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Solidariteit - Amsterdam 2024

Verslag: Utopia vs Realiteit: lessen van de Spaanse Revolutie


Wat als de ‘kiem van de nieuwe wereld, in huls van de oude’ in strijd is met de praktische noodzaak van de revolutie? Tijdens de Spaanse Burgeroorlog (1936-1939) was er sprake van een verregaande sociale revolutie in een belangrijk deel van Spanje. Maar in deze prachtige ‘window to a better world’ ligt ook de pijnlijk harde tegenstelling tussen aan de ene kant het praktische utopisme en het opbouwende werk van van de revolutie, en aan de andere kant harde realiteit van de oorlog tegen het fascisme, en moeilijke compromissen met (politieke) machten op links.

Aan de hand van deze dilemma’s van de Spaanse revolutie vragen we wat kunnen we leren over machtsrelaties en alliantievorming binnen links, en hoe je omgaan met de moeilijke keuzes tussen je principes en de praktische noodzaak?

Verslag ( in het Engels)
presentation by Hessel Schaaf

Argentina, Sweden and Spain were the only countries where Anarchism surpassed communism as a tool of struggle for the workers. We will speak of the Spanish Revolution and see what lessons we can take from it.

Illustration: Caserio and Artal: two Anarchist who, after disillusionment wuth the stagnation of the worker struggle decided to adopt ´Anarchism of the Deed´. The carried out political assassinations, including the prime minister of Spain was killed.

Illustration: Revolutionary song, reveals the depth of the cultural transformation that was achieved. The song was nothing like popular songs now.

There are problems with taking lessons from revolutions that are distant from where we are in space and time. We are now for instance in the age of neo-liberalism where the public has internalized a visceral suspicion towards ´grand narratives´ and great ideals that require big change. The entire political spectrum in the Netherlands, including the SP, reject grand ideals and are content with small , incremental changes and demands. The first post-modern book had as a central argument that grand narratives are not possible nor desirable.

On contrary, in the time of the Spanish revolution it was normal to aspire to great change, to hate the police, the state and to instinctively accept the Anarchist ideal of creating a classless society as a realistic and necessary agenda.

Anarchism came to Spain with Giuseppi Fanelli , an Italian who spoke to Spanish but whose passion in advocating Anarchism is said to have been sufecient in recruiting Spain´s first anarchists. Anarchism spreads difficultly between 1868 and 1931. In 1907 an uprising in Barcelona erupted among the working class in oopposition to the draft for Span´s colonial war in Morocco. In what were later called the events of the ´Tragic Week´ the state brutally cracked down on the protesters. The defeat prompts the organization of an Anarchist collective to unite workers, culminating the establishment of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) which took the lead in the Anarchist movement as of 1910.

The number of CNT members fluctuated depending state oppression and other matters. In 1931 the Second Republic is founded in Spain upon the king´s departure. The Right and Left in Spain do not accept the direction Spain was heading and start to clash. At the time the workers were armed, poorly however, with weapons from the Cuban-US war of 1889. It was normal at the time that Anarchist martyrs fell on a regular basis. There was thus no escape from politicization and strong impetus to perform class struggle.

1931-1936 is the run-up to the revolution. The working class sets high expectations after the elction of a left wing government in 1931. But no real changes ensue. In 1933 the left wing government had to step down and a right wing government is elected which soon commences to repress the working class movement. A strategy of ´revolutionary gymnastics´ is used to attempt armed uprisings in villages, but fails.

After the election of a left wing government in 1936, the Army starts planning a coup. The government does not respond however, hoping that negotiations would suffice to deflect the imminent coup. In 1936 the Army takes over in Morocco. With the help of amongst other fascist Italy that Franco was receiving, the army manages to cross the Mediterranean much sooner than expected. Army regiments rise all over Spain to overthrow the government. The workers, despite being poorly armed manage to deflect the coup in many places. Primely the North East of Spain (Barcelona amongst others) becomes an Anarchist bulwark. The country is now divided between Franco´s forces and left which movements. The state losses control over the country, refuses to arm the workers of of fear of a revolution, which they feared more than fascism.

The CNT had two million members out of a population of 40 million. At the time, the Anarchist community must have been between 8 and 10 million however, since usually only the fathers became CNT members, while the rest of the family was involved as well. The Anarchist were now in the position to attempt taking over the Arragon region. The did not however since 1. they were ideologically opposed to forcing others into Anarchism. 2. Taking over in their heartland, meant anarchists elsewhere would be annihilated in a few days. 3. they still had to fight Franco.

According to one historian, the Spanish Anarchists came closer to realizing a free society than any others. This shows the extent to which the memory of civil war is marginalized.

