Saturday, July 19, 2008


It was not a dark and stormy night, but the atmosphere in the streets of Barcelona was just as electric. On July 14, 1936 General Mola had summoned military commanders to his headquarters in northern Spain to finalize the details of a military coup against the Popular Front government. On July 17 General Franco flew to Morocco where the military uprising had already begun. The Spanish government dithered and proclaimed the situation "under control". The government censored a notice in the CNT's paper Solidaridad Obrera warning the workers of the impending coup, but the anarchists considered it important enough to reprint and distribute by hand. The local government of Catalonia refused to turn over arms to the CNT's Defence Committees, and anarchist longshoremen stormed ships carrying arms on the night of the 17th and turned them over the the CNT. The government tried to recover the arms but failed. Throughout the 18th the workers in Barcelona obtained what arms they could while the government issued paper decrees in the absence of any real authority.

At 4:45 am on the 19th members of the Assault Guards of Barcelona began to turn their weapons over to crowds of workers who were demanding arms. Factory sirens sounded throughout the city. The Spanish Revolution had begun. Through the course of the day a back and forth struggle raged in the streets of Barcelona, and at the end of the day the Army was defeated. The workers were in control.

Over the course of the next three years Spain witnessed the most profound and inspiring revolution of modern times. Steeled and educated by decades of anarchist propaganda, agitation and organization the Spanish people knew instinctively what to do. Throughout half the country the military was beaten back and enterprises and land were socialized under real local control. The pace of the Revolution far outstripped what the leaders in the anarchist organizations could comprehend, let alone direct, but the instinctive methods of the Spanish revolutionaries- a people in arms- were based on a long period of instruction in organization.

At its height most of the economy of Republican Spain ran on collective lines, either workers' control via the syndicates (unions) or the free communes of the rural areas. This revolution certainly had its failings, not the least of which was the desire to make common cause with the Communists who eventually destroyed the revolutionary institutions that the Spanish people had built. In the end the fascists ,under Franco, received far more aid -for free or for vague promises- than the Republicans did in exchange for sending Spain's gold reserves into Stalin's sweaty hands. The Spanish anarchists were well skilled in organization, but their internal disputes had marginalized the very people who could have negotiated a more successful path through the maze of compromise.

All that being said the Spanish Revolution is a standing example of an obvious fact. Yes...anarchism can work. It worked very well in much of the Republican Zone for years, despite the pressures of both war and Communist treachery. Anarchism is not an utopian dream. It has happened and can happen again.
The historiography of the Spanish Revolution is vast, and each side of the dispute has its own axe to grind. Classical fascism is pretty well a thing of the past nowadays, but the historical record contains a wealth of apologetics for the actions of the coalition that formed around Franco, more clerical conservative than fascist. Today one has to search the byways of the 'Catholic Right' to find echoes of the lies that were commonplace amongst conservatives of the mid-30s. Speaking of dead horses and lies...the Communist press spread probably more of these than the fascists did at the time, and they continued to distort the historical record up to the demise of the Soviet Empire. The Trotskyists had their own point of view, often more a matter of absurd "recommendations" and exaggerations of the importance of the POUM (not Trotskyist-more left communist than anything else) and their own infinitesimal group of Spanish supporters. To say the least one can take little from Trotskyist sites other than the fact that they slot all events into the category of "things that would go better if they were in control".

The unbiased academic studies such as that of Hugh Thomas "generally" support the anarchist view in most important points. They confirm both the efficiency of the collectives that the Spanish people formed and the role of Communist treachery in the defeat of the Revolution. They may point out the anarchist atrocities in the early stages of the Revolution (which anarchist sources generally gloss over) which were soon ended by the actions of the anarchist organizations themselves. They may be doubtful (this is often an understatement) of the military efficiency of the anarchist "militia" idea of waging war. But in the important points, as I said, they confirm the anarchist version.

