The coup d'état in July 1936 opened the floodgates to revolution. 'If the military rising has evolved into a major war, it is mainly due to our militant intervention', claimed the anarchist Diego Abad de Santillán, recalling those events, thereby fuelling the myth that everything boiled down to a confrontation between the rebel army and the worker members of the CNT: 'It was not a case of the Republic managing to defend itself against aggression; it was us who, in defence of the people, made it possible for the Republic to survive, and it was us who ran the war'.3
One of the most pervading images from this victory of the libertarians leading the working people was that of a CNT-FAI delegation arriving at the palace of the Generalitat for a meeting with the president, Lluís Companys. They went there 'armed to the teeth . shirtless and covered in dust and smoke', according to the account written at the time by Juan García Oliver. Companys received them 'enthusiastically', to tell them that although in the past they had never been treated as they should have been, 'today you are the masters of the city and of Catalonia because you alone have defeated the Fascist forces'. 'If you have no need of me or do not want me as president of Catalonia, tell me now, and I will become just another soldier in the fight against Fascism'. And the CNT and the FAI, who had defeated Fascism, mobilised the people in the streets and had the political authorities where they wanted them, 'opted for collaboration and democracy, thereby renouncing revolutionary totalitarianism . . and an anarchistic confederate dictatorship'. Although they had the power to 'take it all', they rejected this ambition in an act of 'libertarian ethics'.4
Abad de Santillán, who was at that meeting, explained the reason for this 'exemplary' behaviour: 'we did not believe in dictatorship when it was being exercised against us, and we did not want it when we could have exercised it to harm the rest. The Generalitat would stay in office with President Companys at the head, and the
3 Diego Abad de Santillán, Por qué perdimos la guerra. Una contribución a la historia de la tragedia española, Ediciones Imán, Buenos Aires, 1940, pp. 9-10.
4 Juan García Oliver, El eco de los pasos, Ruedo Ibérico, Madrid, 1978, pp. 176-7.
people's forces would organise themselves to carry on the fight for the liberation of Spain'.5 Thus on 21 July, the Comité Central de Milicias Antifascistas was set up, consisting of five anarchists, three UGT leaders, one member from the PSUC, one from the POUM, one from Ezquerra Republicana, one from the Unió de Rabassaires, one from Acció Catalana and several military advisers. According to the anarchist literature, it saw the birth of a model of revolutionary organisation and power, an alternative to José Giral's 'central' government in Madrid. In fact, in the two months that it existed, until its dissolution at the end of September with the entry of the anarchists into the government of the Generalitat, it did little or nothing to 'organise' economic and political activity in Catalonia. Instead, its decrees were aimed at creating mechanisms of control for revolutionary order, recruiting and training militias, in which García Oliver and Abad de Santillán were leading figures, and exercising the 'sole command' of war operations in the Aragon theatre.
Many anarchists felt their dreams had been fulfilled. They were living a fantasy. It was short-lived, but those summer and autumn months of 1936 were the nearest thing to what they believed revolution and the collectivised economy should be. Little did it matter that the revolution accounted for the lives of thousands of people, 'inevitable excesses', 'an explosion of concentrated rage and breaking free from the chains', in the words of Abad de Santillán.6 The necessary destruction of this outdated order was somewhat insignificant, in any case, compared with the 'economic and social reconstruction' that was undertaken in July 1936, without precedent in world history. This was the blissful image of the earthly paradise portrayed in the anarchist literature, the declarations of Buenaventura Durruti to foreign correspondents, the press read by the workers of Barcelona and the militias on the Aragon front. 'The workers took possession of all the social wealth, the factories, the mines, land and sea transport, the large estates, the public services and major businesses'.7
The memory of this revolution, then, provoked conflicting reactions: for some, it represented destructive, radical upheaval; for others, it meant the creative capacity of the workers in industries and on lands
5 Abad de Santillán, Por qué perdimos la guerra, p. 53.
without bosses, self-management by the workers or the imposition of the principles of a minority leadership. Furthermore, this dichotomy is to be found in all revolutions and periods of change that have historically been accompanied by wars and international pressure. For the Spanish revolution, which the anarchists claimed as theirs exclusively, the militias, the collectivisations and the committees represented its principal distinguishing features.
