Anarcho-Syndicalist Workers’ Revolution in Catalonia

   In an interview with world famous Dutch-Canadian journalist Pierre Van Paassen, 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 (which were more than excellent) vis-a-ve the Soviet Russian Red Army. After all, the Red Army of Soviet Russia performed very well during the Second World War—what Russians call The Great Patriotic War.  But the Spanish Loyalists did have many surprising successes. 

     As told by Spanish survivors of Spain’s Civil War, (1936 to 1939) the beginning of the Spanish Revolution was 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 roots of the revolution go back to at least the year 1868, with the beginning of the Anarchist movement in Spain. The ability of the Anarchists 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.  The best history of this 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 included, but were not limited to:

  • Spanish Socialists trade Union  (UGT)
  • Basque Catholics. Catholic Priests in the Basque, organized 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.  (The library of The War Resisters League has a copy of Van Paassen’s book.)
  • Catalan Nationalists
  • The POUM (“Workers Party of Marxist Unification” aka “Marxist Unity Organization”).
  • Other non-Stalinists Marxists.
  • A  small number of actual Trotskyites.
  • 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 of mostly of coal minors from the Asturias area. “UHP…Unions Hermanos Proletarious.” 6 
  • United Youth Movement—UHO 7   

“Working Class in the Saddle”:

     When he arrived in Barcelona in December 1936, George Orwell witnessed; a true workers society. The Anarchists were in control of  Barcelona, “the working class was in the saddle.” In the POUM militia, in which he served, there was almost complete equality. Fear of the boss, doing people out of something, etc. were almost entirely absent from its ranks. In describing life in the POUM 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

     This revolutionary atmosphere is written about in the New York Anarchist newspaper Spanish Revolution9 (not to be confused with the Socialist newspaper with a similar name The Spanish Revolution) which was established to bring information and perspectives on 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, then Clara Freedman, was very active in its distribution. Anyway, the Anarchist Spanish Revolution, together with Vanguard, constitute two of the best sources on the Spanish Revolution.  The Spanish Revolution, which reported on Orwell—Comrade Blair—during his service on the Loyalist side in The Spanish Civil War, see below. Freedom Press in Britain published Spain and the World.

     In the first issue of Spanish Revolution (Vol. 1, No.1 August 19th, 1936; the lead item identified, “From the Press Service of the C.N.T. and the F.A.I.” dated Barcelona, Spain, July 24th [1936]:

     “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 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 sized and in a flash almost everybody was armed.

     “The groups of the C.N.T. and the F.A.I. with the help of various workers’ parties and organizations 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…. [Emphasis in the original]

     “After the battle the anti-Fascist Military Committee of Catalonia was formed. Its composition as follows:

     “C.N.T.: Juan Garcia Oliver, Buenaventura Durruti, and Jose Asensi.

     “U.G.T. (Socialist trade unions): Jose del Barrio, Salvador Gongalez, and A. Lopez.

     “F.A.I.: Aurelio Fernandez, Dilgo Abad de Santillan.

     “E. R. 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:

     “C.N.T. and F.A.I……….13,000 men

     “U.G.T…………………..  2,000 men

     “Marxist Unity Org [POUM, i.e. Workers Party of Marist 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.

     The C.N.T. and F.A.I. were Anarchist organizations, the first being a trade union and the second, a political group, aimed at maintaining the purity of Spanish and Portuguese Anarchism. 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 “P.O.U.M.”, 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.

     Four interesting and important facts emerge from the recruiting statistics above:

  1. 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 confirm that the P.O.U.M. played a very significant role in the Spanish Revolution and Spanish Civil War.
  2. Anarchists and police were fighting on the same side. As they say, politics makes strange bed-fellows.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. As the article indicates, these numbers changed as the war went on.

     When the fascist generals rebelled against the Spanish Republican government, three things happened that they did not count on:

     First, the Spanish Navy remained loyal to the Government.

     Second, the Catholic Basque region remained loyal to the Government. There was also a considerablef Anarchist and socialist organizing  in the Basque. with local Catholic Priests even having their own labor unions. 

     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.

     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.

     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 Anarchistic Catalonia. For example Spanish Revolution reports, “Libertarian Youth Organize 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 organized. All this was reported in Spanish Revolution.

     The extent of Anarchist control of Catalonia was recognized by the British Government. On page 4 of the first issue of Spanish Revolution, under the small headline “Great Britain Recognizes C.N.T.” the following is reported:

     “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 C.N.T.

        “It is the C.N.T. which plays the predominate role in Catalonia and is the one tremendous force to be reckoned with there.  This is so in spite  the of ‘radical’ newspapers [decision] to ignore the existence of the C.N.T. and the F.A.I.”

     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 both the Capitalist press and the nominally left-wing press: “On the other hand, the capitalist newspapers find it necessary to report the activities of the anarchists. But they, of course, do so in a vicious, shameless manner, calling the armed workers of the C.N.T. and F.A.I. 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, titlted “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.’  

     Immediately following this pronouncement, “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 a Cable to The Nation confirmed the reports.

     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 the in Catalonia.  Businesses where the boss was not pro-fascist were usually not ceased.  Also, the British government delivered a list of businesses to the CNT-FAI that where not to be touched.

     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 militia’s 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

     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 symbolized by a pro-Loyalist Italian militiaman whom he met in the POUM: “In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona the day before I joined the militia,,,He was a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or –six.” 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

     One of the ironies of the Spanish Civil War was that the Spanish Anarchists welcomed the Republic in 1931, and would have been willing to live under a republican form of government. But once the fascist rebellion had started, the response was the Spanish revolution. 14

     Many books have been written on the Spanish Civil War, but 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. There were at least 500,000 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

Raymond S. Solomon


Footnotes:                                          

1 .Interview with Buenaventura Durruti by Pierre Van Paassen from the Toronto Daily Star.  1936.

2. 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.

    “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 organized 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)  See. Felix Morrow internet archives.

3. Living Utopia, Ibid. Also, see footnote 2.

4. The Spanish Anarchist: The Heroic Years—1968—1936, by Murray Bookchin. Free Life Editions, New York, 1977  

5. Living Utopia. Op Cite. Also see, Raymond Solomon, “Beyond Spanish Bases” in correspondence column of Christian Science Monitor, February 25th, 1963.

6. Davison, Peter (ed.) George Orwell Diaries. Liveright Publishing Corporation. 2012. Page 94.

7. Ibid.

8. All quotes from George Orwell are from Homage to Catalonia, Harcourt Brace, 1952 unless otherwise indicated.

9. Since reference to the Anarchist publication Spanish Revolution is embodied in the text, I have  not footnoted  it.

10. “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.

11. In his essay “Looking Back on the Spanish War.” This has been republished in various collections of his essays.

12. Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology by Joyce L. Kornbluh, Daniel Gross, Fred Thompson and Franklin. 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 Durruti Belgrade. Compare the play Watch on the Rheine by Lillian Hellman.  Some German and Italian refugees fought for Loyalist Spain.    

13. The poem is titled “The Spanish Soldier Shook My Hand.” appears at the end of his essay “Looking Black on the Spanish War.”

14. Living Utopia. Op. Cit.

15. New York Times. November 22, 1936.

16. Living Utopia. Op. Cit.

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