The Spanish Revolution and the Politics of Syndicalism Part 1

CNT-armoured-car-factoryThe Spanish Revolution was one of the most extensive, if brief, experiments in mass workers’ control over production. The reorganization of production in revolutionary Spain was not uniform. The agrarian collectives in places such as Aragon and the Levante region were engaged in a much deeper social reorganization than the collective industries in Barcelona. This can be explained by the very different political and material situations in each. While I will not focus on the agrarian collectives, I will elaborate on why the collectivization was much more advanced in rural areas. I will examine the collectivization process in and around Barcelona and assess the success of workers’ control. However, before I do so, I will take a step back and quickly give some context to the revolution and to the Spanish anarchist movement.

The CNT (Confederación Nacional de Trabajo) at the time of the revolution was the largest trade union confederation in Spain. It represented over 950 unions whose combined membership was roughly a half-million workers. Even this number does not convey the full political force that the CNT had. As Antoni Castells Duran notes it is important to understand the difference between the CNT-organization and the CNT-movement. The latter being much bigger and having deeper roots, especially in the Catalan region of Spain. From its founding in 1910 up to 1936 the CNT had been subject to heavy state repression and its ideology reflected its antagonism with the state. The CNT was a loose confederation of unions that had adopted a libertarian communist political stance.[1] The CNT’s libertarian communism centred on the belief in workers’ self-management, however there was no real discussion about the concretes of this concept. Vernon Richards, in his analysis of the 1934 CNT Congress, the last major conference before the revolution, states that while CNT saw the current situation as potentially revolutionary it only vaguely discussed what a post-revolutionary society would look like. As Richards states “this attitude makes all the more surprising the lack of any discussion of the problems that might face the organization during the revolutionary period.”

When the workers of Barcelona defeated the military putsch in July of 1936 the immediate situation was clear. The workers, in Barcelona at least, were in complete control. The national government had no power, the military coup had been quashed in the city and the regional government was reduced to a shell of an authority. What followed next was a large wave of collectivization in which 70 to 80 percent of large factories, those employing more than a hundred people, were collectivized. It should be noted that both Barcelona in particular and Catalonia in general were densely populated places that were highly industrialized. In Barcelona, for instance, over sixty percent of the jobs were classified as industrial[2].

Though the focus here is not the political demise of the anarchist movement in Spain, one cannot ignore the political indecision that raked the CNT and the Federación anarquista ibérica (FAI) the most prominent anarchist grouping in the CNT. The indecisiveness after the uprising was defeated was one of the reasons that bureaucracy crept into the governance of the economy. The false choice of anarchist dictatorship or coalition presented by CNT leaders such Garcia Oliver and Frederica Montseny, correctly rejected by the CNT faction The Friends of Durruti, was symptomatic of the CNT/FAI’s inability to read the political into the economic[3].

The collectivization of the factories in Barcelona faced immediate structural problems mostly related to the war and the allied blockade of resources. When the dust settled in July the workers, who began to collectivize their factories, faced the immediate lack of managerial and technical knowledge. A large portion of technicians and former managers had deserted collectivized factories. Workers did persuade most technicians to return to work but they never won their political support because the workers’ self-management stance threatened their power. The other major immediate problem was the war. While the military coup had failed in Barcelona, the uprising had succeeded in a number of regions across Spain. The regions also happened to be where the majority of the war industries in Spain had been located. This put pressure on the workers in Barcelona to form their own war industries from scratch.

Not only did the reality of the war mean that the CNT needed to start of munitions production, form chemical industries and convert related manufacturing into war related production but the war put pressure on all industries to increase production. Although foreign trade for the industries in revolutionary Spain was not a significant factor, the allies’ non-intervention pact did prevent them from adjusting their production to produce for foreign trade and cut off valuable sources of materials. The war also meant an end to internal Spanish trade. The lack of war industries, raw materials, access to foreign markets and the demands of war production put the self-management of industry by the Spanish workers in a bind from the beginning. As Jose Peirats states, in his three volume study of the CNT in the Spanish Revolution the focus on destroying fascism means that the “ economies are molded and prosper by dint of work, work and more work.”

The CNT’s push for the rationalized workers’ control of factories met with many successes, including improved output and better health and safety conditions at work. The process of collectivization was not the same for each workplace or industry. However, in most places in Barcelona collectives followed a similar trajectory in the immediate aftermath of July. Many workers took over the factories and workplaces that management and owners had deserted during the general strike and street fighting. Augustin Souchy argues that the collectivization was completely spontaneous, there were no preparations and everything had to be improvised out of necessity. This isn’t to say that the libertarian communist influence of the CNT didn’t sway the workers to pursue collectivization in a certain anti-statist manner, rather it is to say the CNT as an organization had no plan.


[1] As Juan Gomez Casas notes that this stance was ill defined and that anarchists were always a minority in the CNT. (Casas 1986, 46)

[2] Barcelona had a population exceeding one million. (Duran 2002)

[3] The Friends of Durruti’s main critique here is that all revolutions are totalitarian. Meaning that two different economic and political systems cannot coexist. Is this not what Zizek is saying about the failure to reinvent dreams? Did not the CNT anarchists here confront the limitations of their initial political theory at the very moment they became the defacto “rulers” of Barcelona? Maybe the unthinkable idea of an anarchist dictatorship was actually the correct way forward?

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One response to “The Spanish Revolution and the Politics of Syndicalism Part 1

  1. Pingback: Piketty And Income Inequality - Page 16·

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