The Spanish Revolution: A brief introduction by Charlatan Stew

The articles reprinted here cover some important history generally not discussed by leftist ideologues with loyalties to progressive political party agendas, or to authoritarian Marxist, Leninist, Trotskyist or Stalinist groups. The first seven articles were originally published during the late 1930s in One Big Union Monthly, a publication of the Industrial Workers of the World (the I.W.W., also known as the Wobblies). These articles offer a sample of an alternative radical perspective on the events in Spain available to anarchists and other independent anti-authoritarians in North America and other places where English was spoken during that period.

The One Big Union Monthly articles (published in the 1930s), along with the article by Russell Blackwell (published in 1968), together give us a glimpse of what many sincere freedom fighters learned when they joined the struggle in Spain. What they found was a people in arms ready to fight for a free society, and organized groups resisting a military coup, groups that were split between those that were fighting for an anti-hierarchical social transformation and for the creation of an egalitarian society, and those that were dedicated to preserving a Spanish Republic dominated by the privileged.

The final article is about Federico Arcos, a Spanish anarchist veteran of the revolution (written in 1996). This article provides a glimpse into what the anarchists of Spain experienced, and how it differed from the authoritarian interpretation of the events.

By way of offering some historical context, this introduction briefly reviews the social and political background to the revolution and civil war inside Spain, as well as the backgrounds to the positions taken by the western “democratic”, Fascist/Nazi and “Communist” led nation-states of the 1930s.

We hope that the history presented in these articles can help us to reflect on how the various leaders of the major nation states have treated social insurgents in the past. This can further our understanding of what we can expect or hope for from governments in the present and the future. The debates between the power holders and power servers and those who aspire to power regarding the most advantageous ways to deal with social dislocations and insurgencies have never been and are not now based on concern for anti-authoritarian and egalitarian goals.

Although the political, economic, social, and personal situations of the revolutionaries of the 1930s were not exactly the same as what we experience or witness today—in North America or elsewhere, unfortunately, the structures of power, hierarchy and domination continue to have strong similarities. Struggles for individual liberty and social solidarity, human dignity, egalitarian sociability and social justice continue to be of the greatest relevance to the majority of the world’s people. The choices between authoritarian/hierarchical and anti-authoritarian/anti-hierarchical political-social action still remain relevant.

Understanding and growing from the experiences of participants in the Arab Spring, or in Greece, or Spain, or in the Occupy movements of 2011, does not simply involve evaluating tactics or strategies of anarchists or authoritarians of the left or right. We need to delve into the fundamental character of the conflicts between those who resist total domination and those who only pretend to in the current cycle of struggles. Being informed about what happened to insurgents in the past can contribute to our current understanding of the possible consequences of our and other people’s decisions and the choices of groups today. And precisely because the struggles for a new social world have not yet been definitively lost or won anywhere, questions about how to most effectively go forward are still being debated. We still need to critically consider what constitutes the most just and egalitarian forms of solidarity in specific situations, locally or in other parts of the world..

As we compare and contrast conditions and social movements in the 1930’s with those of today, we can gain a lot from finding out as much as possible about the positive achievements, the problems faced and mistakes made by those ordinary people in those past struggles. So, we are offering this pamphlet as a contribution to the endeavor of refreshing and reclaiming our anarchist heritage.

A Little Background on the Spanish Anarchist Movement before the Republic of the 1930s

In many ways, the Spanish revolution of 1936 through 1939 is a very inspiring event. It provides a multitude of real-life examples of how ordinary people can begin to realize a classless and stateless society. During that revolution, at least briefly, literally millions of women and men took control of their own lives and organized themselves in neighborhood and work place collectives, both urban and rural. This tremendously creative insurgency gained its strength from the previous seventy years of anarchist social and educational activities and organization building, in combination with rural agricultural communal traditions, all made more potent by the spontaneous creativity of ordinary people.

Well before the events of July 1936, a variety of Spanish anarchist groups, from anarcho-syndicalists to anarcho-communists and others, were playing a large part in movements for social justice. For three generations, they had been dreaming about, advocating and struggling to lay the groundwork for a new and more just social order, based on equality, mutuality, and reciprocity, in which each person could be valued and respected as an individual and a member of an authentic community. Although there were some differences between groups and between individuals, in general, the kind of society they all envisioned and were striving to bring to birth was one built on voluntary, non-hierarchical, self-organized collectivization in every phase of life, and, most especially, workers’ control in industry, agriculture, and various community services.

Spanish anarchists generally believed that the old social order would not be defeated without armed insurrection. But, they also recognized that the means used to build the new society would have to be consistent with the ends sought, so as to contribute to, rather than undermine, the goals for which they were striving. With this in mind, they came to understand that a socially just world could not simply be won through acts of arms. They recognized that armed might cannot convince anyone of the value of any idea or way of living, and it cannot promote or nurture respectful egalitarian relationships between people. They therefore dedicated some of their efforts to creating new forms of social organization that could replace the established institutions and functions exercised in authoritarian ways by the state and private capitalists.

They developed networks of anti-authoritarian economic, political, and cultural organizations and activities, to create communities that respected the individuality of their members, while enabling the development of individuality as a part of community. Through a variety of organizations, they combined fights for immediate improvements in wages and working and living conditions with the development of the structures and habits they deemed vital for the foundation of a free society. On a day-to-day basis, against the tide of the authoritarian order, they created voluntary egalitarian associations in which people could learn to cultivate new traditions of solidarity, cooperation and self-realization.

