Lessons for Today from the
Spanish Revolution 1936-9
[Also click here to read how the Spanish Revolution showed egalitarianism to be more economically productive than capitalism]
[Also click here to read about the fatal mistakes the Spanish revolutionaries made]
In the years from 1936 to 1939 Spanish workers and peasants made a social revolution inspired by the anarchist ideas of egalitarianism, mutual aid and voluntary federation. They rejected the capitalist notions of economic inequality, competition and a hierarchical authoritarian government. They created voluntary collectives on the land and in industries, sharing what they produced according to need. In some cases they eliminated money altogether and in others they made the principle of equality trump inequality based on money.
The Spanish Revolution Was Too Big to Ignore
The revolution was not a small utopian community. Sam Dolgoff, in his The Anarchist Collectives, (pg. 71) gives estimates of the number of people participating in the revolution ranging from 3.2 million ("Frank Mintz estimates 1,254 to 1,865 collectives, 'embracing 610,000 to 800,000 workers. With their families, they involve a population of 3,200,000...") to 7 to 8 million ("Over half the land in the Republican zone was collectivized. [Souchy] Leval talks about 'revolutionary experience involving, directly or indirectly, 7 to 8 million people.'') Collectives were formed not just by peasants and industrial workers, but by lots of others, including, for example, hairdressers in Barcelona, Madrid and other cities. (Dolgoff, pg.93)
The geographical extent of the revolution is reflected in these figures (from Dolgoff, pg. 71) for different regions of Spain: "Leval lists 1,700 agrarian collectives, broken down as follows: Aragon, 400 (for Aragon Souchy estimates 510); Levant, 900; Castile, 300; Estremadura, 30; Catalonia, 40; Andalusia, unknown. For the collectivized urban industries he estimates: Catalonia, all the industries and all transportation; Levant, 70% of all the industries; Castile, part of the industries--he gives no figures."
In the village of Magdalena de Pulpis a visitor asked a resident, “How do you organize without money? Do you use barter, a coupon book, or anything else?” He replied, “Nothing. Everyone works and everyone has a right to what he needs free of charge. He simply goes to the store where provisions and all other necessities are supplied. Everything is distributed free with only a notation of what he took.” [From Dolgoff, pg. 73.]
Economic productivity increased in both agriculture and industry where the revolution took place, despite the need to send soldiers to the front to fight General Franco's fascist counter-revolutionary military attack.
For four years the Spanish Revolution fought for its life against Spain's fascist General Franco. Franco was aided by Hitler militarily, and aided by the non-fascist capitalist nations in other ways, such as Franklin Roosevelt's "moral embargo" of arms shipments to the revolution (FDR declared it "unpatriotic" for anybody to send arms to the Spanish workers and peasants.) Additionally, Stalin sent agents to Spain to undermine the revolution politically by arguing that it should stop being anti-capitalist in order to ally with capitalists against fascism. This made the Revolution far less able to win popular support from people recruited by Franco. Moroccans, for example, saw little reason not to serve as soldiers under Franco because the leaders of the leftist and anarchist political parties, as part of the "united front with capitalists" line, were persuaded not to support Morrocan independence from Spain.
During the four years of its existence, the Spanish Revolution, in spite of mistakes that led to its eventual defeat, changed the world for the better in ways, and on a scale, that exceed anything ever accomplished by ordinary people in the history of the human race since the emergence of class exploitation.
"The Idea" Made the Spanish Revolution Possible
Revolutionaries today cannot claim to be serious unless they have familiarized withemselves with the Spanish Revolution, to learn how it derived its unprecedented strength, and also to learn what mistakes it made that prevented it from defeating its enemies and surviving longer than four years.
One of the most important lessons to learn from the Spanish Revolution is this: it was only able to occur because for decades prior to it Spanish workers and peasants had been engaged in a deep, sophisticated and extremely widespread conversation about what they called "The Idea": the idea of how society ought to be, as articulated most prominently by anarchists such as Bakunin and Kropotkin.
