As Catalonia continues to simmer, Raymond S. Solomon has an overview of that great historic Catalan rebellion — the Spanish Civil War
In an interview with journalist Pierre Van Paassen, the great anarcho-syndicalist leader and Spanish loyalist general Buenaventura Durruti said:
“We are giving Hitler and Mussolini far more worry with our revolution than the whole Red Army of Russia. We are setting an example to the German and Italian working class on how to deal with fascism.” 1
Durruti may have been overly optimistic about the abilities of the Spanish anarchist militias vis-a-ve the Soviet Russian Red Army. After all, the Red Army of Soviet Russia fought most superbly during World War II —what Russians call The Great Patriotic War. The Nazi-Soviet conflict was the most devastating in the recorded history of warfare. No country suffered as much as Soviet Russia, with at least 20,000,000 people killed. But the Spanish loyalists did have many surprising successes and fought very effectively against overwhelming odds; and Durruti was a very effective people’s military leader.
When The People Defeated an Army
As told by Spanish survivors of Spain’s Civil War, (1936 to 1939) the beginning of the Spanish Revolution ignited on July 19th, 1936.2 Juan García Oliver, Spanish anarchist leader and Minister of Justice in the popular front government, at an early stage of the Spanish Civil War, made the remarkable point that this was the first time the people defeated the army. 3 (Also, see footnote 2.)
But the background of the revolution goes back to at least the year 1868, with the beginning of the anarchist movement in Spain. Since the anarchists were the most important component, but by no means the only one. The ability of the anarchists, together with other radical groups, to quickly and spontaneously resist the fascist military rebellion in late July of 1936, together with the ability to take over industry and form effective agricultural communes, goes back three generations. To paraphrase John Adams, the revolution was in the hearts and behavior of the anarchists, Syndicalists, and anarcho-syndicalists. One of the best histories of this background is The Spanish Anarchists by Murray Bookchin. 4
The anarchists were by no means the only ones involved with the Spanish Revolution, or for that matter, loyalist Spain itself. Other significant groups, both specific and generic, included, but were not limited to:
- Spanish Socialists Trade Union (UGT)
- Basque Catholics. Catholic Priests in the Basque, organised trade unions.
- Liberal Republicans.
- Calvinists from the new Calvinist revival that started in Republican Spain in 1931. Pierre Van Paassen has written about this in Days of Our Years.
- Catalan Nationalists. (The most famous Catalan Nationalist being Pablo Casals—the world renowned cellist who continued to oppose the Franco dictatorship for the rest of his life and worked for world peace.)
- The POUM (“Workers Party of Marxist Unification,” aka “Marxist Unity Organization.”).
- Other non-Stalinists Marxists.
- A small number of actual Trotskyites—followers of Trotsky.
- An originally relatively small number of Communists, whose influence greatly grew due to the fact that the major Western Nations embargoed the arms from going to loyalist Spain.5.
- Basque Nationalists.
- United Proletarian Brotherhood made up of mostly of coal minors from the Asturias area. “UHP…Unions Hermanos Proletarious.” 6
- United Youth Movement—UHO 7
George Orwell in Spain
In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell wrote that in Barcelona, “the Working Class [was] in the Saddle.”
When he arrived in Barcelona, Catalonia, loyalist Spain, in late December 1936, George Orwell witnessed a workers run society. The anarchists were in control of Barcelona. “The working class was in the saddle.” Later, in the POUM militia, in which he served, there was almost complete equality. Orwell noted that the motivations of fear of the boss, doing people out of something, office politics, etc. were absent. This was the beginning of the turning point of his life. Among his observations were:
“In the Barbers’ shops were anarchist notices (the barbers were … anarchists) … explaining that the barbers were no longer slaves.” In describing life in the POUM militias on the Aragon Front in 1937, Orwell said, “One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship … One had breathed the air of equality.” 8
Reports of the Revolution
This revolutionary atmosphere is written about in the New York anarchist newspaper Spanish Revolution 9 which was established to bring information and perspective about the Spanish revolution to the public, especially to left oriented people. It was published by the Vanguard Group and United Libertarian Organizations. My father, Sidney Solomon was one of the main editors of both Vanguard and Spanish Revolution. My mother, than Clara Freedman, was very active in its distribution. Also Clara’s skilled as a terrific classical pianist were used to raise funds for Spanish Revolution, which should not be confused with socialist newspaper The Spanish Revolution. Anyway, the anarchist Spanish Revolution, together with Vanguard are two of the best sources on The Spanish Revolution. Another newspaper with a similar name, The Spanish Revolution, reported on George Orwell — Eric Blair — during his service on the loyalist side in The Spanish Civil War, See below. Spanish Revolution and Vanguard reached circulations over 3,000.
