The Spanish Revolution: In Their Words

History is written by those who survive, philosophy by the well-to-do; those who go under have the experience.’ W.R. Lethaby.

When I had to study the Spanish civil war at school in 1981 my teacher sketched up on the blackboard what he saw as being the spectrum of political and social forces involved: From Right to Left there was the falange (a fascist sect inspired and supported by Hitler and Mussolini but of little overall influence), the right-wing nationalists, land owners, army and Catholic church. The middle class was represented by ‘sensible’ liberals and republicans and on the left there was the socialist UGT union and the Moscow-backed Communist Party. On the lunatic fringe was the anarcho-syndicalist CNT (National Federation of Labour) ‘The headcase anarchists – a bunch of hot blooded latins, terrorists and priest killers unique to Spain. They wanted to smash capitalism and the state, abolish the army and police, the prisons and money, institute free love and stop the bullfights. How can you fight a war successfully with nutters like that?’ – the civil war was a battle between fascism and democracy. Lots of heroic communists and socialists had to go and help out because the Spanish workers and peasants didn’t have the right political consciousness and leadership to get by on their own. The anarchists were trouble causers aiding the cause of fascism. Bullshit? – ‘that’s what the books say.’ With the exception of Gerard Brenan’s ‘The Spanish Labyrinth’ (the writer has actually spent most of his life in Spain), all of the standard academic texts are written by marxist intellectuals in cumfy university jobs with axes to grind. Hardly the people to write balanced, unbiased history. I pointed out that the military was defeated in many parts of Spain by anarchist workers and peasants, followed by the most far reaching social revolution of the 20th century. But that’s not what the books say is it ?

Not long after my ‘history’ lesson a Spanish anarchist came to speak in Leeds. He was an exile living in London. I was able to persuade a couple of school friends to come along with me. In the afternoon Helenio spoke at the university to an audience which included many Iranian students [interested?] in how the anarchist communes and collectives had taken over Aragon and most of rural Catalonia in 1936. In the evening, at a packed meeting organised by Leeds Anarchist Group at the Trades Club, he outlined the history of Spanish anarchism and his memories of the revolution and anti-fascist resistance after 1939. He was a child living in Barcelona in 1936. His father was a self-employed anarchist milkman, who refused to work under a boss. When the revolution came the dairy industry was collectivised by the CNT. The employers had the choice of leaving or becoming workers with no more power than anybody else. Milk was distributed by a federation of free individuals. Inspite of a bloody war and the near complete isolation of Spain from the rest of the world, the federation was able to buy sophisticated tankers from Nestle in Switzerland for transporting milk. Barcelona had never had a more efficient milk distribution system, before or after. This was just one of many instances of how it was possible for society to be run without the dictates of bosses and politicians.

Miguel Garcia was another anarchist militant who witnessed and actively participated in the revolution and civil war. After the fascist victory he continued to fight in the resistance. He was caught and sentenced to death – commuted to 30 years life as a result of international pressure. He left prison in 1969, and at the invitation of Stuart Christie, whom he had met in prison, came to England. ‘Miguel Garcia’s Story’ was printed in 1982 shortly after his death as a tribute and is well worth reading.

We owe a great deal to George Orwell for publicising an honest and inspiring account of his experiences as a volunteer and the political situation in free Spain in ‘Homage To Catalonia’ .He went to fight fascism in the columns of the POUM who were a small marxist party under the wings of the CNT, critical of Moscow with contacts with the Independent Labour Party in Britain. Politically insignificant (it had a membership under 5 figures – though bigger in 1936 than the Communist Party!) we were told it was a force comparable to the 2 million strong CNT! The book is a graphic account of how the militias were able to fight and win without officers and generals. It also contains Orwell’s bitterness at the way the Communist Party grew in influence due to Russian guns and money, how they began to arm the cops in Barcelona while people at the front were fighting with ancient rifles or their bare hands, and how they began to exterminate opposition to their rule, starting with the POUM. Eventually Orwell had to flee Spain to save his own skin, not from the fascists but from the communists! The anarchists decided not to fight the communists for the sake of anti-fascist unity. This proved to be the biggest mistake the anarchists ever made!

I eventually persuaded my history teacher to read ‘Homage to Catalonia’ and he has since admitted that he had to radically alter his notes on Spain!

[This is a fascinating account of the ‘Fight for history’ in action; and the importance, not just of the historical fact of the Spanish Revolution, but of the personal testimony of exiled revolutionaries on new generations of anarchists (here in 1980s Britain). We have published a couple of pamphlets by Miguel Garcia, but who was Helenio?]

From: Northampton Libertarian, 1987.