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There were several variants of anarchism in Spain: the peasant anarchism in the countryside of Andalusia; urban anarcho-syndicalism in Catalonia, particularly its capital Barcelona; and what is sometimes called "pure" anarchism in other cities such as Zaragoza. However, these were complementary trajectories, and shared a great deal of ideological similarities.
Early on, the success of the anarchist movement was sporadic. Anarchists would organize a strike and ranks would swell. Usually, repression by police reduced the numbers again, but at the same time further radicalized many members. This cycle helped lead to an era of mutual violence at the beginning of the 20th century, in which armed anarchists and pistoleros, armed men paid by company owners, were both responsible for political assassinations.
In the 20th century, this violence began to fade, and the movement gained speed with the rise of anarcho-syndicalism and the creation of the huge libertarian trade union, the CNT. General strikes became common, and large portions of the Spanish working class adopted anarchist ideas. The FAI was created as a purely anarchist association, with the intention of keeping the CNT focused on the principles of anarchism.
Anarchists played a central role in the fight against Franco during the Spanish Civil War. At the same time, a far-reaching social revolution spread throughout Spain, where land and factories were collectivized and controlled by the workers. All remaining social reforms ended in 1939 with the victory of Franco, who had thousands of anarchists executed. Resistance to his rule never entirely died, with resilient militants participating in acts of sabotage and other direct action after the war, and making several attempts on the ruler's life.
Their legacy remains important to this day, particularly to anarchists who look at their achievements as a historical precedent of anarchism's validity.
In the mid-19th century, revolutionary ideas were generally unknown in Spain. The closest thing to a radical movement was found amongst the followers of Pierre Joseph Proudhon, known as federalists, the most famous of whom was Francesc Pi i Margall (named, upon his death, "the wisest of the federalists, almost an anarchist" by anarchist thinker Ricardo Mella). Feelings later associated with anarchism, like anti-clericalism and distrust of government, were widespread but part of no focused worldview. There was a history of peasant unrest in some parts of the country. This was not related to any political movement, but rather borne out of circumstances. The same was true in the cities; long before workers were familiar with anarcho-syndicalism, there were general strikes and other conflicts between workers and their employers.
The earliest successful attempt to introduce anarchism to the Spanish masses came in 1868. A middle-aged revolutionary named Giuseppi Fanelli came to Spain on a journey planned by Mikhail Bakunin in order to recruit members for the First International, an international organization that aimed to unify groups working for the benefit of the working class, which later came to be dominated by Marxists.
Fanelli spoke in French and Italian, so those present could only understand bits of what he was saying, except for one man, Tomás González Morago, who knew French. The effect, however, was the same. Anselmo Lorenzo gives an account of his oratory: "His voice had a metallic tone and was susceptible to all the inflexions appropriate to what he was saying, passing rapidly from accents of anger and menace against tyrants and exploiters to take on those of suffering, regret and consolation...we could understand his expressive mimicry and follow his speech." These workers, longing for something more than the mild radicalism of the day, became the core of the Spanish Anarchist movement, quickly spreading "the Idea" across Spain. The oppressed and marginalized working classes were very susceptible to an ideology attacking institutions they perceived to be oppressive, namely: the State with its corruption and brutality, capitalism with its gross divide between wretched poverty and grand wealth, and the supremely powerful and coercive institution of organized religion.
A chapter of the First International was soon set up in Madrid. A few dedicated anarchists, first introduced to "the Idea" by Fanelli, began holding meetings, giving speeches, and attracting new followers. By 1870, the Madrid chapter of the International had gained roughly 2,000 members.
Anarchism gained a much larger following in Barcelona, already a bastion of proletarian rebellion, Luddism, and trade unionism. The already militant working class was, as in Madrid, introduced to the philosophy of anarchism in the late 1860s. In 1869, a section of the International was formed in Barcelona.
These centers of revolutionary activity continued to spread ideas, through speeches, discussions, meetings, and their newspaper, La Solidaridad (English translation: Solidarity). Anarchism had soon taken root throughout Spain, in villages and in cities, and in scores of autonomous organizations. Many of the rural pueblos were already anarchic in structure prior to the spread of "anarchist" ideas.
An important event in these years was the Congress of 1870 in Barcelona, where delegates from 150 workers' associations met, along with thousands of common workers observing ("occupying every seat, filling the hallways, and spilling out beyond the entrance," according to Murray Bookchin). The Spanish section of the International was here renamed the Spanish Regional Federation (also known as simply the Spanish Federation), and outlines for future organization were discussed. The Congress had a clear anarchist flavor despite the presence of non-anarchist members of the International from other European nations. It was looked upon with disdain by the mainstream press and the existing political parties, for the Congress openly attacked the political process as an illegitimate means of change and foreshadowed the future power of syndicalist trade unions such as the CNT.
