The Spanish Civil War:

Anarchism in Action

Chapter 4

A Fresh Revolution

As said earlier Anarchists are against the state - all states, whether they be liberal democratic, monarchist or totalitarian. Anarchists view the state (the standing army, police, government, bureaucracy) as the organ through which the ruling class maintains its control over the majority of the population. Central to anarchism is the belief that the state must be smashed and replaced by a system based on workers' and community councils. Delegates from each workplace and community would go to regional councils which would then send delegates to a national and, eventually, international council. Delegates would be clearly mandated and all major decisions would be made at assemblies of workers.

Often these councils spring up spontaneously or as organs of defence like the Soviets during the Russian revolution. Initially they started out as strike committees but quickly developed into bodies on which the new society could be built. This idea is central to anarchism. A free society cannot be built on the old structures, new ones have to be built through which the producers can be directly represented. Revolutions do not happen through parliaments or governments, or trying to take over the already existing state machine.

The councils and collectives that emerged during the Civil War, were the organs on which the revolution could have been built. But they needed to be brought together at a regional and national level so the power of the workers and peasants could assert itself and push the regional and central governments aside. This would have meant refusing to share power with the remaining elements of the ruling class, it would have been a major step in making the revolution complete.


The CNT refused to do this. After July 9th its leaders in Catalonia were called into the office of Companys, the Prime Minister of Catalonia. Basically he told them they were in control of the region and he would be their faithful servant if they took over. They refused. Instead they called for the formation of the Central Committee of Anti- Fascist Militias. This was the first step in collaboration. All parties including Republicans were represented on this body. It existed side by side with the Catalan government. The Central Committee was displaced in September I 936 when the CNT entered that government. In November four members of the CNT entered the national government in Madrid. Two of them were also in the FAI.

This is a far cry from what was stated in the CNT-FAI Information Bulletin of September 1936. In an article entitled The Futility of Government it said that the expropriations that were taking place would lead ipso facto to the "liquidation of the bourgeois state which would die of asphyxiation". Their members were now joining the government of this very same state.

A number of reasons were put forward for this. Essentially they amounted to swallowing the argument about Britain and France. It was said that if a social revolution was made it would be crushed and no arms would be forthcoming from the western powers (they never came anyway!). They had decided that winning the war and making the revolution were two different things and that winning the war came first. That meant collaborating in the broad anti-fascist front "... in order to win the war and save our people and the world, it (the CNT) is ready to collaborate with anyone in a directive organ, whether this organ be called a council or a government" (CNT, paper of the CNT in the Madrid region, October 23rd 1936.)

Another reason put forward was that by entering the government they could consolidate the gains that had been made. They could "regulate the political life of Spain by giving legal validity to the revolutionary committees" (Juan Lopez, Anarchist Minister of Commerce). There was even an argument put around that entry into government was only for international consumption, the revolution would still go on under the veil of legal government.

For these reasons anti-fascist unity was maintained and anything that threatened to split this unity was repressed. The government knew it was very useful to have CNT representation, it was an additional means of controlling the masses. However it must be pointed out that the decision to enter the government was taken by the National Committee without any consultation with the rank and file membership. This was a real break from tradition, the necessity of acting with a minimum of delay was the reason given by the leadership.

May Days

The role of the CNT played in government was clearly illustrated by what became known as the May Days. On May 3rd 1937, three lorry loads of police led by the Stalinist Salas, Commissar of Public Order, attempted to take over the telephone exchange in Barcelona which had been controlled by a joint CNT-UGT committee since the outbreak of the war. The aim of this was to wrest control of the building from the workers and to remove control of the telephone system from them. The telephonists had been able to keep tabs on what was going on by listening in on the calls of government ministers. It was also the beginning of an effort by the government to occupy strategic points in the city in preparation for an all-out attack.

The police captured the first floor because of the surprise nature of their attack but got no further. Firing started. Word spread like wildfire and within hours the local defence committees of the CNT-FAI went into action arming themselves and building barricades. The POUM supported them and soon the workers were in control of most of the city. The government had control of only the central area, which could very easily have been taken.

