avatar
Looking Back After 70 Years…


In Spain’s national elections in February of 1936, a repressive right-wing government was swept out of office and replaced by a coalition of liberals and socialists. Taking advantage of a less repressive environment, Spain’s workers propelled the largest strike wave in Spanish history, with dozens of citywide general strikes and hundreds of partial strikes. By the end of June a million workers were out on strike.

Barely a month after the election, the Land Workers Federation led 80,000 landless laborers into a seizure of three thousand farms in the "Spanish Siberia" – the poverty-stricken region of Estremadura(1). With the country at a high pitch of debate over its future, political polarization was punctuated by tit-for-tat killings of Right and Left activists. With right-wing politicians openly calling for an army takeover, the widely anticipated army coup began in Spain on July 19th.

For the first time in Spanish history, the people aggressively resisted an army takeover attempt. The coup was defeated in two-thirds of the country. The unions moved to confiscate vast amounts of capitalist assets, putting most of Spain’s economy under worker management. Unions built their own revolutionary labor army to fight the Spanish military. The military’s attempt to crush the country’s labor movement propelled the working class revolution that the Spanish elite had long feared. The civil war itself was class struggle in its most extreme form.

Two of the key players in this drama were the country’s main labor federations. The National Confederation of Labor (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo – CNT) had 1.6 millbers in early 1936 (according to government statistics). The CNT was the result of nearly seven decades of anarchist labor organizing in Spain. Since 1919 the CNT had been based on the sindicato unico ("single union") – autonomous local industrial unions. In Barcelona in 1936 the CNT construction and metallurgical sindicatos unicos each had more than 30,000 members.

No sindicato unico in the CNT had any paid officials. Workers liked the anarchist idea that the common struggle should not become an avenue of personal careerism. Anarchists believed that paid officials encouraged workers to look to those leaders to solve their problems, and led to domination of unions by chiefs. In 1936 there were only a few paid officials in the CNT federation – the national secretary, the regional secretary of Catalonia, and the secretary of the national industrial union in the commercial fishing industry. These officials, and the staff of the CNT daily newspapers in Madrid and Barcelona, were paid an average worker’s wage. The paid officials were also rotated from office after one year.

While organizing struggles around immediate concerns, anarchists in the CNT also encouraged discussion of vision for a society beyond capitalism, without structures of oppression and exploitation. The CNT’s "apoliticism" meant that it opposed an electoral or parliamentary strategy for social change. The aim of CNT militants was the liberation of the working class from class oppression through mass action by the workers themselves.

Each sindicato unico had "sections" that had their own assemblies and elected shop stewards (dele-gados). In manufacturing industries like textile or metalworking, there was a "section" for each firm or plant. In the construction industry, the "sections" corresponded to the various crafts. All of the autonomous industrial unions in a city or county (comarca) were grouped together into a local labor council (federación local).

The unions were part of a larger context of movement institutions. The libertarian Left in Spain also organized alternative schools and an extensive network of ateneos – storefront community centers. The ateneos were centers for debates, cultural events, literacy classes (between 30 and 50 percent of the population was illiterate in the ’30s), and so on. A characteristic idea of Spanish anarchism was the empowerment of ordinary people, preparing them for effective participation in the struggle for social transformation.

The libertarian syndicalism of the CNT was a form of "prefigurative" politics. In developing a union based on participation in decision-making through the assemblies and unpaid, elected delegados, CNT militants believed they were practicing a form of organization that was a foretaste of a society where workers ran industry and the society was self-managed through the participatory democracy of assemblies.

The second major labor organization in Spain was the General Union of Workers (Union General de Trabajadores – UGT), with 1.4 million members in early 1936. The UGT was aligned with the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español – PSOE) although the Communist Party was also active within it. The UGT was the majority union organization in the Castillian central regions of Spain, including Madrid, and in the coal-mining region of Asturias on the north Atlantic coast. The UGT Land Workers Federation (Federación Nacional de Trabajadores de la Tierra – FNTT) had a half million members in the spring of 1936. With its campaign for agrarian reform through land seizures, the FNTT was a mass revolutionary movement in the countryside.

The Boom and the Death Squads

The mass mobilizations and the social polarization leading up to the civil war were the culmination of a social crisis that had been brewing in Spain for decades. The crisis began to manifest itself during the World War I era. Spain was neutral during the war and was able to trade with both sides. A massive industrialization and urbanization boom got underway in Catalonia. This would continue during the world boom of the 1920s. Barcelona was the fastest growing city in western Europe in this period. Industrial suburbs grew up rapidly around new factories. Barcelona had been a major trading center on the Mediterranean since the middle ages, and was home to an entrepreneurial business class.

