Vernon Richards

Lessons of the Spanish Revolution





A critical review of the anarchist movement, and especially of its leaders, during the Spanish Civil War.

Source: Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, Freedom Press, 1953



Anarchism and Violence

We have all along considered that it was outside the scope of this study to engage in an analysis of the military aspects of the struggle in Spain, quite apart from the fact that such a subject is not within the competence of the present writer. But it would be shirking the responsibilities we have assumed were we not to attempt to deal with certain questions of principle arising from the development of the armed struggle.
Violence, contrary to popular belief, is not part of the anarchist philosophy. It has repeatedly been pointed out by anarchist thinkers that the revolution can neither be won nor the anarchist society established and maintained by armed violence. Recourse to violence, then, is an indication of weakness not of strength, and the revolution with the greatest possibilities of a successful outcome will undoubtedly be the one in which there is no violence, or in which violence is reduced to a minimum, for such a revolution would indicate the near unanimity of the population in the objectives of the revolution.

Unless anarchists declare that the only revolution or insurrection that will meet with their support is the one that will usher in the libertarian society, they must face the situation created by those uprisings, the objectives of which represent only a step towards the desired society, and declare what their position in such struggles will be. Generally speaking, their position has always been clear; that every manifestation of the people for their emancipation should be supported by anarchists as anarchists. That is to say, ready at all times to make concessions to the common cause but without, in so doing, losing their identity. We believe that such a position requires that anarchists should fearlessly expose what they believe to be the mistakes of a revolution and, at the same time, by retaining their freedom of action be prepared to withdraw their co-operation once they believe that the objectives of the struggle have been sacrificed to expediency.

The use of violence has been justified both as a principle and as a means to an end; hardly ever, however, by anarchists. At the most, anarchists have justified its use as a revolutionary necessity or tactic. The misunderstanding is in part the result of confusion in terms for which the anarchists themselves are responsible. We refer, of course, to those who call themselves pacifist anarchists, or non-violent anarchists, and who thereby imply that those not included in these categories must be violent anarchists! The fallacy, to our minds, is that of making non-violence a principle, when in fact it is no more than a tactic. Furthermore, the “non-violent” advocates fail to make a distinction between violence which is used as a means for imposing the will of a group or class and that violence which is purely defensive.

In Spain the attempt to seize power by force was made by Franco and his military and Phalangist friends. To this end they had a carefully prepared plan to occupy all the important cities of Spain. What should the people have done on the 19th July? In the opinion of that eminent advocate of non-violent methods Bart de Ligt (The Conquest of Violence, London, 1937), the best way to “fight” Franco would have been for the Spanish people to allow him to occupy the whole country “temporarily” and then to have “let loose a great movement of non-violent resistance (boycott, non-co-operation, and so on) against him.” He continues:

But our tactics also include, and far more than modern military tactics do, an effective international collaboration. We are no party to the deceitful idea of non-intervention; wherever humanity is threatened or attacked, all men and women of good-will must intervene in defence. In this case also, from the very beginning, a parallel movement of non-co-operation from the outside should have been organised to support that inside, in an endeavour to prevent Franco and his friends from getting the materials for war, or at least to keep these down to the minimum.

That the advocates of non-violence cannot be dogmatic is shown by what follows:

And even in the situation as it is at present, all sincere war resisters should have intervened systematically on behalf of the Spanish people and especially on behalf of the libertarian revolution, by fighting Franco with the methods indicated above … whatever the methods used by the Spanish people to defend itself, it is in a legitimate state of defence, and this is truer still of those revolutionaries who—during the Civil War—are striving to bring about the social revolution.

