Review of Bookchin’s The Spanish Anarchists

Bookchin’s “the Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years” covers the period from 1868 to 1936—that is, from Giuseppi Fanelli’s introduction of the anarchist “Idea” to Madrid and Barcelona, to the beginnings of the military coup of 1936. It is a history of the formative years of the Anarchist movement, rather than a history of the Spanish Civil War. I don’t have the historical background to evaluate Bookchin’s conclusions; this book served as an introduction to this subject matter for me. All I can do is muse on some of the themes that he touches on.

Bookchin argues that Spanish anarchist movement which climaxed in the Spanish Civil War was the last great classical workers’ proletarian socialist movement, in the tradition that started from the June 1948 Parisian uprisings. In the prologue and final chapter, he notes that capitalism has changed greatly since the period stretching from the 1840s through 1930s: “In those years capital besieged a surprisingly preindustrial society, which could resist it with its rich neighborhood life, its towns, and villages. Today, that preindustrial society is increasingly giving way to a highly commodified market society—not merely a market economy—that has turned so much of the Western world into a giant supermarket with its subservient and suburbanized lifeways.” (p. 7) Accordingly, Bookchin argues that future Left movements will have a different character than those from the period this book treats.

Bookchin emphasizes the spirit of experimentalism and deep humanism that animated the Spanish anarchist movement. He does not lionize this movement, and he does not hesitate to criticize its tactical mistakes and departures from ideals. Yet the anarchist movement, in Bookchin’s history, comes out much better than the more moderate socialists, whose authoritarian organizational forms led to their own eventual downfall. In that sense, the anarchists, often criticized for being utopians, appear more realistic than the authoritarian wing of the socialist movement.

It’s interesting to compare Spain in this period to the U.S in (roughly) the same period. One of the major themes in Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” is the great skill that American liberals have with co-opting radical movements, thus saving capitalism again and again. Zinn describes the Progressive movement in the early 20th century in this manner (as a reaction to socialist and labor activism), and the New Deal (as a reaction to U.S. labor militancy in the 1930s). Naomi Klein’s No Logo could be read as a description of how corporate America—with lifestyle branding– has now completely co-opted the stirrings of rebellion against stultifying bourgois life in the 1950s and ‘60s. In contrast, Bookchin argues that the Spanish liberals largely abandoned the working class and peasants. This left a space for anarchism to grow in Spain.

Above all, it is fascinating to read about how the “Idea” of anarchism inspired normal workers and peasants to build movements and institutions on their own, largely without the assistance of a vanguard of intellectuals, and largely without forming stultifying bureaucracies.

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