Anarchism and the Spanish Civil War

Anarchism is the political belief that society should have no government, laws, police, or other authority, but should be a free association of all its members. William Godwin, an important anarchist philosopher in Britain during the late 18th century, believed that the "euthanasia of government" would be achieved through "individual moral reformation".

The Anarchist movement in Spain emerged in the 1860s. At first it main impact was on peasant communities. At the time there were 550,000 landless labourers whereas 0.1 per cent of the population owned 33 per cent of all arable land. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the French anarchist with strong views on the ownership of land, was one of those whose teachings influenced the views of Spanish peasants.

By the beginning of the 20th century the anarchist movement in Spain was the strongest in Europe. The main support came from the industrial workers of Barcelona and in 1911 activists formed the anarcho-syndicalist trade union, the National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT). This was in response to the execution of the anarchist Francisco Ferrer.

Although the CNT operated as a trade union, it also contained subgroups such as Solidarios, a terrorist group led by Buenaventura Durruti.

In 1921 Miguel Primo de Rivera banned the CNT. It now became an underground organization and in 1927 an inner-core of activist established the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI). The FAI was strong in Catalonia and Aragón and members made several unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Alfonso XIII.

In September 1936, President Manuel Azaña appointed the left-wing socialist, Francisco Largo Caballero as prime minister. Largo Caballero also took over the important role of war minister. Largo Caballero brought into his government four anarchist leaders, Juan Garcia Oliver (Justice), Juan López (Commerce), Federica Montseny (Health) and Juan Peiró (Industry). Montseny was the first woman in Spanish history to be a cabinet minister. Over the next few months Montseny accomplished a series of reforms that included the introduction of sex education, family planning and the legalization of abortion.

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War anarchists set up the Antifascist Militias Committee in Barcelona. The committee immediately sent Buenaventura Durruti and 3,000 anarchists to Aragón in an attempt to take the Nationalist held Saragossa.

In the first few weeks of the Spanish Civil War an estimated 100,000 men joined Anarcho-Syndicalists militias. Anarchists also established the Iron Column, many of whose 3,000 members were former prisoners. In Guadalajara, Cipriano Mera, leader of the CNT construction workers in Madrid, formed the Rosal Column.

At the beginning of November, 25,000 Nationalist troops under General José Enrique Varela had reached the western and southern suburbs of Madrid. Five days later he was joined by General Hugo Sperrle and the Condor Legion. This began the siege of Madrid that was to last for nearly three years.

On 14th November, 1936 Buenaventura Durruti arrived in Madrid from Aragón with his Anarchist Brigade. Six days later Durruti was killed while fighting on the outskirts of the city. Durruti's supporters in the CNT claimed that he had been murdered by members of the Communist Party (PCE).

During the Spanish Civil War the National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT), the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) and the Worker's Party (POUM) played an important role in running Barcelona. This brought them into conflict with other left-wing groups in the city including the Union General de Trabajadores (UGT), the Catalan Socialist Party (PSUC) and the Communist Party (PCE).

On the 3rd May 1937, Rodriguez Salas, the Chief of Police, ordered the Civil Guard and the Assault Guard to take over the Telephone Exchange, which had been operated by the CNT since the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Members of the CNT in the Telephone Exchange were armed and refused to give up the building. Members of the CNT, FAI and POUM became convinced that this was the start of an attack on them by the UGT, PSUC and the PCE and that night barricades were built all over the city.

Fighting broke out on the 4th May. Later that day the anarchist ministers, Federica Montseny and Juan Garcia Oliver, arrived in Barcelona and attempted to negotiate a ceasefire. When this proved to be unsuccessful, Juan Negrin, Vicente Uribe and Jesus Hernández called on Francisco Largo Caballero to use government troops to takeover the city. Largo Caballero also came under pressure from Luis Companys, the leader of the PSUC, not to take this action, fearing that this would breach Catalan autonomy.

