Gerald Brenan

The Anarchists in the Spanish civil war




With the Spanish civil war (1936-1939) the idea, or better the illusion, that there are revolutionary liberating ideologies, anarchism included, got the final blow. Trying to impose freedom on everybody is equivalent to make everybody the slave of an ideology and of the leading exponents of that ideology. Nothing more away from freedom, personal responsibility, and autonomous development.

Source: Gerald Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth, Chapter VIII, 1943



The Anarchists stood for a system of collectivization for agricultural workers which was well suited to conditions in Andalusia. But the greater part of Andalusia fell at once into the Nationalists’ hands and when the Anarchists of the large industrial towns attempted to impose collectivisation upon Catalan peasants and Valencian rice growers, they met opposition. The peasants, looking round for someone who would defend them against this unwanted revolution found their champion in the Communists.

And what had sixty years of Anarchist leadership brought to the workers? In the country districts, in spite of all the strikes and insurrections, it had achieved practically nothing. Whether agriculture was booming or slumping, the standard of living of the agricultural labourers in the south of Spain remained practically the same from 1870 to 1936. The small peasants – those that had survived the bad years - were only better off because markets had improved. In the industrial towns, on the other hand, it had led to a great increase of wages. But so, with much less drum-beating and agitation, did Socialism. In this respect there was nothing to choose between them.

As to its revolutionary achievements, they cannot be summed up so easily. Whilst Anarcho-Syndicalism had, as Maurin remarked, shown itself incomparably more effective than Socialism in creating a revolutionary feeling and situation among the Spanish workers, it lacked the necessary qualities for carrying a revolution out. It expressed admirably the uncompromising resistance of Spanish workmen and peasants to the conditions that capitalist society imposed on them: it provided (on a small scale) wonderful examples of solidarity, of devotion to an ideal and of revolutionary fervour: its leaders were almost the only real revolutionaries left in Europe - and yet its organization and its principles were such that it was condemned for ever to the role of Sisyphus. Even if a social revolution had by some means or other broken out, it would not have been a party that sought, as the Anarchists did, destroy political power, but one which seized and used it, that would have come out on top. Thus while Anarcho-Syndicalism was extremely effective in harassing Mild parliamentary governments, while the guerrilla warfare it maintained with the Second Republic did a great deal to discredit it and bring it down, while by weakening and undermining the Socialist party in power, it finally drove it into revolutionary channels - at bottom, taken by itself alone all its revolutionary airs were but play-acting and childishness. When the  despised C.G.T. rose at Oviedo in 1934 they shook the whole of Spain. The Anarcho-Syndicalists, through their spirit, their organization, their natural contrariness, were incapable of making a wide and concerted effort of this sort. Though they might frighten the more timid among the bourgeoisie, no government ever regarded them, in spite of their huge numbers, which mounted in times of excitement to a million or a million and a half, as anything more than a problem for the provincial governor and the police.

This might seem to exhaust the subject of Spanish Anarchism. Ineffectual as a revolutionary force, only moderately successful in improving the conditions of the workers, it ha dogged and hampered every government, good or bad, well-intentioned or the reverse, that has existed in Spain. By playing always for the highest stakes, it has necessarily proved on many occasions the friend of reaction. But that cannot alter the fact that it has expressed something far more seated that Socialism or Liberalism in the minds of the Spanish poor and that it has had for this reason a moral influence that will not easily be brushed away. It is this aspect of anarchism – the moral and not the political – that must now be considered.

When one seeks to penetrate into the real meaning of the Spanish Anarchist movement one is struck, I think, by two main aspects that in practice fuse into one. There is first of all its strongly idealistic and moral-religious character. These anarchists are a set of men who are attempting to put into practice their utopia (which is severe and almost ascetic like the old Jewish-Christian utopia) at once, and, what is significant, by force. Secondly, they are Spanish villagers and workmen who are trying, though without being consciously aware of it, to reconstruct the primitive agrarian conditions (in this case the collectivist commune) that once prevailed in many parts of Spain and to recover the equality and leisure, and above all the dignity, that, to a greater or lesser extent, they enjoyed in previous centuries. That is to say, Spanish Anarchism has, like Carlism [a traditionalist, royalist political movement], its atavistic side: in a certain measure it is an expression of nostalgia for the past and an attitude of resistance to the slavery which the modern capitalist structure of society and the strain of factory life bring with them.

