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(en) US, blackrosefed: WORKERS POWER AND THE SPANISH REVOLUTION part I. (1/3)
Mon, 5 Nov 2018 10:15:55 +0200
In a political moment where the tide of fascism appears to be on the march, looking at
past examples can provide inspiration, hope and lessons. In this valuable and lucid
long-form essay, veteran writer and activist Tom Wetzel details what George Orwell
described when first arriving in anarchist dominated Barcelona as his first time actually
seeing "the working class was in the saddle." ---- Most critically the essay focuses on
the question of working class power and revolutionary vision within the events and
specifically from within the anarchist movement in Spain. Often overlooked in many
accounts is that the military coup of July 1936 was anticipated by the organized left in
Spain. In May of 1936 the CNT held what was known as the Zaragoza congress which debated
and adopted a revolutionary vision of "libertarian communism" that would be built from "a
dual structure of governance ... based on both workplace assemblies and assemblies of
residents in villages or neighborhoods" which would federate on the national level. Also
discussed are the critical internal debates and opposition within the CNT to joining the
popular front government, the alternative proposals to replace the government with organs
of working class power, and the betrayal of the revolution's ideals by the Soviet-aligned
A PDF version of this article can be downloaded here. We hope to release a new PDF version
of the article shortly.
By Tom Wetzel
In Spain's national elections in February of 1936, a repressive right-wing government was
swept out of office and replaced by a coalition of liberals and socialists. Taking
advantage of a less repressive environment, Spain's workers propelled the largest strike
wave in Spanish history, with dozens of citywide general strikes and hundreds of partial
strikes. By the end of June a million workers were out on strike.
Barely a month after the election, the Land Workers Federation led 80,000 landless
laborers into a seizure of three thousand farms in the "Spanish Siberia" - the
poverty-stricken region of Estremadura (1). With the country at a high pitch of debate
over its future, political polarization was punctuated by tit-for-tat killings of Right
and Left activists. With right-wing politicians openly calling for an army takeover, the
widely anticipated army coup began in Spain on July 19th.
For the first time in Spanish history, the people aggressively resisted an army takeover
attempt. The coup was defeated in two-thirds of the country. The unions moved to
confiscate vast amounts of capitalist assets, putting most of Spain's economy under worker
management. Unions built their own revolutionary labor army to fight the Spanish military.
The military's attempt to crush the country's labor movement propelled the working class
revolution that the Spanish elite had long feared. The civil war itself was class struggle
in its most extreme form.
Two of the key players in this drama were the country's main labor federations. The
National Confederation of Labor (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo - CNT) had 1.6
millbers in early 1936 (according to government statistics). The CNT was the result of
nearly seven decades of anarchist labor organizing in Spain. Since 1919 the CNT had been
based on the sindicato unico ("single union") - autonomous local industrial unions. In
Barcelona in 1936 the CNT construction and metallurgical sindicatos unicos each had more
than 30,000 members.
No sindicato unico in the CNT had any paid officials. Workers liked the anarchist idea
that the common struggle should not become an avenue of personal careerism. Anarchists
believed that paid officials encouraged workers to look to those leaders to solve their
problems, and led to domination of unions by chiefs. In 1936 there were only a few paid
officials in the CNT federation - the national secretary, the regional secretary of
Catalonia, and the secretary of the national industrial union in the commercial fishing
industry. These officials, and the staff of the CNT daily newspapers in Madrid and
Barcelona, were paid an average worker's wage. The paid officials were also rotated from
office after one year.
While organizing struggles around immediate concerns, anarchists in the CNT also
encouraged discussion of a vision for a society beyond capitalism, without structures of
oppression and exploitation. The CNT's "apoliticism" meant that it opposed an electoral or
parliamentary strategy for social change. The aim of CNT militants was the liberation of
the working class from class oppression through mass action by the workers themselves.
Each sindicato unico had "sections" that had their own assemblies and elected shop
stewards (delegados). In manufacturing industries like textile or metalworking, there was
a "section" for each firm or plant. In the construction industry, the "sections"
corresponded to the various crafts. All of the autonomous industrial unions in a city or
county (comarca) were grouped together into a local labor council (federación local).
The unions were part of a larger context of movement institutions. The libertarian Left in
Spain also organized alternative schools and an extensive network of ateneos - storefront
community centers. The ateneos were centers for debates, cultural events, literacy classes
(between 30 and 50 percent of the population was illiterate in the 1930s), and so on. A
characteristic idea of Spanish anarchism was the empowerment of ordinary people, preparing
them for effective participation in the struggle for social transformation.