The Spanish Republic of 1931 through 1939

The first Spanish Republic had a very brief life, being established in 1873 and overthrown in 1874. It was very weak and was ended by a military coup. For the next 47 years a series of dictatorships ruled the country and repressed all attempts at social insurgency. But the Spanish people did not submit passively. They developed a wide variety of opposition groups, ranging from liberal republican to social democratic to anarchist. The military dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera, which commenced in 1923, was willing to offer a minor governmental role to the Spanish Socialist Party and some recognition of their labor unions in exchange for their cooperation, while continuing the repression of anarchist groups, including anarcho-syndicalist labor unions. (See M. Dashar, pseudonym of Helmut Rudiger, The Revolutionary Movement in Spain, Libertarian Publishing Society, New York, 1934; accessed November 8, 2009 from Internet Archive, at

By 1931 the Primo de Rivera dictatorship was too weak to hold on to power. This opened up the opportunity for republicans and social-democrats to cooperate in creating the second Spanish republic, which took the form of a parliamentary democracy.

But, the new Republic faced enormous challenges. A worldwide economic depression was underway. And in Spain many people were unemployed and impoverished.

The Republic’s first elections were held in 1931, but none of the political parties were able to gain a majority of seats in the parliament (the Cortes). So the liberal-republican and social-democratic parties—the parties with the largest numbers of elected representatives—formed a coalition cabinet. The previous dictatorial governments had brutally repressed dissent. Many hoped that the new republican government would allow more freedom of expression for individuals and freedom for labor unions and other grassroots organizations to act. However, the coalition government proved unable to significantly improve the conditions of life for the vast majority of ordinary people in the cities or countryside. Moreover, it continued the previous dictatorship’s policy of repression and imprisonment of social activists belonging to the anarchist and other working-class organizations.

In 1932, there was an attempted military coup, which was stymied. Nevertheless, the capitalist, military and Catholic church elites continued to hold on to their monopoly on wealth and power. And, the liberal republican/social-democratic coalition government continued to be extremely careful not to truly challenge them in any significant way.

Disappointed hopes inspired continuing social insurgency. In 1932 and 1933 urban and rural working-class people throughout Catalonia, Andalusia and Levant engaged in armed revolts, hoping to inspire other revolts throughout the country. But they were repeatedly crushed by the republican government’s police and military forces with great brutality. By June 1933 there were 9,000 anarchists and other working-class insurgents in prison.

In late 1932, the liberal republican/social-democratic coalition government lost political support in the Cortes, and in November an election was called. In this election, right-wing parties gained a majority and a right-wing coalition took control of the government. This began the Bienno Negro, the two black years of intensified repression against all those fighting for social change.

In October, 1934 the workers of the anarchist National Confederation of Labor (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo, C.N.T.) joined with their fellow workers in the Socialist Party-led General Union of Workers (Union General de Trabajadores, U.G.T.) in a massive revolt in the Asturias region. Workplaces were occupied and the union members began an armed insurrection. This revolt was also crushed quite brutally and at least 3,000 people were executed. For the next few years, the right-wing coalition government unsuccessfully attempted to quell the mounting unrest. But, it was not able to maintain its support in the Cortes, and was finally forced to call an election for February, 1936.

In that election, candidates from social-democratic, Communist and left-liberal parties joined together to promote a Popular Front anti-fascist slate against the more right-wing parties. This coalition won a small majority of the seats in the Cortes, and was able to form another left coalition government.

However, only minor reshuffling of government posts took place, and the governing coalition could not agree on how to go forward with social reforms. So, the needs and hopes of the majority of the people who had voted for the left liberal, socialist and Communist politicians were generally disregarded.

As this became obvious, from February 1936 on, many agricultural workers and small landholders in the countryside took things into their own hands, initiating widespread land occupations. Workers in the industrial and service sectors in cities and towns also engaged in large numbers of strikes. Between the election in February and July there were 113 general strikes and 228 partial general strikes. There were on average ten to twenty each day by June and July.

At the beginning of 1936 there were 30,000 political prisoners. Even after the election of the left liberal-social democratic coalition government, most of the political prisoners remained incarcerated, despite demands for their freedom. Only after massive popular demonstrations were they released. At the same time, the new government continued to arrest anarchists and socialists and other activists. By July, 1936 the prisons were once again crowded with political prisoners.

Directly after the February 1936 elections, General Francisco Franco headed the formation of a coalition of anti-democratic military elites, who joined with civilian fascists to plan yet another military coup d’état. They made no secret of the fact that they intended to overthrow the republican government and replace it with an authoritarian state system, modeled on the regimes in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Despite the openness of these plotters, the elected politicians refused to take any concrete measures to counter them. Instead, they tried to negotiate with these military rebels.

The Beginning of the Spanish Civil War and the Flowering of the Revolution

Disregarding the liberal republican and social-democratic politicians’ attempts at negotiations, on July 17th the right-wing military rebels began their coup with Franco’s forces seizing control of Spanish Morocco and Franco broadcasting a “radical manifesto” announcing the impending military takeover of Spain proper. But, many ordinary people refused to stand passively by, especially those involved directly or indirectly in anarchist and socialist groups. At this time, the anarcho-syndicalist C.N.T. union confederation and the socialist U.G.T. union confederation each had over one million members. They clearly understood that right-wing dictatorship would mean brutal repression for all of them. (See Workers Solidarity Movement, The Spanish Civil War: Anarchism in Action; accessed January 21, 2012 at

Unfortunately, the Socialist Party and the Socialist U.G.T. were bureaucratically organized hierarchical organizations, with leaders who had strong loyalties to the social-democratic politicians in the Republican government—the very politicians who had been going along with the strategy of trying to negotiate with the military coup plotters. This posed a challenge for those members who wished to begin resisting the military coup. Many grassroots socialists nevertheless did participate in this resistance.

