The Spanish revolution in August 1936

Chapter 2 August 1936

In Valencia, the militants of the CNT, FAI and FIJL (Federacion Iberica de Juventudes Libertarias - the anarchist youth movement) who had led the attack on the city's army barracks on 18 July met in a monastery that they had converted into a temporary militia quarters, and formed what was to become known as the Iron Column. In line with anarchist policy, all prisoners were released when the jails were opened during an insurrection. Many of these were common-law prisoners, who had been politicised during their imprisonment by anarchist or 'social' prisoners, and chose to fight alongside their liberators. With several hundred freed prisoners among its numbers, the new column set off for the Teruel Front, where they later routed the fascists at Sarion, in the Mastrazgo, on 13 August. The column then captured the village of La Puebla, where they declared libertarian communism and set up their headquarters. They quickly established a defensive line, some 15 miles from Teruel, which stretched from Andeguela to Forniche. The rebel advance on Valencia was halted.

'Our very own'

One of the prisoners liberated by the anarchists from the Valencian prison of San Miguel de Los Reyes has left us a personal account of the formation of what was quickly to become the most uncompromisingly revolutionary but also the most vilified of all the militia columns:

"I am one of the ones who were freed from San Miguel de Los Reyes, a sinister prison built by the monarchy as a burial place for men like us who, being no cowards, have never submitted to the infamous laws devised by the powerful against the oppressed. Like so many others, I was taken there for having committed an offence in that I had revolted against the degradation visited upon an entire country . . . I had taken the life of a bully. Out along with me came many men who had also suffered and also been scarred by the ill-treatment they had experienced since birth. Some, as soon as they hit the streets, dispersed throughout the world; others of us rallied to our liberators who treated us as friends and loved us as brothers. Together with these we have gradually formed the Iron Column, together with them we have wasted no time in storming the barracks and disarming fearful guards; together we have, in hard-fought attacks, driven the fascists back as far as the Sierra peaks where they remain today. Accustomed to taking what we need, we seized rifles and provisions in repulsing the fascists. And for a time we dined off what was offered to us by the peasantry. And without anyone making us a gift of a single weapon, we have armed ourselves with what we have wrested from the insurgent troops by the strength of our arms. The rifle that I clutch, the rifle that has been at my side ever since I turned my back on that fateful prison is mine, my very own, I took it from the man who bore it and nearly all the rifles that my comrades carry are, by the same token, our very own."1

The Iron Column, like other militias, set up a war committee with the following structure:

"The establishment of the War Committee is acceptable to all the confederal militias. Taking the individual as the starting point, we form groups of ten, which manage minor operations for themselves. Ten groups make up one centuria, which nominates a delegate to represent it. Thirty centurias make up one column, which is led by the War Committee composed of the centuria delegates."2

A target for vilification

The Iron Column's fighting strength in the early days was some 1,500 men, but in spite of the obstacles placed in its way by the government and the regional leadership of the CNT in Catalonia, this later rose to 3000. It had bases scattered throughout five provinces: Castellón de la Plana, Valencia, Alicante, Murcia and Albacete. The Iron Column also enjoyed the support of two publications - Linea de Fuego, a four-page daily news bulletin for the men at the front, and Nosotros, based in Valencia. The latter also acted as the organ of the FAI and the FIJL. Linea del Fuego published general cultural articles - poems, short stories, literary criticism - and, of course, articles on politics, sociology, philosophy, economy and so on. Militants also contributed with articles about their everyday lives, on the running of the column, and on other national issues. It was a genuine forum for the discussion of issues peculiar to the column.

Because of its total commitment to anarchist principles, and its refusal to compromise or form alliances with bourgeois or political parties, however, the Iron Column became the immediate target of a campaign of vilification and disinformation from the political parties, libels that have been picked up and repeated by subsequent generations of commentators on the Spanish Civil War. In response to these, we can quote the testimony of Mika Etchebere, a captain in the Republican army and a member of the POUM, who had some liberated prisoners under his command:

"We, too, have had three or four such cases in our column, and they fought splendidly. At first we were stand-offish; later, being together, they came to subscribe to our ideas and now it could not be said that they stole or anything of that sort." 3

