3. c) Anarchism in the Spanish Revolution

Submitted by libcom on October 29, 2005

Anarchism in the Spanish Revolution


The time lag between subjective awareness and objective reality is a constant in history. The Russian anarchists and those who witnessed the Russian drama drew a lesson as early as 1920 which only became known, admitted, and shared years later. The first proletarian revolution in triumph over a sixth of the globe had such prestige and glitter that the working-class movement long remained hypnotized by so imposing an example. "Councils" in the image of the Russian soviets sprang up all over the place, not only in Italy, as we have seen, but in Germany, Austria, and Hungary. In Germany the system of councils was the essential item in the program of the Spartacus League of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

In 1919 the president of the Bavarian Republic, Kurt Eisner, was assassinated in Munich. A Soviet Republic was then proclaimed under the leadership of the libertarian writer Gustav Landauer, who was in turn assassinated by the counter-revolution. His friend and companion in arms, the anarchist poet Erich Muhsam, composed a "Rate-Marseillaise" ( Marseillaise of the Councils ), in which the workers were called to arms not to form battalions but councils on the model of those of Russia and Hungary, and thus to make an end of the centuries-old world of slavery.

However, in the spring of 1920 a German opposition group advocating Rate-Kommunismus (Communism of the councils) left the Communist Party to form a German Communist Workers Party (KAPD). [26] The idea of councils inspired a similar group in Holland led by Hermann Gorter and Anton Pannekoek. During a lively polemic with Lenin, the former was not afraid to reply, in pure libertarian style, to the infallible leader of the Russian Revolution: "We are still looking for real leaders who will not seek to dominate the masses and will not betray them. As long as we do not have them we want everything to be done from the bottom upward and by the dictatorship of the masses over themselves. If I have a mountain guide and he leads me over a precipice, I prefer to do without." Pannekoek proclaimed that the councils were a form of self-government which would replace the forms of government of the old world; just like Gramsci he could see no difference between the latter and "Bolshevik dictatorship."

In many places, especially Bavaria, Germany, and Holland, the anarchists played a positive part in the practical and theoretical development of the system of councils.

Similarly, in Spain the anarcho-syndicalists were dazzled by the October Revolution. The Madrid congress of the CNT [27] (December 10-20, 1919), adopted a statement which stated that "the epic of the Russian people has electrified the world proletariat." By acclamation, "without reticence, as a beauty gives herself to the man she loves," the congress voted provisionally to join the Communist International because of its revolutionary character, expressing the hope, however, that a universal workers' congress would be called to determine the basis upon which a true workers' international could be built. A few timid voices of dissent were heard, however: the Russian Revolution was a "political" revolution and did not incorporate the libertarian ideal. The congress took no notice and decided to send a delegation to the Second Congress of the Third International which opened in Moscow on July 15, 1920.

By then, however, the love match was already on the way to breaking up. The delegate representing Spanish anarcho-syndicalism was pressed to take part in establishing an international revolutionary trade-union center, but he jibed when presented with a text which referred to the "conquest of political power," "the dictatorship of the proletariat," and proposed an organic relation ship between the trade unions and the communist parties which thinly disguised a relationship of subordination of the former to the latter. In the forthcoming meetings of the Communist Inter national the trade-union organizations of the different nations would be represented by the delegates of the communist parties of their respective countries; and the projected Red Trade-Union International would be openly controlled by the Communist Inter national and its national sections. Angel Pestana, the Spanish spokesman, set forth the libertarian conception of the social revolution and exclaimed: "The revolution is not, and cannot be, the work of a party. The most a party can do is to foment a coup d'etat. But a coup d'etat is not a revolution." He concluded: "You tell us that the revolution cannot take place without a communist party and that without the conquest of political power emancipation is not possible, and that without dictatorship one cannot destroy the bourgeoisie: all these assertions are absolutely gratuitous."

In view of the doubts expressed by the CNT delegate, the communists made a show of adjusting the resolution with regard to the "dictatorship of the proletariat." The Russian trade-union leader Lozovsky nevertheless ultimately published the text in its original form without the modifications introduced by Pestana, but bearing his signature. From the rostrum Trotsky had laid into the Spanish delegate for nearly an hour but the president declared the debate closed when Pestana asked for time to reply to these attacks.

Pestana spent several months in Moscow and left Russia on September 6, 1920, profoundly disillusioned by all that he had observed during that time. In an account of a subsequent visit to Berlin, Rudolf Rocker described Pestana as being like a man "saved from a shipwreck." He had not the heart to tell his Spanish comrades the truth. It seemed to him like "murder" to destroy the immense hope which the Russian Revolution had raised in them. As soon as he crossed the Spanish border he was thrown into prison and was thus spared the painful duty of being the first to speak.

During the summer of 1921 a different delegation from the CNT took part in the founding congress of the Red Trade-Union InternationaL Among the CNT delegates there were young disciples of Russian Bolshevism, such as Joaquin Maurin and Andres Nin, but there was also a French anarchist, Gaston Leval, who had a coo] head. He took the risk of being accused of "playing the game of the bourgeoisie" and "helping the counter-revolution" rather than keep silent Not to tell the masses that what had failed in Russia was not the Revolution, but the State, and not "to show them behind the living Revolution, the State which was paralyzing and killing it," would have been worse than silence. He used these terms, in Le Libertaire in November 1921. He thought that "any honest and loyal collaboration" with the Bolsheviks had become impossible and, on his return to Spain, recommended to the CNT that it withdraw from the Third International and its bogus trade union affiliate.

Having been given this lead, Pestana decided to publish his first report and, subsequently, extend it by a second in which he would reveal the entire truth about Bolshevism:

The principles of the Communist Party are exactly the opposite of those which it was affirming and proclaiming during the first hours of the Revolution. The principles, methods, and final objectives of the Communist Party are diametrically opposed to those of the Russian Revolution .... As soon as the Communist Party had obtained absolute power, it decreed that anyone who did not think as a communist (that is, according to its own definition) had no right to think at all .... The Communist Party has denied to the Russian proletariat all the sacred rights which the Revolution had conferred upon it.

