The Spanish Civil War began eighty years ago today. Read an excerpt of Murray Bookchin’s analysis of this iconic moment in radical history, originally published in 1986.
Between myth and reality there lies a precarious zone of transition that occasionally captures the truth of each. Spain, caught in a world-historic revolution fifty years ago, was exactly such an occasion — a rare moment when the most generous, almost mythic dreams of freedom seemed suddenly to become real for millions of Spanish workers, peasants, and intellectuals. For this brief period of time, this shimmering moment, as it were, the world stood breathlessly still, while the red banners of revolutionary socialism and the red-and-black banners of revolutionary anarchosyndicalism floated over most of Spain’s major cities and thousands of her villages.
Taken together with the massive, spontaneous collectivization of factories, fields, even hotels and restaurants, the oppressed classes of Spain reclaimed history with a force and passion of an unprecedented scope and gave a stunning reality in many areas of the peninsula to the ageless dream of a free society. The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 was, at its inception, the last of the classical European workers’ and peasants’ revolutions — not, let me make it clear, a short-lived “uprising,” a cadre-controlled “guerrilla war,” or a simple civil conflict between regions for national supremacy. And like so many life-forms that appear for the last time, before fading away forever, it was the most far-reaching and challenging of all such popular movements of the great revolutionary era that encompasses Cromwellian England of the late 1640s and the working-class uprisings of Vienna and Asturias of the early 1930s.
The wave of collectivizations that swept over Spain in the summer and autumn of 1936 has been described in a recent BBC-Granada documentary as “the greatest experiment in workers’ self-management Western Europe has ever seen,” a revolution more far-reaching than any which occurred in Russia during 1917-21 and the years before and after it. In anarchist industrial areas like Catalonia, an estimated three-quarters of the economy was placed under workers’ control, as it was in anarchist rural areas like Aragon. The figure tapers downward where the UGT shared power with the CNT or else predominated: 50 percent in anarchist and socialist Valencia, and 30 percent in socialist and liberal Madrid. In the more thoroughly anarchist areas, particularly among the agrarian collectives, money was eliminated and the material means of life were allocated strictly according to need rather than work, following the traditional precepts of a libertarian communist society. As the BBC-Granada television documentary puts it: “The ancient dream of a collective society without profit or property was made reality in the villages of Aragon. … All forms of production were owned by the community, run by their workers.”
The administrative apparatus of “Republican” Spain belonged almost entirely to the unions and their political organizations. Police in many cities were replaced by armed workers’ patrols. Militia units were formed everywhere — in factories, on farms, and in socialist and anarchist community centers and union halls, initially including women as well as men. A vast network of local revolutionary committees coordinated the feeding of the cities, the operations of the economy, and the meting out of justice, indeed, almost every facet of Spanish life from production to culture, bringing the whole of Spanish society in the “Republican” zone into a well-organized and coherent whole. This historically unprecedented appropriation of society by its most oppressed sectors — including women, who were liberated from all the constraints of a highly traditional Catholic country, be it the prohibition of abortion and divorce or a degraded status in the economy — was the work of the Spanish proletariat and peasantry. It was a movement from below that overwhelmed even the revolutionary organizations of the oppressed, including the CNT-FAI. “Significantly, no left organization issued calls for revolutionary takeovers of factories, workplaces or the land,” observes Ronald Fraser in one of the most up-to-date accounts of the popular movement. “Indeed, the CNT leadership in Barcelona, epicenter of urban anarchosyndicalism, went further: rejecting the offer of power presented to it by President Companys [the head of the Catalan government], it decided that the libertarian revolution must stand aside for collaboration with the Popular Front forces to defeat the common enemy. The revolution that transformed Barcelona in a matter of days into a city virtually run by the working class sprang initially from individual CNT unions, impelled by their most advanced militants; and as their example spread it was not only large enterprises but small workshops and businesses that were being taken over.
What was lost in Spain was the most magnificent proletariat that radical movements had ever seen either before or after 1936-39 — a classical working class in the finest socialist and anarchist sense of the term. It was a proletariat that was destroyed not by a growing material interest in bourgeois society but by physical extermination. This occurred largely amidst a conspiracy of silence by the international press in which the liberal establishment played no less a role than the Communist. It is appalling that Herbert M. Matthews, the New York Times’s principal correspondent on the so-called “Loyalist” side of the war, could write as recently as 1973, “I would say that there was a revolution of sorts, but it should not be exaggerated. In one basic sense, there was no revolution at all, since the republican government functioned much as it did before the war.” Whether this is stupidity or collusion with the forces that ended the “revolution of sorts,” I shall leave for the reader to judge. But it was correspondents of this political temper who fed news of the “Spanish war” to the American people in the 1930s.
Read the full text here.
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