The economic boom of the World War I years also led to growth for Spain’s two major labor organizations. The Russian revolution of February 1917 also encouraged a growing radical trend. The high point of labor struggle during the war was a national general strike in 1917, supported by both the UGT and CNT. In Barcelona the CNT were masters of the city until the army moved in to suppress the strike. (Victor Serge’s novel Birth of Our Power is an impressionistic account of the 1917 Barcelona general strike.)

To deal with the growing threat of the CNT in Catalonia, the head of the police, Severiano Martinez Anido, began recruiting gunmen to assassinate CNT officials and activists, with the assistance of the police. Employers and officials of the Roman Catholic Church provided funding for the death squads. During this period there were 440 attempted murders of workers in Catalonia(2). Workers were being forced to join "yellow" trade unions, the Sindicatos Libres ("Free Unions"), at the point of a gun. A small core of religious, Carlist skilled workers had formed the Sindicatos Libres. Carlism was a form of right-wing Catholic politics in Spain. In response, some young anarchists formed armed action groups, which retaliated by assassinating employers and church leaders who were believed to be funding the death squads.

For years Spain had been trying to hold onto its last scrap of empire in Morocco. In 1923 a military campaign in Morocco, promoted by King Alfonso, led to a disaster in which 10,000 Spanish soldiers were killed. The army clamped a dictatorship on Spain, headed by General Miguel Primo de Rivera, partly as a means to suppress outrage over this incident. The CNT was banned throughout the country. Primo de Rivera introduced a scheme of incorporating the unions into the state via Arbitration Boards; he encouraged participation by the UGT as a "responsible" alternative to the CNT. The Catholic "Free Unions," preaching the harmony of labor and capital and a form of proletarian clerical-fascism, competed with the UGT for representation on the Arbitration Boards. With state and employer backing, the Free Unions had formed a national organization by 1925 (Federación Nacional de Sindicatos Libres – FNSL) with 200,000 members(3), nearly as large as the UGT.

Mass Rent Strike

In 1930 the king fled the country as the dictatorship collapsed. Elections brought a coalition of liberals and socialists to power, to govern the new Republic. The CNT unions regained the legal right to organize.

Faced with growing unemployment, and a desire to rebuild their organization, the CNT sindicato unico of construction workers in Barcelona began a campaign of invading construction sites to sign up members and to demand that contractors hire 15 percent more workers. The construction union argued that the housing sector in Catalonia had made super-profits during the boom of the ’20s – profits that were tied down in unproductive investments. Increasing the number of people employed by the industry would put more money into circulation, helping to counter the depression. With workers pouring into the CNT sindicato unico, the Catholic FNSL construction craft unions collapsed.

In the late ’20s a broad debate had begun in the CNT about the union’s future direction. One aspect of this debate was the proposal to group local unions into national industry unions for coordinated action against employers in an industry throughout the country. Joan Peiró – a self-educated glass worker and an influential syndicalist theoretician – was able to persuade a CNT congress to allow national industry unions in 1931. However, some anarchists opposed this proposal on the grounds that it could lead to the development of a new bureaucracy of paid officials beyond the control of the local unions. Due to this opposition, national industrial unions were created in only a few industries in the CNT before 1936. A national industrial union was created among workers at the Spanish National Telephone Co. In 1931 the CNT launched a nation-wide strike against the phone company. This was an initiation into union struggle for the largely female workforce of telephone operators.

Another aspect of the debate in the CNT was how to break out of the box of industrial struggles that focus only on issues of wages and working conditions. There was a feeling that the CNT needed to extend its influence beyond a purely labor context to other areas of society. Joan Peiró argued for the formation of neighborhood-based committees to organize around broad issues of concern to the working class, not just work-related questions.

During the boom of the ’20s, rents had risen by 150 percent in Barcelona. Crowding, construction of shanties by unscrupulous landlords and housing without basic amenities like running water had become common.  In early 1931 activists in the CNT began to discuss the possibility of a struggle around rents, and articles about the housing crisis began appearing in the big daily paper operated by the CNT in Barcelona, Solidaridad Obrera.

The rent struggle began with a mass meeting of the CNT construction union in April of 1931. At that meeting Arturo Parera and Santiago Bilbao proposed the formation of an Economic Defense Commission, with the participation of other unions. Parera and Bilbao were both prominent members of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (Federación Anarquista Iberica – FAI). The FAI was a loose amalgam of anarchist groups that worked mainly as caucuses within the CNT unions.

