Sunday, July 25, 2010

Anarchist Catalonia

Anarchist Catalonia

Anarchist Catalonia (July 21, 1936 – February 10, 1939) was the self-proclaimed stateless territory and anarchist society in part of the territory of modern Catalonia (Spain) during the Spanish Civil War.


In 1936, the main anarchist movement, CNT-FAI, decided, after several refusals, to collaborate with the Spanish government of Francisco Largo Caballero. On November 6, Juan García Oliver became Minister of Justice (he abolished legal fees and had all criminal dossiers destroyed), Juan López became Minister of Comerce, Joan Peiró became Minister of Industry, and Federica Montseny became Minister of Health.

During the Spanish Civil War, many anarchists outside of Spain criticized the CNT-FAI leadership for entering into government and compromising with communist elements on the Republican side. Indeed, during these years the anarchist movement in Spain gave up many of its basic principles; however, those in Spain felt that this was a temporary adjustment, and that once Franco was defeated, they would revert to their anarchist ways. There was also concern among anarchists with the growing power of Marxist communists within the government. Montseny later explained: "At that time we only saw the reality of the situation created for us: the communists in the government and ourselves outside, the manifold possibilities, and all our achievements endangered."

Indeed, some anarchists outside of Spain viewed their concessions as necessary considering the possibility of the Nationalists winning the war. Emma Goldman said, "With Franco at the gate of Madrid, I could hardly blame the CNT-FAI for choosing a lesser evil: participation in government rather than dictatorship, the most deadly evil."


Main article: Spanish Revolution

Anarchism was frowned upon by the government of the Spanish Republic, which considered the anarchists a threat and disloyal to both the Republic and the war. Clashes were particularly vicious between Soviet-backed communists and anarchists, since the movements often found themselves completely at odds with each other (see Barcelona May Days). Much of Spain's economy was put under worker control; in anarchist strongholds like Catalonia, the figure was as high as 75%. Factories were run through worker committees; agrarian areas became collectivized and run as anarchist communes. Even places like hotels, barber shops, and restaurants were collectivized and managed by their workers. In some places, money was entirely eliminated, to be replaced with vouchers.

It is reported,

"The first measure in the collectivization of the Barcelona street railways was to discharge the excessively paid directors and company stooges. The saving was considerable. A conductor averaged 250 to 300 pesetas a month, while the general director (manager) was paid 5,000 and his three assistants 4,441, 2,384, and 2,000 pesetas respectively. The amount saved through the abolition of these posts went to increase the wages of the lowest paid workers 40% to 60%, and intermediate and higher brackets 10% to 20%. The next step was the reduction of working time to 40 hours per week (but for the war situation, it would have been cut to 36 hours weekly).

Another improvement was in the area of management. Before the revolution, streetcars, buses, and subways were each privately owned by separate companies. The union decided to integrate and consolidate all transportation into an efficient system without waste. This improvement meant better facilities, rights of way, and incomparably better service for the riding public. Fares were reduced from 15 to 10 centimes, with free transportation for school children, wounded militiamen, those injured at work, other invalids, and the aged.

Despite their limitations, the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists established collectives where the means of production and exchange were socialised, through direct management by the workers and not through imposition by the state. Economic surplus was also self-managed. Also, and once again in contrast to the USSR, the workers of the collectives were rewarded equally, without productivity falling or initiative lacking. The bourgeoisie and the bureaucracy believe that if there is not a large wage differential, initiative and interest in increasing production will be lost. This idea was shown to be false in the Spanish anarchist collectives, where solidarity between the collectivists made self-government function satisfactorily.

The newly liberated zones worked on anarcho-syndicalist principles; decisions were made through councils of ordinary citizens without any sort of bureaucracy. The CNT-FAI leadership was at this time not nearly as radical as the rank and file members responsible for these sweeping changes. In addition to the economic revolution, there was a spirit of social revolution. Some traditions were deemed as oppressive and done away with. For instance, the idea of free love became popular.


