Anarchism in Action in the Spanish Revolution - Chapter 2


Anarchism is a most misunderstood set of ideas. It is constantly portrayed as meaning chaos and violence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anarchists believe in creating a classless society. They oppose capitalism as a system that puts the profits of a small minority of bosses before the needs of the vast majority. It is a system based on the exploitation of workers, a system that inevitably causes poverty starvation and war. Anarchists oppose authority in the sense of opposing the 'right' of any small minority to have power over everyone else. They oppose the State (meaning government, army, police, courts) as an institution whose purpose is to enforce the will of a minority on the majority.

Anarchists believe in class struggle, that the bosses and workers have no common interest and that the workers must organise to take over the running of society Ordinary workers are quite capable of running society. It would be done through a system of workers' councils with mass democracy which would be far more rational democratic and efficient than the existing set-up. Anarchists stand up for the freedom of the individual and oppose all oppression on the basis of race, sex or sexual orientation. The only limit on individual freedom should be that it does not interfere with the freedom of others.

From early on the anarchists opposed the building of bureaucratic State Capitalism in Russia. Initially they supported the revolution but were against the attempts of the Bolsheviks to take power into their own hands and create the seeds of the "dictatorship of the party". Anarchists hold that how you organise will reflect the type of society you want. Small minorities can not liberate the working class, the working class will have to emancipate itself. Democracy and accountability are the cornerstone of anarchist organisation. Direct action is the method. Rather than relying on small groups they say workers do have the power and strength to change society. That strength lies in their ability to organise at the place of work, a strength that should be used not only to win immediate reforms from the bosses but eventually to overthrow the whole system of capitalism. This belief is central to anarchism Anarchists do not only want workers' control of industry, they want a society where all relationships of authority are abolished and people do not look to others to run their lives.


Anarchism had, and still has, a long tradition in Spain. In the middle of the last century anarchist ideas were brought to Spain by Fanelli, an Italian supporter of Michael Bakunin who was one of the founders of modern anarchism. A Spanish section of the First International was set up and the majority within it took the side of the anarchists in the International.

Anarchism developed rapidly due to the harsh economic conditions that workers and peasants had to suffer. Workers increasingly took up the ideas of syndicalism or anarcho- syndicalism, which were developed at the turn of the century. 1911 saw the formation of the CNT. Syndicalism developed as a response to the reformism of the existing trade unions and to the growing isolation of anarchist revolutionaries from the mass of workers. This had happened as a result of a small number of anarchists turning to terrorism and `propaganda by the deed', the belief that they could incite the masses to revolution by committing outrages.

Syndicalism was an attempt to provide a link between the anarchist movement and the workers on the shopfloor. Its basic ideas revolved around all the workers being in one big union. All the employees in a workplace would join. They would link up with those in other jobs in the same area and an area federation would be formed. Delegates from these would go forward to regional federations who were united in a national federation. All the delegates were elected and recallable. They were given a clear mandate and if they broke it they could be replaced with new delegates.


Every effort was made to prevent the growth of a bureaucracy of unaccountable full-time officials. There was only one full-time official in all of the CNT. Union work was done during working hours where possible, otherwise after work. This ensured the officials of the union stayed in contact with the shopfloor. The fear of bureaucracy was such that Industrial Federations that would have linked together all the workplaces of particular industries were hotly opposed. They were eventually conceded in 1931 but never fully built.

Syndicalists distinguished themselves from the other unions by their belief that the unions could be used not only to gain reforms from the bosses but also to overthrow the capitalist system. They believed the Syndicalist union would become the battering ram that would bring capitalism to its knees. They believed that the reason most workers were not revolutionaries was that their unions were reformist and dominated by a bureaucracy that took the initiative away from the rank and file members. Their alternative was to organise all workers into one union in preparation for the revolutionary general strike.

The CNT experienced rapid growth from the time of its formation and by the outbreak of the civil war it had almost two million members. Its strongholds were in Catalonia and Andulucia. It also had large followings in Galicia, Asturias, Levant, Saragossa and Madrid. Its main strength was among textile, building and wood workers as well as amongst agricultural labourers. As it preached social revolution it was subject to vicious repression not only under the semi- dictatorship which ruled until 1931 but also the `reforming' governments which followed. The Popular Front, with its social democratic and Stalinist supporters, joined this list by showing it no mercy.


The CNT was not a revolutionary political organisation. It was an industrial union. Indeed it constantly played up its a-politicism and argued that all that was necessary to make a revolution was for the workers to seize the factories and land. After that the State and all other political institutions would come toppling down. It did not believe the working class must take political power for them all power had to be immediately abolished.

