The Anarchists Revolt: The CNT’s Social Revolution

Today a guest post from Fletcher Warren (’15), double-majoring in History and Business & Political Science at Bethel. Based on his research project in HIS354 Modern Europe, but while that paper focused on the international dimensions of the Spanish Civil War, this blog post explores the revolution-within-a-war undertaken by Spanish anarchists.

The Spanish Civil War was one of the most complex and bewildering conflicts of the 20th century. Occurring directly before WWII, it is a conflict often overlooked by non-Spaniards and Hispanicists; outside of the country, the war’s importance was quickly overshadowed by the world war, and beyond this, the Great Powers of the day — Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union — pursued a non-interventionary policy, at least on the surface (the latter three nations actively shipped arms and troops to Spain, in defiance of a British-led non-interventionary agreement all had signed).

Pre-September 1936 CNT poster urging resistance to Franco - UCSD Southworth Collection
“To the Front!” Pre-September 1936, CNT poster – UCSD Southworth Collection

The war is endlessly fascinating, not least because of the beautiful array of visual and written arts produced by both sides; propaganda posters in particular are fantastic records of the war and reflect a high level of art, bearing witness to both art deco and Soviet realist influences. I must confess, I chose to focus on the anarchist revolution in the midst of the war largely because I wanted to share some of this art. Although I won’t analyze it directly, art serves as a good point of entry to examine the Spanish anarchists as much of the early post art was designed and printed by the anarchist trade unions. (A wonderful collection of posters has been digitized by the University of California San Diego in their collection entitled The Visual Front.)

Among the many problems faced by Spanish society in the runup to the war were the deep political divisions rampant in the country. Pre-Francoist Spain was home to a dizzying array of political affiliates, ranging from divine-right monarchists who advocated the restoration of the King, to Fascists, various Catholic parties, Republicans, Liberals, communists, socialists and anarchists. What’s more, each of these groups was well established (with regional variance) and could claim significant numbers of adherents. Spain’s problems, which included high unemployment and a land-estate system which privileged a few wealthy landowners over millions of desperately poor itinerant workers, were all the more intractable due her people’s political divisions; each political group espoused differing values and so pushed for contradictory solutions.

In 1935, a coalition government comprised of socialists and liberal Republicans, as well as a weak communist party, came to power and was tasked with attempting to continue the reforms of previous governments. With violence on the rise throughout the country, the weak government attempted to carry out a program of liberalization which ran afoul of Catholics, traditionalists, and most parties right-of-center. An opposition began forming in the military, and on July 17th, 1936, a military coup was launched by General Francisco Franco. The coup failed to go off as planned in much of the country, leaving Franco’s forces with about one third of the country, setting the stage for a brutal and protracted civil war.

Aragon (left), Catalonia (right)
Aragon (left), Catalonia (right)

At this point, one might expect that the parties of the Left would put aside differences and rally together to fight the insurrectionists. In fact, the exact opposite happened. Although socialists, anarchists, and communists are all parties of the Left, they each have fundamentally different ideological commitments. In the power vacuum created by the near-collapse of the government, these different political groups pursued different aims. In particular, the anarchist parties of northern Spain took the opportunity to launch a social revolution. This revolution was genuine, spontaneous, and organized voluntarily by a broad section of workers at the local level — the first instance in European history of a such a revolution. (The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was spearheaded by a revolutionary vanguard and thus doesn’t qualify) Indeed, it is more accurate to speak of many revolutions as each anarchist group set off on its own independent journey, actively rejecting the government as much as they rejected the Francoist insurrectionists.

Catalonia and neighboring Aragon were home to the largest contingents of anarchists. Spanish anarchism had deep roots in the country, having been brought there by the famous Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in the 19th century. As such, when the restraint of the government fell apart in July of 1936, members of the strongest anarchist trade union in the area, the CNT, were finally free to pursue the revolutionary programme they had long desired.

