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.

Mr. Bookchin’s highly readable and perceptive study follows anarchism from its introduction into Spain in 1868 (by an Italian Bakunist who could speak no Spanish) until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936. As he emphasizes, the loose organization of the CNT (there was no paid union bureaucracy and “leader” was a term of abuse in anarchist language) and the emphasis on revolutionary spontaneity allowed two quite contradictory tendencies to co-exist within the labor movement. There were the activist anarchists, the heirs of the “propagandists by deed,” the bomb throwers of the 1890s, who believed that the revolutionary temper of the masses could only be maintained by the revolutionary gymnastics of terrorism, insurrection, and violent strikes. The syndicalists, on the other hand, rejected the revolutionary optimism of these activists. The revolution, for them, was not just around the corner, to be precipitated by an elite of activists; only a disciplined mass movement, organized in powerful syndicates, could overthrow a corrupt bourgeois society.

Throughout, Mr. Bookchin’s sympathies lie with the true-red revolutionaries of the grupos de afinidad, small cells of anarchists held together by shared “moral instincts”; men like Buenaventura Durruti and Francisco Ascaso, bank robbers for the cause, assassins of archbishops and policemen. As for the syndicalists like Angel Pestaña and Salvador Segui, struggling against the wild men to build up mass revolutionary unions, to the grupos de afinidad they weakened the revolutionary élan by compromise and ill-considered attempts to come to some understanding with the “pragmatic”—to Mr. Bookchin a word of abuse—socialist unions.

Abel Paz’s biography of Durruti, the martyr hero of anarchism, is appallingly translated, and misleading when it moves outside the closed world of anarchism, while its reconstructed speeches are instruments of a post-mortem apologia. But it gives a striking portrait of the puritan activist, so convinced of the moral superiority of the anarchist vision that those who resisted its realization must be perverse. The revolution may be defeated, its militants slaughtered and imprisoned, but Durruti held it must triumph in the end. He believed the Spain of the Thirties was in a prerevolutionary period, hence he supported such hopeless ventures in Putschism as the insurrections of January 1932 and December 1933. “There are no prerevolutionary periods without many victims, but in the end victory is assured.” Not by the processes of history, as Marxists argued, but because the libertarian idea, by its sheer moral excellence, must replace a corrupt bourgeois society. A bank robber, through whose hands passed millions of pesetas, Durruti was shot at the Madrid front in 1936. All he left was a worn-out suitcase with a few shabby clothes.


Mr. Bookchin’s apologia for political assassinations takes some swallowing. They did, indeed, create a “political vacuum” in the bourgeois state by knocking off three prime ministers; whether they were the expression of a “deep humanity” is another matter. Though he hints at it, Mr. Bookchin does not face up to the fact that, as Victor Serge pointed out, some anarchists operated on the frontiers of the criminal underworld or were, in Pestaña’s phrase, “bully boys” running protection rackets. Given the attitude of anarchists to criminals this is scarcely surprising: “Man is by nature good,” ran the resolution of the CNT Congress of 1936, and “delinquency is a logical consequence of the state of social injustice in which we live.” The saint and the sinner were separated by a paper-thin partition in their Dostoevskian world. As Joaquin Romero has pointed out, besides puritanical revolutionaries like Durruti, the activists included unstable adolescents for whom bombs were a means of liberation from a hostile world or their own complexes. Anyone who has been to Belfast will sense the parallel.

I entirely accept Bookchin’s and Paz’s argument that police and military repression combined with the intransigence of the Catalan bourgeoisie to make any form of reformist socialism a dead loss during the 1920s. The violence of society induces a violent counter-society. But violence is always a vicious circle. One act of propaganda by deed could unleash and “justify” repression, enabling the military and the police to defy the civil authorities and to round up thousands of militants, removing the “moderate” syndicalists to jail and leaving the CNT at the mercy of the wild men of the action groups. Every act of police repression unleashed, in its turn, a new cycle of violence and assassination as a reprisal.

The trouble with the FAI—the group of dedicated anarchists from the grupos de afinidad, determined to maintain the revolutionary temper of the CNT and pure of any unionist, economist deviation—was that, to them, all bourgeois governments were equally corrupt. Such socialists as Largo Caballero were considered “hangmen,” morally indistinguishable from the organizer of employers’ gang terrorism against the CNT in 1919, General Martinez Anido, whom the philosopher Unamuno called “a pure brute.”

If counter-terror was a proper response to Martinez Anido and his hired thugs, was it justifiable against the Second Republic of 1931-1936? Conor Cruise O’Brien has recently argued that while terrorism may legitimately represent a suppressed general will in a dictatorship, in a democracy it is the tyranny of a self-appointed elite. No doubt the reformists who governed the Second Republic 1931-1933 were not the men to install a revolutionary millennium: but they did allow people to vote. To the FAI the ballot box was a bourgeois invention to deceive the people: freedom came from the barrel of a Browning pistol. For anarchists all forms of government were equally evil; hence doctrinal apoliticism became, in the hands of the FAI, a weapon to expose and defeat the bourgeois democracy of the Republic.

As early as the 1890s, as Javier Tussel has shown in his masterly study of the mores and mechanics of Andalusian local politics, anarchist propaganda in favor of abstention at the polls destroyed the hopes of left-wing Republicans. To anarchist orators these were “astute snakes” manipulating a “fantastic comedy”—universal male suffrage. Anarchists justified their “no vote” campaigns because politics were corrupt and not concerned with the demands of the masses; politics were corrupt and unconcerned with the problems of the masses precisely because the masses did not vote. Abstention, like violence, was a vicious circle.

