Introduction: Why the Spanish Revolution Today?

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The Spanish revolution, past and future: grandeur and poverty of anarchism; how the working class takes over (or doesn't), then and now - Loren Goldner

Introduction: Why the Spanish Revolution Today?

“…anarchism and revolutionary syndicalism in general lacked a vision of the problems of political orientation, without which the most powerful and most heroic revolutionary surge is condemned to failure.” Helmut Rüdiger, AIT, Ensayo critico sobre la revolucion española (1940)1

For many years, I had held the classical left anti-Stalinist view that after the “events” of May 1937 in Barcelona-- the crushing of the left-centrist POUM 2 and the further marginalization of the anarchists by the Stalinists and by forces in the sway of the Stalinists--the revolution begun in July 1936 was essentially over. My references were classic works such as Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Bolloten’s The Spanish Revolution. And “politically”, this dating is correct. However, Robert Alexander’s two-volume The Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War and Walther Bernecker’s study of the industrial and agrarian collectives3 show that the Spanish anarchists, who were the great majority of armed workers in Catalonia, who dominated considerable rural agrarian collectives in Aragon, and were also important in the Republican zones of the Levant, Extremadura and Andalucia, remained a social and military force to be reckoned with right up to the end of the Civil War in March 1939, even after losing out on the political terrain in May 1937. The eradication of the primarily anarchist social revolution occurring in July 1936, an eradication carried out by the Stalinists, Socialists, Left Republicans and Catalan nationalists, and finally completed by the fascists, was a work in progress right up until Franco’s final victory.

The Spanish Revolution was, in light of this history, the richest and deepest social revolution of the 20th century. I was rather startled to find Leon Trotsky, major figure of the Russian Revolution and no friend of anarchism, saying, in 1937:
“From the first day of the revolution, thanks to its specific weight in the economy of that country, and to its political and cultural level, (the Spanish proletariat) has been, not below, but above the level of the Russian proletariat at the beginning of 1917.”4 Despite all the factors (international, political, military) working for their demise, the Spanish working class and parts of the peasantry in the Republican zones arrived at the closest approximation of a self-managed society, sustained in different forms over two and a half years, ever achieved in history. Catalonia in 1936 was more broadly industrial than Russia in 1917, and the Catalan, Aragonese and Levantine peasants who formed collectives in 1936 mostly supported the revolution wholeheartedly, in contrast to the grudging support of the Russian peasants for the Bolsheviks, as the little-loved but lesser evil to the Whites.

This experience and its implications have not been fully absorbed by the contemporary revolutionary left. Currents describing themselves as anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist have emerged in parts of Europe and the United States in the past few decades, while hardly with the numbers and depth of the “historical” Spanish anarchists and anarcho- syndicalists from 1868 to 1939, nor above all with the same working-class and popular rootedness. For many of them, “Spain” is an historical reference (more often symbolic than seriously studied and absorbed) in the way that “Russia” has been such a reference for many Marxists. Spain was the supreme historical test for anarchism, which it failed, in the same way that Russia was, to date, the supreme test of, at least, Leninism, if not of Marxism itself.

But dealing critically with contemporary anarchism is hardly my main concern5, except by ricochet from the failures of anarchism in Spain. The real lessons for today of the Spanish Revolution of 1936-39 are at least twofold: first, the concrete takeover of an incipiently modern industrial region, Catalonia, by workers’ factory collectives, which attempted, in very difficult circumstances and under attack from all sides, to move from the initial, spontaneous local level to regional and national coordination, and a simultaneous takeover of agriculture by peasant collectives with similar attempts at coordination beyond the local. Second, and closely related to the first, the political dimension of the “military question”, the defense and extension of the revolution against domestic and international counter-revolution. The revolution was lost both in the gradual destruction of the workers and peasant collectives and in the replacement of the initial armed militias and urban patrols by a traditional army and police forces. Some anarchist leaders were involved in both processes, and the eminently “pragmatic” reasons for this will be one focus of my study. Further, left-wing military theorists such as the “anarcho-Marxist” Abraham Guillén6 have shown how politics was as much if not more important than firepower and sheer numbers in determining the outcome of different battles of the Civil War.

Finally, I am not writing about Spanish anarchism for historical edification or from some antiquarian impulse, but rather to pose the question, raised by Abad de Santillan7 and generally ignored by most of the contemporary radical left, of how to prepare today, programmatically and practically, for a takeover of a modern capitalist economy where, in contrast to Spain in 1936, shutting down a large swath of socially useless and socially noxious activity will be a top priority from day one.