Socialists and liberals within the Spanish Federation sought to reorganize Spain in 1871 into five trade sections with various committees and councils. Many anarchists within the group felt that this was contrary to their belief in decentralization. A year of conflict ensued, in which the anarchists fought the "Authoritarians" within the Federation and eventually expelled them in 1872. In the same year, Mikhail Bakunin was expelled from the International by the Marxists, who were the majority. Anarchists, seeing the hostility from previous allies on the Left, reshaped the nature of their movement in Spain. The Spanish Federation became decentralized, now dependent on action from rank-and-file workers rather than bureaucratic councils; that is, a group structured according to anarchist principles.
In the region of Alcoy, workers struck in 1873 for the eight hour day following much agitation from the anarchists. The conflict turned to violence when police fired on an unarmed crowd, which caused workers to storm City Hall in response. Dozens were dead on each side when the violence ended. Sensational stories were made up by the press about atrocities that never took place: priests crucified, men doused in gasoline and set on fire, etc.
The government quickly moved to suppress the Spanish Federation. Meeting halls were shut down, members jailed, publications banned. Until the turn of the 20th century, proletarian anarchism remained relatively fallow in Spain.
However, anarchist ideas still remained popular in the rural countryside, where destitute peasants waged a lengthy series of unsuccessful rebellions in attempts to create "libertarian communism". Throughout the 1870s, the Spanish Federation drew most of its members from the peasant areas of Andalusia after the decline of its urban following. In the early 1870s, a section of the International was formed in Córdoba, forming a necessary link between the urban and rural movements.
These small gains were largely destroyed by State repression, which by the mid-1870s had forced the entire movement underground. The Spanish Federation faded away, and conventional trade unionism for a while began to replace revolutionary action, although anarchists remained abundant and their ideas not forgotten; the liberal nature of this period was perhaps borne out of despair rather than disagreement with revolutionary ideas. Anarchists were left to act as tigres solitarios (roughly "lone tigers"); attempts at mass organization, as in the Pact of Union and Solidarity, had some ephemeral success but were destined to failure.
The lack of revolutionary organization led many anarchists to commit acts of violence as a form of direct action, and occasional uprisings broke out, as in Jerez, with no success. The government came to equate anarchism with terrorism and responded in kind. Anarchists were met with the severest repression; a famous example is the mass arrest and resulting torture of anarchist prisoners at the castle of Montjuich in Barcelona in 1892. As many as 400 people were brought to the dungeons following a bombing (the guilty party was never found). International outrage followed reports that the prisoners were brutally tortured: men hanged from ceilings, genitals twisted and burned, fingernails ripped out. Several died before being brought to trial, and five were eventually executed.
The anarchist idea was propagated by many periodicals like El Socialismo started by Fermín Salvochea. Salvochea is considered one of the earliest pioneers in the propagation and organization along anarchist lines.
Terrorism by extremists became less common around the turn of the century. Anarchists saw the obvious need for a form of direct action capable of overthrowing the State and capitalism. The idea of syndicalism became popular (or anarcho-syndicalism to differentiate from the reformist syndicalism in other parts of Europe). Purist "Anarchist Communists" were unwilling to adopt syndicalist ideas and became marginalized, although the two groups soon became indistinguishable.
A new organization, the Federation of Workers' Societies of the Spanish Region, was formed in 1900. The organization adopted syndicalism on libertarian principles. Its success was immediate: general strikes swept across Spain within a year. Many of these strikes had no visible leadership but were initiated purely by the working class. As opposed to reformist strikes, many of these strikers made no clear demands (or intentionally absurd demands; for example, the demand to be given seven and a half rest hours in an eight hour day); in some cases workers demanded no less than the end of capitalism. The Spanish government responded harshly to these developments, and the Federation of Workers' Societies was suppressed. But the decentralized nature of anarcho-syndicalism made it impossible to completely destroy and attempts to do so only emboldened the spirit of resistance.
Two events in 1909 bolstered support for another general strike in Barcelona. A textile factory was shut down, with 800 workers fired. Across the industry, wages were being cut. Workers, even outside the textile industry, began to plan for a general strike. At around the same time, the government announced that military reserves would be called up to fight in Morocco, where tribesmen were skirmishing with Spanish troops. The reservists, mostly workingmen, were not keen to risk their lives or kill others to protect what they characterised as the interests of Spanish capitalists (the fighting was blocking routes to mines and slowing business). Anti-war rallies sprang up across the country, and talk of a general strike could be heard.
The strike began in Barcelona on July 26, a few weeks after the call for reserves was made. It quickly developed into a widespread uprising. Anselmo Lorenzo wrote in a letter: "A social revolution has broken out in Barcelona and it has been started by the people. No one has led it. Neither the Liberals nor Catalan Nationalists, nor Republicans, nor Socialists, nor Anarchists." Police stations were attacked. Railroad lines leading into Barcelona were destroyed. Barricades sprang up in the streets. Eighty churches and monasteries were destroyed by members of the Radical Party (who, it should be noted, were generally much less "radical" than anarchists or socialists), and six individuals were killed during the disturbances. After the revolt, about 1,700 individuals were indicted on various charges. Most were let go, but 450 were sentenced. Twelve were given life imprisonment and five were executed, including Francisco Ferrer, who was not even in Barcelona at the time of the insurrection.
