The CNT, anarchism and Spain: Challenging State and Class Power

By Martin Gauthier

"We accept all natural authorities and all influences of fact, but none of right; for every authority or every influence of right, officially imposed as such, becoming directly an oppression and a falsehood, would inevitably impose on us, as I believe I have sufficiently shown, slavery and absurdity.

In a word, we reject all legislation, all authority, and all privileged, licenced, official and legal influence, even though arising from universal suffrage, convinced that it can turn only to the advantage of a dominant minority of exploiters against the interests of the immense majority in subjection to them.

This is the sense in which we are really Anarchists."
-Michael Bakunin, God and the State

The one thing that I think I can discern concretely from the modest amount of research that I have done on Spanish anarchism during and around the time of the Spanish civil war is that it is an overwhelmingly complex subject. Interpretations of anarchist influence on the war, economics and society abound, and it is difficult to know which ones, if any, are correct. It becomes hard to distinguish between carefully thought out and researched ideas and mere ideological claims. In any case, the history of anarchism in Spain is the only instance where anarchism "can credibly be said to have developed into a major social movement and to have seriously threatened the state" (Marshal 453). The basic question posed by the brief, but hard fought anarchist revolution in the Spanish province of Catalonia, is whether or not an anarchist society is plausible. One might be tempted to answer with a definitive 'yes', but the situation in Spain, at best, provides a somewhat vague insight into what is and is not possible. Undaunted, I will attempt to shed some light on the subject.

First of all, although this essay is not intended to be a discourse on anarchist ideology, it is necessary to establish what is meant by the term "anarchism" before proceeding, because there is much confusion and myth surrounding it. Anarchism, which is notoriously hard to define, can generally be described as a struggle against hierarchy, authority and all imposed restrictions on human freedom that serve no moral purpose. There is a common misconception taking this to mean that anarchists desire chaos and violence on a mass scale. The very word anarchy, originally meaning to be without leader or government, has been perverted to mean chaos and disorder, more an indication of general thought on social organization than of actual anarchist theory. Central to anarchist ideology is the notion that hierarchy is not necessary for coherent, peaceful human social organisation.

Michael Bakunin, a contemporary of Marx and often an opponent of his, was one of the founders of modern philosophical anarchism. At the turn of the century, his ideas had a profound effect on much of the Spanish peasantry and working class, who often received his ideas on class and state oppression with great enthusiasm. Also, Bakunin's writings on the church and clergy as oppressors applied very readily to the Spanish Catholic church, which held considerable wealth and power over an often miserable populace. Generally, it seems that Spanish society was especially suited to anarchist principles. Peter Marshall writes: "anarchist principles of autonomy, association, and federation are peculiarly suited to the independent cast of the Spanish political temperament"(Marshal 453). Much of the Spanish countryside had often been organized into largely independent communes, with their own local systems of laws. Here anarchism found a solid base, and for once was not merely on the fringe of political and social action.

The first major anarchist political power to come about in Spain was the National confederation of Labour (CNT), an organization comprised of several unions. Officially formed on Oct. 30, 1910, the CNT was a radical, revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist union, focussed on the complete "elimination of capitalism, not merely the amelioration of...labour conditions"(Bookchin 133). Indeed, the very idea of anarcho-syndicalism refers to "an economic organization of workers- a revolutionary union as distinguished from a political party- [that] can take over society by means of a general strike"(Bookchin 132). True to anarchist principles of organisation, the CNT was formed in a very anti-authoritarian, decentralized manner. Workers and peasants were represented to the administrative body by delegates elected locally, who could be dismissed at any time. Murray Bookchin describes the nature of the organization:

Obedience to the wishes of the membership was a cardinal rule. At the annual congresses for example, many delegations arrived with mandatory instructions [from their members] on how to vote on each major issue to be considered. If an action was decided upon, none of the [local] delegations which disagreed with it or felt it was beyond the capacity of its membership was obliged to abide by the decision. Participation was entirely voluntary (Bookchin 162).