The militias were the most important element of what the anarchists called 'the people in arms', columns formed by workers, peasants and those of the army and security forces who had not joined the rebellion. During the early months of the war, the militias dominated large areas, created revolutionary committees to replace the old councils in any town they passed through, settled scores with the middle classes, right-wingers and the clergy, and preached a revolution of expropriation and collectivisation. All the leading lights of these anarchist columns - including Durruti and Ricardo Sanz, who succeeded him in the command of the future 26th Division after the former's death, as well as Antonio Ortiz, Cipriano Mera and Gregorio Jover, who later commanded the 28th Division (the Ascaso Column) - were 'men of action', members of the main anarchist groups of the FAI during the Second Republic.
The ardent atmosphere of the summer of 1936 also saw the birth of peasant collectivisations. Collective farming was mainly organised on lands belonging to absentee owners, or those who had either been killed or had fled, or on estates directly requisitioned by armed groups and the revolutionary committees. Obviously, the coercion was more intense in the districts chosen by the columns as centres of operations. The need to establish these militias on a broad front meant that production and consumption had to be controlled, and this asphyxiated the fragile economy of many towns and villages. Even those who professed an unshakeable faith in collectivisation as a means of doing away with social inequality had to accept this harsh reality. This was war and, as El Frente, the mouthpiece of the Durruti Column, said, 'it is a fact of life that armies live off the land they have conquered'.8 A decree signed by Durruti himself in Bujaraloz, on 11 August 1936, abolished private ownership of 'large estates', declaring 'the people's ownership', under the control of the revolutionary committee, of 'all
8 El Frente, 29 August 1936.
farming tools, tractors, machinery, threshing machines, etc. belonging to the Fascist owners', and he demanded from the inhabitants of Bujaraloz their 'enthusiastic and unconditional support, both material and moral', because 'the armed struggle of the anti-Fascist militias is the safeguard of the interests of the working people'.9
The collective farms could only be set up because of the collapse of the rule of law following the coup d'état, and were not the natural result of the thrust or intensity of the social struggles, even though, until July 1936, they had left more of a mark in the large estate areas of Castilla-La Mancha and Andalusia than in Catalonia, Valencia or Aragon. In the early days, there was only a mixture of confusion and expectation in prospect. Once the military rebels had been defeated, their weaponry and those who had helped to defeat them went over to the militias and trade unions. The presence of this armed power prevailed in all the areas in which the rising had failed, but it was particularly noticeable in the eastern half of Aragon. There, from the start, the militias hampered any balance there might have been in other parts of republican territory between trade union organisations, armed groups and civilian authorities.
These new local powers backed up by arms gave rise to the requisitions, which in turn produced the collective farms. According to IRA (Institute of Agrarian Reform) figures, based on fifteen provinces that did not include Aragon or Catalonia, 5,458,885 hectares (approximately 40 per cent of the productive surface) had been expropriated up to August 1938; and of this expropriated land, 54 per cent would have been legally collectivised. In Aragon, the region that has always been cited as the most important focus of the peasant revolution, anarchist sources claimed that 75 per cent of the land was farmed collectively, yet we have no reliable information on how much land was expropriated. If we also consider that it was in the most highly populated towns that this new ownership regime was imposed the least, then it seems reasonable not to accept this estimate.
The same problems occur when we try to determine the number of collective farms. In the majority of cases, these same sources should be treated with caution. If we accept these figures, in the Andalusian provinces there were 147 collective farms (UGT, 42; CNT, 36; UGT-CNT, 38; other organisations, 31); in Castilla-La Mancha, 452 (UGT,
9 Solidaridad Obrera, 14 August 1936.
217; CNT, 186; mixed, 49); in Valencia, 353 (CNT, 264; UGT, 69; CNT-UGT, 20); in Catalonia, 95 (CNT, 43; UGT, 3; CNT-UGT, 18; other organisations, 31); in Murcia, 122 (CNT, 59; UGT, 53; mixed, 10); and in Aragon, 306 (CNT, 275; UGT, 31).