Following this "Tragic Week," the government began repressing dissidents on a larger scale. Unions were suppressed, newspapers were shut down, and libertarian schools were closed. Catalonia was put under martial law until November. Rather than giving up, the Spanish working class became emboldened and more revolutionary than before, as workers adopted syndicalism as a revolutionary strategy.
The anarchist movement lacked a stable national organization in its early years. Anarchist Juan Gómez Casas discusses the evolution of anarchist organization before the creation of the CNT: "After a period of dispersion, the Workers Federation of the Spanish Region disappeared, to be replaced by the Anarchist Organization of the Spanish Region...This organization then changed, in 1890, into the Solidarity and Assistance Pact, which was itself dissolved in 1896 because of repressive legislation against anarchism and broke into many nuclei and autonomous workers' societies...The scattered remains of the FRE gave rise to Solidaridad Obrera in 1907, the immediate antecedent of the [CNT]."
There was a general consensus amongst anarchists in the early 20th century that a new, national labor organization was needed to bring coherency and strength to their movement. This organization, named the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) was formed in October 1910 during a congress of Solidaridad Obrera. During this congress, a resolution was passed declaring that the purpose of the CNT would be to "hasten the integral economic emancipation of the entire working class through the revolutionary expropriation of the bourgeoisie...." The CNT started off fairly small, with about 30,000 members across various unions and confederations.
The national confederation was split into smaller regional ones, which were again broken down into smaller trade unions. Despite this many-tiered structure, bureaucracy was consciously avoided. Initiatives for decisions came largely from the individual unions. There were no paid officials; all positions were staffed by common workers. Decisions made by the national delegations did not have to be followed. The CNT was in these respects much different from the comparatively rigid socialist unions.
A general strike was called a mere five days after its founding by triumphant, and perhaps overzealous, workers. It spread across several cities throughout Spain; in one city, workers took over the community and killed the mayor. Troops moved into all major cities and the strike was quickly crushed. The CNT was declared an illegal organization, and thus went underground only a week after its founding. A few years later it continued with overt strike actions, as in the general strike organized in tandem with the Socialist-dominated UGT (a rare occurrence, as the two groups were usually at odds) to protest the rising cost of living.
A general strike broke out in 1917, mostly organized by socialists but with notable anarchist activity, particularly in Barcelona. There barricades were built, and strikers tried to stop trolleys from running. The government responded by filling the streets with machine guns. Fighting left seventy people dead. In spite of the violence, the strike's demands were moderate, typical of a socialist strike of the time.
Spain's economy suffered upon the decline of the wartime economy. Factories closed, unemployment soared and wages declined. Expecting class conflict, especially in light of the then recent Russian Revolution, much of the capitalist class began a bitter war against unions, particularly the CNT. Lockouts became more frequent. Known militants were blacklisted. Pistoleros, or assassins, were hired to kill union leaders. Scores, perhaps hundreds, of anarchists were murdered during this time period. Anarchists responded in turn with a number of assassinations, the most famous of which is the murder of Prime Minister Eduardo Dato Iradier.
The CNT, by this time, had as many as a million members. It retained its focus on direct action and syndicalism; this meant that revolutionary currents in Spain were no longer on the fringe, but very much in the mainstream. While it would be false to say that the CNT was entirely anarchist, the prevailing sentiment undoubtedly leaned in that direction. Every member elected to the "National Committee" was an overt anarchist. Most rank and file members espoused anarchist ideas. Indeed, much of Spain seemed to be radiant with revolutionary fervor; along with waves of general strikes (as well as mostly successful strikes with specific demands), it was not uncommon to see anarchist literature floating around ordinary places or common workers discussing revolutionary ideas. One powerful opponent from the upper classes (Diaz del Moral) claims that "the total working population" was overcome with the spirit of revolt, that "all were agitators."
Whereas anarchism in Spain was previously disjointed and ephemeral, even the smallest of towns now had organizations and took part in the movement. Different parts of the CNT (unions, regions, etc.) were autonomous and yet inextricably linked. A strike by workers in one field would often lead to solidarity strikes by workers in an entire city. This way, general strikes often were not "called", they simply happened organically.
In 1919, employers at a Barcelona hydroelectric plant, known locally as La Canadiense, cut wages, triggering a 44 day long and hugely successful general strike with over 100,000 participants. Employers immediately attempted to respond militantly, but the strike had spread much too rapidly. Employees at another plant staged a sit-in in support of their fellow workers. About a week later, all textile employees walked out. Soon after, almost all electrical workers went on strike as well.
Barcelona was placed under martial law, yet the strike continued in full force. The union of newspaper printers warned the newspaper owners in Barcelona that they would not print anything critical of the strikers. The Government in Madrid tried to destroy the strike by calling up all workers for military service, but this call was not heeded, as it was not even printed in the paper. When the call got to Barcelona by word of mouth, the response was yet another strike by all railway and trolley workers.