In the decades leading up to the civil war, the CNT was extremely active, calling innumerable general strikes and sparking agrarian revolt across the country. Entire towns were shut down and industry often paralysed, which, of course, was not well tolerated by the state or its wealthy allies. The CNT was frequently shut down, its press censored, strikes were quelled with troops, whole areas of Spain were put under martial law, many anarchists were executed and hundreds of workers and peasants were killed. The influence of the CNT rose and fell periodically, often suffering under violent government repression.

It was during this time that an organisation called the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) developed within the CNT .It was a federation of dissident members from the CNT, who criticised it during its more moderate periods, when for example, under government pressure it refused to support or even opposed strikes. At this time, if the CNT was harassed by the Spanish government, the FAI was openly at war with it. Its meetings were declared illegal, and the FAI was frequently involved in open gun battles with police. But despite conflict and disagreement, the CNT and the FAI were soon united under a singular goal: revolution.

In 1935, a little less than a year prior to the fascist uprising, the CNT-FAI managed to increase it power significantly. Its membership was well over one million. In response to the rising fascist threat, to which the government was either oblivious or indifferent, the CNT-FAI joined with the UGT - a more conventional socialist union - and various communist factions to create the Popular front, an anti-fascist organisation. Frequent appeals were made to the government to supply arms to the workers, but, fearing revolution more than fascism, the government refused. The day before the fascist revolt, the government censored the anarchist press when it warned of General Franco's plans for a coup.

When Franco's assault finally came, anti-fascist forces across Spain fought bitterly to save the republic. In Barcelona, the CNT-FAI workers, along with the aid of some UGT workers and civil guards, repelled the fascist forces in what is considered by virtually all historians to be a spectacular victory. At that time, the CNT-FAI was at the height of its power and gained almost complete control of the province of Catalonia, collectivising as much factories and land as possible, "the revolution in Barcelona blanketed Catalonia with a revolutionary euphoria that converted the CNT and the FAI into dominant factions almost overnight" (Kern 163). As Orwell, who was there, put it "the revolution was in full swing". His historic account of Barcelona at the time is worth quoting at length:

I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia.... It was the first time that 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 workman. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised....Everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' or 'Thou'... All this was queer and moving. There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.(Orwell 35)

But this was a situation that did not last. The revolution in Catalonia could hardly have come at a worse time; Franco's forces were pushing forwards all over Spain, and the CNT-FAI had to make many compromises to keep up their part in the war. In order to placate the central Spanish government in Madrid, the anarchists had to keep the government in Catalonia operational, even though they held the power and could have easily dissolved it. So the CNT-FAI was forced to collaborate. Eventually, the balance of power shifted, and the Catalan government began to hold power over the CNT-FAI. Stalinists, favoured by the government for their counter-revolutionary policies gained influence throughout Spain and their Catalan chapter, the PSUC which would later play a role in anarchist suppression, rose in power*.

* The Stalinists, directly associated with Moscow, were under orders to curry favour with the Spanish government, hence their counter-revolutionary role in the war.

The anarchist revolution is, predictably, an area of some debate. Many feel that had the anarchist revolution been implemented in full, there would have been a significant increase in resistance. Others claim that the disruption it necessarily caused was a major factor in the eventual fascist victory

These scholars maintain that anarchist control and the "chaos" that ensued caused a decrease in production, arms especially. This may be true to some extent, but consider the situation faced by the CNT: they were trying to implement a completely socialized anarchist economy; doing their best to fight Fraco's forces; dealing with extremely hostile and counter-revolutionary governments, both the cental government in Madrid, which was hesitant if not completely opposed to sending aid to a province threatening bourgeois supremacy, and the Catalan government, influenced by tyrannically repressive Stalinists; all the capital that could had fled the region, taking away significant resources; and finally, they were facing a world of capitalist powers that had no interest in helping aid a revolution. This being the situation, I think it remarkable that anarchist Catalonia contributed to the war effort to the extent that it did. To be sure, rigidly disciplined proletarians, working at their factories under hardly livable conditions while fearful of their masters might have provided for a better war economy, and robotic hordes of soldiers, fitted under strict command would most likely have proved a better fighting force, but these are the very things that the anarchists were fighting against, and they weren't about to give way to them now that it had become possible to abolish, in large part, many of these systems of control.