In the first issue of Spanish Revolution (Vol. 1, No.1 August 19th, 1936; the lead item identified, “From the Press Service of the CNT and the FAI” dated Barcelona, Spain, July 24th :
“At the price of bloody battles and sorrowful losses, the Catalon capital has reconquered its title of Red Barcelona. It was a spontaneous popular uprising which answered the first onslaught of the fascists. The city, deserted in the early morning hours, suddenly awoke as if by magic drum call; the people seemed to rise from the pavements. The armories were seized and in a flash almost everybody was armed.
“The groups of the CNT and the FAI with the help of various workers’ parties and organisations marched resolutely against the fascists whose aim was to take possession of the strategic points of the city. The latter employed military experts and war technicians, using cannons and machine guns, and though in the minority, they did succeed in delivering death ‘scientifically.’ But nothing could check the popular surge. The hatred against fascism wrought miracles; party differences and political quarrels disappeared before a ‘popular front,’ not the one which arose from the elections, but the popular front spontaneously created in the streets …
After the battle the anti-Fascist Military Committee of Catalonia was formed. Its composition as follows:
CNT: Juan Garcia Oliver, Buenaventura Durruti, and Jose Asensi.
U.G.T. (Socialist trade unions): Jose del Barrio, Salvador Gongalez, and A. Lopez.
FAI: Aurelio Fernandez, Dilgo Abad de Santillan.
ER de C (Catalonian left republicans): S. Miratvilles, Artemio and J. Pons.
Socialist Party and ‘Marxist Unity’ factions: Jose Muste and Pousa.
Coalition of Republicans: Fabrega.
The strength of each of the components of this committee can be judged the following figures of the anti-Fascist militia:
CNT and FAI……….13,000 men
UGT………………….. 2,000 men
Marxist Unity Org [POUM, i.e. Workers Party of Marxist Unification]…….. 3,000 men
Police and Civil Guards……….4,000 men
Many women also served in the militias, and were involved in the street fighting when the fascists were beaten down in the cities.
That lead article in the first edition of Spanish Revolution concludes by saying: “Mobilisation continues and these figures are increasing.”
The CNT (National Confederation of Workers) and FAI (Federation of Iberian anarchists) were anarchist organisations; the first being a trade union, and the second, a political group, aimed at maintaining the purity of Spanish and Portuguese Anarchism and to mark sure that the CNT remain a revolutionary organisation and not a bureaucratic labour organisation. According to the Spanish documentary “Living Utopia,” a member of the FAI could not have been married in the Catholic Church, must not have served in the military, must—if affordable—have sent their children to a Ferrer Modern School, and must not have had any addiction to alcohol or cigarettes, or other substance, and had to be in a faithful relationship.
The Marxist Unity Organization is what we call the “POUM,” more commonly called the Workers Party of Marxist Unification, or Party of Marxist Unification. This was the militia that George Orwell was a part of. It worked with the British Independent Labour Party (ILP); not to be confused with the British Labour Party. The Labour Party actually steamed from the Independent Labour Party.
Five interesting and important facts emerge from the recruiting statistics above:
The POUM (“Marxist Unity Org,”) was considered a small party. They, at that time had more people in its Militia in Catalonia, than the U.G.T., which is considered a big party. This tends to confirm that the P.O.U.M. played a very significant role in the Spanish Revolution and Spanish Civil War.
Anarchists and police were fighting on the same side. As the proverb goes, politics makes strange bed-fellows. (But it didn’t last long. In May 1937 the police allied with the Communists attempted to seize the anarchist-run telephone exchange resulting in a small civil war within a civil war. See Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.)