The anarcho-syndicalist union confederation and the other anarchist groups, on the other hand, were more decentralized organizations, in which initiatives for action did not necessarily originate with a small group of leaders at the top. Because grassroots democracy was a much greater reality among the anarchists than among the socialists, there was more motivation and more possibilities for those who felt the urgency of the situation to begin planning for resistance. In addition, the anarchist organizations had no government links. So, the anarchists had no reason to wait for direction from the Republican government compromisers and negotiators.

Consequently, anarchists in many parts of the country were ready and able to immediately begin resistance. And thanks to their initiative, many other freedom loving people in Spain also joined the resistance in general strikes and armed opposition on July 19, and together they were able to temporarily defeat the military coup in half of the country. They rapidly organized popular militias which continued the tradition of embodying their desired goals in their chosen means. The popular militias, as part of their resistance to the authoritarian military, replaced the officers with absolute power over lower ranks with elected delegates who were recallable if they lost the confidence of the ranks. Plans and policies were also agreed upon by all in each unit through open discussion. Moreover, differences in rank and pay were non-existent. The egalitarian character of the militias is documented in numerous books and articles; for example, see Abel Paz, Durruti: The People Armed, trans. Nancy Macdonald (Black Rose; Montreal, 1976).

The resisters surprised the military coup plotters with a civil war, which lasted for nearly three grueling years, from July 1936 to March 1939. Moreover, the initial defeat of Franco’s forces enabled and inspired widespread popular self-governing activities, involving much more than a civil war between opposing fighters. Millions of women, men and children living and working in the Spanish cities and countryside not taken by the Franco forces actually began to experiment with the creation of more egalitarian, decent and just lives for themselves and those around them. The temporary victory over the fascist rebels enabled a full scale social revolution to begin, with land and factory occupations and collectivization in agriculture, a number of industries and various community services. So in Spain in the summer of 1936 both a revolution for a new and better social world and a civil war against the military rebels led by Franco began. This was an inspiring and very important fight—and perhaps not as outdated or different from some of the struggles of today as some people might think.

For a good text on the positive anarchist role in the Spanish Revolution and civil war by the Ireland-based Workers Solidarity Movement, see The Spanish Civil War: Anarchism in Action, a detailed introduction to the role anarchism played in the Spanish Civil War and the anarchist revolution within the republican zone. (Accessed June 3, 2011 at

The Nation-States between the Two World Wars

To gain a good grasp of the situation of Spain during the 1930s, it is helpful to understand what was going on inside and between the other nation-states during that period.

The nation-states and empires of the first half of the twentieth century, including the western “democratic” states, were based on the exploitation of their locally created working-classes and colonized subject peoples. Despite the democratic rhetorical idealizations that became fashionable among western elites at the end of World War I, there was little real respect or consideration for the millions they ruled over at home or abroad. (For good general background information, see The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol. 1: An Age Like This—1920-1940 edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1968.)

The growing power of the United States was firmly rooted in the history of exploitation of the indigenous populations of North America, Latin America and the Pacific islands, African American slaves and wage-slaves, Asian, Southern and Northern European, Eastern European Jewish and non-Jewish immigrant wage-slaves. (See Howard Zinn, A Peoples History of the United States, various editions.)

As far back as the mid-nineteenth century, there was ongoing social unrest in most of the nation-states. Strikes and even insurrections were frequent right up to and throughout World War I. As the war was nearing its end, in 1917 a popular revolution began in Russia. Then, in 1918 revolutions started in Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria and Germany. In Russia, Hungary, Finland and parts of Germany, local workplace, neighborhood and military councils were formed. Mutinies broke out in the French army. Workers in major Italian cities seized factories. In 1919 there were also very serious and widespread strikes in the United States. All were brutally repressed, but very many ordinary people and elites alike throughout the world prepared for continuing social insurgency.

In this context, during the period between the two world wars, Italian Fascists, Japanese imperialists, German Nazis, and Russian Communists all assumed state power and began expanding and consolidating their brutal dictatorships. The western Democratic elites generally had little difficulty tolerating and even cooperating with the various new authoritarian regimes that were emerging, as long as they did not appear to pose any challenge to spheres of influence already claimed.

The brutality used by the Fascists and Nazis to gain and maintain control of the Italian and German governments and to intimidate and eliminate those who opposed them, was well known at the time, both inside those countries and abroad. Nevertheless, many politicians and business people in western “democratic” nation-states were primarily concerned with having political partners they could work with and developing promising business opportunities, rather than with the lives of ordinary people under repressive regimes. The Fascist and Nazi dictatorships offered both the political and the economic stability and predictability that was wanted.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s newspapers almost everywhere were reporting that the regime of Benito Mussolini was conducting a reign of terror against all opponents and dissenters. During the first few months of the regime, in the winter of 1922-1923, gangs of Fascist thugs seized or destroyed the printing plants and newspapers of the labor unions, as well as those of Italian socialist and anarchist groups. They also invaded union halls and cooperatives, and in many cases burned or otherwise destroyed them completely. At the same time, labor union, socialist and anarchist group members and their families—including children, old people and pregnant women—were beaten and even murdered. Through these methods the Fascists were able to crush the post-World War I revolutionary working class movement in Italy.