On 1 October 1936, angry at the restoration of bourgeois order in the rearguard, intervention units from the column, set up specially to resist such developments, left the Teruel front and returned to Valencia to demonstrate to the bourgeoisie that the working class was not fighting to defend bourgeois property rights and justice, but to establish a new social order. They attacked and disarmed the guards, invaded the courts and destroyed court records. They also raided the nightclubs and cabarets frequented by the well-to-do and relieved them of their jewellery and wallets. Another unit went to Castellón de la Plana on 10 October on a similar mission and burned all the criminal and judicial records in the town. Later that same month, 30 October, the funeral of Ariza Gonzales, one of the Iron Column leaders whom it is believed was killed in a reprisal, turned into an armed uprising. "In the end, surrounded in the Plaza Tetual by communist units armed with machine guns, the demonstrators suffered heavy casualties with about 50 or so being killed."4

'Strangle the life out of fascism'

The Iron Column defended its actions against the campaign of vilification mounted by the Spanish Communist Party and the Republican government in the following manifesto aimed at showing that its militants were not given to rhetoric and meant business:

". . . As anarchists, we who - under the familiar denomination 'Iron Column' - struggle against the clerical and militarist reaction on the Teruel Front are concerned, of course, with the problems of the front, but also with those of the rearguard. Consequently when we realised that in Valencia things were not moving in the direction that we wished, when we noted that the rearguard, far from being a reassurance to us, was a focus of concern and misgivings, we resolved to intervene and, to that end, we dispatched the following requests to the relevant organisations:
(1) that the Civil Guard be disarmed and disbanded;
(2) that all of the armed forces of the state in the rearguard (Assault Guards, Carabineros, Seguridad, etc.) be sent immediately to the front; and
(3) that all records and archives held in capitalist and state institutions be destroyed forthwith."

These requests had their foundations in revolutionary and ideological considerations. As anarchists and as revolutionaries, we considered the existence of the Civil Guard to be a threat; it is a reactionary corps that has, throughout its life and more especially during the present revolt, clearly displayed its mentality and its intentions. The Civil Guard was odious in our eyes for many reasons and we had no confidence in it. So we asked that it might be disarmed and proceeded to disarm it.

We asked that all of the armed corps be moved up to the front lines because men and weapons are in short supply there, while in the city, under the present state of affairs, their presence was more of a provocation than a necessity. We have been halfway successful on this count and we shall press on until our objective has been completely achieved.

Finally we asked for the destruction of all the documents that represented a whole past era of tyranny and oppression against which our free consciences had revolted. Let us destroy the records and give consideration to requisitioning those buildings that, like the court buildings, have been used in other times to entomb revolutionaries in prisons and have no raison d'être today, now that we find ourselves at the dawning of a libertarian society.

Such objectives brought us into Valencia and this explains all that we did in the manner deemed most appropriate.

Later, during our stay in Valencia, we observed that whereas efforts to acquire weapons foundered due to our lack of funds, there was a huge quantity of gold and other precious metals in many places - this prompted us to requisition the gold, silver and platinum of some jewellers in insignificant quantities which were surrendered to the Organisation. The above is what we have done. Now let us examine what we did not do.

We are accused of looting buildings. This is a lie. We defy anyone to present us with an account of this and to show that our men were not acting out of necessity but from mere caprice and a desire to create confusion. We stand accused of murdering people for amusement. This is a foul calumny. What have we done to deserve this reputation? What crimes have we committed? A deplorable episode, which we are first to lament and to condemn, appears to be the prosecution evidence. We had nothing to do with the death of our socialist comrade José Pardo Aracil. It was shown, on the very night of his death, that no member of our column had any hand in it. It has never occurred to us to attack the socialists nor any other antifascist group, much less to do so in the treacherous fashion in which Pardo was attacked. This does not mean that we renege on our aims, for these are the sole motivations for our fight: we realise, however, that at the present moment, internecine warfare would be a crime. We are facing a formidable enemy and all our exertions must be bent to his destruction. In these crucial times for Spain's future, our position is clear and unmistakable. We shall fight with all our manpower, all our energies, all our enthusiasm in order to confound the vileness of fascism forever. We struggle to make a reality of the social revolution. Let us march towards Anarchy. Consequently, here and now, we shall stand by everything that makes it possible to live with greater freedom, to smash the yokes that oppress us and to destroy the vestiges of the past.