The libertarian syndicalism of the CNT was a form of "prefigurative" politics. In
developing a union based on participation in decision-making through the assemblies and
unpaid, elected delegados, CNT militants believed they were practicing a form of
organization that was a foretaste of a society where workers ran industry and the society
was self-managed through the participatory democracy of assemblies.
The second major labor organization in Spain was the General Union of Workers (Union
General de Trabajadores - UGT), with 1.4 million members in early 1936. The UGT was
aligned with the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español -
PSOE) although the Communist Party was also active within it. The UGT was the majority
union organization in the Castillian central regions of Spain, including Madrid, and in
the coal-mining region of Asturias on the north Atlantic coast. The UGT Land Workers
Federation (Federación Nacional de Trabajadores de la Tierra - FNTT) had a half million
members in the spring of 1936. With its campaign for agrarian reform through land
seizures, the FNTT was a mass revolutionary movement in the countryside.
The Boom and the Death Squads
The mass mobilizations and the social polarization leading up to the civil war were the
culmination of a social crisis that had been brewing in Spain for decades. The crisis
began to manifest itself during the World War I era. Spain was neutral during the war and
was able to trade with both sides. A massive industrialization and urbanization boom got
underway in Catalonia. This would continue during the world boom of the 1920s. Barcelona
was the fastest growing city in western Europe in this period. Industrial suburbs grew up
rapidly around new factories. Barcelona had been a major trading center on the
Mediterranean since the middle ages, and was home to an entrepreneurial business class.
The economic boom of the World War I years also led to growth for Spain's two major labor
organizations. The Russian revolution of February 1917 also encouraged a growing radical
trend. The high point of labor struggle during the war was a national general strike in
1917, supported by both the UGT and CNT. In Barcelona the CNT were masters of the city
until the army moved in to suppress the strike. (Victor Serge's novel Birth of Our Power
is an impressionistic account of the 1917 Barcelona general strike.)
To deal with the growing threat of the CNT in Catalonia, the head of the police, Severiano
Martinez Anido, began recruiting gunmen to assassinate CNT officials and activists, with
the assistance of the police. Employers and officials of the Roman Catholic Church
provided funding for the death squads. During this period there were 440 attempted murders
of workers in Catalonia (2). Workers were being forced to join "yellow" trade unions, the
Sindicatos Libres ("Free Unions"), at the point of a gun. A small core of religious,
Carlist skilled workers had formed the Sindicatos Libres. Carlism was a form of right-wing
Catholic politics in Spain. In response, some young anarchists formed armed action groups,
which retaliated by assassinating employers and church leaders who were believed to be
funding the death squads.
For years Spain had been trying to hold onto its last scrap of empire in Morocco. In 1923
a military campaign in Morocco, promoted by King Alfonso, led to a disaster in which
10,000 Spanish soldiers were killed. The army clamped a dictatorship on Spain, headed by
General Miguel Primo de Rivera, partly as a means to suppress outrage over this incident.
The CNT was banned throughout the country. Primo de Rivera introduced a scheme of
incorporating the unions into the state via Arbitration Boards and he encouraged
participation by the UGT as a "responsible" alternative to the CNT. The Catholic "Free
Unions," preaching the harmony of labor and capital and a form of proletarian
clerical-fascism, competed with the UGT for representation on the Arbitration Boards. With
state and employer backing, the Free Unions had formed a national organization by 1925
(Federación Nacional de Sindicatos Libres - FNSL) with 200,000 members (3), nearly as
large as the UGT.
Mass Rent Strike
In 1930 the king fled the country as the dictatorship collapsed. Elections brought a
coalition of liberals and socialists to power, to govern the new Republic and the CNT
unions regained the legal right to organize.
Faced with growing unemployment, and a desire to rebuild their organization, the CNT
sindicato unico of construction workers in Barcelona began a campaign of invading
construction sites to sign up members and to demand that contractors hire 15 percent more
workers. The construction union argued that the housing sector in Catalonia had made
super-profits during the boom of the 1920s - profits that were tied down in unproductive
investments. Increasing the number of people employed by the industry would put more money
into circulation, helping to counter the depression. With workers pouring into the CNT
sindicato unico, the Catholic FNSL construction craft unions collapsed.