Despite their well publicized brutalities, the Fascists were admired by many highly placed western politicians. George Orwell noted just a few. (See “Who Are the War Criminals?” Tribune, October 22, 1943, in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol. 2, My Country Right or Left—1940-43 edited by Sonia Orwell & Ian Angus, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1968, pp. 319-25.) Orwell discusses Winston Churchill, who held high political positions in Britain over a fifty year period, including Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, as well as being Prime Minister during World War II. In 1927, in the midst of his political career, Churchill asserted that if he were Italian he would be wholeheartedly with Mussolini in the struggle against “bestial appetites” and the “passions of Leninism,” providing the necessary antidote to Russian poison and the cancerous growth of Bolshevism (p. 320). In 1928, Lord Rothermere agreed that Mussolini was an antidote to the deadly poison in Italy and for the rest of Europe, a tonic doing incalculable good. He considered Mussolini to be the greatest figure of the age (ibid., pp. 319-20). Whether Mussolini was crushing Italian trade unions, helping the Spanish Fascists, mustard gassing Abyssinians, or throwing Arabs out of airplanes, the British government and its official spokesmen supported his regime through thick and thin (ibid., pp. 320-321).

In F. D. R.: A Biography, (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1985), Ted Morgan notes that even as late as the winter of 1933 through 1934, nine years after the Fascist seizure of power, President Franklin Roosevelt expressed respect for Mussolini and the Fascists in Italy, referring to Mussolini as “the admirable Italian gentleman.” On July 16, 1934, Roosevelt wrote to Breckinridge Long, U.S. Ambassador in Rome, “I am much interested and deeply impressed by what he has accomplished and by his evidenced honest purpose of restoring Italy and seeking to prevent general European trouble” (p. 296). Apparently, what was most important to Roosevelt was that the Fascists demonstrated a clear commitment to protecting private property. He seems to have not been disturbed by the fact that the Fascists disregarded the rights of ordinary people to a voice in how they were treated, either by employers or government.

When the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, it was no secret that the Stormtroopers were immediately sent out to seize Social Democrats, Communists and anarchists; women and men were brutalized and tortured, sometimes to the point of death. In 1933, in his Brown Book of Hitler’s Terror, Victor Gollancz had already begun reporting the crimes of the Nazis for English readers, with massive numbers of documents and photographs.

Nevertheless, as late as 1937, William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister of Canada, visited Hitler and recorded in his diary that he found Hitler to be “one who truly loves his fellow man” and a person who reminded him of “Joan of Arc.” (See Wartime Diaries by Robert Fisk: The premier who thought Hitler was a ‘Joan of Arc,’ The Independent & The Independent on Sunday, 12 June 2010;—was-a-joan-of-arc-1998351.html.)

Andre Francois-Poncet was a well-respected French politician and diplomat, who, in August 1931 was named undersecretary of state and French ambassador to Germany. He continued in that post until October 1938, and witnessed firsthand the Nazi Party’s rise and consolidation of power. While being critical of the Nazis’ expansionism, Francois-Poncet felt that so long as there remained a chance for a wealthy Frenchman to have a share in the business opportunities being opened up in Europe by the German state, he could accept the Nazi regime. (See Christopher G. Thorne, The Approach of War 1938-1939; St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1967, p. 9. Nearly all of Thorne’s statements are based on official sources.)

Edward Frederick Lindley Wood, Lord Halifax, British Viceroy of India from 1926 to 1931, and Foreign Secretary from 1938 to 1940, openly expressed the opinion that Nazi German expansion to the East was justifiable, although he felt that it should be done by peaceful means. He also expressed sympathy for the Nazis, asserting that, “Nationalism and Racialism is a powerful force but I can’t feel that it’s either unnatural or immoral. I cannot myself doubt that these fellows are genuine haters of Communism, etc.! And I daresay if we were in their position we might feel the same!” (See Andrew Roberts, ‘Holy Fox’: The Life of Lord Halifax, Orion Publishing Group, London, 1997, p. 67.) Halifax praised Hitler for what he characterized as his great services to European civilization in resisting the forces of disintegration from the East (see Thorne, p. 15).

Some prominent American public figures who looked favorably on the Italian Fascist and German Nazi regimes included William Randolph Hearst of newspaper fame, who in the 1930s helped the Nazis to promote a positive impression of their regime in U.S. media, Joseph Kennedy (President John Kennedy’s father and U.S. ambassador to Britain from 1938 through 1940) and Andrew Mellon, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury from 1921 through 1932. (See American Supporters of the European Fascists, accessed January 6, 2012 at

Even as late as 1938, some of the top career men in the U.S. State Department, including Breckinridge Long (who was to become U.S. Assistant Secretary of State in 1939), expressed willingness to cooperate with the Nazis to combat the expansion of the influence of the Soviet Union. (See Morgan, p. 498.)

The Nazi and Fascist governments welcomed the right-wing military coup led by Franco against the Spanish Republic, and assisted them with modern weapons and trained specialists from early on. The elites of the western “democracies” did nothing to oppose this, and when asked by the Republic for help even refused to provide arms, on the grounds of so-called “neutrality.” They were generally suspicious of the radical social insurgency going on in Republican Spain.

