1868-1936: Anarchism in Spain


A history of the anarchist and workers movements in Spain from its origins in the late 19th century up to the start of the Civil War.

Submitted by Steven. on September 12, 2006

The Spanish branch of the International Workingmen's Association (with Marx, Engels and the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin amongst the founders) was numerically the most substantial section of the International, with 50,000 members. It trod the paths of Bakuninism laid down by the Italian delegate Fanelli. But in the wake of the Paris Commune, in Spain (as everywhere else in Europe) there was a government crackdown and the Spanish branch, the FTRE (Spanish Regional Workers’ Federation) was forced underground.In 1873 certain local sections had fallen in with a Republican uprising, a fact of no great importance in itself, were it not for the fact that it furnished the pretext for a typically odious pamphlet from Engels, Bakuninism in Action, a sort of marxist diatribe against anarchism, translated into all sorts of languages. In it one finds a repetition of Engels’s historical absurdities wherein he contrasts the well-organised activity in Cadiz with the pathetic activity of anarchists in Alcoy, oblivious of the fact that both of the aforementioned sections were anti-authoritarian and that at no time did the FTRE participate in the rising which it regarded as political and thus of no relevance. But slander has always been a typical feature of the style of Marx and Engels (and what are Leninism and Stalinism but slander made system?).

We also touched upon the poignant problem of the Mano Negra which pointed up the contrast between two conceptions of the struggle in two very different Spains: violent struggle in Andalusia and a sort of legalistic syndicalism in Catalonia. The scars left by these conflicts endured for a long time. The Socialist Party’s trade union appendix, the UGT was set up in 1888 with 3,500 members and it was to be the only nation-wide union up to 1911, such was the aftermath of the Mano Negra episode of 1883.

By 1900 the UGT had expanded its membership to 15,000 and Spanish anarchism could be divided into several branches: some purely anarchist propaganda groups of somewhat individualistic men with considerable impact upon artistic and literary circles (as in France around the same time); some groups eager to trigger a revolutionary upheaval by means of violent attentats (as was to be seen in 1894 in imitation of the bombs of Henry and Vaillant, followed up by a wave of torture employed against activists in the Montjuich fortress in Barcelona) and some groups of industrial and/or rural workers with strong regional footholds (such as the ones described by Diaz del Moral in the Córdoba region).

A campaign to resurrect the FTRE was launched. Soon it had recruited 52,000 members but it was short-lived. A novel branch of anarchism put in an appearance in 1901 in the shape of Francisco Ferrer y Guardia’s "modern" schools. Here again it was a question of Spaniards acting upon ideas that had originated in France, in this case with Paul Robin. But those ideas were to be implemented on a broad scale, much more some after Ferrer’s execution.

Between 1901 and 1904 one finds a first attempt to captivate the anti-authoritarian masses through Lerroux’s verbally extremist election campaign in Barcelona. This was only a flash in the pan but the idea continued to be mulled over in the tortuous minds of Catalan and Marxist politicos even afterwards.

In fact, with hindsight we can see that there was a serious attempt to organise in the shape of the Solidaridad Obrera [Workers’ Solidarity] group in Catalonia which sought to apply the ideas behind French revolutionary syndicalism. It should be noted that initially and for a long time thereafter socialists and anarchists were to be found side by side in this union with its anti-authoritarian motifs. Come 1907, Catalonia was racked by the events of the ‘Red week’ in Barcelona and in 1909 there was a spontaneous uprising by conscripts sent off to repress the Moroccans, Republicans and anarchists together took on the police and army. Repression smothered the revolt but created a martyr by having Francisco Ferrer shot as the spiritual instigator of the rising. All that he was guilty of was to see the youth completely liberated through co-educational schools, science education and intellectual and manual work informed by an appreciation of the class nature of real life.

In 1910 a union was born in Catalonia: by 1911 it had spread to the rest of Spain, taking as its name the National Confederation of Labour (CNT) and amassing 30,000 members as against 50,000 for the UGT.

Since Spain was a non-belligerent in the Great War, the country enjoyed a measure of prosperity and pay rises (10%) ‘matched’ by rising prices, e.g. the rents for workers’ accommodation soared by 100%-300%. In 1917 there was the first link-up between the UGT and the CNT aimed at orchestrating a general strike against the high cost of living. But it was a case of two outlooks side by side without mutual understanding. The UGT struck, only to return promptly to work, while the CNT strove to progress towards an uprising. There was a falling out which persisted until 1937.

