Life behind the barricades

The Spanish Revolution took place during a raging civil war. During a few years in the 1930 the anarchists realized their vision of a just and free society.

Anarchism in Spain has a long history and deep popular roots. The first attempt to formulate an anarchist theory were scattered and centered around the individual. It was in 1868 when Giuseppe Fanelli, a close associate and friend of the famous anarchist Michail Bakunin [1], arrived to Spain that anarchism started to seriously spread. Fanelli’s mission was to establish a Spanish section of the newly formed International. [2] Despite the difficulties with the language, Fanelli managed to get followers among young workers and radical republicans in the creation of the section.

In time, the latter dropped of and anarchism got rooted mostly among workers and peasants. Studious agitation, study circles, schools of their own and newspapers helped spread anarchism and hundreds of anarchist groups were formed. The success of anarchism in Spain most likely also depended on the great poverty and backwardness in the country, and because the population felt a strong need to change their situation. 


At the end of the nineteenth-century anarchists around Europe talked about ”propaganda by the deed”. [3] The idea was to revenge the death’s of workers who had been killed in violent strikes through various assaults, and through this, also provoke a revolution to take place. This was also practiced by the Spanish anarchists. The result was mass-arrests and arbitrary executions of revolutionary workers and peasants. Instead of uniting the workers movement, it got split up into two camps, where the majority wanted to prioritize the struggle for improvements in the everyday life and at the workplace ahead of the revolution. The anarchist movement also divided itself in revolutionary and reformist directions. But the anarchists were generally suspicious towards bigger organizations and only a small number of anarchists choose to join the unions.

In the beginning of the twentieth-century many anarchists changed their opinion in the matter. The need to organize was great among the workers. At the same time a new method for struggle was introduced from France - syndicalism. It’s rejection of party politics and faith in local self-management attracted the anarchists. And so in 1910, the syndicalist union CNT, Confederation Nacional de Trabajo was founded. The socialist party also had a union, UGT, Union General de Trabajadores. These two unions were at the time the two biggest unions in Spain. In the beginning the relations were good and during a period there were talks about fusing the two unions together. But the fact that UGT believed in party politics while CNT believed in direct action contributed to the fusion never happening. In 1920, when CNT in rejected a collaboration with the Soviet Union and gave the dictatorship a sharp critique a deep crack was created between CNT and the Soviet Union.

During the years in the 1920s the class friction intensified in Spain. Employers and police hired assassin thugs, pistoleros, to murder active CNT-members. [4] Bombings were set up by the authority in order to once more fill the prisons with revolutionary workers and peasants. In response, militant groups from the CNT organized themselves in order to defend themselves and revenge the ones who they believed were responsible.

Though the majority of the CNT-membership had an basic anarchist view, some anarchists felt it was not enough. In 1927 they founded the Iberian Anarchist Federation, FAI. In addition to being a forum for anarchists, its purpose was to uphold and protect the libertarian principles the CNT was once founded upon. From a meeting in 1936 it was reported that the FAI had about 260 affiliated groups throughout the country. There were also many other active anarchist groups, for example the youth organization Juventuves Libertarios, Libertarian Youth, and the women organization Mujeres Libres, Free Women. 


The Spanish republic was young and had in a short period of time swung back and forth between right wing and left wing governments. This of course affected the CNT, who sometimes were legal and other times illegal and had to operate clandestine underground. The situation in Europe was tense. The Nazis had taken power in Germany and the Fascists in Italy. Both did what they could to suppress their revolutionary working class. In 1933 a united right wing won the elections. Fascist youth organizations started and attacked the union halls, while the police looked the other way. Open gunfights between militant workers and fascists also occurred. So called yellow unions was founded and acted as scabs. These unions attracted the conservative and religious part of the working class. On the eve of the election 1936, the parliamentarian left united in a Popular Front. It consisted mostly of reformist but also some more radical elements. Nonetheless the anarchists were despised by the Popular Front. 


A majority of the extreme right had lost faith in parliamentarianism. They planned to stage a coup d’etat if the left would win the election of 1936. The ones who planned it were mostly generals from the Spanish army, but also men from the upper class, businessmen, politicians and clergy. Ideologically they represented everything from pure fascists, nationalists and monarchist to conservative christians and capitalists. What united them was their disappointment with the republic and fear that the working class would make a revolution. One of the key figures were General Fransisco Franco (1892-1973) a nationalist infamous for his cruelty.

