Anarchists advocate a society based on voluntary cooperation and mutual aid. They reject government and corporate bureaucracy and the profit motive. They champion personal and political freedom. I find this highly appealing.
I’d like to believe such a philosophy is feasible. The problem is the scarcity of examples of anarchists in power.
That’s why I recently read three books about the Spanish revolution of 1936. The three books were Murray Bookchin’s The Spanish Anarchists: the Heroic Years, 1868-1936 and To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936, and Frank Mintz’s Anarchists and Workers Self-Management in Revolutionary Spain.
In the Spanish revolution, ordinary workers and farmers took over factories, businesses and landed estates and operated them on anarchist principles. By one estimate, some 1.8 million Spaniards (workers and their families) participated in rural and industrial collectives.
I learned from reading these three books that anarchism can work well—provided there is a hard core of capable and strong-willed people dedicated to making it work.
I also learned great respect for the Spanish anarchists as individuals. They believed in anarchism as a way of life more strongly than most religious believers believe in their religion. They embodied Gandhi’s principle to “be the change you want to see in the world.”
The anarchist leaders—although they preferred to be called “influential militants” rather than “leaders”—tried to set an example of how to live.
They abstained from alcohol and tobacco, never went to bullfights and devoted their spare time to self-education and self-improvement, according to Bookchin. They worked hard and took pride in their workmanship. They never went to church, had church weddings and nor had their children baptized or confirmed in church. They regarded men and women as equals and dispensed with harsh punishments in bringing up their children.
Not all self-described anarchists fully lived up to that ideal, Bookchin wrote, but there were enough “influential militants” (they didn’t like to call themselves leaders) to form a critical mass capable of changing society.
Most of them were drawn from the supposedly most backward segments of Spanish society—poor peasants, primitive craftsmen and first-generation factory workers.
Bookchin wrote that this shouldn’t be surprising. The longer capitalism exists, the more people get used to it, and the less they are able to imagine other ways of life, he said. Anti-capitalist revolutionaries are typically those who remember other ways of life.
In common with most left-wing revolutionaries of their era, the Spanish anarchists believed in the right of workers to keep and bear arms, and to form well-ordered militias. They met employer and governmental violence with violence with violence of their own, and during certain periods of history, engaged in assassinations.
I am not comfortable with this. As a law-abiding, property-owning member of the middle class, I can’t imagine myself engaging in revolutionary violence.
But as an American, I am a citizen of a country whose founding document is an affirmation of the right of revolution, and whose history is full of violent struggle, including labor struggle. I am not a pacifist. I can’t say that violence is always wrong.
Murray Bookchin’s The Spanish Anarchists has a lot of information about the early conflict between Karl Marx and the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in the early international revolutionary movement, and how this carried over into conflicts between socialists and anarchists in Spain.
The socialists generally believed in what is called “vertical” organization. They believed that the socialist movement and its trade unions had to be organized along military-type lines, with leaders planning strategy and workers following the leaders’ direction.
The anarchists generally believed in what is called “horizontal” organization—what is now called “networked” organization. They differed among themselves, but, in general, they made a conscious effort to resist the Iron Law of Oligarchy—the tendency over time for leaders of organizations to make perpetuation of their power and the organization’s power more important than the mission of the organization.
Leaders of anarchist organizations received no special privileges. Leaders of anarcho-syndicalist trade unions were required to continue to work at their trades. Anarchist organizations had few paid staff members, and none of them had decision-making power. They were decentralized, and made decisions by means of popular assemblies.
This seemed to work. But, as both Bookchin and Mintz noted, they never were able to completely reconcile their belief in democracy and consensus with the need for coordinated tactics and strategy.
The anarchist trade union—the CNT (National Confederation of Labor)—did not have as many members as the socialist union—the UGT (Workers General Union)—but that may have been because successive Spanish governments were much more hostile to the CNT.
When the Spanish Republic was established in 1931, the socialists joined the government coalition, but the anarchists at first boycotted the elections, believing as they did that all government was illegitimate. But when a fascist movement emerged in Spain, the anarchist leaders endorsed the Popular Front—the union of all parties opposed to fascists.
The Spanish fascists, led by General Francisco Franco, attempted a takeover of Spain in 1936. They had the support of the army and the police. But Spanish workers, both socialist and anarchist, organized militias that successfully resisted in many parts of the country, despite their inferior weaponry.
Spanish workers, acting on their own, seized the properties of rich landowners and business owners and operated them themselves—mostly successfully. During the whole Spanish Civil War, there never were any shortages caused by a failure of the collective organizations to function.
Frank Mintz’s Anarchism and Workers’ Self-Management documents this on a case-by-case and region-by-region basis. About half of his book consists of primary documents and first-hand testimony about the working of anarchist collectives.
These showed that there wasn’t any blueprint as to how to make things work. The collectives worked out their problems as they went along.
They really did operate on the principle of mutual aid and voluntary cooperation, without management imposed from above. Some collectives operated without money internally, with members being given what they needed from a common store and cash when they needed to travel. Others used cash, but on the basis of equal pay for all.
The collectives formed alliances so as to help each other out when, for example, one had a bad harvest or a shortage of tools or raw materials, the neighboring collectives helped out.
In some cases, the advantages of collectivism were immediately obvious. In fishing collectives, the fishermen worked just as they had before, but without having to give 50 percent of the value of their cash to the skipper and a third of what was left to the dealer who sold their fish for them.
In certain farming communities, peasants found it more efficient to merge their land and farm it as a whole rather than as tiny individual plots, with a lot of the land wasted as footpaths. There were cases of self-employed workers, such as barbers and locksmiths, voluntarily pooling their resources.
In other cases, there were problems caused by lack of expertise and by clashes between the dedicated collectivists and those who joined because they felt they had no real choice. Members who wanted to withdraw from the collective were told they couldn’t get their original property back.
The real opposition to the collectives came from the Spanish government, both from the pro-capitalist liberals in the government and from the Communists, who had been a small minority in Spain, but became important because of their connection with the Soviet Union, the only important country to aid the Spanish Republic.
Joseph Stalin opposed revolution at this time because he wanted to form an alliance with Britain, France and the other capitalist democracies against Hitler. It is ironic that, so soon after killing and starving so many of the Soviet Union’s own peasants in order to force them into collectives, that he ordered his followers to suppress voluntary collectives in Spain.
Bookchin said Franco ordered the execution of 200,000 of his enemies after his victory—a slaughter that, in proportion to the population of Spain, was equivalent to the purges and executions under Stalin.
If the Spanish revolution had succeeded, could the anarchists and other revolutionaries have established an enduring system that functioned without the need for religious-like revolutionary fervor? That is impossible to know.