“Once again the international working-class movement has neglected one of the noblest of its historic tasks by falling in with the deceitful measures of Imperialist Governments, either self-styled democracies or actually Fascist countries, and abandoning those who fought in Spain with unequalled heroism for the emancipation of the working-class and for social justice. If it had intervened in time, the masses of Spain would still have been able to dispose of the military clique in 1936 and to concentrate on social reconstruction. If it had done so, violence would have been kept down to a minimum and the possibility of a real revolution would have been so great as to change the face of the world.” (our italics)

Earlier in his analysis of Spain, Bart de Ligt pointed out that

Considering the ideological traditions and the social, political and moral conditions under which this civil war broke out in July 1936, the Spanish anti-militarists could do nothing else than resort to arms before the military invaders. But by so doing they found themselves obliged to use the same weapons as their enemies. They had to engage in a devastating war which, even in the event of victory, must bring about conditions both objective and subjective as unfavourable as could be to the realisation of the social revolution. If we look at things closely we see here again a kind of dictatorship; if men wish to defend themselves against a violent invader, it is the invader who dictates to the defender what methods of combat he shall use. On the other hand, if the defender can rise immediately above violence, he is free to use his own, and really humane methods.

It goes without saying that we would rather see victory go, if only partially, to those who fight for justice, peace and freedom, even with gun in hand, than to those who can only prolong injustice, slavery and war. But we must admit that the Spanish people, in its fight against Fascism, has chosen the most costly and ineffective method it could, and that it did neglect to get rid of the military clique at the proper time, which is to say, long before the Civil War broke out. …

Any Spanish reader of the above must be permitted to shake his head and sigh at the naivety displayed in this presentation of the non-violent case. If the international proletariat had supported the Spanish workers, if the military clique had been sacked, and if a thousand and one other conditions had been fulfilled … who knows what might have happened in Spain! But let us not forget the all-important sentence in what we have quoted above. If all these ifs had been realised, Bart de Ligt admits that “Violence would have been kept down to a minimum and the possibility of a real revolution would have been so great as to change the face of world.” In other words, an admission that under certain conditions violence need not degenerate, a position which many advocates of non-violence dogmatically sweep aside as untenable.

It is when the use of violence is prolonged and the armed struggle ceases to be related to its objectives that we find ourselves on common ground with the self-styled non-violence anarchists, and consider that anarchists, in justice to themselves and to their fellow workers, must question the validity of the prolongation of the armed struggle. In Spain that situation arose after a few months. The delays in following up the initial successes and the failure to prevent the establishment of a bridgehead from Morocco permitted Franco to reorganise and reinforce his army and to launch his large-scale offensive from the south and threaten Madrid with encirclement. Faced with this situation, the leaders of the CNT-FAI capitulated to the Popular Front point of view for militarization. The consequences of this capitulation have been dealt with at some length in the course of this study. Could the CNT-FAI have acted otherwise? That is a question which perhaps one day the Spanish revolutionaries will be prepared to face and answer.

We will limit ourselves to the expression of an opinion in general terms. We believe that anarchists can only participate in those struggles which are the expression of a people’s will to freedom and justice. But when such struggles should be organised and conducted with the same ruthlessness as that of the enemy, with armies of conscripts schooled in blind obedience to leaders; by the militarization of the rearguard and censorship of the press and of opinion; when secret prisons are connived at, and to express criticisms is considered High Treason (as in the trial of the P.O.U.M. leaders) … before that stage has been reached, anarchists who are not afraid of unpopularity or the “judgment of history” should declare their inability to co-operate and conduct their struggles against both regimes in whatever way they consider consistent with their aspirations and their principles.


Means and Ends

The distinction between the libertarian and authoritarian revolutionary movements in their struggle to establish the free society is the means which each proposes should be used to this end. The libertarian maintains that the initiative must come from below, that the free society must be the result of the will to freedom of a large section of the population. The authoritarian, on the other hand, believes that the will to freedom can only emerge once the existing economic and political system has been replaced by a dictatorship of the proletariat which, as the awareness and sense of responsibility of the people grows, will wither away and the free society emerge.

There can be no common ground between such approaches. For the authoritarian argues that the libertarian approach is noble but “utopian” and doomed to failure from the start, while the libertarian argues, on the evidence of history, that the authoritarian methods will simply replace one coercive state by another, equally despotic and remote from the people, and which will no more “wither away” than its capitalist predecessor. The free society can only grow from the free association of free men (that is men whose minds are free from prejudices and who ardently believe in freedom for others as well as themselves).