I will take first the moral-religious aspect. One might From this point of view describe anarchism as the Spanish Protestant  (i.e. protesting) heresy from which the Inquisition in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saved Spain. However violent these anarchists may be (and Cromwell's Independents were violent too) they speak the same language of love of liberty, of dependence upon the inner light that Englishmen once used to do. And they are uncompromising moralists. Every action is for them either right or wrong; they admit no such thing as expediency. When Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell explained to his Anarchist friends at Malaga that their killings had made a Bad impression in England which would perhaps affect The question of getting arms for the Republic - ‘What,’ exclaimed these men of the F.A.I., ‘do you mean to say that we should fail to do what we believe to be right merely because people in England disapprove of it?’

I can give another instance from my own experience. I was standing on a hill watching the smoke and flames of some two hundred houses in Malaga mount in to the sky. An old Anarchist of my acquaintance was standing beside me. ‘What do you think of that?’ he asked. I said: ‘They are burning down Malaga.’ ‘Yes,’ he said: ‘they are burning it down. And I tell you - not one stone will be left on another stone - no, not a plant nor even a cabbage will grow there, so that there may be no more wickedness in the world.’

It was the voice of Amos or Isaiah (though the old man had never read either) or of an English sectarian of the seventeenth century. The fanatical hatred of the Anarchists for the Church and the extraordinary violence of their attack upon it during the Civil War are things which are known to everyone. Without going far wrong one may say that all the churches recently burned in Spain were burned by Anarchists and that most of the priests killed were killed by them. Such a persecution of religion has not been known in Europe since the Thirty Years' War: the Russian Revolution provided nothing to compare to it. It can only, I think, be explained as the hatred of heretics for the Church from which they have sprung. For in the eyes of the Spanish libertarians the Catholic Church occupies the position of Anti-Christ in the Christian world. It is far more to them than a mere obstacle to revolution. They see in it the fountain of all evil, the corruptor of youth with its vile doctrine of original sin, the blasphemer against Nature and the Law of Nature, which they call Salud or Health. It is also the religion which mocks with its pretence of brotherly love and mutual forgiveness the great ideal of human solidarity. We forget, I think, our history when we show surprise at this anti-Papist violence. Between the decapitated saints in England churches and the broken altars and blackened walls in Spain, there is onIy a difference of degree.

But, one may ask, if Spanish Anarchism can be described, however loosely, as a religious heresy, how and at what moment did it secede from the Church? There are, I would suggest, two main classes of heresies - first, those which arise as the result of a difference of opinion, when the Church, during the course of its development, is faced with some choice upon doctrinal matters. Of these Arianism, Monophysism and Pelagianism are examples. They appear when the body of doctrine in some particular sphere is still fluid. The Church chooses its line and those who do not submit become heretics. Secondly, there are those which come from a rebellion within the body of the Church against abuses - against the failure of the priesthood to live up to its claims. If one of these should happen to take a doctrinal form it becomes far more dangerous, because it is fed by a spirit of indignation and because a genuinely religious emotion has a great advantage against a body that knows itself to be hypocritical and worldly. It was in this way that Lutheanism gained its triumphs.