Here's a little collection of anarchist sources on the Spanish Revolution. It is hardly complete, and there is a wealth of anarchist writing on what is the "high noon" of anarchism in the 20th century. Molly suggests that the reader look at these things at the same time as they read a general academic history such as that of Thomas.

Libertarias (en español)-A story of women in the Spanish Revolution

For further information consult the LibCom site under their history section and also the Anarchist Archives. What may be most valuable for the unbiased reader are the writings of George Orwell on the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. His works are available at George Orwell.Org. Orwell was not an anarchist(though he was a leftist who was disgusted by the left,just as Molly is), and it is instructive to see his take on the treachery of the Communists as well as his unbiased description of the anarchist polity he met when he fought during the Spanish Civil War.


The New Centrist said...

Found your blog via Bob from Brockley.

You may want to read Michael Seidman's "Republic of Egos" for a more critical take on the anarchist collectives.

CNT militants certainly resisted Communist attempts at destroying the anarchist collectives. But, at the same time, the anarchists also implemented pro-capitalist methods themselves.

These methods including tying wages to productivity, the implementation of the piece-rate, harsh punitive measures for slackers, even forced collectivization which most anarchists fail to admit.

As Seidman writes, "A dispassionate examination of the charges and countercharges leads to the conclusion that both anarchist and Communists were correct. The former used illegal coercion to initiate collectives, and the latter used it to destroy them." (126) (Michael Seidman "Republic of Egos: A Social History of the Spanish Civil War". Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002).

Larry Gambone said...

There are always negative aspects to any revolution. It would not surprise me that what the New Centrist says is true. But whether this stuff happens or not, is not the point. It is the extent of those negative aspects. I suggest that the experience of the anarchist collectives was overwhelmingly positive, and this is what is important about that experience. One also has to take right-wing, or in this place, pro-Stalinist revisionism with a fair number of grains of salt. After all, there have been books published that claim the Highland Clearances never happened and that the early Industrial Revolution improved worker living standards. By ignoring evidence here, twisting it there you can "verify" any claim, no matter how outlandish.

mollymew said...

I don't know if Seidman is a reliable source. I've never read the book, but looking through a few reviews it should be noted that this author rarely identifies his sources as to what they are, aside from an overreliance on official government documents in the archives. This is especially egregious when he repeatedly refers to Francoist sources without identifying them for what they are. Thus a piece of Communist Party progaganda will often not be identified as such, a historical "method" that can lead to some rather disorted views.

All that being said only a blind ideologue would claim that the collectives, both industrial and rural, were perfect. The very process of expropriation is, of course, illegal and obviously coercive from the point of view of the former owners. The amount of coercion, as applied to the pesants and workers themselves actually varied considerably from time to time and place to place. It would have approached ZERO in places such as Andalucia where peasant smallholders, when they owned any land at all, were usually in a state of grinding poverty while huge latifundia stood in contrast. It would probably have been quite high in places such a rural Catalonia, a region of smallholders living in close proximity to the anarchist militias from Barcelona.

In industry the early phase of collectivization lasted a few months at best, and many of the "abuses" cited could just as easily be attributed to the gradual encroachment of government authority, aided by the needs of wartime. I believe that Tom Wetzel has written a rather extensive overview of the successes and failures of the Spanish collectives,from a Parecon point of view, and I'll try and dig up the reference.

Anybody who has looked at thye matter in any depth will be impressed by one thing. The economic system(s!!!) adopted by various collectives varied considerably. So did the methods of decision making and, of course, the amount of coercion involved. One should view any author who tries to cover this variety of experiences- numbering in the thousands- into one overarching statement. No doubt the smallholders of Catalonia were quite often coerced by the anarchists, and it is no surprise that this population was perhaps the most fertile ground in Spain for Communist recruitement.