On 6th May death squads assassinated a number of prominent anarchists in their homes. The following day over 6,000 Assault Guards arrived from Valencia and gradually took control of Barcelona. It is estimated that about 400 people were killed during what became known as the May Riots.

These events in Barcelona severely damaged the Popular Front government. Communist members of the Cabinet were highly critical of the way Francisco Largo Caballero handled the May Riots. President Manuel Azaña agreed and on 17th May he asked Juan Negrin to form a new government. Federica Montseny and other anarchist ministers now resigned from the government.

The new Negrin government now attempted to bring the Anarchist Brigades under the control of the Republican Army. At first the Anarcho-Syndicalists resisted and attempted to retain hegemony over their units. This proved impossible when the government made the decision to only pay and supply militias that subjected themselves to unified command and structure.

CNT-FAL units continued to serve together and retained their independence in the Catalan Army of the East that fought at Belchite and Teruel. Anarchists were also prominent in the 149 Brigade, the 64th Division in the Army of the Levante and the Army of the North.

Primary Sources

(1) Federación Anarquista Ibérica, statement (1927)

It is an inhuman injustice that a man should keep for himself wealth produced by others or even a part of the earth which is as sacred to humanity as life is for the individual; because it has its origin in a violent and criminal exploitation of the stronger against the weaker, creating the odious existence of parasites, living on the work of others; because it creates capitalism and the law of salaries which condemns man to a permanent economic slavery and to economic disequilibrium; because it is the cause of prostitution, the most infamous and degrading outrage that society inflicts on the human conscience, condemning woman to make the object of commerce an act which is both the purest and the most spiritual known to humans. We are against the state because it restrains the free unfolding and normal development of ethical, philosophical, and scientific activities of people and because it is the foundation of the principles of authority and property through the armed forces, police and judiciary.

(2) Roy Campbell, Light on a Dark Horse (1951)

One noticed, during the restless period that preceded the 1936 elections, that the working class was divided in two. The bootblacks, an enormous class to themselves in Spain, the waiters, and most of the mechanics, along with the miners and factory workers, were either anarchists or Reds. It was expected that the anarchists would abstain from voting: or might even vote for the Right, with whom, in their liking for liberty, they have more in common than with the Communists. Amongst the anarchists were to be found some of the most generous idealistic people, at the same time as the real "phonys" - like the ones that dug up the cemetery in Huesca, held parades of naked nuns, and out-babooned in atrocity anything I had ever read of before. But they were warm-blooded - unlike their ice-cold compéres, the "commies", who were less human. You could beg your life from an anarchist. It was not long before most of the anarchists wished they had gone Right for they were unmercifully massacred by their Red Comrades.

(3) Ilya Ehrenburg, letter sent to Marcel Rosenberg (30th September, 1936)

Undoubtedly one of the main tasks is to attract to the revolution's side, at this stage, the healthier elements from among the anarchists. It is characteristic that in the last conversation that I had with Galarza, the minister of the interior (a Socialist), he mentioned that his attempt at cooperation with the anarchist labor federation had produced positive results, and that lately several of the confederation leaders had begun to recognize that many alien elements were interspersed among their members. One of the anarchists' "idols," who provokes great doubts of a nonideological sort, is Juan Lopez, who is now the boss of Valencia.

(4) Cyril Connolly, New Statesman (21st November 1936)

It is in Barcelona that the full force of the anarchist revolution becomes apparent. Their initials, CNT and FAI, are everywhere. They have taken over all the hotels, restaurants, cafes, trains, taxis, and means of communication, as well as all theatres, cinemas, and places of amusement. Their first act was to abolish the tip as being incompatible with the dignity of those who receive it, and to attempt to give one is the only act, short of making the Fascist salute, that a foreigner can be disliked for.

