Spain 1936: the end of anarchism? Reader responses and Subversion reply

Letters from JC and NH (member of Anarchist Communist Federation) on an article in a previous issue of Subversion entitled "The end of anarchism". Plus Subversion reply.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 10, 2021

Dear Subversion

I read your article 'The End of Anarchism' when it was first published ten years ago. I thought then that it was a good article and I thought so again when I re-read it in issue no. 18 of Subversion. The article effectively warned against seeing self-managed capitalism as a solution to our problems and showed that much of what passed for the 'Spanish Revolution' had no communist content whatsoever.

However, it is worth drawing attention to the fact that there were those in Spain at the time who were committed to the same sort of communism that Subversion stands for. Indeed, it would have been strange if that were not the case, because communist initiatives have generally been present in all the major upheavals of capitalism, all the way back to the Diggers in the English Civil War in the seventeenth century, let alone in the more advanced circumstances of the Spanish Civil War three hundred years later.

When I visited Spain in 1995, I attended a public meeting in Barcelona which was addressed by an old militant of the Civil War era, Abel Paz. Some of his reminscences were sufficiently exciting to persuade me to read his "Durruti: the People Armed" (Montreal: Black Rose, 1976) when I got back to England. In this book there are various examples given of communist initiatives, such as the armed uprising by miners around Barcelona in January 1932 which 'led to the proclamationof libertarian communism, the abolition of private property and money' (p.117). To this Paz adds the footnote: 'The destruction of the State and the abolition of classes are born from the same act: the abolition of money and property' (p.124).

Perhaps the most eye-catching of these examples is a first-hand account of one incident in which Paz participated in 1936. It is worth letting him tell the story in his own words:

'The author took part in various actions of this kind on the morning of July 20th. The one which impressed him most was the attack on a branch bank in Calle Mallorca in Barcelona. Nobody in the bank resisted the people. However a group of women, assisted by only a few men and children had seized the building and made a bonfire in the street with the furniture. Throwing this furniture into the fire the people were full of rage but also of pleasure, as if they were the judges in a cause which had been waiting to be judged for a millenium. Among other things boxes full of bank notes were thrown into the fire and absolutely no one had the idea of putting the money in their pockets. They seemed to be saying that the world of trade, the world of salaries and exploitation were really disappearing forever.' (p.217).

Sadly, they were wrong, because such initiatives were overwhelmed by the kind of developments which your article skilfully explained. Yet, in our eagerness to debunk the myths that cling to Republican Spain, let us not forget that some working men and women of the time were inspired by communism. It is important to remember the countless occasions when such initiatives have occurred (in Spain and many other parts of the world). Were we not to do so, communism would become nothing more than a disembodied ideal, a nice idea perhaps, but remote from the real struggles of this world. I know for a fact that Subversion does not see communism like that.


Dear Subversion,

Reprinting an article from Wildcat that is at least ten years old crassly called the End of Anarchism, on the Spanish revolution, goes against everything I expected from people I regarded as intelligent, critical revolutionaries. So Anarchism ended with the Spanish Revolution, did it? You might as well say that Marxism ended with the First World War, with the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution, with the German Revolution. Sure, Anarcho-Syndicalism was proved wanting but that doesn't mean that Anarchism, in its revolutionary and Anarchist Communist form died.

Indeed, despite Subversion seeming to be experts on Anarchism, there seems to be a general ignorance of key Anarchist theorists and thinkers. At last year's Subversion-Anarchist Communist Federation joint day school, one long-serving Subversion comrade expressed no knowledge of the Italian Camillo Berneri, one of the key critics of CNT-FAI involvement in the Republican government.

Despite your criticisms of the rural collectives, they do remain the most advanced attempts at trying to put libertarian communism into practice, and it would be churlish to say otherwise. Of course the rural collectives were limited by the fact that war was substituted for social revolution, and for that the Spanish Anarchist movement has a lot to answer for. To cite an "anarchist puritanism" as if it were general is ill-informed, certainly in the towns amongst the Anarchist working class there were no such attitudes. And anyway, if it was collectively decided not to use tobacco or even coffee - and these are isolated instances - so what?

Of course you are right to cite the condition of women which failed to change in any qualitative way. But to fail to mention the libertarian organisation of women Mujeres Libres (especially after a major article on them in Organise! 32 which you must have read) which grouped 27,000 women together is misleading. But perhaps this goes along with your expressed view that working class women should not, on any occasion, organise specifically against their particular oppressions?

The criticisms you make of how the rural collectives functioned are correct as far as they go. But you place their functioning in a void. You fail to relate it to the general situation where the bourgeois Republican government was allowed to exist, where Anarchists joined both the local Catalan government and the national government, where workers councils failed to take the place of union committees, where capitalism continued to function, and where the myth of anti-fascism was substituted for social revolution.

To mention the Anarchist participation in the Republican government without mentioning the revolutionary opposition from the likes of the Friends of Durruti, sections in the Libertarian Youth, the Iron Column and Berneri is remiss. And why is it the Spanish "Revolution" throughout? Despite everything, what happened in Spain was a Revolution, and in many ways went further than other Revolutions in the 20th Century. Because if you applied the same criteria, you would be talking about a Russian "Revolution" an Hungarian "Revolution" a German "Revolution" etc.