In other areas of Catalonia action was also taken. Civil Guards were disarmed and offices of the PSUC were seized as a "preventive measure". There was no firing on the first night and by the second day the workers were spreading the barricades further into the suburbs. Also involved were the Libertarian Youth (FIJL). Being in control the workers could have taken over but an order from Casa CNT (the H.Q.) forbade all action and ordered workers to leave the barricades.

The leaders of the CNT entered into negotiations with the government, which had the effect of giving the government forces more time to fortify buildings and to occupy the Cathedral towers. All day Tuesday (May 4th) the Regional Committee of the CNT appealed again and again over loudspeakers for the barricades to be dismantled and for a return to work. As these appeals were made negotiations went on and appeals came into Casa CNT from other workers centres who were now coming under attack. The CNT government ministers were recalled from Valencia (where the central government was now situated) to make further appeals to the workers.

The negotiations which went on, led to nothing as regards control of the telephone phone exchange. The workers were ordered off the barricades and unfortunately they went. On Thursday (May 6th) the building was vacated and the PSUC took it over. On the same day the railway station was taken over by the PSUC. The CNT had also controlled that. This happened throughout Catalonia.

On Friday 5,000 Assault Guards arrived from Valencia. The repression that followed was severe. The May days left 500 dead and 1,100 wounded. Hundreds more were killed during the "mopping up " of the next few weeks.

It was in May that control over public order in Catalonia passed to Valencia and in effect Catalan autonomy ceased to exist. After May the CNT ministers along with Cabellero were disposed of. The new government was clearly under Stalinist control. The CNT ministers had served their function and were no longer necessary. The counter-revolution broke out in earnest after May with decree after decree undermining the revolutionary committees. This was now possible as the backbone of the revolution - the Catalan workers had been crushed.

Friends of Durruti

During the May Days an alternative to the policies of the CNT National Committee emerged in the form of the Friends of Durruti (FoD). This group, formed in March 1937, consisted of CNT militants opposed to the policy of militarising the militias. They took the name of Durruti who had led the Aragon militias and had defended the social revolution to the hilt. When it was suggested to him that the CNT should enter the government to legalise the gains of the revolution, he responded "When the workers expropriate the bourgeoisie, when one attacks foreign property, when public order is in the hands of the workers, when the militia is controlled by the unions, when, in fact, one is in the process of making a revolution from the bottom up, how is it possible to give this a legal basis?".

In March Jaime Balius, one of the leading militants of the FoD, had said that "We anarchists have arrived at the limits of our concessions... not another step back. It is the hour of action. Save the revolution. If we continue to give up our position there is no doubt that in a short time we shall be overwhelmed. It is for this fundamental reason that it is necessary to develop a new orientation in our movement".

By this new direction was meant an end to a-political anarchism. "To beat Franco -we need to crush the bourgeoisie and its Stalinist and Socialist allies. The capitalist state must be destroyed totally and there must be installed workers' power depending on rank and file workers' committees. A political anarchism has failed". During the May Days they called for the setting up of a Revolutionary Junta. They called for the disarming of the police, the socialisation of the economy, the dissolving of the political parties that had turned against the working class. In effect they called for workers' power. They called on the workers to stay at the barricades until they had control of Catalonia. On Tuesday May 6th the Regional Committee of the CNT issued a statement disowning the FoD as 'agents provocateurs'. The same day the FoD containing a blistering attack on the CNT leadership and saying a revolutionary opportunity had been wasted. The FoD were expelled from the CNT at the end of May. Their offices were taken over by the police and their organisation was outlawed.


You may be surprised by the idea of anarchists calling for a 'junta', but what was meant by it? In their pamphlet Towards a Fresh Revolution issued in mid-1938, the FoD explained what the junta would be. They described it as a slight variation in anarchism. "The body will be organised as follows: members of the revolutionary Junta will be elected by democratic vote in the union organisations. Account is to be taken of the number of comrades away at the front. These comrades must have a right to representation ... Posts are to come for re- election so as to prevent anyone growing attached to them. And the trade union assemblies will exercise control over the junta's activities."