The Government in Barcelona finally managed to settle the strike, which had effectively crippled the Catalan economy. All of the striking workers demanded an eight hour day, union recognition, and the rehiring of fired workers. All demands were granted. It was also demanded that all political prisoners be released. The government agreed, but refused to release those currently on trial. Workers responded with shouts of "Free everybody!" and warned that the strike would continue in three days if this demand was not met. Sure enough, this is what occurred. However, members of the Strike Committee and many others were immediately arrested and police effectively stopped the second strike from reaching great proportions.
The Government tried to appease the workers, who were clearly on the verge of insurrection. Tens of thousands of unemployed workers were returned to their jobs. The eight hour day was declared for all workers. Thus, Spain became the first country in the world to pass a national eight hour day law, as a result of 1919's general strike.
After the 1919 general strike, increasing violence against CNT organizers, combined with the rise of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship (which banned all anarchist organizations and publications), created a lull in anarchist activity. Many anarchists responded to police violence by becoming pistoleros themselves. This was a period of mutual violence, in which anarchist groups including Los Solidarios assassinated political opponents. Many anarchists were killed by gunmen of the other side.
During the Primo de Rivera years, much of the CNT leadership began to espouse "moderate" views, ostensibly holding an anarchist outlook but holding that the fulfilment of anarchist hopes would not come immediately. The Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) was formed in 1927 to combat this tendency.
Its organization was based on autonomous affinity groups. The FAI remained a very secretive organization, even after acknowledging its existence two years after its formation. Its surreptitious nature makes it difficult to judge the extent of its membership. Estimates of FAI membership at the time immediately preceding the revolution range from 5,000 to 30,000. Membership dramatically increased during the first few months of the Civil War.
The FAI was not ideally libertarian, being dominated by very aggressive militants such as Juan García Oliver and Buenaventura Durruti. However, it was not authoritarian in its actual methods; it allowed freedom of dissent to its members. In fact the overall organization of the FAI was very loose, unlike Bakunin's "Alliance" which was, however, an important precedent in creating an organization for pushing forward anarchist ideology.
The FAI was militantly revolutionary, with actions including bank robberies to acquire funds, and the organization of general strikes, but at times became more opportunist. It supported moderate efforts against the Rivera dictatorship, and in 1936, contributed to establishment of the Popular Front. By the time the anarchist organizations began cooperating with the Republican government, the FAI essentially became a de facto political party and the affinity group model was dropped, not uncontroversially.
The CNT initially welcomed the Republic as a preferable alternative to dictatorship, while still holding on to the principle that all States are inherently deleterious, if perhaps to varying degrees of severity.
This relationship did not last long, though. A strike by telephone workers led to street fighting between CNT and government forces; the army used machine guns against the workers. A similar strike broke out a few weeks later in Seville; twenty anarchists were killed and one hundred were wounded after the army besieged a CNT meeting place and destroyed it with artillery. An insurrection occurred in Alto Llobregat, where miners took over the town and raised red and black flags in town halls.
These actions provoked harsh government repression and achieved little tangible success. Some of the most active anarchists, including Durruti and Ascaso, were deported to Spanish territory in Africa. This provoked protest and an insurrection in Terrassa, where, like in Alto Llobregat, workers stormed town halls and raised their flags. Another failed insurrection took place in 1933, when anarchist groups attacked military barracks with the hope that those inside would support them. The government had already learned of these plans, however, and quickly suppressed the revolt.
None of these actions had any success. They resulted in thousands of jailed anarchists and a wounded movement. At the same time, infighting (largely instigated by so-called treintistas) hurt the unity of the anarchist struggle.
The national focus on Republic and reform led the anarchists to cry "Before the ballot boxes, social revolution!" In their view, liberal electoral reforms were futile and undesirable, and impeded the total liberation of the working classes.
An uprising took place in December 1933. Aside from a prison break in Barcelona, no gains were made by revolutionaries before the police quelled the revolt in Catalonia and most of the rest of the country. Zaragoza saw ephemeral insurrection in the form of street fighting and the occupation of certain buildings.
In Casas Viejas, militants quickly surrendered when they were outnumbered by police forces. However, one old anarchist called "Six fingers" barricaded himself in his home with his family and vowed to resist arrest. His house was burned down, his family was killed, and the anarchists who previously surrendered peacefully were shot. This massacre provoked torrents of condemnation, even from conservative Republicans.
An important strike took place in April, again in Zaragoza. It lasted five weeks, shutting down most of Zaragoza's economy. Other parts of the country were supportive; anarchists in Barcelona took care of the strikers' children (about 13,000 of them).
Perhaps the clearest prequel to revolution (and civil war) came in 1934, in the mining districts of Asturias. The strike here was a cooperative effort of communists and anarchists, with the former having more representation, but with events mirroring more closely an anarchist mindset. Communists had some influence, but their numbers were small; the Communist Party had perhaps 1,000 members in 1934 compared with the UGT's 1.44 million and the CNT's 1.58 million.