Spanish anarchism is a doctrine which has gone through three stages. The first was the conception of pure anarchy which grew out of the writings of Rousseau, Proudhon, Godwin, and to a lesser extent, Diderot and Tolstoy. The essence of this anarchist faith is that there exists in mankind a natural trend towards nobility and dignity; human relations based on a love of liberty combined with a desire to help each other (as shown for instance in the mutual generosity of the poor in slum districts in cases of sickness and distress) should in themselves be enough, given education and the right economic conditions, to provide a working basis for people to live on; State interference, armies, property, would be as superfluous as they were to the early Christians. The anarchist paradise would be one in which the instincts towards freedom, justice, intelligence and "bondad" in the human race develop gradually to the exclusion of all thoughts of personal gain, envy, and malice. But there exist two stumbling blocks to this ideal - the desire to make money and the desire to acquire power. Everybody who makes money or acquires power, according to the anarchists, does so to the detriment of himself and at the expense of other people, and as long as these instincts are allowed free run there will always be war, tyranny, and exploitation. Power and money must therefore be abolished altogether. At this point the second stage of anarchism begins, that which arises from the thought of Bakunin, the contemporary of Marx. He added the rider that the only way to abolish power and money was by direct action on the bourgeoisie in whom these instincts were incurably ingrained, and who took advantage of all liberal legislation, all concessions from the workers, to get more power and more money for themselves. "The rich will do everything for the poor but get off their backs," Tolstoy has said. "Then they must be blown off," might have been Bakunin's corollary. From this time (the Eighties) dates militant anarchism with its crimes of violence and assassination. In most of its strongholds, Italy, Germany, Russia, it was either destroyed by Fascism or absorbed by Communism, which has usually seemed more practical, realisable, and adaptable to industrial countries; but in Spain the innate love of individual freedom, a personal dignity of the people, made them prefer it to Russian Communism, and the persecution which it underwent was never sufficient to blot it out.

Finally, in the last few years it has gone through a third transformation; in spite of its mystical appeal to the heart anarchism has always been an elastic and adaptable faith, and looking round for a suitable machinery to replace State centralisation it found syndicalism, to which it is now united. Syndicalism is a system of vertical rather than horizontal Trade Unions, by which, for instance, all the workers on this paper, editors, reviewers, printers and distributors, would delegate members to a syndicate which would negotiate with other syndicates for the housing, feeding, amusements, etc., of all the body. This anarcho-syndicalism through its organ, the CNT, has been able to get control of all the industries and agriculture of Catalonia and much of that in Andalusia, Valencia and Murcia, forming a more or less solid block from Malaga to the French frontier with considerable power also in the Asturias and Madrid. The executive militant spearhead of the body is the Federacion Anarquistica Iberica, usually pronounced as one word, FAI, which partly owing to acts of terrorism, partly to its former illegality, is clothed in mystery today. It is almost impossible to find out who and how many belong to it.

The ideal of the CNT and the FAI is libertarian Communism, a Spain in which the work and wealth is shared by all, about three hours' work a day being enough to entitle anyone to sufficient food, clothing, education, amusement, transport, and medical attention. It differs from Communism because there must be no centralisation, no bureaucracy, and no leaders; if somebody does not want to do something, the anarchists argue, no good will come of making them do it. They point to Stalin's dictatorship as an example of the evils inherent in Communism. The danger of anarchism, one might argue, is that it has become such a revolutionary weapon that it may never know what to do with the golden age when it has it, and may exhaust itself in a perpetual series of counter-revolutions. Yet it should be an ideal not unsympathetic to the English, who have always honoured freedom and individual eccentricity and whose liberalism and whiggery might well have turned to something very similar had they been harassed for centuries, like the Spanish proletariat, by absolute monarchs, militant clergy, army dictatorships and absentee landlords.

(5) Edward Knoblaugh, Correspondent in Spain (1937)

I made a tour of the Barcelona churches and Rightist centers which the Left extremists had pillaged and burned since my previous visit. A large number of churches and convents had been destroyed during the demonstrations following the Left election victory in February. The work of destruction had been completed during the week preceding my arrival. Only the blackened walls remained of the historic religious buildings. The statues and paintings had been destroyed or removed, the altars ripped out, the stained-glass windows broken. The burial vaults in the floors of some of the churches had been forced open and the century-old mummified bodies of nuns and priests had been removed from their mouldy resting-places. On the steps of the Carmelite church were arrayed a dozen or more of the skeletons of nuns in standing and reclining postures.

