Happy May Day, comrade. It’s a holiday that is widely uncelebrated in my country, even though it is meant to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre, which happened in my hometown, Chicago. According to Wikipedia, the US government instead assigned May 1 such comical/Orwellian names as ‘Americanization Day,’ ‘Loyalty Day,’ and ‘Law Day.’ In any case, if you’ve got the day off or are working an 8-hour day (rather than a 14-hour day, or at least getting overtime pay), you’ve got unions, socialists, and anarchists of past generations to thank for it.
For today’s post we’ll talk about the Ex‘s 1936, the Spanish Revolution double 7″. Those who know the Ex can probably already attest to the beauty of this release, but I’ll get to that in a minute. First I want to talk about the spanish revolution itself. It was a pretty special thing; it’s not every day that ordinary people come together to create a relatively well-implemented anarchist economy and society.
The context in which the revolution took place would be a pretty good place to start. Up to the 1930s, Spain was a largely preindustrial country controlled by wealthy landowners, the Catholic Church, and a series of monarchs and military dictators. Meanwhile, revolutionary fervor was brewing. Through the turn of the 20th century anarcho-syndicalism grew popular in rural Spain, and to a lesser extent in cities as well. The industrial sector was particularly rife with labor conflict. Strikes were a regular occurrence, and were often violently broken. Many thousands of workers were jailed or killed in numerous strike-busting clashes with bosses, police, and the military. In 1910, the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo), Spain’s national anarchist labor union, came forth from a series of similar previous organizations. The militantly revolutionary FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica) was formed in 1927, following an exasperating decade of postwar economic turmoil that would be exacerbated by the coming worldwide Depression.
In 1931, the Second Spanish Republic came to power, consisting of a “largely self-appointed group of leaders of several small parties that had been formed within the past two or three years.”1 The most pronounced change was the rise of anticlerical hostility, as the new government began to dismantle the Church’s political authority. Though socialists were initially well-represented in the coalition government, things had swung to the right by 1934 with the rise of the monarchist pro-Catholic CEDA party, and many of the initial reforms were undone. This was contemporaneous with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, the Dollfuss regime in Austria2 and on the tails of substantial rightward shifts in Italy and the USSR. Socialist and anarchist miners in the northern Asturias region staged a rebellion/general strike that was viciously crushed by military forces led by General Francisco Franco. The shelling decimated the capital city of Oviedo. The rebellion was followed by intensified repression consisting of political executions, mass jailings (on the order of 30,000-40,000)3, wage cuts, and counter-reform.
Franco led the Army of Africa in a coup against the Second Republic on July 17, 1936, marking the official start of the Spanish Civil War. It was in this period of wartime instability that the anarchist revolution materialized. In the days following the coup, the CNT mobilized the workforce to take control of the factories, foundries, and transportation infrastructure, as well as organizing militias. Noam Chomsky summarizes (better than I can) the revolution in his 1968 essay “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship”:
During the months following the Franco insurrection in July 1936, a social revolution of unprecedented scope took place throughout much of Spain. It had no “revolutionary vanguard” and appears to have been largely spontaneous, involving masses of urban and rural laborers in a radical transformation of social and economic conditions that persisted, with remarkable success, until it was crushed by force […]
The left-wing socialist leader Largo Caballero had demanded in June that the workers be armed, but was refused by Azaña. When the coup came, the Republican government was paralyzed. Workers armed themselves in Madrid and Barcelona, robbing government armories and even ships in the harbor, and put down the insurrection while the government vacillated, torn between the twin dangers of submitting to Franco and arming the working classes. In large areas of Spain, effective authority passed into the hands of the anarchist and socialist workers who had played a substantial, generally dominant role in putting down the insurrection.
