Eighty years ago to the day, the far right was in its ascendancy, and still rising. Hitler was in complete control of Germany, Mussolini had been in charge of a police state in Italy for a decade. The world failed to stop them, and war was to break out within a few years, consuming the world in the deadliest conflict in human history.
But a little to the southwest, in Spain, war had already broken out.
In July 1936, Franco and his co-conspirators made their coup attempt against the elected Republican government, dividing the country and driving it into war. By the end of the year they controlled several major cities and had laid siege to Madrid.
The Spanish civil war had erupted, and while the supposedly democratic powers refused to come to the assistance of the besieged Republic — indeed Britain made some moves in the opposite direction — Mussolini and Hitler had no such qualms supporting the forces of reaction. Their support expressed itself in, among other military attacks, the bombing of Guernica. This attack, the world’s first targeting of civilians by aerial bombardment, inaugurated a new type of crime, and a new type of terror, from which humanity has been suffering ever since. The terror and destruction – though mild by the bombings that were to come, of London, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and elsewhere – has never really left us. Conscientious, idealistic and passionate volunteers from abroad fought for the Republic, Orwell’s account being perhaps the most well known.
But the various forces of Spanish reaction — monarchists, Carlists, phalangists, fascists and more, along with mercenaries, German Nazis and Italian fascists — were not merely met with resistance on the battlefield. Many groups within Spanish society took that very moment to make a social, political and economic revolution.
As Chomsky wrote in his Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship,
During the months following the Franco insurrection in July 1936, a social revolution of unprecedented scope took place throughout much of Spain. It had no “revolutionary vanguard” and appears to have been largely spontaneous, involving masses of urban and rural laborers in a radical transformation of social and economic conditions that persisted, with remarkable success, until it was crushed by force. This predominantly anarchist revolution and the massive social transformation to which it gave rise are treated, in recent historical studies, as a kind of aberration, a nuisance that stood in the way of successful prosecution of the war to save the bourgeois regime from the Franco rebellion. Many historians would probably agree with Eric Hobsbawm that the failure of social revolution in Spain “was due to the anarchists,” that anarchism was “a disaster,” a kind of “moral gymnastics” with no “concrete results,” at best “a profoundly moving spectacle for the student of popular religion.” … In fact, this astonishing social upheaval seems to have largely passed from memory.
In other words, at the same time, and in the same place as this horrific war, also eighty years ago to the day, an extraordinary experiment was underway — which has arguably seen no parallel before or since. It was not undertaken as a sideshow, or as a footnote to the ongoing war, but because of it. It was associated with those most optimistic of political philosophies — anarchism, or libertarian socialism — which hold that human beings can organise their lives without the illegitimate authority of bosses or States, without property in capital, and with equality, freedom, democracy, and free association.
How did this happen? All at once. In Catalonia, the question of how far to push for libertarian revolution under conditions of war against fascism presented itself immediately — indeed, within a day of the initial coup. While the Catalan president Luis Companys had refused to issue arms, the anarchists that had stormed the barracks at Atarazanas, defeating the local military coup plotters, seizing weapons and obtaining de facto power. The result was that the anarchists were forced to respond to the question of taking political power in the most dramatic way: they were literally offered State power. Companys, a Catalan nationalist, but unusually sympathetic to anarchists, presented the anarchist leaders Juan Garcia Oliver, Buenaventura Durruti and Diego Abad de Santillán with a proposition, a mixture of generous support, alliance, realpolitik (for the anarchists were more heavily armed than nearby official Republican forces), self-preservation, and acknowledgment of the justice of their cause.
As Anthony Beevor describes it in his history of the war:
On the evening of July 20, Juan Garcia Oliver, Buenaventura Durruti and Diego Abad de Santillán met with President Companys in the palace of the Generalidad. They still carried the weapons with which they had stormed the Atarazanas barracks that morning. In the afternoon they had attended a hastily called meeting of more than 2,000 representatives of local CNT [anarchist] federations. A fundamental disagreement arose between those who wanted to establish a libertarian society immediately and those who believed that it had to wait until after the generals were crushed. …
At the meeting… Companys greeted anarchist delegates warmly:
… Today you are the masters of the city and of Catalonia because you alone have conquered the fascist military… and I hope you will not forget that you did not lack the help of loyal members of my party… But you have won and all is in your power. If you do not need me as president of Catalonia, tell me now, and I will become just another soldier in the fight against fascism. If, on the other hand… you believe that I, my party, my name, my prestige, can be of use, then you can depend on me and my loyalty as a man who is convinced that a whole past of shame is dead.
