May 1936: The Congress of Zaragoza

In this archive article from Anarchy Number 5, Philip Holgate looks at the Congres of Zaragoza, which took place in May 1936.

ON MAY 1st 1936 THE CNT held a national congress at Zaragoza, in an atmosphere of impending crisis. The Spanish general elections in February had resulted in the replacement of the right-wing government of the Bieno Negro (the ‘two black years’) by a parliament in which the parties of the left held a decisive majority.

The internal position of the CNT was not a happy one. In January and December 1933 it had been involved in unsuccessful revolutionary action and in December 1934 the rising of the Asturian miners had been savagely repressed. The Confederation was split, with one tendency, represented by the ‘Manifesto of the Thirty’, the Treintistas, advocating much closer ties with the socialist trade unions of the UGT, and a less intransigent approach to the dilemma of reform or revolution. The special problems facing the Congress were therefore to enquire into the risings of 1933 and 1934 and evaluate the rôle of the CNT in them; to discuss the continuing relevance of anarchist and revolutionary syndicalist principles to the critical situation then existing in Spain; to work out some kind of relationship between syndicalism and socialism and put it into practice in terms of a pact with the UGT; and to do all this under the shadow of a split in the organisation which everyone felt had to be healed as a matter of first importance. Besides these particular issues there were the usual reviews of activity and publications and the preparation of general statements on the Confederal attitude to the agricultural problems of Spain and its ideas for the future liberatrian society.

It is therefore disappointing, in reading the published minutes of the Congress,* to observe how much of it seems to have been spent in personal disputes about the credentials of one comrade, the conduct of another on a given occasion, whether the Congress should have been held in Zaragoza or not, and similar matters. The important work of preparing statements seems to have been referred to committees whose reports were accepted after very short debates.

The scission in the CNT had come into the open shortly after the advent of the Spanish Republic in 1931. The delegate of the Opposition (Treintistas) of Catalonia explained that

Our current wanted to make use of the time put at our disposal to build a powerful CNT. We felt that one of the prime tasks of that period had to be to reach the young people who, without any ideological preparation, were coming towards us, and to make them ready for the outbreak of the revolution. We had to create in them a clear social consciousness which would greatly assist the CNT in making its revolution.

The other current believed in revolutionary circumstances, believed that the very conditions necessary for the transformation of society existed, and they worked in that direction.

However, the very period which gave the CNT a chance to build up, also gave the State time to put its house in order, a point made by the delegate of Fabric and Textiles of Barcelona:

In 1931 there were circumstances favourable to the proletariat, to our libertarian revolution, and to a transformation of society, that have not been repeated since. The régime was in a state of decomposition; the State was weak and had not yet consolidated itself in a position of power; the army weakened by indiscipline; a poorly manned Civil Guard; badly organised forces of public order and a timid bureaucracy. It was the very moment for our revolution. Anarchism had the right to bring about and institute a genuine régime of libertarian comradeship. Socialism had not attained the revolutionary prestige that it has today: it was a vacillating bourgeois party. We interpret this reality by saying, ‘The further we are from the 14th April, the further we go from our revolution because we give the State time to reorganise itself and the counter-revolution’.

The real issue in everyone’s mind was whether it was possible to find any unity between these opposing currents which could be expressed in terms of a declaration of unity, and a single organisation. The declaration was drawn up and accepted, and the Opposition ceased to exist on paper, although as later events showed, its spirit lived on.

Discussion on the unsuccessful popular movements of 1933 and 1934 revealed the same kind of cleavage in the movement, between the comrades who looked on them as useful experiences, and only criticised the organisation for not having made a more whole-hearted attempt to exploit the opportunities which occurred, and those who were dubious about the possibility of a rising bringing about libertarian communism in such circumstances. Similarly when the subject of the alliance with the socialist UGT came up, one of the important questions was whether the CNT was or ever would be strong enough to make its own revolution or whether effective participation in day-to-day activities demanded compromises and collaboration.

It is almost impossible to sum up this part of the debate from mere reading, and it could only be dealt with by someone who took part in the events. The questions that need answering are: To what extent were the mass of Spanish workers influenced by the CNT, and to what extent was the card-holding membership of the Confederation imbued with the libertarian ideology held by at least some of its militants?

When we turn to the actual statements drawn up by the Congress it is clear that no simple formula can sum up the attitude of the anarcho-syndicalists during this period. In its declaration on unemployment the Congress states that this is ‘ultimately a product of the multiple contradictions of capitalism’ and goes on to ‘urge, then, that for the moral and material health of humanity, that the working masses hasten to put an end to the capitalist regime and to organise the production and distribution of social wealth for themselves’. However, they did not intend to appear as pure idealists and so the declaration ends with demands for a thirty-six hour week, abolition of overtime, and the development of municipal works.

The statement on the political-military situation draws attention to the failure of parliament and the parties, the growing threat of fascism, and declares that the only solution lies in educating the people to want libertarian communism. It ends by calling for a revolutionary general strike in the event of a declaration of war.

The problem of choosing between a revolutionary and a reformist line also made itself felt in the declaration on agrarian reform. This recognised that a reform passed by law would not liberate the peasants, and it also recognised the possibility that its ameliorating effect might weaken the influence of revolutionary syndicalism among them. With this in view they proposed a programme of nine specific points demanding radical expropriation of big farmers, abolition of rents, and the introduction of irrigation schemes, agricultural colleges, and so on.

However, the most interesting of the resolutions of the Congress was that on ‘The Confederal Conception of Libertarian Communism’. It is a powerful reply to the authoritarian socialist critics of Spanish anarchism, whether Spanish or foreign, who claim that the anarchists were just confused and generous-hearted people who did not know what they wanted.