For a well-documented article carefully refuting the historical distortions of liberals and Communists with respect to the positive social activities of anarchists during the Spanish revolution and civil war, see Noam Chomsky’s Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, in the collection of his essays American Power and the New Mandarins, New York 1969, pp 72—126. It is also online at

The Russian Revolution and the Soviet State

In the summer of 1914, the Tsarist government of the Russian Empire joined World War I as an ally of the French and British governments. They were later joined by others, including the Italian government in 1915 and the United States government in 1917. Historians generally refer to this war alliance as “the Entente.” The Entente sent their militaries against the German state and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, which joined together in an alliance known as the central powers. The troops that the Russian Empire sent into World War I were generally very poorly equipped, poorly clothed, poorly fed, often treated brutally by their officers, and, not surprisingly, they were often unable to defend themselves against the assaults of the German military.

At the same time, the vast majority of people inside the Russian Empire were experiencing ever greater austerity and suffering. Everything, and especially food, grew increasingly expensive and scarce. Over time, street demonstrations and riots became more and more frequent. By February of 1917, many ordinary Russians had reached the limits of their patience. A popular insurgency overthrew the tyrannical Russian Tsarist regime; a provisional “democratic” government was established and a Republic was to be created. At the same time local non-hierarchical organizations such as workplace and neighborhood councils (also known as soviets, the Russian word for councils) were established. The people began the process of learning how to take control of their own lives, and a social Revolution commenced.

As the war dragged on, more and more people began to demand that the Provisional government end Russian participation and bring the troops home. But, the Provisional government was under pressure from the rest of the Entente to stay in the war. General disillusionment with the new government’s inability to withdraw from the war and to adequately deal with domestic problems led to more unrest. In October the Bolshevik faction of the Russian social-democratic party (led by V.I. Lenin) took advantage of the situation to seize power in the name of the working-class and put an end to the provisional government’s tenure. The Russian state was declared to be a Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, based on the federation of local popular councils (or soviets). (In December 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—U.S.S.R., also known as the Soviet Union—was formed from the merger of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.)

Once the Bolsheviks seized the state apparatus, they slipped into the role of state rulers. The new government quickly evolved into a highly centralized authoritarian state under the dictatorship of the Bolshevik party. Then the Bolsheviks began to use their position as respected “successful revolutionaries” to spread their interpretations of the world situation to aspiring revolutionaries in other countries who wanted to follow their lead. (For more on the authoritarian ideology and policies of the Marxist-Leninist rulers of the Soviet state, see Iain McKay, Syndicalism, Marxist Myth and Anarchist Reality, Anarchist Writers blog, November 25, 2011;

The elites of the other states in the World War I Entente perceived the Bolshevik state as a direct threat to their internal security because the overthrow of the old regime and the beginnings of self-rule in Russia were providing inspiration for people in other parts of the world who desired the overthrow of the elites who ruled over them. Nevertheless, the Entente powers offered the Bolshevik government military and economic assistance if the Russian military were kept in the war. But the Bolsheviks realized that they could not keep the Russian military from disintegrating if it stayed in. To avoid the breakdown of authority and to formalize their status as the rulers of the Russian state, they decided to conclude a separate formal peace treaty with the German state. The other Entente state elites considered this to be proof of the untrustworthiness of the Bolshevik elite. So, after the Russian Soviet and German governments concluded their separate peace treaty, the U.S.., Japanese and, most significantly, the British government staged invasions of Russia in support of the counter-revolutionary troops fighting for the return of the old order. Although the foreign troops were relatively small in numbers, did not stay long and failed to unseat the Bolsheviks, these states helped to fuel a brutal civil war. (For more information, see Joe Licentia, Russia: Revolution, Counter-Revolution: An Anarcho-Communist Analysis of the Russian Revolution, Zabalaza Books, printable PDF is at

Under the circumstances, the Bolshevik leaders of the Russian state came to the conclusion that their main enemies were the governments of Britain, the U.S. and France, and those smaller states supported by them. This perspective persisted throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s, until 1934. Because social democrats, non-communist socialists and anarchists all became critics of Bolshevik rule, the Soviet government also judged them to be counterrevolutionary enemies.

Very many anarchists and other anti-authoritarians all over the world began by greeting the Russian revolution with great joy and hope. But, all too soon many began to feel unease and deep concern about the authoritarian takeover of the state and society by the Russian Bolshevik clique. By the early 1920s, many inside and outside Russia began speaking out against the Bolshevik government’s repression of urban and rural workers, peasants, and those in the military. (For one of many examples, see My Disillusionment in Russia by Emma Goldman; accessible at

Sylvia Pankhurst, a British advocate of women’s equality and a socialist, also began by enthusiastically greeting the Russian Revolution, and participating in the newly formed British Communist Party. But as she learned more about the experiences and treatment of left dissenters, including anarchists and socialists, she became disillusioned with the Bolsheviks’ rule. In July, 1923 she wrote that in Russia, “the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ has been used to justify the dictatorship of a party clique of officials over their own party members and over the people at large.” In May of 1924 she wrote that the Bolsheviks “pose now as the prophets of centralised efficiency, trustification, State control, and the discipline of the proletariat in the interests of increased production… the Russian workers remain wage slaves, and very poor ones, working, not from free will, but under compulsion of economic need, and kept in their subordinate position by… State coercion.” (See Mark Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism: the movement for workers’ councils in Britain, 1917-1945, St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1988 and online at Also see Communism And Its Tactics by Sylvia Pankhurst,

