Many Americans are inclined to think that a revolution:

A) is something that is praiseworthy if it happens in the distant past and is led by wealthy men in three-cornered hats and leggings; and

B) is something that inevitably leads to tyranny if led by Leftists waving red or black flags (see George Orwell's Animal Farm); and

C) is something that could only come from the Right in modern America.

It's time to examine those beliefs and see if they hold up.

This week at the Anticapitalist Meetup, we'll take a look at another revolution, the Spanish Revolution of 1936, examine one of its primary agents, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (the National Confederation of Labor, hereinafter CNT), and ask four questions:

  1. Why was the CNT successful in carrying out a revolution in Catalonian Spain in 1936?
  1. What was the result of that Revolution in the brief time that it was control of Catalonia?
  1. How was the Revolution defeated?
  1. Does the Spanish experience teach us anything about how substantive, even radical change might be achieved in our American economic and political system?

Spain and the CNT in the Early 20th Century

Spain was a country of contrasts as it entered the 20th century.  Despite its backward economy and still feudal land relations, it had one of the longest parliamentary traditions in Europe.  This opportunity for political expression combined with the level of grievance of the severely oppressed peasants and the small worker class gave rise to a tradition of radicalism on the Left.  While there was a relatively small bourgeois class that wanted more republican political reforms and Capitalist friendly economic change, there was also a thriving Left among the peasants and workers that demanded more fundamental change.

The Spanish Left was far more anarchist than the Left in other western European countries.  In the great split of the Left, at the First International when Marx squared off against Bakunin, the Spanish delegates had sided with Bakunin, and it was that Anarchist flavor, with its combination of equality and liberty and its opposition to state socialism, that took special hold in Spain.

The anarchist spirit found expression in the CNT, a confederation of unions (or syndicates in European parlance) that shared a disdain for participation in electoral politics, a focus on preparing for a great general strike that would bring down Capitalism rather than local strikes aimed at improving particular labor circumstances, and a deep commitment against creating any kind of union bureaucracy.


There were significant tensions, however, even within the CNT.  On the "right" were those closest to traditional unionists, people who were radical in their view of Capitalism, but focused on fundamental reforms through labor solidarity in a way that was practiced by the more radical American trade unionists like Walter Reuther.  On the "left" were those who followed Buenaventura Durrutti  They were skeptical of even the syndicalist approach to revolutionary activity, preferring communes and citizen councils.  In the middle were the anarcho-syndicalists who sought to organize the CNT as a revolutionary vehicle aimed at breaking Capitalism through the general strike.

The CNT was founded in 1910, but it was during the years of the First World War that it really began to grow.  Spain found itself in an enviable position during the Great War as a non-combatant that could easily serve as a source of supply for the warring powers.  The economy improved, but Spain's Capitalists tended to consume the profit by living in luxury rather than re-investing to modernize Spanish industry.  In the agricultural sector that still employed more than half of Spain's workers, the war brought only hardship as food prices rose but wages did not.

The CNT began to grow in two quite different environments.  Workers in the industrial and relatively advanced region of Catalonia around Barcelona began to join, but so did peasants in some of the poorest, most backward parts of Spain.  The CNT was outlawed in 1914, but it continued to grow as unrest among the populace increased.  Throughout this period of growth, the CNT differed from its older, Marxist competitor, the UGT, in two important respects.  First, it welcomed all into the union whether or not they had a "trade." Second, it had no paid officials in accordance with its policy of no bureaucracy.

The CNT generally resisted any coalitions with other unions or political parties, but in 1916, it tried a common front with the UGT, signing the Pact of Zaragoza.  The two unions called a general strike in 1917 with the socialist UGT in charge and bourgeois "Republicans" supposedly in support.  Once the strike began, the Republicans turned betrayers and the UGT were poor allies.  The CNT learned that its wariness toward coalitions was justified.

The failure of the 1917 general strike led to severe repression of the Left from the Rightist government.  As the war ended in 1918, economic conditions worsened as Spain's non-combatant advantage ended, and CNT membership began to swell. Beginning with 15,000 members in 1914, membership grew to 100,000 by 1918, then to 430,000 by 1919, and finally to 730,000 as 1920 began.

The union called a strike against the Canadian/British power utility in Catalonia, and it was a tremendous success.  Catalonian industry, left without power, was shut down for more than 6 weeks, but the CNT was divided over what the strike should achieve.  The more conservative trade unionist element wanted nothing more than recognition for the CNT as the bargaining agent for the workers, but the majority of the union smelled revolution in the air, especially with the news coming out of Russia and Germany.  The strike discipline faded, and the government was ready to take advantage with troops and repression.  Union leaders were rounded up, offices closed, the strike broken and the CNT outlawed again.

