Anarchism in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War: action without theory is blind

In July 1936, General Franco’s coup d’état was defeated through a revolutionary uprising of the working class, and the anarchists emerged as the leading force. However, their programme and perspectives proved impotent in the face of events. They betrayed the revolution several times and, partly due to their mistakes, the Spanish proletariat was crushed. Fascism went on to establish a four-decade dictatorship. It is the duty of all thinking anarchists to analyse events in Spain critically and draw all the necessary conclusions.

The anarchists were a mass force in Spain in the 1930s: their trade union organisation, the National Confederation of Labour (CNT) and their political wing, the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) had hundreds of thousands of members and played a leading role in the class struggle (an account of their origins, in Spanish, here). The most combative and courageous sectors of the proletariat were to be found in the ranks of the CNT. Unfortunately, though, determination and courage are not enough to ensure victory – correct ideas are also necessary, which the anarchists lacked.

1931: the Second Republic

On 14 April 1931, municipal elections gave a resounding victory to republican candidates. They took place in a context of intense social effervescence after the demise of the Primo de Rivera military dictatorship. In the aftermath of the election result, King Alfonso XIII fled the country. The monarchy had collaborated closely with the dictatorship in the 1920s and was profoundly discredited. The Second Republic was proclaimed with the connivance of most of the ruling class, which understood the Bourbons had become a liability and that prolonging their rule would spur the masses in a dangerous, revolutionary direction.

The Republic was welcomed by the broad masses of the people. But the events of 14 April liquidated the monarchy, while maintaining the social structure of capitalist Spain, including most of the old state apparatus. The basic social and democratic demands of the workers and the poor peasants were incompatible with this social and political system. Even basic democratic transformations, such as the separation of Church and state, the cleansing of reactionaries from the state bureaucracy and the army, and, most importantly, self-determination for Basques and Catalans, and a profound land reform could not be conquered without attacking large private property and the state that protected it. The bourgeois republicans could not carry out these tasks. Only the proletariat would be able to drive forward the democratic revolution, but in the process, would inevitably strike against capitalism and advance in a socialist direction.

The Communist Left (Spanish section of the International Left Opposition, led by Trotsky) acknowledged the popularity of the Republic and welcomed its democratic reforms, but pointed out that the state’s class character had not changed and therefore the hopes of 14 April would be dashed. The revolution, in fact, had only just begun: it could only be completed with the conquest of power by the proletariat. Events proved them right, as in a matter of a few months the Republic frustrated the expectations of the workers and the poor peasantry.

The anarchists, however, were at a complete loss during the events of 1931. They became inebriated by the popular enthusiasm for the Republic and greeted it enthusiastically. In their verbose language, the anarchists referred to a “new era”, an “impressive leap of freedom” and claimed that “many centuries of social and political development have been condensed in the Revolution of April 14”. They added the caveat that they “had not become republican”. But this was, indeed, just a token to assuage their bad faith, rather than an expression of understanding of the events of 1931. Anarchist sympathy for the new regime, as the CNT press organ acknowledged, benefited the petty-bourgeois republicans at the ballot box.

The task of the proletarian vanguard is, precisely, to stand above the reformist illusions of the masses and point out the way forward. The anarchists regard the idea of a vanguard as a conspiratorial, bureaucratic tyranny imposed on the working class (although they are also capable of flippant elitism). However, for Marxists the vanguard is simply constituted by those that can see ahead of the rest of the class by developing correct perspectives; “to represent the movement of the future in the movement of the present”, as Engels put it. This is a role the anarchists clearly did not fulfil in 1931.

The class character of the new regime, however, was impressed on the brains of the anarchists through the truncheons of the republican police that cracked down on the CNT-led strikes of the summer of 1931. Later that year, the anarchists veered to the opposite extreme. In 1932-33, they staged a wave of scattered, uncoordinated insurrections that were invariably crushed. These adventurist uprisings were staged by small groups of rebels. Repression decimated the movement. Between April 1931 and April 1932, the CNT lost almost half of its membership in its Catalan stronghold and underwent a crippling split, as the treintista faction defected. The treintistas, led by moderate anarchists such as Ángel Pestaña and Joan Peiró, sought to gradually expand the influence of the CNT trade unions by respecting republican legality and abandoning adventurist tactics.

