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Federation of Iberian Anarchists
Federación Anarquista Ibérica

On 18 July 1936, General Francisco Franco issued the pronunciamiento from Las Palmas in Spanish North Africa that opened the struggle of Spain’s reactionary military officers against the legally elected Popular Front government in Madrid.

Over the first few weeks of the Spanish Civil War an estimated 100,000 men joined Anarcho-Syndicalists militias. Anarchists also established the Iron Column, many of whose 3,000 members were former prisoners. In Guadalajara, Cipriano Mera, leader of the CNT construction workers in Madrid, formed the Rosal Column and Federica Montseny established the Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty).

Murray Bookchin later wrote "For the first time, so it seemed to many of us in the thirties, an entire people with dazzling courage had arrested the terrifying success of fascist movements in central and southern Europe. Scarcely three years earlier, Hitler had pocketed Germany without a shred of resistance from the massive Marxist-dominated German labor movement. Austria, two years before, had succumbed to an essentially authoritarian state after a week of futile street-fighting by Socialist workers in Vienna."

In the 1870s the Italian anarchist Giuseppi Fanelli introduced Bakunin’s ideas to groups of workers and intellectuals in Madrid and Barcelona. Thereafter, the “Internationalists,” as the early Spanish anarchists were known, expanded rapidly from Madrid and Barcelona to Spain as a whole, especially in Catalonia and Andalusia. Following the split between the Marxists and Bakuninists at the Hague Congress in September 1872, the Spanish section remained predominantly Bakuninist in outlook.

It was not socialism but rather anarchism that drove the the Spanish labor movement. Long before syndicalism became a popular term in the French labor movement of the late 1890’s, it already existed in the early Spanish labor movement. The Confederación Nacional del Trabajo National Confederation of Labour (CNT) was founded in September 1911. The CNT was the only mass anarcho-syndicalist organisation to survive the Great War and the Russian Revolution. It organised hundreds of thousands of workers and pitted them relentlessly against the system.

The Anarchist Federation of Iberia (F.A.I.) was an unusual organization. Born in 1927 during the Primo de Rivera dictatorship in spite of the watchful eyes of the police and security forces, it appeared strong, vigorous, and ready for action when the dictatorship fell in 1930-31. With a membership estimated at five to thirty thousand during the Republic and the Revolution and Civil War, the F.A.I. exercised great influence in the National Confederation of Labour (C.N.T.), which had a membership of a half-million in 1931 and a million and a half at the start of the Civil War.

Regionalist movements were organized to free progressive Catalonia, the Basque areas, and Galicia from the "Castilian corpse." Whether on the left or on the right, residents of these regions stressed their distinct character and history. An electoral coalition of Catalan parties regularly sent strong parliamentary contingents to Madrid to barter their votes for concessions to Catalonian regionalism.

Alejandro Lerroux was an effective, but demagogical, political organizer who took his liberal splinter group into the anti-monarchist camp. He formed the Radical Republicans on a national, middle-class base that frequently allied itself with the Catalans.

The democratic, Marxist-oriented Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español — PSOE), founded in 1879, grew rapidly in the north, especially in Asturias, where a trade union, the General Union of Workers (Union General de Trabajadores—UGT), had most effectively organized the working class.

The Federation of Iberian Anarchists (Federación Anarquista Ibérica) was well organized in Catalonia and Andalusia and had many members, but in keeping with anarchist philosophy, they remained aloof from participation in the electoral process. Their abstention, however, had a telling effect. They practiced terrorism, and the anarchist trade union, the National Confederation of Labor (ConfederaciOn Nacional del Trabajo—CNT), was able on several occasions to shut down Barcelona. The aim of the anarchists was not to take control of the government, but to make government impossible.

Opposition to the monarchy was strengthened in August l930, when the republicans entered into a pact with the advocates of Catalan autonomy (rigidly opposed by the Dictatorship), whercby Catalonia was to be allowed to establish its own government in the event of King Alfonso's overthrow. To avoid bloodshed the King departed on 11 April l93l. In Barcelona the leader of the major Catalan autonomy party pro-claimed a Catalian state, which he intended should have independence within a federation of Iberian peoples.

Pressure on the Republic Spain thus abruptiy became a republic. In l932 both leftists (anarchists and Trotskyists) and rightists rose against the authority of the Government. Azina was personally determined that the moderate Republic should show no weakness. Both monarchists and anarchists were alternately the victims of the Government's drastic powers. The prisons filled; the armed police were overnumerous; censorship was applied.

The general elections of 1933 reflected tho unpopularity of the Government. The defeat of the leftist parties was due partly to the new vigor and careful organization of the rightists and partly to leftist dissensions. The anarchists, moreover, ordered their followers to abstain, thus withholding a large proletarian vote from the Left.

They and their followers had been antagonized by censorship, the remoteness of the social revolution, and the administration of the Republic's labor program by a Socialist, Largo Caballero, in the obvious interests of the Socialist trade union, the UGT at the expense of their own trade union, the CNT.