I. Part One: Theses

1. The history of the origins and development of the Spanish Revolution of 1936-39, and particularly of its anarchist majority, is as complex, if not more so, than that of the Russian Revolution. It is significantly less known globally because the Russian Revolution had a much greater global projection8, and because anarchism’s defeat in Spain completed a decades-long eclipse of anarchism by the significantly more widespread impact of Soviet and other “socialisms”.

Spain, as late as the final loss of its last colonies to the U.S. in 1898 and even in 1936, was still a predominantly agricultural country, with pockets of industrial development mainly in Catalonia and the Basque provinces, and mining in Asturias.
Nonetheless, Spain had its first general strike in 1855, and the working class was an active force in the ephemeral First Republic of 1873-749. Spain was, in short, more directly influenced by developments in western Europe and at an earlier stage than Russia. Spain had a socialist party from 1879 onward with a working-class base in Asturias and Madrid, but it entered the 20th century, and indeed the revolutionary crisis of the 1930’s, with a far larger anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movement, dating from 1868, especially in Catalonia and Andalucia.

2. Understanding this “anomaly” of a mass anarchist movement in both Spanish industry and agriculture in 1936, when anarchism had been largely superseded by socialism and then communism in most of western Europe (starting with nearby France and Italy), is a key, if not the key, to understanding the special contours of the Spanish Revolution10. Gerald Brenan’s classic11 emphasizes the historical decentralization of Spain with multiple regions in constant centrifugal opposition to the artificial centralism of Madrid, as a major factor in the ongoing appeal of anti-statist anarchism, above all where prosperous peasant smallholders were absent or weak. Socialism, in the form of the PSOE12, was a pedestrian local copy of the more mature Second International French and German parties of northern Europe. If the historic split internationally between anarchism and Marxian socialism, in 1872, stemmed from the Marxian insistence on political activity and trade unionism, the lack of any sustained bourgeois democracy in Spain hardly provided conditions in which such reformist activity could take root. Spanish anarchism in its early decades was more propelled toward actions organized underground, such as innumerable local peasant uprisings in Andalucia, crushed in isolation, or lightning strikes against industrial firms where worker organizations had little sustained above-ground existence and few if any strike funds.

3. At the same time, anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism in Spain were quite impressive in their reach. (“Anarchism” refers to the earlier decades of Bakuninist
local insurrectionism and then the demoralized individual terrorism of the early to mid-1890’s, “anarcho-syndicalism” refers to the later focus on mass organization when these earlier forms showed themselves to be dead ends.) The movement placed great store in education, and had countless newspapers; it had “rationalist” schools and “ateneos”, or cultural centers; it produced numerous books and pamphlets, including translations of Bakunin, Malatesta, Kropotkin and Reclus (among others). Brenan recounts peasants riding donkeys on back roads, reading anarchist literature, and Diaz del Moral’s classic13 describes illiterate peasants memorizing their favorite articles to recite them in front of enraptured audiences in remote villages. In 1918-1920, the mere arrival of the news of the Russian Revolution set off insurrections in some of these places in Andalucia, the south.

4. A survey of anarchist ideology shows common traits that persisted up to the revolution and civil war. Anarchism comes across as a rationalist theory, an extreme left version of radical Enlightenment. In part because of the break with “authoritarian” Marxism, anarchist theory shows no engagement with the post-Enlightenment development in German philosophy from Hegel through Feuerbach to Marx14. Marxism, arguing for a transitional “dictatorship of the proletariat”, was for the anarchists a “statist” world view15, and was indeed centralist; anarchism was decentralist and federationist. It was radically atheist, but lacked the supersession or realization of religion16, the “heart of a heartless world” one finds in Marx. It has no notion of historical development or a strategy flowing from such development; the potential for a radical egalitarian society is always now, once the landowner, the priest, the police and the notary public are removed, regardless of the “development of the productive forces” which exercise Marxists. Hence anarchism did not see much use for concrete analysis of specific conditions17, or for the critique of political economy as developed by Marx in the Grundrisse and Capital. “Anarchism has an ideal to realize”, as Guy Debord put it. Marx, by contrast, says in the Manifesto that communism is “not an ideal sprung from the head of some world reformer”, but rather emphasizes the immanence of the new society in this one, “the real movement unfolding before our eyes”. Words such as “the Idea”18, “our ideal” and “justice” pervade anarchist ideology right through the Civil War. This echoes 18th century Enlightenment theories of Man, abstracted from any historical development or specificity. Diaz del Moral reports Andalucian peasants asking the local latifundia owner when the day of equality for all will dawn. Anarchism in Spain also had much of the ideology of the “patria chica”, the excessive focus on the local that pervaded (and still pervades) much of Spanish life19. It was an easy step from rejection of the centralism of Madrid to rejection of the centralism of Marx. Anarchists inherited the federalism of Pi y Margall, briefly head of state in the First Republic, and disciple of Proudhon.