With the power vacuum created by the coup d'état, and a government whose decisions faced major obstacles to their application outside Madrid, the decision process lay in the hands of the militias and the political and trade union organisations. It was not a question of seeking alliances, but of finding an emergency solution that each organisation tried to turn into its own personal victory. And this was the reason for the chaos and improvisation that guided military actions, the trade unions' actions and the requisitions during the early months of the war.
This upsetting of the social order was also a genuine phenomenon of the revolution in industrial Catalonia. In the early days, disorganisation was rife, with owners, directors and managers either killed or fleeing their posts, panic-stricken about what lay in store for them. The time had come for the trade unions - or, to be more exact, those militants who had already made a name for themselves in the social struggles during the years of the Republic. The Regional Plenum of the Anarchist Groups of Catalonia, held on 21 August 1936, the first written record on this theme, discussed and approved 'the requisition and collectivisation of all establishments abandoned by their owners ... workers' control of banking businesses ... and particularly workers' union control of any industry that is still being run as a private company'.10
By the time labour activity had begun to return to 'normal' in the first half of August, the outlook for most companies was a matter for concern, and there was little hope that the crisis affecting some of the principal industrial sectors, particularly the textile industry, would now be drastically alleviated by union management. Historically, Catalonia had always experienced a shortfall in raw materials for its industry, energy sources and all types of food products. The war and the division of Spain into two zones led to a fall in demand in certain basic sectors and made it harder to import products, thereby increasing these structural problems. Industrial output fell sharply during the first two months of the conflict and wage increases were soon
10 From the Civil War Archive, Salamanca, file 39 for Barcelona.
dwarfed by the soaring cost of living. And all this was happening in a region with a population density much higher than the rest of Spain's (91.2 inhabitants per km2 as against 48.2) and in which the Generalitat estimated there were over 300,000 refugees by the end of 1936.
The Generalitat was slow to react. On 24 October 1936, one month after the incorporation of the CNT into its government, it issued the Decret de Col.lectivitzacions i Control Obrer del Consell d'Economia, the result of heated discussion among the political forces in the government, which provided a certain aura of legitimacy to the changes brought about by the revolution. It decreed the collectivisation of all businesses whose owners had been declared Fascists by a popular tribunal judgment or who had abandoned them; businesses that had more than a hundred employees before 30 June; and businesses with between fifty and a hundred employees, if this was the wish of three-quarters of the workforce. Branches of foreign businesses were given special treatment, a precaution that had previously been supported by the CNT since the early days of union control.
Many anarchists believed that with the overturning of the rule of law and this change in ownership, the revolution was now a fait accompli. The events of July 1936 had indeed caused the CNT's stock to rise dramatically. In Catalonia, the eastern half of Aragon and in certain districts of Valencia, its militants were convinced that they were absolute masters of the situation. They were no longer the 'disinherited', prison fodder, the favourite target of reactionary sentiments or those in power. Now the people - in other words, they - were armed and nothing and nobody could stop them. Everybody wanted to be a card-carrying member of the CNT. Solidaridad Obrera, the newspaper that was handed out free of charge in the streets of Barcelona during the first few days, soon reached its peak with so many people hungry for the latest news on the war and the revolution. Its circulation soared, from the 31,000 copies printed daily at the beginning of July, to 70,000 a few days after the rising and 150,000 by the end of August.
But for all its destruction and radicalism in the summer of 1936, the revolution had only just begun. Events immediately showed that the future was not so bright. The breach opened by the revolutionaries with their victory in Barcelona did not even reach Zaragoza. After a few weeks during which the political organisations seemed to welcome these forms of expression of popular power, the overthrow of the old order, it soon became clear that the revolutionary process - or what others termed a fight against Fascism in a civil war - was first and foremost a struggle for political and military power. It was a struggle for the control of arms and the changes wrought by them, for the reconstruction of a State weakened by the uprising, a struggle of popular impulse.