After the defection of the treintistas, the radical, sectarian wing of the CNT now predominated. Having burned its fingers with the Republic, it now damned all forms of government and declared itself indifferent to official party politics. Reflecting on the failure of the Republic, the FAI press organ commented in 1933: “All governments without exception are equally bad […] and it is our mission to destroy them.” This facilitated the victory of the right wing in the elections of November 1933, including the spectacular rise of the far-right CEDA. There was growing disillusionment towards the Republic on the part of workers and peasants, so the anarchist swing to the left in 1932-33 reflected a more general mood. But anarchists gave this mood a reckless, adventurist expression. Indeed, they went from illusions in bourgeois republicanism straight into the sudden proclamation of Libertarian Communism.

The Worker Alliances and the Popular Front

Anarchist extremism in 1932-33 not only weakened the CNT, but also undermined the Spanish labour movement as a whole. The CNT was a mass force, but it was not hegemonic, not even in its Catalan and Andalusian strongholds. It could not lead the revolution without a correct approach to the other proletarian organisations. Hundreds of thousands of workers belonged to the Socialist Party (PSOE), its youth front (JJSS), and its trade union platform (UGT). While traditionally led by reformists, part of the socialist movement was veering leftwards in the fraught context of 1930s Spain. There were also three small, though fast-growing, communist organisations (the Stalinist party PCE, the Trotskyist Communist Left, and the eclectic Worker-Peasant Bloc, BOC). In addition to the UGT, the petty-bourgeois republicans also had support among sectors of the left-leaning middle class, the peasantry, and even of the working class, and capitalised on the nationalist sentiments of the Catalan masses.

Largo Caballero Image public domainThe Alliances were set up by small communist groups such as the Worker-Peasant Bloc, but they came to attract the growing left-wing faction of the Socialist Party, whose leader, Largo Caballero, adopted a revolutionary rhetoric in these months / Image: public domain

Faced with the advance of reaction, working-class unity became necessary. This was expressed in the Worker Alliances that cropped up in 1934. While initially established and steered by the party leaderships, they reflected the instinctive quest for unity of the rank-and-file and had the potential to become genuine bodies of workers’ power akin to the Soviets in the Russian revolution. The Alliances acquired momentum in mid-1934 as the ultra-reactionary CEDA was poised to enter Lerroux’s right-wing coalition government. The Alliances were set up by small communist groups such as the Worker-Peasant Bloc, but they came to attract the growing left-wing faction of the Socialist Party, whose leader, Largo Caballero, adopted a revolutionary rhetoric in these months.

The Alliances threatened to stage an insurrectionary general strike. This threat materialised in early October 1934. The Spanish workers feared a repetition of what had happened in Germany, Austria and in Italy, where fascists had been allowed to come to power without any serious resistance and then proceeded to crush the workers’ organisations.

With the exception of Asturias, the uprising of October 1934 was promptly smashed across the country, including in the two biggest cities, Madrid and Barcelona. Different reasons explain this defeat. In Madrid, the socialists envisaged the insurrection as a narrowly military and conspiratorial task, disregarding its political dimension. In Barcelona, the initiative was in the hands of the petty-bourgeois nationalists, who were content with a symbolic charade, but were in no mood to fight the state in earnest. However, the key explanation for the defeat was arguably the sectarian attitude of the anarchists.

Disenchanted with the socialists and the left-leaning Catalan nationalists after their dalliance with the Republic in 1931, anarchists adopted a sectarian position and refused to cooperate with “political parties”. Certainly, the socialists and the left republican politicians behaved treacherously in the past. They had repressed the CNT while in power in 1931-33. But anarchists forgot the fact that these leaders continued to enjoy mass support. Moreover, the Socialist Party was not monolithic. Its radical faction around Largo Caballero, which represented a large section of the working class, was breaking with bourgeois parliamentarism and adopting the language of revolution. This firstly meant that the development of the class struggle required a degree of practical cooperation. Secondly, the only way for the CNT to win over honest socialist workers was precisely through joint struggle. The general strike of October 1934 offered an excellent occasion for this. Sectarian seclusion, in fact, drove socialist and republican workers away from the CNT and strengthened the hand of the reformist leaders.

Only in Asturias did the regional CNT organisation adopt a different stance. It involved itself in the Worker Alliance and ensured the necessary unity for victory. The Asturian labour movement conquered power, held it for two weeks and established a democratic workers’ regime. Their isolation, however, led to their bloody defeat. Elsewhere in Spain, the anarchists sabotaged the insurrection. The Catalan CNT called on strikers to return to work from a radio station controlled by the Spanish army. They later explained the defeat because “the most important and combative force in Catalonia [i.e., the CNT] did not enter the fray”.

