The Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution

Chuck Morse done an interview (February 2, 2009) with Stuart Christie, author of We, The Anarchists (AK Press, 2001). I haven’t read the book, but it brings to mind Vernon Richards’ Lessons of the Spanish Revolution (Freedom Press, Third Edition, 1983), at least insofar as Christie’s final remarks are concerned:

I hope the book will give today’s anarchist activists some insight into the FAI [Iberian Anarchist Federation] experience so that they can create that new world in their hearts—without, hopefully, making the same mistakes. I also hope the book makes clear that anarchism is much more than a movement of permanent protest.

(Stuart’s site, incidentally, has a neat anarchist filmography. See also: AnarchoTV 2.0.)


I also try to show, by using the historical example of the anarcho-syndicalist labor union, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and the FAI, how anarchists and anarchist organizations are equally subject to the process of institutionalization and what the German sociologist Robert Michels described as “Iron law of oligarchy” as any other social groupings.

“It is organization,” Michels wrote, “that gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandatories over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy.”

We, The Anarchists outlines the evolution of the anarchist movement in Spain and its relationship to the wider labor movement, while providing insights into the main ideas which made the Spanish labor movement one of the most revolutionary of modern times. It also addresses, from an anarchist perspective, the problem of understanding and coping with change in the contemporary world: how can ideals survive the process of institutionalization?

As Christie notes, “The Iberian Anarchist Federation has been demonized both by the right and the authoritarian left”. Regarding the latter, ‘The Spanish Civil War and the Popular Front’, Part one & Part two by Ann Talbot (January 26 & 27, 2009) does not so much demonize the FAI as ignore it.

Also published online recently (@ Kasama, Mike Ely’s blog) is a Maoist analysis of the Civil War and Revolution, originally published in the Revolutionary Communist Party’s zine Revolution in June 1981. It concentrates on criticising the Comintern’s policy (ie, Uncle Joe). Naturally, anarcho-syndicalism is dismissed as “at bottom conservative, closer to the outlook and interests of the petty bourgeoisie than of the proletariat”, with the usual caveat that while there “is much to criticize in the anarchist line… it is unarguable that something about the spirit and style of their work much more challenged the masses, was much more rebellious, than the stuffed-shirt trade-unionism of the Socialists and what was soon to be the ‘respectable antifascism” of the Communist Party.”

They, The Anarchists — a bit stoopid (‘anti-intellectual’), but hella enthusiastic. The same line is evident in most leftist commentary on anarchism, whether it concerns that of the 1930s or the twenty-first century (see ‘Anarchism and the Anti-Globalization Movement’, Barbara Epstein, Monthly Review, September 2001) — which is not to suggest there isn’t an element of truth to some of these observations… but that’s another story, and not one many are interested in hearing.

For a recent Trotskyist criticism of the CNT/FAI, see ‘When anarchism was put to the test’ by Josh Lees (Socialist Alternative, No.134, October/November 2008). A more substantial critique is contained in ‘Towards a History of Workers’ Resistance to Work’ and Workers Against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Fronts by Michael M. Seidman (Seidman unsuccessfully resists working at the University of North Carolina).

I do not wish to ignore the fact that workers’ refusals to work harmed the fight against Franco and weakened French defenses in a period of Nazi rearmament. Yet one might interpret resistance itself as suggesting a working-class utopia in which wage labor would be reduced to a minimum. Resistance was also a conjunctural and cyclical phenomenon, but refusals remained an intrinsic part of working-class culture and manifested themselves in different periods with various divisions of labor. During the Popular Fronts, workers revolted against a variety of disciplines, including that imposed by working-class organizations. Wage earners certainly wished to control their workplaces but generally in order to work less. One may speculate that the way to eliminate resistance is not by workers’ control of the means of production but rather by the abolition of wage labor itself.

Duh. The question is: how?

Barry Pateman on ‘Anti-Franco Activism After the Spanish Civil War’, an extract from his essay in No.65 of Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, Spring/Summer 2008:

As you get older you find yourself doing more and more of these events and it’s quite sad as well as quite heartening in many ways. I remember speaking 20 years ago in Conway Hall, in London, about 50 years after the Spanish Revolution, and it is somewhat haunting to think that that generation of militants are now dead and gone.

So tonight I want to talk about the anarchist resistance to Franco, from 1939 onwards. Before I do that I want to say two or three things, because some of the things I say may sound rather harsh and critical of the CNT (and I’m not really going to talk about anything else apart from anarchism). So if it sounds harsh, it’s simply to try and be realistic. I am not particularly cruel or thoughtless or heartless or smug. It’s very easy for all of us, 70 years onward, to say clever statements about it or think smugly about it or try and use it as a debating point. The truth of the matter is that probably if you look at the 20th century, the anarchists, both in the CNT-FAI and the FIJL (the libertarian youth), and the anarchists who were not involved in those organizations, came nearer to creating a revolutionary change in everyday life than anyone else ever did.

See also : Lucio Urtubia (June 6, 2008) | Fascist wankers in Spain mourn hijo de puta Franco (November 20, 2007) | Anarchy, Memory & ‘Forgetting’: Salvador Puig Antich (February 25, 2007) | Salvador Puig Antich : The Film (October 2, 2006) | The Guardian on the reign in Spain (July 30, 2006) | Barcelona, 1936; Strangling the life out of fascism : Spain, 1936 (July 21, 2006) | KSL on the Spanish Revolution (July 17, 2006) | The Spanish Revolution and the English Literati (July 16, 2006)

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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