One might wonder what were the features that accounted for the persistence of anarcho-syndicalism in Spain. Indeed in a corrupt country, where the Socialist Party had a deputy elected only by resorting to bribery on his behalf (Pablo Iglesias), the moral and revolutionary fibre of the CNT meant that it attracted all radical elements en masse. It might be mentioned that in Russia, radicals were split between anarchists and SR’s [Social Revolutionaries], but in Spain revolution was red and black. Furthermore, anarcho-syndicalist propaganda insisted upon anti-authoritarianism in trade union life and in personal affairs connected with women and children. By offering literacy courses, contraceptive advice and a universal alternative ranging from anti-Catholic forenames (Floreal, Germinal, Alba, Aurora, Acracia) to vegetarianism, natural medicine and schools along Ferrer’s lines, the union was also a proletarian university.

Finally and above all, the CNT was able to come up with an adapted and affective tactic thanks to its Catalan organisational set-up (remembering that the CNT was a confederation of autonomous sections). The congress of Sans registered 70,000 members for Catalonia. There it was decided to set up a single union (Sindicato unico) i.e. to embrace everybody’s interests along the lines, somewhat, of ‘all for one, and one for all!’ Indeed, instead of unionising and organising along trade lines - as the UGT did - struggles were waged by galvanising also the seemingly uninvolved trades who would wade in out of solidarity.

The La Canadiense strike is a fine example of this tactic. In January this Canadian-financed (hence the name) electricity plant announced that 8 workers were being dismissed from its maintenance department. On 5 February the 140 workers of that department struck and were joined on 8 February by the bulk of the plant employees. On 17 February, 80% of the workforce of the Catalan textile industry came out in solidarity and also demanded recognition of their union and introduction of the 8 hour day. Other electricity plants struck and demanded a wage increase to boot. By 21 February there was a general strike by power workers and this led to the closure of 70% of firms in Catalonia. On 7 March, the government introduced a state of emergency and conscripted the workers into the army. Some 3,000 arrests were made. The print workers imposed a ‘red censorship’. On 15 and 16 March, negotiations opened between the employers and the unions (CNT). Salvador Segui, the CNT’s Regional Secretary, demanded the release of detainees and issued a call for a general strike, which took place on 24 March, lasting until 1 April. On 14 April the strikers’ demands were accepted by the employers.

At its Madrid congress in 1919, the CNT had 755,000 members as against 208,000 for the UGT (i.e. it had about 10% of the active population, and this at a time when it was a dangerous business being a union member). The congress agreed to switch over to the sindicato unico arrangement, with libertarian communism being adopted as the union’s ultimate goal. There was to be only one paid official - the general secretary, so one can see the difference between this and revolutionary syndicalism, and the implementation of Malatesta’s observation at the Amsterdam congress of 1907 that an anarchist who held a union post was lost to anarchism. In addition, this rejection of paid officers and the obligation upon union post-holders to bear for themselves the costs of correspondence and travel made it possible to avert bureaucratisation in the Marxist and political sense of the word.

But the revolution in Russia, plus the strength of the CNT meant that the employers resolved to eradicate it by force in Catalonia (the cradle of the organisation). This was the era of the gunmen, with hired killers [pistoleros] in the pay of the bosses and charged to slay union leaders. Obviously the CNT had to take counter-measures (with activists armed and under escort, and counter-attack squads, etc.) The Contest lasted from 1919 to 1923 (when the military coup arrived) though it eased in 1922 due to the intervention of Madrid which realised that a more thoroughgoing solution was necessary (in the shape of the coup d’etat). The outcome for the CNT was two-pronged: A) there was a haemorrhaging, with more than 1,000 members gaoled (See Buenacasa El Movimiento Obrero Español) and a list of at least 84 dead. B) the creation of armed groups dependent on the CNT and certain of which were to lapse into criminality pure and simple. An exception must be made of the Solidarios (later Nosotros) group made up of Ascaso, García Oliver, Durruti, etc which carried out an astounding series of hold-ups between 1920 and 1929 while scrupulously surrendering the proceeds to the CNT and expending them on ventures such as the publication of Sébastien Faure’s Encyclopédie Anarchiste, or defraying part of the costs of the premises of the ‘Librairie Internationale’ in Paris, etc.