Pestana, further, cast doubt on the validity of the Communist International: a simple extension of the Russian Communist Party, it could not represent the Revolution in the eyes of the world proletariat.

The national congress of the CNT held at Saragossa in June 1922 received this report and decided to withdraw from the trade union front, the Red Trade-Union International. It was also decided to send delegates to an international anarcho-syndicalist conference held in Berlin in December, from which resulted a "Workers' International Association." This was not a real international, since aside from the important Spanish group, it had the support of very small numbers in other countries. [28]

From the time of this breach Moscow bore an inveterate hatred for Spanish anarchism. Joaquin Maurin and Andres Nin were disowned by the CNT and left it to found the Spanish Communist Party. In May 1924 Maurin published a pamphlet declaring war to the death on his former comrades: "The complete elimination of anarchism is a difficult task in a country in which the workers' movement bears the mark of fifty years of anarchist propaganda. But we shall get them." A threat which was later carried out.


The Spanish anarchists had thus reamed the lesson of the Russian Revolution very early, and this played a part in inspiring them to prepare an antinomian revolution. The degeneration of authoritarian communism increased their determination to bring about the victory of a libertarian form of communism. They had been cruelly disappointed in the Soviet mirage and, in the words of Diego Abad de Santillan, saw in anarchism "the last hope of renewal during this somber period."

The basis for a libertarian revolution was pretty well laid in the consciousness of the popular masses and in the thinking of libertarian theoreticians. According to Jose Peirats, anarcho-syndicalism was, "because of its psychology, its temperament, and its reactions, the most Spanish thing in all Spain." It was the double product of a compound development. It suited both the backward state of a poorly developed country, in which rural living conditions remained archaic, and also the growth of a modem proletariat born of industrialization in certain areas. The unique feature of Spanish anarchism was a strange mixture of past and future. The symbiosis between these two tendencies was far from perfect.

In 1918, the CNT had more than a million trade-union members. In the industrial field it was strong in Catalonia, and rather less so in Madrid and Valencia; [29] but it also had deep roots in the countryside, among the poor peasants who preserved a tradition of village communalism, tinged with local patriotism and a cooperative spirit. In 1898 the author Joaquin Costa had described the survivals of this agrarian collectivism. Many villages still had common property from which they allocated plots to the landless, or which they used together with other villages for pasturage or other communal purposes. In the region of large-scale landownership, in the south, the agricultural day laborers preferred socialization to the division of the land.

Moreover, many decades of anarchist propaganda in the countryside, in the form of small popular pamphlets, had prepared the basis for agrarian collectivism. The CNT was especially powerful among the peasants of the south (Andalusia), of the east (area of the Levant around Valencia), and of the northeast (Aragon, around Saragossa).

This double base, both industrial and rural, had turned the libertarian communism of Spanish anarcho-syndicalism in somewhat divergent directions, the one communalist, the other syndicalist. The communalism was expressed in a more local, more rural spirit, one might almost say: more southern, for one of its principal bastions was in Andalusia. Syndicalism, on the other hand, was more urban and unitarian in spirit - more northerly, too, since its main center was Catalonia. Libertarian theoreticians were somewhat torn and divided on this subject.

Some had given their hearts to Kropotkin and his erudite but simplistic idealization of the communes of the Middle Ages which they identified with the Spanish tradition of the primitive peasant community. Their favorite slogan was the "free commune." Various practical experiments in libertarian communism took place during the peasant insurrections which followed the foundation of the Republic in 1931. By free mutual agreement some groups of small-peasant proprietors decided to work together, to divide the profits into equal parts, and to provide for their own consumption by "drawing from the common pool." They dismissed the municipal administrations and replaced them by elected committees, naively believing that they could free themselves from the surrounding society, taxation, and military service.

Bakunin was the founder of the Spanish collectivist, syndicalist, and internationalist workers' movement. Those anarchists who were more realistic, more concerned with the present than the golden age, tended to follow him and his disciple Ricardo Mella. They were concerned with economic unification and believed that a long transitional period would be necessary during which it would be wiser to reward labor according to the hours worked and not according to need. They envisaged the economic structure of the future as a combination of local trade-union groupings and federations of branches of industry.

For a long time the syndicatos unicos (local unions) predominated within the CNT. These groups, close to the workers, free from all corporate egoism, served as a physical and spiritual home for the proletariat. [30] Training in these local unions had fused the ideas of the trade union and the commune in the minds of rank-and-file militants.

The theoretical debate in which the syndicalists opposed the anarchists at the International Anarchist Congress of 1907 [31] was revived in practice to divide the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists. The struggle for day-to-day demands within the CNT had created a reformist tendency in the face of which the FAI (Federacion Anarquista Iberica), founded in 1927, undertook the defense of the integrity of anarchist doctrines. In 1931 a "Manifesto of the Thirty" was put out by the syndicalist tendency condemning the "dictatorship" of minorities within the trade-union movement, and declaring the independence of trade unionism and its claim to be sufficient unto itself. Some trade unions left the CNT and a reformist element persisted within that trade-union center even after the breach had been healed on the eve of the July 1936 Revolution.


The Spanish anarchists continuously published the major and even minor works of international anarchism in the Spanish language. They thus preserved from neglect, and even perhaps absolute destruction, the traditions of a socialism both revolutionary and free. Augustin Souchy was a German anarcho-syndicalist writer who put himself at the service of Spanish anarchism. According to him, "the problem of the social revolution was continuously and systematically discussed in their trade-union and group meetings, in their papers, their pamphlets, and their books."