To every worker, every revolutionary, every anarchist, let us say: struggle, wherever you may be - at the front line or in the rearguard, against all the enemies of your liberty. Strangle the life out of fascism. But see to it also that as a result of your efforts no dictatorial regime is installed, no continuation (with all the vices and defects) of that state of affairs that we are striving to eradicate. With weapons now and with working tools later on, learn to live without tyrants, learn to emancipate yourselves, for this is the only path to freedom. Such, clearly expounded, is the thinking of the 'Iron Column'.

Comrades! Death to fascism! Long live the social revolution! Long live anarchy!"5

A surrealist writes home

The surrealist writer Benjamin Peret was among the first volunteers to fight in Spain. His letters to André Breton provide us with a lucid and moving insight into the flowering and decline of the Spanish revolution. His first letter, simple and sincere, was sent from Barcelona on 11 August:

"My very dear André, if you were to see Barcelona today, filled with barricades, decorated with churches gutted except for their empty walls, you, like me, would exult. The anarchists are virtually the masters of Cataluñya [sic] and the only force beside them is the POUM. The ratio between us is three to one which isn't excessive and in the present circumstances can easily change. We have 15,000 armed men and they have 40,000&endash;50,000. The Communists, who have fused with three or four small parties, are a negligible force. In their newspaper on Friday they declared that what is necessary isn't a proletarian revolution but a defence of the Republic, and whoever tries to make a revolution will find themselves opposed by the militias."6

Another foreign arrival in August was Abdelkjalak Torres, the Moroccan nationalist leader, who came to Barcelona clandestinely with an official delegation from the Moroccan independence movement. They proposed to the Central Committee of Antifascist Militias to unleash a revolutionary revolt in the Spanish protectorate, the home base of the military uprising, if weapons or money could be provided. All they asked for in return was a promise of recognition of Morocco's independence in the event of a Republican victory. The potential effect of such an uprising in Franco's rearguard would have been enormous, but the proposition was turned down by the Caballero government 7 because of the international repercussions of such a move, particularly in regard to France and Britain, However the idea of promoting an insurrection in Morocco was one that the anarchists were to press throughout the course of the war.

War or Revolution?

As the fighting receded early in August, and confusion began to lift, the bourgeoisie started to find their second wind and prepared to regain lost ground. On the military front, the Madrid government made the first tentative moves to restore its authority by issuing a decree calling up the reserves from the intake of the previous three years, with the clear intention of creating a conscript fighting force to rival and no doubt eventually replace the popular volunteer militias.

In Barcelona, the young people called to the colours responded to this by organising heated anti-militarist demonstrations in which they tore up their army tunics to angry cries of 'Down with the Army!' and 'Long live the People's militia!'. The Militias Committee (skilfully instigated by President Companys and exploiting the opportunism - however confused and naïve - of the anarchist militants who sat on it, with the aim of harnessing popular power to his own bourgeois purposes - see July), sought immediately to mould this unrest into a form amenable to its central command; thus the following announcement was made on 6 August by de Santillán, the representative of the FAI:

"The Central Committee of Antifascist Militias of Catalonia has determined that soldiers from the years 1933, 1934, 1935 and 1936 should report immediately to barracks and there place themselves at the disposal of the Militias' committees set up under the jurisdiction of the Central Committee."

A few days later, at mass rally on 10 August, in Barcelona's Olimpia Theatre, 10,000 young Catalans announced their intention to join the militias and help liberate their comrades in Zaragoza, but to refuse conscription on the grounds that they had no confidence in the officer corps and were morally opposed to parade-ground and barrack-room discipline.

The next day, 11 August, a manifesto issued by the CNT denounced the Madrid decree, supporting the refusal of the young to be called up:

The Madrid government's lack of political vision confronts the workers' organisations with a somewhat difficult problem - a large number of these youths are already enrolled in the militias; others have declared a readiness to enlist and to set off for Zaragoza immediately. But what they do not want, and their attitude is a logical one in the light of the treachery of military figures implicated in the recent revolt, is that they should be subjected to military discipline and placed under the orders of their old commanders. The formidable effort at liberation made by the people implicitly on 19 July was no idle exercise; it was not made that everything might continue as before. The umbilical cord that bound us in the past has broken forever. New conceptions of social obligations, human existence, of law and liberty are in force . . . The CNT cannot be unheedful of, nor may it frustrate, the lofty and worthy expression of a resolve thus enunciated with vim and enthusiasm."