In the course of preparing this study one of the conclusions we have come to is that only a small section of the Spanish revolutionary movement was in fact libertarian, a view we are not alone in holding. The position was put, succinctly and not without sadness, we think, by an old militant writing under the pen name of “Fabio” in the anarchist review Tiempos Nuevos (April 1945). He pointed out that

Had collaboration been considered a mistake, the matter would not be serious. Errors can be corrected. By not collaborating any more, the question would be settled. What collaboration revealed has no possible solution. It is what a very few of us had suspected for some time: that there were a few, not many, hundred anarchists in Spain.

Furthermore, it would seem that the cult of action had blinded a very large number of seasoned militants to the disastrous consequences of action becoming an end in itself. They were themselves victims of the illusions which they had so often criticised in the socialists, of believing that power was only evil when in the “wrong hands” and for a “wrong cause,” and not that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” anarchists and syndicalists included.

Thus, they were prepared to use the weapon of war, which they had as recently as May 1936 so outspokenly denounced, both in the name of the social revolution and as a means of defeating “fascism.” Indeed, all the policies of the CNT-FAI after July 1936 were in direct contradiction with everything the organisation stood for as stated in its Dictamenes aprobados por el congreso (Opinions approved by the Congress) in Saragossa in May 1936. It is worth examining some of the more outstanding of these.

In the Dictamen sobre la situacion politica y militar, which we have already quoted at the beginning of Chapter XVI, the organisation’s position with regard to parliamentary democracy was made quite clear. Yet in spite of its recognition of the “bankruptcy” of the present social and political institutions, the CNT-FAI after July sought to re-establish it as the most effective means of dealing with the situation created by the military uprising. It believed that the armed resistance and the economy of the country could only be effectively organised from above. This position was expressed time and time again but never in a more barefaced way than in an obviously inspired front-page editorial published by Solidaridad Obrera (February 21, 1937) in which one reads:  

When Madrid found itself without government and was master of its own destiny, it organised its own defence. This shows that the governors were an obstacle. On all occasions when the people run their own lives, victory follows. When one takes on the responsibility of ruling and directing a people with such extraordinary ethical and moral backgrounds, those who direct the war and the revolution must not feel these endemic doubts and vacillations. There is no justification for it other than a lack of leadership.

When one lacks faith in the people one is governing one resigns. To govern without faith in the national future is tantamount to preparing for the defeat. In these supreme moments in the life of Spain, only those men who have absolute certainty in victory can direct its destiny. Men who combine courage with intelligence. The revolution has to be felt both in the mind and in the heart. Optimism and ability are indispensable qualities in overcoming the enormous difficulties opposed to victory. This must be realised at all costs. Our lamented Durruti used to say: “We renounce all except victory.” This is our motto. To lead the people, it is indispensable that those in charge of governing the masses should embody this thought: “To be obeyed, the first thing one needs to have is authority.” And the only way to obtain it is by ability. And this implies talent, a gift of leadership, faith in the destiny of the people one is governing; activity, foresight, anticipating events, and not being taken in tow by them. …

The date of this extraordinary piece of double-think is important, for in February 1937 the CNT had four ministers in the government! But some readers may find it difficult to understand why, if “on every occasion when the people act on their own initiative, victory follows,” the CNT should be so anxious to join the government or how a government which “has faith in the people” needs to “impose obedience.”

Again, the Dictamen sobre Alianzas Revolucionarias (Opinions on Revolutionary Alliances), with a view to the “overthrow of the existing political and social regime,” declares that

  1. The UGT, on signing the Pact of Revolutionary Alliances, clearly recognises the breakdown of the system of political and parliamentary collaboration. As a logical consequence of this recognition, it will cease to offer any kind of political and parliamentary collaboration with the regime at present in being.
  2. In order that the social revolution shall be an effective reality, it is necessary to destroy completely the existing political and social regime that regulates the life of the country.

The apologists of the CNT-FAI’s policies will probably argue that to defeat Franco it was necessary to change the organisation’s tactics—the more so since the UGT had not accepted the Alliance.

To answer the last point first. From July until September 1936 neither of the workers’ organisations were directly represented in the central government. During that period, what attempts were made to form a revolutionary alliance with the UGT? (And a revolutionary alliance does not mean a pact between the leaders which is what the CNT-UGT pact of 1938 was but, as the term implies, with the revolutionary sections of the UGT.)