We have to be very clear about the relations between the CNT and Moscow. The Russian revolution had been greeted with interest at the CNT’s 1919 congress and - for want of information - the CNT opted to affiliate provisionally to the Red International (of Labour Unions) and to dispatch a delegation. The first delegation comprised Nin and two of his friends, as Marxist as he was; the second was made up of Angel Pestaña, a friend of the murdered (by pistoleros of course) Salvador Segui, and Gaston Leval (a French activist conscientious objector who fled to Spain during the 1914-1918 war). Pestaña and Leval collected first hand information from Russian anarchists and this put paid once and for all to relations between the CNT and Moscow. (See ‘The CNT and the Russian Revolution’ Ignacio Llorens, KSL, 1997).

However the activities of the pistoleros had exhausted the CNT which opted to disband in the face of the 1923 military coup. The PSOE and the UGT promptly played the collaborationist card in the hope of outmanoeuvring the CNT. In 1924 Largo Caballero, the UGT’s general secretary, became councillor of state at the Ministry of Labour. This prostitution was not long-lived, partly because the socialists realised that the State was offering only crumbs and partly because the labouring masses failed to follow the UGT which declined from 211,000 members in 1923 (219,000 in 1926) to 210,000 in 1928.

The period 1923-1931 was marked by a number of developments which altered the character of the CNT. There was a certain conspiratorial activity and contacts with politicians (1924, Vera de Bidasoa, San Sebastian Pact in 1930). The FAI came into existence (Iberian Anarchist Federation, in that there were two Portuguese delegates) which grew from a centre of liaison between anarchist activities to become an anarchist platform dedicated to resisting any possible deviation of persons regarded as unduly syndicalistic (like Pestaña). There was a lack of analysis of the political situation in the country as with the repression of a local, pro-Republican and quasi-anarchist army revolt in Jaca in December 1930 and the king’s peaceful surrender of power on 14 April 1931 which obviously indicated that the authorities had opted for a tactic of unexpected non-resistance, doubtless with the specific aim of offering power to the Republicans so that they might be discredited by the effects of the world crisis.

This passed unnoticed, as did the matter of propaganda in favour of independence for the Moroccans (something that Pestaña wanted to broach and to escalate in the CNT). Even more seriously, when spontaneous revolts were spreading through the countryside and the people felt that the time had come for thoroughgoing reforms for which they had been waiting since the Middle Ages (Spain having experienced no real bourgeois revolution), the CNT was split by a tactical issue and personal frictions between those who wanted revolution by first organising along union lines (like Pestaña and Peiró), and those who were itching for insurrection and a sort of ‘revolutionary gymnasium’ i.e. believed that gradually these insurrections would culminate in revolution. The latter were represented by Durruti, Ascaso and García Oliver.

This lack of vision and division which reached hysterical proportions of verbal violence was highly damaging; the UGT had 1,000,000 followers primarily hungry for land and thus revolutionaries. In 1931 the CNT had 535,000 members and 800,000 cards in circulation. There were 600,000 unemployed in 1934 and by 1935 the figure had risen to 1,000,000 so the circumstances were set to favour a rapprochement between the CNT and the UGT.

But the divisions ensured that insurrections appeared only in certain regions and then were poorly co-ordinated, which ensured a succession of failures; January 1932, January 1933 (Casas Viejas) and December 1933 following the abstentionist campaign which opened the way to the right and provided a fillip to the revolution (Durruti). The Socialist Party then set about doing the same along with the Catalinists in 1934, in the October rising. Whereas the Catalanists mounted a half-baked rising in which the first move was a ban on the CNT (the only force which could have supported them), in Asturias the socialists armed only that region in the hope that a bridgehead there would enable them to negotiate their way into the government. Luck was against them. The right in government sent in the army and the Moroccans (elite troops) to crush the revolt in Asturias.

But fortunately, with the climate being a revolutionary one, each setback raised higher the expectations of the next one being the revolt to galvanise the young. 1935 was a year given over to reflection and preparation for the elections in February 1936, which no-one boycotted. The semblance of Republican victory made it possible to release the political prisoners (30,000 of them) who were spontaneously freed by the masses. The CNT managed to heal its rifts at a congress in Zaragoza in May 1936, but Pestaña had formed his own libertarian political party and become an elected deputy. Contacts with the UGT were still very slight. The notion of UHP (Union de Hermanos Proletanos - brother proletarians united), a cry launched in Asturias was very much alive at street level among the grassroots but still sounded strange to the ears of the apparatchiks, including the CNT’s and the FAI’s.

The next major chapter in the history of Spanish anarchism was the Spanish Civil War and Revolution, which broke out in July and lasted until 1939.

Taken from an account of a lecture/debate at the Max Nettlau Centre 25/2/83
Reprinted in the Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 18