But there is one sort of heresy belonging to this class of which both the Catholic and the Protestant Churches have always shown a quite peculiar terror. It is that which consists in taking literally the very frequent allusions in the Scriptures to the wickedness and consequent damnation of the rich and the blessedness of the poor. This had been the crime of the Circumcellians, a militant sect of the fourth century which sprang up on the African latifundia under much the same circumstances as the Spanish Anarchists, and it was also the crime of the Waldenses and of the Anabaptists. What the authorities could not forgive in these sects was the emphasis they laid on the social teaching of the Gospels. And it will be remembered with what almost insane fury Luther urged the destruction by fire and sword of those peasants who were compromising him by taking his teaching on Christian freedom in a literal sense

The reason for this violence is obvious. The Bible, and especially the New Testament, contains enough dynamite to blow up all the existing social systems in Europe, only by force of habit and through the power of beautiful and rhythmical words we have ceased to notice it. An intelligent Chinaman has been more observant. Sun Yat-Sen, when he visited Europe, was amazed that a religion which persistently extolled the poor and threatened and condemned the rich should be practised and ,aintained chiefly by the richest, most selfish and most respectable classes. The political skill and duplicity required for such a feat seemed to him to go far beyond anything that simple Orientals could run to. The danger has therefore always existed that any weakening in the influence of the Church, any desertion of the interests of the poor by the priesthood, would lead to a greater emphasis being placed upon the social principles of equality, voluntary poverty and brotherly love that, along with many other things, lie at the root of Christianity.

And where were these conditions better fulfilled than in Andalusia in the last century? The poor labourer who bought one of those New Testaments which the British Bible Society provided for a few pence (and which have always sold so well in the south and east of Spain) could read, for example, what the Virgin Mary, the goddess of Andalusia, to whom every night when he took off his shirt he said a prayer, had felt upon these matters. In her great song of triumph, charged with an unmistakeable prophetic meaning, she had rejoiced that the mighty had been put down from their seats and the poor exalted, that the hungry had been filled with good things whilst the rich had been sent empty away. He might be forgiven for seeing in such words an expression of class feeling.

I would suggest then that the anger of the Spanish Anarchists against the Church is the anger of an intensely Religious people who feel they have been deserted and deceived. The priests and the monks left them at a critical moment in their history and went over to the rich. The humane and enlightened principles of the great theologists of the seventeenth century were set on one side. The people then began to suspect (and the new ideas brought in by Liberalism of course assisted them) that all the words of the Church were hypocrisy. When they took up the struggle for the Christian utopia it was therefore against the Church and not with it. Even their violence might be called religious. The Spanish Church, after all, was always a Militant Church and down to the twentieth century it believed in destroying its enemies. No doubt the Anarchists felt that if only by using the same methods, they could get rid of all who were not of their way of thinking, they would make a better job than the Church had done of introducing the earthly paradise. In Spain every creed aspires to be totalitarian. . It may be thought that I have stressed too much the religious element because Spanish Anarchism is after all a political doctrine. But the aims of the Anarchists were always much wider and their teaching more personal than anything that can be included under the word politics. To individuals they offered a way of life; Anarchism had to be lived as well as worked for. To the community they offered a new world founded exclusively on moral principles. They never made the mistake of thinking, as the Socialists did, that this could be achieved merely by providing a higher standard of living all round. On the contrary, they were often ascetic and puritanical. I have already described how in some Anarchist collectives they endeavoured to suppress wine, tobacco and even coffee. This asceticism was extended to sex also. Anarchists, it is true, believe in free love – everything, even love, must be free – but they do not believe in libertinage. So in Malaga they sent missions to the prostitutes. In Barcelona they cleaned up the cabarets and brothels with a thoroughness that the Spanish Church, (which frowns on open vice, such as wearing a bathing dress without a skirt and sleeves, but shuts its eyes to 'safetyvalves') would never approve of.