The apologists’ first argument on tactics ignores the significance of two paragraphs quoted above, in which reference is made to the recognition of “the breakdown of the system of political and parliamentary collaboration” and to the fact that the social revolution demands the complete destruction of “the political and social regime that regulates the life of the country.” These are not declarations of tactics but statements of fact, of experience of the nature of political collaboration, embodied in a principle. The leaders of the CNT-FAI may have been right in believing that a social revolution and the defeat of Franco were not possible, but in our view by the very same reasoning they should have also come to the conclusion that even less could be hoped for from government and political collaboration. The fact, of course, is that they chose to discount the correctness of the anarchist analysis of the social problem on the grounds that the situation was so exceptional that it had not been foreseen and allowed for by anarchist theoreticians in their writings! This very characteristic Spanish presumption, which so often is a cover for ignorance, is restated in an issue of Solidaridad Obrera (February 2, 1938):

We are very much aware that above all THE WAR DISPOSES, that is to say that we have to devote all our efforts to this terribly absorbing struggle whose demands were certainly not foreseen in any doctrinal text. (our italics) [In spite of the fact that the Spanish problems were foreseen in the writings of Malatesta, Berkman, Bertoni et alii! – Note of the author]

One of the consequences of this “circumstantialist” policy was that the slogans of the propagandists of the CNT-FAI soft-pedalled the social revolution and instead used its really powerful propaganda machine to play up “the anti-fascist” struggle and to seek to exploit crude nationalistic and patriotic sentiments. The use made by Franco first of the Moors and later of the Italians and Germans was all grist to their mill. This, and the insistence of the CNT-FAI leaders on militarization and the continuation of the armed struggle at all costs, seem to us further confirmation of our opinion that the Spanish revolutionary movement was more than tinged with nationalism (as well as of regionalism). The lengths to which it went is illustrated in a speech by Federica Montseny at a mass meeting in Madrid on August 31, 1936, that is, only a few weeks after the uprising when the revolutionary enthusiasm was strongest and the “military” situation still not in any way desperate. She said of Franco and his friends:

with this enemy lacking dignity or a conscience, without a feeling of being Spaniards, because if they were Spaniards, if they were patriots, they would not have let loose on Spain the Regulars and the Moors to impose the civilisation of the fascists, not as a Christian civilisation, but as a Moorish civilisation, people we went to colonise for them now to come and colonise us, with religious principles and political ideas which they wish to impose on the minds of the Spanish people. (in Solidaridad Obrera, 2/9/1936)

Thus spoke a Spanish revolutionary, reputedly one of the most intelligent and gifted members of the organisation (and still treated as one of the outstanding figures by the majority-section of the CNT in France). In that one sentence are expressed nationalist, racialist, and imperialist sentiments. Did anyone protest at that meeting?

But to return to the “Opinions” of the Saragossa Congress of May 1936. On the subject of “Duties of the Individual for and to the Collectivity and the Concept of Distributive Justice” it is declared that

Libertarian communism has nothing in common with any system of coercion: a fact which implies the disappearance of the existing system of correctional justice and furthermore of the instruments of punishment (prisons, penitentiaries, etc.).

The view is expressed that “social determinism” is the principal cause of so-called crime, and that once the causes have been removed crime will cease to exist. Thus, the causes will disappear “when man’s material needs will be satisfied as well as giving him the opportunity to receive a rational and humane education.” And in concrete terms:

For this reason, we hold the view that when the individual fails to carry out his duties both in the social order and in his role as a producer, it will be the task of the popular assemblies, in a spirit of conciliation, to seek the just solution to each individual case. Libertarian communism will therefore base its “correctional action” on medicine and on pedagogy, the only preventives to which modern science accords such a right. Where any person who is a victim of pathological symptoms threatens the harmony that must exist among the people, therapeutic pedagogy will be used to seek to cure the disorder and to arouse in him a moral feeling of social responsibility which an unhealthy heredity has denied him.

