The Spanish revolution and its relevance today


This year marks the 76 anniversary of the ‘Spanish Civil War’ which is one of the most mis-understood conflicts in the 20th century. For some particular those wedded to a traditional view of history the war was merely between the forces of fascism and those committed to defending the democratically elected Republican Government. It is also this time of year when we will be greeted with a range of lectures and talks organised by the Communist Party inspired International Brigades Commemoration Committee across Ireland which deliberately distorts the reality of the 'civil war'. However, for anarchists nothing could be further from the truth. The social revolutionary upheaval was not just a battle against fascism but a new society in the making-libertarian communism.

  Anarchists believe in creating a classless society. We 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, social inequality and war- where 234 of the most richest individuals in the world have the combined wealth of the 40% most poorest. Anarchists oppose authority in the sense of opposing the 'right' of any small minority to have power over everyone else. We 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 the rest of us have no common interest and that we must organise to take over the running of society.  We 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, gender or sexual orientation. The only limit on individual freedom should be that it does not interfere with the freedom of others.

 For a brief time between 1936-39, capitalism and the State were replaced by solidarity, mutual aid and workers control. Workers and peasants, who were deeply influenced by anarchist ideas, ran society collectively and gained control over their lives, industry and land. A central part of the revolution was the struggle against a fascist attempt to take over Spain. Without romanticising the past, we remember both the magnificent triumphs and tragedies of the Spanish revolution and attempt to learn from their mistakes.

The revolution showed that workers, peasants and the poor could create a new world without bosses or a government. It showed that anarchist ideas and methods (such as building revolutionary unions) could work. Yet despite all this, the revolution was defeated. By 1939, the fascists had won the civil war and crushed the working-class and peasants with a brutal dictatorship supported by western powers such as Britain and US.

Why did this happen? The revolution was defeated partly because of the strength of the fascists. They were backed by the rich, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany and the bogus non-intervention pact by Britain, France and US etc.

The anarchist CNT also made mistakes. Apart from failing to securing the gold before Stalin did, it aimed for maximum anti-fascist unity and joined the Popular Front government, which included political parties from government and pro-capitalist forces. This required the CNT to make many compromises in its revolutionary programme. It also gave the Popular Front government an opportunity to undermine and destroy the anarchist collectives and the workers militias, with the Communist Party playing a leading role in these attacks at the behest of Stalinist Russia who along with the republican government were more afraid of the social revolution in its midst and arming the workers militias than fighting fascism.

The defeat of the Spanish Revolution does not negate anarchism. If anything, long before Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary it showed the bankruptcy of Stalinism and the State Capitalism of Russia and Cuba.

The anarchist masses threw themselves into a fight against fascism, and its cause, capitalism. Unfortunately the revolution was not complete, the CNT leaders held it back. Indeed their behaviour highlights the effect that power can have on even those who lay claim to anarchism. For from romanticising the past Spain provides an important lesson for us today in times of the latest crisis in capitalism in which we are all bearing the brunt of in terms of poverty wages, increase cost in living and job cuts etc. It showed that those who make a half revolution dig their own graves. It’s a bit like an armed insurrection in Belfast where all workplaces are expropriated under workers’ control, state forces banished from the Shankill and the Falls but we leave Belfast city hall and Stormont still standing. We have to understand that the state and political power does not 'die'; it has to be smashed before it begins to re-assert itself and its dominance.

The reality is Anarchist ideas, as a fighting tradition of the world-wide working class, have a magnificent history. From Russia to China to South America to Mexico to North America and of course to Spain the influence has been huge.

Above all. Spain showed what ordinary people can do given the right conditions.  The showing of this film in this occupied building in the heart of Belfast provides a small glimpse of what is possible of direct action and solidarity in action without relying on politicians or other intermediaries. The class struggle ebbs and flows and so does potential revolutionary situations- we only have to look at the Arab Spring and the global occupy movement to highlight our potential power we have, that we are far from reaching the end of history as some the apologists for neo-liberalism predicted after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Spanish revolution proved that ideas, which look good in the pages of theory books, look even better on the canvas of life.

While film showings such as this are informative, the most important lesson we need to take from it is the need to organise at the coalface in our communities and workplaces where can make a fundamental difference to our lives and that of others, because knowone will and can do it for us.

Unfortunately the film showing 'Living Utopia' failed to take place in the Peoples Bank in Belfast due to technical difficulties but above is the my notes for the discussion. However the film can be viewed here online for free

For further information on the Spanish revolution and anarchism check out