To my knowledge this is the only offer of its kind ever made by any State to an anarchist organisation. It was an incredible dilemma for the anarchists:
Garcia Oliver described the alternatives as ‘anarchist dictatorship, or democracy which signifies collaboration’. Imposing their social and economic self-management on the rest of the population appeared to violate libertarian ideals more than collaborating with political parties. Abad de Santillán said that ‘we did not believe in dictatorship when it was being exercised against us and we did not want it when we could exercise it only at the expense of others’. At their Saragrossa conference only seven weeks before, the anarchists had affirmed that each political philosophy should be allowed to develop ‘the form of social co-existence which best suited it’. This meant working alongside other political bodies with mutual respect for each other’s differences. Though genuine, this was a simplistic view, since the very idea of worker-control and self-management was anathema both to businessmen and the communists.
Even if the anarchist leaders sitting in Companys’ ornate office, having just been offered the keys of the kingdom, could have foreseen the future, it is doubtful whether their choice would have been made any easier. They had the strength to turn Catalonia and Aragon into an independent non-state almost overnight. But Madrid had the gold, and unofficial sanctions by foreign companies and governments could have brought them down in a relatively short space of time. However, what influenced their decision the most was concern for their comrades in other parts of Spain. The demands of solidarity overrode other considerations. They could not abandon them in a minority which might be crushed by the Marxists.
Accordingly, a Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias was organised, allowing pluralism among the various Republican factions in the government of Catalonia; the anarchists decided to share, rather than take, power.
Being in the majority, the least we can do is to recognize the right of minorities to organize their own lives as they want and to offer them our cordial solidarity.
the strangest city in the world today, the city of anarcho-syndicalism supporting democracy, of anarchists keeping order, and anti-political philosophers wielding political power.
I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that 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; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ or ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’. Tipping had been forbidden by law since the time of Primo de Rivera; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and 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 that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also, I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed or voluntarily come over to the workers’ side; I did not realise that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being.
Together with all this there was something of the evil atmosphere of war. The town had a gaunt untidy look, roads and buildings were in poor repair, the streets at night were dimly lit for fear of air-raids, the shops were mostly shabby and half-empty. Meat was scarce and milk practically unobtainable, there was a shortage of coal, sugar and petrol, and a really serious shortage of bread. Even at this period the bread-queues were often hundreds of yards long. Yet so far as one could judge the people were contented and hopeful. There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people, and no beggars except the gypsies. Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the barbers’ shops were Anarchist notices (the barbers were mostly Anarchists) solemnly explaining that barbers were no longer slaves. In the streets were coloured posters appealing to prostitutes to stop being prostitutes. To anyone from the hard-boiled, sneering civilization of the English-speaking races there was something rather pathetic in the literalness with which these idealistic Spaniards took the hackneyed phrase of revolution. At that time revolutionary ballads of the naivest kind, all about the proletarian brotherhood and the wickedness of Mussolini, were being sold on the streets for a few centimes each. I have often seen an illiterate militiaman buy one of these ballads, laboriously spell out the words, and then, when he had got the hang of it, begin singing it to an appropriate tune.
More generally across the Republican zone, anarchists and socialists found themselves in positions of power. As Chomsky writes:
Workers armed themselves in Madrid and Barcelona, robbing government armories and even ships in the harbor, and put down the insurrection while the government vacillated, torn between the twin dangers of submitting to Franco and arming the working classes. 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.
Turning more specifically to the economic revolution carried out in the midst of the civil war, Beevor explains the collectives as follows.
The collective in Republican Spain were not the state collectives of Russia. They were based on the joint ownership and management of the land or factory. Alongside them were ‘socialized’ industries, restructured and run by the CNT and UGT as well as private companies under the joint worker-owner control. Co-operatives marketing the produce of individual smallholders and artisans also existed, although these were not new. They had a long tradition in many parts of the country, especially in fishing communities. There were estimated to have been around 100,000 people involved in co-operative enterprises in Catalonia alone before the civil war. The [anarchist] CNT was, of course, the prime mover in this development, but [socialist union] UGT members also contributed to it. The UGT or UGT—CNT organized about 15 per cent of the collectives in New Castile and La Mancha, the majority in Estremadura, very few in Andalucia, about 20 per cent in Aragon, and about 12 per cent in Catalonia.