Many anarchists looked down on socialist strikes for mere economic improvement20, the “school” of the working class in struggle, in Marx’s view. Their vision of the new society was austere.Their social centers banned alcohol, tobacco, and gambling; where they could, anarchists shut down brothels, preaching instead free love and free unions outside marriage. In some cases they shut down cafés as sites of frivolity and idleness. The anarchist Mujeres Libres (Free Women), founded in 1934, fought for full equality between the sexes but attacked “feminism” as an ideology of middle-class women. Brenan, who lived for long years in rural Andalucia and knew many anarchists, may have gone too far in characterizing them as latter-day “Lutherans”, reacting against the luxury of Spanish Catholicism, but captured something of their austere rejection of the sensuous decadence of the dominant culture around them. They had an uncritical faith in science and technology which would strike most people today as overblown. Some practiced nudism, vegetarianism or ate only uncooked fruit, and studied Esperanto as the universal language of the future.

5. Despite disclaimers, many of the divisions that have split the Marxist movement, such as reform vs. revolution, recurred in different guise within the anarchist movement. After a period of ebb during the 1880’s, anarchism revived, and in 1888 a split took place between labor-oriented and insurrectionist currents. A long-term division existed between a Bakunin-influenced “collectivist anarchism” and the Kropotkin-inspired “anarchist communism”21. A new upturn in mass struggle in the 1909 “Tragic Week” in Barcelona led to the founding of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT (Confederación Nacional de Trabajo) in 1910, focused, like many syndicalist movements in Europe at the time (Italy, France, Britain, the American IWW) on the strategy of the general strike to usher in the new society22. The CNT’s influence peaked initially (prior to 1936) in 1919, in the wave of general strikes following World War I, and it created the sindicato unico (single union) to deal with the antagonism between craft and industrial workers, much like the IWW.

The defeat of the general strike (“La Canadiense”) in early 1919 began a downturn, and the following years of ebb were dominated by the “pistolerismo” of hundreds of tit-for-tat assassinations between employers and prominent union militants, a period ended by the Primo de Rivera dictatorship (1923-1930) and years of underground illegality and exile for the CNT. In response to this difficult situation, and also to keep the reformist wing of the movement in check, the FAI (Federacion Anarquista Iberica) was founded in 1927 by radical elements, sometimes called “anarcho-Bolsheviks”. From 1917 until 1921-22, the Russian Bolsheviks had for their part courted anarcho-syndicalists in western Europe, but the experiences of the latter in the Soviet Union, and the repression of Kronstadt and of various Russian libertarians, alienated them definitively, reconfirming their suspicions of Marxist “statism” and centralism.