The proclamation of the Spanish Republic, in 1931, led to an outburst of "anticipatory" writings: Peirats lists about fifty titles, stressing that there were many more, and emphasizes that this "obsession with revolutionary construction" led to a proliferation of writings which contributed greatly to preparing the people for a revolutionary road. James Guillaume's pamphlet of 1876, Ide'es sur L'Organisation Sociale, was known to the Spanish anarchists because it had been largely quoted in Pierre Besnard's book, Les Syndicats Ouvriers et la Revolution Sociale, which appeared in Paris in 1930. Gaston Leval had emigrated to the Argentine and in 1931 published Social Reconstruction in Spain, which gave direct inspiration to the important work of Diego Abad de Santillan, to be discussed below.

In 1932, the country doctor Isaac Puente published a rather naive and idealistic outline of libertarian communism; its ideas were taken up by the Saragossa congress of the CNT in May 1936. Puente himself had become the moving spirit of an insurrectionary committee in Aragon in 1933.

The Saragossa program of 1936 defined the operation of a direct village democracy with some precision. A communal council was to be elected by a general assembly of the inhabitants and formed of representatives of various technical committees. The general assembly was to meet whenever the interests of the commune required it, on the request of members of the communal council or on the direct demand of the inhabitants. The various responsible positions would have no executive or bureaucratic character. The incumbents (with the exception of a few technicians and statisticians) would carry out their duties as producers, like everybody else, meeting at the end of the day's work to discuss matters of detail which did not require decisions by the general assembly.

Active workers were to receive a producer's card on which would be recorded the amount of labor performed, evaluated in daily units, which could be exchanged for goods. The inactive members of the population would receive simply a consumer's card. There was to be no general norm: the autonomy of the communes was to be respected. If they thought fit, they could establish a different system of internal exchange, on the sole condition that it did not injure the interests of the other communes. The right to communal autonomy would, however, not obviate the duty of collective solidarity within the provincial and regional federations of communes.

One of the major concerns of the members of the Saragossa congress was the cultivation of the mind. Throughout their lives all men were to be assured of access to science, art, and research of all kinds, provided only that these activities remained compatible with production of material resources. Society was no longer to be divided into manual workers and intellectuals: all were to be, simultaneously, both one and the other. The practice of such parallel activities would insure a healthy balance in human nature. Once his day's work as a producer was finished the individual was to be the absolute master of his own time. The CNT foresaw that spiritual needs would begin to be expressed in a far more pressing way as soon as the emancipated society had satisfied material needs.

Spanish anarcho-syndicalism had long been concerned to safeguard the autonomy of what it called "affinity groups." There were many adepts of naturism and vegetarianism among its members, especially among the poor peasants of the south. Both these ways of living were considered suitable for the transformation of the human being in preparation for a libertarian society. At the Saragossa congress the members did not forget to consider the fate of groups of naturists and nudists, "unsuited to industrialization." As these groups would be unable to supply all their own needs, the congress anticipated that their delegates to the meetings of the confederation of communes would be able to negotiate special economic agreements with the other agricultural and industrial communes. Does this make us smile? On the eve of a vast, bloody, social transformation, the CNT did not think it foolish to try to meet the infinitely varied aspirations of individual human beings.

With regard to crime and punishment the Saragossa congress followed the teachings of Bakunin, stating that social injustice is the main cause of crime and, consequently, once this has been removed offenses will rarely be committed. The congress affirmed that man is not naturally evil. The shortcomings of the individual, in the moral field as well as in his role as producer, were to be investigated by popular assemblies which would make every effort to find a just solution in each separate case.

Libertarian communism was unwilling to recognize the need for any penal methods other than medical treatment and reeducation. If, as the result of some pathological condition, an individual were to damage the harmony which should reign among his equals he would be treated for his unbalanced condition, at the same time that his ethical and social sense would be stimulated. If erotic passions were to go beyond the bounds imposed by respect for the freedom of others, the Saragossa congress recommended a "change of air," believing it to be as good for physical illness as for lovesickness. The trade-union federation really doubted that such extreme behavior would still occur in surroundings of sexual freedom.

When the CNT congress adopted the Saragossa program in May 1936, no one really expected that the time to apply it would come only two months later. In practice the socialization of the land and of industry which was to follow the revolutionary victory of July 19 differed considerably from this idyllic program. While the word "commune" occurred in every line, the term actually used for socialist production units was to be collectividades. This was not simply a change of terminology: the creators of Spanish self-management looked to other sources for their inspiration.

Two months before the Saragossa congress Diego Abad de Santillan had published a book, El Organismo Economico de la Revolucion (The Economic Organization of the Revolution). This outline of an economic structure drew a somewhat different inspiration from the Saragossa program.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Santillan was not a rigid and sterile disciple of the great anarchists of the nineteenth century. He regretted that anarchist literature of the previous twenty-five or thirty years should have paid so little attention to the concrete problems of a new economy, and that it had not opened up original perspectives on the future. On the other hand, anarchism had produced a superabundance of works, in every language, going over and over an entirely abstract conception of liberty. Santillan compared this indigestible body of work with the reports presented to the national and international congresses of the First International, and the latter seemed to him the more brilliant for the comparison. He thought they had shown a very much better understanding of economic problems than had appeared in subsequent periods.

Santillan was not backward, but a true man of his times. He was aware that "the tremendous development of modern industry has created a whole series of new problems, which it was impossible to foresee at an earlier time." There is no question of going back to the Roman chariot or to primitive forms of artisan production. Economic insularity, a parochial way of thinking, the patria chica (little fatherland) dear to the hearts of rural Spaniards nostalgic for a golden age, the small-scale and medieval "free commune" of Kropotkin - all these must be relegated to a museum of antiquities. They are the vestiges of out-of-date communalist conceptions. No "free communes" can exist from the economic point of view: "Our ideal is the commune which is associated, federated, integrated into the total economy of the country, and of other countries in a state of revolution." To replace the single owner by a hydra-headed owner is not collectivism, is not self-management. The land, the factories, the mines, the means of transport are the product of the work of all and must be at the service of all. Nowadays the economy is neither local, nor even national, but world-wide. The characteristic feature of modern life is the cohesion of all the productive and distributive forces. "A socialized economy, directed and planned, is an imperative necessity and corresponds to the trend of development of the modern economic world."