And so the Popular Front won the elections. The extreme right reacted by staging their coup d’etat on the 19th of July 1936. But the fascists had not anticipated the resistance that would follow. Through comrades who worked for the fascists for example as maids, the anarchist’s had gained information about the planned coup ahead of time. CNT and FAI organized defense groups within the different syndicates and asked the government for weapons but did not receive any. The government was afraid of arming their revolutionary working class and did not take the fascist coup seriously.

Instead the anarchists attacked military barracks and gained some arms that way. The workers took what they could find and went out in the streets and confronted the fascists. The fascist uprising was crushed here and there in more or less bloody fights. In the areas where the fascist where victorious they immediately started to murder their political opponents. Many workers and peasants then fled over to the areas where the left wing revolutionaries had won. In many places, Catalonia in particular, the anarchists were in majority. The regional government of Catalonia had been less passive towards the fascist threat compare to the national government in Madrid. But the victory in the streets were foremost thanks to the anarchists.

They now seized the moment to put their ideals into practice. While the civil war broke loose in the country, a new libertarian society began to build up. 


In many cases the workers found themselves without bosses and factory leaders as they had either fled or sided with the fascists. They now had to manage the production and get the society to operate smoothly without bosses and other higher office-holders. In Barcelona, the anarchist stronghold, they proclaimed a revolution after a bloody resistances fight against the fascists. The first thing they did was overlooking the supply and distribution of food and health care of the sick and elderly. Through CNT:s different foodstuff-, healthcare-, and restaurant syndicates a foodstuff committee was organized that was in charge of feeding the workers and the militia soldiers of the civil war. The CNT and the FAI (who had grown closer to each other and where now jointly called CNT-FAI) did not take advantage of their great upper hand as an organization in Catalonia. Instead they choose to collaborate with other antifascist organizations and allowed them to participate in committees organized by the CNT-FAI. The initiative came directly from the rank and file workers, not from above.

So what did it mean when they collectivized e.g a factory or a company? At the different workplaces taken over a general pattern occurred; Representatives for each and every work task, from cleaners to conductors, were elected by their fellow workers. When it wasn’t enough time the companies union club was elected as representatives. It’s prior function had been to study how the company operated. The representatives answered to the highest decision making organ, the asamblean, which included everyone working at a workplace. In some cases a representative from the official government was installed, mostly just for appearance’s sake. 


The CNT improved the workplace safety and environment in most workplaces, as well as raising the salary, establishing sick pay and holiday pay. This was financed with the money who earlier went to the bosses and company board member’s high salaries. The bosses and board members who had not sided with the fascists had to agree to becoming regular workers, with the same terms and salaries as them. Were it was possible the working day hours were often shorten down to 40 hours per week even if the CNT, on principle, voted for 36 hours a week. But since thousands of workers had gone to the front to fight the fascists they had to work more. In order to get the costs down, all middle hands and wholesalers were abolished and the warehousing firms was collectivized. The foodstuff committee were the only buyer who provided the retailers with products. The retailers were obligated to declare their merchandise inventory. The employees were involved in making sure that no cheating took place.

Furthermore, great rationalizations was being made as well. Factories and smaller workshops that were ineffective or unhygienic was shut down in order to concentrate the production in the most suitable factories that produced just as much as before. An example is the dairy plants, who in Barcelona were rationalized down from 49 to 9. These were still able to provide the city with dairy products. A problem the bakers faced despite all this were that there was not enough bread grain. It was found in the region Extremadura which was now in the hands of the fascists. With help from increasing export they finally were able to import these products. A similar problem also faced the textile workers. They made up for almost 40 percent of the workers in Catalonia. Wool and linen were also mostly found in Extremadura, but even with access to it, it would not have been enough, as they earlier had imported these products from abroad. Another problem they got in connection with the revolution was that it was hard to export the products they produced. Products could get confiscated in other countries customs by the factories former owners. As a result they had to carry on in half of the capacity or completely shut down the production. This was an extra challenge for CNT who had claimed responsibility for supporting their unemployed members.

Later in the war when the official government in Madrid organized a popular army the textile production became easier. Among other things new material was created through research, e.g from hemp. On the contrary, a branch that benefited from the war was the car- and technique industry, as their knowledge was needed and appreciated. They rearranged the production in order to provide the militias with weapons, grenades and armor-clad trucks.