The revolution was industrial as well as agricultural. Most Utopian changes occurred in the countryside where small communities of a few hundred farmers decided to collectivize. Great changes made in the Anarchist controlled cities as well. In Barcelona almost every sector was collectivized. About 70% of the sectors were brought under direct worker control. The remainder was brought under indirect worker control or ´worker management´. Wages were equalized, working hours brought from 48 to 40. This shows economies can function without capitalist control.

Worker conditions improved significantly.

The take over happened in a few days, after which great difficulties emerged including counterrevolutionary movements, competition of left wing movements, the war with Franco that had to be fought.

Although de jure western Europe decided to be neutral, defacto Franco was supported, for companies were allowed to sell weapons and othe rmaterials to Franco who had the advantage of loans from the Nazi and Facist powers.

The USSR did not genuinly support the Republic. Their regional interests meant they could not afford a revolutinary Spain for this would hamper the formation of an allience with countries like france to fight off Hitler. In the same time the USSR wanted to be seen as supportive of the Revolution. Weapons from the USSR were sold, not given (!) to the Republic side in return for which Spain had to transfer great gamounts of gold to USSR and ccept Soviet advisers, diplomats, i.e. offecial influence. As a result the communist party which had a memberwhip of only 3000, became the largest left-wing party after Russian support.

The base of CNT focused on production to increase the possibility to win the war. To win the war, the CNT joined the government together with the communist. The CNT leadership did so without adhering to Anarchist principles of seeking genuine approval of the rank and file. They also decided not to take up arms against the communists who decided to challenge Anarchist control. This was the beginning of the end of the anarchists.

Positive lessons:
Anarchist community was built over the course of 70 years and within a capitalist society. Anarchist were engaged in the struggle while working in inhumane conditions. Many single men for instance had to pay 25% of their salary to rent a place to sleep, which amounted to a spot on a cord in a room where you could lean on at night to catch some´sleep´. Nonetheless they self-organized, set-up schools for their children and studying groups to learn about Anarchism. The illiterate went to gatherings where one literate person would read Anarchist works to them. They went to poetry recitals and had a rich cultural life as much as they could.

Concrete negative lessons:
Although the movement was more free than any other, the leadership still went on a power high comparative and took decisions without the movement´s participation.

Anarchist theory and practice were immature. They had not counted on the revolution erupting at the time it did nor were prepared to deal with the remains of the state nd capitalist system, or the communist party which rose to become the biggest group in Revolutionary Spain. The Communists had a clear path. In Engels´ words: Revolution is an authoritarian process. The Anarchists had no crystallized answer to that.

Q & A sessions

Q: is there really no big idea now.
A; The dominant belief is indeed society has no and should not have a big idea behind it. This of course is a lie to camouflage the big idea of capitalism, the state etc. The very idea that there is no big idea is a big idea in itself.

Q: what do learn from the violence that Anarchists applied?
A; There was indeed violence. The church was a very hated oppressive force. The oppression went so far, that rumors were present about nuns torturing children. Upon the Anarchist take over about 200 priests, monks and nuns were executed. This is tragic of course. We must understand however, that such things are unfortunately part of social upheavals. Moreover such practices were very limited in revolutionary Spain compared t other similar situations. Also keep in mind the fascists systematically and on an enormous scale applied execution to cleans their area from any political opponent. I do not think there is a way to control such matters in a revolutionary context through some formal organization. It must come from the convictions of people to refrain from such maters,

Q: How about the ´instinct´ of people to seek power.
A: This of course is always a problem. The Anarchists attempted to build organizations with as much checks against authority as possible. Like I said, at times they failed of course. Keep in mind, one of reasons this happened was that the most radical an conscious Anarchists had immediately left to fight Franco at the front. For instance, Barcelona experienced a shortage of barbers since many barbers were member of the highly radical barbers union and went to the front. Those fighting were no soldiers and were ideologically opposed to military hierarchy. This caused a big problem to and had to be responded to by making out of them a more army like, more hierarchical organization.

Q: Should you work with or confront counterrevolutionary left wing movements?
A: You can cooperate even if you disagree on the end goals as long as cooperation has a sufficiently limited scope. Of course it probably is never a good idea to closely work with Stalinists as we have seen in the Spanish Revolution.

Q: To what extent were men and women equal among Anarchists. And how about animal rights.
A: They were very progressive for their time. In many ways they surpassed current accepted standards. Many anarchists were vegan, opposed to drinking and smoking, some groups met naked in nature to discuss revolution. There some problems as well of course. There were some fraternity or affinity groups, all male and with great passion for fighting, quite patriarchal. Some farmers who raised fighting bulls, slaughtered some bulls upon taking over the farms, since they had never eaten meet before as they could not afford it. Animal rights are of course only a popularly known concept since recent times in the West.