The anarchist, that is the CNT and FAI militia members, outnumbers, all the other militia groups together—at least in Barcelona, at that time — 13,000, as opposed to 9,000 — at least as reported in Spanish Revolution.
The most revolutionary groups, the CNT, the FAI, and the Marxist Unity Organization (POUM), had, at that point almost three times the number of men in the militia (16,000) as did the others (6,000.)
As the article indicated, these numbers changed as the war went on.
When the fascist generals rebelled against the Spanish Republican government, and anticipated a fast successful coup, four things happened that the fascist generals did not anticipate:
First, the Spanish Navy remained loyal to the Republic.
Second, the Catholic Basque region remained loyal to the Republic. There was also a considerable presence of anarchist and socialist organising in the Basque. Catholic Priests in the Basque had organised a labour union. Pierre Van Paassen wrote about that in Days of Our Years.
Third, there was a massive spontaneous popular resistance. This resistance resulted in a far reaching revolution, which went further in Catalonia than in some other parts of Spain. Spanish Revolution was devoted to this revolution. Spanish Revolution described the spontaneous resistance in certain parts of Spain.
Fourth, there was worldwide popular support for the loyalists.
On page two, the mission statement of Spanish Revolution is given. Its mission was briefly described as follows:
“A publication dedicated to current labor news from Spain, published by the United Libertarian Organizations Against fascism and for support of Spanish Workers.”
Another source for the information on the Spanish loyalist revolution is the chapter on Spain in Pierre Van Paassen’s Days of Our Years. One of the interesting facts that Van Paassen tells us is that in the years 1931-1939, the years of the Spanish Republic, there was a large Calvinist movement in Spain.
George Orwell came to Spain in December of 1936. In order to gain more understanding, and historical information, about the situation he found, I continue to cite and quote Spanish Revolution.
There were many far reaching elements of social and economic revolution in anarchist Catalonia. For example Spanish Revolution reports, “Libertarian Youth Organise the People’s Univ. of Barcelona.”
There was a “Committee to Aid fascist Victims.” Workers had taken over factories. Peasants had taken over estates and farms. An exodus of children was organised. All this was reported in Spanish Revolution.
The extent of anarchist control of Catalonia was recognised by the British government. On page four of the first issue of Spanish Revolution, under the small headline “Great Britain Recognises CNT” the following is reported and editorialised:
The English consulate in Barcelona has sent a list of all its citizens residing in Spain so that the necessary measures might be taken for their security and eventual return. To whom has the English consulate sent these lists? To the official authority which is in Barcelona, the Catalonia government? On the country, the lists were officially sent … to a committee of the CNT
“It is the CNT which plays the predominate role in Catalonia and is the one tremendous force to be reckoned with there. This is so in spite of the of ‘radical’ newspapers [decision] to ignore the existence of the CNT and the FAI.
In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell commented that inside Spain no one doubted the existence of the Revolution, while no one outside of Spain was aware of the existence of the Spanish Revolution. Spanish Revolution reported on the anti-revolutionary reporting of the capitalist press and the much of the left-wing press:
On the other hand, the capitalist newspapers find it necessary to report the activists of the anarchists. But they, of course, do so in a vicious, shameless manner, calling the armed workers of the CNT and FAI who are heroically fighting against fascism, ‘gunmen’ (at times ‘revolutionaries join the same attack, e.g. Ilya Ehrenburg’s recent article in ‘New Masses’ entitled ‘Enemies of Spain’.)
But revolution and war was occurring in other parts of the Spain. Let us look at what this first issue of Spanish Revolution says about the struggle in Valencia. On page four of issue one, Headlined, “Victory In Valencia,” and datelined “Valencia, Spain (FP) — (By airplane to Paris)” I do not know who wrote this report about Valencia. The story went on to say:
For a week the tension in Valencia was so great that nobody slept or went home. The workers camped in the streets.
The civil authorities had refused to open the arsenals and arm the people as Madrid had ordered. At the end of the town, across the river, three regiments of soldiers were confined to the barracks. They gave no sign of sympathy. But their officers were known to be adherents to the fascist rebellion. Any moment it was feared that the troops march in, and occupy the town, and set up a white terror. The workers covered the city with barricades in anticipation of a fierce struggle. They were going to receive the military with cobblestones and kitchen knives and with their bare hands if need be.
