Chapter 11 The Spanish Revolution

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 10, 2018

THE COUNTRY IN which Anarchism became a great mass movement was Spain, where the libertarian doctrine numbered its adherents is millions. And it was in Spain that Anarchism made at the same time its most dramatic appearance on the stage of history and its chief experiment of a society based on the principles of freedom and mutual aid.

The working class movement in Spain commenced just over a hundred years ago, when, in 1840, a right was first granted to the workers to form associations, and Juan Munts, a weaver, founded the first trade union among the textile workers of Barcelona. The trade union movement spread to other industries, and by the 1850’s the government had become frightened at the spread of working class organisation. They suppressed the union movement; as a result the first Spanish general strike was declared in 1855. The workers erected barricades in Barcelona and fought the government troops under the banner Asociación ó Muerte. The strike and its accompanying revolt failed because of their local character, and their defeat was followed by a ruthless and long-standing ban on working class organisations, which nevertheless continued underground.
For a while the Spanish labour movement came under the influence of Proudhon’s ideas, expounded by Pi y Margall, whose ideas were federalist and reformist. He advocated the eventual abolition of the state, but desired to attain this by gradual means, and was quite ready to hold office in the Spanish republican governments. He was an anarchist in no real sense, but the libertarian element in his teaching was important in its influence on the Spanish labour movement, and combined with the anti-centralist tendencies of the Spanish people and the communal element in Spanish peasant life to make Spain peculiarly receptive to the anarchist doctrine.

Anarchism appeared in 1868, after the declaration of the first Spanish Republic, when Bakunin appealed to the Spanish workers to join the First International and sent a delegation to preach the doctrines then held by the anarchists. So many Spaniards responded that the Spanish federation was the strongest in the International, numbering some 80,000 members. The Spaniards supported Bakunin in his struggle with the Marxists, and when he was expelled from the International they seceded and became a section of the Anarchist International. The Republic fell in 1874; and the International was suppressed. But the Anarchists continued their work in underground secret societies, carrying on their propaganda and issuing their periodicals during the years of suppression.

In 1881 the ban on workers’ organisations was withdrawn, and the Spanish Workers’ Federation was founded and rapidly gained a large membership. The years that followed were marked by periodical persecutions, of varying severity, but always of considerable brutality, both by the State and by such terrorist bodies as the Camisas Blancas, through which the ruling class sought to intimidate the revolutionaries by assassination and violence. Some of these acts of violence on the part of the Spanish authorities were so inhuman that they aroused the anger of the mild liberals of capitalist countries. Particularly notorious were the executions at Montjuich prison in 1893, and the judicial murder of the educationalist Francisco Ferrer in 1910.
After 1910 the Anarchist movement was able to reconstruct itself on a mass basis, embodying the idea of syndicalism as an important element both in the prosecution of the revolution and in the construction of the revolutionary society. The C.N.T. (National Confederation of Labour) was founded in 1911. Almost immediately its active leaders were thrown into prison, and the national organisation was broken up. The local sections, however, continued to operate in secret, and in 1915 the C.N.T. was reconstructed. Meanwhile the Anarchists who had existed since 1893 only in secret bodies, again in 1913 formed a public organisation, the Iberian Anarchist Federation, which worked as the Anarchist propaganda organisation in conjunction with the C.N.T. as the syndicalist organisation of the workers. The F.A.I. was never a large body, containing only the active revolutionaries, while the C.N.T. was the mass organisation of the workers united in their revolutionary syndicates.

By 1919 the C.N.T. had already more than a million members, and was by far the largest workers’ organisation in Spain. In spite of violent repressions during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, of general lockouts by the employers and the assassination of hundreds of syndicalists, including Salvador Segui, the General Secretary, who was murdered in 1923, the movement carried on its work and maintained its influence among the workers.

After the fall of the monarchy and the establishment of the Republic, the anarchist movement continued to grow and to prepare for the social revolution. Its opportunity came in July 1936, when the rising of the Fascist generals precipitated the revolution of the workers and the crushing of the coup d’etat in Barcelona, Madrid and the major portion of Spain.

