How Spanish Anarchists Transformed Catalonia
Last week, we looked back at the Paris Commune and how the Prussian victory over French forces created a brief rupture where a different kind of society began to form. This week we’re looking at another: the Spanish Revolution.
In April 1931, Spain declared its Second Republic, but the political situation was far from stable. After the left-wing Popular Front won the February 1936 elections, politically motivated attacks and killings escalated. On July 17 that year, the Nationalist forces launched a coup that had been in preparation for months, which turned into a civil war.
General Francisco Franco eventually came to control this faction, which comprised the fascist and Catholic political parties, monarchists, and the army leaders based in Spain’s African colonies. The Nationalists also received support from Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Corporatist Portugal and the Vatican.
On the other side were the Republicans, made up of left-wing forces who received support from Mexico and the Soviet Union, and accepted foreign fighters from countries that officially remained neutral. Frank Mintz, author of Anarchism and Workers’ Self-Management in Revolutionary Spain, explains that the various anarchists, socialists and communists initially cooperated to defeat the fascists, but over time their divisions got the better of them.
In “Reflections on Spanish Anarchism,” anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin argues that the civil war “was not a political conflict between a liberal democracy and a fascist military corps but a deeply socio-economic conflict between the workers and peasants of Spain and their historic class enemies, ranging from the landowning grandees and clerical overlords inherited from the past to the rising industrial bourgeoisie and bankers.” Nothing showed that more than the social revolution undertaken in the anarchist-controlled areas, particularly around Catalonia.
The Republican government couldn’t provide for all its territory, and ceded control in some areas to allied political factions. Bookchin writes that in the anarchist areas, “The workers and peasants had created their own institutions […] formed their own armed workers’ squads to patrol the streets, and established a […] voluntaristic militia in which men and women elected their own commanders and in which military rank conferred no social, material, or symbolic distinctions.”
In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell explains that the anarchists’ goals were for workers to control industry, establish local governance committees instead of centralized authorities and challenge the power of the bourgeoisie and the Church. In Barcelona, Orwell writes, “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 shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized.”
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A social transformation followed the economic changes, where formal means of address — Sir or Señor — were no longer heard and everyone dressed as though they were working class. Orwell writes, “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.” The elite would later reemerge, especially as the tide of the war turned.
According to Mintz, “Self-management in Spain, imposed from below, was largely the handiwork of the women, the elderly, the young and the disabled,” and it didn’t simply emerge out of nowhere. Spain had a long anarchist tradition, leading Bookchin to declare that “the revolution of 1936 marked the culmination of more than 60 years of anarchist agitation and activity in Spain.”
Along with taking control of the economy, the anarchists improved the social infrastructure. Mintz writes that they: set up schools and libraries to address high illiteracy rates; significantly improved healthcare, especially in rural areas; provided the elderly with pensions, which was not the norm at the time. They also “strove to eradicate social inequalities by setting up a shared compensation fund that covered both poor and prosperous collectives, agricultural collectives and industrial ones, as well as collectives in the service sector.”
Anarchism worked differently in the industrial and rural areas. Bookchin explains that large urban industries were likely to be run as committees coordinated by the unions with representatives elected by the workers. However, over time they became increasingly centralized and controlled by the state, until finally coming under bureaucratic control in 1938.
By contrast, rural areas tended to be organized under a more communal model. Bookchin writes that the anarchists “sought out the precapitalist collectivist traditions of the village, nourished what was living and vital in them, [and] evoked their revolutionary potentialities as liberatory modes of mutual aid and self-management.” According to Mintz, agricultural output increased in the early part of the war, until the front moved closer and the prospect of victory diminished.
In the later years, Orwell describes how the class system began to reemerge in Barcelona. Orwell and Mintz also emphasize how infighting between various leftists groups, especially including the Soviet-backed Communists, distracted the left-wing factions from the war effort.
The Nationalists defeated the Republicans in early 1939, with Franco proclaiming victory on April 1. While hundreds of thousands of Republicans fled the country, tens of thousands were executed by Franco’s forces, leading Mintz to compare it to the brutal slaughter of the Communards after the French government had retaken Paris.
Like the Commune, however, the Spanish Revolution can still hold lessons for the present. While the Commune controlled a city, the Spanish anarchists took over a much larger area and, for some time, successfully reoriented production toward a more collective model. Last year, Logic Magazine editor Ben Tarnoff wrote that the anarchist model of the Spanish Revolution could help to inspire a better future for the internet.
As we try to imagine a way out of capitalism, I’ll end this issue with a quote from Mintz, who summarizes the importance of the Spanish Revolution:
“In response to those who cling to the view that private property offers the only effective economic model, here we have eloquent proof of the creative energies of downtrodden, sometimes illiterate, pariahs of their capacity to run a complex economy while reconstituting everyday life in a non-hierarchical manner; of their readiness to confront historic problems, such as the problems of coordination between urban and rural economies; and the quest to raise the productivity of a backward agricultural system.”
Perspectives from around the world
Stuart Trew, a senior editor at the Monitor, asks who Justin Trudeau’s plan to “build back better” really serves.
Dan Darrah, a Toronto-based writer, argues that after decades of leaving housing to the market, we need a major public intervention.
Alexis Zhou, an editor at the McGill Daily, argues for a public intercity bus service to replace Greyhound Canada.
Martin Hägglund, author of This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, asks what the values of a post-pandemic world should be.
Annina Claesson, a Swedish-Finnish researcher, explains how support is growing in Finland for a six-hour workday, including from the prime minister.
Camille Sojit, assistant culture editor at Document Journal, argues that temporary autonomous zones are a glimpse of a better way of organizing society.
This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Logic Magazine co-founder Ben Tarnoff about the Luddites, how history could inform a better future of technology, and what tech organizing might look like under a Joe Biden administration. For Jacobin, I also wrote about the repeal of the Paramount Decrees and how that will fuel consolidation in Hollywood.