In the late 1920s a broad debate had begun in the CNT about the union's future direction.
One aspect of this debate was the proposal to group local unions into national industry
unions for coordinated action against employers in an industry throughout the country.
Joan Peiró - a self-educated glass worker and an influential syndicalist theoretician -
was able to persuade a CNT congress to allow national industry unions in 1931. However,
some anarchists opposed this proposal on the grounds that it could lead to the development
of a new bureaucracy of paid officials beyond the control of the local unions. Due to this
opposition, national industrial unions were created in only a few industries in the CNT
before 1936. A national industrial union was created among workers at the Spanish National
Telephone Co. In 1931 the CNT launched a nation-wide strike against the phone company.
This was an initiation into union struggle for the largely female workforce of telephone
Another aspect of the debate in the CNT was how to break out of the box of industrial
struggles that focus only on issues of wages and working conditions. There was a feeling
that the CNT needed to extend its influence beyond a purely labor context to other areas
of society. Joan Peiró argued for the formation of neighborhood-based committees to
organize around broad issues of concern to the working class, not just work-related questions.
During the boom of the 1920s, rents had risen by 150 percent in Barcelona. Crowding,
construction of shanties by unscrupulous landlords and housing without basic amenities
like running water had become common. In early 1931 activists in the CNT began to discuss
the possibility of a struggle around rents, and articles about the housing crisis began
appearing in the big daily paper operated by the CNT in Barcelona, Solidaridad Obrera.
The rent struggle began with a mass meeting of the CNT construction union in April of
1931. At that meeting Arturo Parera and Santiago Bilbao proposed the formation of an
Economic Defense Commission, with the participation of other unions. Parera and Bilbao
were both prominent members of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (Federación Anarquista
Iberica - FAI). The FAI was a loose amalgam of anarchist groups that worked mainly as
caucuses within the CNT unions.
After a series of neighborhood meetings, the rent campaign settled on a demand for a 40
percent rent rollback at a mass meeting at the Palace of Fine Arts on July 5th. The
meeting decided that the rent deposits paid by tenants should be used to pay the next
month's rent and after that renters would refuse to pay rent if their landlord didn't
agree to the rent reduction. The Chamber of Urban Property - the landlords' organization-
denounced the campaign as a criminal violation of their rights. They demanded police
action to suppress the rent campaign. By the end of August, the Economic Defense
Commission claimed that 100,000 people were not paying their rent.
The ability of the rent struggle to reach out beyond the existing CNT union members was
illustrated by the large numbers of women who were active in the struggle. On one occasion
a group of asaltos (Assault Guards - a paramilitary national police force created by
Republican politicians in the early 1930s) sent to evict a tenant backed down when
confronted by a large crowd of women and children. Because the city employees charged with
carrying out evictions were either intimidated by the crowds or were sympathetic to the
rent strike, the landlords began recruiting their own militia to carry out evictions.
The landlords' organization appealed to the national government to take action to suppress
the strike. Largo Caballero, the UGT executive secretary and a leader of the PSOE, was a
member of the cabinet in the liberal/socialist coalition government. Caballero was
unsympathetic to the rent strike, calling it "absurd." At the same time, Caballero's UGT
was providing scabs to break the CNT telephone strike in Madrid.
In the midst of the rent strike in Barcelona, a large explosion went off. No one was
injured, but there was severe damage to telephone equipment. Even though there was no
connection to the rent strike, the government used this as a pretext to ban meetings of
the Economic Defense Commission. The government also banned meetings of the CNT telephone
The national government appointed a conservative lawyer as civil governor for Catalonia
and he announced that he would simply not allow the rent strike to continue. The
authorities began using preventive detention to hold Santiago Bilbao and 52 other CNT
activists. Preventive detention meant that a person could be held indefinitely without any
charges being filed. This had been one of the hated methods of the military dictatorship.
People had thought that these methods would become a thing of the past under the new Republic.
Eventually, police were able to suppress the rent strike by arresting tenants who had been
put back into apartments by their neighbors after an eviction. Nonetheless, in many areas
of the city individual landlords had entered into rent reduction deals with their tenants.
Many tenants thus felt they had won something. For a younger generation of CNT activists,
this was the first time they had been involved in a large-scale direct action campaign.
For working class participants it was a direct lesson in the way a broad range of groups,
from landlords to police to politicians, were aligned against them (4).