Santillan foresaw the function of coordinating and planning as being carried out by a federal economic council, which would not be a political authority, but simply an organ of coordination, an economic and administrative regulator. Its directives would come from below, from the factory councils federated into trade union councils for different branches of industry, and into local economic councils. The federal council is thus at the receiving end of two chains of authority, one based on locality and the other on occupation. The organizations at the base provide it with statistics so that it will be aware of the real economic situation at any given moment. In this way it can spot major deficiencies, and determine the sectors in which new industries or crops are most urgently required. "The policemen will no longer be necessary when the supreme authority lies in figures and statistics." In such a system state coercion has no utility, is sterile, even impossible. The federal council sees to the propagation of new norms, the growth of interdependence between the regions and the formation of national solidarity. It stimulates research into new methods of work, new manufacturing processes, new agricultural techniques. It distributes labor from one region to another, from one branch of the economy to another.

There is no doubt that Santillan learned a great deal from the Russian Revolution. On the one hand, it taught him to beware of the danger of a resurgence of the state and bureaucratic apparatus; but, on the other, it taught him that a victorious revolution can not avoid passing through intermediate economic forms, [32] in which there survives for a time what Marx and Lenin call "bourgeois law." For instance, there could be no question of abolishing the banking and monetary system at one fell swoop. These institutions must be transformed and used as a temporary means of exchange to keep social life moving and prepare the way to new economic forms.

Santillan was to play an important part in the Spanish Revolution: he became, in turn, a member of the central committee of the anti-fascist militia (end of July 1936), a member of the Catalonian Economic Council (August 11), and Economics Minister of the Catalonian government (mid-December).


The Spanish Revolution was, thus, relatively well prepared, both in the minds of libertarian thinkers and in the consciousness of the people. It is therefore not surprising that the Spanish Right regarded the electoral victory of the Popular Front in February 1936 as the beginning of a revolution.

In fact, the masses soon broke out of the narrow framework of their success at the ballot box. They ignored the rules of the parliamentary game and did not even wait for a government to be formed to set the prisoners free. The farmers ceased to pay rent to the landlords, the agricultural day laborers occupied land and began to cultivate it, the villagers got rid of their municipal councils and hastened to administer themselves, the railwaymen went on strike to enforce a demand for the nationalization of the railways. The building workers of Madrid called for workers' control, the first step toward socialization.

The military chiefs, under the leadership of Colonel Franco, responded to the symptoms of revolution by a putsch. But they only succeeded in accelerating the progress of a revolution which had, in fact, already begun. In Madrid, in Barcelona, in Valencia particularly, in almost every big city but Seville, the people took the offensive, besieged barracks, set up barricades in the streets and occupied strategic positions. The workers rushed from all sides to answer the call of their trade unions. They assaulted the strongholds of the Franco forces, with no concern for their own lives, with naked hands and uncovered breasts. They succeeded in taking guns from the enemy and persuading soldiers to join their ranks.

Thanks to this popular fury the military putsch was checked within the first twenty-four hours; and then the social revolution began quite spontaneously. It went forward unevenly, of course, in different regions and cities, but with the greatest impetuosity in Catalonia and, especially, Barcelona. When the established authorities recovered from their astonishment, they found that they simply no longer existed. The State, the police, the army, the administration, all seemed to have lost their raison d'etre. The Civil Guard had been driven off or liquidated and the victorious workers were maintaining order. The most urgent task was to organize food supplies: committees distributed foodstuffs from barricades transformed into canteens, and then opened communal restaurants. Local administration was organized by neighborhood committees, and war committees saw to the departure of the workers' militia to the front. The trade-union center had become the real town hall. This was no longer the "defence of the republic" against fascism, it was the Revolution - a Revolution which, unlike the Russian one, did not have to create all its organs of authority from scratch: the election of soviets was made unnecessary by the omnipresent anarcho-syndicalist organization with its various committees at the base. In Catalonia the CNT and its conscious minority, the FAI, were more powerful than the authorities, which had become mere phantoms.

In Barcelona especially, there was nothing to prevent the workers' committees from seizing de jure the power which they were already exercising de facto. But they did not do so. For decades, Spanish anarchism had been warning the people against the deceptions of "politics" and emphasizing the primacy of the "economic." It had constantly sought to divert the people from a bourgeois democratic revolution in order to lead them to the social revolution through direct action. On the brink of the Revolution, the anarchists argued something like this: let the politicians do what they will; we, the "apolitical," will lay hands on the economy. On September 3, 1936, the CNT-FAI Information Bulletin published an article entitled "The Futility of Government," suggesting that the economic expropriation which was taking place would lead ipso facto to the "liquidation of the bourgeois State, which would die of asphyxiation."


This underestimation of government, however, was very rapidly reversed and the Spanish anarchists suddenly became governmentalists. Soon after the Revolution of July 19 in Barcelona, an interview took place between the anarchist activist Garcia Oliver and the president of the Catalonian government, the bourgeois liberal Companys. He was ready to resign but was kept in office. The CNT and the FAI refused to exercise an anarchist "dictatorship," and declared their willingness to collaborate with other left groupings. By mid-September, the CNT was calling on the prime minister of the central government, Largo Caballero, to set up a fifteen-member "Defence Council" in which they would be satisfied with five places. This was as good as accepting the idea of participating in a cabinet under another name.

The anarchists ended up by accepting portfolios in two governments: first in Catalonia and subsequently in Madrid. The Italian anarchist, Camillo Berneri, was in Barcelona and, on April 14, 1937, wrote an open letter to his comrade, minister Federica Montseny, reproaching the anarchists with being in the government only as hostages and fronts "for politicians who flirt with the [class] enemy." [33] It is true that the State with which the Spanish anarchists had agreed to become integrated remained a bourgeois State whose officials and political personnel often had but little loyalty to the republic. What was the reason for this change of heart?