The red and black flag of the Anarchists was everywhere - hung from balconies, suspended from cords strung across the thoroughfares and fastened to sticks wired to the fronts of commandeered automobiles. No attempt was being made to police the city. Scowling through their week-old beards, the militia, dressed in blue overalls or simply in denim trousers and dirty shirts, with red and black neckerchiefs about their throats, were as thick as flies. Lounging here and there or speeding through the streets in their requisitioned private cars with the black snouts of submachine guns protruding over the window sills, these Catalonian Anarchists looked fierce enough to startle even the directors of a Hollywood mob scene. Occasionally a shot was heard as a rifle in inexperienced hands was discharged.

(6) Ethel MacDonald, News From Spain (1937)

There is no doubt that the magnificent struggle of the Spanish workers challenges the entire theory and historical interpretation of parliamentary socialism. The civil war is a living proof of the futility and worthlessness of parliamentary democracy as a medium of social change. It clearly demonstrates that there is but one way, the way of direct action. And that but one class can make the change - the working class. Social democracy has lived too long. It is said Spain has killed it. And now it is merely necessary that the corrupted body be burned.

The struggle in Spain is maintained by the Anarchists and without the Anarchists the war would have been lost for the workers before this. And it is because of this fact that the Socialists, and those who call themselves Socialists, refuse to have anything to do with the Spanish Revolution. It is true that those persons organise collections for the poor children of Madrid who have lost their parents as the result of barbarous bombardments, and it is true that those persons are collecting clothes and food and dispatching them to Madrid. But that is all. The Spanish conflict is regarded as a case for charity, something on the same footing as the poor of the Salvation Army. This is typical of the social democrats. It exposes them clearly as petty bourgeoisie with hearts that beat warmly for the poor starving children of Madrid. But speak to them about the revolution and they gooseflesh all over. To them revolution is illegal and unlawful, and as good law abiding citizens and subjects, they refuse to have any association with it. That is the treachery that is perpetrated on the working-class by those individuals and parties. They claim to be socialists and with that label attached to them they seduce the working-class.

(7) George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)

Roughly speaking, the C.N.T.-F.A.I. stood for: (1) Direct control over industry by the workers engaged in each industry, e.g. transport, the textile factories, etc.; (2) Government by local committees and resistance to all forms of centralized authoritarianism; (3) Uncompromising hostility to the bourgeoisie and the Church. The last point, though the least precise, was the most important.

The Anarchists were the opposite of the majority of so-called revolutionaries in so much that though their principles were rather vague their hatred of privilege and injustice was perfectly genuine. Philosophically, Communism and Anarchism are poles apart. Practically - i.e. in the form of society aimed at - the difference is mainly one of emphasis, but it is quite irreconcilable. The Communist's emphasis is always on centralism and efficiency, the Anarchist's on liberty and equality.

Anarchism is deeply rooted in Spain and is likely to outlive Communism when the Russian influence is withdrawn. During the first two months of the war it was the Anarchists more than anyone else who had saved the situation, and much later than this the Anarchist militia, in spite of their indiscipline, were notoriously the best fighters among the purely Spanish forces.

From about February 1937 onwards the Anarchists and the P.O.U.M. could to some extent be lumped together. If the Anarchists, the P.O.U.M. and the Left wing of the Socialists had had the sense to combine at the start and press a realistic policy, the history of the war might have been different. But in the early period, when the revolutionary parties seemed to have the game in their hands, this was impossible. Between the Anarchists and the Socialists there were ancient jealousies, the P.O.U.M., as Marxists, were sceptical of Anarchism, while from the pure Anarchist standpoint the 'Trotskyism' of the P.O.U.M. was not much preferable to the 'Stalinism' of the Communists. Nevertheless the Communist tactics tended to drive the two parties together. When the P.O.U.M. joined in the disastrous fighting in Barcelona in May, it was mainly from an instinct to stand by the C.N.T., And later, when the P.O.U.M. Was suppressed, the Anarchists were the only people who dared to raise a voice in its defence.