The colonel commanding the regiment called his men in the square of the barracks. ‘We will occupy Valencia this morning’ he said. “Tomorrow we will take Madrid.”
After speaking, “A sergeant named Jose Fabra … killed him. A moment later all the officers” were killed. The soldiers left the fortress and distributed arms to the people. “Fascists in the city began to fire on the loyalists from roof tops.” But the revolutionary forces triumphed in Valencia — at least for the time being.
Spanish Revolution published an appeal “TO THE WORKERS OF ALL COUNTERIES.” They noted that The Nation confirmed the reports appearing in Spanish Revolution.
There was a new system of fighting crime. There were civilian patrols. Defendants in criminal cases could be represented by a lawyer or a non-lawyer. People employed in nursing homes were chosen on the basis of their compassion. Workers and peasants controlled most of Catalonia. Businesses in which the owner was not pro-fascist were usually not ceased. Also, the British government delivered a list of businesses to the CNT-FAI that were not to be touched.
Comrade Blair (George Orwell)
Michael Shelden reports his discovery that Orwell’s serving in the POUM militia during the Spanish Civil War was used for pro-revolutionary propaganda. He cites and quotes a socialist publication called The Spanish Revolution (not to be confused with the anarchist publication Spanish Revolution) featuring his service in the POUM Militia. (Please note that Eric Blair was Orwell’s birth name, and he never legally changed his name to George Orwell.) In attempting to recruit people to serve militia in Revolutionary militias it said:
“Comrade Blair came to Barcelona, and said he wanted to be of some use to the workers’ cause. In view of his literary abilities and intellectual attainments, it appeared that the most useful work he could do in Barcelona would be that of a propaganda journalist in constant communications with socialist organs of opinion in Britain. He said, ‘I have decided that I can be of most use to the workers as a fighter on the front.’ He spent exactly seven days in Barcelona, and is now fighting with the Spanish Comrades of the POUM in the Aragon front.”10
Wobblies and the Spanish Revolution
A number of members of the Industrial Workers of the World fought on behalf of the Spanish loyalists that is on behalf of the Spanish Revolution; in what George Orwell said was essentially a class war. 11
“The … IWW… maintained friendly relations with the anarchist International Workingmen’s Association. Many IWW fought with CNT forces.”12
Sadly this revolution was betrayed by the Soviet Union and defeated by Franco’s forces, with German and Italian weapons and manpower.
The struggle for Orwell was symbolised by a pro-Revolutionary loyalist Italian militiaman whom he set in the POUM “In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona the day before I joined the militia,” and wrote that “He was a tough-looking youth of 25 or 26.” When the Spanish Civil War was almost over, he wrote a poem about this militiaman, whom he assumed had been killed. You can read it in the various collections of his works, or on the internet.13 The title is “The Italian Soldier Shook My Hand.” I don’t think we know his identity.
Two of the ironies of the Spanish Civil War were that:
(A) The Spanish anarchists welcomed the Republic in 1931, and would have been willing to live under a republican form of government. See footnote 2.
(B) Most of the Spanish anarchists were also willing to go along with the Popular Front Government elected in February 1936. But once the fascist rebellion had started, the response of the Spanish anarchists and others was the Spanish Revolution. 14 See footnote 2.
Many books have been published on the Spanish Civil War, but until recently — the 21st century — few on the Spanish revolution that happened at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.
In late November of 1936 Durruti was killed at the front. Many people felt he was murdered. There were at least 500,000 people in Durruti’s funeral precession.15 Emma Goldman believed that his ideas and ideals lived on. The survivors of the Spanish Revolution believed that they were fortunate in have lived through that revolution.16
Durruti symbolised the Spanish Revolution. Had the Spanish Revolution been successful it may have spread to Portugal, France, and Italy, and defeated Nazi Germany at an early stage by activating a revolution in parts of Germany.
Appendix: Spain and the World
In addition to Spanish Revolution and The Spanish Revolution, a newspaper devoted to the Spanish workers and peasant’s revolution was Spain and the World, which was previously Freedom Press. Spain and the World was published by Vernon Richards of Freedom Press. He was an Anglo-Italian anarchist and civil engineer. Richard’s wife was Marie Louise Berneri, an anarchist, writer, activist, and Reichian psychologist. Richards’ father-in-law (Louisa Maria’s father) Camillo Berneri was an Italian anarchist who organised like-minded Italians to fight for loyalist Spain—he was murdered by Communists during the 1937 May Days in Barcelona.