The Spanish Revolution had taken place as the consequence of a proletarian counterattack against a counter-revolutionary coup d'etat. From the beginning the Revolution took on the character of self-defence, a military character, because of the necessity to oppose the cohorts of Colonel Franco with anti-fascist militia. Faced by a common danger, the anarchists thought that they had no choice but to join with all the other trade-union forces, and even political parties, which were ready to stand against the Franco rebellion. As the fascist powers increased their support for Franco, the anti-fascist struggle degenerated into a real war, a total war of the classical type. The libertarians could only take part in it by abandoning more and more of their principles, both political and military. They reasoned, falsely, that the victory of the Revolution could only be assured by first winning the war and, as Santillan was to admit, they "sacrificed everything" to the war. Berneri argued in vain against the priority of the war as such, and maintained that the defeat of Franco could only be insured by a revolutionary war. To put a brake on the Revolution was, in fact, to weaken the strongest arm of the Republic: the active participation of the masses. An even more serious aspect of the matter was that Republican Spain, blockaded by the Western democracies and in grave danger from the advancing fascist troupe, needed Russian military aid in order to survive. This aid was given on a two-fold condition: 1 ) the Communist Party must profit from it as much as possible, and the anarchists as little as possible; 2) Stalin wanted at any price to prevent the victory of a social revolution in Spain, not only because it would have been libertarian, but because it would have expropriated capital investments belonging to Britain which was presumed to be an ally of the U.S.S.R. in the "democratic alliance" against Hitler. The Spanish Communists went so far as to deny that a revolution had taken place: a legal government was simply trying to overcome a military mutiny. In May 1937, there was a bloody struggle in Barcelona and the workers were disarmed by the forces of order under Stalinist command. In the name of united action against the fascists the anarchists forbade the workers to retaliate. The sad persistence with which they threw themselves into the error of the Popular Front, until the final defeat of the Republic, cannot be dealt with in this short book.


Nevertheless, in the field to which they attached the greatest importance, the economic field, the Spanish anarchists showed themselves much more intransigent and compromised to a much lesser degree. Agricultural and industrial self-management was very largely self-propelled. But as the State grew stronger and the war more and more totalitarian, an increasingly sharp contradiction developed between a bourgeois republic at war and an experiment in communism or rather in libertarian collectivism. In the end, it was self-management which had to retreat, sacrificed on the altar of "antifascism." According to Peirats, a methodical study of this experiment in self-management has yet to be made; it will be a difficult task, since self-management presented so many variants in different places and at different times. This matter deserves all the more attention, because relatively little is known about it. Even within the Republican ranks it was either passed over or under-rated. The civil war submerged it and even today overshadows it in human memory. For example, there is no reference to it in the film To Die in Madrid, and yet it is probably the most creative legacy of Spanish anarchism.

The Revolution of July 19, 1936, was a lightning defensive action by the people to counter the pronunciamento of Franco. The industrialists and large landowners immediately abandoned their property and took refuge abroad. The workers and peasants took over this abandoned property, the agricultural day laborers decided to continue cultivating the soil on their own. They associated together in "collectives" quite spontaneously. In Catalonia a regional congress of peasants was called together by the CNT on September 5 and agreed to the collectivization of land under trade union management and control. Large estates and the property of fascists were to be socialized, while small landowners would have free choice between individual property and collective property. Legal sanction came later: on October 7, 1936, the Republican central government confiscated without indemnity the property of "persons compromised in the fascist rebellion." This measure was incomplete from a legal point of view, since it only sanctioned a very small part of the take-overs already carried out spontaneously by the people; the peasants had carried out expropriation without distinguishing between those who had taken part in the military putsch and those who had not.

In underdeveloped countries where the technical resources necessary for large-scale agriculture are absent, the poor peasant is more attracted by private property, which he has not yet enjoyed, than by socialized agriculture. In Spain, however, libertarian education and a collectivist tradition compensated for technical underdevelopment, countered the individualistic tendencies of the peasants, and turned them directly toward socialism. The latter was the choice of the poorer peasants, while those who were slightly better off, as in Catalonia, clung to individualism. A great majority (90 percent) of land workers chose to join collectives from the very beginning. This decision created a close alliance between the peasants and the city workers, the latter being supporters of the socialization of the means of production by the very nature of their function. It seems that social consciousness was even higher in the country than in the cities.

The agricultural collectives set themselves up with a twofold management, economic and geographical. The two functions were distinct, but in most cases it was the trade unions which assumed them or controlled them. A general assembly of working peasants in each village elected a management committee which was to be responsible for economic administration. Apart from the secretary, all the members continued their manual labor. Work was obligatory for all healthy men between eighteen and sixty. The peasants were divided into groups of ten or more, each led by a delegate, and each being allocated an area to cultivate, or an operation to perform, appropriate to the age of its members and the nature of the work concerned. The management committee received the delegates from the groups every evening. With regard to local administration, the commune frequently called the inhabitants together in general assembly to receive reports of activities undertaken. Everything was put into the common pool with the exception of clothing, furniture, personal savings, small domestic animals, garden plots, and poultry kept for family use. Artisans, hairdressers, shoemakers, etc., were grouped in collectives; the sheep belonging to the community were divided into flocks of several hundreds, put in the charge of shepherds, and methodically distributed in the mountain pastures.

With regard to the distribution of products, various systems were tried out, some based on collectivism and others on more or less total communism, and still others resulting from a combination of the two. Most commonly, payment was based on family needs. Each head of a family received a daily wage of specially marked pesetas which could only be exchanged for consumer goods in the communal shops, which were often set up in the church or its buildings. Any balance not consumed was placed in a peseta credit account for the benefit of the individual. It was possible to draw a limited amount of pocket money from this balance. Rent, electricity, medical care, pharmaceuticals, old-age assistance, etc., were all free. Education was also free and often given in schools set up in former convents; it was compulsory for all children under fourteen, who were forbidden to perform manual labor.