So, roughly speaking, the alignment of forces was this. On the one side the C.N.T.-F.A.I., the P.O.U.M., And a section of the Socialists, standing for workers' control: on the other side the Right-wing Socialists, Liberals, and Communists, standing for centralized government and a militarized army.

(8) Annie Murray, Voices From the Spanish Civil War (1986)

We mixed with the population in Barcelona and of course the people we met and most of the people in Barcelona in fact seemed to be against the Fascists. I knew there was fighting in Barcelona itself in the summer of 1937 between the P.O.U.M., the Anarchists and the Communists. But we were so busy in the hospital we didn't see much of the outside life really. Oh, I knew the Anarchists! They would shoot anybody if they thought they were well off. Yes, they would just take them round the corner. You could hear the shots sometimes. They weren't very scientific in their approach, you know. We had them working in the hospitals and everything. They were a part of the International Brigade actually. But as I say they weren't very scientific in their approach to the whole cause. Nice enough blokes but they would shoot somebody if they thought they were well off- even just by the way they were dressed, you know.

(9) Emma Goldman, speech at the International Working Men's Association in Paris (1937)

I have seen from the moment of my first arrival in Spain in September 1936 that our comrades in Spain are plunging head foremost into the abyss of compromise that will lead them far away from their revolutionary aim. Subsequent events have proved that those of us who saw the danger ahead were right. The participation of the CNT-FAI in the government, and concessions to the insatiable monster in Moscow, have certainly not benefited the Spanish revolution, or even the anti-fascist struggle. Yet closer contact with reality in Spain, with the almost insurmountable odds against the

aspirations of the CNT-FAI, made me understand their tactics better, and helped me to guard against any dogmatic judgment of our comrades.

The revolution in Spain was the result of a military and fascist conspiracy. The first imperative need that presented itself to the CNT-FAI was to drive out the conspiratorial gang. The fascist danger had to be met with almost bare hands. In this process the Spanish workers and peasants soon came to see that their enemies were not only Franco and his Moorish hordes. They soon found themselves besieged by formidable armies and an array of modern arms furnished to Franco by Hitler and Mussolini, with all the imperialist pack playing their sinister under-handed game. In other words, while the Russian Revolution and the civil war were being fought out on Russian soil and by Russians, the Spanish revolution and antifascist war involves all the powers of Europe. It is no exaggeration to say that the Spanish Civil War has spread out far beyond its own confines.

With the most fervent desire to aid the revolution in Spain, our comrades outside of it were neither numerically nor materially strong enough to turn the tide. Thus finding themselves up against a stone wall, the CNT-FAI was forced to descend from its lofty traditional heights to compromise right and left: participation in the government, all sorts of humiliating overtures to Stalin, superhuman tolerance for his henchmen who were openly plotting and conniving against the Spanish revolution.

Of all the unfortunate concessions our people have made, their entry into ministries seemed to me the least offensive. No, I have not changed my attitude toward government as an evil. As all through my life, I still hold that the State is a cold monster, and that it devours everyone within its reach. Did I not know that the Spanish people see in government a mere makeshift, to be kicked overboard at will, that they had never been deluded and corrupted by the parliamentary myth, I should perhaps be more alarmed for the future of the CNT-FAI. But with Franco at the gate of Madrid, I could hardly blame the CNT-FAI for choosing a lesser evil - participation in the government rather than dictatorship, the most deadly evil.

Russia has more than proven the nature of this beast. After twenty years it still thrives on the blood of its makers. Nor is its crushing weight felt in Russia alone. Since Stalin began his invasion of Spain, the march of his henchmen has been leaving death and ruin behind them. Destruction of numerous collectives, the introduction of the Cheka with its 'gentle' methods of treating political opponents, the arrest of thousands of revolutionaries, and the murder in broad daylight of others. All this and more, has Stalin's dictatorship given Spain, when he sold arms to the Spanish people in return for good gold. Innocent of the Jesuitical trick of 'our beloved comrade' Stalin, the CNT-FAI could not imagine in their wildest dreams the unscrupulous designs hidden behind the seeming solidarity in the offer of arms from Russia.