The next few months have frequently been described as a period of “dual power.” In Barcelona, industry and commerce were largely collectivized, and a wave of collectivization spread through rural areas, as well as towns and villages, in Aragon, Castile, and the Levante, and to a lesser but still significant extent in many parts of Catalonia, Asturias, Es tremadura, and Andalusia […] The revolution was “apolitical,” in the sense that its organs of power and administration remained separate from the central Republican government and, even after several anarchist leaders entered the government in the autumn of 1936, continued to function fairly independently until the revolution was finally crushed between the fascist and Communist-led Republican forces. The success of collectivization of industry and commerce in Barcelona impressed even highly unsympathetic observers such as Franz Borkenau. The scale of rural collectivization is indicated by these data from anarchist sources: in Aragon, 450 collectives with 500,000 members; in the Levante, 900 collectives accounting for about half the agricultural production and 70 percent of marketing in this, the richest agricultural region of Spain; in Castile, 300 collectives with about 100,000 members. …
The period of July through September may be characterized as one of spontaneous, widespread, but unconsummated social revolution. A number of anarchist leaders joined the government; the reason, as stated by Federica Montseny on January 3, 1937, was this: “. . . . . the anarchists have entered the government to prevent the Revolution from deviating and in order to carry it further beyond the war, and also to oppose any dictatorial tendency, from wherever it might come.” The central government fell increasingly under Communist control — in Catalonia, under the control of the Communist-dominated PSUC (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya) — largely as a result of the valuable Russian military assistance. Communist success was greatest in the rich farming areas of the Levante (the government moved to Valencia, capital of one of the provinces), where prosperous farm owners flocked to the Peasant Federation that the party had organized to protect the wealthy farmers; this federation “served as a powerful instrument in checking the rural collectivization promoted by the agricultural workers of the province.” Elsewhere as well, counterrevolutionary successes reflected increasing Communist dominance of the Republic.
The first phase of the counterrevolution was the legalization and regulation of those accomplishments of the revolution that appeared irreversible. A decree of October 7 by the Communist minister of agriculture, Vicente Uribe, legalized certain expropriations — namely, of lands belonging to participants in the Franco revolt […] The decree compelled tenants to continue paying rent unless the landowners had supported Franco, and by guaranteeing former landholdings, it prevented distribution of land to the village poor […]
The second stage of the counterrevolution, from October 1936 through May 1937, involved the destruction of the local committees, the replacement of the militia by a conventional army, and the reestablishment of the prerevolutionary social and economic system, wherever this was possible. Finally in May 1937 came a direct attack on the working class in Barcelona (the May Days). Following the success of this attack, the process of liquidation of the revolution was completed. The collectivization decree of October 24 was rescinded and industries were “freed” from workers’ control. Communist-led armies swept through Aragon, destroying many collectives and dismantling their organizations and, generally, bringing the area under the control of the central government. Throughout the Republican-held territories, the government, now under Communist domination, acted in accordance with the plan announced in Pravda on December 17, 1936: “So far as Catalonia is concerned, the cleaning up of Trotzkyist and Anarcho-Syndicalist elements there has already begun, and it will be carried out there with the same energy as in the U.S.S.R.” — and, we may add, in much the same manner.
In brief, the period from the summer of 1936 to 1937 was one of revolution and counter-revolution: the revolution was largely spontaneous with mass participation of anarchist and socialist industrial and agricultural workers; the counterrevolution was under Communist direction, the Communist party increasingly coming to represent the right wing of the Republic.4
After the Communist-controlled, USSR-funded Republic government had effectively suppressed and disarmed the anarchists and socialists, who had constituted a significant proportion of the initial defenders against Franco’s rebels, it proceeded to lose the war against Franco, who would go on to rule the Spanish State as a authoritarian dictatorship until his death in 1975, at the ripe old age of 82.
The sad stuff is not what I really want to emphasize, however. What is important about this piece of history is the social revolution that took place: a wide-reaching transformation of society to anarchist organization. The revolution can be broadly divided into two main parts: collectivization of industry and collectivization of agriculture.
Industrial collectivization began within hours of the Fascist uprising. Workers in Catalonia “seized control of 3000 enterprises. This included all public transportation services, shipping, electric and power companies, gas and water works, engineering and automobile assembly plants, mines, cement works, textile mills and paper factories, electrical and chemical concerns, glass bottle factories and perfumeries, food processing plants and breweries.”5 Major changes in the organization of the tramways dramatically increased service while decreasing fares. Similarly, anarchist organization of the vacated medical system (which had been run by priests and nuns prior to the revolution) introduced socialized medicine to thousands of Catalonians who had never before had access to a doctor in their lives. Wages were mostly equalized across industries, “and ex-bosses given the option of leaving or working as one of the regular workers, which they often accepted.”6 The revolution also saw the introduction of many women to the workforce, thought they still had to contend with domestic work and were paid less than men. In any case, industrial collectivization demonstrated the capacity of the workers to run their own factories without falling into the “chaos” typically attributed to anarchist organization.