Fierce repression ensued. In mid-1935, 40,000 workers were jailed across Spain, including numerous anarchists. Clearly, not all forms of government are equally bad. Hungover from its sectarian excesses, in the winter of 1935-36 the CNT veered towards the right, towards a new entente with the petty-bourgeois republicans. A Popular Front was set up in January 1936. Unlike the Worker Alliances of 1934, this was not a united front of workers’ organisations for practical struggle, but an electoral coalition that included liberals and centre-left republicans. Substantial worker and peasant demands were eschewed in the name of “anti-fascist unity”. The Popular Front therefore had a mildly reformist programme that focused on restoring civil rights.

The CNT, which had denounced the Worker Alliances, now tacitly called on its followers to vote for the Popular Front. Generally, they proved more amicable towards the petty-bourgeois republicans than to the socialists or the communists. This is simply because the latter challenged the CNT’s hegemony over the labour movement, while the republicans were content with a tacit division of labour with the anarchists: they would dominate the ballot box and the CNT the trade unions.

Foresight and astonishment

The CNT and FAI zigzagged from a pro-republican position in 1931, to aggressive sectarianism and Blanquism in 1932-35, to a new honeymoon with the republicans in 1936. The explanation for these twists and turns is the impressionism of the anarchists, which in turn is rooted in their lack of perspectives and of an understanding of the class struggle. They responded empirically to events, through constant improvisation, and compensated for their mistakes by swinging in the opposite direction.

Anarchists’ lack of perspectives has a deeper philosophical meaning. Anarchism is an idealist doctrine, despite the materialist jargon of its theoreticians. They start off with a series of unnegotiable, ahistorical principles: against all authority and tyranny, against all forms of government, against political parties, against centralisation, against all vanguards, for spontaneity, for direct action, for federalism, for absolute freedom, for absolute equality. They try to shoehorn these principles into the class struggle. But life does not yield to the ultimatums of anarchist pamphleteers. This is precisely what idealism means: to impose one’s principles on reality; rather than to derive one’s politics from life itself, by unlocking its contradictions and processes through scientific analysis, which is what Marxist materialism does. Marxism is the theory of foresight, anarchism is the theory of astonishment, as the events of 1931-36 reveal.

A testament to the power of Marxist theory is the fact that Spanish communists foresaw the betrayals of the anarchists years before they took place. In 1928, Spanish Marxist Joaquín Maurín, engaged in a polemic with CNT leader Joan Peiró, observed:

“Peiró himself tells us: ‘And Spanish anarchism has done even more. Aware that the revolutionary strength of the country is in its hands, having a clear notion that the solutions [to the country’s problems] could not be anarchist in any way, anarchism put its strength at the service of the leftist sectors [i.e., the petty bourgeois republicans].’ What is this if not the full confession of anarchist impotence? So that the moment revolutionary power is at hand, it is passed on to the bourgeois parties of the left! Never has an anarchist uttered a more definitive, a more categorical condemnation of his doctrine. What is being said here is that anarchism is not revolutionary. If, when the hour of the revolution arrives, anarchism has to hand over its armies to the bourgeois leaders, it means it is completely impotent... Anarchists condemn politics. They don't want to know anything about it. But one day it will be necessary to put all the meat on the grill, the future of the labour movement will be put at stake, and then the anarchists, anti political as they are, will offer themselves body and soul to the bourgeois left.” (in L’Opinió, 7/7/1928)

That is exactly what happened in 1936, when push came to shove.

July 1936 and the question of power

The Popular Front was a reformist outfit. After its victory, however, workers’ struggles reached unprecedented intensity. This convinced the ruling class that the Republic could not contain the workers and provided decisive impetus to the development of a fascist movement in Spain. On 18 July 1936, right-wing generals led by Franco, Mola, and Sanjurjo staged a coup d’état that was stopped in most of the country by a revolutionary working-class uprising. This rebellion was only semi-spontaneous. The CNT and other workers’ organisations had prepared to resist a potential putsch. The workers’ response to the coup was so decisive that it dragged along broad sectors of the peasantry, the middle classes, and even parts of the soldiery and the police.

