Revolution and the State: Anarchism and the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 by Danny Evans [Review]

Evans’ subject is the Spanish revolution and the opposing process of rebuilding the failed republican state. Revolution and the State examines fault-lines and failures within the anarchist movement. Collaboration was not only a question of the movement’s ‘leading lights’, but it didn’t go unchallenged by some mid-level and grassroots radicals. Evans, dealing with this tragic history, is neither simplistic nor doom-laden. And it is complex: look at the Congress of Zaragoza (May 1936) when the anarcho-syndicalist CNT[1] was gearing up for revolution by outlining the society they wanted to create:

‘The vision of libertarian communism that emerged was a compromise between the purist and gradualist currents, and was criticised from the floor by the former for considering the union organisation to have a role in a post-revolutionary society and by the latter for not granting it a more prominent position. Historians have since wondered at the document’s attention to such details at the expense of questions of armed conflict and wartime production. Yet the vision of libertarian communism that was produced by the Congress, and above all the multiple and varied discussions that it was the product of, demonstrate that a desire for libertarian communism and a collective effort to imagine its parameters were not the preserve of ideologues or deluded and isolated villagers, but was at the heart of this mass, working-class organisation. […] It is worth noting that the principles that were affirmed here as integral to the revolutionary project would soon re-emerge as as priorities for radical anarchists during the revolution. These included the arming of the populace, economic equality, assembly-based decision-making procedures, federalism, and the equality of the sexes.’ [p25]

The military coup came in July 1936. The revolutionary response by anarchists and other workers was primarily responsible for holding the army back. Where revolutionary workers and peasants were in the ascendancy, they began to reorganise society without state or capitalism. Fatefully, leading militants in the CNT accepted collaboration with the republican state in the name of anti-fascism. Counter-revolutionary forces on the republican side kept pressing to roll back the gains of July.[2] This led to the Barcelona May days of 1937, which wasn’t the spontaneous protest it’s sometimes seen as:

‘In Barcelona in the spring of 1937, recalcitrant milicianos, anarchist refugees, purist opponents of state collaboration, advocates of unity among authentic revolutionaries and women mobilising around the issue of scarcity could rely on a network of organisations and expropriated spaces in which to consolidate their burgeoning alliance. […] To mobilise these strands in a joint effort, as happened in May, required a common organisational denominator. This would be provided by the Local Federation of affinity groups (the FAI[3] in Barcelona), under the stewardship of Julián Merino.’ [p85]

Evans that argues that being within the movement made the mobilisation possible and also allowed it to be defused by the ‘higher committees’. ‘The CNT was converted into a hierarchical body, its comités superiores effectively remaining state functionaries even after their ejection from government, as they carried out the essential task of imposing discipline on recalcitrant elements of their membership’. [p201]

The logic of sacrificing the revolution to win the war failed. Julián Merino, one of the key figures in the May days, ended up in the Executive Committee of the Libertarian Movement ‘the culmination of every­thing that everything that Merino had fought against for over a year previously. Days before the fall of Barcelona, he was charged (or more likely tasked himself) with organising remaining anarchists or anarchist sympathisers into defence battalions in the name of the FAI. In the event, however, a suicidal, last-ditch defence of the city was not attempted, and he crossed the border into France with thousands of his fellow defeated comrades. As Merino must have understood better than most, the possibility of such ‘Numantian’ resistance, regardless of the wing of the Republican state that advocated it, depended on the mobilising potential of the revolutionary energies and alliances that all wings of the state had collaborated in extinguishing and dismantling over the course of the war. However, while state repression was the principal cause of the breakdown of these revolutionary alliances, they also had been weakened by contradictions internal to the revolutionary movement. [p174]

Evans approaches history with questions to ask, rather than ready-made answers to bludgeon us with. He aims ‘not to provide a retrospective moral judgement on the ideological imperfections of anarchist activists, but rather to show how the recession of revolutionary horizons brought with it a turning inwards of revolutionary forces and a fracturing of the solidarities generated by the revolution’s expansive phase.’ [p183]

It’s not a happy book. ‘While the comités superiores of the CNT had done what they could to hold back their members, their opponents had taken advantage of what opportunities they had to strengthen their position. […] The corpses of twelve members of the Catalan JJLL[4] from the Sant Andreu neighbourhood were dumped in the cemetery at Cerdanyola. They had been tortured to death on 4 May. Important anarchist critics of the Communist Party and its policy had been murdered. The most famous case was that of Camilo Berneri, shot on 5 May along with his comrade and compatriot, Francesco Barbieri.’ [p115] The ‘complacency and ingenuity of the leading stratum of the CNT-FAI’ [p117] reminds me both of José Peirats’ verdict that the CNT was caught ‘not being able to politick nor yet being able to walk away from it’[5] and of Malatesta’s warning from another time and place that ‘the bourgeoisie sooner or later will make us pay with tears of blood for the fear that we have instilled in them today.’[6]

Evans has drawn on Spanish-language sources which makes this an especially valuable work for those of us who would have to wait for them to be translated. But on the topic of language, I’m not sure about using ‘deserter’ for revolutionaries who left the front, not in search of safety, but to confront the republican counter-revolution. Why not just use ‘uncontrollables’?

This is an important contribution to the history of the Spanish Civil War and of the anarchist movement. I also think this is a book all radicals could benefit from reading (and I say that knowing how expensive it is). It’s based on his thesis [7], so you could go and read that but it has been worked on since then. We must hope that our friends with the power to get books into libraries do so, and that a paperback appears soon.


1 CNT: Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (National Confederation of Labour)
2 For a critical view of how this conflict has been reflected in historical writings, see ‘The Fight for History: a Manifesto’ In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 20, October 1999
3 FAI: Federación Anarquista Ibérica (Iberian Anarchist Federation)
4 JJLL: Juventudes Libertarias (Libertarian Youth)
5 José Peirats, The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, Vol.2, p144
6 Errico Malatesta, ‘Per la prossima riscossa’ [1923, talking about the Italian factory occupations of 1920] quoted in Nunzio Pernicone Italian anarchism, 1864-1892 p294
7 Daniel Evans, The Conscience of the Spanish Revolution: Anarchist Opposition to State Collaboration in 1937. [2016]

Revolution and the state : anarchism in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 Danny Evans
Routledge, 2018 ISBN 9781138063143 £115

[Update: AK Press have published this in paperback (2020).]