Subversion comrades, it's time to come clean. You talk about the end of Anarchism yet you take an active part in Northern Anarchist coordinations, both in the present and the past. And what are you, exactly? At various stages, depending on your fancy, you have described yourselves as libertarian communists, anti-left communists (confusing one that - many might think you were against left communism rather than against the left) or anti-State communists. Your criticisms of Marx remain restrained, whilst you have in the past published an article on Bakunin, critical in the extreme, which contained many distortions of his ideas.

Hoping to hear from you,

Yours for libertarian communism,

NH (member of Anarchist Communist Federation)

Our Reply .....

We have no major disagreements with JC's letter which acts as a necessary reminder that, contrary to the impression we may have conveyed in the original article, the working class movement in Spain in the 1930s was not entirely lacking in positive features!

The letter from NH raises some important points about the events in Spain and about Subversion's attitude towards anarchism.

In the article in Subversion 18 we acknowledged that "some anarchists are prepared to criticise the 'Government Anarchists'". We are well aware that in 1936 there were anarchist opponents of CNT-FAI participation in the Republican Government. Doubtless we would have mentioned them if that's what the article had been about. But it wasn't.

Blame it on our general ignorance of key anarchist theorists and thinkers, but what we are not aware of is any critical appraisal of the rural collectives by revolutionary anarchists, either at the time or since. What we are more accustomed to seeing is uncritical adulation of "one of the most, if not the most, extensive and profound revolutions ever seen" (see the pamphlet by Abraham Guillen, Anarchist economics: an alternative for a world in crisis, reviewed in Subversion 12). Frankly it really gets on our nerves that in the face of the evidence (our article was based mainly on books written by Sam Dolgoff, Gaston Leval and Augustin Souchy - all anarchists) most (?all) anarchists still think the collectives were marvellous. That's why we referred throughout to the Spanish 'Revolution' - as a signal of our questioning of the conventional anarchist point of view.

We admit that the title of the article was poorly chosen. It would have been more accurate to have called it, 'The End of Collectivist Anarchism', or 'The End of Syndicalist Anarchism'. For NH is quite correct to distinguish these variants of anarchism from Communist Anarchism (or libertarian communism). However there is a contradiction in what he writes.

On the one hand he says our criticisms of the rural collectives are "correct as far as they go". We remind readers that this criticism was that, in most places, the rural collectives exhibited all the hallmarks of capitalism, e.g. the existence of a wages system, money, operation of the law of value, production for the market, etc.

On the other hand, he says that "despite" these criticisms, the rural collectives "do remain the most advanced attempts at trying to put libertarian communism into practice".

We don't think you can have it both ways. Either the bulk of the rural collectives were advancing towards a form of self-managed capitalism, or they were advancing towards libertarian communism. They cannot have been doing both (unless you equate libertarian communism with self-managed capitalism).

We see no reason why revolutionary Communist Anarchists should wish to defend the Collectivist Anarchism which predominated among the rural collectives in Spain - unless out of a sentimental attachment to anything draped in a black-and-red flag. But that sort of knee-jerk reaction goes against everything we expect from people we regard as intelligent, critical revolutionaries.

On the issue of working class women "organising specifically against their particular oppressions": we want working class women (and men) to join revolutionary organisations. The article in Organise! 32 describes how Mujeres Libres was formed because of the sexism of men in the CNT-FAI. If the attitudes and behaviour of some members of an organisation prevent other members from playing as full a part as possible in the organisation, then in our opinion that organisation is not a revolutionary one.

At vital moments in the past, the line dividing revolutionaries from the rest has always cut straight through both Anarchism and Marxism, leaving some Anarchists and Marxists on the side of capitalism, and some on the side of the revolution. Just as Spain marked 'The End' of a particular form of anarchism, you could argue that the First World War and the 'revolutions' which followed it did indeed mark 'The End' of a particular form of Marxism, in the sense that the anti-working class nature of vast parts of the old labour movement was exposed for all to see.

Genuine revolutionaries have only ever been minority currents within most of what passes for Marxism and Anarchism. Genuine revolutionaries have usually found inspiration in bits of both. But we need to reject more than we accept of both traditions. We have said all this on several previous occasions, e.g. in Subversion 8, 14 and 15 and at various meetings including those of the Northern Anarchist Network.

In Subversion we have always resisted labelling ourselves (and having labels attached to us!) and have found terms like Marxism and Anarchism more of a hindrance than a help in defining our politics. If we find it difficult to pick a term to describe ourselves, it's simply because the history and present-day content of revolutionary politics is so unfamiliar to most people! Perhaps in the future, as revolutionary ideas spread, a name will emerge to call ourselves which everyone will recognise. In the meantime we prefer to discuss the actual content of what we believe, and will do so in any forum where there is common ground between ourselves and other participants and the opportunity for a real 'exchange' of views. That is why we have been active in the Northern Anarchist Network. Most other groups in the Network do not seem to find our participation a problem. We have no need to "come clean" because our position always has been and always will be open and honest.