The Land and the Church Spain in the '30s was a country with very uneven economic
development. Wealthy, industrialized Catalonia might look like developed areas in other
western European countries, but other areas of Spain were rather different. Spain was
still a predominantly agrarian country, with 45.5 percent of the "economically active"
population engaged in agriculture. In an agrarian country a large part of the wealth is
tied up in land ownership. South of the Guadarrama mountains was the latifundia zone, the
region that had been conquered from the Moors by a Castilian army in the middle ages.
Capitalist investors bought up latifundias - huge estates - after feudal restrictions on
sale of land were broken in the 19th century. In this region two thousand families owned
90 percent of the land. Meanwhile, 750,000 landless laborers were employed at starvation
North of the Guadarramas were areas where campesinos owned small to medium-sized farms. In
some areas of the north, the plots were often too small to support a family. The
campesinos had to hire themselves out for wages, or work as sharecroppers.
The main social base of the far-right political parties were the religious, land-owning
farmers in areas of the north like Old Castile and Navarre, and the religious middle
strata - small business owners, lawyers, officials, etc. - of the provincial towns. In the
big cities and along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts these middle classes were the
social base of the liberal Republican parties.
The elite classes in Spain regarded the Spanish Roman Catholic Church as an essential
ideological prop of the social order. But the church was widely hated in working class
circles for preaching the acceptance of poverty while amassing vast assets and catering to
the more affluent sectors of society. In 1930 there were more clergy in Spain than in any
country other than Italy. There were 35,000 priests and 80,000 monks and nuns. Yet regular
attendance at mass was not very high. South of the Guadarramas, it was as low as 5 percent
of the population (5). Church opposition to science meant that many teachers and doctors
were anti-clerical. Anti-clericalism was widespread among the Spanish Left, from working
class anarchists to middle-class liberal Republicans.
The first liberal/socialist Republican government in 1931 attacked the power of the church
by disallowing any church role in education other than religious instruction. The powerful
Jesuit order was dissolved. Civil marriage and divorce were established.
Uprisings and Factional Struggles
The liberal/socialist coalition also engaged in various acts of repression directed
against CNT unions. Caballero was willing to take advantage of these measures to build the
UGT union at the expense of the CNT. In this repressive environment, which forced the CNT
into direct confrontations with the authorities, a number of anarchist groups in the CNT
pushed the union into attempted revolutionary general strikes and insurrectionary
adventures. In a typical scenario, a group of anarchists would seize the local town hall,
run up the red and black flag, burn property records and declare "libertarian communism"
in the town. Advocates of these methods called this "revolutionary gymnastics." These
attempted insurrections were a throwback to the 19th century anarchist concept of
"propaganda by the deed" - the idea that an exemplary action by a small group of
revolutionaries can spark off a spontaneous popular uprising. In the most infamous of
these attempts - a failed national general strike in January 1933 - paramilitary asaltos
carried out a massacre in the village of Casas Viejas in Andalusia. A whole family was
burned in their hut and the police shot people who had surrendered.
The worst fears of many syndicalists were realized in the January 1933 uprising: "the
national confederation and the regionals[were]manipulated by a small group of militants
who had committed the entire membership to precipitous and dangerous action," writes
Jerome Mintz. "The membership had been badly mauled in street fighting, the leaders
arrested and beaten, and the[unions]closed."(6)
In the syndicalist view, social transformation required the prior organization and
education of the working class, the development of its skills and self-confidence, and
working out a coherent revolutionary strategy, not a reliance on pure "spontaneity." Joan
Peiró, in his 1933 book Sindicalismo, put it this way:
"For us the social revolution is not just a matter of rising violently against the
organized forces of the state...The social revolution consists in taking over factories
and mines, the land and the railways. It is not sufficient to take over social wealth, it
is necessary to know how to use it - and to use it immediately, without any discontinuity."(7)
"Continuity" would be assured by the fact that the social transformation is carried out by
the workers themselves, who have the skills to continue the running of industry.
The factional struggle inside the CNT in the early 1930s became quite heated after a group
of thirty union officials and activists sent to the capitalist press a document
criticizing an alleged "dictatorship" over the CNT by the FAI. These thirty activists and
their followers became known as the treintista ("thirty-ist") tendency. It wasn't only the
treintistas who opposed the insurrectionary adventures being propelled by FAI groups in
Catalonia. FAI groups outside Catalonia were also critical. With the advent of the
Republic, one of the leading treintistas - Angel Pestaña - began advocating the formation
of a labor political party, and soon established the Unionist Party (Partido Sindicalista)
to compete in parliamentary elections. Although most treintistas did not follow Pestaña
into electoral politics, various anarchists worried that this was the direction the
treintistas were headed.