The events of 1936 placed the Anarchist Movement in a position of peculiar importance and opportunity, particularly in Catalonia, where the vast majority of the workers supported the Anarchist Unions.
An immediate and spontaneous movement arose in Catalonia for the expropriation of factories and workshops by the workers, organised in syndicates, and parallel with this ran a movement among the peasants for seizure of the land and the grouping of land holdings into agricultural communes. The C.N.T. guided this movement and united the efforts of workers, peasants, technicians and intellectuals in the reconstruction of Catalonian economic life, but it cannot be too much emphasised that the movement was based on the free initiative and co-operation of the workers themselves. It is true that they did not ask permission of the factory owners before they took over their plants (in any case a large proportion of the employers had fled into France or Franco territory). But the organisation of the economic units was based entirely on voluntary mutual co-operation, and the workers themselves took all decisions regarding both their own working conditions and the output of their plant. Administration was by delegate (not representative) committees, who had always to refer back to their workers and none of whose decisions were valid unless they had the approval of the workers. To avoid the creation of a new bureaucracy, these delegates and the few full-time officials were subject to recall to the workbench at any time, and in any event were elected only for short periods. The personnel of the co-ordination committee for the Barcelona transport service was changed twice in the first year of syndicalist control. Moreover, there was no material gain from positions of responsibility, as the workers’ delegates were paid the recognised wages for their particular industry.
On the land the right of the small proprietor to retain his holding was respected. While three quarters of the land became collectivised and cultivated on a co-operative basis by the peasants’ syndicates, a quarter remained in the hands of individual peasants - who were treated so fairly that some were given extra land by the collectives to provide holdings adequate for the size of their families.

The peasant collectives were autonomous and settled for themselves all their internal affairs. Their economic relations with society in general were arranged through the federations into which their syndicates were grouped. Under collectivisation, not only was the peasant standard of living raised, but technical improvements were made in agricultural methods - such as the introduction of machinery and chemical fertilisers (often into districts where before they had been unknown) which both increased the productivity of the land and reduced the labour necessary for its cultivation. In many districts the harvests were increased by a third during the first year of collective operation. Successful experiments were made in payment based on need, and many Catalan and Aragonese syndicates paid the members according to their family responsibilities.

One of the most impressive achievements of the anarcho-syndicalists was the taking over and working of the Catalonian railways by the railway workers. At the beginning of the Civil War almost all the technical and directive staff, being foreigners, had left for the safety of less turbulent lands. Nevertheless, the syndicates amalgamated the three railways and contrived to work and maintain them to a higher efficiency than before, so that, not only were the obsolete rolling stock and equipment renewed within the first year of operation, but also, for the first time in Spanish history, punctual services were provided.

There were similar improvements in transport in Barcelona itself, where the various services, including the buses, the tramways, the two underground railways and the two funicular railways, were taken over and administered by the transport workers in such a way, that, though each enterprise was independent so far as its internal affairs were concerned, their activities were co-ordinated by a central committee of delegates from each undertaking. The workshops were modernised, heavy repairs previously done by outside contractors were carried out by the transport workers, and new vehicles were built. Services were extended, and during the period of collective administration the traffic was increased by 150%. A substantial general increase was made in wages, but in spite of this fact and the higher cost of materials, fares were maintained at a scale lower than any other in Europe.

Another organisation important in the social reconstruction of Catalonia was the Sanitary Syndicate formed by the doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other persons concerned with the public health. This body established doctors in every village in the province, set up clinics in the country districts, and organised ambulance services so that peasants in the remotest villages could be brought to the modernised hospitals operated by the syndicate.

The teachers’ syndicates ran the schools and modernised the entire educational system. Actors, musicians and other executants formed themselves into a Public Amusements Syndicate of 15,000 members who operated the theatres, concert halls, cinemas, etc., and raised the standard of entertainment in cities and towns besides sending touring companies to the country districts. The printing syndicates published a great mass of literature and achieved a standard of craftsmanship equal to any in Europe, as those will appreciate who have examined the remarkable books, posters and pamphlets they produced.

In Catalonia most of the industrial plants were operated through the syndicates, in almost every case with increased efficiency, and many new factories were constructed by the building syndicates and transferred to the syndicates controlling the industries concerned.

Nor was it in Catalonia merely that the anarchists attempted socialisation through the syndicates. The extensive textile industry of Alcoy, the wood industry of Cuenca, the metal industries of Castellon, were further cases in which the workers took over their industries, with good results in improved output, craftsmanship, working conditions and remuneration.

The collectivisation of industries and agriculture in Catalonia proved beyond doubt the capabilities of the Spanish workers to manage their own industries, and the good results accruing from such management. Everywhere that authority was removed there seemed a new joy in working for the foundation of a free and just society, and this new attitude towards the functional life had its reflections in the increased production of manufactured goods and yield in crops, the improvement in the standard of craftsmanship and of technical method in almost every industry, the provision of adequate transport services, the initiation for the first time in Spain of good organisations for public health and education, and, in general, the greater happiness and well-being of the people concerned in these changes.