The manifesto continued by championing the need of the populace to organise their own revolutionary forces:

"The soldiers gathered in the Olimpia Theatre yesterday even undertook to rejoin their respective corps, on condition that they enter the barracks as militians able to come and go as free men, voluntarily embracing the discipline that is a necessary part of concerted actions, and not as automata bereft of all human personality. And the CNT of Catalonia has to put the issue pure and simple to the Generalidad and Madrid governments alike. We cannot defend the existence nor can we comprehend the need for a regular, uniformed and compulsory army. That army ought to be supplanted by the people's militias, by the people armed, the sole guarantee that freedom will be defended zealously and that fresh plots will not be hatched in the shadows." 8

At the same time, by not challenging as a usurpation the assumption of authority over 'the people armed' by the semi-bourgeois Militias Committee, the CNT's statement placed a further seal upon the harnessing of the workers' force to the purposes of their traditional enemies. Of course, this was hardly surprising: the CNT was itself the most powerful organisation represented on the Committee.

Workers' and soldiers' councils

Parallel developments took place within the militias. Fearful of the rise of a new officer class, the various workers' organisations and parties set up workers' and soldiers' committees similar to the councils created in the early days of the Russian Revolution. These committees, made up of delegates from the various organisations, acted as a working-class security service that operated throughout all the armed services. An interesting account is provided by the testimony of Alfonso Miguel, a CNT militant and champion of the committees:

"The first workers' and soldiers' committees came into existence by agreement of the CNT&endash;UGT. They were born in Barcelona. Then they were formed in the Levante, in Andalucia and in the capital itself, which was demoralised by defeatism and lurking treachery. They set about monitoring and carrying out purges. The committees assumed the unenviable task of raising morale, monitoring certain intrigues and keeping an eye on suspect officers and assisting all competent and sincere personnel. With the committees it was possible to sustain military activity and to keep at bay the fascism within. But for them, fascism would assuredly have devoured us. At that painful juncture, in the early months of the war, who was there capable of bringing unity between the people and the army (an army on its last legs) and the armed institutions which had been demoralised by treachery and decimated in active service? They were not set up for considerations of rhetoric. The creation of the committees was determined by the necessity of pressing on with the struggle and the need to have the utmost confidence in the overall decisions of the military command. The revolt had dashed all respect and killed every iota of confidence. So, despite everything, it was possible to maintain a fairly coherent direction amid the general chaos by means of supervision (occasionally nominal and at other times effective) of the decisions of the command, without which no decisions would have been possible. The workers' militias needed an assured leadership. This they achieved by blending their own personnel with those (elected by the respective corps and military units) who shared their common aim: 'To campaign together under a single and loyal accountable leadership.' Force of circumstance determined their creation."

Then, in Miguel's own words:

"Later, as they developed themselves, they determined that the militias should be replaced. And a new military organisation, the popular and revolutionary army, moulded by an anti-militarist population in the middle of a war against what had been its own army, came into existence in Spain."9

That is, as the revolutionary impetus was first harnessed, then lost, the committees became instruments of the new bourgeois-cum-Stalinist political order.

The bourgeoisie strikes back

Meanwhile, the Generalidad gradually began also to reassert its domain over the economic sector, again in no small part thanks to the assistance of its allies within the CNT. The prominent militants who composed the CNT's Catalan Regional Committee were blunt and to the point when on 9 August, at the first general assembly of the anarchist movement to take place since the rising they eventually explained to the rank and file their behaviour in the previous weeks:

"When the consuls approached us, we quickly guaranteed the foreign firms [see 'July' - SC] so that nobody might confiscate them. And when any attempt was made to do so, we even dispatched guards so that their interests would be respected." 10

Garcia Oliver added:

"I ask the whole of the proletariat to stay in the places of production and not to be sparing in their sacrifices . . . This is not the time to seek a 40 hour week and a 15 per cent wage increase."11

Federica Montseny topped them all with classical utilitarian logic:

"We are obliged to go beyond what we had intended, on account of the abandonment of a huge number of industries necessary to the economic reconstruction of the revolution. We accept that abandoned responsibility in order to derive minimum profit by it."12

At the same meeting, Mariano R. Vazquez, Regional Secretary of the CNT for Catalonia, announced that in harmony with the Generalidad government both organisations had agreed to become part of a proposed Economic Council of Catalonia. This statement was not, however, a proposal to be discussed by the assemblies and either ratified or rejected; it was a fait accompli.