The CNT went underground again, but met in Madrid to clarify and articulate its vision.  It gathered around Bakunist, i.e. anarchist principles, but the attraction of the Bolshevist revolution, whose nature was still somewhat unclear, proved irresistible.  The meeting voted to join Comintern, a decision that would later be reversed.

What followed appeared to be the end of the CNT.  Its leaders were nearly all imprisoned.  Ninety per cent of the membership was lost.  Anarchist "action groups" engaged in resistance, but conditions in Spain continued to worsen as the Rightist dictator, Primo de Rivera, took power in 1923 through a military coup that ended parliamentary government.

Got to Revolution

Primo de Rivera, with the blessing of King Alfonso, ran a Rightist military government until 1930 when the King asked for his resignation because of widespread unrest in the wake of repression and desperate economic conditions worsened by the Great Depression.  The King put another military officer in charge, but soon realized that his personal health was threatened if he remained in Spain too long.  Alfonso fled, and the Second Republic of Spain was born.

The Second Republic was led by a coalition of Right, center Right and center Left parties that did not include the abstentionist CNT.  The government's inability to alleviate the suffering of the people led to widespread strikes and civil unrest throughout the country, but a miners' strike in Asturias in 1934 made especially clear the government's inability to cope.  

The miners reacted against the entry into the government of the hard Right party, CEDA, that they viewed as ideological cousins to the Nazis in Germany.  The miners, led mostly by the Marxist PSOE, seized the mine and the nearby city of Oviedo.  Meanwhile, the CNT led a general strike in Catalonia.  The government sent in troops to Asturias led by General Francisco Franco, whose actions earned him the title of "Butcher of Asturias."

The government fell and new elections were called in January of 1936, but the socialist PSOE had been radicalized and became more revolutionary in its rhetoric.  They formed a "Popular Front" with the Stalinist Communist Party and leftist Republicans, while the Right formed the National Front made up the hard Right CEDA and center right parties.  Two groups did not participate.  The CNT remained abstentionist in elections, and the Fascist Falangists, founded by Primo de Rivera's son, also officially stayed out of the election although they lent support to the National Front.

The Popular Front won a very narrow victory in July, 1936 and tried to form a government.  The Falangists had another idea, however.  Franco had been re-assigned to Spanish Morocco after his bloody encounter in Asturias, and he and other military officers had conspired to stage a coup if the Popular Front won the election.  Franco revolted a few days after the election and issued a manifesto calling on other officers to join him.

That's when the real Spanish Revolution took place.

CNT members, with the cry of "UHP!" (Unite, Proletarian Siblings!), took to the streets in a general strike.  They stormed the barracks of the rebellious military in Barcelona where they were aided by sympathetic soldiers, and captured the armory.  In Valencia, they surrounded the barracks as well, but had to wait for arms from the CNT comrades in Barcelona because the Republican government refused to give them guns even though they were risking their lives to put down a coup against that same government.  Barracks were stormed and taken in Madrid as well.

CNT was joined in the revolution by the Marxist POUM party, an anti-Stalinist group.  Together, the CNT and POUM thwarted the Fascist coup in much of Spain while carrying out a revolution that effectively ousted the Second Republic government in large parts of Spain.

"Perfect Equality"

The Fascists had attempted a coup to eliminate a mildly Leftist Republican government, and they had gotten an anarchist revolution in return.  Such a result could not stand, and the Falangists used what troops were still in their control and added to it money and troops from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.  The Spanish Civil War had begun.

Anti-fascists around the world responded to the fight.  Though the political situation in Republican Spain was, to say the least, "confused," people were arriving from England, France and even the United States to fight against Franco.

George Orwell was one of those volunteers.  He ended up in Catalonia as a member of a POUM militia fighting alongside CNT militias against the Fascists.  Being in Spain at such a time was a profound experience for him:

But it (the revolution) lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it.  However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable.  One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word "comrade" stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug.  One had breathed the air of equality.

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

What was it that impressed Orwell so much?  He describes the atmosphere in greater detail:

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragón one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilised life– snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.– had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master.

There was violence, destruction of property and killing during the revolution.  Churches were particular targets, but the Fascist propaganda that anarchists crucified nuns and shot priests on site was dismissed by Orwell as "odious lies."