The resolution begins nevertheless by drawing attention to the two currents of emphasis on the individual and social aspects of libertarianism respectively. It also disclaims any desire to present a blueprint for the future:

We all feel that to predict the structure of the future society would be absurd, since there is often a great chasm between theory and practice. We do not therefore fall into the error of the politicians who present well-defined solutions to all problems, which fail drastically in practice.

It goes on to criticise the prevailing conception of revolution as being a single violent act, and characterising revolution as beginning

Firstly, as a psychological phenomenon in opposition to the state of things which oppresses the aspirations and needs of the individual.

Secondly, as a social manifestation, when that feeling takes collective hold, it clashes with the forces of capitalism.

Thirdly, as organisation, when it feels the need to create a force capable of bringing about its biological conclusion.

The first tasks of the revolution are defined thus:

The violent aspect of the revolution having been concluded, the following will be declared abolished: private property, the State, the principle of authority, and consequently, the class division of men into exploiters and exploited, oppressors and oppressed.

Happy land! Next comes a long section devoted to the details of the structure of the communes and their federations. It is well-known anarcho-syndicalist theory, but it is worth mentioning some points about which individualist anarchists are not too happy, concerning the relations of the persons with the federal structure. The economic plan takes as base (in the work place, in the Syndicate, in the Commune, in all the regulating organs of the new society) the producer, the individual as the cell, as the cornerstone of all social, economic and moral creation.

However, there was no doubt left that all good men would welcome the commune:

In accordance with the fundamental principles of libertarian communism, as we have stated above, all men will hasten to fulfil the voluntary duty — which will be converted into a true right when men work freely — of giving his assistance to the collective, according to his strength and capabilities, and the commune will accept the obligation of satisfying his needs.

Although no doubt meant in the best way, the imposition of ‘voluntary duties’ is not so appealing in the light of misplaced revolutions, besides which:

It is important to make it clear … that the early days of the revolution will not be easy … Any constructive period calls for sacrifice and individual and collective acceptance of efforts necessary for overcoming problems, and of not creating difficulties for the work of social reconstruction which we will all be realising in agreement.

On the other hand it is pointed out that the National Confederation of Communes will not be a uniform organisation. The example is given of a commune of delightfully-named ‘naturistas-desnudistas’, enemies of industrialisation, whose delegates attend a ‘Congress of the Iberian Confederation of Autonomous Libertarian Communes’, which where necessary enters into relations with other communes. Even if the editors’ tongues were in their cheeks in presenting the example, it is important that they could, in all sincerity, include it. Furthermore, although the network of federation is drawn in pretty closely, the following paragraph is revealing:

We consider that in time the new society should assure each commune of all the agricultural and industrial elements necessary for its autonomy, in accordance with the biological principle which affirms that the man, and in this case, the commune, is most free, who has least need of others.

Finally, after having described the ways in which the communes will take decisions, the declaration states:

All these functions will have no bureaucratic or executive character. Apart from those who work as technicians or simply statisticians, the rest will simply be carrying out their job as producers, gathered together at the end of the working day to discuss questions of detail which do not call for reference to a general assembly.

Not only economic and social organisation, but the very ideas of justice, love and education, are reviewed.

Libertarian communism is incompatible with any punitive regime, which implies the disappearance of the present system of punitive justice and all its instruments, such as prisons.

The committee considers

Firstly, that man is not bad by nature, and that delinquency is the logical result of the state of social injustice in which we live.

Secondly, that when his needs are satisfied, and he is given rational and humane education, its causes will disappear.

Therefore we consider that when an individual falls down in his duties, either in the moral realm or as a producer, it will be for the assemblies of the people to find a just and harmonious solution to the case.

On the family and on sexual relations, the resolution points out that the family has fulfilled many admirable functions of solidarity and declares that the revolution will not involve an attack on the family. However

Libertarian communism proclaims free love, with no more regulation than the free will of the men and women concerned, guaranteeing the children with the security of the community.

Education was discussed in two stages; one designed for the immediate battle against illiteracy, and another the long-term development of a human system of education.

The resolution ended by declaring that when achieved, the revolution would be defended by the people in arms.

This declaration on ‘The Confederal Conception of Libertarian Communism’ carried unanimously by delegates speaking for a million workers represents the height of anarcho-syndicalist expression. To what extent did the individual members share its aspirations? To what extent was it the expression of a handful of militant anarchists kidding themselves that their own ideas were held throughout the CNT? How representative was the other side of the Congress with its violent personal and factional disputes? As the events fade into the past, these problems can only be unravelled by someone who shares a knowledge of Spain, a feeling for anarchism and the skill of a historian.

However, the fact that the workers of the CNT, in the face of oppression and persecution, and the imminence of a violent rising, could present such a clear and humanistic view of what they wanted society to be like, shows that they were the most socially conscious people that recent history has seen, and makes it even more tragic that circumstances conspired to prevent them from realising their desires.


CNT (Confederación National del Trabajo — National Confederation of Labour).

Revolutionary syndicalist union influenced by the anarchists.

FAI (Federación Anarquista Iberica — Anarchist Federation of Iberia).

UGT (Union General de Trabajadores General Workers’ Union). Reformist trade union controlled by the socialists.

PSO (Partido Socialista Obrero — Workers’ Socialist Party).

PCE (Partido Communista Español- — Spanish Communist Party).

PSUC (Partido Socialista Unificat de Catalunya — Catalan United Socialist Party). The combined Socialist and Communist parties of Catalonia.

POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista). Dissident revolutionary Communist party.

GENERALITAT the government of the autonomous province of Catalonia.

*EI Congreso Confederal de Zaragoza, Ediciones CNT, 1955.

First published in ANARCHY Number 5, July 1961