During the first decade and a half following the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power, the Soviet elites generally hoped that similar “communist” takeovers could be accomplished in the richer and more industrialized western countries. To help them along, they created an international organization known as the Communist International (also known as the Comintern or Third International). The Comintern was founded in Moscow in March 1919. At its Second Congress, in the summer of 1920, twenty-one conditions for admission were laid down as obligatory for all socialist/communist groups that wanted to be part of the organization. The Comintern was highly centralized and totally controlled by the Russian Bolshevik Party, which in return provided member organizations with prestige, and sometimes financial and even military assistance. With the help of this organization, Communist parties were formed throughout the world and were provided with strong assistance in developing ideological perspectives that centered on and prioritized protecting the Soviet Union, sometimes even at the cost of their own repression.

At the same time, the leaders of the Russian Soviet state began creating relationships with other nation-states designed to help them develop Russian industries while providing the maximum amount of protection from its enemies. Starting in 1926, the Soviet military secretly helped to build up the German military as a counter-force to the western “democratic” states, even as the Nazis were gaining influence and strength. In The Deadly Embrace: Hitler, Stalin and the Nazi-Soviet Pact 1939-1941 (W.W. Norton & Co.; New York and London, 1988, p. 15) Anthony Read and David Fisher note that the 1926 Friendship Treaty between Germany and the USSR was renewed in May, 1933, despite the accession to power of the Nazis, a political party with a well-established history of right-wing nationalism, bigotry and brutality.

As the Nazis proceeded to imprison and murder thousands of opponents, including Communists, along with social-democrats and anarchists, the Soviet government leaders persisted in their attempts to maintain the alliance. Even after the German Communist Party was brutally repressed in March of 1933, its Central Committee, in conformity with the leadership of the Soviet Union, passed a resolution in May, asserting that the Nazis’ brutal repression of the Social Democrats was unimportant. As late as the fall and winter of 1933, an article appeared in Rundschau, the German-language organ of the Comintern, asserting that, “the ruthless suppression of the Social Democratic organizations and press does not change anything in the fact that now as ever they are the chief social support of the dictatorship of capital.” (See Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, The American Communist Party, A critical history, Frederick A. Praeger, New York, 1962, p. 186.)

Over the next year, as the Nazis began preparing to expand the domination of the German state to the east, trade between the two nations began rapidly shrinking, and the German military stopped utilizing the bases it had been permitted to maintain in the USSR. (See Read and Fisher, p. 15.)

Nevertheless, inside Germany, Communist Party leaders and the representatives of the Comintern warned members to refrain from acting too militantly, because that might disturb relations between the Nazi and Soviet states, and bring about conflicts which would interfere with the Soviet state’s industrialization program. They were willing to try to maintain friendly economic relations with the Nazi government, and to continue some of the secret military cooperation between the two states for two years, throughout 1933 and 1934. Dedicated German rank-and-file Communist Party members were sacrificed to the authoritarian central focus on serving the needs of the Soviet state. All this was publicized by German refugees in Britain and the U.S. at the time, and has been well-documented since.

Even some historians sympathetic to the Soviet cause noted that during this period, both inside Germany and throughout the world, Communist leaders continued to concentrate on eliminating their Social Democratic and other independent left rivals, rather than concentrating on the Nazi menace. (For two prominent examples, see E. H. Carr, Twilight of the Comintern, 1930-1935, Pantheon Books, New York, 1982, and Allan Merson, Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany, Humanities Press International, Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1986.)

Only in 1934 did the Soviet Union’s elite change their policies with respect to Fascists and Nazis and begin focusing on them as the prime enemy. At the seventh congress of the Comintern in the summer of 1935, the organization officially directed Communist parties throughout the world to stop attacking socialists, social-democrats and left liberals, and join in broad, popular anti-fascist alliances and United Front coalitions with them to resist fascism and Nazism. (See E. H. Carr, The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War, Pantheon Books; NY, 1984, p. 1.)

Between 1934 and 1938 the government of the Soviet Union made efforts to gain the support of the Western states against the German Nazi state. As part of this effort, the Soviet elite tried to convince the Western “democracies” that they were no longer working to destabilize the internal order of other states or colonies of states by supporting revolutionary movements. Instead, directly through their dealings with other national governments, and indirectly through the Comintern, the Soviet government proclaimed the value of bourgeois democracies as allies against Fascism and Nazism.

So, it should come as no surprise that in the summer of 1936, the Spanish Communist Party, following the lead of the Comintern and the Soviet government, proclaimed support for the Spanish Republican government (a bourgeois parliamentary democracy) as against the unfolding social revolution. They took the position that the time was not yet ripe for a social revolution in Spain because the country needed to more fully experience the development of bourgeois “democracy.” They were also hoping that this position would encourage the support of the Western states. The Spanish Communist Party therefore openly opposed the revolutionary activities of the anarchists and others as “premature”, and instead supported strengthening the powers of the Spanish Republican government, despite the fact that it was that very government which had tried negotiating a compromise with the right-wing military rebels led by Franco. (See Murray Bookchin, After Fifty Years: The Spanish Civil War in New Politics, vol. 1 no. 1, Summer 1986, pp 172-192, now published and online in: Murray Bookchin, To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936, Chapter 2: After Fifty Years: The Spanish Civil War