The miners' strike began with attacks on barracks of the Civil Guard. In the town of Mieres, police barracks and the town hall were taken over. Strikers moved on, continuing to occupy towns, even the capital of Asturias in Oviedo. Workers had control over most of Asturias, under chants of "Unity, Proletarian brothers!" The ports of Gijon and Aviles remained open. Anarchist militants defending against the imminent arrival of government troops were denied sufficient arms by suspicious communists. So fell the uprising, with great violence upon the rebels, but also with great unity and revolutionary fervor amongst the working classes.
The crushing of the revolt was led by General Francisco Franco, who would later lead a rebellion against the republic and become dictator of Spain. The use of the Foreign Legion and the Moorish Regulares to kill Spaniards caused public outrage. Captured miners faced torture, rape, mutilation, and execution. This foreshadowed the same brutality seen two years later in the Spanish Civil War.
With the growth of right-wing political parties (Gil Robles' conservative CEDA, for example), leftist parties felt the need to join together in a "Popular Front." This included Republicans, Socialists, Communists, and other left parties; Anarchists were not willing to support it but refused to attack it, either, thus helping it get into power.
The more radical elements of the CNT-FAI were not satisfied with electoral politics. In the months after the Popular Front's rise to power, strikes, demonstrations, and rebellions broke out throughout Spain. Throughout the countryside, almost 5 km² of land were taken over by squatters. The Popular Front parties began to lose control. Anarchists would continue to strike even when prudent socialists called it off, taking food from stores when strike funds ran out.
The Republican government responded to the threat of a military uprising with remarkable timidity and inaction. The CNT had warned Madrid of a rising based in Morocco months earlier and even gave the exact date and time of 5 A.M. on July 19, which it had learned through its impressive espionage apparatus. Yet, the Popular Front did nothing, and refused to give arms to the CNT. Tired of begging for weapons and being denied, CNT militants raided an arsenal and doled out arms to the unions. Militias were placed on alert days before the planned rising.
The rising was actually moved forward two days to July 17, and was crushed in areas heavily defended by anarchist militants, such as Barcelona. Some anarchist strongholds, such as Zaragoza, fell, to the great dismay of those in Catalonia; this is possibly due to the fact that they were being told that there was no "desperate situation" by Madrid and thus did not prepare. The Government still remained in a state of denial, even saying that the "Nationalist" forces had been crushed in places where it had not been. It is largely because of the militancy on the part of the unions, both anarchist and communist, that the Rebel forces did not win the war immediately.
Anarchist militias were remarkably libertarian within themselves, particularly in the early part of the war before being partially absorbed into the regular army. They had no rank system, no hierarchy, no salutes, and those called "Commanders" were elected by the troops.
The most effective anarchist unit was the Durruti Column, led by already legendary militant Buenaventura Durruti. It was the only anarchist unit which managed to gain respect from otherwise fiercely hostile political opponents. In a section of her memoirs which otherwise lambastes the anarchists, Dolores Ibarruri states: "The war developed with minimal participation from the anarchists in its fundamental operations. One exception was Durruti..." (Memorias de Dolores Ibarruri, p. 382). The column began with 3,000 troops, but at its peak was made up of about 8,000 men. They had a difficult time getting arms from a fearful Republican government, so Durruti and his men compensated by seizing unused arms from government stockpiles. Durruti's death on November 20, 1936 weakened the Column in spirit and tactical ability; they were eventually incorporated, by decree, into the regular army. Over a quarter of the population of Barcelona attended Durruti's funeral. It is still uncertain how Durruti died; modern historians tend to agree that it was an accident, perhaps a malfunction with his own gun or a result of friendly fire, but widespread rumors at the time claimed treachery by his men; anarchists tended to claim that he died heroically and was shot by a fascist sniper. Given the widespread repression against Anarchists by the Soviets, which included torture and summary executions, it is also possible that it was a USSR plot. 
Another famous unit was the Iron Column, made up of ex-convicts and other "disinherited" Spaniards sympathetic to the Revolution. The Republican government denounced them as "uncontrollables" and "bandits," but they had a fair amount of success in battle. In March 1937 they were incorporated into the regular army.
In 1936, the CNT decided, after several refusals, to collaborate with the government of Largo Caballero. Juan García Oliver became Minister of Justice (where he abolished legal fees and had all criminal dossiers destroyed), Diego Abad de Santillán became Minister of the Economy, and Federica Montseny became Minister of Health, to name a few instances.
During the Spanish Civil War, many anarchists outside of Spain criticized the CNT leadership for entering into government and compromising with communist elements on the Republican side. Those in Spain felt that this was a temporary adjustment, and that once Franco was defeated, they would continue in their libertarian ways. There was also concern with the growing power of authoritarian communists within the government. Montseny later explained: "At that time we only saw the reality of the situation created for us: the communists in the government and ourselves outside, the manifold possibilities, and all our achievements endangered."
Indeed, some anarchists outside of Spain viewed their concessions as necessary considering the grim possibility of losing everything should the fascists win the war. Emma Goldman said, "With Franco at the gate of Madrid, I could hardly blame the CNT-FAI for choosing a lesser evil: participation in government rather than dictatorship, the most deadly evil."
To this day, the issue remains controversial among anarchists.