Anarchist claims to “apoliticism” and “antipoliticism” were also belied by the

electoral participation of the anarchist working-class base, when the CNT-FAI lifted the policy of abstentionism in the 1931 elections, providing the margin of victory for republican forces. Disappointed by the anti-worker and anti-peasant policies of the Republic, anarchists abstained in 1933, elections followed by the hard-right turn of the “biennio negro” (two black years). As a result, the CNT-FAI again lifted the abstention policy for the February 1936 elections—even Durruti called for a vote for the Popular Front-- and anarchists provided the margin of victory for the left parties, though claiming they voted only in hopes of freeing some 9000 anarchist political prisoners23. After the left won, the prisoners were freed by mass break-ins by crowds at the jails, which the Republican authorities did not dare repress.
6. Thus the stage was set for the crisis of the Second Republic (1931-1939), culminating in revolution and civil war after 1936. Spain had been spared participation in World War I, which tore apart the large socialist parties of France, Italy, and Germany, giving rise after 1917 to mass Communist Parties there, and also posing a severe test for other anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movements, where important sections and figures (Hervé in France, Kropotkin in Russia) rallied to the nationalist colors. By contrast, the Spanish Communist Party24, having no “social patriot” majority to denounce, was a stillborn sect of a few thousand breaking away from the PSOE youth, then forced underground during the Primo de Rivera years and then with the return to legality from 1931 to 1934 practicing the sterile Third Period “social fascist” policy against the PSOE and the anarchists, thus being hardly larger or more rooted in the working class in 1936 than it had been at its founding25. The CNT, despite the expulsion of thirty moderate (“Treintista”) union leaders, towered over both the PSOE, to say nothing of the PCE, in both numbers and rootedness in the Catalan working class and Andalucian peasantry.
7. Gen. Francisco Franco’s coup in July 1936 was aimed at ending the social chaos of the Second Republic in the form of strikes, land seizures by peasants, street battles between leftists and rightists, and parliamentary impotence. One should recall the European context of right-wing military governments throughout eastern Europe, the first fascist state, founded by Mussolini in 1922, Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany in 1933, and Austrian dictator Dollfuss’s bombardment of working-class housing in Vienna in 1934. The latter two especially emboldened the Spanish right and far-right, and strengthened the resolve of the PSOE, PCE and CNT-FAI on the left. The Stalinist Third International’s 1934-35 “anti-fascist” turn to alliances with social democrats (yesterday’s “social fascists”) and “progressive bourgeois elements” led to the electoral victories of the Popular Front in Spain in February 1936 and then in France in May, followed in the latter by mass factory occupations in May-June.

8. Franco’s coup was defeated by spontaneous, heavy street fighting over 3-4 days, above all in Barcelona and also in Madrid, and various forms of popular resistance in about 60% of Spanish territory. In Barcelona, the CNT and the FAI were the absolute masters of the situation, based on the armed working class. Wherever the coup triumphed, in some cases almost without resistance as in leftist bastions such as Zaragoza—the most anarchist city in Spain-- and Seville (not to mention large parts of the anarchist Andalucian countryside) mass executions of militants (20,000 in Seville) followed immediately.26

9. It is here that we arrive at the nub of this text. The Spanish anarchists had made the revolution, beyond their wildest expectations, and did not know what to do with it. On the night of the victory in Barcelona, top leaders of the CNT-FAI, including Juan Garcia Oliver and Buenaventura Durruti, called on Luis Companys, a Catalan nationalist and head of the Generalitat, the Catalan regional government. The army had dissolved or gone over to Franco; the police had also largely disintegrated, and were being replaced by armed anarchist patrols; the bourgeois state in Catalonia at that moment was reduced to a few buildings. Companys told the CNT-FAI leaders that the power was theirs, and if they wished, he would resign and be a soldier in their army. The CNT-FAI leaders decided to leave standing the skeleton of the bourgeois state and its momentarily powerless head, Companys, and instead formed the Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias, which became for all intents and purposes the effective state power in the following months27.
The anarchists, as they put it in their own words, had to either impose a “full totalitarian dictatorship” or leave the parties supporting the Popular Front intact. They chose the latter course, and through the door of the small, powerless edifice, which they did not dissolve, came, in the following months, under the cautious management of Companys, all the forces of the counter-revolution. Everything in the anarchists’ history militated against “taking power” as “authoritarian” “centralist” Marxist theory would dictate, and it hardly helped that “Marxism” in Spain at that moment was the lumbering reformist PSOE (albeit with a leftward-moving faction), the left-centrist POUM28, and the small PCE, barely recovered from its 15 years of sectarian marginality and not yet pumped up into a mass party of the frightened middle classes by Soviet money, weapons and NKVD “advisors”29,30.

III. The Anarcho-syndicalists after the revolution: political, economic and military considerations
I begin this section with a thought experiment. What if the CNT-FAI, instead of
leaving intact the Catalan state under Companys, had decided to “go for broke” (“ir a por el todo” was the Spanish formulation, favored by an important number of anarcho-syndicalists such as Juan Garcia Oliver) and replace the skeletal bourgeois state with full working- class power in some approximation of immediately revocable delegates in “soviets” (class-wide institutions), as the ultimate “authority”, since worker control of industry and peasant collectives were already widespread?

This is of course “history as if”. We know with 20-20 hindsight what really happened, and tracing in detail the destruction of the revolution by the forces of the Popular Front, led by the Communist Party and the PSUC31 , is less our focus than the anarchist blind spots which facilitated it. (The role of the Communist Party in the internal counter-revolution is relatively well known32; how the anarchists were “taken”, and taken in, less so.)

