their leaders’ appeals to accept the authority of the government, they were unable to hold out indefinitely without also confronting their own organizations.

“So, too, the committees gradually ceased to be revolutionary institutions, having become ‘alliance committees’ in which the action of the workers and peasants made less and less of an impression as the days of revolution and the exercise of power by armed workers in the streets receded into the past, and in which, furthermore, the influence of the parties and trade unions was becoming preponderant.” The initial victory of the revolutionaries throughout most of the country gave rise to a vast phenomenon that transformed Spanish society. The victory was not total, however, and the military uprising soon began to seize new positions. Now the revolution also had to be defended on the battlefield. Within a few days, militias were formed which replaced the army. Their improvised origin also reflected the aspirations and the consciousness of the workers vanguard, both in their egalitarianism and their errors and inexperience. The revolutionary columns avoided the use of any symbols reminiscent of the old army. Gone were the officers’ epaulets, decorations and military salutes; operational issues and the election of officers were debated and voted on in assemblies of all the militiamen. Those interested in this subject may wish to reread George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. The many mistakes made by the militias because of their inexperience would later be used against them by their critics. It is undeniable that the militias had to overcome their limitations on the battlefield, and to do that they had to be transformed into a regular army. These weaknesses were used by their detractors to argue for the reconstitution of the republican Popular Army. The problem was that the transformation was carried out by destroying the content of the militias. The new army lacked the revolutionary quality of the militias, which reflected the emancipatory desires of working class militancy. The Popular Army was a copy of the old army, preserving the old military code, the decorations and the privileges of the officers, prohibiting assemblies as well as any political activity among the ranks; the revolutionary consciousness of the militiamen was replaced by the blind discipline of the traditional army. Nonetheless, no one could deny that it was the militias that prevented a quick victory for Franco’s army, overcoming their limitations with their enthusiasm in battles with a well-trained and heavily armed enemy.

Economic Spontaneity
If the extent and the depth of the revolutionary achievements of the workers are surprising, their achievements in the economic field are even more so. It is here that the socialist character of the Spanish revolution is most clearly demonstrated. The working class and the landless peasants began, on their own initiative, a vast movement of expropriations and collectivization of the economy. Once again, the parties and trade unions played no role at all in this development during its first moments.

“At this time we do not have the least intention of occupying, expropriating or collectivizing any factories. We believe the uprising will be quickly suppressed and that everything will be more or less the same as before. What purpose could be served by getting all worked up over collectivizations if everything is going to end up back in the hands of the old capitalist system?” (Ronald Fraser,Recuerdalo Tú y Recuerdalo a Otros, Vol. I, p. 316; published in English under the title, The Blood of Spain). The socialist and communist parties did not advocate socializing the economy. The wave of expropriations, often led by rank and file militants of the Popular Front parties, led these militants to question the moderate policies of the Popular Front. Taking into consideration the flight of so many business owners, the collectivizations did have the merit of preventing the collapse of the republic as a result of economic chaos, but as soon as the war was over the expropriated enterprises must be returned to their former owners, provided that it could be proven that the latter did not collaborate with the military uprising. The anarcho-syndicalist unions, disoriented by the dizzying pace of events, resolved to postpone the revolution until the future and to coexist peacefully (as long as the war lasts) with the old apparatus of the republican State. From this perspective, the immediate goal was exclusively limited to the struggle against the military uprising. Significantly, the first pamphlet published by the FAI in Barcelona after the uprising was not distributed until July 26, one week after the victory over the army. In this pamphlet the FAI spoke of destroying fascism but made no reference at all to the revolutionary economy. “Neither the CNT Regional Committee of Catalonia, nor its local federation, nor the FAI, in their first declarations, set forth the goals of the new economic structure that was at that time being built . . . it was a completely spontaneous event” (Victor Alba, The Collectivized Worker). One must know just how the events unfolded in order to understand the real significance of this spontaneity, or else one succumbs to exaggerations or idealisms that have nothing to do with historical reality.

After the July battles had ended, the trade unions called off the general strike so the workers could return to their workplaces and re-start production, which was so necessary at that time in order to quickly win the war. Upon returning to work the workers discovered that most business owners had fled out of fear of reprisals. If the old bosses were gone it was necessary to get back to work and form a new managerial staff. Only a few days later, after making sure that the owners were not coming back and after restarting the production process, they began to recognize the consequences of the step they had taken.

“[What the working class wanted] . . . was to make sure that it would still be paid in the absence of its traditional paymasters. It sought this guarantee, not in government measures, but from its own resources. The workers, at that time, had no notion of exercising that power that put weapons in their hands and led them to victory in July, except with respect to one issue, that of ensuring that they would be paid on the following Saturday” (Victor Alba, Op. Cit., p. 62).

The initiative started with the working class militants, followed by the rest of the workers. The committees responsible for managing production were elected in assemblies, where efforts were made to involve the minority trade unions. The plans to reopen the workshops came from the workers themselves, while the directives of the trade unions would not be issued for several more days.

“With every passing day the city increasingly fell under the control of the working class. Public transport functioned, the factories were producing, the stores were open, the supply of necessities was unabated, the telephones worked, the utilities operated as usual, everything was organized and run, to a greater or lesser extent, by the workers themselves. Who was responsible for this? The leading committees of the CNT had not issued any orders of the kind” (Ronald Fraser, Op. Cit., Vol. I, p. 187).

