The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is a uniquely important event. It illustrates the application of anarchist ideas to the real world. The Spanish anarchists provide a model of socialist revolution radically different from the "revolution from above" which lead to bureaucratic centralism in the Soviet Union. The socialism they sought was one without The State where workers exercised direct control of the means of production.
Historians have many different opinions about the Spanish Civil War, which began when General Fransico Franco staged a fascist coup to overthrow the Republic. However, historians fall into two basic groups based on how they address (or neglect) the issue of popular revolution. The traditional view frames the conflict as the bourgeois republic under attack by fascist rebels. The antifascist forces are seen as merely fighting to preserve the order of the republic and nothing more. For instance, Ronald Radosh argues in an article in 'Dissent' that supporting the republic was not worthwhile, because it would have put Spain under Communist control. He makes but one mention of the anarchists, equating their revolutionary violence with that of the fascists. From his article it appears that the only two possible outcomes of the war are a (Communist) republic or fascism; there is no third option. The "revolution from below" does not exist.1
The opposing perspective contends that the "democracy vs. fascism" account of the war completely ignores the social revolution that occurred in Spain. Noam Chomsky expresses this view in "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship," where he criticizes an award winning book on the Spanish Civil War by Gabriel Jackson. In his view the war in Spain was more than a war to preserve parliamentary democracy--it was a social revolution. Chomsky contends that historians in the first group omit this revolution out of ideological "antagonism to mass movements."2 Later I will show how the denial of the revolution began during the Civil War and examine the reasons for this.
After researching the issue, I have concluded that there was in fact a revolution in Spain. The anarchists' establishment of worker controlled collectivization in both agriculture and industry constituted a radical restructuring of society in many parts of Spain, enacted through direct action rather than legislative means. I have also concluded that the anarchists' implementation of socialism failed because of the international context in which it occurred.
I will begin with an explanation of anarchism, highlighting some of its fundamental principles and its model for socialism under workers' direct control. I will then briefly summarize some of the more important events in Spanish history that lead up to the Civil War, beginning with Queen Isabella's abdication in 1868. I will pay special attention to the germination of anarchist ideas during this period of time. This background should provide a context for the events of the war itself.
Moving onto the Civil War, I will look at the revolutions carried out by the anarchists, explaining how different groups implemented their vision for a new society. Following that I will examine the international arena. I will show that all the major powers opposed the anarchists' attack on private property and that the Western powers' policy of non-intervention, combined with Italy and Germany's infusion of military aid to the fascists, provided the Soviet Union with a position of strong influence in the Spanish Civil War. I will show how this influence ultimately led to the downfall of the anarchists.
The underlying idea of Anarchism is opposition to hierarchical authority. John Henry Mackay, expressed this idea simply in his poem 'Anarchy': "I am an Anarchist! Wherefore I will/ Not rule, and also ruled I will not be!"3 Anarchists seek a society where there are neither rulers nor ruled, where no person has arbitrary power over any other. The three social institutions against which anarchists have traditionally focused much of their efforts are The Church, The State and private property. As Emma Goldman wrote
Anarchism, then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominance of religion; the liberation of the human body from the domination of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government.4
Anarchism opposes religion both in theory and practice. It sees the existence of God as incompatible with human freedom and the institution of The Church as reinforcing The State and private property. The concept of a sovereign God is incompatible with the elimination of hierarchy in any form. Bakunin states "If God is, man is a slave."5 The Church supports other oppressive institutions by attempting to divert people from worldly concerns. In 'God and the State' Bakunin writes of three ways in which people may free themselves from life's suffering: "The first are the tavern and the church, the debauchery of the body and the debauchery of the mind, the third is the social revolution."6 Obviously, he supported the third option.