After a series of neighborhood meetings, the rent campaign settled on a demand for a 40 percent rent rollback at a mass meeting at the Palace of Fine Arts on July 5th. The meeting decided that the rent deposits paid by tenants should be used to pay the next month’s rent and after that renters would refuse to pay rent if their landlord didn’t agree to the rent reduction. The Chamber of Urban Property – the landlords’ organization- denounced the campaign as a criminal violation of their rights. They demanded police action to suppress the rent campaign. By the end of August, the Economic Defense Commission claimed that 100,000 people were not paying their rent.

The ability of the rent struggle to reach out beyond the existing CNT union members was illustrated by the large numbers of women who were active in the struggle. On one occasion a group of asaltos (Assault Guards – a paramilitary national police force created by Republican politicians in the early ’30s) sent to evict a tenant backed down when confronted by a large crowd of women and children. Because the city employees charged with carrying out evictions were either intimidated by the crowds or were sympathetic to the rent strike, the landlords began recruiting their own militia to carry out evictions.

The landlords’ organization appealed to the national government to take action to suppress the strike. Largo Caballero, the UGT executive secretary and a leader of the PSOE, was a member of the cabinet in the liberal/socialist coalition government. Caballero was unsympathetic to the rent strike, calling it "absurd." At the same time, Caballero’s UGT was providing scabs to break the CNT telephone strike in Madrid.

In the midst of the rent strike in Barcelona, a large explosion went off. No one was injured, but there was severe damage to telephone equipment. Even though there was no connection to the rent strike, the government used this as a pretext to ban meetings of the Economic Defense Commission. The government also banned meetings of the CNT telephone union.

The national government appointed a conservative lawyer as civil governor for Catalonia and he announced that he would simply not allow the rent strike to continue. The authorities began using preventive detention to hold Santiago Bilbao and 52 other CNT activists. Preventive detention meant that a person could be held indefinitely without any charges being filed. This had been one of the hated methods of the military dictatorship. People had thought that these methods would become a thing of the past under the new Republic.

Eventually, police were able to suppress the rent strike by arresting tenants who had been put back into apartments by their neighbors after an eviction. Nonetheless, in many areas of the city individual landlords had entered into rent reduction deals with their tenants. Many tenants thus felt they had won something. For a younger generation of CNT activists, this was the first time they had been involved in a large-scale direct action campaign. For working class participants it was a direct lesson in the way a broad range of groups, from landlords to police to politicians, were aligned against them(4).

The Land and the Church

Spain in the ’30s was a country with very uneven economic development. Wealthy, industrialized Catalonia might look like developed areas in other western European countries, but other areas of Spain were rather different. Spain was still a predominantly agrarian country, with 45.5 percent of the "economically active" population engaged in agriculture. In an agrarian country a large part of the wealth is tied up in land ownership. South of the Guadarrama mountains was the latifundia zone, the region that had been conquered from the Moors by a Castilian army in the middle ages. Capitalist investors bought up latifundias – huge estates – after feudal restrictions on sale of land were broken in the 19th century. In this region two thousand families owned 90 percent of the land. Meanwhile, 750,000 landless laborers were employed at starvation wages.

North of the Guadarramas were areas where campesinos owned small- to medium-sized farms. In some areas of the north, the plots were often too small to support a family. The campesinos had to hire themselves out for wages, or work as sharecroppers.

The main social base of the far-right political parties were the religious, land-owning farmers in areas of the north like Old Castile and Navarre, and the religious middle strata – small business owners, lawyers, officials, etc. – of the provincial towns. In the big cities and along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts these middle classes were the social base of the liberal Republican parties.

The elite classes in Spain regarded the Spanish Roman Catholic Church as an essential ideological prop of the social order. But the church was widely hated in working class circles for preaching the acceptance of poverty while amassing vast assets and catering to the more affluent sectors of society. In 1930 there were more clergy in Spain than in any country other than Italy. There were 35,000 priests and 80,000 monks and nuns. Yet regular attendance at mass was not very high. South of the Guadarramas, it was as low as 5 percent of the population(5). Church opposition to science meant that many teachers and doctors were anti-clerical. Anti-clericalism was widespread among the Spanish Left, from working class anarchists to middle-class liberal Republicans.

The first liberal/socialist Republican government in 1931 attacked the power of the church by disallowing any church role in education other than religious instruction. The powerful Jesuit order was dissolved. Civil marriage and divorce were established.