The regions most affected were Catalonia and Aragon, where about 70 per cent of the workforce was involved. The total for the whole of Republican territory was nearly 800,000 on the land and a little over a million in industry. In Barcelona workers’ committees took over all the services, the oil monopoly, the shipping companies, heavy engineering firms such as Vulcano, the Ford motor company, chemical companies, the textile industry and a host of smaller enterprises.
Any assumption by foreigners that the phenomenon simply represented a romantic return to the village communes of the Middle Ages was inaccurate. Modernization was no longer feared because the workers controlled its effects. Both on the land and in the factories technical improvements and rationalization could be carried out in ways that would previously have led to bitter strikes. The CNT wood-workers union shut down hundreds of inefficient workshops so as to concentrate production in large plants. The whole industry was reorganized on a vertical basis… Similar structural changes were carried out in other industries as diverse as leather goods, light engineering, textiles and baking. … One of the most impressive feats of those early days was the resurrection of the public transport system at a time when the streets were still littered and barricaded. …
At the same time as the management of industry was being transformed, there was a mushroom growth of agricultural collectives in the southern part of Republican territory. They were organized by CNT members, either on their own or in conjunction with the UGT. The UGT became involved because it recognized that collectivization was the most practical method of farming the less fertile latifundia.
There are lessons here for the present day: the economic consequences of technological innovation — whether “modernization” by mechanisation or digitalisation, whether “automation” by production line or software — need no longer be feared when production is under the control of workers. We should, however, be clear that while collectivization was often voluntary — indeed spontaneous — it was sometimes coerced.
To many people’s surprise the anarchists made attempts to win the trust of the middle classes. If a shopkeeper complained to the CNT that his goods were being taken by workers’ patrols, a sign would be put up stating that the premises belonged to the supply committee. Small firms employing fewer than 50 people were left untouched if the management had a good record. …
In Aragon some collectives were installed forcibly by anarchist militia columns, especially Durruti’s. Their impatience to get the harvest in the feed the cities, as well as the fervour of their beliefs, sometimes led to violence. Aragonese peasants resented being told what to do by over-enthusiastic Catalan industrial workers, and many of them had fears of Russian-style collectives. …
There were few villages which were completely collectivized. The ‘individualists’, consisting chiefly of smallholders who were afraid of losing what little they had, were allowed to keep as much land as a family could farm without hired labour. In regions where there had always been a tradition of smallholding, little tended to change. The desire to work the land collectively was much stronger among the landless peasants, especially in less fertile areas where the small plots were hardly visible.
The anarchist nucleus achieved a considerable improvement for the peasants and yet was wise enough not to try to force the conversion of the reluctant part of the village, but to wait till the example of the others should take effect.
Indeed, as Beevor continues,
the anarchists tried to persuade the middle classes that they were in fact oppressed by an obsession with property and respectability. ‘A grovelling existence,’ they called it. ‘Free yourselves socially and morally from the prejudices that have dominated you until today.’ …
The anarchists continually tried to persuade the peasants that the ownership of land gave a false sense of security. The only real security lay within a community which cared for its own members by providing medical facilities and welfare for the sick and retired.
Collectivization of agriculture was, in economic terms, a qualified success:
whatever the ideology, the self-managed co-operative was almost certainly the best solution to the food-supply problem. Not only was non-collectivized production lower, but the ‘individualists’ were to show the worst possible traits of the introverted and suspicious smallholder. When food was in short supply they hoarded it and created a thriving black market, which, apart from disrupting supplies, did much to undermine morale in the Republican zone. The communist civil governor of Cuenca admitted later that the smallholders who predominated in his province held onto their grain when the cities were starving. …
In terms of production and improved standards for the peasants, the self-managed collectives appear to have been successful. They also seem to have encouraged harmonious community relations. There were, however, breakdowns of communication and disputes between collectives. The anarchists were dismayed that collective selfishness should seem to have taken the place of individual selfishness, and inveighed against this ‘neo-capitalism’.