Anarchism opposes private property because it is a form of hierarchy. The owners of property, the bourgeois, exercise power over the workers through their control of the means of production. Anarchism seeks to eliminate any situation where one person rules over another and thus wishes to abolish capitalism. Anarchism contends "that the serious, final, complete liberation of the workers is only possible on one condition: the appropriation of capital, that is raw materials and all the tools of labor, including land, by the whole body of workers."7
Like Marx, the anarchists see The State as an instrument of class oppression, serving the interests of the bourgeois. However, anarchism vehemently rejects the notion of a "workers state." Anarchism denies that an educated elite is the best administrator of society. The power vested in government officials, though alleged to be for the good of the workers, inevitably gives rise to an bureaucratic class which oppresses the very workers whose interests it was supposed to serve. "The supposed Popular State would be nothing but the despotic government of the popular masses by a new and very narrow aristocracy of knowledge, real or pretended."8
It has been argued that one of the reasons anarchism became so prevalent in Spain is that it suited the temperament of the Spanish people. James Joll writes:
Perhaps...the individualism, the independent pride and self-respect, commonly held to be characteristic of the Spaniard, made him ready to accept a doctrine which...places on each individual the responsibility for his own actions.9
Daniel Guérin sees anarcho-syndicalism as well suited for the conditions in Spain before the War, both in undeveloped rural areas as well as in the industrialized cities.10 It offered solutions to the plight of both the peasant, in the rural collective, and the proletarian, in the worker-controlled factory. Bakunin contended that only those with nothing to lose could become truly revolutionary. Following this theory, the presence a large Lumpen- proletariat in Spain would engender a strong tendency towards revolution.11 I will now illustrate the development of anarchist thought in Spain, starting almost seventy years before the Civil War.
Queen Isabella abdicated the throne in 1868 because of the "mounting discontent" of the Spanish people towards her rule. A newly formed constitutional monarchy quickly gave way to a republic, followed shortly by the Bourbons return to power. During this period of transition "anything seemed possible in Spain." The general unrest and instability provided a good environment to put forth a doctrine of revolutionary action.12
Around this time Giuseppie Fanelli arrived in Spain to begin an anarchist movement. He successfully recruited in Madrid and then moved on to Barcelona where he made contacts with working class organizations. "Fanelli's immediate contacts called themselves the Spanish section of the International." Conflicts between the anarchists, who followed Bakunin, and the communists, who followed Marx, split the International. The government banned The International in 1872, but it remained active until the end of the republic in 1874. In 1873 "The [Spanish] International declared itself formally for Bakunin rather than for Marx."13
This was a period of intense labor conflicts. In 1873 paper workers in Alcoy struck for an eight-hour day. This strike triggered an insurrection. "The workers seized and burned the factories, killed the mayor and marched down the street with the heads of the policemen of whom they had put to death." Alcoy made workers aware of their potential power and stuck fear into the hearts of the upper classes.14
Peasants found their sentiments reflected in anarchism's hostility towards church, state and property. The conditions in Spain fostered such sentiments. In the economic sphere "absentee landlords began to regard their estates solely as a means of raising enough income to enable them to live in style and comfort elsewhere." Bandits were often popular with peasants because they "defied central authority and robbed from the rich to give to the poor." The Guardia Civil (Civil Guard), established in 1844 to put down the bandits, became very active in suppressing the anarchists during the period of 1868-1874. Thus many peasants saw the state as merely an instrument of the rich to protect their wealth.15 They resented the church for similar reasons. Hugh Thomas writes that "The hierarchy was rightly regarded as the ally of the upper classes."16 Much of the Catholic Church supported fascism. After his insurrection, Franco had "the strong support of the church hierarchy in the territory under his control."17
