George Walford: The Anarchist Police Force

The Spanish Civil War ended half a century ago. Anarchism has not approached its Spanish stature in any other country and does not seem likely to do so in the reasonably near future; this raises questions about that extraordinary flowering. In what follows I rely upon two books: The Spanish Civil War (1977), by Hugh Thomas, [1] and The Spanish Anarchists, the heroic years 1868-1936 (1977), by Murray Bookchin. [2] Thomas writes as a detached scholar, Bookchin as an anarchist. Neither of them intends to support the conclusions I shall draw from their work.

The Spanish movement consisted of a large trade union organisation, the CNT (translating, roughly, as National Confederation of Labour) and the smaller, directly political, FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation). Both Thomas and Bookchin give figures, Thomas saying that Barcelona in 1936 had 350,000 anarchists, and that in the 1930s probably more than one and a half million Spanish workers held anarchist views, although of these only 200,000 or less could be called militant. In 1931, according to Thomas, the anarchists claimed 600,000 members, 250,000 of them in Catalonia. He quotes Balcells as saying the CNT numbered 58 per cent of the workers in Barcelona and between 30 and 35 per cent in Catalonia, and Peirat as giving the FAI 30,000 in 1936. Bookchin himself gives “the anarcho-syndicalist CNT” [3] about a million members.

Both authors give further figures which we need not quote and we need not, either, enquire into any discrepancies that may appear. Bearing in mind that the population of Spain in 1936 numbered only twenty-four million, the significant point stands solidly established. Bookchin chooses the right word for the Spanish movement: “immense.”

Figures give a comfortable feeling of scientific accuracy, but in order to make much use of them we need to know not only how many, but also how many of what, and here our authors offer less help; neither of them specifies very clearly what he intends us to understand by “anarchism” and “anarchist.” Thomas does devote to the issue as much attention as we can, perhaps, reasonably expect from one writing a general history of the Civil War; he gives a brief account of the ideas held by Kropotkin and Bakunin. But we shall find a serious discrepancy between anarchism as it appeared in Spain and the description of it offered by these writers, and this he does not try to resolve.

Bookchin clearly uses the term to mean something different from what it means to the greater part of the movement outside Spain. He speaks of Spanish anarchism surviving in urban “barrios” and rural “pueblos” for nearly seventy years in the face of unrelenting persecution, and goes on to say that in order to understand this we have to take the movement as an expression of the life of the Spanish working people rather than as “a body of exotic libertarian doctrines.” [4]

Outside Spain the life of the working people shows them not noticeably more anarchistic than the rich, and ten minutes spent in any anarchist bookshop will show that libertarian doctrines play a large part in the movement. Nobody pleads guilty to “exotic,” but the limited acceptance enjoyed by the doctrines promoted in anarchist journals, compared with those appearing in the popular press – still using “anarchist” to call up that cloaked figure with a smoking bomb – goes far to qualify them for the term.

This links up with substantial differences marking off those called anarchists in Spain (or most of them) from those bearing the title elsewhere. Bookchin speaks of the Local Federation of the FAI convening assemblies “to allow for a full expression of rank-and-file views” [5] and the phrase recognises the possibility of disallowance – something unlikely to arise among anarchists anywhere else. Nor does the international movement recognise a category of “rank-and-file” members.

The Peninsular Committee of the FAI played a part somewhere between that of a mere administrative body and a Central Committee of the Bolshevik type; it exercised on the formulation of policy a good deal more influence than its profession of libertarian principles would lead one to expect. Bookchin speaks of dissidents enjoying a large degree of freedom in voicing and publishing criticism of the leadership and its policies; it takes a strange sort of anarchism to accept a leadership with power over the freedom of expression available to its critics. Saying the FAI had leaders both charismatic and aggressive, Bookchin also reports that (at some unspecified date) it “began to decay as a libertarian movement” [6] but his own account raises the question whether it ever deserved the term in any but a restricted sense. He goes straight from its foundation in July 1927 to this condition in which powerful leaders play a substantial part, without mention of any different structure in the interim.

The FAI, our authors tell us, repeatedly attempted to lead or guide the much bigger CNT in an anarchist direction. But even the FAI hardly counted as solidly anarchist by international standards. Federica Montseney, one of its prominent figures during the Republican period, distinguished three currents within the organisation: the “Treintistas” formed its right wing, the anarchists its left, and the “Anarcho-Bolsheviks” favoured the methods of the Russian revolutionaries. [7] (Peirat suggests they may have had more than glancing contact with Bolshevism).

Bookchin writes as an enthusiast for Spanish anarchism; when he finds its libertarianism restricted to this extent we have to take notice. Statements from a scholar taking a more detached attitude also carry weight, and those from Thomas provide abundant confirmation of Bookchin’s account. (He also gives Harry Pollit’s reply when Stephen Spender asked how he could best serve the Republican cause: “Go and get killed, comrade; we need a Byron in the movement”).

