Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War

Bailey, Geoff
Date Written:  2002-07-24
Publisher:  International Socialist Review
Year Published:  2002
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX15359

For workers around the world, the Spanish Civil War was a beacon of hope against the tide of reaction then sweeping Europe. As the promise of workers' revolution was being dashed by the rise of fascism in Germany and the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, the workers of Spain led a heroic fight against the 1936 uprising of General Francisco Franco. In the process, they led not only a struggle against fascism, but also a workers' rebellion that gave the world an inspiring glimpse of what workers’ power could look like. The Spanish Civil War was also the high point of anarchist influence in the international workers' movement.



The Popular Front government had already shown itself unwilling to lead a determined struggle against Franco for fear of alienating the bourgeoisie at home and abroad. A determined struggle against fascism could only be led by the workers; but the state could not be sidestepped. It had to be overturned and replaced with a workers' government capable of waging the war along revolutionary lines. By renouncing their intention to overturn the bourgeois state, the anarchists merely showed the inability of their theories to provide a way forward.

The anarchist movement had always assumed that the social revolution would solve the question of the state. Now, in a revolutionary situation, the anarchists faced a situation of dual power in which either a workers' state or a bosses’ state was posed sharply. As Leval again explains:

"At the end of 1936, all those among the anarchists who were preoccupied primarily with the revolutionary question oversimplified and underestimated the political problem. The social revolution would sweep away the entrenched powers and institutions. The political parties would disappear. The parasitic classes, no longer able to count on the support of the state, would disappear. And all that would remain to be done would be to organize the new anarchist society. But the necessity of fighting the war against fascism completely upset these expectations. The state continued to exist."

The revolutionary Marxist tradition, contrary to the claims of the anarchists, had always maintained the necessity of destroying the bourgeois state. Its opposition to anarchism had always been that immediately following a revolution it is necessary to replace the bourgeois state with a workers’ government capable of suppressing the forces of reaction. As Lenin writes in State and Revolution:

"We do not at all disagree with the Anarchists on the question of the abolition of the state as an aim. We maintain that, to achieve this aim, temporary use must be made of the instruments, means and methods of the state power against the exploiters, just as the dictatorship of the oppressed class is temporarily necessary for the annihilation of classes."

Again and again, the anarchists found themselves in the same dilemma. To overthrow the state meant replacing it with a revolutionary government led by the CNT-FAI. Anarchists rejected this as dictatorship. If the CNT-FAI refused power, the government would remain in the hands of class forces hostile to the revolution and unwilling to continue the revolutionary struggle that had arrested Franco's advance. Trotsky writes:

"In and of itself, this self-justification that "we did not seize power not because we were unable but because we did not wish to, because we were against every kind of dictatorship," and the like, contains an irrevocable condemnation of anarchism as an utterly anti-revolutionary doctrine. To renounce the conquest of power is voluntarily to leave the power with those who wield it, the exploiters. The essence of every revolution consisted and consists in putting a new class in power, thus enabling it to realize its own program in life. It is impossible to wage war and to reject victory. It is impossible to lead the masses towards insurrection without preparing for the conquest of power."

Even the CNT’s enemies saw its failure clearly. Major Frederic Escofet, a moderate Catalan republican, wrote:

[The CNT found itself] "virtually in control of the streets, the arms and transportation, in other words, with power in its hands; its leaders, who were bold and energetic and experienced fighters, were disoriented. They had no plan, no clear doctrine, no idea what they should do or what they should allow others to do. The CNT concept of libertarian communism was devoid of realism and was silent as to the road it should follow in a revolutionary period."

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