The Soviet elite were also unwilling to support the revolution in Spain because of their concerns about the autonomous character of the popular insurgency. In the summer of 1936, the Spanish Communist Party was a small group with little influence, while the anarchists and socialists had long histories and large organizations. But, When the Soviet government began providing the Republican government with weapons, military officers and political advisers, in exchange for the Spanish government gold reserves being sent to Moscow, Soviet influence increased in Spanish government circles. (See Bookchin, After Fifty Years…)

Sadly, this increased influence enabled the Soviet government, through both the Spanish Communist Party and the Comintern representatives in Spain, to undertake direct attacks on the anarchist, socialist and other autonomous insurgents. The Comintern’s secret police arrested and assassinated known anarchists, independent-minded socialists and others who opposed their growing influence. (See Carr, The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War, p 36; Carr recognized that the Communist activities in Spain actually weakened the republic’s ability to fight the military rebels.) A number of other books and articles also record that the Spanish Communist Party, in conjunction with the Comintern, had its own private prisons, and engaged in political repression from 1936 through 1939 against both the other left organizations and insurgent workers. (See Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia; Vernon Richards’ Lessons of the Spanish Revolution; and Harvey Klehr et al, The Secret World of American Communism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, among others.)

Russell Blackwell, the author of the eighth article in this pamphlet (The Spanish Revolution Revisited), also wrote on this topic. Blackwell arrived in Spain in October 1936, and was imprisoned by the Soviet secret police (OGPU) in 1938 for nine and a half months because of his association with the dissident communist group, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, P.O.U.M.) and with the Spanish Anarchist movement.

In 1939, after the Spanish Republic was crushed by the right-wing military rebels, the opportunistic Soviet government and Comintern leaders again changed their strategy. As earlier, their interest was in gaining the greatest benefit for the Soviet state, even if it was at the expense of all of the oppressed peoples they claimed to be dedicated to defending. This time, they decided that it would be temporarily advantageous for the Soviet Union to cooperate with the Nazi state, in what was popularly known as the Stalin-Hitler Pact. From August 1939 to June 1941 the two governments divided Eastern Europe into spheres of domination. In Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, New York, 2010), Timothy Snyder describes the area the two states divided, including what is now Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus, and the edge of western Russia. Many towns and villages were occupied by both German and Soviet troops, one after the other. Not surprisingly, the inhabitants of this region experienced horrendous numbers of deaths and injuries, and immense physical destruction.

Despite Soviet government leaders’ previous criticisms of Fascists and Nazis, for the twenty-one months their non-aggression pact lasted, those who spoke for Communist parties throughout the world took positions basically ignoring or downplaying repression of working class movements, and ongoing brutality practiced by the Nazi and Fascist states against the people under their control. In “Who Are the War Criminals?” (1943, cited above), George Orwell noted that, on the whole, the intellectuals of the left defended the Russo-German Pact as realistic, like Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. (For more on this subject see Julius Gould, Comrade Speaks to Comrade in Times Literary Supplement: London, March 8, 1991, page 21.)

In the US, the leader of the Communist Party, Earl Browder asserted that every nation should sign a non-aggression pact with the USSR and that the Russo-German pact was Stalin’s “master stroke” for peace.” The party’s official newspaper, The Daily Worker asserted that “… By compelling Germany to sign a non-aggression pact the Soviet Union tremendously limited the direction of Nazi war aims…” (See Howe and Coser, p. 387.)

As time went on, it became more and more evident, at least to all those who wished to recognize reality, that the Soviet state rulers and the Communist parties around the world which followed their lead, did not actually act for or on behalf of the oppressed working class anywhere. On the contrary, in reality they sabotaged working class possibilities.

The International Fighters who Went to Spain

As soon as the news of the July 1936 resistance to the military coup reached the outside world, thousands of anarchists, socialists and other freedom-loving people from all over the world began arriving in Spain to help. It is possible to read about their experiences in books and articles in a number of languages, including an increasing number in English. These include Umberto Marzocchi’s Remembering Spain: Italian Anarchist Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, Expanded second edition, Translated by Paul Sharkey (Kate Sharpley Library), and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. These dedicated people worked in the various civilian collective endeavors and many directly joined the popular militias formed by the Spanish anarchists and socialists in response to the attempted military coup. Some who were sympathetic to the anarchist cause fought with the popular militia units on the Aragon front, in the Sacco and Vanzetti Column. Others sympathetic to socialists and anarchists joined the Eugene V. Debs Unit. Others simply joined the Spanish columns wherever they could.

But, sadly, in English speaking countries, the history of the anarchists and other anti-authoritarians’ role in the Spanish events has been greatly overshadowed or largely ignored. This is due to the predominance, until very recently, of historians and other narrators who have too much sympathy with one or another of the states involved. They have generally presented their side as the heroes, the opposing side as the villains, the Spanish anarchists as simply irrelevant or dangerous disrupters, and the social revolution as a mirage.

Those with rightist and centrist sympathies focus on the power plays of the Soviet Union and the Communists in Spain, while presenting the right-wing military led by Franco simply as benign nationalists and the western “democratic” states as passive bystanders. On the other hand, left-liberals and those with Marxist-Leninist sympathies present the Soviet Union and the Comintern as the heroic supporters of the Spanish popular struggle. This has meant that much of the important anti-authoritarian experience has been overlooked or presented in highly distorted ways.