The most effective anarchist unit in Catalonia was the Durruti Column, led by already legendary militant Buenaventura Durruti. It was the only anarchist unit which managed to gain respect from otherwise fiercely hostile political opponents. In a section of her memoirs which otherwise lambasts the anarchists, Communist militant Dolores Ibárruri states: "The [Spanish Civil] war developed with minimal participation from the anarchists in its fundamental operations. One exception was Durruti..." (Memorias de Dolores Ibarruri, p. 382).

The column began with 3,000 troops but at its peak, was made up of about 8,000 people. They had a difficult time getting arms from a suspicious Republican government, so Durruti and his men compensated by seizing unused arms from government stockpiles. Durruti's death on November 20, 1936, weakened the Column in spirit and tactical ability; they were eventually incorporated, by decree, into the regular army. Over a quarter of the population of Barcelona attended Durruti's funeral. It is still uncertain how Durruti died. Modern historians tend to agree that it was an accident, perhaps a malfunction with his own gun. Widespread rumors at the time claimed treachery by his men. Anarchists tended to claim that he died heroically and was shot by a fascist sniper.

Another famous unit was the Iron Column, comprising ex-convicts and other "disinherited" Spaniards sympathetic to the Revolution. The Republican government denounced them as "uncontrollables" and "bandits", but they had a fair amount of success in battle. In March 1937 they were incorporated into the regular army.


During the Civil War, the Spanish Communist Party gained considerable influence due to the reliance on supplies from the Soviet Union. Communists and liberals on the Republican side suppressed the anarchists revolution in order, as they said, to ensure that the war received maximum resources. They accused the anarchists of not fighting as hard as the Republican forces, and putting social change before defeating the Nationalists. The Anarchists' response was that "the revolution and the war are inseparable". Pravda announced in December 1936 that "...the mopping up of Trotskyists and anarcho-syndicalists has already begun. It will be carried out with the same vigor as in the USSR."

Their efforts to weaken the Anarchists were successful: government was eventually restored in many of the collectivized areas, and power was taken away from workers and unions,[citation needed] to be monopolized by the Communist Popular Front.

The Communists also spearheaded measures to integrate the anarchist militias into the Popular Army. Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, working in Spain for Stalin, had predicted in 1936: "Without the participation of the CNT, it will not, of course, be possible to create the appropriate enthusiasm and discipline in the people's militia/Republican militia." Indeed, the counter-revolutionary fervor often served to weaken the anti-fascist war effort. For example, a huge cache of arms was allowed to fall to Francoist forces for fear that it otherwise would end up in the hands of the anarchists. Troops were pulled off the front lines to crush anarchist collectives. Many able soldiers were assassinated for their political ideology. Enrique Lister, said that he would "shoot all the anarchists [he] had to." It was revealed that many anarchists were being held in prisons under Communist orders, rather than fighting on the front, and that furthermore many of these prisoners were tortured and shot.

In what became known as the Barcelona May Days, the most dramatic effort against the anarchists happened in May 1937. Communist-led police forces attempted to take over a CNT-run telephone building in Barcelona. The telephone workers fought back, setting up barricades and surrounding the Communist Lenin Barracks. Five days of street fighting ensued, causing over 500 deaths. This tragic series of events within the Spanish Republic greatly demoralized the workers of Barcelona.

Afterwards, the government sent in 6,000 men to disarm the workers, and the POUM was outlawed. However, the Communist workers were allowed to keep their weapons; only the anarchists were forced to turn them in.

Throughout the Civil War, various Communist newspapers engaged in a massive propaganda campaign against the anarchists and the POUM. They were often called "Hitlerites" and "fascists" in the pay of Franco.

George Orwell noted this in Homage to Catalonia: "Just imagine how odious it must be to see a young 15-year old Spaniard brought back from the front lines on a stretcher, to see, poking out from under the blanket an anemic, bewildered face and to think that in London and Paris there are gentlemen dressed to the nines, blithely engaged in writing pamphlets to show this little lad is a covert fascist."


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