Membership in the collective continued to be voluntary, as was required by the basic concern of the anarchist for freedom. No pressure was brought to bear on the small farmers. Choosing to remain outside the community, they could not expect to receive its services and benefits since they claimed to be sufficient unto themselves. However, they could opt to participate as they wished in communal work and they could bring their produce to the communal shops. They were admitted to general assemblies and the enjoyment of some collective benefits. They were forbidden only to take over more land than they could cultivate, and subject to only one restriction: that their presence or their property should not disturb the socialist order. In some places socialized areas were reconstituted into larger units by voluntary exchange of plots with individual peasants. In most villages individualists, whether peasants or traders, decreased in number as time went on. They felt isolated and preferred to join the collectives.

It appears that the units which applied the collectivist principle of day wages were more solid than the comparatively few which tried to establish complete communism too quickly, taking no account of the egoism still deeply rooted in human nature, especially among the women. In some villages where currency had been suppressed and the population helped itself from the common pool, producing and consuming within the narrow limits of the collectives, the disadvantages of this paralyzing self-sufficiency made themselves felt, and individualism soon returned to the fore, causing the breakup of the community by the withdrawal of many former small farmers who had joined but did not have a really communist way of thinking.

The communes were united into cantonal federations, above which were regional federations. In theory all the lands belonging to a cantonal federation were treated as a single unit without intermediate boundaries. [34] Solidarity between villages was pushed to the limit, and equalization funds made it possible to give assistance to the poorest collectives. Tools, raw materials, and surplus labor were all made available to communities in need.

The extent of rural socialization was different in different provinces. As already said, Catalonia was an area of small- and medium sized farms, and the peasantry had a strong individualistic tradition, so that here there were no more than a few pilot collectives. In Aragon, on the other hand, more than three-quarters of the land was socialized. The creative initiative of the agricultural workers in this region had been stimulated by a libertarian militia unit, the Durruti Column, passing through on its way to the northern front to fight the Franco troops, and by the subsequent establishment of a revolutionary authority created at the base, which was unique of its kind in Republican Spain. About 450 collectives were set up, with some half a million members. In the Levant region (five provinces, capital Valencia), the richest in Spain, some 900 collectives were established, covering 43 percent of the geographical area, 50 percent of citrus production, and 70 percent of the citrus trade. In Castile, about 300 collectives were created, with around 100,000 members. Socialization also made headway in Estremadura and part of Andalusia, while a few early attempts were quickly repressed in the Asturias.

It should be remembered that grass-roots socialism was not the work of the anarcho-syndicalists alone, as many people have supposed. According to Gaston Leval, the supporters of self-management were often "libertarians without knowing it." In Estremadura and Andalusia, the social-democratic, Catholic, and in the Asturias even communist, peasants took the initiative in collectivization. However, in the southern areas not controlled by the anarchists, where municipalities took over large estates in an authoritarian manner, the day laborers unfortunately did not feel this to be a revolutionary transformation: their wages and conditions were not changed; there was no self-management.

Agricultural self-management was an indisputable success except where it was sabotaged by its opponents or interrupted by the war. It was not difficult to beat the record of large-scale private ownership, for it had been deplorable. Some 10,000 feudal landowners had been in possession of half the territory of the Spanish Peninsula. It had suited them to let a large part of their land lie fallow rather than to permit the development of a stratum of independent farmers, or to give their day laborers decent wages; to do either of these would have undermined their medieval feudal authority. Thus their existence had retarded the full development of the natural wealth of the Spanish land.

After the Revolution the land was brought together into rational units, cultivated on a large scale and according to the general plan and directives of agronomists. The studies of agricultural technicians brought about yields 30 to 50 percent higher than before. The cultivated areas increased, human, animal, and mechanical energy was used in a more rational way, and working methods perfected. Crops were diversified, irrigation extended, reforestation initiated, and tree nurseries started. Piggeries were constructed, rural technical schools built, and demonstration farms set up, selective cattle breeding was developed, and auxiliary agricultural industries put into operation. Socialized agriculture showed itself superior on the one hand to large-scale absentee ownership, which left part of the land fallow; and on the other to small farms cultivated by primitive techniques, with poor seed and no fertilizers.

A first attempt at agricultural planning was made, based on production and consumption statistics produced by the collectives, brought together by the respective cantonal committees and then by the regional committee which controlled the quantity and quality of production within its area. Trade outside the region was handled by a regional committee which collected the goods to be sold and in exchange for them bought the goods required by the region as a whole. Rural anarcho-syndicalism showed its organizational ability and capacity for coordination to best advantage in the Levant. The export of citrus required methodical modern commercial techniques; they were brilliantly put into play, in spite of a few lively disputes with rich producers.

Cultural development went hand in hand with material prosperity: a campaign was undertaken to bring literacy to adults; regional federations set up a program of lectures, films, and theatrical performances in all the villages. These successes were due not only to the strength of the trade-union organization but, to a considerable degree, also to the intelligence and initiative of the people. Although the majority of them were illiterate, the peasants showed a degree of socialist consciousness, practical good sense, and spirit of solidarity and sacrifice which drew the admiration of foreign observers. Fenner Brockway, then of the British Independent Labour Party, now Lord Brockway, visited the collective of Segorbe and reported: "The spirit of the peasants' their enthusiasm, and the way they contribute to the common effort and the pride which they take in it, are all admirable."