The struggle against the fascists was not a simple attempt to defend constitutional rule, but had a revolutionary tenor. Workers fought the coup not to save the discredited Second Republic, but to build a new world. Indeed, 18-19 July marked the beginning of the greatest revolutionary experience in Europe since 1917. Workers armed themselves and established militias. They defeated the bourgeois army. They formed barricade committees and patrols to control their neighbourhoods. They expropriated factories and established workers’ control over production and distribution. In the countryside, the landless peasantry took over the estates and set up collectives.

Popular front Image kitchener.lord FlickrThe Popular Front was a reformist outfit / Image: kitchener.lord, Flickr

The bourgeois Second Republic was in a state of absolute disarray, deprived of its monopoly on violence. It was suspended in mid-air. This went beyond dual power: workers’ power was implicit in the situation, especially in Barcelona. The task of the revolution was simply to formalise this state of affairs, removing the remnants of the old state apparatus and centralising and institutionalising the committees and militias into a new authority. This new power would wage revolutionary war against Franco, whose coup d’état had triumphed in western Spain. Indeed, revolutionary war based on workers’ power was the only effective way to combat fascism, enthusing the oppressed and the exploited and taking advantage of the class contradictions in the Francoist camp. Workers’ power in Catalonia would have spread to other anti-fascist strongholds such as Madrid and Asturias, galvanising not only the anarchists but also the left-wing tendencies in the socialist movement. There was a serious obstacle to this, however: anarchist leadership over the revolution.

The CNT and the FAI led the struggle against the coup d’état in many localities. They emerged from the fighting as the masters of the situation, especially in Catalonia. Catalan president Lluís Companys himself called the CNT leaders into his office and offered them power. He reportedly told them:

“Today you are the masters of the city and of Catalonia… You have conquered everything and everything is in your power. If you do not need me or want me as President of Catalonia… I shall become just another soldier in the struggle against fascism.”

A plenary meeting of the Catalan CNT discussed the question of power on 21 July. Incidentally, the responsibility that befell the delegates at the assembly reveals the critical importance of leadership during revolutionary events, which anarchists deny. Minutes of the meeting were not kept, but accounts by participants allow us to reconstruct the debate. Hawkish anarchist Juan García Oliver and a small group of followers called for the imposition of an ‘anarchist dictatorship’. The majority of the organisation, however, voted for collaboration with the leftovers of the republican state, which they considered to be impotent and largely irrelevant. They naturally justified this decision on the basis of anarchist anti-statism. “What a contradiction!”, recalled a participant in the assembly, “Libertarian communism could not be imposed! Dictatorship was the antithesis of libertarianism!”

They never considered that a revolutionary government could be based on workers’ democracy, that the multiple organs of power created in July 1936 (barricade committees, militias, control patrols, factory councils, peasant collectives, etc.) could be given a centralised expression that would reflect the diversity of working-class political tendencies, but where the CNT would probably be the dominant force. This government would be ‘dictatorial’ against the ruling class and the counterrevolution, but would be based on the broad masses of the people; it would be a proletarian democracy.

This is what the Bolsheviks did in October 1917: establish a government based on the soviets – the organs of workers’ power. They did not set about banning other left-wing parties (this happened later in the heat of civil war, when these parties took up arms against the Soviet Republic). On the contrary, they formed a coalition with the Left Social Revolutionaries, which only broke down after the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, that is, under extreme external pressure. But the leaders of the Spanish anarchists of 1936 (for the CNT and the FAI had leaders, despite all protestations to the contrary) had such a simplistic understanding of power that this possibility never crossed their minds.

The CNT and the FAI felt confident with the decision to collaborate with the Republic because, they reasoned, the state was very weak in July 1936, and they were strong. But this situation could not last. A revolution and civil war needs centralised authority to reorganise production and, most importantly, to combat reaction. The various committees and militias of the summer of 1936 were not up to this task, precisely because they were too scattered and lacked unified coordination. This raised countless military and economic problems. In the heat of events, some anarchists understood this. In the words of Madrid anarchist Eduardo de Guzmán:

“To make a revolution, power must be seized. If the CNT had done so in Catalonia, it would have helped, not hindered, our minority position in Madrid. But they believed it was sufficient to have taken the streets, to have seized arms. They completely overlooked the importance of the state apparatus, which, with or without arms, retains a very great weight.”