It must be remembered that all this was achieved not within a completely anarchist society, but in a state structure within which there were strong authoritarian elements who regarded the anarchist experiments with a hostility that increased as they proved successful. Communists feared a practical disproof of their theories and foresaw a danger to any “proletarian” dictatorship they might attempt to erect. The bourgeois Republican elements saw as great a danger to the mitigated capitalism they hoped to establish at the end of the Civil War. In spite of the fact that the Anarchists fought beside them and had made a temporary renunciation of some of their major objectives in what they were naive enough to believe was a common cause against totalitarianism, their enemies within the Republican government and the Communist organisations used every opportunity of vilifying them and of attempting to sabotage their social experiments. As the war continued and the government was forced by its very nature to become more totalitarian and more like the systems it claimed to be fighting, the inner campaign against the Anarchists was accelerated. It was said that by attempting to establish a new social order during the Civil War they were fiddling while Spain burnt and undermining the Spanish “war effort”. This argument took no cognisance of the fact that the factories under the syndicalist system were the most efficient and productive in Republican Spain.

At the beginning of the war, when the people rose against the Fascist generals, the state had for a time virtually ceased to function in Spain. There was a shadow government, but its army and its police had gone over to the Fascists, and the new army was at this time an army of the people, whose soldiers, like the workers in the factories, carried on their action without any regard to this insubstantial facade of a State. Unfortunately, however, both the Anarchists and the Spanish populace regarded this Republican Government with too much contempt, and neglected to disperse it at the beginning of the revolution. Later, some of the Anarchist leaders even went so far against their principles as to join the Government for a short while and so create that mask of unity behind which their own fall was planned.

The Republican elements in the government, powerless at first, set out to regain their authority, and in this they were assisted by the gold of the Bank of Spain, which remained in their hands, and by the enthusiastic aid of the Communist Party, which, at first a negligible party with little influence, became gradually a focus for the petty bourgeois elements in Republican Spain and proclaimed that the war must be fought not to gain the social revolution but merely, to preserve a “liberal” capitalism.

The Government set about organising a new police force, which was armed with the best equipment they could obtain. Later they started to turn the militia into a Popular Army, with a hierarchy and a discipline like any other army. In this they were again assisted by the Communists, who formed an auxiliary police force and a propaganda service for the reactionary elements in Spain.

When arms reached Spain from Russia, they were used deliberately by the government and the Communists to strengthen the power of the state and to sabotage the revolution. No arms were given to the Anarchist militia on the Aragon front, who fought with out-of-date rifles and little other equipment against the tanks and aeroplanes of the Italians and Germans. Instead, the police, the Assault Guard, and the Communist sections of the Army were equipped with all the modern equipment that could be obtained. The Government felt it more in its interests to crush the revolution than to use all its forces against Franco.

Early in 1937 the manoeuvres against the syndicates commenced, and in May of that year the trouble came to a head in Barcelona. The Communists attempted to seize the telephone exchange, which was operated by the C.N.T. The Anarchists resisted, and the barricades were raised. For nearly a week fighting went on in the town, until the Valencia authorities poured their crack troops into the city and the Anarchists had to accept a poor compromise.

During the Maydays many anarchist militants were murdered by the Communists, including the Italian Camillo Berneri, one of the best Anarchist theorists of our time. An excellent account by a non-anarchist of the Maydays, exposing the machinations of the Communists, occurs in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.
After the Maydays the attack on the Anarchists continued. Those who had been foolish enough to enter the government were ejected, and the authorities increased their pressure on the syndicates in an attempt to bring the factories under State control. The Spanish Ogpu intensified its campaign of imprisonment and assassination. And Lister, who was sent to Aragon at the head of a Communist column; with the ostensible purpose of assuming the offensive on that front; occupied himself in breaking up the peasant collectives.
Thus Franco only completed the destruction of the anarcho-syndicalist experiments already weakened by the attacks of the so-called “revolutionary” government. The failure of anarchist social reconstruction to survive in its one practical demonstration was due, not to intrinsic faults, but to outside circumstances mostly beyond the control of the anarchists themselves. In spite of the destruction of all they had built, the Spanish anarchists proved in practice what the theorists have expounded in ideas. They showed that men could be free and yet at the same time voluntarily submit themselves to an order without authority that would provide more (both quantitatively and qualitatively) of the necessities of life and ensure a more just distribution of these necessities.