Because it was a union it organised all workers regardless of their politics. Many joined, not because they were anarchists, but because it was the most militant union and actually got results. In fact during the civil war its membership more than doubled (this happened to the UGT too) at least partly due to workers being obliged to join one or other union.

So obviously the CNT was open to those who were not anarchists. There were many internal disputes, and tendencies did arise that were reformist. Because of this the Federation of Iberian Anarchists (FAI) was set up in 1927. It was based on local affinity groups and was not a political organisation as such. It was there to ensure that the CNT remained `pure' in anarchist (FAI) terms. It succeeded in this and many of its members became the leading lights of tile CNT. Other anarchist organisations that existed when the civil war broke out were the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth (FIJL) and Mujeres Libres (Free Women).

There is absolutely no doubt that the initial response to Franco's coup was determined by the fact that the CNT and its anarchist ideas held sway among large sections of the working class. There was no waiting around for government ministers to act, the workers took control. Anarchist influence could be seen in the formation of the militias, the expropriation and reorganisation of the land, and the seizures in industry.


The government found itself in a peculiar situation when the dust had settled after July I 9th. While it remained the government it had no way of exercising its authority. Most of the army had openly rebelled against it. Where the rebellion had been defeated the army was disbanded and the workers now had the arms. The trade unions and left-wing organisations immediately set about organising these armed workers. Militias were formed and these became the units of the revolutionary army. Ten days after the coup there were I 8,000 workers organised in the militias of Catalonia. The vast majority of these were members of the CNT. Overall there were 150,000 volunteers willing to fight whenever they were needed.

This was no ordinary army. There were no uniforms (neck scarves usually indicated what organisation a militia member belonged to) or officers who enjoyed privileges over the ordinary soldiers. This was a revolutionary army and reflected the revolutionary principles of those in its ranks. Democracy was control. The basic unit was the group, composed generally of ten, which elected a delegate. Ten groups formed a century which also elected a delegate. Any number of centuries formed a column, which had a war committee responsible for the overall activities of the column. This was elected and accountable to the workers. Columns generally had ex-officers and artillery experts to advise them - but these were not given any power.

Workers joined the columns because they wanted to. They understood the need to fight and the necessity of creating a "popular army". They accepted discipline not because they were told to but because they understood the need to act in a co-ordinated manner. Members accepted orders because they trusted those who gave them. They had been elected from their own ranks. Militias were aligned with different organisations and often had their own newspapers. These were political organisations that understood the link between revolutionary politics and the war. The militias formed in Barcelona lost no time in marching on Aragon where the capital, Saragossa, had been taken by the fascists. The Durruti Column, named after one of the leading CNT militants, led this march and gradually liberated village after village. The aim was to free Saragossa which linked Catalonia with the second industrial region - the Basque Country, which as well as being a source of raw materials had heavy industries and arms manufacturing plants.

The Durruti column showed how to fight fascism. They understood that a civil war is a political battle, not just a military conflict. As they gained victory after victory they encouraged peasants to take over the land and collectivise. The Column provided the defence that allowed this to be done. The peasants rallied to them. They fed the worker- soldiers and many of them joined. Indeed Durutti had to plead with some of them not to join so that the land would not be depopulated and the task of collectivisation could be carried through.

As the anarchist militias achieved success after success ground was being lost on other fronts. Saragossa, though, was not taken and a long front developed. The militia system was blamed for this. The Stalinists said the workers were undisciplined and would not obey orders. They accused the anarchists of being unwilling to work with others to defeat the fascists.

Of course this was nonsense. The anarchists continually called for a united war effort and even for a single command. What they did demand, though, was that control of the army stayed with the working class. They did not believe that establishing a united command necessitated re-establishing the old militarist regime the officer caste.

The major problem facing the militias was a lack of arms. The munitions industry been cut off and the workers in Barcelona went to great lengths to improvise. Arms were made and transported to the front but there were still not enough of them. George Orwell (who fought in one of the POUM militias) described the arms situation on the Aragon front. The infantry "were far worse armed than an English public school Officers Training Corps, with worn out Mauser rifles which usually jammed after five shots; approximately one machine gun to fifty men (sic) and one pistol or revolver to about thirty men (sic). These weapons, so necessary in trench warfare, were not issued by the government.... A government which sends boys of fifteen to the front with rifles forty years old and keeps its biggest men and newest weapons In the rear is manifestly more afraid of the revolution the fascists".