Did a new revolutionary elite take charge and replace the old oppressors with new ones?  Not according to most accounts.  Orwell describes the militia in detail.  There were officers and orders were given.  But pay was equal, and there were no distinctions in uniform.  The lowliest private had no fear of publicly disagreeing with an officer, and decisions were often arrived at by consensus according to the anarchist custom.

At first, Orwell thought this state of affairs absurd and unworkable, but he began to realize that the militia was able to fight despite its primitive weapons and almost complete lack of training.  He describes in great detail one operation in which he was involved where his group seized and held a Fascist parapet until ordered to retreat.  When they realized two of their comrades were missing, they risked their lives going back to retrieve them.

In the countryside, the anarchist Durrutti and his soldiers encouraged the peasants to seize and collectivize the land of the fleeing landlords who had oppressed them for generations.

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.

Orwell's account of what he saw in Barcelona concurs with the admittedly pro-Anarchist view above:

It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle  and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said Señor or Don or even Usted; everyone called everyone else Comrade and Thou, and even said Salud! instead of Buenos dias.

There were revolutionary changes not only in economic affairs, but social and family ones as well:

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.

The World United

So what happened to this Anarchist miracle?  Why didn't it last?  The shortest and truest answer is that the world united to bring it down.  When Franco's coup failed, the Italians and Germans stepped in to back up the Spanish Fascists.  The Capitalist democracies watched and did nothing, perhaps fearing the Anarchists more than the Fascists.  Orwell claims that the British even moved two destroyers into Barcelona harbor at one point to show the Anarchists a little gunboat diplomacy.

But the worst of all may have been the Soviets.  Stalin was the master of realpolitik, and when the old Soviet line of supporting revolutionary movements and opposing popular fronts with bourgeois parties seemed to fail in Germany in 1933, he changed policy completely.  Looking ahead, Stalin saw that Hitler constituted a threat to the Soviet Union's existence, and it would be necessary to form alliances with Capitalist democracies to defeat the Nazis.  From the United States to France to Spain, the Communist Party switched its stance almost overnight from one of advocating revolution to one of cooperating with anyone willing to call themselves anti-Fascist.  In the United States, that meant that the CPUSA formed a Popular Front with FDR's New Deal Democrats.  In Spain, it meant they supported the reformist Republicans and opposed the revolutionary CNT and POUM.  

Once Stalin began supplying arms and some troops to the Republicans, the Communist party's (PSUC) influence swelled, and they became a part of the Republican government.  Their main aim became not to defeat the Fascists but to destroy the revolutionary CNT and POUM.  POUM, being smaller and weaker, was first to go.  Its offices were raided, its leaders imprisoned, even its militiamen became suspects.  Orwell himself had to flee Spain to avoid arrest.

The CNT by this time had 1.5 million members and couldn't be so easily suppressed.  The PSUC proceeded in steps.  First, they incorporated the militias into the regular Republican army, re-introducing--ironically--differentials in pay and uniform.  Second, they refused to distribute any of the more modern Soviet arms to the CNT militias.  Then they moved to disarm CNT and the CNT militias completely.  Finally, the CNT was again outlawed and its leaders arrested.

All along the way, the Stalinists claimed that the "Trotskyite" POUM and CNT were collaborating with the Fascists and undermining the Republic's efforts to defend itself.  In fact, it was the CNT and POUM militias that were doing most of the fighting.  Orwell argues convincingly that it was the Stalinists who were undermining the war effort by sowing division and taking the steam out of a very popular revolution.

The combined might of German arms and Soviet skulduggery were too much to resist.  It took the Fascists three years, but eventually they took all of Spain.

Where's the American CNT?

Has there ever been an organization in the U.S. like the CNT?  There has.

Five years before the CNT's founding, in 1905, some of America's most famous Leftists gathered to form the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, known as "Wobblies."  Eugene Debs, Socialist candidate for President, was there.  So was Mother Jones.  So was Big Bill Haywood.  Later on, famed Leftist songwriter Joe Hill would be a member.  Modern day Wobblies include Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.

Like the CNT, the IWW welcomed all: skilled and unskilled, male and female, and unique in the early 20th century, black and white.  Its approach to Capitalism was the same: build to the point where a general strike can bring down the system.  The IWW never managed to grow to CNT's size, however.  It was always severely oppressed.  Joe Hill was framed on a murder charge and executed.  "Don't mourn, organize," was his final message.  Other IWW members were shot by bosses' thugs or imprisoned on charges of violating prohibitions against public speaking on labor issues.