Uprisings and Factional Struggles

The liberal/socialist coalition also engaged in various acts of repression directed against CNT unions. Caballero was willing to take advantage of these measures to build the UGT union at the expense of the CNT. In this repressive environment, which forced the CNT into direct confrontations with the authorities, a number of anarchist groups in the CNT pushed the union into attempted revolutionary general strikes and insurrectionary adventures. In a typical scenario, a group of anarchists would seize the local town hall, run up the red and black flag, burn property records and declare "libertarian communism" in the town. Advocates of these methods called this "revolutionary gymnastics." These attempted insurrections were a throwback to the 19th century anarchist concept of "propaganda by the deed" – the idea that an exemplary action by a small group of revolutionaries can spark off a spontaneous popular uprising. In the most infamous of these attempts – a failed national general strike in January 1933 – paramilitary asaltos carried out a massacre in the village of Casas Viejas in Andalusia. A whole family was burned in their hut and the police shot people who had surrendered.

The worst fears of many syndicalists were realized in the January 1933 uprising: "the national confederation and the regionals [were] manipulated by a small group of militants who had committed the entire membership to precipitous and dangerous action," writes Jerome Mintz. "The membership had been badly mauled in street fighting, the leaders arrested and beaten, and the [unions] closed."(6)

In the syndicalist view, social transformation required the prior organization and education of the working class, the development of its skills and self-confidence, and working out a coherent revolutionary strategy, not a reliance on pure "spontaneity." Joan Peiró, in his 1933 book Sindicalismo, put it this way:

"For us the social revolution is not just a matter of rising violently against the organized forces of the state…The social revolution consists in taking over factories and mines, the land and the railways. It is not sufficient to take over social wealth, it is necessary to know how to use it – and to use it immediately, without any discontinuity."(7)

"Continuity" would be assured by the fact that the social transformation is carried out by the workers themselves, who have the skills to continue the running of industry.

The factional struggle inside the CNT in the early  ’30s became quite heated after a group of thirty union officials and activists sent to the capitalist press a document criticizing an alleged "dictatorship" over the CNT by the FAI. These thirty activists and their followers became known as the treintista ("thirty-ist") tendency. It wasn’t only the treintistas who opposed the insurrectionary adventures being propelled by FAI groups in Catalonia. FAI groups outside Catalonia were also critical. With the advent of the Republic, one of the leading treintistas – Angel Pestaña – began advocating the formation of a labor political party, and soon established the Unionist Party (Partido Sindicalista) to compete in parliamentary elections. Although most treintistas did not follow Pestaña into electoral politics, various anarchists worried that this was the direction the treintistas were headed.

FAI groups in Catalonia were also worried about a Leninist group organizing in the CNT unions. In 1930 the Workers Federation of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands had merged with the majority from the Catalan Communist Party (Partit Comunista Catala – PCC) to form the Workers and Peasants Bloc (Bloc Obrer i Camperol – BOC). The BOC was an anti-Stalinist group that identified, nonetheless, with the Leninist model of a "vanguard party." The BOC was especially strong in Lleida. A leading figure in the CNT in Lleida was Joaquin Maurin, a popular teacher. Maurin was the leader of the BOC.

The BOC also tried to gain control of libertarian ateneos in Catalonia. The main decision-making body in an ateneo would be the periodic assemblies that elected the administrative committee of the ateneo. The BOC would show up in force to these assemblies to gain control of the administrative committee.

By 1932 the FAI had gained sufficient hegemony in the CNT that it was able to get the treintista- and BOC-dominated unions expelled. As a result, the CNT lost most of its union organization in Lleida. In 1934 the BOC-controlled unions formed a new labor federation, the Workers Federation of Union Unity (Federación Obrera de Unidad Sindical – FOUS). In 1935 the BOC merged with a smaller Leninist group and changed its name to Workers Party of Marxist Unification (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista – POUM)(8).

In 1933 right-wing parties won the elections, and Spain entered a period of repressive government, known as the biennio negro ("two black years"). At this time Largo Caballero and much of the Socialist Party began to move to the left. Caballero began talking about the need for "proletarian revolution" and "a workers’ government."

A number of events led to the PSOE’s turn to the left: the rise to power of Hitler in Germany and of the clerical-fascist Christian Social Party in Austria, rising unemployment, the popular outrage at the Casas Viejas massacre, the intransigence of Spanish employers. The small amounts of money made available to provide land for landless laborers by the government were totally inadequate to deal with the magnitude of land reform needed. There was very little to show from the PSOE’s coalition with the liberal Republicans in 1931-33.

One sign of the Socialist move to the left was an attempt at a national general strike in October 1934. Relations with the CNT were still not patched up and poor coordination doomed the strike in most of Spain. The situation was different in Asturias where the UGT and CNT had worked for some months to develop a "Workers Alliance." Thus in October the two unions seized control of the region for two weeks, in a joint uprising. But they were isolated. When the army was sent in to crush the rebellion, thousands were killed and many thousands sent to prison. Wives and daughters of the rebels were raped and mutil

Leave a comment