And how right he was. An arms embargo was imposed by Britain preventing the sale of arms to either side, but not until mid-August. The government which had 600,000,000 dollars in gold, could have brought arms. Eventually this gold was sent to Moscow in exchange for arms but when they arrived there was a systematic refusal to supply the anarchist-controlled Aragon front. The arms that did arrive were sent only to Stalinist-controlled centres. A member of the war ministry referring to the arms which arrived in September commented "I noticed that these were not being given out in equal quantities, but there was a marked preference for the units which made up the Fifth Regiment". This was controlled by the Stalinists. The Catalan munitions plants, which depended on the central government for finance were compelled to surrender their product to such destinations as the government chose. This withholding of arms was fundamental to the strategy of the Stalinists and their allies in government for breaking down the power and prestige of the CNT. The communists wanted to undermine the militias in their efforts to have the regular army restarted. But more of this later.

This lack of arms did not only affect the Aragon front. Irun fell because of the shortage of weapons. One reporter described it. "They fought to the last cartridge (the workers of Irun. When they had no more ammunition they hurled packs of dynamite. When the dynamite was gone they rushed forward barehanded while the sixty times stronger enemy butchered them with their bayonets'. In Asturia the workers were bogged down trying to take Oviedo armed with little more than rifles and crude dynamite bombs. Although a few planes and artillery pieces were begged for, the workers were turned down. Again the government's fear of revolutionary workers took precedence over defeating the fascists.

It is a common lie that the militias, supposedly undisciplined and uncontrollable, were responsible for Franco's advance. All who saw the militias in action had nothing but praise for the heroism they witnessed. The government made a deliberate choice. It chose to starve the revolutionary workers of arms, it decided that defeating the revolution was more important than defeating fascism.

The Land

The peasants did not have to be told by Durruti to take over the land. They had been attempting to do so since the foundation of the Republic. Indeed the first government of the Republic had sent troops to murder peasants who had taken land. In the Republic's first two years, 109 peasants were murdered. It was in the countryside that the Spanish revolution was most far reaching. The anarchist philosophy had been absorbed by large layers of the downtrodden peasants. Indeed at its 1936 Congress the CNT had gone into great detail as to how the anarchist society of the future would look. The peasantry took the opportunity to put these ideas into practice. Their efforts showed what could be done by working people (many of whom were illiterate) given the right conditions. They made a nonsense of the argument that anarchism is not possible because society would collapse without bosses ,government and authority.

Collectivisation of the land was extensive. Close on two thirds of all land in the Republican zone (that area controlled by the anti-fascist forces) was taken over. In all between five and seven million peasants were involved. The major areas were Aragon where there were 450 collectives, the Levant (the area around Valencia) with 900 collectives and Castille (the area surrounding Madrid) with 300 collectives. Not only was the land collectivised but in the villages workshops were set up where the local tradespeople could produce tools, furniture, etc. Bakers, butchers, barbers and so on also decided to collectivise.

Collectivisation was voluntary and thus quite different from the forced "collectivisation presided over by Stalin in Russia. Usually a meeting was called in the village, most collectives were centred on a particular village, and all present would agree to pool together whatever land, tools and animals they had. This would be added to what had already been taken from the big landowners. The land was divided into rational units and groups of workers were assigned to work them. Each group had its delegate who represented their views at meetings of the collective. A management committee was also elected and was responsible for the overall running of the collective. They would look after the buying of materials, exchanges with other areas, distributing the produce and necessary public works such as the building of schools. Each collective held regular general meetings of all its participants.

If you didn't want to join the collective you were given some land but only as much as you could work yourself. You were not allowed to employ workers. Not only production was affected, distribution was on the basis of what people needed. In many areas money was abolished. People come to the collective store (often churches which had been turned into warehouses) and got what was available. If there were shortages rationing would be introduced to ensure that everyone got their fair share. But it was usually the case that increased production under the new system eliminated shortages.

In agricultural terms the revolution occurred at a good time. Harvests that were gathered in and being sold off to make big profits for a few landowners were instead distributed to those in need. Doctors, bakers, barbers, etc. were given what they needed in return for their services. Where money was not abolished a 'family wage' was introduced so that payment was on the basis of need and not the number of hours worked.

Production greatly increased. Technicians and agronomists helped the peasants to make better use of the land. Modern scientific methods were introduced and in some areas yields increased by as much as 50%. There was enough to feed the collectivists and the militias in their areas. Often there was enough for exchange with other collectives in the cities for machinery. In addition food was handed over to the supply committees who looked after distribution in the urban areas.