Self-management was also tried out in industry, especially in Catalonia, the most industrialized area in Spain. Workers whose employers had fled spontaneously undertook to keep the factories going. For more than four months, the factories of Barcelona, over which waved the red and black flag of the CNT, were managed by revolutionary workers' committees without help or interference from the State, sometimes even without experienced managerial help. The proletariat had one piece of good fortune in being aided by technicians. In Russia in 1917-1918, and in Italy in 1920, during those brief experiments in the occupation of the factories, the engineers had refused to help the new experiment of socialization; in Spain many of them collaborated closely with the workers from the very beginning.

A trade-union conference representing 600,000 workers was held in Barcelona in October 1936, with the object of developing the socialization of industry. The initiative of the workers was institutionalized by a decree of the Catalan government dated October 24, 1936. This ratified the fait accompli, but introduced an element of government control alongside self-management. Two sectors were created, one socialist, the other private. All factories with more than a hundred workers were to be socialized (and those with between fifty and a hundred could be, on the request of three-quarters of the workers), as were those whose proprietors either had been declared "subversive" by a people's court or had stopped production, and those whose importance justified taking them out of the private sector. (In fact many enterprises were socialized because they were heavily in debt.)

A factory under self-management was directed by a managerial committee of five to fifteen members representing the various trades and services. They were nominated by the workers in general assembly and served for two years, half being changed each year. The committee appointed a manager to whom it delegated all or part of its own powers. In very large factories the selection of a manager required the approval of the supervisory organization. Moreover, a government controller was appointed to each management committee. In effect it was not complete self-management but a sort of joint management in very close liaison with the Catalonian government.

The management committee could be recalled, either by the general meeting of the workers or by the general council of the particular branch of the industry (composed of four representatives of management committees, eight of the trade unions, and four technicians appointed by the supervisory organization). This general council planned the work and determined the division of the profits, and its decisions were mandatory. In those enterprises which remained in private hands an elected workers' committee was to control the production process and conditions of work "in close collaboration with the employer." The wage system was maintained intact in the socialized factories. Each worker continued to be paid a fixed wage. Profits were not divided on the factory level and wages rose very little after socialization, in fact even less than in the sector which remained private.

The decree of October 24, 1936, was a compromise between aspirations to self-management and the tendency to tutelage by the leftist government, as well as a compromise between capitalism and socialism. It was drafted by a libertarian minister, and ratified by the CNT, because anarchist leaders were in the government. How could they object to the intervention of government in self-management when they themselves had their hands on the levers of power? Once the wolf is allowed into the sheepfold he always ends up by acting as its master.

In spite of the considerable powers which had been given to the general councils of branches of industry, it appeared in practice that workers' self-management tended to produce a sort of parochial egoism, a species of "bourgeois cooperativism," as Peirats called it, each production unit concerning itself only with its own interests. There were rich collectives and poor collectives. Some could pay relatively high wages while others could not even manage to maintain the wage level which had prevailed before the Revolution. Some had plenty of raw materials, others were very short, etc. This imbalance was fairly soon remedied by the creation of a central equalization fund, which made it possible to distribute resources fairly. In December 1936, a trade-union assembly was held in Valencia, where it was decided to coordinate the various sectors of production into a general organic plan, which would make it possible to avoid harmful competition and the dissipation of effort.

At this point the trade unions undertook the systematic reorganization of whole trades, closing down hundreds of small enterprises and concentrating production in those that had the bat equipment. For instance: in Catalonia foundries were reduced from over 70 to 24, tanneries from 71 to 40, glass works from about 100 to about 30. However, industrial centralization under trade-union control could not be developed as rapidly and completely as the anarcho-syndicalist planners would have wished. Why was this? Because the Stalinists and reformists opposed the appropriation of the property of the middle class and showed scrupulous respect for the private sector.

In the other industrial centers of Republican Spain the Catalonian socialization decree was not in force and collectivizations were not so frequent as in Catalonia; however, private enterprises were often endowed with workers' control committees, as was the case in the Asturias.

Industrial self-management was, on the whole, as successful as agricultural self-management had been. Observers at first hand were full of praise, especially with regard to the excellent working of urban public services under self-management. Some factories, if not all, were managed in a remarkable fashion. Socialized industry made a major contribution to the war against fascism. The few arms factories built in Spain before 1936 had been set up outside Catalonia: the employers, in fact, were afraid of the Catalonian proletariat. In the Barcelona region, therefore, it was necessary to convert factories in great haste so that they might serve the defense of the Republic. Workers and technicians competed with each other in enthusiasm and initiative, and very soon war materiel made mainly in Catalonia was arriving at the front. No less effort was put into the manufacture of chemical products essential for war purposes. Socialized industry went ahead equally fast in the field of civilian requirements; for the first time the conversion of textile fibers was undertaken in Spain, and hemp, esparto, rice straw, and cellulose were processed.


In the meanwhile, credit and foreign trade had remained in the hands of the private sector because the bourgeois Republican government wished it so. It is true that the State controlled the banks, but it took care not to place them under self-management. Many collectives were short of working capital and had to live on the available funds taken over at the time of the July 1936 Revolution. Consequently they had to meet their day-to-day needs by chance acquisitions such as the seizure of jewelry and precious objects belonging to churches, convents, or Franco supporters who had fled. The CNT had proposed the creation of a "confederal bank" to finance self-management. But it was utopian to try to compete with private finance capital which had not been socialized. The only solution would have been to put all finance capital into the hands of the organized proletariat; but the CNT was imprisoned in the Popular Front, and dared not go as far as that.

The major obstacle, however, was the increasingly open hostility to self-management manifested by the various political general staffs of Republican Spain. It was charged with breaking the "united front" between the working class and the small bourgeoisie, and hence "playing the game" of the fascist enemy. (Its detractors went so far as to refuse arms to the libertarian vanguard which, on the Aragon front, was reduced to facing the fascist machine guns with naked hands - and then being reproached for its "inactivity." )

It was the Stalinist minister of agriculture, Vicente Uribe, who had established the decree of October 7, 1936, which legalized part of the rural collectivizations. Appearances to the contrary, he was imbued with an anti-collectivist spirit and hoped to demoralize the peasants living in socialized groups. The validation of collectivizations was subjected to very rigid and complicated juridical regulations. The collectives were obliged to adhere to an extremely strict time limit, and those which had not been legalized on the due date were automatically placed outside the law and their land made liable to being restored to the previous owners.