FAI groups in Catalonia were also worried about a Leninist group organizing in the CNT
unions. In 1930 the Workers Federation of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands had merged
with the majority from the Catalan Communist Party (Partit Comunista Catala - PCC) to form
the Workers and Peasants Bloc (Bloc Obrer i Camperol - BOC). The BOC was an anti-Stalinist
group that identified, nonetheless, with the Leninist model of a "vanguard party." The BOC
was especially strong in Lleida. A leading figure in the CNT in Lleida was Joaquin Maurin,
a popular teacher. Maurin was the leader of the BOC.
The BOC also tried to gain control of libertarian ateneos in Catalonia. The main
decision-making body in an ateneo would be the periodic assemblies that elected an
administrative committee. The BOC would show up in force to these assemblies to gain
control of the administrative committee.
By 1932 the FAI had gained sufficient hegemony in the CNT that it was able to get the
treintista- and BOC-dominated unions expelled. As a result, the CNT lost most of its union
organization in Lleida. In 1934 the BOC-controlled unions formed a new labor federation,
the Workers Federation of Union Unity (Federación Obrera de Unidad Sindical - FOUS). In
1935 the BOC merged with a smaller Leninist group and changed its name to Workers Party of
Marxist Unification (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista - POUM) (8).
In 1933 right-wing parties won the elections, and Spain entered a period of repressive
government, known as the biennio negro ("two black years"). At this time Largo Caballero
and much of the Socialist Party began to move to the left. Caballero began talking about
the need for "proletarian revolution" and "a workers' government."
A number of events led to the PSOE's turn to the left: the rise to power of Hitler in
Germany and of the clerical-fascist Christian Social Party in Austria, rising
unemployment, the popular outrage at the Casas Viejas massacre, the intransigence of
Spanish employers. The small amounts of money made available to provide land for landless
laborers by the government were totally inadequate to deal with the magnitude of land
reform needed. There was very little to show from the PSOE's coalition with the liberal
Republicans in 1931-33.
One sign of the Socialist move to the left was an attempt at a national general strike in
October 1934. Relations with the CNT were still not patched up and poor coordination
doomed the strike in most of Spain. The situation was different in Asturias where the UGT
and CNT had worked for some months to develop a "Workers Alliance." Thus in October the
two unions seized control of the region for two weeks, in a joint uprising. But they were
isolated. When the army was sent in to crush the rebellion, thousands were killed and many
thousands sent to prison. Wives and daughters of the rebels were raped and mutilated by
the Foreign Legion - an army unit made up of thugs and criminals from various countries.
The uprising frightened the elite classes while the violent repression alienated the
By early 1936 the membership of the UGT and CNT union organizations was at an all-time
high. With the country gripped by intense debate about its future, a wave of strikes
spread throughout the country, including numerous community-wide general strikes. With the
victory of the liberal/socialist coalition in the elections in February, workers could
anticipate a breathing space in which to organize strikes and press for change. The farm
worker unions were carrying out their land reform through mass land seizures. The
treintista theoretician Joan Peiró told a journalist in May: "The masses are moving
With right-wing activists calling for the army to take power, many people were
anticipating a military coup d'etat. In the midst of this atmosphere of mobilization and
crisis, the CNT held a national congress at Zaragoza. By 1935 the Catalan anarchist groups
had moved away from their earlier insurrectionary phase and towards reconciliation with
the treintistas. To have the maximum unity for the battles ahead, the FAIstas invited the
treintistas back into the CNT.
Among the issues taken up at the congress was the CNT's vision for what kind of society it
wanted to create, which it called "libertarian communism." The vision document adopted by
the Zaragoza congress attempted to synthesize the communalist anarchist and libertarian
syndicalist influences on Spanish Left-libertarian thinking about post-capitalist society.
A dual structure of governance for the society was envisioned, based on both workplace
assemblies and assemblies of residents in villages or neighborhoods. The workplace
assemblies would elect workplace councils and be linked into national industrial
federations, to manage the various industries.