Along with the fight against fascism was a profound anarchist revolution throughout Spain.
Much of Spain's economy was put under worker control; in anarchist strongholds like Catalonia, the figure was as high as 75%, but lower in areas with heavy socialist influence. Factories were run through worker committees, agrarian areas became collectivized and run as libertarian communes. Even places like hotels, barber shops, and restaurants were collectivized and managed by their workers. George Orwell describes a scene in Aragon during this time period, in his book, Homage to Catalonia:
The anarchist held areas were run according to the basic principle of " From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." In some places, money was entirely eliminated, to be replaced with vouchers. Under this system, goods were often up to a quarter of their previous cost.
Despite the critics clamoring for maximum efficiency, anarchic communes often produced more than before the collectivization. The newly liberated zones worked on entirely libertarian principles; decisions were made through councils of ordinary citizens without any sort of bureaucracy. (It should be noted that the CNT-FAI leadership was at this time not nearly as radical as the rank and file members responsible for these sweeping changes.)
In addition to the economic revolution, there was a spirit of cultural revolution. Oppressive traditions were done away with. For instance, women were allowed to have abortions, and the idea of "free love" became popular. In many ways, this spirit of cultural liberation was similar to that of the "New Left" movements of the 1960s.
During the Civil War, Communist Party gained considerable influence due to the necessity of aid from the Soviet Union. Communists and "liberals" on the Republican side gave considerable effort to crush the anarchist revolution, ostensibly to bolster the anti-Fascist effort (the response was, "The revolution and the war are inseparable"). Pravda announced in December 1936 that "...the mopping up of Trotskyists and anarcho-syndicalists has already begun. It will be carried out with the same vigor as in the USSR." Another communist boldly proclaimed in an interview that they would "make short work of the anarchists after the defeat of Franco." Their efforts to weaken the revolution were ultimately successful: hierarchy was eventually restored in many of the collectivized areas, and power was taken away from workers and unions, to be monopolized by the Popular Front.
Most important, perhaps, were the measures to destroy the militias, who were arguably leading the war effort in spirit as well as in action. The militias were eventually declared illegal and technically merged with the Popular Army. This had the effect of demoralizing the soldiers and taking away what they had ultimately been fighting for: not for the Soviet Union, but for themselves and for freedom. Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, working in Spain for Stalin, had predicted this in 1936: "Without the participation of the CNT, it will not, of course, be possible to create the appropriate enthusiasm and discipline in the people's militia/Republican militia."
Indeed, the counter-revolutionary fervor often served to weaken the anti-Fascist war effort. For example, a huge cache of arms was allowed to fall to Francoist forces for fear that it otherwise would end up in the hands of the anarchists. Troops were pulled off the front lines to crush anarchist collectives. Many able soldiers were assassinated for their political ideology; a leader of the repressive efforts, Enrique Lister, said that he would "shoot all the anarchists [he] had to." It was revealed that many anarchists were being held in prisons under Communist orders, rather than fighting on the front, and that furthermore many of these prisoners were tortured and shot.
In what became known as the "Barcelona May Days", the most dramatic repressive effort against the anarchists came in May 1937. Communist-led police forces attempted to take over a CNT-run telephone building in Barcelona. The telephone workers fought back, setting up barricades and surrounding the Communist "Lenin Barracks." Five days of street fighting ensued, causing over 500 deaths. This tragic series of events greatly demoralized the workers of Barcelona.
Afterwards, the government sent in 6,000 men to disarm the workers, and the FAI was outlawed. However, the Communist workers were allowed to keep their weapons; only the anarchists were forced to turn them in. This is not surprising considering that the Police and government in Barcelona were overtly Communist-run by this point. The militant Friends of Durruti group encouraged the fighting to continue, feeling that defeat by the Communists would ruin the strength of the anarchist movement. Their call was not heeded.
Throughout the Civil War, the various Communist newspapers engaged in a massive propaganda campaign against the anarchists and the POUM. They were often called "Hitlerites" and "fascists" in the pay of Franco, as George Orwell notes in Homage to Catalonia: "Just imagine how odious it must be to see a young 15-year old Spaniard brought back from the front lines on a stretcher, to see, poking out from under the blanket an anemic, bewildered face and to think that in London and Paris there are gentlemen dressed to the nines, blithely engaged in writing pamphlets to show this little lad is a covert fascist." The unreliability of these newspapers peaked when not even one reported the events of May 1937.
When Francisco Franco took power in 1939, he had tens of thousands of political dissidents executed. The total number of politically motivated killings between 1939 and 1943 is estimated to be around 200,000. Political prisoners filled the jails, which were twenty times more populous than before the war. Forced labor camps were opened up, where, according to historian Antony Beevor, "the system was probably as bad as in Germany or Russia." Despite these actions, underground resistance to Franco's rule lingered for decades. Actions by the Resistance included, among other things, sabotage, releasing prisoners, underground organizing of workers, aiding fugitives and refugees, and assassinations of government officials.