The Economic Council of Catalonia came into existence, formally, under a Generalidad decree on 13 August. On it, anarchists were in a minority of 5 to 10: the CNT had three members, Eusebio Carbo, Juan P. Fabregas and Cosme Rofes, while the FAI was represented by Antonio García Birlán and de Santillán. The statist and Marxist parties with whom the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalist leadership had arbitrarily agreed to share responsibility for the 'normalisation' of the Catalan economy were the right-wing Esquerra Republicana, Acción Catalana Republicana, the Unión de Rabassaires, the PSUC, the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, which had been formed on 24 July 1936 by a merger of the socialists and communists, and the POUM.13

More steps towards collaboration

The same day, 10 August, also saw the formal institutionalising of the Control Patrols, the popular organs of public safety. Basically a Barcelona phenomenon, the Patrols were made up of 700 men from all the antifascist organisations, of whom 350 were from the CNT, the rest proportionally divided among the Esquerra, the UGT and the POUM and divided into 11 geographic branches. While the formalisation of the Patrols certainly served to maintain the post-July status quo, the CNT-FAI and the POUM resisted the subsequent attempts of the PSUC and bourgeois politicians to reorganise the state police in Barcelona at their expense, and their members played a leading part in the street fighting in the Barcelona May Days of 1937. After the May Days, during which popular sovereignty was first re-established by militant anarchists in response to an attempted communist coup, and then once more (and finally) discarded at the behest of the anarchist leadership, the Patrols were disbanded, and their functions taken over by the state police.

A development of more immediate significance in the erosion of the revolutionary initiative of the anarcho-syndicalist movement took place a few days later on 15 August, with the news of the formation by the FAI, CNT, PSUC and UGT of a 'Liaison Committee' to strengthen and 'galvanise' anti-fascist unity by seeking out 'such points of agreement as may exist between those bodies, submitting them for discussion and approval by all, so that public guidelines and exhortations may be issued . . .", commending to its affiliated and organisations 'the formation on every work site of factory committees with proportional representation for CNT and UGT members . . ." and also "eschew[ing] violent attacks and criticisms".

The signatory of this statement of antifascist unity on behalf of the PSUC was Juan Comorera, who, according to the German sociologist and historian Franz Borkenau, a dissident communist and supporter of the revolutionary experiment, represented

"a political attitude which can best be compared with that of the extreme right wing of the German social democracy. He had always regarded the fight against anarchism as the chief aim of socialist policy in Spain &endash; to his surprise he found unexpected allies for his dislike of anarchist policies in the communists."14

Rise and rise of the Spanish Communist Party

Revolution had brought in its wake a massive influx into the workers' parties and organisations of the opportunist detritus of capitalism. The bourgeoisie began to seek shelter in particular in the organisation that had openly committed itself to defending bourgeois interests. In Catalonia that organisation was the UGT, virtually non-existent in the region until September 1936, when it became a fief of the communists,15 whose central committee had recently proclaimed the party's advocacy of 'revolutionary order without infringement of respect for private property'. The position of the international communist movement had been expressed clearly by André Marty, a member of the executive committee of the communist international, in a statement to the French CP paper L'Humanité:

"In a country like Spain, where feudal institutions are still deeply rooted, the working class and the people as a whole have as their most pressing immediate task not the carrying on of the socialist revolution but the defence, consolidation and carrying through of the bourgeois democratic republic. Our Party's only watchword as propaganda through our paper Mundo Obrero, on 19 July, was 'Long Live the Democratic Republic'. This is common knowledge. Only people of ill-will can argue otherwise."

The leader of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), José Hernandez, and Santiago Carrillo, the leader of the communist-dominated United Socialist Youth (JSU), themselves echoed this line, affirming unequivocally that the party was 'not fighting for the social revolution'.