Strong emphasis was placed on the "free municipality" and its autonomy, reflecting the
communalist anarchist influence. This would be an institution rooted in assemblies of the
residents in villages or urban neighborhoods. In a large city, such as Barcelona, the
assemblies would elect the Municipal Council. The members of the council would continue to
work a regular job in social production, and important issues would be referred back to
the base assemblies for decision.
In the version of social planning proposed by Diego Abad de Santillan (9), the various
self-managing national industrial federations would be linked into an Economics Council,
as a coordinating body. But the actual plans were to be developed by regional and national
congresses of delegates from the industrial federations, with the help of support staff.
This is, in effect, a democratic, syndicalist version of central planning.
The Zaragoza congress vision document differs from Abad de Santillan's proposal by adding
the structure of residential assemblies and geographic federations of these as the
expression of political self-rule but also as the channel for consumer input, with
responsibility for articulating proposals for public goods such as health care, media,
town beautification, and housing. But how exactly would consumer input be plugged into the
system of social planning? In fact the Zaragoza document doesn't say. Traditional
anarchism lacked a concept of participatory planning (10) - interactive development of a
social plan through consumer/worker negotiation.
The Zaragoza document provided for the linking of the free municipalities into regional
and national People's Congresses. In effect, this provided for local, regional and
national legislatures. The document also envisions a "People's Militia" - in other words,
an army - as a means of defense of the new social order (11). A structure that can make
rules for a society and defend its rule-making authority with military force is in fact a
polity, a form of government. If a Left-libertarian polity isn't a state, then a
distinction is needed between a polity (or structure of governance) and a state.
Traditional anarchist writing on this subject was not very clear.
Peter Kropotkin's attempt to make this distinction leads towards the emphasis on local
autonomy and decentralization characteristic of Spanish communalist anarchism: Because
"the State was established for the precise purpose of imposing the rule of dominating
classes," a move towards socialization of the economy and "liberating labor" requires "a
new form of political organization" that is "more popular, more decentralized, and nearer
to the folk-mote self-government" than "representative government," the type of state
characteristic of capitalism, for Kropotkin (12).
Although the Zaragoza congress endorsed a proposal for a "revolutionary workers' alliance"
with the UGT union federation, the congress failed to discuss actual strategy or a program
for the immediate situation that the CNT faced. As a result, the CNT would be forced to
"improvise in total incoherence" (in the words of Cesar M. Lorenzo) (13) two months later,
in the aftermath of the military coup d'etat.
The Coup of July 19th
The army takeover began in Spain in the early morning hours of July 19th. At 5 AM factory
sirens began going off in Barcelona. The CNT had arranged the sirens as a signal to its
defense organization that the army was moving out of its bases. The CNT had organized
about 200 neighborhood defense groups throughout the Barcelona area, with about two
thousand armed activists, and had set up a regional workers defense committee to
coordinate them. The night before the coup they had seized a cache of arms from a ship in
When the CNT concentrated its forces at one of the army bases in the morning, a corporal
in the Spanish army shot his fascist officer and persuaded his fellow soldiers to
surrender. Thus the CNT gained access to a large supply of arms. Employees of the
streetcar company seized the armored car used by the company for the movement of cash and
used it as an armored vehicle in the fight. Once the CNT had gone into action against the
army, rank-and-file asaltos joined the fight. In Barceloneta, a working class neighborhood
around the docks, a police major began handing out weapons to anyone who could show a
union card. Pilots of the Spanish air force began bombing and strafing positions of the
army around Barcelona.
Nowhere in Spain did rank-and-file members of the police take the initiative to fight the
army on their own. Where workers failed to take aggressive, armed action and trusted to
liberal government officials, the police played a waiting game. In the CNT stronghold of
Zaragoza, in Aragon, a local CNT leader trusted a local liberal Republican official. When
the army revolted, the result was a terrible slaughter. In 1979 a mass grave was uncovered
outside Zaragoza with 7,000 bodies.
Almost everywhere in Spain where union activists moved aggressively against the military
uprising and were joined by the police, the army coup was defeated. In Madrid many members
of the Assault Guard were socialists. There were not many places where the people defeated
the army without the aid of the police. Nowhere in Spain did army soldiers rebel against
their officers unless they were being besieged by angry workers and police.
The officers in the Spanish navy were mostly blue-blood sons of the land-owning oligarchy.