During much of the 1870s the anarchist movement went underground, making it difficult to estimate its strength. During the 1890s "anarchist activity consisted both of support for any sort of strike or rising springing spontaneously from below and of individual acts of terrorism and symbolic vengeance..." This caused the passage of anti-anarchist legislation in September 1896, which instituted severe repression of the anarchists through "...a series of prison sentences and executions as frequent and severe as anything experienced until the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century."18
The promotion of spontaneous uprisings continued into the next decade. ""[N]owhere more than in Spain was violent destruction an inherent part of the anarchist creed."19 In July 1909, following Spain's defeat in Morocco, there was a spontaneous uprising in Barcelona against the government's call for reservists to serve in Africa. This week long event, for which the government blamed the anarchists bears the name Semana Trágica. The government's efforts to punish those responsible for the uprising resulted in the infamous execution of Francisco Ferrer. While he sympathized with many of the anarchists goals, Ferrer steadfastly opposed the use of terrorism in the struggle to attain them. In spite of his consistent condemnation of violence and an utter lack of evidence a tribunal sentenced him to death.20
The CNT (Confederacion Naciónal de Trabajo), an anarcho-syndicalist trade union, was created in 1911. Anarcho-syndicalism is a branch of anarchist thought centered around the use of trade unions, both as an instrument of social change and as the basis for a new society. While similar in some ways to French syndicalism, "the revolutionary syndicalist movement in Spain was unique...because of the alliance on which it was based between industrial and rural workers." Originating in Barcelona, the CNT spread southward sending propagandists and pamphlets to spread its ideas.21
In 1923 King Alfonso appointed General Primo de Rivera dictator of Spain. Primo de Rivera banned the CNT in September 1923.22 The King dismissed Primo de Rivera in 1930 and made an unsuccessful attempt to rule Spain himself. He relinquished power in 1931.23 Following the King's abdication, the Spanish Republic was formed in 1931.24 The left to moderate spectrum dominated the 1931 election with 117 socialists, 59 radical socialists and 89 radicals. Most the rest of the seats went to parties that "could be expected to vote generally with the government. Against these, the non-republican right could only muster 57 members..."25 Farmworkers supported the republic because of land legislation which put restrictions on the power of landlords to evict tenants, established an eight hour work day and limited the importation of workers from outside a village to break a strike.26
With the 1933 election the republic came under the control of right-wing parties. This was due in part to the CNT's instruction to its members to abstain from voting. It promoted change through social revolution instead of election.27 Once in power the right began to reverse the advances of the previous government. "In that period, not only had the laws fixing wages and conditions of employment been revoked, modified or allowed to lapse, but much of the other work of the Republic had also been undone."28
During the time from the Republic's formation to the outbreak of the Civil War there were several important conflicts. In 1932 the CNT called a general strike in response to an attempted coup by Gen. Sanjurjo. This, along with government action, stopped the coup. The CNT also saw many failures. When the villagers of Sasas Viejas set up a libertarian commune, the government violently suppressed it. An uprising of miners in Asturias in 1934 was similarly suppressed.29
The election of February 1936 returned control of the government to the left. While the CNT still officially opposed voting, "their exhortations often seemed half hearted and certainly a large number of CNT voters must have swelled the majorities of the Popular Front candidates."30 This victory frightened many groups on the right. The election meant the reinstitution of labor regulations and agrarian reform. While many on the anti-republican right had already been contemplating a coup "the electoral triumph of the left coalition increased the resolve of right-wing leaders to translate their designs into practice."31 On July 17, 1936 Franco's coup began.32
In response to the fascist uprising the workers seized weapons (the government had refused to arm them) and suppressed the revolt. "In large areas of Spain, effective authority passed into the hands of the anarchist and socialist workers who had played a substantial, generally dominant role in putting down the insurrection."33 George Orwell, who served in a revolutionary militia during the Civil War, credits the anarchists with playing a key role in this: "During the first two months it was the Anarchists, more than anyone else who had saved the situation..."34