It is hardly necessary to point out how completely the Anarchists differed … from the Socialists and Communists. They would have nothing to do with Marxian dialectic or with the body of theory and dogma built up on it. The strict discipline of the Communists and their practice of subordinating moral principles to expediency were regarded by them as Jesuitical. They themselves relied upon that very Spanish thing – acting from instinct. Any plan, any order, any arrangement that fettered the instinct was wrong. Once the battle was opened, they went straight forward, following their inner light or nature, behaving with extraordinary daring or with complete cowardice as they felt inclined: at certain moments magnificent, but if the conditions demanded a cohesion or a resistance they could not give, becoming unreliable. This had been the principle of the partidas of guerrilla bands in the Napoleonic War. If anyone doubts that much of what is called 'anarchist' to-day is merely unadulterated Iberian, let him compare the famous call for 'organized indiscipline' pasted up by the F.A.I. on the walls of Barcelona in August 1936, at the time when Durruti's column was getting ready for its march on Saragossa, with this description by an intelligent eyewitness of the organization of the guerrilla war against Napoleon.

After the regular armies had all been beaten ... one saw growing up a system of war in detail, a kind of organised disorder which perfectly suited the unconquerable character of the Spanish nation and the unhappy circumstances in which it found itself.

The other quarrel with the Communists was over liberty. Marx had diagnosed the troubles of the world as being due to greed. The fundamental sin to him was owning property. The Anarchists agreed to this, but added that there is a second even more fundamental sin, which is love of power. They pointed out that the abolition of private property in Russia had led to an increase of tyranny. And it was precisely against the economic tyranny of the modern capitalist world, and only in the second place against inequality of income, that they made their protest.

The Anarchists stand then above everything else for Liberty. But here the dilemma comes. These stern moralists, these children of the categorical imperative, disapprove of the present organization of society. But what is it they demand? They demand that everyone shall be free. Free to do what? Why free to lead the natural life, to live on fruit and vegetables, to work at the collective farm, to conduct himself in the way that Anarchists consider proper. But if he does not want to do these things, if he wants to drink wine, to go to Mass, to dig in his own field and refuse the benefits brought into the world by comunismo libertario, what then? Why then he is one of los malos, los perversos, possibly curable but, if he does not come from a working-class family, more likely corrupt and vicious out of upbringing or heredity, and therefore unfit to partake of the Anarchist paradise. A bullet in the head for this compañero – without hate, of course, without hate. He can smoke a last cigarette before dying. After all, compañero, death is nothing.

That then would seem to be the practical consequence of anarchism. Many people whose have been captured by the Spanish anarchists, who have been moved by their heroic idealism and charmed by their sincerity and open-mindedness, forget that there is this other side to the picture. Anarchism, which puts freedom above everything else, may easily lead in practice to the worst tyranny. No one can doubt that if the Anarchists had won the Civil War they would have imposed their will not merely upon the bourgeoisie but on the peasants and factory workers too with complete ruthlessness. There were many indications that in the country districts this would have led to a new sort of caciquismo [in Latin-American and Spanish politics, the rule of local chiefs or bosses (caciques)]

For this is the tragic paradox of Spanish Anarchism. It aims at reaching by violence a state from which even the mildest form of compulsion is to be excluded. The wicked who have so long oppressed the earth are to be eliminated and then the age of peace and mutual tolerance will automatically begin. Such hopes are surely not to be taken seriously. It argues a great deal of simplicity to believe that out of the welter of violent revolution in a modern country such a stateless form of society could appear. Only in small towns or in villages where the immense majority were labourers or poor peasants, prepared to work their land in common, would anything of the kind be possible. But what in the mind of Bakunin was a mere revolutionary’s dream has appealed to Spaniards precisely because they are accustomed to think so much in terms of their own village. A change, that in a highly organized community would be quite utopian, might be feasible here. When therefore the Anarchist says, 'to introduce the Golden Age you have only to kill the wicked who prevent the good from living as they wish to', there is always at the back of his mind the village with its three thousand small peasants and landless labourers. By getting rid of a dozen landowners and a priest, the rest can divide up the land and live happily. And there is nothing illusory in such a belief. Anyone who has known the Spanish poor still agree that by their kindly and generous feelings for one another and by the talent they have so often shown for cooperation they are perfectly fitted for playing their part in an 'anarchist commune'. The Berbers of the Moroccan highlands, who are first cousins to the Iberians, have for thousands of years lived in small independent communes whose organization is purely anarchistic.