None other than Durruti told a Canadian radio interviewer in August 1936, commenting on the prospects in Spain outside Catalonia and in the rest of Europe: “We are alone.” Grandizo Munis, on the other hand, without mentioning the debate within the CNT and the FAI, says that “the working-class organs of power should have unified on a national level and formally proclaimed the dissolution of the government…The situation… was characterized by an incomplete atomization of political power in the hands of the workers and the peasants. I use the word ‘atomization” because duality is insufficient to give a complete picture of the real distribution of powers. Duality indicates two rival, contending powers, with a capacity and will to struggle on both sides. The bourgeois state was only in this position three months after the July days…In the meantime, the atomized power in the local government-committees was the only existing authority that was obeyed, limited solely by its lack of centralization and by the right-wing interference of the working-class bureaucracies…This great experiment of the Spanish Revolution offered the world the paradox of anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists acting as the principle agent of the Marxist conception, and negating in fact the anarchist conception.”33

The common slogan of the Popular Front was “win the war first, then make the revolution”, an argument still made by its apologists and its ideological heirs proposing similar strategies today34. But three objections to such a formulation immediately come to mind, recalling Rosa Luxemburg’s remark that “who posits different ends also posits different means”. First is the failure of the Republic to offer independence or even autonomy to Spanish Morocco (the Rif area in the north), which would have had the potential of undercutting Franco’s rearguard, his base of operations, and, in the Moroccan legionaries, an important source of his best troops. Second was the failure of the Republic to conduct guerrilla warfare behind Franco’s lines, appealing to the many workers and peasants who were by no means pro-fascist but who, in July 1936, happened to find themselves in the territory that fell to the coup35. The Moroccan question immediately illuminates the military limitations of a bourgeois republic which was not about to give up its Moroccan protectorate to save itself, especially since doing so would immediately alienate France, which controlled the larger part of Morocco36, and from which Republican leaders vainly hoped for material aid. (Juan Garcia Oliver proposed guerrilla activity behind Franco’s lines in 1938, but nothing came of it.) Third is the strategy of the “people in arms” as later theorized by Guillén, which had saved Madrid from Franco’s forces (including German and Italian personnel and equipment) in November 1936, something considered little less than a military miracle. The navy was also initially almost entirely in anarchist hands, but by summer 1937 it had been taken over by the Communist Party. The Republic never used the navy throughout the war, in spite of its potential to control the Straits of Gibraltar, entrance to the Mediterranean.

The international situation, dominated by the lengthening shadows of fascism on the march, was not favorable to revolution. The bourgeois democracies, Britain and France, declared a policy of “non-intervention” and blockaded Spanish ports, a policy which, especially since Nazi Germany and fascist Italy were actively supporting Franco with aircraft, weaponry and military personnel, was a mockery. In 1935, the Soviet Union under Stalin had made an alliance with France for mutual security after Hitler’s seizure of power, increasing Stalin’s interest in maintaining the European status quo, which was threatened by revolution on France’s borders. As inadequate as Soviet shipments of arms and supplies were (the common metaphor was an “eyedropper”, enough to prolong the war, not enough to win it) one can hardly imagine ongoing Soviet support for a full-blown revolution led by anarchists. On the other hand, some might argue, the French working class had just staged a major strike wave, with factory occupations, in May-June 1936, mere weeks before the war. That strike wave had been stopped in its tracks by the intervention of the French Communist Party, hewing to Soviet concern not to weaken its new ally. But the fact remains that during the ensuing 2 ½ years of war, neither the French nor any other working class in the “democracies” (Britain and the U.S. for starters) took any serious action to force governments to aid Spain, or even to lift the “non-intervention” policy37 which was blocking shipments of food and weapons at the French border.
Prior to July 1936, the Republic had alienated parts of the peasantry and the rural landless workers by its insipid efforts at land reform. In September, 1932, an Agrarian Statute was passed, establishing the Institute of Agrarian Reform (IRA) which by July 1936 had distributed very little land38. The spread of land seizures in the last months before the coup and the establishment of agrarian communes on expropriated land afterwards reflected highly different landholding patterns: small proprietorship and fixed terms tenancy in Galicia and the Basque provinces; sharecropping in most of Catalonia; a mixture in Aragon; small and medium property and sharecropping in the Levante; vast semi-feudal large landholdings, with millions of landless laborers, west and south of Madrid in Extremadura and in Andalucia. The CNT was strongest in Aragon, the Levant, Andalucia and Galicia.

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