- Interview with Buenaventura Durruti by Pierre Van Paassen in the Toronto Star, 1936.
Gamera, Juan (Director) (1997) Living Utopia: The Anarchists & The Spanish Revolution (Film documentary) TVE Catalonya. Also, in 1938 Felix Morrow wrote, “The Barcelona proletariat prevented the capitulation of the republic to the fascists. On July 19, almost barehanded, they stormed the first barracks successfully. By 2 p.m. the next day they were masters of Barcelona.” Militant Trotskyite and militant labour activist, the late Felix Morrow wrote, “It was not accidental that the honour of initiating the armed struggle against fascism belongs to the Barcelona proletariat. Chief seaport and industrial centre of Spain, concentrating in it and the surrounding industrial towns of Catalonia nearly half the industrial proletariat of Spain, Barcelona has always been the revolutionary vanguard. The parliamentary reformism of the socialist-led UGT had never found a foothold there. The united socialist and Stalinist parties (the PSUC) had fewer members on July 19 than the POUM. The workers were almost wholly organised in the CNT, whose suffering and persecution under both the monarchy and republic had imbued its masses with a militant anti-capitalist tradition, although its anarchist philosophy gave it no systematic direction. But, before this philosophy was to reveal its tragic inadequacy, the CNT reached historic heights in its successful struggle against the forces of General Goded.” Revolution and Counter Revolution in Spain, by Felix Morrow (1938). Also, see Felix Morrow Internet Archives. But Morrow was very critical of the anarchists and POUM for working with a bourgeois government that included Republicans and right leaning socialists. As great as he was, and as strong an advocate for and supporter of the Spanish workers as he was, and as courageous a labor activist as he was who paid a big price with serious time in jail, together with 17 other members of the Socialist Workers Party under the Smith Act, Felix Morrow had a partial, but significant misunderstanding of Anarchism and anarchists. Freedom was very high on the anarchist scale of values. As Murray Bookchin pointed out in The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years, 1868 to 1936 (Free Life Editions, 1977): “The CNT had actually welcomed the republic. In April 1931 many Syndicalists joined with socialist worker in voting for the Republican bloc.”
Bookchin in fact cites Salvatore De Madariaga who said, in Spain: A Modern History, “But the anarcho-syndicalists…voted for the middle-class liberals.” [Emphasis added] Liberty, freedom of the intellect, and individual development were and are intrinsic and basic to anarchist thinking and feeling. Additionally there were many Individualist anarchists in Spain, especially in southern Spain. Claude Bowers was the United States ambassador to Spain from 1933 to 1939. He was not sympathetic to the anarchists. But, before the Civil War he encountered many individualist anarchists who were friendly. He was perplexed by the fact that they were friendly. He asked am acquaintance about that. The reply was that they worked very hard in their small businesses and did not like the facts that they had to pay exorbitant taxes to the government which did nothing for them. This is recorded by Bowers in My Mission to Spain: Watching the Rehearsal for World War Two, published by Simon and Schuster, New York. Individual anarchists included Benjamin Tucker—a mentor of Emma Goldman, Josiah Warren of the 18th century, whom Samuel Elliot Morrison, among others, called the first American anarchist, and Max Sterner. Frank Brand’s interview is in Anarchist Voices, by Paul Avrich, may best explain individualist anarchism. Voltairine de Cleyre favored free enterprise, as does the feminist anarchist Dr. Sharon Presley, who is an expert on Voltrairine de Cleyre. anarchist, and former publisher of Free Life Editions, Chuck Hamilton believes in free enterprise combined with workers’ controlled industries. But Voltrairine de Cleyre went from being an individualist anarchist to being an AWA, i.e. anarchist without adjective. She felt that one of the mistakes leading to the defeat of the Paris Commune was the failure to socialise property. George Orwell was very nostalgic about the Paris Commune, which is mentioned in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Dr. Sharon Presley believes in free enterprise, which she distinguishes from monopoly corporate capitalism, which she opposes. Presley wants Individualist anarchists and Collective anarchists (i.e. anarcho-syndicalists and Anarcho-Communists) to work together. Friendship, knowledge, education, community, and liberty are and were very important to anarchists. You can see this in Murray Bookchin’s The Spanish Anarchists.