Anti-Fascist CNT poster ca. November 1936 - UCSD Southworth Collection
Anti-Fascist CNT poster ca. November 1936 – UCSD Southworth Collection

The first actions of the workers groups were to secure themselves against the Fascist threat. With the central government almost totally ineffective and possessing little in way of an actual military, the Francoists posed a far greater immediate threat to the anarchists. Forming militias was an easy task as many labour groups had a long tradition of militia-based organization. Ironically, these militias were aided by the Prime Minister José Giral’s decision to distribute weapons caches to the public as a means of defense.

What followed was a vast and far reaching program of social revolution which upturned traditional institutions and rapidly reorganized society in the anarchist controlled zones. Collectivization of farmland was one of the most important goals, reflecting the land ownership disparities of pre-Civil War Spain. By mid 1937, some 157,000 families cooperated in the agricultural production of 3 million hectares. Remarkably, food production did not suffer, even as collectives reoriented production toward subsistence and away from production for markets. The collectivization process was not limited to farmland and in urban areas included factories and shops. Such enterprises were overseen by ‘Soviets’ (a type of worker committee) of blue and white collar workers, and in a few cases, former employers. Unfortunately, the collectivization process was often accompanied by “revolutionary justice,” which was executed (literally) against as many as 15,000 “counterrevolutionary” forces — landowners, factory owners, Fascists, and priests among others— within the first weeks of the war. Such violence was not part of the official CNT line — the party actively sought to end killing which it claimed were often committed by genuine criminals, freed by the outbreak of war.

“Unification” Spring 1937. Government poster urging unity on the Left (each flag represents a different leftist party) – UCSD Southworth Collection

The revolution was not limited to land reform and collectivization of industry. It also extended to social services, gender roles, and the family. Access to hospitals and medical care was distributed widely throughout the population and a number of new charities sprang up to meet the needs of wartime want. In gender and family spheres, the revolution’s effect on women was complex. On the one hand, women were integrated into the workforce and free childcare was established in order to support working mothers, yet even in revolutionary Aragon (the most extreme case of social adjustment), women were still paid less than men. As the war progressed, CNT propaganda shifted to emphasize the supportive role of women in the home and on the home front.

After the first months of the war, the initial flurry of revolutionary outburst subsided and was replaced by a dogged determination to resist Franco. Relations with the government, which by the end of 1936 had regained some organization, would remain strained through the war. At times, the anarchists cooperated with the government, and at some junctures, the two fought each other, most notably in the May Crisis of 1937. From the government’s perspective, the anarchist militias represented a well trained and able fighting force; as such, a consistent theme from government propaganda is unity among the Left as they attempted to reign the CNT in and co-opt its militias into the regular government army.

The revolution within the war would eventually be stamped out — first diminished by the demands of the war, and later crushed by Franco after his eventual victory in 1939. However, parts of Spain to this day have a significant anarchist ethos, and the CNT, although much diminished by the Francoist winter, is still active in Spanish politics. In 2002, for example, the Seville CNT supported a number of strikes by street cleaners, air stewardesses, and transportation workers, all of which ended on terms favourable to the workers. These successes highlight the present struggle within the CNT; although the union has recently experienced limited (but growing) success among Spanish workers, the CNT faces tensions between its desire to maintain a revolutionary ethic and its need to achieve real results within a political process the union ideologically opposes on principle.

Present-day CNT (2010) - Wikipedia
Present-day CNT (2010) – Wikipedia

_________

For basic reading in the Spanish Civil War, I recommend three books of the same title, The Spanish Civil War. The first two are shorter (~150-200 page) works. Andy Durgan’s book is meant as a primer to the conflict and takes into account competing historiographical concerns. Stanley Payne’s work is introductory in length, but is not intended specifically as an introduction, but rather as a short-form history. The third book is Thomas Hugh’s magisterial tome which represents the single best one-volume comprehensive history of the war. For a detailed look at some of the current debates within the union by a self-described CNT militant, see Anarchism, Anthropology, and Andalucia: An Analysis of the CNT and the “New Capitalism”. 

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