It should be made clear just how much opposition the anarchists faced — not just from the Nationalists, but also from other factions in the Republican camp, liberals and communists.
The most outspoken champions of property were not the liberal republicans, as might have been expected, but the Communist Party and its Catalan subsidiary, the PSUC. La Pasionaria and other members of their central committee emphatically denied that any form of revolution was happening in Spain, and vigorously defended businessmen and small landowners (at a time when kulaks were dying in Gulag camps). This anti-revolutionary stance, prescribed by Moscow, brought the middle classes into the communist ranks in great numbers. Even the traditional newspapers of the Catalan business community Vanguardia and Noticiero, praised ‘the Soviet model of discipline’.
There were [for collectivized industries] serious problems in obtaining new machinery to convert companies which were irrelevant, like luxury goods, or under-used because of raw-material shortages, like the textile industry. They were caused principally by the Madrid [Republican!] government’s attempt to reassert its control by refusing foreign exchange to collectivized enterprises.
[Moreover, for Catalonian industry a] sizeable part of the home market had been lost in the rising. The peseta had fallen sharply in value on the outbreak of the war, so imported raw materials cost nearly 50 per cent more in under five months. This was accompanied by an unofficial trade embargo which the pro-Nationalist governors of the Bank of Spain had requested among the international business community. Meanwhile, the central government tried to exert control through withholding creidts and foreign exchange. [Republican Prime Minister] Largo Caballero, the arch-rival of the anarchists, was even to offer the government contract for uniforms to foreign companies, rather than give it to CNT textile factories. (The loss of markets and shortage of raw materials led to a 40 per cent decline in textile output, but engineering production increased by 60 per cent over the next nine months.)
The communists’ Popular Front strategy of defending commercial interests so as to win over the middle class was perfectly compatible with their fundamental opposition to self-management. As a result their Catalonian affiliate, the PSUC, started to persuade [socialist union] UGT bank employees to use all possible means to interfere with the collectives’ financial transactions.
[Prime Minister] Giral’s government in Madrid did not share the anarchists’ enthusiasm for self-managed collectives. Nor did it welcome the fragmentation of central power with the establishment of local committees. Its liberal ministers believed in centralized government and a conventional property-owning democracy…. They were appalled at having no control over the industrial base of Catalonia. But… [the Republican government’s] continued control of supply and credit held out the prospect that concessions might gradually be wrung from the revolutionary organizations”
Facing such obstacles — and of course, eventually, destruction under the victorious military forces of fascism — it is perhaps surprising that the collectives achieved even a fraction of the success they did.
* * *
Apparently there is an old Spanish proverb, “History is a common meadow in which everyone can make hay”. No doubt I am making hay of it in my own way. Let us be clear that all sides in the Spanish Civil War were responsible for atrocities, and many collectivizations were forced. Perhaps the libertarianism of the anarchists is too optimistic for human nature; perhaps, left to run its own course, with increasing complexity of industry, self-management might have floundered. But we do know that the revolution did not fail for those reasons; nor did it fail for inefficiency, or bureaucracy, or authoritarianism — on the contrary. It failed because it was crushed, opposed by every other faction both among both enemies and allies. The situation left them no chance. Between the military attacks of the fascists, the opposition by erstwhile Republican allies, ranging from political interference to outright military attack — supported by all the greatest monsters of European history, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin — and abandonment by the liberal democratic powers, it is impossible to say how they might have developed, leaving fodder for cynic and dreamer alike, and everyone in between.
Let us limit ourselves to a few obvious remarks. People fight harder for something worth defending. When an existing political or economic system is at an ebb, giving rise to the worst forces of reaction, xenophobia, nationalism and authoritarianism, is precisely when changes are most possible. The time for the most realistic utopian thinking is in the time of catastrophe. The history of all great reforms is a span which begins with a demand for the impossible and ends with the acceptance of the inevitable. Even an anarchist can be offered the keys to the kingdom. And even those offered power can decline — and try to build something better instead.
But let us leave the history to speak for itself — a reminder of what can be achieved even under the greatest adversity.
Eighty years ago, Spanish people responded to the rise of the far right with social revolution. What will you do?