In order to appease the revolutionary masses, Companys set up a Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias, but this was a short-lived institution that was scrapped in September 1936, when the Republic had recovered strength.The Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias had an anarcho-syndicalist majority, but all Republican political forces were present in it, not just working-class representatives. Rather than replacing the bourgeois Catalan government, the Committee stood next to it, in an uneasy power-sharing agreement. That could not last. A situation of dual power can never be prolonged in time. It has to be resolved either in favour of the workers or of the ruling class. Step by step, in the period from 19 July 1936, when workers had practically all power, until May 1937, the bourgeois state was rebuilt and all elements of workers' power destroyed.

The Decree for the Militarisation of the Militias, 28 October, was a major turning point in the resurrection of the bourgeois republican state. Under the argument of fighting disorganisation and of centralising all war efforts, in reality the Decree brought the militias (under the control of the workers' and revolutionary organisations) under the discipline of the Republica (capitalist) state.

The majority of the anarchist leaders accepted the argument, unable to offer an alternative. But there was an alternative, that of the centralisation of the militias under the control of the working-class organisations through committees of elected delegates. Rather than submit to a centralised capitalist state, the alternative was to create a centralised workers’ state. Anarchist leader Durruti opposed the militarisation decree head on. 1 On November, the War Committee of his Column at the Aragon front issued the following statement to the Generalitat government:

“This Column, formed spontaneously in the heat of that protest in the streets of Barcelona and subsequently swollen by all those who have felt themselves united with our ideal, has unity as a whole and aims, and its individuals are disciplined in everything that tends to achieve its objective of defeating fascism. [...] The militiamen of this Column have confidence in themselves and in those of us who lead it, by their express delegation, without reserve. [...] For all the above reasons, this Committee, echoing the clamour of protest raised in the Column against the above-mentioned Decree, is compelled not to admit it.”

The militarisation decree, as well as putting the militias under the authority of the Republican government, reintroduced grades in the Army and the Military Discipline Code, as well as starting the process of removing militia women from front-line fighting.

The autumn and winter of 1936-37 saw the rapid reconstruction of republican legality and, most importantly, of the old state’s repressive institutions. In effect, this was a democratic counterrevolution within the anti-fascist camp. Faced with the metastasis of the Republic, the anarchists decided to enter government, first in Catalonia in September, and then, on 4 November, they took four portfolios in the Largo Caballero cabinet.

Yet rather than revert the balance of forces to July conditions, they covered the left flank of the bourgeois Republic and assisted its reconstruction as a capitalist state apparatus. In their press organ, they offered the following justification for their entry into government:

“The entry of the CNT into the central government is one of the most important events in the history of our country. The CNT has always been, by principle and conviction, anti-state and an enemy of every form of government. But circumstances, often superior to human will although shaped by it, have transformed the nature of the Spanish government and state. [...] The government has ceased to be a force of oppression against the working class, just as the state is no longer the entity that divides society into classes. Both will stop oppressing the people all the more with the inclusion of the CNT among their organs.”

As observed by historian Pierre Broué, “the Anarchist leaders adopted the language of the most reformist Social Democrats” (and not only the language, in fact). Again, from a position of opposing the taking of power by the working class on the basis of anti-political prejudices, now the anarchist leaders were justifying their entry into a capitalist government by arguing that the state had lost its class character!

The anarchist leaders not only revealed their bankruptcy as a revolutionary force: they also became active agents of class collaboration. Propelled to power by a proletarian revolution, they refused to take it, and consequently left a vacuum that was inevitably filled by the representatives of other classes, namely the petty bourgeoisie represented by the republican parties and supported by their Stalinist and Social Democratic allies. In consonance with their decision to leave the Republic in place, the anarchists joined the government and helped it recover its tarnished authority before the revolutionary masses.

By December 1936, the Stalinists felt strong enough (backed by Soviet military aid to the Republic, following their revisionist ‘two-stage theory’) to force the expulsion of the POUM from the Catalan Generalitat. Joan Comorera, the leader of the recently formed Stalinist PSUC (the Catalan branch of the PCE), became the Councillor for Provisioning and in his capacity started an assault against the collectivitzacions, the expression of workers’ control in the factories. The CNT press was being subjected to censorship by the very government they were a part of.

The working class, however, did not accept this counterrevolution passively. They were growing increasingly uneasy as they saw their own power, established with blood on 19 July, slipping from their hands. Several anarcho-syndicalist organisations, under pressure from their ranks, were being won over to an oppositionist position. This included the Libertarian Youth (JJLL), the Barcelona local organisation of the FAI as well as the newly created Amigos de Durruti (Durruti Friends).