The public transport was one of the first public services that was taken over by the workers. In addition to CNT, the UGT also took part in this process. The two unions began collaborate once more. The company in charge of the public transport were Tranvías, Metro y Autobuses and consisted of three branches. The CNT and the UGT decided to organize these parts separately but still coordinated.

Despite a raise in wages from 40 up 100 percent for the ones with the lowest wages and 10 to 20 percent for the ones with higher wages, they managed to bring down the travel costs considerably. They also managed to hand out free cards to children and work - and combat injured individuals. Only a few days after the fascist uprising the overtaking of public service was ready and everything went on like normal. Trams, taxi cars and busses was now painted in red and black, the colors of the CNT. Other parts of the city that underwent collectivization was the tele- and communication networks, and the water-, gas- and electricity services. The latter gives us an example of something that was imbued in the new society order as a whole - revolutionary discipline. This meant that one does not obey simply for the sake of obeying, but because one understands the justification of the decree. When the fascist uprising took place there was a ongoing strike within the water- and electricity services. On the 26 of June a newsletter about the overtaking of the services was sent out, as well as a call which said that everyone who did not participate in the war in any of the worker militias, or in some other way were prevented to get to their work the next day in regular time should do so. And they did. 


By tradition, the anarchism in the rural areas was oriented around autonomy. Peasants and campesinos who had been exploited hard by powerful landowners for a minimal compensation, wanted to be self supporting. When the fascist threat in a village had been taken care of, the CNT would call for a meeting were they propagated for all the advantages with collectivization. After the locals were given a days time for consideration. The day after they were to apply for the collective and become a collectivist, or remain outside the collective and become a individualist. The first-named meant that they gave away all their money, tools and means of production to the collective. The most personal things they naturally got to keep and they were also guaranteed a small piece of garden plot to cultivate, fowls and a household pig. As a individualist you stood outside of all this, and was given just enough land and livestock the family could cultivate and manage. Though not as much so they would need help from the outside since the wage slavery was to be abolished.

Often, the villages had a decree stating that at a proven act of sabotage from the individualists side, the accused would be punished as a counter-revolutionary in accordance with what the revolutionary popular court in the village deemed proper. Rationalization also took place in the rural areas, both within the farming and the small scale industries the local craftsmen operated. Before the revolution, large cultivable land plots were left untouched, as they were owned by rich landlords. These spaces were now used and in places the cultivated areas increased up to 50 percent. The collaboration which the collectivization meant bore fruit of smart solutions. In the village of Mas de las Matas one solution was, when the naturally irrigated areas were cultivated, they cultivated the areas were the goats had been grazing before, the goats in turn were moved up higher in the mountains were they could graze. The income the collectivization gave was invested in the latest modern farming tools and machines. In villages where it was possible the agriculture were industrialized. 


The daily work was divided among voluntary assembled work teams who democratically elected one representative for the revolutionary committee in the village. In the beginning the committee had a meeting every evening to plan the work of the next day. As everything eventually got a nice flow the need for having a meeting became smaller. The members of the committee divided their time in half between working with agriculture and administrative work. In larger villages, or small communities, it happen that a person had to work with this as a full time job. It meant no privileges and if the collective lost their faith in their representative, this person could be suspended directly. The work ethics where high. The collective decisions were deeply respected. The peasants were determined to show the outside world that one could managed themselves better without landlords. The hard work had before been vital, and in many places it was the norm. Despite the rationalization, poverty was still great in some villages. In other villages were the soil were naturally easy to cultivate, the result of the new machines resulted in the inhabitants being able work a little bit less. They had the opportunity to create small welfare societies.

In spite of the autonomy of the villages collaborations did take place. Water was a common vital factor for farming. They organized a water-court that was suppose make sure the precious water got divided somewhat fair enough between the villages. Disputes often arose, but the CNT-FAI argued that in time this egotistical behavior would disappear. They also helped each other out with the day to day work. If one village finished their work earlier than the neighboring village, they went over and helped the other village with the last work. The villages were divided into large municipals, comercas. In Aragonia 600 villages made up twelve of these. 

