Spain's Revolutionary Anarchist Movement

(From the book "Anarchy: A Graphic Guide", written and illustrated by Clifford Harper)

Wherever fascism's origins lay, by the mid-1930s it seemed unstoppable. In Spain, however, it was halted for a while by the world's strongest anarchist movement. The Spanish National Confederation of Labour (CNT) was formed in 1911 from a federation of workers' and peasants' unions that had been inspired by French anarcho-syndicalism. Completely independent, its goal was the overthrow of capitalism and the state and the establishment of an anarchist-communist society. This they believed could only be done by the workers and peasants seizing the means of production in order to produce and distribute goods and services in the interests - of the community.

STRUCTURE

The CNT was a non-hierarchical, or horizontal, federation of many unions - syndicatos. Each union was made up of workers grouped each in their own particular trade. Such unions joined together in local or district federations which in turn were grouped into regions. The CNT itself was formed out of these regional federations. Regular union assemblies elected delegates to all organisations. It was known as the 'Union of sacrifice': there were no permanent bureaucrats or paid officials, and all union activity was done after work hours. The national federation was directly responsible to the regions and so on down to the base the assemblies of workers and peasants.

REBELLION

By 1919, membership stood at one million. Continually outlawed, it organised massive general strikes. Originally the CNT supported the Russian revolution but once the nature of Bolshevik dictatorship was revealed it cut all links with Moscow.

Declared illegal in the 1920s, the CNT fought countless gun battles with police and fascists. Out in the open again with the downfall of the monarchy in 1930, it prepared for revolution. The first rising, in Catalonia in 1932, was swiftly put down. In the following year, workers and peasants throughout Catalonia, Andalusia and Levant took up arms but they too were defeated with incredible cruelty. 1934 saw the army slaughter hundreds of miners in an uprising in Asturia.

REVOLUTION

July 18th, 1936. The army, led by General Franco, launched their coup against the government. Instead of an easy victory they met immaculate, massive resistance from the people. With the rebels supported by the military and police, and the government in ruins, the worker and peasants seized the administration of the country and organised a voluntary, revolutionary militia to fight the well-armed fascists. The workers' committees, peasants' assemblies and democratic militias were very similar to those of the Paris Commune and Russian Revolution. The Spanish people were not fighting to defend the government but to create a revolutionary society.

COLLECTIVISATION

Behind the battle lines Spanish society was transformed by a sweeping social revolution. Seventy years of intense struggle, anarchist education and the organisation of the CNT had prepared the people to put into practice 'The Idea'. Collectives were created by the free initiative of the people, not imposed by decree. Factories, mills, mines, docks, workshops transport, public services, utilities and shops were re-organised and administered without bosses, managers or state. In the countryside, yields increased by over half when three million peasants organised themselves in two thousand anarchist collectives. This revolutionary transformation involved eight million men, women and children, fighting against overwhelming odds to realise their anarchist society.

REACTION

From the outset this revolution was sabotaged. While fascist Italy and Germany poured men and munitions into the rebel army, the 'democracies' refused to aid the Republicans. The Republican government itself withheld money and resources from the anarchist collectives.

Only Stalin sent arms, and then only on condition that the tiny Spanish Communist Party be given government positions and the popular militias be 're-organised'. The communists refused arms to the CNT militias at the front and began disarming the Barcelona workers; attacks on anarchists were stepped up. On May 2nd, 1937, the CNT issued a warning:

'The guarantee of the revolution is the proletariat in arms. To attempt to disarm the people is to place oneself on the wrong side of the barricades. No councillor or police commissioner, no matter who he is, can order the disarming of the workers, who are fighting fascism with more self-sacrifice than all the politicians in the rear, whose incapacity and impotence everybody knows. Do not, on any account, allow yourselves to be disarmed!'

COUNTER REVOLUTION

Next day the Barcelona central telephone exchange, run by the CNT, was attacked. Thousands of workers took up rifles behind their barricades. Fighting spread, and soon the government and communist troops were surrounded in their strongholds. The anarchist militias prepared to quit the front for Barcelona. But instead of directing the struggle, some of the CNT leadership now holding government posts tried to halt the fighting and find a compromise. Meanwhile thousands of government troops converged on the city. Confused and demoralised by their leadership's betrayal, the workers ceased fire and laid down their arms.

DEFEAT

With Catalonian anarchism broken, the communists seized power. The revolution was lost, though the war dragged on for two more bloody years.

The factories were forcibly returned to their owners and the collectives put under state control. Morale at the front collapsed: troops were more afraid of communist execution squads than of fascist bullets. Popular hatred of the communists was such that one communist general said:

'We cannot retreat. We must stay in power at all costs, otherwise we shall be hunted down like predatory animals in the streets.'
The end was near. The 're-organised' Republican army tried one last offensive at Ebro, with 70,000 casualties. As tens of thousands fled into France, General Franco's fascist army entered Barcelona on January 26th, 1939. The revolution was over.


Liberty for the People web page