The Left thus failed to achiave its maximum strengthin the Cortes, and two years of rightist rule followed which were to be known as the Bienie Negro, or black period, because the management of the Republic was in the hands of men and parties opposed to proletarian interests. Its leader was José Maria Gil Roblos, student of Hitler techniques at the Nuremberg Rally, protégé of the Jesuits and of a rich father-in-law, authoritarian and a reactionary, but not at the time a monarchist. The conductof government was thus placed in the hands of the Radical Party, a corrupt, illiberal political organization.

These rightist measures provoked an early reply from the extreme Left. The anarchists, who had counsoled abstention from voting, felt that the rightist electoral victory required revolutionary counter­action. In villages in Aragon a rising occurred in December 1933 on behalf of libertarian Communism. The Government suppressed the insurrection in four days.

The regime's next trouble came from the Catalans and Basques. Moderate leftist elements had control of the Catalonian Autonomous Government, whose powers had been recently established through the Statute for Catalan Autonomy pushed through the Cortes. It was well known that the Spanish Right had no sympathy for such concessions to regional autonomy. In June l932 a high Madrid Court, many of whose judges were rightist appointees, annulled a law passed by the Catalan Parliament. This act led to Catalan charges of Madrid despotism and to a wave of strikes and disorders. The national Government was meanwhile antagonizing the Basques by forbidding them to hold an asseinbly in Bilbao to discuss their regional grievances.

On 05 October 1934, a revolutionary movement broke out in three separate areas in Spain: in Barcelona, Madrid, and in the northern mining area of the Asturias. The Madrid rising was a complete fiasco.

In Barcelona, Lluis Companys, the President of the Catalan Autonomous government, prematurely yielded to pressure from the extreme separatists of the Catalan nationalist movement. He proclamed the independence of the Catalan state. This was rash because the anarchc-syndicalist masses in Catalonia had been antigonized by the seperatist leader who forced Companys' hand. They consequently did not rise to provide support for the independence move. It was thus an easy matter for the local commander of the Civil Guard, who remained faithful to the national Government, to surround Company's and his councillors and carry out Madrid's order for their arrest.

In the Asturias there was no such ignominious failure. For several years 35,000 Asturian coal miners had been reduced nearly to starvation by the paralysis which had overtaken heavy industry in Spain. Aided by the difficult nature of the terrain, their armed resistance to the Government now developed into a savage and protracted fight. Not until the central Government sent in reinforcements, including the tough Foreign Legion and semi-savage Moorish troops brought from North Africa, were the Asturian miners overcome. Under the command of General Francisco Franco thc Government forces, behind a screen cf strict censorship, systematically and cruelly mopped up the revolting strikers.

George Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia that "As far as my purely personal preferences went I would have liked to join the Anarchists.... The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle....

"Yet so far as one could judge the people were contented and hopeful. There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people, and no beggars except the gypsies. Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine....

"During the first two months of the war it was the Anarchists more than anyone else who had saved the situation, and much later than this the Anarchist militia, in spite of their indiscipline, were notoriously the best fighters among the purely Spanish forces."

During the first year of the War the Loyalists were handicapped by lack of competent officers, and lack of training of the enlisted personnel. Within their ranks were those who, while admitting the necessity for officers, objected to any obligation of obedience, unless orders were acceptable to those receiving them. They reserved the right to investigate and form an opinion on orders.

At the end of 1937, the Loyalists had around 600,000 men under arms. About 5,000 were former members of the Spanish Army, and 20,000 were foreign volunteers. Of the foreigners 90% had no previous military training. About 10% of them were trained specialists, including officers of artillery, tanks, and aviation, and mechanics and noncommissioned officers of all arms and services.

On the Barcelona front, dominated by the Federation of Iberian Anarchists, command of companies and battalions was by roster, for a day at a time. Orders of the commander of the day were not necessarily to be obeyed; anyone who disagreed was free to do as he pleased. This front has had a superiority in numbers over their enemy of not less than 3 to 1, but it has never been able to accomplish anything, except to hold positions. Several offensives had been tried, but they have failed, sometimes through disagreements after the operation had commenced, and sometimes through failure of supply, either through inability to decide what to do, or failure to do it. Defeats, and no victories, have proved that discipline is necessary for an army if it is to do more than carry out a passive defense.

The communists, after successfully arguing for a national conscript army that could be directed by the government, pressed for elimination of the militia units. They also argued for postponing the revolution until the fascists had been defeated and encouraged greater participation by the bourgeois parties in the Popular Front. The UGT, increasingly under communist influence, entered into the government, and the more militant elements within it were purged.

POUM, which had resisted disbanding its independent military units and merging with the communist-controlled national army, was ruthlessly suppressed as the communists undertook to eliminate competing leftist organizations. Anarchists were dealt with in similar fashion, and in Catalonia a civil war raged within a civil war. Barcelona fell to the Nationalists in January 1939, and Valencia, the temporary capital, fell in March.

In the post-Franco years, the C.N.T. and other libertarian organizations resumed their activities.

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Page last modified: 30-10-2017 10:46:01 ZULU