They had a low opinion of the lower ranks of sailors. Many Spanish sailors had previously
worked in the Spanish commercial shipping industry where they had often been members of
the CNT or UGT unions. They had a low opinion of their officers. The night before July
19th sailors in the Spanish fleet held secret meetings, elected ship committees, and
proceeded to arrest or shoot their fascist officers.
At the end of two weeks, the fascist generals had lost about half the personnel of the
army in Spain, 40 percent of the police personnel, two-thirds of the navy and most of the
air force. The army coup had been defeated in two-thirds of Spain, including the
industrialized areas and the big cities.
The most important force available to the fascist generals was the 25,000-man Army of
Africa, a battle-hardened colonial force of mercenaries and thugs. With the Spanish
sailors in control of the country's warships in July, and these ships prowling the
straights of Gibraltar, the water-borne transit of the Army of Africa to Spain from
Morocco was blocked momentarily. At this point, Nazi Germany came to the aid of the
fascist Spanish generals by providing German aircraft and pilots to ferry the Army of
Africa to Spain - the first airlift of an entire army into action in military history.
With oil refineries and gasoline stocks seized by the workers in Spain, the fascist army
was in danger of running out of gas. Texaco then provided another form of international
aid. The CEO of that company ordered tankers at sea to pull into ports controlled by the
fascist army. The company provided $5 million of gasoline on credit.
Meanwhile, officers in the British navy in Gibraltar were horrified at the sight of
Spanish warships run by lower-rank sailors showing casual disregard for traditional rules
of dress and exchanging clenched-fist salutes. The British naval officers directly aided
the Spanish fascists. When the Spanish army was besieging the coastal town of Algeciras
from the landside, sailors of the Spanish fleet attempted to protect the town by firing
their ships' guns at the army. The British navy blocked this by moving British ships in
front of the town.
In towns that were taken by the army, a purge committee was set up. Typically this would
consist of a police official, a priest, a representative of the fascist Falange, and a
local landowner. Lists were drawn up of known leftists and executions were carried out
systematically. According to a member of the Falange: "Eighty percent of those being
executed in the rearguard were workers. The repression was aimed at decimating the working
class, destroying its power ... It was a class war." (14) It is estimated that authorities
executed between 100,000 and 200,000 people in the fascist zone during the civil war.
After the defeat of the army in Barcelona on July 20th, hundreds of thousands of people
poured out into the streets, to celebrate the victory. The chief of police, Frederic
Escofet, worried about growing CNT power, sent police to the military arms depot at Sant
Andreu where 30,000 rifles were stored. They arrived too late. The CNT had already
confiscated the weapons (15). The CNT also seized the fortifications on Montjuich,
In addition to distributing arms to its neighborhood defense groups, the CNT moved
immediately to create an army of its own. Thousands of men and women from the CNT unions
were recruited. The CNT defense committee requisitioned motor vehicles - taxis, cars of
the well-to-do, buses, and trucks. Motorized militia units called columns were organized
for the purpose of mounting an offensive to drive the army out of Catalonia and nearby
regions. A typical column was about the size of a military division. The ultimate
decision-making authority in each column was the assembly of the militia members. The
assembly elected the commanding officer ("chief delegate") of the column. The sub-units
each elected a delegate to a "war committee" - the administrative committee of the column.
A sympathetic non-com or officer from the Spanish army was attached to each column as a
technical advisor. The overall direction of the columns was the work of the CNT union
During the summer of 1936, the labor militia columns from Valencia and Catalonia drove the
fascist army out of Catalonia and 100 kilometers west across the region of Aragon - the
largest amount of territory gained and held by the anti-fascist forces in the civil war.
Barcelona was the center of the Spanish motor vehicle industry. After July 19th the CNT
metallurgical union moved to immediately confiscate the assets of this industry, to
convert it to war production for the union militia. In a matter of weeks, the CNT had set
up 24 metalworking and chemical factories making shells, explosives and armored vehicles
for the revolutionary labor army.
The Debate in the CNT Over Political Power
According to his associates, Lluis Companys was anxious and nervous on July 20th. His
police chief, Escofet, had just warned him that the police could no longer ensure a
re-assertion of government authority (16). The CNT now held de facto armed power in
Catalonia. Companys was the president of the Generalitat de Catalunya (Commonwealth of
Catalonia - an autonomous regional parliamentary government) and head of the populist,
Catalan nationalist Esquerra (Partit Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya - Left Republican
Party of Catalonia). The Esquerra had defeated the Catalan League (Lliga Catalana), the
party of Catalan big business, in the elections of February 1936. The Catalan middle
strata - owners of small mercantile and industrial businesses, small landlords, lawyers
and professionals, managers, family farmers - were the main social base of the Esquerra.