Their need to meet Franco's military equipment was a matter of life and death. The Spanish people had not a moment to lose if they were not to be crushed. What wonder if they saw in Stalin the saviour of the antifascist war? They have since learned that Stalin helped to make Spain safe against the fascists so as to make it safer for his own ends.

The critical comrades are not at all wrong when they say that it does not seem worthwhile to sacrifice one ideal in the struggle against fascism, if it only means to make room for Soviet Communism. I am entirely of their view - that there is no difference between them. My own consolation is that with all their concentrated criminal efforts, Soviet Communism has not taken root in Spain. I know whereof I speak. On my recent visit to Spain I had ample opportunity to convince myself that the Communists have failed utterly to win the sympathies of the masses; quite the contrary. They have never been so hated by the workers and peasants as now.

(10) Jane Patrick, CNT-FAI radio broadcast (29th March, 1937)

What do you think of the situation in Spain now? Do you think that the revolution is progressing? For my part I see it slipping, slipping, and that has been the position for some time. However, perhaps it will be possible for it to be saved. Let us hope so, but it seems to me that reaction is gaining a stronger hold each day. What do you expect Britain and France to do about Italy, now that she has so openly declared her intentions? Do you think they will rush an armistice or

will they just let things slide? In my opinion they cannot afford to let things slide as there is no limit to what the Duce will do, and I don't think they will be prepared to declare war, so the only alternative, so as as I can see, is an armistice. I think an armistice would be a disgraceful thing, and the Anarchists of Spain would not stand for it. But I am afraid the government cannot be trusted. The government and its Communist Party allies are capable of anything. What will follow? Of course, I do not know what will take place. It is all speculation on my part but things seem to me to be in a very bad way.

(11) Conny Andersson was born in Örebro, in the middle of Southern Sweden. He was politically active, much against the will of his foster parents. In 1928 he joined the Social Democratic Youth Organization. Conny Andersson studied at a Folk High-school when the Spanish Civil War broke out. At New Year 1936/1937 he went to Spain. He participated in the battles at Jarama and Brunete. His ear drums were ruined at Brunete which made the army dismiss him before summer 1937.

When Durruti, with his column of 3000 anarchists from Barcelona marched to defend Madrid in November 1936, he tried to break these points of view and show that you couldn't just sit at home, in your village, city or part of the countryside waiting for the Fascist troops, to fight only once they got there. You had to stand up against them at the existing fronts. It's easy to like Anarchism. It's easy to feel captivated by its passion for freedom. It's indisputable. The slogans "against bureaucracy" and "against the Governmental Apparatus"… It fascinates. But Spain was at war, and military rulings are always a form of dictatorship. Someone has to give orders, and the others have to obey. Those few times I was in Barcelona there were a lot of young people there, just like in Aragon, in the district of Murcia as well as in other places. When we were traveling to the Cordoba-front I saw young boys out in the fields. They clasped their hands over their heads - the beautiful Anarchist greeting. We thought it was fancy - their way of greeting us, until one started reflecting upon it: There they stand, clasping their hands, and here I am, on my way to the front. But maybe they had to stay on the farms for the sake of the food supply in the country. And even if all able bodies had reported to the front, there weren't enough weapons to go around anyway. As an interbrigadier I only once felt unwelcome. It was in a village named Jacila, nearby Alcoy. There were a bunch of guys at the bar, guys my own age, and they… they seemed to view me with distrust. Now, this district had a strong Anarco-Syndicalism influence. No, I didn't see much of the socializing on the government-side. But one couldn't help noticing the Women's Liberation. They joined up in all sorts of situations, in the hospitals and in the industries. This was a sort of revolution in itself.