Yet their influence was still perceived as a threat.  Zinn says:

In the ten exciting years after its birth, the IWW became a threat to the capitalist class, exactly when capitalist growth was enormous and profits huge.  The IWW never had more than five to ten thousand enrolled members at any one time; people came and went, and perhaps a hundred thousand were members at one time or another.  But their energy, their persistence, their inspiration to others, their ability to mobilize thousands at one place, one time, made them an influence on the country far beyond their numbers.

The IWW opposed America's entry into the First World War.  After all, Wilson had campaigned on a peace platform, then turned around and pushed for war almost as soon as the votes were counted.  The IWW, like the Socialists, fought against the war and the conscription that attended it.

Capitalists of America, we will fight against you, not for you!  Conscription!  There is not a power in the world that can make the working class fight if they refuse.

The government responded ruthlessly.  In 1917, they raided 48 IWW offices simultaneously and arrested 165 IWW leaders.  Over a hundred were tried at one time in a five-month trial that the IWW used to tell the world about itself and its work.  Big Bill Haywood spelled it out:

You ask me why the IWW is not patriotic to the United States.  If you were a bum without a blanket; if you had left your wife and kids when you went west for a job, and had never located them since; if your job had never kept you long enough in a place to qualify you to vote; if you slept in a lousy, sour bunkhouse, and ate food just as rotten as they could give you and get by with it; if deputy sheriffs shot your cooking cans full of holes and spilled your grub on the ground; if your wages were lowered on you when the bosses thought they had you down; if there was one law for Ford, Suhr, and Mooney, and another for Harry Thaw; if every person who represented law and order and the nation beat you up, railroaded you to jail, and the good Christian people cheered and told them to go to it, how in hell do you expect a man to be patriotic?  This war is a business man's war and we don't see why we should go out and get shot in order to save the lovely state of affairs that we now enjoy.

All were convicted, and many gave up on the U. S.  Haywood jumped bail and fled to revolutionary Russia.  The IWW was shattered.  Even so, its ideas survived.  Even as soon as 1919, a general strike on the IWW model closed down Seattle and evoked terror in the hearts of Capitalists who feared that revolution was coming to America as it had come to Russia.

The American labor movement was resurgent in the 1930s just as it was in Spain.  In the U. S., however, it was radical reformists like the Reuthers and the CIO that enjoyed the most success rather than revolutionaries like the CNT or IWW.  America's reformist unionists enjoyed victory after victory, eventually organizing millions in most of the major American industries while winning major gains in wages, benefits and working conditions for workers.  While politically neutral in their most fruitful organizing years in the mid-1930s, the labor movement became completely identified with the Democratic Party in the 1940s.  In the period of Republican ascendancy since 1968, the power and numbers of organized labor have steadily declined.

There are huge differences between 1930s Spain and 21st century America.  While Spain lagged technologically behind the rest of western Europe, the United States is technologically advanced.  Spain had a monarchist tradition that was not overthrown until 1931.  America has been a republic for more than 200 years.

There are some interesting similarities, though.  Spain was under the thumb of a alliance of militarists, the Roman Catholic Church, land-holding aristocrats and Capitalists.  The United States has its Military Industrial Complex, its Religious Right and its Masters of the Universe. Spain had a small and struggling working class in a declining manufacturing sector along with a permanent underclass of the property-less.  America's manufacturing workers have been suffering layoffs for a generation and our permanent underclass is now growing.  Spain always had a strong current of resistance to central authority and Statism, thus the Spanish Left's preference for Bakunin over Marx.  Many Americans complain about a "Nanny State" and long for a return to local autonomy in the Jeffersonian tradition.

Those who argue for reformism will point to how short-lived the Spanish "perfect equality" was.  Those who reject reformist approaches will note how the American labor movement has failed to hold on to its gains and declined precipitously over the past 30 years.

Could a CNT/IWW (re-)arise here and use direct action to achieve a better society?  A few things are clear:

  1. It may take years of surviving under government oppression because no set of ideas is regarded as more dangerous to the defenders of the status quo than anarchism.
  1. It will take a persistent rejection of reformist approaches and invitations to popular fronts, coalitions and collaboration.
  1. When the time is ripe, events will happen quickly, and the pace of change can overwhelm.
  1. Success will create a nearly universal alliance to undo that success.

So you say you want a revolution?  Remember two things.  First, it will never be easy.  Second, if we take Orwell's response to the Spanish revolution seriously, there may be no nobler dream.

Originally posted to goinsouth on Sun Oct 03, 2010 at 02:57 PM PDT.

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