Agricultural collectivization was even more extensive than the collectivization of industry, largely because most of Spain’s workers were still farmers. While the collectivization was viewed as dangerous and harmful by small and medium-level farmers (and, obviously, the owners of large landholdings), the majority of landless peasants welcomed the change. Historian Burnett Bolloten describes the process of rural collectivization:
A CNT-FAI committee was set up in each locality where the new regime was instituted. This committee not only exercised legislative and executive powers, but also administered justice. One of its first acts was to abolish private trade and to collectivize the soil of the rich, and often that of the poor, as well as farm buildings, machinery, livestock, and transport. Except in rare cases, barbers, bakers, carpenters, sandalmakers, doctors, dentists, teachers, blacksmiths, and tailors also came under the collective system. Stocks of food and clothing and other necessities were concentrated in a communal depot under the control of the committee, and the church, if not rendered useless by fire, was converted into a storehouse, dining hall, cafe, workshop, school, garage, or barracks.7
Wages (which often took the form of coupons rather than money) were based on the size of the family and the amounts of food and supplies they needed. Resources that were locally abundant were distributed freely or traded with neighboring collectives. Although there were reported instances of forced collectivization, this was not the norm. Small landowners who opted not to join the collectives were given enough land to support themselves but were not allowed to hire laborers, and were denied the social/economic benefits given to members. Large numbers of small farmers were thus compelled to join the collectives based on economic pragmatism rather than threat of violence.8 As stated in the Chomsky quote above, production was reported to have increased in many of the rural collectives.
Neither the industrial nor agricultural collectivization was perfect – in fact, there were a number of problems (see the Siedman book linked below). But imperfection has hardly stopped us from accepting massively worse systems, such as the one that is in place now. I am fascinated by the positive aspects of the Spanish revolution, and it gives me hope that similar experiments might be possible today (probably in developing countries, which serve as the best approximations for 1930s Spain).
Which brings me to the records themselves. In 1986, the Ex recorded four songs to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the revolution. Two songs are sung in English, and two are in Spanish. They are versions (or syntheses) of folk tunes sung by CNT-FAI partisans and those who aligned with them. Some of the words date back to earlier struggles, such as the defense against Napoleon’s 1808 invasion. The Ex’s arrangements of the songs fit snugly into the infinitely mutable realm of ‘Ex-music,’ and these are in fact some of my favorite Ex songs. The original release housed the two 7” discs in the front and back covers of a 144-page book compiling scores of CNT archival photos from the period of 1936-1939. It is a labor of love, as Begemot over at La Folie du Jour elaborates:
The Ex does not pretend to have accomplished a historical or scientific task, and they make this clear soon enough. They also deny any claim of objectivity: “…Thus [the foto collection] it is a compilation: neither chronological nor objective, but one-sided, partial and subjective. Only from the anarchist’s side…” Instead, they point out their aim, which has a double character: firstly, to show “…how much pleasure, imagination, devotion and energy the Spanish anarchists put in their effort to destroy once and for all the damned class of boots, ties and crucifixes…”, the fact that this attempt to revolution “…saw an explosion of creativity which only takes place when you’re finally able to conceive of something and follow through on it –to arrange your own life without hate and greed, without competition and oppression…” and finally how this effort “…was immediately [attacked], terrorized and destroyed by the state and the bourgeoisie…” Secondly, their aim is targeting to diagnose the similarities between the Spanish experiment and the present: “…For us the Spanish revolution is not just an event or incident, not just a chapter in a history book. It’s an attempt similar to what we are doing now: trying to get rid of this imposed shit system…” With that, the conclusion comes by the Ex as an afterword: for them, the anarchist experiment of the 30’s shows that “…it certainly is possible to bring an anarchist society into practice…’”
1. Stanley G. Payne. A History of Spain and Portugal, Vol. 2. “Chapter 25: The Second Spanish Republic.” 1973 Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. p. 630.
2. Ibid, p. 635.
3. Jackson, Gabriel. The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-1939. 1967 Princeton: Princeton University Press. p.161.
4. Noam Chomsky. “Objectivityand Liberal Scholarship.” Originally delivered as a lecture at New York University in March 1968.
5. Deidre Hogan. “IndustrialCollectivisation during the Spanish Revolution.” Red & Black Revolution No. 7, Winter 2003.
7. Burnett Bolloten. The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution. “Chapter6: The Revolution in the Countryside.” 1991 Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 65-66.
8. Ibid, p. 75.