Little attention was paid to the Spaniards who refused to accept Franco's rule, even by those who had been against him during the War. Miguel Garcia, an anarchist jailed for 22 years, describes their circumstances in his 1972 book: "When we lost the war, those who fought on became the Resistance. But to the world, the Resistance had become criminals, for Franco made the laws, even if, when dealing with political opponents, he chose to break the laws established by the constitution; and the world still regards us as criminals. When we are imprisoned, liberals are not interested, for we are "terrorists"...."
The guerilla resistance (referred to in Spain as Maquis) was effectively ended around 1960 with the death of many of its more experienced militants. In the period from the end of the war until 1960, according to government sources, there were 1,866 clashes with security forces and 535 acts of sabotage. 2,173 guerillas were killed and 420 were wounded, while the figures for government forces lost amount to only 307 killed and 372 wounded. 19,340 resistance fighters were arrested over this time interval. Those who aided the guerillas were met with similar brutality; as many as 20,000 were arrested over the years on this charge, with many facing torture during interrogation.
The Spanish government under Franco continued to persecute "criminals" until its demise. In the earlier years, some prisons were filled up to fourteen times their capacity, with prisoners hardly able to move about. People were often locked up simply for carrying a union card. Active militants were often less fortunate; thousands were shot or hanged. Two of the most able Resistance fighters, Jose Luis Facerias and Francisco Sabater Llopart (often called "Sabaté"), were simply shot by police forces; many anarchists met a similar fate.
During World War II, Spanish anarchists worked with the French Resistance, engaging in actions both on the homefront and abroad. They worked especially to smuggle Jewish families into Spain, forging passes for them and helping them find safety, in order to protect them from Nazi oppression.
During his dictatorship, there were at least 30 different plots to kill Franco, mostly made by anarchists. In 1964, anarchist Stuart Christie travelled from Scotland to attempt to kill Franco; he failed, and was then imprisoned, later to write the book General Franco Made Me A Terrorist.
The then-underground CNT was also involved: in 1962, a secret "Interior Defense" section was formed to coordinate actions of the resistance.
The Anarchist Black Cross was re-activated in the late 1960s by Albert Meltzer and Stuart Christie to help anarchist prisoners during Franco's reign . In 1969, Miguel Garcia (see above) became International Secretary of the ABC.
The CNT is still active today. Their influence, however, is limited. The CNT, in 1979, split into two factions: CNT/AIT and CNT/U. The CNT/AIT claimed the original "CNT" name, which led the CNT/U to change its name to Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT) in 1989, which retains most of the CNT's principles. The CGT is much larger, with perhaps 50,000 members (although it represents as many as two million workers), and is currently the third largest union in Spain. An important cause for the split and the main practical difference between the two trade unions today is that the CGT participates, just like any other Spanish trade union, in elecciones sindicales, where workers choose their representatives who sign their collective bargaining agreements. CGT has an important number of representatives in, for example, SEAT, the Spanish car manufacturer and still the largest enterprise in Catalonia and also in the public railroad system, e.g.: it holds the majority in Barcelona's underground. CNT does not participate in elecciones sindicales and criticizes this model. The CNT-CGT split has made it impossible for the government to give back the unions' important facilities that belonged to them before Franco's regime seized them and used them for their only legal trade union, a devolution also still pending in part for some of the other historical political parties and worker organizations.
Anarchist ideas enjoy a considerable popularity in parts of Spain, as they have throughout the world in the last few decades. Large May Day demonstrations occur annually.
In all Spain, but above all in Barcelona, squatting is widespread; many of these squatters hold anarchist views. Anarchists produce a local calendar called Info Usurpa that lists around forty explicitly anarchist squats that are organized as social centers (Centros Sociales). These social centers put on events ranging from concerts, community dinners, and workshops to language courses and free internet cafés. They have faced strong opposition from the authorities, including raids and evictions. In 2004, following the eviction of the squat L'Hamsa, squatters smashed the windows of banks and real estate offices, set dumpsters on fire, attacked police cars, and spray painted slogans on the city's walls.
Spain was the only country in Europe where anarchists had more influence than socialists. Scholars have proposed a number of reasons for this anomaly. Spain was, unlike most of Europe, a largely rural, peasant-based society. Marx and his followers tended to treat the peasants with disdain while holding the urban worker to be the prime agent of revolutionary change. It is unsurprising, then, that Marxist ideas were unpopular or unknown amongst rural peasants, many of whom heartily embraced anarchism, a theory which held similarities to long-held traditions of mutual aid and village-level organization. Indeed, federalist Francisco Pi y Margall would claim that "Spanish anarchism is nothing more than an expression of the federal and individualist traditions of the country, that "the anarchist movement is not an outcome of abstract discussions, or theories cultivated by a few intellectuals, but an outcome of a social dynamic...." Furthermore, Spain had never been strongly united at the federal level, and Marxist statism seemed irrelevant in regionalistic Spain where the idea of a powerful central government never took hold, except on the far-right. Thus, for various reasons, anarchism triumphed as Spain's primary revolutionary program.