During the 1930s, many of the most independent-minded radicals in the English speaking world kept up with the events in Spain by reading I.W.W. publications such as the One Big Union Monthly, as well as the various anarchist publications which were available. The I.W.W.’s history of democratic rank and file self-governance, along with its established opposition to exploiters and bureaucrats, laid the groundwork for understanding the social and political struggles between the authoritarian and anti-authoritarian tendencies that were occurring in Spain.

Two decades earlier, many Wobblies had been initially enthusiastic about the 1917 Russian Revolution. They had great hopes for the Communist parties that were formed in the U.S. and other parts of the world. But, because of the Communists’ dominating and manipulative behaviors, most Wobblies soon came to mistrust and distance themselves from the rulers in the Soviet Union and the Communist parties in other countries, including the United States.

In 1921, after much discussion among the membership, the I.W.W. rejected affiliation with the Soviet Union-controlled Red Trade Union International, because that organization demanded the prerogative of deciding what policies the affiliated organizations could adopt. This was totally counter to the I.W.W.’s principle of rank-and-file democratic decision-making. In the following years, even as some Wobblies identified with the Communist Party of the U.S.A., the I.W.W. as an organization continued to maintain an independent critical stance toward the Soviet Union and Communist parties. The One Big Union Monthly articles about the Spanish situation republished here reflect this critical understanding of the danger posed by the authoritarian left, including the Communist parties of the world and the government of the Soviet Union.

Many North Americans are familiar with the stories of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (actually a battalion), part of the International Brigades. However, it is generally less well-known that the International Brigades were organized and supported by the Soviet Union and the Comintern. While we do not wish to discount the bravery or sincerity of the individuals who volunteered as part of the Lincoln Brigade, we need to note that this organization represents only a small and highly partisan part of the story. The International Brigades did not begin arriving in Spain until the winter of 1936 through 1937. The Lincoln Brigade volunteers arrived in Spain several months after the Spanish resistance to the right-wing military takeover began, and after the arrival of many other volunteers from abroad.

In addition, the daily experiences of the Lincoln brigade participants generally differed significantly from both those of Spanish and non-Spanish fighters in the popular militias. Jason Gurney, in Crusade in Spain (Faber & Faber, Ltd., London, 1974), who critically discusses the International Brigades from the point of view of the British volunteers, notes that the International Brigades claimed to be a “people’s army.” Nevertheless, it more closely resembled a professional military because of its openly hierarchical, authoritarian military officer structure. Gurney gives many examples of participants’ reports of officers demanding absolute obedience and openly resenting questions from the ranks. Gurney also notes that the officers at company and platoon level were chosen for their political views and connections. Only Communist Party members were trusted to hold senior positions (pp. 64-65, 72).

Cecil Eby in Between the Bullet and the Lie: American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, etc., 1969) tells of similar experiences. He found that some volunteers had been affiliated with non-Communist socialist or anarchist organizations, such as the Wobblies, and others were not affiliated with any group. However, they generally reported that the Lincoln Brigade, as part of the International Brigades, was always under the management of the Communists.

The International Brigades also had political commissars in each battalion, to manage the ranks’ political education. These political commissars were particularly resented by many volunteers from the Western countries, such as those from the U.S. and Britain, who felt that they served only to punish dissenters and provide indoctrination, rather than offering the troops real information and opportunities for discussion of important issues and problems (Eby, pp. 57-67 and note 13).

For additional documentation of the Comintern control of the International Brigades, including the Lincoln Brigade, see Klehr et al, cited above.

The Lincolns’ limited perspective has led to their consistent ignoring or downplaying of the roles of both the anarchists and non-Communist socialists who went to Spain to fight. They also choose to only memorialize the civil war while discounting the social revolution. This is because those who continue to identify as Lincoln Brigade members and spokespeople, even after the demise of the Soviet state, apparently still believe that only those who agreed with the Communist position were really helping the Spanish people in their fight to defeat the Fascists.

But, to present the conflict in Spain during the late 1930s simply as a confrontation between fascism and democracy is a mystification which both obscures the capitalist basis of the “democracy” being defended (then and now) and denies the reality of the existence of a real social revolution in Spain in 1936 through 1939.

However, very many observers and participants have directly challenged this perspective based on their own experiences.

Russell Blackwell, author of The Spanish Revolution Revisited, began his political life as a member of the Young Communist League in 1924. He later became disillusioned with the mainstream Communist positions and became a Trotskyist. As he explains, his experiences in Spain led him to become disillusioned with all authoritarian communisms and to become a participant in the anarcho-syndicalist movement.

The final article reprinted here (You Experienced the War, I Experienced the Revolution!) presents the perspective of Federico Arcos, who was born in Spain, and was 16 years old on July 18, 1936, the day before the revolution began. He grew up as part of the community of anarchists in Barcelona. When the revolution started, Arcos enthusiastically joined in. As an active participant in the anti-authoritarian struggle, he directly experienced the revolution.

After the victory of Franco’s forces, Arcos fled into exile in France. Then he returned to Spain to join the underground struggle, was captured and imprisoned, then conscripted into military service in Morocco. Afterwards, he joined the underground resistance against the Fascists in the Pyrenees. Eventually Arcos came to North America, where he remains involved in the anarchist movement to this day, helping us to critically evaluate our history and keep the connection between the insurgencies of the past and our present struggles.