The workers were fighting for more than the preservation of The Republic; they began a revolution to restructure society. Barcelona provides an example of the workers institution of self-management in industry. A general assembly of workers elected a managerial committee ranging from five to fifteen members. The committee members served two year terms, with half up for reelection on a given year. A committee usually delegated at least some of its authority to a manager, which it appointed. The committees also had a government official on them, thus "it was not complete self-management but a sort of joint management in very close liaison with the Catalonian government."35
Orwell describes Barcelona in December 1936:
It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists...Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized...There were no private motor cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues...In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist...Practically everyone wore rough working class clothes or blue overalls or some variant of the militia uniform.36
A revolution also occurred in the countryside. "The power vacuum caused by the defeat of the insurgents..." allowed peasants to establish collective farming on land that had been abandoned by its owners at the beginning of the revolution.37 "In Catalonia a regional congress of peasants was called together by the CNT on September 5 and agreed to the collectivization of land under tradeunion management and control."38 The anarchist peasants wanted to establish "a régim without classes, based on labour unions and self-governing communes, which would be united into a nation-wide confederation, and in which the means of production and distribution would be held in common."39
CNT committees administered local areas, vested with legislative, executive and judicial powers. The committee in an area took over the distribution of food and clothing. In order to prevent the committee from gaining too much power villagers replaced committee members frequently. In addition to the land, rural Spaniards collectivized many other enterprises. "Except in rare cases, barbers, bakers, carpenters, sandal-makers, doctors, dentists, teachers, blacksmiths, and tailors also came under the collective system." In place of money many communes instituted coupons which could be exchanged for those goods that were in limited quantity. The amount for which a coupon could be exchanged depended on the size of the worker's family. In Alcora, workers had to get a card punched each day at work. The card was necessary to receive coupons, ensuring that all would contribute.40
The revolution threatened the middle classes in both the cities and countryside. Small producers in the cities and small farmers in the countryside had much to lose if the revolution succeeded. Their primary interest was to protect their property. Initially "there was nothing the middle classes could do but to adjust themselves to the new régime in the hope that eventually the tide might change." They wanted someone to prevent the revolutionary movements from taking their property.41 As odd as it may seem, they found a protector of their interests in the Communist (PCE). One reason for this is that the Communist party was "an obedient servant of the Soviet Union," subject to the Comintern. The PSUC, the result of the merging of four parties in Catalonia, also followed Comintern policy. I will show in the following section why the Soviet Union, and thus the CPE and PSUC, opposed the revolution.42
The Communist Party's desire to limit the revolution put it into conflict with the anarchists and POUM (Party Obero de Unificación Marxista). The SPUC and Communist party claimed that it was not the time for revolution. The most important thing was to win the war. Revolution would alienate middle classes that who would otherwise side with the republic. In order to win the war Spain needed a strong central government and centralized army.43
The POUM and anarchists felt that 'the war and revolution are inseparable.' They saw bourgeois democracy and fascism as merely different forms of capitalism. According to Orwell the POUM believed that "to fight against Fascism on behalf of "democracy is to fight against one form of capitalism on behalf of a second which is liable to turn into the first at any moment. The only real alternative to Fascism is workers control." Without the revolution the war was meaningless.44
In order to understand why the revolution in Spain failed it is necessary to examine the international context in which it came about. The foreign powers that had the most influence in the outcome of the war were Britain and France, Italy and Germany and the Soviet Union.