It is a remarkable experience to examine the testimonies of witnesses who speak of the profound changes collectivization provoked in the consciousness of the workers. The workers and the poor peasants sensed that these recent events were harbingers of a profound transformation in their lives. With the defeat of the military uprising and the flight of the business owners the long-awaited opportunity to free themselves from so many centuries of exploitation had finally arrived.

“It was incredible, it was the practical proof of what one knew from theory: the power and the force of the masses when they take to the streets. All their doubts quickly dissipated, doubts about how to go about organizing the working class and the masses, about how they can make the revolution without being organized. Suddenly you feel their creative power. You cannot imagine how quickly the masses are capable of organizing. They invent forms of organization that go far beyond anything you have ever heard about or read in books. What was needed now was to seize the initiative, channel it, give it form” (Ronald Fraser, Op. Cit., Vol. I, p. 188).

The workers, armed and suffused with a sense of victory, proved that the factories could function perfectly well without their former owners. For the first time they felt that they were themselves in charge of their own future. It was this enthusiasm and growing consciousness awakened by the new situation that allowed that initial chaos to function like a well-oiled machine.

“In Catalonia, where I found myself, I saw a war industry created as if by magic . . . . [the proletariat] was ready to perform this miracle, one that peoples enjoying adequate economic means take years to accomplish during peacetime, and it did so, furthermore, without any engineers in the factories, with only two or three engineers on the War Industries Commission, and these factories and workshops, which had been so rapidly and completely transformed, functioned admirably, unexpectedly increasing production rates every day, manufacturing the most complicated industrial products, thanks to the remarkable initiative of the Catalan workers” (Felipe Díaz Sandino, Personal Diary, p. 182).

The phenomenon of industrial collectivization had its rural counterpart. The landless peasantry saw the revolution as providing the historical opportunity to seize the land, and carried out its expropriations without waiting for orders from anyone. In the regions of the country dominated by latifundia that remained in republican territory, and in those areas recovered from the enemy, the peasants rejected the idea of dividing the land into small individual parcels as totally uneconomical, and opted for collectivization. The old anarchist tradition, and to a lesser extent that of socialism, influenced them in this decision. Some critics suggest that the collectives were created by the dictatorship of the extremists. It is true that there were excesses and instances of coercion in some localities directed against those peasants who supported the division of the land into individual plots. But for the most part the accusation does not stand up to examination. Starting in the second half of 1937, after the supporters of the republic had already defeated the revolution, the collectives were subjected to periodic attacks. The peasants were pressured to leave them in order to divide the land for individual ownership, but the collectives survived and the government had to relent, fearing that the crops would be lost because the peasants were not ready to harvest them. If they had been artificial inventions of the revolutionaries, and did not reflect the desires and aspirations of the poor peasantry, they would have rapidly disappeared without leaving a trace, but most of them survived until the end of the war.

Like the urban organizations, the agricultural communes operated on the basis of assemblies. All the members of the community participated in these meetings, including neighbors who had opted for individualism. A large number of experiments were conducted, many of them naïve, that reflected the peasants’ desire for emancipation and equality. In many places money was replaced by vouchers, in the belief that money was the cause of exploitation and of all the evils of the old society. Mistakes were certainly made, but if one thing was proven during their three years of existence, it is that they worked and assumed vital importance in the republican economy.

The circumstances attending the formation of the collectives, which were at first limited to the boundaries of each factory, led many workers to entertain the idea that the collectives were the exclusive property of their workforces rather than of the revolutionary society as a whole. Some characterized this corporative attitude as “peoples’ capitalism”. The new economic structure was still halfway between the old capitalist society and the new economic order that was supposed to take shape after the revolution. The absence of a coherent socialist economic system resulted in the existence of wealthy collectives side-by-side with poor collectives, and this led to wage differentials. The most class-conscious sectors tried to rectify this situation by means of compensation funds whose purpose was to equitably distribute the profits of their industries, in order to forestall the reproduction of the features of the old society that had just been abolished. Industrial federations were also formed whose goal was to reorganize industry under socialist forms.

What interests us, in any event, is to determine the significance and the extent of, as well as the limitations displayed by the collectives. It must be emphasized that their principle limitations were not of an economic but of a political nature. There was no power that endeavored to transform the collectives into a cohesive, democratically structured economic system, planned and controlled by the workers. The economic transformation could not be completed unless the political transformation was completed, too. The collectivist system could not have been otherwise; its characteristics arose spontaneously in an exceptional situation of war and revolution. Its socialist traits and its aspects of self-management had to be combined with corporativist features. We cannot indulge in speculation concerning what would have happened if the revolution had not been defeated. Such speculation, while possible, is in any case beyond the pale of history.

The Spanish revolution is an extraordinarily rich source for the study of spontaneity as a historical phenomenon. This essay is merely a brief outline of the subject, which should be further elaborated by future historians. Throughout the revolutionary process we encounter facts and situations that fill us with admiration and amazement. Spontaneity allows us to understand, without any kind of filter, the real consciousness of the workers who lived in a particular place at a particular time, their desires and aspirations. We can understand the nature, the extent and also the limitations of the revolutionary achievement. In any case, regardless of the conclusions drawn from this study, it is a salutary dose of humility for historians, and for all those who in one way or another feel committed to the struggle for a more humane and just society.

March 30, 2001
Enric Mompó

Taken from the Collective Action Notes website.