There was occasional but fleeting and superficial unity between anarchists and non-communist socialists, but in general relations were uneasy. A socialist leader once said: "There is a great deal of confusion in the minds of many comrades. They consider Anarchist Syndicalism as an ideal which runs parallel with our own, when it is its absolute antithesis, and that the Anarchists and Syndicalists are comrades when they are our greatest enemies." The often opportunistic UGT often provided scabs to break CNT strikes. Condemnations of socialist tactics by anarchists was not at all uncommon. Yet, more radical socialists (like the POUM) often made allies out of the anarchists, especially during the Civil War and particularly in the defense of Madrid. By 1938, an official pact of unity had been signed between the CNT and the UGT.
Communists had extremely limited influence within Spain until around the time of the Civil War. The working classes, anarchist or not, responded to the Bolshevik revolution with triumph, as did most revolutionaries throughout the world. It was celebrated as a victory of the masses and a beacon of hope. Workers refused to ship arms that would be used against the Red Army. However, libertarians soon discovered the true nature of Bolshevik power, especially after the brutal suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion, and again when Leon Trotsky's Red Army attacked Nestor Makhno's Black Guards in Ukraine. The anarchist relationship with the Bolsheviks after these events was bitter. The CNT ardently refused to join COMINTERN and frequently criticized the policies of the Bolshevik government. Communist antipathy to anarchism was equally strong: when communists attained power during the Civil War, anarchist groups were repressed, often violently.
Although many anarchists were opposed to the use of force, some militants did use violence and terrorism to further their agendas. This "propaganda of the deed" first became popular in the late 19th century. This was before the rise of syndicalism as an anarchist tactic, and after a long history of police repression that led many to despair.
The Desheredados (English translation: "the Disinherited"), were a secret group advocating violence and said to be behind a number of murders. Another group, Mano Negra (Black Hand), was also rumoured to be behind various assassinations and bombings, although there is some evidence that the group was a sensational myth created by police in the Civil Guard (La Guardia Civil), notorious for their brutality; in fact, it is well known that police invented actions by their enemies, or carried them out themselves, as a tool of repression. Los Solidarios and Los Amigos de Durruti (Friends of Durruti) were other groups that used violence as a political weapon. The former group was responsible for the robbery of Banco de Bilbao which gained 300,000 pesetas, and the assassination of the Cardinal Archbishop of Zaragoza Juan Soldevilla Romero, who was reviled as a particularly reactionary cleric. Los Solidarios stopped using violence with the end of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship, when anarchists had more opportunities to work aboveground.
In later years, anarchists were responsible for a number of church burnings throughout Spain. The Church, a powerful, usually right-wing political force in Spain, was always hated by anti-authoritarians. At this time, their influence was not as grand as in the past, but a rise of anti-Christian sentiment coincided with their perceived or real support of fascism. Many of the burnings were not committed by anarchists. However, anarchists were often used as a scapegoat by the authorities.
Rarely was violence directed towards civilians. However, there are a few recorded cases in which anarchists enforced their own beliefs with violence; one observer reports incidents in which pimps and drug dealers were shot on the spot. Forced collectivization, while exceedingly rare, did occur on several occasions when ideals were dropped in favor of wartime pragmatism. In general, though, individual holdings were respected by anarchists who opposed coercive violence more vigorously than small-scale property possession.
Despite the violence of some, many anarchists in Spain adopted an ascetic lifestyle in line with their libertarian beliefs. Smoking, drinking, gambling, and prostitution were widely looked down upon. Anarchists avoided dealing with institutions they proposed to fight against: most did not enter into marriages, go to State-run schools (libertarian schools, like the Catalan Ferrer's "Modern School," were popular), or attempt to aggrandize their personal wealth. This moralism starkly contrasts with the popular view of anarchists as anomic firebrands, but also is part of another stereotype that the anarchism in Spain was a millenarian pseudo-religion.
Feminism has historically played a role alongside the development of anarchism; Spain is no exception. The CNT's founding congress placed special emphasis on the role of women in the labor force and urged an effort to recruit them into the organization. There was also a denunciation of the exploitation of women in society and of wives by their husbands.
Women's rights had been integral in anarchist ideas such as coeducation, the abolition of marriage, and abortion rights, amongst others; these were quite radical ideas in traditionally Catholic Spain. Women had played a large part in many of the struggles, even fighting alongside their male comrades on the barricades. However, they were often marginalized; for example, women often were paid less in the agrarian collectives and had less visible roles in larger anarchist organizations.
A Spanish anarchist group known as Mujeres Libres (Free Women) provided day-care, education, maternity centers, and other services for the benefit of women. The group had a peak membership of between 20,000 and 38,000. Its first national congress, held in 1937, with delegations from over a dozen different cities representing about 115 smaller groups. The statutes of the organization declared its purpose as being "a. To create a conscious and responsible feminine force that will act as a vanguard of progress; b. To establish for this purpose schools, institutes, lectures, special courses, etc., to train the woman and emancipate her from the triple slavery to which she has been and still is submitted: the slavery of ignorance, the slavery of being a woman, and the slavery of being a worker."