This became even clearer when the FAI mounted its campaign of No Votad—electoral abstention—in the 1933 elections. The leaders were aware that abstention might lead to the triumph of “fascism” at the polls. So what? Fascists would repress the workers and drive them to the social revolution at last. Therefore when its electoral predictions were realized, the CNT was committed morally to start the revolution: exhausted already, however, the CNT could only mount a feeble, incoherent journée. Mr. Bookchin’s justification of these tactics is quite extraordinary to a mere democrat: they polarized Spain and produced a civil war and the chance for social revolution mounted by the masses to resist a fascist takeover. That the fascists won the civil war and suppressed the workers for forty years seems an irrelevancy. It was only after forty years of silence that Spain returned to square one: the democracy lost in 1936.


It was the civil war that destroyed proletarian anarchism and split the CNT from top to bottom. The workers’ reaction to the military revolt of July 18, 1936 set off the most radical social revolution in Western Europe: the revolution of collectivization—i.e., of workers’ control of the means of production—which, defended by the workers’ militia, swept over the areas controlled by the CNT. The dilemma of the CNT, as Pestaña told the elitists of the FAI, was that the CNT was a minority within the working class, let alone in Spain. To impose “its” revolution on Spain by force would be to fly in the face of libertarian principles. Moreover, it became more important to defeat fascism in a war than to make a revolution which would split the antifascist front. This meant entering a bourgeois war government to defend the Republic in arms. The FAI leaders did this, as Federica Montseny, a prominent FAI figure in the 1930s, told me, with “tears in their eyes.” The war, which in Mr. Bookchin’s analysis the CNT were correct in helping to provoke by discrediting bourgeois democracy, therefore finally forced the CNT to desert its one doctrinal anchor: apoliticism, root and branch hostility to any government that was not based on libertarian principles. The movement was to be torn asunder by squabbles between the heirs of the collaborationists and the purists.

The memory of collective experiment of the spontaneous revolution of the summer of 1936 haunts the noncommunist left. The CNT collective farms and factories must be presented not merely as morally satisfying but as economically efficient: only then can the collective experiment challenge the bourgeois notion “of a libertarian society as an unworkable Utopia.” Mr. Sam Dolgoff has edited a handbook for the convinced, reprinting the uncritical enthusiastic accounts of anarchist collectives by such committed observers as Laval and Souchy (as Mr. Bookchin reprints the posed pictures of militiamen poking their rifles over the barricades at nonexistent enemies; the workers of Spain sacrificed enough to be spared these mock heroics). Yet there is an abundant critical literature from Franz Borkenau’s Spanish Cockpit to Pérez Baró which reveals the ravages of a collective syndical selfishness which sometimes replaced individual bourgeois greed: accounts that reveal collectivization as a less spontaneous operation than its defenders maintain. “We succeeded in rousing the villages from their slumber,” runs one account of collectivization in the Levante. “All the towns and villages which we control with an iron will follow the norms of the CNT.”

Arcadia needs abundance to flourish; hence the anarchists’ interest in the technological revolution that would supply abundance without extra work. The anarchist collectives between 1936 and 1939 had to struggle for scarce supplies in wartime—a struggle made more acute by the hostility of the enemies of collectivization both on ideological grounds and because they fragmented a planned war economy. These enemies were the bourgeois Republicans and the communists, who combined to “starve” the collectives of raw materials and credit. These were real difficulties; but even if one accepts Noam Chomsky’s verdict that the success of the agrarian collectives in wartime was “amazing,” I see no grounds for a similar verdict in the case of the industrial collectives.

Some problems in history are insoluble: the testimony on collectivization is so conflicting that the truth will not come out of it History, in this instance, will largely be the reflection of the historian’s point de départ. This is clearly the case with Mr. Bookchin; but he is honest and scholarly enough to allow one to turn his own evidence against him.

For Mr. Bookchin the anarchist libertarian commune is not merely a historical memory; it is the model for a new counter-society. Marx was backing a loser when he put his bet on the industrial proletariat—now, as Bakunin prophesied, the passive victims of embourgeoisement. Bakunin succeeded in a semi-industrialized country like prewar Spain because he put his money on a revolution of all the dispossessed of incipient industrialization: the artisan struggling against the factory, the unemployed, the peasant—the marginal men whom Marx dismissed as “old shit.”

Today, Mr. Bookchin argues, the revolution based on the traditional industrial proletariat is outdated, doomed to end in the ragbag of history. It is the alliance of all the dispossessed and alienated, the Popular Front of all those dehumanized by modern capitalism, that will defeat the system and set up the society of true liberty “which,” as anarchism’s founding father held, “does not recognize other restrictions but those traced by the laws of our nature.” This is tantamount to saying that “there are no restrictions at all.” It would work, provided man was naturally good and provided anarchists could strike a balance between the organizational demands of a highly complex industrial society and the simple spontaneity of the rural commune. But man is not naturally good and the libertarians, though in 1936-1937 they talked endlessly of organization and liberty, never succeeded in reconciling them.

What is left in Spain today of the once great anarcho-syndicalist experiment? There is its insistence on workers’ control from the factory floor up, now called autogestión, which has become the common program of all trade unions in Spain. This is an important legacy. The anarchists’ concern for the rejected and despised persists. The CNT is alone today in supporting the Coordinated Organization of Marginal Groups—homosexuals, criminals, feminists, and gypsies. Hardly, perhaps, the dispossessed whom Bakunin thought would make the social revolution.

This Issue

October 13, 1977