Since they were fascist powers themselves, it is not surprising that Germany and Italy provided military aid to Franco. Their assistance was not only for ideological reasons, however. There were also pragmatic foreign policy concerns. Should war erupt between the Western powers and the fascists, Spain would be of strategic importance. Italy wished to gain more control of the Mediterranean. Aiding Franco advanced this end since "by aiding Spain, Italy might possibly obtain naval bases on the Balearic Islands and thereby extend her dominance in the region." It also had the benefit of improving relations with Germany by demonstrating Italy's military strength.45
In addition to the strategic advantage of a fascist Spain, "[t]he principle financial reward sought by the Nazi government was to acquire greater access to Spain's mineral resources." Spain's deposits of copper and iron could contribute to war production. In addition to armaments, Germany aided the fascists by bombing villages. The NIC did virtually nothing about this.46
With approximately 40 million pounds invested in Spain, Britain did not welcome the prospect of a revolution. Of key importance was maintaining control of the Mediterranean. In order to secure investment and strategic position Britain wanted the "benevolent neutrality of whichever side emerged victorious."47 Britain was in a three way power struggle with the fascists and Communists and wished to play them off against one another. Going to war to stop Nazi expansion would strengthen the Soviet Union by allowing it to develop economically, making Communism "the greatest menace in the world." Britain's other option was to leave German expansion unchecked, hoping it would result in conflict with the Soviet Union. 48
Feeling threatened by the fascist powers, France entered into a Pact of Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union on May 2, 1935. France did not wish to have an additional fascist power on its borders.49 France's "socialist Prime Minister Léon Blum was, in fact, sympathetic to Republican Spain's appeals for aid." Despite these sentiments, France was officially neutral, with a policy of non-intervention. France secretly gave some aid to the Republic at the start of the war. However, this stopped because France feared harming relations with Britain and becoming isolated in the world community, and this took priority over helping the Republic.50
Concerned with its military security, The Soviet Union sought to build ties with the West to unite against the Axis Powers' expansion, pursuing a policy of popular front (uniting with a broad spectrum of anti-fascists from moderate to far-left). This put the Soviet Union in opposition to the revolution. Leon Trotsky writes that "Moscow feared above all that the disturbances of private property in the Iberian Peninsula would bring London and Paris nearer to Berlin against the USSR."51 If there was any chance of France and Britain coming to the aid of the Republic, it must not appear revolutionary.52 "In Spain the Communist 'line' was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that France, Russia's ally, would strongly object to a revolutionary neighbor..." 53
In pursuit of this aim "...it greatly simplified things to pretend that no revolution had happened." Communist papers outside of Spain denied that the existence of the revolution.54 Attempts to expunge it from the record of history go back to time of the Civil War itself. In this light, it is somewhat understandable that many historians ignore the revolution when many primary sources deny that it occurred.
To meet its interests France and Britain promoted a policy non-intervention in Spain. The agreements of various twenty-nine nations to abide by this policy is called the Non-Intervention Agreement (NIA). The countries set up the NIC (Non-Intervention Committee) to monitor intervention. The NIA had no legal standing and the NIC had no real power to enforce non-intervention. This policy angered the Republic. Foreign minister Álvarex de Vayo criticized non-intervention for "subject[ing] the Republicans to the same treatment as those who had rebelled against the legitimate government of Spain."55
France and England preferred that the Non-intervention Committee regulate intervention rather than the League of Nations, the main international legal body at the time of the Spanish Civil War. This is because the Spanish Republic and the Soviet Union were members of the League whereas Germany and Italy were not. Had the League been in charge of intervention policy, Russia would have been able to argue on behalf of the Republic "with Germany, Italy and the Spanish Rebels all conveniently absent." The Republic was not a part of the Non-Intervention Committee, so its deliberations were free of "unwelcome Spanish protest or complaints." The Committee made the implementation made it easier for the Western powers to implement their favored policy of non-intervention.56
Because of the Western Powers' policy of non-intervention the Soviet Union was the Republic's only source of military aid. This aid was vital to the survival of the republic after Franco's insurrection. José Díaz stated on November 13, 1937 that "without the aid of the Soviet Union our Republic would not exist today." David T. Cattell estimates that Soviet aid accounted for "...about 100 percent of the tanks, 50 per cent of the machine guns, 60 per cent of the rifles..."57
The Soviet Union tried to aid the republic covertly. It didn't want the violation of the Non-Intervention Pact to harm relations with France and England. "To Russia...it was important and essential that in breaking the agreement she should not in any way alienate her potential partners, the Western democracies." However, reporters in Spain were not subject to many restrictions and government employees failed to keep the aid a secret. The shipping rout from Russia to Spain was much longer than from Italy and Germany. The geography also made maintaining secrecy very difficult because of "the various narrows through which the ships had to pass,"58 from which fascist forces could observe Soviet vessels.
