The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936
Durruti: The People Armed
The Anarchist Collective: Workers Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution, 1936-1939
Let me put my cards on the table. I regard Spanish anarchism as largely a disaster, both for the workers’ movement and for democracy in Spain. It is all the harder to make this judgment because the anarchist militants I have known are moving in their sincerity, if naïve to the point of self-destruction. To understand, alas, is not to pardon.
Murray Bookchin likewise exposes his hand on every page. For him Spanish anarchism not only contributed to mold a powerful and noble proletarian movement, unique in its revolutionary militancy, but in the libertarian commune of its Utopia it provided a model for the only satisfactory society of the future.
Mr. Bookchin, I take it, would agree with me that the division of the Spanish labor movement between the disciples of Bakunin and Marx was its tragedy. To Marxist socialists the anarchist militants were a gang of pistol-toting vegetarians; to the anarchists the socialists were a pusillanimous collection of authoritarian, faceless bureaucrats smelling of Marxist “German beer.” Mr. Bookchin’s sympathies are almost repulsively evident: every reference to the socialists is cast in a tone of contempt for their revolutionary impotence; they were “soulless” organizers of a movement that was only a mirror image of the hierarchical society it was the duty of revolutionaries to destroy. Largo Caballero, the leader of the socialist union, the UGT, during the 1920s and 1930s, may have overindulged in revolutionary rhetoric only to fail the anarchist CNT revolutionaries when the moment of truth came; but he was more than a “cynical Socialist union boss.” Other prejudices in this book are commonplaces of anti-clericalism: village priests with “a sinister reputation for butchery,” etc.
According to Mr. Bookchin, anarchism became what the liberal doctor and historian Marañon called “the most authentic expression of the Spanish revolutionary psychology” because it inherited the moral equality of the face-to-face society of the pueblo—the rural small-town community. Anarchists, it is argued, tried to inject its spirit of humane spontaneous cooperation into a harsh industrial society. I believe this to be a popular fallacy. It is a measure of Mr. Bookchin’s misreading of rural sociology that he regards crop sharing (aparcería) as expressing “a rich sense of fraternity”; it was and is a richly exploitative form of land tenure. The “niggers” of Andalusia and Murcia left the pueblo, hating its inequality and poverty, for a better life in the industrial suburbs of Barcelona.
That an all-or-nothing creed like anarchism, with its millenarian overtones and its total rejection of the society and the state of the “powerful ones,” appealed directly to the half-starved landless laborers of the Andalusian latifundia no one can doubt. They were the primitive rebels, the disinherited on whom Bakunin set his revolutionary hopes. Anarchism became a serious force only when it combined with syndicalism in 1910 and 1911 to create the National Confederation of Labor, the CNT, which by 1919 was the dominant force in the labor world of Barcelona, Saragossa, and much of the Levante …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.