- Living Utopia, Ibid. Also, see footnote 2 .
The Spanish Anarchist: The Heroic Years—1868—1936, by Murray Bookchin. Free Life Editions, New York, 1977. Also see footnote 2.
Living Utopia. Op Cite. .
Davison, Peter. (ed.) George Orwell Diaries. Liveright Publishing Corporation. 2012. Page 94.
Davison, Peter. (ed.) George Orwell Diaries. Liveright Publishing Corporation. 2012. Page 94.
All quotes from George Orwell are from Homage to Catalonia, Harcourt Brace, 1952 unless otherwise indicated.
Since reference to the anarchist publication Spanish Revolution is embodied in the text, I have not footnoted it.
“British Author with the Militia” in The Spanish Revolution, February 3, 1937. Cited in, Orwell: The Authorized Biography, by Michael Shelden. New York HapersCollinsPublishers. 1991. Pages 252 to 253 and page 471,foot- note 16. The POUM publication The Spanish Revolution should not be confused with the anarchist publication Spanish Revolution.
In his essay “Looking Back on the Spanish War.” This has been republished in various collections of his essays.
Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology Edited by Joyce L. Kornbluh, Daniel Gross, Fred Thompson and Franklin Rosemont. Charles W. Kerr Publishing, Page 378. See also, “In November We Remember IWW Members Who Fought In The Spanish Civil War” by Matt White, in Industrial Worker, November 2013. Page 9. One of the fellow workers memorialized by White was a German Wobbly who was in a concentration camp, escaped to Denmark and later fought in The International Durruti Brigade. Compare the play Watch on the Rheine by Lillian Hellman, which has a Germany refugee from the Nazis who fought for the Spanish loyalists. Quite a number of German and Italian refugees from Nazism and fascism fought for loyalist Spain. There was an Italian soldier whom Orwell met “In the Lenin Barracks” and was immortalized in Homage to Catalonia and in Part Seven of Orwell’s essay “Looking Back on the Spanish War” and in a now famous poem by Orwell—see note 13. Maria Louisa Berneri said that Italians who fought for loyalist Spain were very courageous and effective soldiers. In Chapter 10 of the first traditional American edition of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell identifies a German Jewish woman involved in the May Day (1937) fighting on the anarchist-POUM side.
The poem is titled “The Italian Soldier Shook My Hand” and appears at the end of his George Orwell’s essay “Looking Black on the Spanish War.” You can also see this poem on the internet. See note 12.
Living Utopia. Op. Cit. Also, Glaude G. Bowers, U.S. ambassador to Spain 1933-1939, related the story when Manual Azana, who had been President of the Spanish Republic, and before that a well-respected spokesman for republicanism and democracy, was going to give a speech in a stadium. Many anarchists and Syndicalists were going to attend. Bowers feared that the anarchists and the Syndicalists were going to disrupt his speech. To Bowers surprise they did NOT disrupt Azana’s speech, but were very respectful to him. See My Mission to Spain: Watching the Rehearsal for World War Two by Glaude G. Bowers.
New York Times. November 22, 1936.
Living Utopia. Op Cit.
About one fourth of this article was published in The Industrial Worker, May 2014, page 14 as “History of a Workers’ revolution in Catalonia.”
Spain and the World. Published by Freedom Press in London, an anarchist group. Edited by Vernon Richards. (London)
Spanish Revolution. Published by Vanguard Group and United Libertarian Organizations. (New York)
The Spanish Revolution. Published by the POUM and the Independent Labour Party of Great Britain. (London)
Dolgoff, Sam. (ed.) (1974) The Anarchist Collectives: Workers Self-Management in The Spanish Revolution. New York: Free Life Editions. Introduction by Murray Bookchin.
Souchy, Augustin. (1982) With the Peasants of Aragon: Libertarian Communism in the Liberated Areas. New York: Soil of Liberty. Translated by Abe Bluestein.