Soviet military aid was not without a cost, however. In return the Republic had to submit to the Soviet agenda: "the communists managed to exercise a great deal of power and influence because of the republicans' overwhelming dependence on Soviet aid.59" Russia's control maintained control of the arms even after their delivery.60 The Soviets used their control of arms to empower those who sought to reverse the changes of the revolution and weaken those who wished to continue in a revolutionary direction.:
it was generally true that communist or pro-communist units could count on receiving Soviet weapons and air and tank support during military operations, whereas POUM or anarcho-syndicalist militias could not.61
The Communists, dominant largely because of Soviet policy, reversed the changes which the anarchists had instituted. From October 1936 to May 1937 the republic moved control of industry from workers' committees to the state. It also worked for a conventional army in place of the militias. The Communists continued to support private property. Minister of Agriculture Vicente Uribe, a Stalinist, "made a speech directed to the individualist small proprietors, declaring that the guns of the Communist Party and the government were at their disposal."62
One way in which the Communists undermined collectivization was through the distribution of materials. The government distributed imported fertilizer to private farmers, but denied it to the rural collectives. It followed similar policies in the cities. It denied them credit and "In June 1937, the Stalinist Comorera...deprived the self-managed factories of raw materials which he lavished on the private sector."63
After reading accounts of the forced collectivization of Russian peasants it seems odd that the Communists, representing the Soviet agenda, imposed privatization of the collectives. However, it makes sense when one considers the international politics surrounding the war (discussed above). The privatization would make the Western powers more likely to support the Republic, since it worked to cleanse Spain of its revolutionary image. The Republic used the military to destroy the collectives. "Aragon was invaded like an enemy country, those in charge of socialized enterprises were arrested...management committees were dissolved, communal shops emptied..."64
In an attempt to defend the revolution against the Communist reaction several leader of the CNT joined the government. "[O]ne of the CNT's fundamental objectives in entering the government was...giving legal validity to the revolutionary committees.."65 Among the CNT leaders were Juan Peiro, Juan López Sánchez, García Oliver and Federica Montseny.66 The Communists, on the other hand, hoped the CNT leaders in government would allow them "to gather into their hands all the elements of state power appropriated by the revolutionary committees at the outbreak of the Civil War.67 Ultimately it was the Communists who got what they wanted.
In the first section of this paper I provided a brief overview of anarchism. Opposing hierarchy in any form, anarchism wishes to abolish The Church, The State and private property. I showed how it differs sharply from authoritarian socialism, seeking direct workers' control of production rather than a "people's state." Next I laid illustrated the historical context of the Civil war, highlighting the growth of the anarchist movement. During the seventy years before the Civil War anarchist ideas spread throughout Spain. After providing this context, I described the events of the war itself. In both rural and urban areas of Spain, people brought anarchism into practice. They created communities based on liberty, equality and solidarity. To show why the revolution failed, I gave an overview of the international context. The five major international powers in Spain (Russia, France, Britain, Italy and Germany) all opposed the revolution. The international situation caused the failure of the revolution. Spain's overwhelming dependence on Soviet military aid put the Communists in a position of control. The desire to win favor with the Western powers caused the Republic to go to great lengths to protect private property.
Reflecting on the Spanish Civil War, Noam Chomsky writes that:
In brief, the period from the summer of 1936 to 1937 was one of revolution and counterrevolution: the revolution was largely spontaneous with mass participation of anarchist and socialist industrial and agricultural workers; the counterrevolution was under Communist direction, the Communist party increasingly coming to represent the right wing of the Republic.68
This paper has shown this to be a fair assessment. The anarchists were not defeated by the fascists--they were crushed because of the unanimous opposition of capitalist "democracy" and Soviet Communism. Long before Franco's victory April 1939, the anarchists had already lost the war.
for History of Modern Socialism - Prof. Smaldone