Companys was the former lawyer of the CNT, and knew many of the anarchists. He needed to
figure out an appeal to them that would prevent the overthrow of his government.
Ricardo Sanz, Buenaventura Durruti, and Joan Garcia Oliver were leading activists on the
CNT regional defense committee, and members of Nosotros ("Us") - a FAI group. Companys
invited them to his office on July 20th. Companys told them:
"First of all I must say that the CNT and the FAI have never been treated with the proper
importance which they deserve. You have always been harshly prosecuted. And I, who used to
be with you, was forced by political realities to oppose you and hound you. You are now in
control of the city and Catalonia because you alone routed the fascist militarists. But
let me remind you that you didn't lack help today from men of my party, as well as from
the Assault and Presidential Guards. ... You have won and the power is in your hands. If
you don't need me and if you don't want me as President of Catalonia, tell me now and I
will be only one more soldier in the struggle ... You can count on my loyalty as a man and
a party leader who believes that a shameful past came to an end today and I sincerely hope
that Catalonia will be in the vanguard of the countries who are the most progressive in
social matters." (17)
Companys then proposed the CNT's participation on an Anti-fascist Militia Committee,
controlled by the Popular Front parties, to run the armed effort against the fascist
military. This was a clever gambit because its nominal independence of the state would
allow anarchists to say they weren't participating in a government body but would draw
them into a course of action controlled by the Popular Front party leaders, and would
leave the government intact.
It was the personal opinion of Sanz, Durruti and Garcia Oliver that the CNT should
overthrow the Generalitat (18), but they didn't express that opinion to Companys. They
told him that the CNT had to decide what to do. That night, the CNT local labor council in
Barcelona had a meeting to decide its stance on this question. At that meeting, Garcia
Oliver argued that "the movement should take power." Felix Carrasquer, a schoolteacher,
and Diego Abad de Santillan, both representing the FAI, argued against. The debate,
however, was framed in terms of the question: "Should we impose our vision of libertarian
communism? Should the CNT rule alone?" Carrasquer and Abad de Santillan argued that this
would be a dictatorship imposed by a minority. After a heated debate, the Barcelona labor
council voted against the option of taking power (19).
However, this didn't settle the question. The actual decision would be made by a regional
plenary of all the CNT local labor councils in Catalonia. The regional secretary called
this meeting for July 23rd. The regional plenary was a meeting of over 500 CNT local labor
council delegates. The meeting was held in the Casa de Cambó, the former employers'
association headquarters. This large building had just been seized as a revolutionary act,
to provide space for the CNT, FAI and Mujeres Libres (Free Women - the anarchist women's
The delegation from the labor council of Bajo Llobregat proposed that the unions should
take power and overthrow the Generlitat and that now was the moment to carry out the CNT's
revolutionary program. Bajo Llobregat was an area of industrial suburbs on the south edge
of Barcelona, an area that had been built up during the industrial boom of the 1920s. The
Bajo Llobregat delegation asked Garcia Oliver to articulate their position in the debate.
A charismatic speaker, Garcia Oliver had worked most of his life as a waiter, when he
wasn't in jail. His life-long experience of class struggle left him with a strong sense
that the working class would have to impose its will on society if it was ever to free itself.
Garcia Oliver emphasized that a revolutionary process must be governed, it cannot be left
with a power vacuum, which "would allow the various Marxist tendencies to take control and
obliterate us." The regional secretary, Mariano Vazquez - a construction worker of gypsy
origin - maintained that they should accept Companys' offer of participation in an
Anti-fascist Militia Committee provisionally while "governing from the streets."
The main speakers against Garcia Oliver were Federica Montseny and Diego Abad de
Santillan. Montseny - an anarchist novelist and charismatic speaker who owned a house in
an affluent neighborhood in Barcelona - was a follower of the extreme individualist
anarchism of Max Stirner. Montseny and Abad de Santillan were both members of Nervio - a
FAI group. Both worked for the anarchist publishing cooperative that had been founded by
Montseny's parents. Montseny was a member of the Peninsular Committee of the FAI and both
her and de Santillan were at this meeting as representatives of the FAI.
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