When the CNT later on wanted to organize these federations on a regional level, the villagers became worried that this would lead to bureaucracy. But at a congress in the beginning of 1937 the proposition won and a regional committee was elected. It simplified the economy, as the comercas hade before been dealing with Catalonia and Valencia without any knowledge about the other villages needs. They were now able to deal with this more rationally and help each other. The more prosperous villages helped the poor. In the larger villages and smaller rural communities, it often existed a small scale industry, and commerce with artisans of different variety. This was also rationalized. In the village of Alcorisa with 4000 inhabitants there was one tailor sweat shop, one carpentry, one collective smithy, one road carrier, a modern furnished barbershop and so on, instead of many competing. Residency was viewed as public service and the bricklayer union did reparations of houses for free. 


How to abolish the wage slavery had been discussed in the anarchist press long before the outbreak of the revolution. Many different alternatives was put into test such as production books and coupons. The production book was a little booklet were they recorded what they were entitled to in relation to how much they had been working. They collected the products from the collective shop. Larger villages had more than one collective shop. Although the women got less than the men. This has later been discussed, and an explanation is that it was domestic working women who got paid less, while women working with the same job as the men got equal pay as them. Children also got a certain amount support, that got smaller the more children there were. It was thought that the costs for each person were lower if the family was big. Sick and elderly also got a book. Coupons were tested in the village of Esplus with 1100 inhabitants. The coupons was handed out once a week and circulated around in the local market until the next distribution a week later. Some villages tried to introduce pure communism right away - ”from each and everyone according to ability, to each and everyone according to need.”

Such a village was the mentioned Alcorisa. An administrative committee got organized where the collectivist turned to ask for what they needed and were directed where to go to get their products. As the war made the resources scarce they soon had to ration the products. It also became hard to tend to everyones different desires, so then they introduced a sort of coin which was used for purchase of products such as clothes, shoes, coffee, kitchen stuff and tobacco. Each person were guaranteed a certain ranson e.g. 100 gram meat and 40 gram dried beans per day. Many anarchist thought this was too inhibiting and stiff. The idea to give the products points was then tried instead. A man got 450 points, a woman 362, children (and unmarried!) 167 points. They then used their points on the products they enjoyed, for example 100 gram meat for 5 points or 500 gram bread for 4 points. The system was also used consumption of clothes, shoes and kitchen stuff. 


Despite all energy the hard work took the social life was very highly valued and a lot of energy was put into entertain it. It was free to visit the cinema and cafés (with limited access). Free schools, libraries and health care was set up, often in abandoned houses, monasteries and church-buildings. In almost every village a cultural center was set up were you went after work to play theater, socialize and have fun. The class differences was gone and replaced by a brotherly and sisterly sense of community. Felix Carrasquer who lived in Alcorisa, tells us in the book ”Herre i sitt eget hus” (Master In Your Own House) [5] that this created an enormous joy and that they went ”singing to work and arrived back singing, during the evening it was a continuous joy fest in the villages, the streets, yes everywhere”. But tension did exist between those who stood outside the collective and those who were a part of it. The presence of armed militia men and women and a suspiciousness towards the individualists contributed ot this. But there were actually also anarchists who choose not to join the collectives. Unfortunately there is a lack of documentation of their lives. 


At the time of the coup d’eta in 1936 the fascists had support from Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. The rest of Europe had on the other hand signed an agreement where they promised not to aid or get involved with the war in Spain. This made it hard for the republic to get weapons to defend themselves with against the fascists. Already during the war, the republic Popular front, who never liked the anarchists, went on attacking the collectives. They were supported by the USSR who soon got more and more political influence. Big parts of the middle class joined the before almost insignificant communist party PSCU, that now almost poured over with new members. 

The Popular Front had made sure even before the influence of the USSR to undermine the anarchists weapon arsenal by giving them weapons in bad conditions and far too few of them. They did not dare to risk the anarchist becomming military superior as they already were superior in numbers. Why the USSR who controlled the PSCU acted like this can simply be explained like this; Stalin was worried about an attack from Germany and wanted to make sure he had the backing from the West. This support demanded that the USSR started to adjust their economical politics after capitalism. Moreover the anarchists were about to show the world once and for all that the authoritan marxism the USSR supported itself on was unnecessary. 