After various clashes and protests, matters came to a head in Barcelona in early May 1937. The attempt by the republican police to seize the CNT-controlled telephone exchange on 3 May sparked a spontaneous working-class insurrection. On 4 May, the rebels held nine-tenths of the city. However, this uprising had no leadership. Anarchist and Marxist dissident groups were too small to provide the necessary guidance. “Our blood boiled”, recalled CNT textile worker Josep Costa. “We had Barcelona surrounded; we only needed the word and we would have cleaned out the communist [i.e., Stalinist] plotters and their dispossessed, intriguing petty-bourgeois lackeys who were sabotaging the revolution.”

The CNT called on workers to abandon the barricades. The CNT ministers travelled to Barcelona to try to appease the rebels. Anarchist Minister of Justice García Oliver begged: “we must put an end to this fratricidal struggle. […] The government will take the necessary steps”. They reached a pact with their other government allies to neutralise the uprising. Naturally, once the insurgents were disarmed the Republic went on to betray all its promises. An army of 5,000 Assault Guards was deployed in Barcelona. The dissident communists of the POUM were banned after these events and their leader, Andreu Nin, was kidnapped, tortured, and executed. The jails of Barcelona were full to the brim with revolutionaries. The CNT ministers had no alternative but to resign. The cabinet was reorganised under right-wing socialist Juan Negrín, who set about to fight the Civil War on the basis of bourgeois democracy, abandoning Largo Caballero’s leftist jargon and cracking down on the remaining organs of workers’ power and to restore private property.

The CNT and the FAI were now ostracised from the government, but they continued to collaborate with the Republic until the bitter end. In April 1938, the CNT-FAI reentered government, taking a portfolio in Juan Negrín's cabinet. Both organisations were bureaucratised and an internal ‘anarchist dictatorship’ was established by its debased leadership. In the words of historian Chris Ealham, “espousing a discourse of control from above and ‘responsibility’, the [CNT/FAI] leadership relied on bureaucratic censure to intimidate oppositionists”. Dissident anarchists were purged. The CNT crowned its dishonour by assisting General Casado’s defeatist coup d’état in March 1939, which yielded the sizable territory that was still under republican control (spanning from Madrid to Valencia and Almería) to the fascists without a fight, putting an end to the Civil War and inaugurating almost four decades of dictatorial rule.


In the ranks of the CNT were some of the most courageous fighters of the Spanish and Catalan working class. In fact, many of its leaders were also committed revolutionaries with a heroic past. Juan García Oliver, for instance, who became Minister of Justice in Largo Caballero’s government and helped appease the insurrection in May 1937, had been an important trade union organiser, an uncompromising enemy of reformism, and an anarchist gunman who was feared and persecuted by the authorities and the rich. In 1932-34, he became the foremost representative of the insurrectionary, anti-republican strand of anarchism. He helped prepare the resistance to Franco’s imminent coup in early July 1936. His reformist evolution in 1936-37 flowed not from personal insincerity, but from the mistaken anarchist politics of the CNT and the FAI leaders. His moral degeneration was a consequence of his political bankruptcy, and not the other way around.

Durruti Image public domainDurruti had drawn advanced conclusions in the direction of the need for a proletarian dictatorship / Image: public domain

However, the CNT also produced leaders that resisted the reformist drift of the movement. As Trotsky said, there were in fact only two camps in anti-fascist Spain in 1936: the Menshevik and the Bolshevik. Among the latter, the most important figure was undoubtedly Buenaventura Durruti. A migrant from León, he had also cut his teeth in the 1920s as a militant trade unionist in Barcelona and as a roving gunman in Spain and in exile in Europe and the Americas. He was a close collaborator of Oliver and a guiding figure of the Nosotros group. Unlike Oliver, however, upon the outbreak of revolution in July 1936, he steered clear of the political gamesmanship in Barcelona. Instead, he organised worker militias and thrust himself into the anti-fascist struggle in Aragon, waging revolutionary war against the fascists. His Durruti Column was renowned for its discipline and high morale, based not on compulsion but on conscious political commitment.