The anarchist militias provided for the war were loosely disciplined, orders were not absolute, and commanders were given power only in virtue of their military abilities and were paid no more than the militia regulars. Nevertheless, the militias were renowned for their enthusiasm, and did contribute meaningfully to the war effort. How much so? This is a difficult question, as there seems to be some disagreement among scholars, and to answer it fully is beyond the scope of this essay.

In the end, the anarchist control of Catalonia was defeated, not by the fascists, but by the Catalan government and the Stalinist communists. Open hostilities began between them when civil guards (equivalent to police or military police) attacked CNT-FAI run telephone company in Barcelona, in May 1937**. The CNT-FAI and a Trotskyist organisation known as the POUM who had sided with the anarchists took to building barricades in the streets. Bitter fighting ensued in which hundreds were killed. Eventually the anarchists abandoned the streets, seeing the need for co-operation against Franco's army at all costs. However, "the immediate consequences of the May events are as follows: destruction of the POUM...departure of the CNT from the central government...loss of influence of anarchism and general repression in Catalonia" (Casas 209). The anarchists, forced to collaborate with the Catalan government, were eventually destroyed by it. The FAI was heavily repressed, and all power that the CNT had achieved was now, in large part, gone.

** It is not clear whether the Guards acted alone or under orders from the Catalan government or the communists

What did the revolution mean for the people of Catalonia? Again this is another difficult question to answer. There are some facts, however, that can give insight as to the situation. Most of the wealthy landowners had their land expropriated by the peasantry, and in the cities, the CNT, an essentially worker controlled union ran most of the factories. 3/4 of the land had been collectivised; the anarchists did succeed in socializing the economy in large part, freeing the mass of their social masters. Production may or may not have deceased, but again, in fairness we should consider the situation that Catalonia was facing. In either case Research into the economics of Catalonia at the time is again far beyond the reach of this essay.

All things considered, it may have been better for Spain had the anarchist revolution had never happened. But this is quite easy to say in hindsight and cannot be considered a blow to the principles of the anarchist movement. To accuse anarchism of being wildly undisciplined, and not suited to war is to miss the point of the movement entirely. Marshall concludes that "the defeat of the anarchist movement in Spain did not result from a failure of anarchist theory and tactics, but rather a failure to carry though the social revolution. If the latter had not been sacrificed for the war effort, and the communists had not seized power, the outcome may well have been very different " .

(Marshall 464). To a degree, I think Marshal may be right, but whether or not the revolution had been fully implemented, fascism would still have prevailed. Also, it is likely that, had the revolution never occurred, the republic may have had a better chance, at least in terms of the troops and materiel supplied by Catalonia, of winning against Franco.

Regardless, anarchism is not a struggle for efficiency or martial prowess, it is a struggle for human freedom. The question of importance raised by Spanish anarchism, is not 'what should they have done', but, as Murray Bookchin puts it, "whether it is possible for people to gain full, direct, face-to-face control over their everyday lives, to manage society in their own way - not as ëmasses' guided by professional leaders" (Bookchin 8). Does Spanish anarchism prove that state and class control is fundamentally inessential? I don't think one can have such concrete answers as that, and my understanding of the complex social phenomenon that was the Spanish revolution is too limited to draw such a conclusion. I do, however, believe that at the very least, it has provided a challenge to the simplistic notion that the lack of hierarchy necessarily results in complete chaos, and that human beings must, to live in peace, have their actions directed from above.


Bakunin, Michael. God and the State. Toronto: General Mills Publishing Company, Ltd, 1970. Bookchin, Murray. The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1869-1936. New York: Free Life Editions, 1977.

Casas, Juan Gomez. Anarchist Organisation: The History of the FAI. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1986.

Kern, Robert W. Red Years / Black Years: A Political History of Spanish Anarchism. 1911-1937. Philadelphia: Institute for the study if Human Issues, Inc., 1978.

Landis, Arthur H. Spain! The Unfinished Revolution!. Baldwin Park: The Camelot Publishing company, 1972.

Morrow, Felix. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain. New York: Pathfinder Press Inc., 1974.

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. Toronto: Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 1985.

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