The USSR arms that came in did therefore not end up in the front where it became worse. Instead they ended up with communist bands who with terror, threat of violence and arrests of the revolutionary committees made some people scared and fled the collectives. But these collectives elected new committee members and continued their work until the end of the war. On 1 april in 1939 the fascists stood as the winners of the war and the left revolutionaries that did not make it to the French borders in time fell victim of fascism. In Barcelona alone about 500 opponents got executed every day during the first week after the end of the war. [6]


Forty years of dictatorship followed under General Fransisco Franco. During this period daily raids was made in the homes people suspected of possessing documents or books that vittnessed about the days of anarchism in Spain. Possession of this meant hard and long prison punishments, sometimes even death. But the fascist never managed to exterminate the Spanish anarchism. CNT-FAI continued their work underground and in exile during the dictatorship. The majority of the surviving militants and experienced the revolution have as long as they’ve been able traveled around the world to tell the story of the hushed down Spanish revolution. 

During the 1960- and 1970 ths, this surviving antiauthoritarian tendency took shape of large general strikes. All of it reached its peak on the 1st of January 1975. In the city of Vitora, almost all of the workers and their families had been on strike for over two months, and they then took over the city. At a meeting in towns biggest church on the 8th of March, when they wanted to gather the whole working class, the police went in and beated up people. After an order to shoot to kill five workers died, and 120 got injured. 

Later the same year General Franco died. Since then Spains has functioned as a monarchy led by the head of government. CNT is legal today, although with much less members than during the 1920ths and -30ths. The anarchistic tradition is still strong in certain parts of the country. There still exists villages that are anarchistically organized. One of them is Ruesta, where swedish SAC use to arrange study tours for their members each year.​


1)  Michail Bakunin is considered the father of modern anarchism. He and his followers fought against Karl Marx and the authoritarian socialists for domination in the First International. Bakunin represented a libertarian, decentralized free socialism while Marx represented a centralized authoritarian socialism.

2)  Bakunin had written a program denouncing the idea of a political party and parliamentarianism as a mean of the liberation of the working class. Instead he proposed direct action and workers liberating themselves through their own unions, mutual aid and resistance societies. 

Both Bakunin and Fanelli were convinced that Bakunin’s program wich resonated well with a majority of the International and would be accepted within the International, so Fanelli used that program as a blueprint for the establishment of the Spanish section. 

However the program was later voted down in favor for Marx’s program since Marx made sure the voting would take place in England where he had the most support and during a period where many anarchists workers and their sections was under repression and was not able to participate in the voting.

3)  The were three major themes of assaults:

Economic; where rich people, businesses or banks where robbed and the money used for propaganda.


Political terror meant attacking and killing enemies of the working class, like a cruel boss, or someone responsible for the shooting and killing of striking workers, or bombing police stations or courthouses for arresting and sentencing comrades to death, hard work or exile etc. 

Lastly, Motiveless terror; which was simply design to spread terror among the middle and upperclass through bombings in places where they used hang out. The latter was particularly strong in Russia. 

Important to remember is that this form of revolutionary struggle was not only carried out by anarchists but by radical revolutionist of many different socialist schools and also liberal revolutionist.

4)  The police invented false plots and staged their own bombings as well in order to crush the revolutionary workers movements. One plot was the La Mano Negra (The Black Hand) which was based on a couple of murders who took place which was then blamed on an anarchist conspiracy resulting in the execution of several anarchist with only flimsy “evidence” to back it up. 

“The law of Escape” got passed, where the police got the right to shoot a person trying to escape an arrest. In reality the police would arrest a person or group of militants, take them to a deserted place then tell them they where set free, and when they started to go away shoot them in the back. Or just start shooting at them to make them run and shoot them in the back. 

The absolute worst atrocity comitted by the State and The Catholic Church was the infamous Montjuich Inquisition where hundreds of militants where tortured, made running naked without water until they collapsed while being whipped, some had they eyes burned out or their tongue cut off (for refusing to beg god for forgiveness) before being shot. This drew a lot of international attention and protests.

5)  "Herre i sitt eget hus - om självförvaltningen i Spanien och Portugal" (Master in your own house - about the self-management in Spain and Portugal) is a book published by the swedish Syndicalist bookpublishing company Federativ Förlag. It contains a number of texts written by participants in the revolution. The quote is taken from Felix Carrasquer's pamphlet "Jordbrukskollektiven i Aragonien" (The agricultural collectives in Aragon) in this book.

6) This includes not just the anarchists, but everyone who actively had fought against the fascists. Although what did happen to the anarchist movement have in the later years been called a holocaust, see "The Spanish Holocaust - Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth Century Spain", by Paul Preston who also wrote "The Spanish Civil War)