Durruti was never a theoretician but rather a man of action. Yet he was closely in contact with the proletarian masses, reflecting and articulating their instincts and thoughts. The deterioration of the front near Madrid in the autumn of 1936 drove the Durruti Column southwards. During a stopover in Barcelona on the night of 4 November, the day when the anarcho-ministers (as they became known) had joined the Republican government in Madrid, he addressed the working class masses through a radio speech. In it he railed against the privileges of the bureaucrats and politicians, demanded an economic dictatorship at the rear, so that all resources be redirected to the front and openly opposed the militarisation decree:

“The war we are waging at present serves to crush the enemy at the front, but is that the only enemy? No. The enemy is also the one who opposes the revolutionary gains and who is in our midst, and whom we shall also crush.”

Durruti, on the basis of his own experience had drawn advanced conclusions in the direction of the need for a proletarian dictatorship. The speech was censored and watered down by the republican press and even by the anarchist newspapers.

In November, he and his men fought heroically in the battle for Madrid, which was waged with revolutionary methods. The fascists were stopped at the gates of the city, revealing, as during the victories in July, the close connection between anti-fascist war and revolution. Unfortunately, Durruti was killed in the outskirts of Madrid on 20 November in mysterious circumstances (probably by friendly fire). We can only speculate about what position Durruti might have taken had he lived longer, but he would not have taken lightly the CNT’s reformist degeneration.

Following Durruti’s example, dissident elements of the CNT formed the Friends of Durruti group in March 1937. They sought to combat the CNT’s adaptation to the bourgeois Republic. “The war and the Revolution are two aspects which cannot be divorced. In any case, we cannot accept that the Revolution should be put off until the end of the military conflict”, they stated. Instead of class collaboration with the bourgeois Republic, they called for the creation of a revolutionary junta of CNT and UGT unions, that is, of a workers’ government. This position was broadly correct – but it was a radical disavowal of anarchist ideology and an implicit recognition of the correctness of Marxism. Although the group expanded rapidly, it was too small and inexperienced to play a decisive role in the events of May 1937, after which it was repressed and scattered.

Durruti helped liberate eastern Aragon in the summer of 1936 through revolutionary war. The militias promoted the expropriation of the landlords and collectivisation in the liberated areas. In October, Durruti helped establish the Defence Council of Aragon, which, in essence, was a revolutionary government of workers, poor peasants, and militiamen. Durruti wanted to replicate this experience across antifascist Spain, with a National Defence Council. The anarchists reject the term ‘state’, but the Aragon Council exercised a centralised monopoly of violence: it repressed class enemies, coordinated and defended the collectivised economy, led the war effort, and took major decisions. What is this, if not a ‘state’, albeit one that serves not the rich and the powerful but the poor and oppressed? The Council’s charter set out its tasks:

“The Council takes charge of all political, economic, and social development in Aragon. It comprises departments of Justice, Public Works, Industry and Commerce, Agriculture, Information and Propaganda, Transport and Communications, Public Order, Healthcare, Education, and Supplies. All Departments will elaborate a plan, that will be studied and approved by its constituent organs, but, once approved, it will be fully and comprehensively carried out. All localities will focus on carrying out the economic and social plan.”

The Council faced constant harassment by the Republic, including the boycott of the war effort on the Aragon front. While the Council was an embryo of a workers’ state, it operated in an underpopulated and remote rural region that was also an active theatre of operations in the Civil War. Without spreading to the urban and industrial heartlands of antifascist Spain, starting with Barcelona, the Council was doomed. After the May 1937 events, it was repressed and dissolved by Enrique Líster’s Stalinist army.

The Stalinist bogeyman

Anarchists today extol the CNT and the FAI of the 1930s, disregarding or ignoring the treacherous aspects of their policy. A more critical minority of anarchists acknowledges the betrayal of the CNT leaders but sees this as a series of fateful mistakes that were the consequence of difficult internal and external circumstances. Spanish anarchist leaders at the time also pointed to ‘extraordinary circumstances’ to justify their betrayals. What were those extraordinary circumstances? Revolution and civil war. But what is a revolutionary ideology worth if it proves impotent when confronted with its raison d’être, with revolution?

As Trotsky said, anarchism is like an umbrella full of holes: perfectly useless when you need it most. It is, in fact, an ideology for propaganda in times of peace, but it comes crashing down under the pressure of events in times of revolution. As anarchist dissident and Friends of Durruti founder Jaime Balius noted in 1937, “the CNT lacked a revolutionary theory. We did not have a correct programme. We didn't know where we were going. We had a lot of empty rhetoric but, in short, we did not know what to do with those enormous masses of workers […] and not knowing what to do, we handed over the revolution on a plate to the bourgeoisie.” A lot of ink (too much) had been spilled working out the principles of the movement in the previous decades. The problem, however, was not insufficient anarchist theoretical preparation. The ideas themselves were wrong.