Uribe discouraged the peasants from joining the collectives and fomented discontent against them. In December 1936 he made a speech directed to the individualist small proprietors, declaring that the guns of the Communist Party and the government were at their disposal. He gave them imported fertilizer which he was refusing to the collectives. Together with his Stalinist colleague, Juan Comorera, in charge of the economy of Catalonia, he brought the small- and medium-scale landowners together into a reactionary union, subsequently adding the traders and even some owners of large estates disguised as smallholders. They took the organization of food supplies for Barcelona away from the workers' unions and handed it over to private trade.

Finally, when the advance guard of the Revolution in Barcelona had been crushed in May 1937, [35] the coalition government went so far as to liquidate agricultural self-management by military means. On the pretext that it had remained "outside the current of centralization," the Aragon "regional defense council" was dissolved by a decree of August 10, 1937. Its founder, Joaquin Ascaso, was charged with "selling ; .. 1,7~~ which was actually an attempt to get funds for the collectives. Soon after this, the 11th Mobile Division of Commander Lister (a Stalinist), supported by tanks, went into action against the collectives. Aragon was invaded like an enemy country, those in charge of socialized enterprises were arrested, their premises occupied, then closed; management committees were dissolved, communal shops emptied, furniture broken up, and flocks disbanded. The Communist press denounced "the crimes of forced collectivization." Thirty percent of the Aragon collectives were completely destroyed.

Even by this brutality, however, Stalinism was not generally successful in forcing the peasants of Aragon to become private owners. Peasants had been forced at pistol point to sign deeds of ownership, but as soon as the Lister Division had gone, these were destroyed and the collectives rebuilt. As G. Munis, the Spanish Trotskyist, wrote: "This was one of the most inspiring episodes of the Spanish Revolution. The peasants reaffirmed their socialist beliefs in spite of governmental terror and the economic boycott to which they were subjected."

There was another, less heroic, reason for the restoration of the Aragon collectives: the Communist Party had realized, after the event, that it had injured the life force of the rural economy, endangered the crops from lack of manpower, demoralized the fighters on the Aragon front, and dangerously reinforced the middle class of landed proprietors. The Party, therefore, tried to repair the damage it had itself done, and to revive some of the collectives. The new collectives, however, never regained the extent or quality of land of their predecessors, nor the original manpower, since many militants had been imprisoned or had sought shelter from persecution in the anarchist divisions at the front.

Republicans carried out armed attacks of the same kind against agricultural self-management in the Levant, in Castile, and in the provinces of Huesca and Teruel. However, it survived, by hook or by crook, in many areas which had not yet fallen into the hands of the Franco troops, especially in the Levant.

The ambiguous attitude, to put it mildly, of the Valencia government to rural socialism contributed to the defeat of the Spanish Republic: the poor peasants were not always clearly aware that it was in their interests to fight for the Republic.

In spite of its successes, industrial self-management was sabotaged by the administrative bureaucracy and the authoritarian socialists. The radio and press launched a formidable preparatory campaign of denigration and calumny, questioning the honesty of the factory management councils. The Republican central government refused to grant any credit to Catalonian self-management even when the libertarian minister of the Catalonian economy, Fabregas, offered the billion pesetas of savings bank deposits as security. In June 1937, the Stalinist Comorera took over the portfolio of the economy, and deprived the self-managed factories of raw materials which he lavished on the private sector. He also failed to deliver to the socialist enterprises supplies which had been ordered for them by the Catalan administration.

The central government had a stranglehold over the collectives; the nationalization of transport made it possible for it to supply some and cut off all deliveries to others. Moreover, it imported Republican army uniforms instead of turning to the Catalonian textile collectives. On August 22, 1937, it passed a decree suspending the application of the Catalonian October 1936 socialization decree to the metal and mining industries. This was done on the pretext of the necessities of national defence; and the Catalonian decree was said to be "contrary to the spirit of the Constitution." Foremen and managers who had been driven out by self-management, or rather, those who had been unwilling to accept technical posts in the self-managed enterprises, were brought back, full of a desire for revenge.

The end came with the decree of August 11, 1938, which militarized all war industries under the control of the Ministry of War Supplies. An overblown and ill-behaved bureaucracy invaded the factories - a swarm of inspectors and directors who owed their position solely to their political affiliations, in particular to their recent membership in the Stalinist Communist Party. The workers became demoralized as they saw themselves deprived of control over enterprises which they had created from scratch during the first critical months of the war, and production suffered in consequence.

In other branches, Catalan industrial self-management survived until the Spanish Republic was crushed. It was slowed down, however, for industry had lost its main outlets and there was a shortage of raw materials, the government having cut off the credit necessary to purchase them.

To sum up, the newborn Spanish collectives were immediately forced into the strait jacket of a war carried on by classic military methods, in the name of which the Republic clipped the wings of its own vanguard and compromised with reaction at home.

The lesson which the collectives have left behind them, however, is a stimulating one. In 1938 Emma Goldman was inspired to praise them thus: "The collectivization of land and industry shines out as the greatest achievement of any revolutionary period. Even if Franco were to win and the Spanish anarchists were to be exterminated, the idea they have launched will live on." On July 21, 1937, Federica Montseny made a speech in Barcelona in which she clearly posed the alternatives: "On the one hand, the supporters of authority and the totalitarian State, of a state-directed economy, of a form of social organization which militarizes all men and converts the State into one huge employer, one huge entrepreneur; on the other hand, the operation of mines, fields, factories and workshops, by the working class itself, organized in trade-union federations." This was the dilemma of the Spanish Revolution, but in the near future it may become that of socialism the world over.