These were no self-appointed group of leaders, but a democratic organ through which workers could run society and complete the revolution. There was no representation for non-working class organisations or political parties. This was a far cry from Lenin's idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat (read Party) which had such disastrous consequences in Russia.

The FoD was a break with the traditional a-politicism of the CNT. They recognised that state power would not just disappear but would have to be smashed and replaced with the power of workers' councils. They accepted that revolutions were totalitarian in so far as "What happens is that the various aspects of the revolution are progressively dealt with, but with the proviso that the class which represents the new order of things is the one with the most responsibility."

They understood the defects of syndicalism. Nothing can be taken away from the militancy of the CNT. The rank and file literally tore down capitalism and put workers' and peasants' collectives in its place. They fought heroically in the militias and the members of the CNT surpassed all others with their bravery.

But because of the CNT's a-politicism after the factories and lands had been sleazed they did not know what to do next. For them the state should have died a 'natural death'. But it didn't. Although the CNT had great ideas of what the anarchist future would look like and on the need for the working class itself to make the revolution, it could not make a link between the revolutionary situation and the goal of libertarian communism. As the FoD stated "We (CNT) did not have a concrete programme. We had no idea where we were going. We had lyricism aplenty but when all is said and done we did not know what to do with our masses of workers or how to give effect to the popular elffusion". They held that the CNT ought to have "leapt into the driver's seat in the country, delivering a severe coup de grace to all that is outmoded and archaic".

The CNT did not understand this. They posed the question as one of democratic collaboration - or an 'anarchist dictatorship'. Garcia Oliver, one of the CNT Ministers and an FAI member, said "The CNT and FAI decided on collaboration and democracy, renouncing revolutionary totalitarianism which would lead to the strangulation of the revolution by the anarchist and confederal dictatorship". They were afraid of taking the reins. But it was not a question of imposing an `anarchist dictatorship' but of creating new organs through which the revolutionary masses could assert their power. Syndicalism could not see this as it believes the unions (i.e. the CNT) are the bodies upon which the new society would be built.

Because the state did not die the CNT felt they had to participate in it to have some control. They ended up concluding this was the only way they could have some say. They went even further and some of the drivel they came out with was a direct result of their need to justify their participation. Take for example "At the present time, the government, as the instrument that controls the organs of the state no longer represents a body that divides society into classes. And both will oppress the people even less now that members of the CNT have intervened". (Solidaridad Obrero, November 4th 1936).


The FoD was an expression of opposition to this kind of thought. Not only in their paper, The Friends of the People, but in countless local publications of the CNT, and indeed of the UGT, POUM and Libertarian Youth you can find such opposition. However it must be said this was only given a clear expression when it was too late. The FoD did not have enough time to win the masses to their position. They understood the need for a regroupment to take on the leadership of the CNT. "The vanguard i.e. the revolutionary militants and Friends of Durruti, P0UM and the Youth must regroup to elaborate a programme of proletarian revolutionaries".

Here we see a recognition of the need for a revolutionary minority to organise itself to provide leadership to the masses. Not a 'we know it all' leadership but a leadership of ideas. An understanding of what has gone wrong and what needs to be done. That the FoD did not set themselves up as "all-knowing leaders' is clear In their proposal for a Junta.

The Spanish Revolution does not negate anarchism. If anything, long before Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary it showed the bankruptcy of Stalinism and the State Capitalism of Russia. The activities of the Stalinists were far from what real socialists would have done.

On the other hand the anarchist masses threw themselves into a fight against fascism, and its cause, capitalism. Unfortunately the revolution was not complete, the CNT leaders held it back. Indeed their behaviour highlights the effect that power can have on even those who lay claim to anarchism. Spain provided important lessons for anarchists. It showed the inadequacy of syndicalism, the need for political anarchism and the need for an anarchist political organisation. We have to understand that the state and political power does not 'die'; it has to be smashed.

Above all. Spain showed what ordinary people can do given the right conditions. The next time somebody says workers are stupid and could not take over the running of society, point to Spain. Show them what the workers and peasants (most of whom were illiterate) did. Tell them Anarchism is possible.

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