Critical anarchists acknowledge that the CNT committed grave mistakes in the Spanish Civil War. However, they usually retort that Marxists have also betrayed the revolution in the past and point to the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union. This ‘whataboutism’ deserves closer attention. Stalinism does not deny the validity of Marxism, but, on the contrary, is a negative confirmation of historical materialism. Marxism affirms that the state is an outgrowth of class contradictions, which in turn are rooted in poverty, in low productivity, in the struggle for a limited material surplus. The state lords over society as a manager of scarcity and an arbiter of inequality, blunting the sharp edges of social contradictions in the interest of the ruling class, creaming off part of the social wealth in the process.

Lenin Trotsky Image public domainThe Stalinist bureaucracy went on to negate Lenin’s revolutionary and internationalist programme / Image: public domain

The ultimate material cause of Stalinism was the misery of Russia, a backward, peasant country ravaged by seven years of international and civil war, harassed and blockaded by the imperialists. Indeed, the brutality of the Russian Civil War and the harsh repression exercised by the Bolsheviks was shaped by the country’s backwardness, isolation, and its imperialist encirclement. These conditions gave a mighty stimulus to the bureaucratic tendencies in the Soviet state, which usurped power from an exhausted and demoralised working class. The Stalinist bureaucracy went on to negate Lenin’s revolutionary and internationalist programme and, in 1937, physically liquidated the old Bolshevik Party. The rise of the bureaucracy, however, was not mechanical. It was the consequence of a decade of political struggles within the Russian Communist Party, shaped in turn by the defeat of the world revolution and the growing isolation of the Russian Revolution. In short, the only coherent materialist explanation for Stalinism is the Marxist one.

Indeed, the theoretical possibility for the degeneration of the Russian Revolution was already acknowledged by the Russian Marxists before they conquered power. In fact, as early as 1845 Marx and Engels already warned about the possibility of the degeneration of revolution in conditions of misery and backwardness:

“[The] development of productive forces [...] is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.”

The victory of socialism in Russia was only possible if the revolution spread westwards, to more advanced, industrial countries, which would have helped elevate the productivity of the Russian economy and provided political stimulus for worker democracy.

Stalinism represented a negation of the Bolshevik programme – albeit one that was recognised by Marxism and combated by the Bolsheviks for over a decade. The betrayal of the Spanish CNT, on the contrary, was not foreseen by the anarchists and was, in fact, in absolute harmony with their theory. Anti-statism and anti-authoritarianism, the pith of anarchist ideology, drove the CNT to reject power in July 1936. The petty-bourgeois republicans and the Stalinists stepped in to fill the gap. Anarchist participation in government in November flowed from this initial mistake. Today, the four anarchist ministers continue to generate controversy among anarchists. But, in fact, CNT involvement in government was ultimately inconsequential and did not change the counterrevolutionary course of events, which was set by their initial capitulation in July. Had they not entered government, they would simply have been mauled earlier and more aggressively.

The only way counterrevolution could have been stopped would have been by a clear policy to coordinate all the existing bodies of workers’ power (militias, control patrols, defence committees, distribution committees, etc.) into a nation-wide workers’ state on the basis of elected representatives. That is, the establishment of workers’ power. That was of course anathema to most anarchist leaders, both those who joined the government and those who opposed the decision.

Anarchists today also retort that the dissident communists of the POUM, uncontaminated by Stalinism, also betrayed the revolution, joining the Catalan government in September 1936. However, the POUM’s mistake lay precisely in their abandonment of the Bolshevik line they had previously defended. In other words, their bankruptcy flowed from a rejection of their traditional programme and methods rather than from their implementation. Indeed, the policy of the POUM during the Civil War was to passively lobby the CNT and urge it to seize power. Their mistake, in essence, lay in having trusted the anarchist leaders.

The controversy between Marxists and anarchists is not only based on differences in theory. History itself has put both doctrines to test. We must study past events critically and honestly and draw all the necessary conclusions for the class battles that are being prepared. An analysis of events in Spain in the 1930s reveals in practice the bankruptcy of anarchism as a revolutionary ideology. Only Marxism provides a reliable compass that can guide the working class to victory.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.