With this applicability of the libertarian idea to village life we reach, I think, the other root of Spanish Anarchism besides the religious one. For if anarchism is, in one sense, an utopian conception of life that opens out its arms to the future, it is also true that the Anarchists have, like the Carlists, their inner eye upon the past. Rural anarchism is quite simply the attempt to recreate the primitive Spanish communes that existed in many parts of Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To-day they call them collectives, but till the Russians invented this word and modern machinery gave them a new scope, it was the old commune where the land was divided every few years by lot that they hankered for. In Appendix I, I describe some of these communes and show how indistinguishable in nearly all respects a Carlist municipality of the Pyrenees with its extensive social services can be from an Anarchist fishermen's collective in Catalonia. Anarchism, I would then say, has Simply rekindled the perennial instinct of the Spanish peasant, who believes that his life in the past was better in every way than it is now and who wishes to return to it. There has not been a peasant rising in Andalusia in the last hundred years when the villages did not form communes, divide up the land, abolish money and declare themselves independent - free that is from the interference of 'foreign' landlords and police.

And the anarchism of the industrial workers is not very different. They ask, first of all for self-government for their industrial village or syndicate and then for a shortening of the hours, a reduction in the quantity of the work. They ask for more liberty and more leisure and above all more respect for human dignity, but not necessarily a higher standard of living. After all, that is simply another way of saying that they wish for a return to the empty, leisurely conditions of the seventeenth century, when, at the expense of their stomachs, the workmen in the towns still retained their innate dignity and freedom had not been crushed and dehumanized by factory life. Thus Spanish Anarchism, though seeming to look forward only to the future, is in fact dominated by that nostalgia for the past that is so characteristic of Spain. The Siglo de Oro - the age of glory for the educated classes, the agee of liberty and leisure for all - is the Golden Age to which most Spaniards would willingly return and, without plunging too far into the unconscious, one may suspect that behind it stands the Pastoral Age, when men stood and watched their flocks by day and meditated like Hebrew prophets upon Vice and Virtue, upon Fate and God, whilst the toil and degradation of the agricultural life was left to others.

We have come here, I think, to the precise significance of Spanish Anarchism and its value both to Spain and (though this may seem absurd) to Europe. It voices more clearly and intelligently than any other Iberian movement the resistance offered by the whole Spanish people to the tyranny and soullessness of the modern machine-serving age. Unlike Carlism, which (in so far as it still means anything at all) turns its back upon modernity altogether, it accepts the benefits to be obtained from machine production, but it insists that nothing whatever should curtail the right of all men to lead dignified human lives. There must be no sacrifice to Moloch. In the choice that has to be made between a higher standard of comfort and a greater amount of leisure, it emphatically selects the second. And this is not out of any preference for idleness. It is because Spanish Anarchism is an ascetic creed, which places the spiritual things of life above material comforts and knows that leisure is required for their development. In this it is intensely Spanish. For two centuries and more the Spanish pueblo, as every traveller since the eighteenth century has observed, has been the repository of the virtues and traditions of the race, abandoned by the effete upper classes. To-day few but the poor can speak with the authentic voice of Spain. 'The surface of our country constantly decays', said Canovas, 'but never the depths’ And so the Spanish Anarchist movement, narrow, ignorant, often terribly ruthless, holding with uncompromising determination and unfailing optimism utterly impractical designs, is not only the most ‘Hispanic’ thing south of the Pyrenees, but it contains principles which must, in however modified a form, be recognized and satisfied if Spain is to become once again a great and united nation. Had a true national leader ever appeared, he would have seen this. For what Spain has to give Europe will not be given by imitating the forms of the more highly organized but in many respects less vital nations round her - forms which in any case she would be quite unable to make use of - but by developing within herself her own seeds of life. This can only be done by having some regard for what the people want. During more than a century now the weakness of Spain has come from the fact that every government has had the great mass of the people against it.


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