The Civil War of 1936-39
Spain in the 1930s was a time of rising social conflict between the increasingly radical workers and the conservative establishment. Strikes, insurrections and political assassinations were commonplace throughout the country and both sides in the class war felt that events were approaching some sort of a climax. The catalyst for this proved to be the election of a left wing government in 1936 - its half-hearted reforms proved even less effective at containing resistance than the previous right wing repression, and conservative and fascist elements in the army led by General Francisco Franco launched a coup in July 1936. The Republican government hesitated, unsure of how to respond to the take-over attempt - having lost control of large sections of the army, the only force capable of resisting the fascists was the organised workers, but in most areas government officials saw a fascist coup as a better option than arming revolutionary workers. Partly spontaneously and partly organised through the two main unions; the CNT (one and half million members at its largest and strongly influenced by the anarchist federation, the FAI) and the socialist UGT (of a similar size but considerably more timid), people began looting gun shops and bringing out weapons stored after previous bloody strikes and took on the fascist army units. In some areas, through threats or persuasion local governors released weapons to the workers. In others, people took on the army with whatever came to hand, usually with predictable results. After several days of fighting, the army emerged victorious in some parts, the workers in others and the stage was set for a bloody civil war between the two zones.
In many areas where the army had been defeated, the Republican government had also virtually ceased to exist - its repressive forces had either defected to the fascists, joined the people or were cautiously watching developments. Armed workers patrolled the streets, and people weren't slow to take advantage of the situation, driving out bosses and landlords and beginning a social revolution in the non-fascist zones. The movement reached its peak in the rural areas, many of which were strongly anarchist and with a traditionally communal way of life. Free collectives were established, landlords driven out, and in some cases private property and money were abolished. The status of women also changed rapidly in what was previously a very openly patriarchal society, and many became active combatants in militia units. In the cities it was less far-reaching - although most factories and public services were taken over by the workers (especially in areas where the CNT was dominant), wage labour and private property for the most part remained unchallenged. The early days of the revolution were crucial - would it be pushed as far as possible or remain a half-measure? At this point the CNT, which had attracted the most militant section of the working class after years of involvement in bitter strikes and insurrections, and was probably the only organisation in a position to take things further, made a fatal mistake. Faced with a situation of civil war, it forged an anti-fascist alliance with those groups and parties opposed to Franco - the Republican state, independent socialists, communists and regional separatists. They wanted, perhaps understandably, to defeat Franco before trying to push the revolution forwards against its enemies on the left. The result, however, was a chance for the state to re-establish itself and grow stronger, a constant stream of concessions to preserve 'unity' and the outright collaboration of the CNT leadership with the forces of counter-revolution, abandoning anarchist principles even to the extent of providing the world's first, and hopefully last, 'anarchist' ministers in central government.
The decentralised structure of the CNT was increasingly bypassed, its officials becoming an unaccountable leadership rather than administrators of decisions taken at the base. Union committees in the factories found themselves in the position of the bosses they had replaced, needing to increase production for the war effort by pushing workers harder. Workers responded by faking illness, working slowly and insisting on respecting every religious holiday they could find (despite having burned down a fair proportion of Spanish churches a few months earlier!). The voluntary militias which had defeated the army in many cities and liberated large areas of the countryside were re-organised into a regular army with rank privileges and discipline; an army which proceeded to lose almost every major battle of the civil war. The counter-revolution in Republican areas grew ever stronger, led by the Communist Party (CP). The CP grew almost from nothing to a dominant position in the Republican government due to the fact that the only country prepared to sell arms to the Republic was Stalinist Russia. Needless to say, political influence came with these supplies, which were mainly given to units loyal to the CP. Rural collectives were forcibly closed down, and dissidents arrested or executed - particular targets were anarchists who opposed the CNT leadership's collaboration and non-Stalinist communist groups such as the POUM. By the time of the final military defeat of the Republican army by the fascists there was very little of the revolution left to defend.
With the benefit of hindsight it's easy to see that revolutionaries at the time had no real choice but to go for broke, pushing forward the revolution as far as they could. However that is no guarantee of victory, and perhaps the advocates of 'anti-fascist' unity made a realistic appraisal of the chances of all-out social revolution succeeding against its enemies on both the right and the left at once - they may well have faced a no-win situation whatever they did. Nevertheless, the path of compromise led to disaster, and that's an important lesson to be learned from the Spanish revolution. By taking sides with democracy against fascism, anarchists ended up supporting one form of capitalism against another, and it was the anti-fascist form that managed to destroy the revolution long before Franco's victory. We can learn from this today as well as be inspired by the better-known successes of the revolution..
Murray Bookchin - To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936 (AK Press) ISBN 1871376872/£4.50
Murray Bookchin - The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years - 1868-1936 (AK Press) ISBN 187317604X/£13.95
Michael Seidman - Workers Against Work: Labour in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Fronts (University of California Press)
The Ex - 1936: The Spanish Revolution (AK Press, 1997) ISBN 1-873176-01-5/£16.95