Because of its geographical position by the Mediterranean and as a border town, people from Alicante have always been restless and turbulent. Without a doubt, this condition fostered the early appearance of socialism in our land, mostly in the cities of Alcoy and Alicante. It could even be said that one of the doors of entry in Spain was Alicante, as the first Luddite demonstrations were in textile factories in Alcoy in 1821, repressed by the army. On the other hand, one of the first utopian socialist experiments is found in Alicante, involving the Scottish philanthropist William Maclure, who started several farm schools in the province between 1820 and 1824, influenced by Robert Owen or Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.
Another characteristic of the working-class struggle in Alicante is the early and massive incorporation of women to the industrial system of exploitation, organising the first strikes against the introduction of machinery and founding the first workers’ societies under the guise of religious organisations, at a time when men were still banned from associating. The women working in the textile factories of Alcoy, the tobacco factory in Alicante or the shoe-makers of Elda could be defined as the midwives of the workers’ movement in its areas of influence.
Through the 19th century, workers in Alicante took advantage of the brief periods when laws were less restrictive to depart from the bourgeois tutelage and consolidate their organisations, always watching the echoes of freedom that came from Europe. And so happened with the new organisational methods of the IWA–AIT, which were well received in the industrial Alcoy, grouping most of the workers and becoming the official headquarters of the Spanish Regional Federation from December 1872. The strength of the Alcoy International was so mighty that they staged one of the most important workers’ uprising of the century, declaring a strike in July of 1873 with insurrectionist tones. It was stifled with blood and fire, and more than 700 were imprisoned.
The workers of Alcoy, dubbed the Little Barcelona for its connexion with the capital of Iberian anarchism, didn’t take too long to re-organise and show signs of vitality on the occasion of the 1st of May 1890, not only demanding the 8-hour workday but also willing to avenge the Chicago Martyrs. They put up the black flag in the factories of the Serpis river and didn’t drop their attitude until all parts of the planet had ended the day of struggle.
Another milestone of our history was the participation of several organisations from Alcoy and Alicante in the founding congress of the CNT in 1910, the anarcho-syndicalist organisation which would initiate a new phase in the workers’ movement in our province in following decades. The historical ripening of the workers’ movement in Alicante owes a lot to the extensive cultural education developed by anarchists around Esperanto, social theatre, veganism, rationalism, athenaeums, etc. Perhaps its most exuberant manifestation was in the proliferation of naturists groups during the decades of 1920 and 1930, formed by anarchist youths that adapted spaces near rivers (Els Canalons in Alcoy) or by the sea (Cabo de las Huertas in Alicante) where they put into practice a new way of understanding leisure and our relationship with nature.
The anarchists of Alicante woke up euphoric on the 19th July 1936. It was time to break with the existing social and production structures, to make utopia possible. The social change was intense, transversal and very quick, and in a few months, no one would have recognised Alicante.
A relevant detail is that our place in the map of war, far away from the battlefronts, allowed the socialising experience to evolve in all its diversity for nearly three years, expanding through all the corners of the province with a libertarian tradition, which was basically most of them.
It is estimated that 25% of the territory of Alicante was occupied by workers’ collectives, with the areas of l’Alcoià, l’Alicantí, Marina Baixa or Mitjà Vinalopó holding the most extensive and exemplary character, managing to put the brakes on the political hostility against collectives or the attempts at centralisation, and proving that with time the technical and economic viability of the socialising processes initiated. These can be classified into two generic types. Those of municipalist character inspired by Kropotkin, which integrated all the production sectors of a region; and those structured around a branch of activity in the way of Malatesta. However, if there was something they all had in common, it was the women workers of Alicante, that played a fundamental role as, after being forced to put down their weapons and return home, they didn’t hesitate to take control of production, cultural centres and the public sphere as never before in history.
But the dream turned into a nightmare with no time to spare. First reflected in the faces of the thousands of refugees who came to Alicante, for whom a system of accommodation without historical precedent was established. The first airstrike didn’t take long either, and then another, and another; until they were daily. The one on the 25th of May 1938 resulted in around 300 deaths. A time of terror arrived, when people left the cities in masses at night-time, preferring to sleep out in the open or in caves in the outskirts, rather than the trap of the subterranean refuges.
Alicante was the last bastion to fall into the hands of the fascists. An estimated 15,000 antifascist combatants were cornered in the port of Alicante on the 1st of April 1939, surrounded by Mussolini’s troops. They waited in vain for ships to arrive from a friendly nation, to liberate them from the repression.
Violence, hunger and misery were the crowns of the victors. Firing lines, exile or oblivion were the destiny of the anarchists of Alicante.
This piece was commissioned for the 4th Anarchist Book Fair in Alicante, Spanish State. To support the collective effort to revive anarchism in the city of Alicante, you can donate here.
Alvaro Gran is a historian. More writing from them (in Spanish and Catalan) can be found here.
Translation by Anarchist Book Fair in Alicante collective member.