As with the militias, slander was also thrown at the collectives. It was claimed that each one only looked after itself and did not care about the others. This was rubbish as in many areas equalisation funds were set up to redistribute wealth from the better off areas to the poorer ones. It was ensured that machinery and expertise were shifted to the areas most in need of it. Indeed one indicator of the feeling of solidarity is the fact that 1,000 collectivists from the Levant, which was quite advanced, moved to Castille to help out.

Federations of collectives were established, the most successful being in Aragon. In June 1937 a plenum of Regional Federations of Peasants was held. Its aim was the formation of a national federation "for the co-ordination and extension of the collectivist movement and also to ensure an equitable distribution of the produce of the land, not only between the collectives but for the whole country". Unfortunately many collectives were smashed, not be Franco's army but by the soldiers of the Stalinist General Lister, before this could be done.

The collectivists were not only concerned with their material well being. They had a deep commitment to education and as a result of their efforts many children received an education for the first time. This was not the usual schooling either. The methods of Francisco Ferrer, the world famous anarchist educationalist, were employed. Children were given basic literacy skills and after that inquisitive skills were encouraged. Old people were also looked after and where necessary special homes for them were built. Refugees from the fascist controlled areas were looked after too.


Although the revolution didn't go as far in the cities as it did in the country, many achievements are worth noting. It was in Catalonia, the industrial heartland and stronghold of the CNT, that most was gained. In Barcelona over 3,000 enterprises were collectivised. All the public services, not only in Catalonia but throughout the Republican zone, were taken over and run by committees of workers.

To give some idea of the extent of the collectivisation here is a list provided by one observer (Burnett Bolloten, The Grand Camouflage by no means an anarchist book). He says "railways, traincars and buses, taxicabs and shipping, electric light and power companies, gasworks and waterworks, engineering and automobile assembly plants, mines and cement works, textile mills and paper factories, electrical and chemical concerns, glass bottle factories and perfumeries, food processing plants and breweries were confiscated and controlled by workmens's (sic) committees, either term possessing for the owners almost equal significance". He goes on "motion picture theatres and legitimate theatres, newspapers and printing, shops, department stores and hotels, de-lux restaurants and bars were likewise sequestered".

This shows clearly that the portrayal of anarchism as being something to do with quaint small workshops is untrue. Large factories, some of them employing thousands of workers, were taken over and run by workers' committees.

Often the workplaces were siezed because the owners had fled or had stopped production to sabotage the revolution. But the workers did not stop with these workplaces all major places of work were taken over. Some were run and controlled by the workers. In others "control committees" were established to ensure that production was maintained (these existed to exercise a power of veto on the decisions of the boss in cases where the workers had not taken over the power of management).

In each workplace the assembly of all the workers was the basic unit. Within the factory workers would elect delegates to represent them on day-to-day issues. Anything of overall importance had to go to the assembly. This would elect a committee of between five and fifteen worker, which would elect a manager to oversee the day-to-day running of the workplace - Within each industry there was an Industrial Council which had representatives of the two main unions (CNT and UGT) and representatives from the committees. Technicians were also on these committees to provide technical advice. The job of the Industrial Council was to set out an overall plan for the industry.

Within workplaces wages were equalised and conditions greatly improved. Let us see how collectivisation actually made things better. Take for example the tramways. Out of the 7,000 workers, 6,500 were members of the CNT. Because of the street battles all transport had been brought to a halt. The transport syndicate (as unions of the CNT were known) appointed a commission of seven to occupy the administrative offices while others inspected the tracks and drew up a plan of repair work that needed to be done. Five days after the fighting stopped 700 tramcars, instead of the usual 600, all painted in the black and red colours of the CNT, were operating on the streets of Barcelona.

With the profit motive gone, safety became more important and the number of accidents was reduced. Fares were lowered and services improved. In I 936, 183,543, 516 passengers were carried. In 1937 this had gone up by 50 million. The trams were running so efficiently that the workers were able to give money to other sections of urban transport. Wages were equalised for all workers and increased over the previous rates. For the first time free medical care was provided for the work force.

As well as giving a more efficient service the workers found time to produce rockets and howitzers for the war effort. They worked overtime and Sundays to do their share for the anti-fascist struggle. To further underline the fact that getting rid of the bosses and rulers would not lead to a breakdown of order it can be pointed out that in the two years of collectivisation there were only six cases of workers stealing from the workshops.