To what extent were these methods applied or even advocated by the revolutionary leaders in their dealings with their fellow humans or in their press? Again, we can hear the objections from the self-styled revolutionary “realists” that in the particular situation through which Spain was passing it was not possible to apply them—not even presumably in the period when the ministers of justice and public health were both members of the CNT! And that, in any case, deserters, “cowards,” black-marketeers, supporters, and soldiers on Franco’s side, the neutrals, the pacifists, the “slackers,” the misfits, and the indifferent were not victims but “traitors who had to be taught a lesson”!

How can it be said that they are not the products of the society in which they live? In a society without violence there would be no cowards; without wars there would be no deserters; where there is no shortage of goods there is no black-market. …

The fact of the matter is that for the revolutionaries as well as the government all means were justified to achieve the ends of mobilising the whole country on a war footing. And in those circumstances the assumption is that everybody should support the “cause.” Those who do not are made to; those who resist or who do not react in the manner prescribed are hounded, humiliated, punished, or liquidated.

Thousands of members of the revolutionary movement held official positions in para-governmental institutions. They sat on the popular tribunals, as well as guarding and running the prisons. There is no evidence that they objected to the punishments and the hundreds of death sentences meted out by the tribunals. The CNT press provides a gloomy catalogue of death sentences pronounced and executed, without a murmur of disapproval. Any comments are in fact of approval. “May it serve as an example!” was Solidaridad Obrera’s headline (September 16, 1936) to the announcement of the execution of a rebel leader in Minorca.

One could even say that the attitude of the CNT-FAI to legalised violence during the period 1936–1939 is such as to make their collaborationist deviation pale into insignificance. Violence for them was no longer a weapon of defence against armed attack by Franco’s forces. It was the weapon of revenge (the execution of “fascist” prisoners), of intimidation (public execution of deserters), of deterrence (“The death penalty for the thief”—Solidaridad Obrera, September 17, 1936). We say without hesitation that an anarchist cannot justify the shooting of any person who is unarmed, whatever his crime. Even less justification is there in executing those who refuse to kill or who have helped “the enemy” with information, etc. We believe that the revolutionary struggle, while it lasts, can be adequately protected from fifth columnists by their detention—under the best possible conditions. “And are we to spare the lives of those men who have been responsible for the extermination of hundreds of our comrades?” we shall be asked by those Spanish workers who believed with the anarchist Gonzalo de Reparaz in the philosophy of “Terror against Terror” (Solidaridad Obrera, 30/1/1938) or with Juan Peiró’s “Revenge and a fierce revenge. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” (Solidaridad Obrera, 30/1/1936). And there is only one answer: Yes!

There are many ways of changing society. One is by exterminating, morally or physically, all those who disagree with your way of thinking; the other is by first convincing sufficient people of the rightness of your ideas. Between these two extremes are a number of variations on the first theme, but, we submit, there can be no variations on the second. The self-styled “realists” among the libertarians believed that compromise is morally justified, since it produces results. If we are to judge the “results” by the history of the international socialist and communist movements or by the Platformists in the international anarchist movement and the “circumstantialists” of the Spanish CNT-FAI, we can only draw one conclusion: that where the means are authoritarian, the ends, the real or dreamed of future society, is authoritarian and never results in the free society. Violence as a means breeds violence; the cult of personalities as a means breeds dictators—big and small—and servile masses; government—even with the collaboration of socialists and anarchists—breeds more government. Surely, then, freedom as a means breeds more freedom, possibly even the Free Society!

To those who say this condemns one to political sterility and the ivory tower our reply is that their “realism” and their “circumstantialism” invariably lead to disaster. We believe there is something more real, more positive, and more revolutionary in resisting war than in participating in it; that it is more civilised and more revolutionary to defend the right of a fascist to live than to support the tribunals which have the legal powers to shoot him; that it is more realistic to talk to the people from the gutter than from government benches; that in the long run it is more rewarding to influence minds by discussion than to mould them by coercion.

Last, but not least, the question is one of human dignity, of self-respect, and of respect for one’s fellows. There are certain things no person can do without ceasing to be human. As anarchists we willingly accept the limitations thus imposed on our actions, for, in the words of the old French anarchist Sébastien Faure:

I am aware of the fact that it is not always possible to do what one should do; but I know that there are things that on no account can one ever do.

July–December 1952; January–April 1957


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