Not being a "revolutionist" it is easy for me to see how much of the anarchist ideals were corrupted by not just a revolution, but a long and grinding war to top it off. War is even more a naturally coercive project than a revolution is. This is hardly the most fertile ground for a free society to grow in. Still, to echo Larry, the balnce was overwhelmingly positive, and it is remarkable that so much was acheived and preserved even in such harsh conditions.

TNC said...

"I don't know if Seidman is a reliable source. I've never read the book..."

Molly, you should have a look then. Seriously, don't diss someone's work until you take the time to read it.

Seidman is a professional historian. He does an excellent job identifying all of his sources, including primary sources. In terms of volume, the book has over 1,000 citations. Compare that to Bookchin's text or any of the other books written by Stalinist and anarchist partisans.

With primary sources he lists the name of the archive, the collection, legajo number, and the caja number. For example:

Zona Nacional, a. 42, l. 2, c. 2

You can't get be any more specific than that unless you have item-level indexing and none of the Spanish (or Cuban) archives I have visited are this specific. They simply don't have the money to catalog every single document.

This is quite common. Most archives only go down to the folder level (if that!) when you examine the finding aid. In citations you list the archive, the collection, the box number and the folder number. Seidman did exactly that in every case. What more do you expect?

He very clearly identifies the archives he visited in the Bibliography. One hopes people reading an academic history of the Spanish Civil War would be aware of the difference between the Fundacion Pablo Iglesias on the one the one hand, and the Archivo General Militar, one the other. But maybe I give readers more credit for their intelligence. If someone were writing an academic history of American foreign intervention and was using the CIA archives, I would not need them to hold my hand and explain the ideological orientation of the CIA every time the author cited a document from said archive.

Lastly, the reason I suggested the text is because it is measured and scholarly. The author does not have an ideological ax to grind, he's trying to humanize our understanding of the conflict, arguing that, for most Spaniards, the ideological struggles mattered less than day-to-day survival. What did they do? How did they survive? These are the questions Seidman seeks to answer, not which side had the proper ideological line. For most Spaniards, consumption was the primary consideration, not class-struggle.

mollymew said...

Hi, I'm tying up the loose ends here from various posts that hqave received a certain amount of comment in the last few weeks.
I'll leave Seidman's credentials in the great mist of agnosticism, especially as his "general conclusions", as you report them seem to contradict his previous work that has been added to the LibCom site. Are you SURE that you are NOT quoting an overarching statement that isn't supported by the "meat" of his book ? Anybody can do this, and it has very often been done.

As to the criticisms of Seidman's work, I merely repeated criticisms that have been voiced in academic journals. I may indeed eventually read Seidman's book and add it to the 40+ books on the Spanish Revolution from various perspectives, anarchist to fascist, that I have read so far. It is, however, hardly a priority for me.

Your major point- in the end the conditions of everyday life ended up being MUCH more a determination of how people acted than ideological adherance - is simply and plainly a TRUISM. Well yeah, pretty fucking obviously !!!! Isn't this true of all history, and isn't it true despite ANY other ideological cover besides anarchism? As I have said repeatedly on this blog I AM NOT A REVOLUTIONIST. I believe that the conditions of a revolution, let alone a civil war, are not such as are likely to build a libertarian society. THIS is especially true when you consider the character of many so-called revolutionaries and the parties that they gravitate to.

I repeat my assertion that many of the "deviations" that Seidman may present may very well have been due to the influence of the communists, often at the point of a bayonet.This doesn't excuse the problems that the anarchists had (as Wetzel presents very well), but it puts the total picture in a different perspective.

The Spanish Revolution was NOT a demonstration of how "right" neo-conservative ideas are. It was a demonstration of how difficult it is for ordinary people to set up,ways of governing their own lives. To echo Larry I will say that the "balance" of the experience shows that this is is indeed possible.

I have my own ideas about the ideological divisions of Spanish anarchism at the time, that are reflected in the ideological divisions of anarchism today. But the idea that people should look to their own self interest is, if anything, a vindication of anarchism, not a criticism of it.