Extensive reorganisation took place to make industry more efficient. Many uneconomic small plants, which were usually unhealthy, were closed down and production was concentrated in those plants with the best equipment. In Catalonia 70 foundries were closed down. The number of tanning plants was reduced from 71 to 40 and the whole wood industry was reorganised by the CNT Woodworkers Union.

In 1937 the central government admitted that the war industry of Catalonia produced ten times more than the rest of Spanish industry put together and that this output could have been quadrupled if Catalonia had the access to necessary means of purchasing raw materials.

It was not only production that was taken over. Many parasitic 'middlemen' were cut out of distribution. The wholesale business in fish and eggs was taken over as were the principal fruit and vegetable markets. The milk trade in Barcelona was collectivised which saw over 70 unhygienic pasteurising plants closed down. Every where supply committees were set up. All of this made the middle classes very unhappy. To them, with their notions of becoming bigger bosses, the revolution was a step back.

Again equalisation funds were established to help out the poorer collectives Indeed there were many problems. Many markets were cut off in the fascist zone and some foreign markets were also temporarily lost. Raw materials were short as sources of supply were cut off. and when they could be obtained funds were held back by the central government. This was one short-coming of the collectivisation.

The banks had not been seized and the gold reserve already referred to stayed in the hands of the government. (The CNT did hatch a plan to seize it but backed down at the last moment).

Despite all this production was increased and living standards for many working class people improved. In October 1936 the government was forced to recognise the collectivisation by passing a decree that recognised the fait accompli. It was also an attempt to control future collectivisation.

Social Revolution

This is only a very brief look at the collectivisation that happened. In keeping with anarchist beliefs the revolution did not stop there. For the first time in Spain many workers had the benefit of a health service - organised by the CNT Federation of Health Workers. The Federation consisted of 40,000 health workers - nurses, doctors, administrators and orderlies. Once again the major success was in Catalonia where it ensured that all of the 2.5 million inhabitants had adequate health care.

Not only were traditional services provided but victims of the Civil War were also treated. A programme of preventive medicine was also established based on local community health centres. At their 1937 Congress these workers developed a health plan for a future anarchist Spain which could have been implemented if the revolution had been successful.

The role of women also changed. Many gains were made by them. In relation to their role during the Civil war observers have pointed out that they played a full part in the anti- fascist resistance. They were present everywhere - on committees, in the militias, in the front line. In the early battles of the war women fought alongside the men as a matter of course. It was not merely a case of women filling in for men who were away at the front. (Which is usually the case in wartime. When the war is over and women are no longer needed in the labour force, they are pushed back into the home).

They were in the militias and fought alongside the men as equals. They were organising the collectives and taking up the fight against the sexist attitudes of the past which have no place in any real revolution.

The Anarchist women's organisation, Mujeres Libres (Free Women), had 30,000 members. It had been active before the Civil War organising women workers and distributing information on contraception. During the war abortion was legalised in the 'republican zone'. Centres were opened for women, including unmarried mothers and prostitutes.

From all accounts there truly were changes in attitudes to women. One woman participant in the Civil War has said "it was like being brothers and sisters. It had always annoyed me that men in this country didn't consider women as beings with human rights. But now there was this big change. I believe it arose spontaneously out of the revolutionary movement..." Margorita Balaguer quoted in Blood of Spain ed. Ronald Fraser, page 287.

Everywhere change was apparent. The whole character of Barcelona changed. Posh restaurants no longer existed. Collective eating houses took their place. A spirit of comradeship was in the air.

Everywhere councils of workers and peasants had taken over administration. The Defence Council of Aragon was one of the highest expressions of this. It ran the province and co-ordinated the work of the collectives and militias. All the anti-fascist forces were represented on it but the anarchists were in the majority. In Catalonia a Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias was set up on July 21st. Of its fifteen members five were anarchists, three were UGT, POUM had one, the Communist Party had one and the republicans had four. Although the anarchists were supreme in this province they hoped by sharing power that similar committees would be formed where the CNT was weaker.

This was the situation in 1936. Although the Popular Front government still existed it had no power. It was shorn of the repressive organs of the state. Power was split into countless fragments and scattered in a thousand towns and villages among the revolutionary committees that had taken control of the land and factories, means of transport and communication, the police and the army. The military, economic and political struggle was proceeding independently of the government, and, indeed, in spite of it.

Such a situation is known as one of "dual power". The power of the government was too weak to challenge the power of the workers and peasants. And that power was not conscious enough of the need to dispense with the existence of the government. Failure to do this allowed it to restore its authority and become master of the situation. In trying to understand how this happened it is necessary to look at the role of the Communist Party and that of the CNT leadership.