By championing the privileges, status and property of the professional as well as the urban and rural bourgeoisie against the rapid advances of the anarchist-inspired social revolution, the PCE increased its membership dramatically within a matter of months. Peirats16 estimates that in Catalonia, in the first few months after July, the party had attracted 8,000 landowners and 16,000 members of the middle classes. By the end of 1936, the PCE had increased its membership ten-fold to around a million.

Breathing space for Stalin

Although the PCE had increased its membership in direct proportion to the discontent felt by the bourgeoisie and peasant smallholders at the progress of collectivisation of the land and factories under self-management, there was another, more powerful reason for its rapid growth in influence by the end of 1936. That reason was Stalin's decision to provide military support for the Republican government. It must be stressed from the outset that this had nothing to do with any altruistic motives of working class solidarity &endash; a concept Stalin had renounced publicly since his entry into the League of Nations in 1934, committing himself instead to supporting liberal democracy. Stalin's decision to send arms to Republican Spain was based strictly on the diplomatic and strategic exigencies of Soviet foreign policy.

For Stalin, the Spanish Civil War was a small part of a diplomatic chess game being played out by the three great European power blocs &endash; the Germany-Italy Axis, France and Britain, and Russia. Stalin hoped that the surrogate war being fought in Spain would provide him with sufficient breathing space to divert or minimise the effect on the Soviet Union of the inevitable wider European war. Hitler's expansionist policies would, Stalin believed, drag Germany into conflict with Britain and France, leaving Russia as an onlooker. However, Soviet foreign policy at the time also required that the balance of forces in Europe should not be upset. Soviet support for social revolution in Europe would affect Russia's delicate military alliance with France and its relationship with Great Britain.

However, as the dissident communist historian Fernando Claudin points out, neither could the Soviet Union realistically dodge its duty "to show active solidarity with the Spanish people in arms without risk of losing all prestige in the eyes of the world proletariat".17

On to September 1936

From A Study of the Revolution in Spain, 1936-1937 by Stuart Christie

Taken from the Meltzer Press site with permission of the author


1. Protesta davanti al libertari del presente e del futuro, sulle capitulazioni del 1937, di un 'incontrolado'
della Colonna di Ferro, Turin, 1981.
2. Linea del Fuego, 17 November 1936.
3. Interview with Mika Etchebere, ANCR, Turin, 1967, pp. 16&endash;17.
4. P. Broué and E. Témime, La Rivoluzione e la guerra di Spagna, Milan, 1962, p. 247.
5. Peirats, La CNT en la revolución española, pp. 306-08.
6. Courtot (ed.), Introduction to the Reading of Benjamin Peret.
7. Largo Caballero became prime minister in September.
8. Solidaridad Obrera, 5 August 1936.
9. Peirats, La CNT en la revolución española, chapter 10.
10. Frank Mintz, L'Autogestion dans l'Espagne revolutionnaire, Paris, 1970, p.90.
11. Ibid., p.91.
12. Although she had been a member of the CNT for at least a year, Montseny, a romantic story writer, was a recent recruit to the FAI. Following the workers' victory, she was invited to join the Nosotros group on 21 July, the day the Central Committee of Antifascist Militias was formed. She appears to have been co-opted onto the Peninsular Committee of the FAI almost immediately.
13. The PSUC was formed from socialist and Stalinist groups in July; before this, in the spring and early
summer of 1936, the POUM, having existed as a vehemently anti-Stalinist party for some years before, already had 5,000 members, while even after its formation, the nascent, 'united' PSUC had in July no more than 2,000 or 3,000. See Peret's letter to Breton quoted in the text above: 'The Communists, who have fused with three or four small parties, are a negligible force.'
14. Franz Borkenau, The Spanish Cockpit, London, 1987, p.183.
15. The exact strength of the PCE at the outbreak of the Civil War is uncertain. Most commentators agree,
however, that its membership was in excess of 100,000 (Gómez Casas). Compared with the CNT and the UGT, however, at this time the PCE was minuscule indeed, and had little influence among the workers. The PSUC eclipsed the POUM only after it won over the anti-revolutionary middle classes.
16. Peirats, La CNT en la revolución española.
17. Claudin.


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