Outside Spain anarchism distinguishes itself from other movements by its repudiation of established, elite or authoritarian leadership; in the Spanish movement this crucial feature does not appear. Thomas speaks of Abad de Santillan as an FAI leader, of the anarchists having political leaders and of the FAI as a secret society directing the CNT. He tells of anarchists dominating the CNT from its beginnings, and describes the FAI as a revolutionary elite dedicated to leadership of the masses.

In Barcelona the anarchists had held “the reality of authority” [8] (!!!) since the rising, and on 27 September they formally recognised this by entering the Generalidad, the governing body of Catalonia. “The first entry of an anarchist movement into a position of political authority,” [9] this soon led to further advances. A month later four anarchist leaders became Ministers in the Madrid government, and not as isolated individuals; the CNT had formally elected them. One of these anarchist rulers became Minister of Justice and established a new code of laws, making black marketeering punishable by imprisonment. He also set up labour camps for nationalist prisoners, their gates bearing the motto “work and do not despair.” Thomas understandably remarks that the old libertarian anarchists would have turned in their graves. He has earlier summarised Bakunin’s ideas on these matters:

“All collaboration with parliaments, governments and organized religion was to be condemned. Criminals would be punished by the censure of public opinion.”

Finally, as if giving one last hammer-blow to a point already driven well home, Thomas mentions “two FAI police leaders, Dionision Eroles and Jose Asens.” [10] Bookchin says the centrist members of the FAI had led the organisation into “shadowy” violations of anarchist principle; “gross” would seem more appropriate.

By the winter of 1936-7 most of the Catalan economy had been collectivised. Abad de Santillan, an “anarchist leader” holding the post of economic councillor in the Catalan government, describes the results of collectivisation:

“We had seen in the private ownership of the means of production… the main cause of misery and injustice. We wished the socialization of all wealth so that not a single individual would be left out of the banquet of life. We have done something but we have not done it well. In place of the old owner, we have substituted a half-dozen new ones who consider the factory, the means of transport which they control, as their own… property.” [11]

Herbert Read’s poem, “A Song for the Spanish Anarchists,” has the line: “Fifty men own the lemon grove, and no man is a slave.” The aspiration expressed demands a generous response, but a little thought reveals another side to it; of the 24 million people in Spain at the time, the new system excluded all but fifty from ownership of that lemon-grove, and if we take the whole of humanity into account, then it excluded some three billion (less fifty). This differs from common, social or collective ownership, in which each lemon grove would belong to everybody or (effectively the same thing) to nobody; it comes closer to an extension of private ownership.

When one looks past the name to the behaviour of the Spanish “anarchist” movement of the Civil War period, it turns out to be standing closer to republicanism, anti-fascism or liberalism than to anarchism as the international movement uses that term. It chose to support a government. Doubtless people holding anarchist views did belong to it, especially in the FAI, but the great numbers forming its body and substance remained attached to belief in leadership; they accepted authority at least in its democratic republican form. ” Classical” anarchism, the anarchism Proudhon, Bakunin, Malatesta and (at least until 1914) Kropotkin stood for, distinguishes itself from other political movements by its unrelenting opposition to government. It does not discriminate, supporting the more democratic governments against the more authoritarian, but opposes the very principle of government and the state. “All collaboration with parliaments, governments and organised religion was to be condemned.” The CNT and the FAI deserve our respect, and more than that, for their heroic struggle against Fascism, but any who think that their numbers represent a high point from which anarchism has declined are accepting an inaccurate and misleading picture. Anarchism may not be advancing very rapidly, but at least it has not suffered a reversal of that magnitude.

[1] Thomas H. 1977 The Spanish Civil War. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books
[2] Bookchin M. 1977 The Spanish Anarchists, the heroic years 1868-1936
[3] Bookchin 1
[4] Bookchin 2
[5] Bookchin 214
[6] Bookchin 214
[7] Bookchin 243
[8] Thomas 428
[9] Thomas 428
[10] Thomas 654
[11] Thomas 52

Continue reading Angles on Anarchism by George Walford (1991):
Class Politics; an Exhausted Myth | Anarchy Renamed | Why So Few? | Gnostics as Anarchists of Old | The Two-Sided Anarchist | The Higher the Fewer | The Anarchist Police Force | Even Worse | In the Beginning | The Competitive Co-operators | I. Q. Against Anarchism | Anarchism in Series | Friendly Reason | Anarchist Research | Are They Not Anarchists? | The Trouble With Success | Of Governments and Gardens | The Poll Tax Lesson | Healthy Freedoms | The Conventional Artist | Underground Activity | The Cretan Egoist.

Angles on Anarchism now available on the Kindle.