As early as 1918 the spread of "The Idea" was already a major fact of life in the countryside. Jerome Mintz, in The Anarchists of Casas Viejas, gives this account (pg. 120) which, though long, deserves to be read in full:
Juan Dias del Moral has left a powerful description of the events then taking place in the countryside: "Those who witnessed that time in 1918-19 will never forget that astonishing scene. In the campo, in shelters and settlements, wherever campesinos got together, wherever they met to chat about one thing or another, they always returned to one theme that they treated with seriousness and fervor: the social question. In their work breaks during the day (los cigarros), and at night after the evening meal, the most educated would read aloud pamphlets and newspapers, to which the others would listen attentively. What had been read was followed by corroborating perorations and endless praise. Not everything was understood: there were unknown words; some interpretations were childish, others were malicious, according to the character of the person who expressed them; but ultimately everyone agreed. It could not be any other way! It was the truth that they had felt all their lives, although they had never been able to express it. They read continually; their curiosity and their desire to learn were insatiable. Even on the road, mounted on horseback, with the reins or halters loose, campesinos could be seen reading; there was always some pamphlet in the saddlebag with their food. The number of copies of newspapers that were distributed is incalculable; each person wanted to have his own. It is true that 70-80 percent of them could not read; but this was not an insurmountable obstacle. The dedicated illiterate bought his own newspaper, gave it to a campanero to read to him, and then marked the articles that pleased him most. Later he would ask another comrade to read the article marked, and after a few readings he had committed it to memory and would recite it to those who did not know it. It was unbelievable! Although the favorites were Tierra y Libertad, El Corsario, El Rebelde, La Anarquia y El Productor, they sought and received copies of all the Spanish press opposed to authority, and some of the American. They read books and pamphlets of the founders of anarchism: Bakunin, Kropotkin, Reclus, Malato, Malatesta, Faure, Grave, Most, Mirbeau; and the Spaniards Anselmo Lorenzo, Federico Urales, Soledad Gustavo, Ricardo Mella, Leopoldo Bonafulla, Jose Prat, J. Lopez Montenegro were and are familiar names to many campesinos; and there are sufficient numbers who have read writings of all of them. There was a book available in the province, as in almost all of Spain, that had a singular success: The Conquest of Bread, by Kropotkin. There was not an obrero consciente, even among socialists, who did not know it."
One cannot understand how the Spanish Revolution could have happened unless one knows how the spread of "The Idea" preceded it.
Revolutionaries today need to understand the absolutely crucial importance of spreading the revolutionary idea about how society ought to be. Revolutions--at least not the kind we want--do not occur in the absence of the kind of widespread understanding of "The Idea" that developed in the decades before 1936 in Spain.
How Not to Make a Revolution
Revolutionaries are wrong who believe that spreading "The Idea" far and wide is something that takes too long and can be dispensed with. They are wrong if they believe that the task of a revolutionary is to "spark" a revolution by getting a relatively small number of people to to do something bold and militant.
Revolutions--at least ones that win something worth fighting and sacrificing for--are made by millions of people who have a shared goal, "The Idea"--a vision of a better world that inspires great sacrifice to win. Absent this shared vision, there is no worth while revolution, no matter how bold and militant a few revolutionaries behave.
When a relatively few number of revolutionaries take some action on their own and call on the millions of other people to follow them, they are like a person telling people to get on a bus with an unknown destination. People don't do that. This is what coup d'etats are, replacing one oppressor with another.
Is Spain in the 1930s a Realistic Model for the U.S. in the 21st Century?
Yes. Spain in the 20th century is a realistic model for the United States in the 21st century. Differences between Spain in the 1930s and the U.S. today obviously exist, but they are not differences in what is fundamentally relevant to revolution. The material level of standard of living is one difference between the United States today and Spain back then. But it was not the degree of material impoverishment in Spain that caused the revolution in the first place. The same impoverishment existed in other countries where there was not a revolution. What caused the revolution in Spain was the fact that in Spain millions of workers and peasants knew that society was not as it ought to be and could be; and they knew that they were not alone in feeling that way.
American working people may have more material wealth in their homes than Spanish peasants did in the 1930s, but that actually suggests greater, rather than less, potential for revolution in the United States. As Mintz writes, in The Anarchists of Casas Viejas, pg. 273:
Observers have pointed out that revolutionary activity usually diminishes in periods of economic decline. What de Tocqueville noted concerning rising expectations preceding the French Revolution ("the evils that were endured with patience as long as they were inevitable") was also observed in Spain. Writing on the agitation on Cordoba, Dias del Moral commented:
Social quacks have always attributed Andalusian uprisings to hunger, when the truth is precisely the opposite. The movements always burst out during periods of relative prosperity: if collective hunger appears, the movements are arrested or die out...At the time of the 1919 uprisings there were landowners who ardently wished for a bad year in order to put an end to them.
Both workers and landowners, as Dias del Moral pointed out, recognized that hunger simply undermined the workers' power to resist.
Similarly, the radical upheavals in the United States in the 1960s occurred when unemployment was extremely low and economic equality was at an all time high in terms of the difference between an ordinary worker's pay and a CEO's pay.
The 1968 French General Strike, that came close to making a revolution, likewise took place when the standard of living of French people was at an all-time high after finally recovering from the war-caused deprivations in the earlier post World War II years.
Only those who do not understand the importance of ideas in the minds of millions of people fall into the trap of believing that the possibility or impossibility of revolution depends on relatively unimportant things like the standard of living of the population, or the boldness of a small number of revolutionaries.
The bibliography appended here is a good place to start learning about the Spanish Revolution.
Murray Bookchin, The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936, AK Press, 1998
Murray Bookchin, To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936 (You can find this online by searching for the author and title.)
Sam Dolgoff, ed., The Anarchist Collectives (You can find this online by searching for the author and title.)
Agustin Guillamon, The Friends of Durruti Group: 1937-1939 (You can find this online by searching for the author and title.)
Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread (You can find this online by searching for the author and title.)
Jerome R. Mintz, The Anarchists of Casas Viejas, Indiana University Press, 1982
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (You can find this online by searching for the author and title.)