Committees sprang up everywhere. During that summer of 1936, republican Spain was a hotbed of armed and fragmented powers, difficult to keep in check. Catalonia had its Central Committee of AntiFascist Militias, in which the anarchists, led by Juan García Oliver, Aurelio Fernández and Diego Abad de Santillán, attempted to impose their will. Very soon afterwards, at the beginning of August, the Popular Executive Committee, with all political organisations represented, made its appearance in Valencia. In Málaga and Lérida there was a Committee of Public Health; in Santander, Gijón and Jaén, provincial committees of the Frente Popular; in Vizcaya, a Junta de Defensa; and in Madrid, as well as the National Committee of the Frente Popular, which organised militias and the life of the city, there was José Giral's government, which, made up as it was of left-wing republicans only, could not represent this jumble of committees, militias and control patrols, in which socialists and anarchists, UGT and CNT syndicalists were running the revolution, a revolution of destruction and murder, a revolution that was attempting to coax something new out of the ashes.
José Giral did what he could and what his duty as a loyal republican dictated. And considering that he was only a month and a half in office, what he did was fairly substantial. He asked France and the USSR for aid to defeat the military rebellion, started using the Bank of Spain's gold reserves to finance the war, dismissed any public servant suspected of siding with the rebels, and pronounced the first measures to check indiscriminate violence away from the front. This was on 23 and 25 August 1936, immediately after the killing of leading right-wingers and politicians in the Modelo prison in Madrid. Special tribunals were set up 'to try crimes of rebellion and sedition, and those committed against the security of the State'. They were made up of 'three judicial officials, who would act as de jure judges, and fourteen jurypersons who would rule on the facts of the case'.11 This 'emergency justice' of the Republic incorporated 'summary judgment' and several other elements of military procedure, without the need to resort to 'martial law', something the republican government did not declare until 9 January 1939.
On 24 and 28 August, the Generalitat issued very similar decrees, setting up 'popular juries for the repression of Fascism'. And it was not just a feature of Madrid or Barcelona: popular tribunals were subsequently set up in almost all the provinces of the republican zone. It marked the change, or so it seemed, from 'abnormality', in which the 'people', as García Oliver wrote, 'created and applied its law and procedure' (in other words, the paseo), to 'normality', a stage in which 'suspicious elements were to be handed over to the popular tribunals and tried with impartiality, with punishment meted out for the guilty and immediate release for the innocent'.12
But it took time for this 'normality' to arrive, and it had to clear a way for itself among the thousands of corpses that were left behind by the paseos, sacas and attacks on prisons. The Africa army was advancing relentlessly on Madrid, after overrunning Extremadura and large areas of Castilla-La Mancha. On 3 September, Yagüe's columns arrived at Talavera. That same day, in the north, where General Mola had launched an attack on Guipúzcoa, Irún fell. 'The government of the Republic is dead. It has no authority or competence, no plan for waging all-out war and finishing it with an absolute victory for the revolution', wrote Luís Araquistain, the left-wing socialist ideologist, to Largo Caballero on 24 August.13
Now that the military rebels were in Talavera, Giral really believed that he had no authority or backing, and he decided to 'present to H. E. the President of the Republic all the powers received from him, as well as the resignation of all the ministers', so that he could replace them with a government that would 'represent each and every one of the
11 Glicerio Sánchez Recio, Justicia y guerra en España. Los Tribunales Populares (1936-1939), Instituto de Cultura 'Juan Gil-Albert', Alicante, 1991.
13 Quoted in Santos Juliá, 'El Frente Popular y la política de la República en guerra', in Santos Juliá (ed.), Historia de España de Menéndez Pidal. República y guerra civil, 42 vols., Espasa Calpe, Madrid, 2004, vol. XL, p. 126.
political parties and trade union or workers' organisations acknowledged as having influence among the Spanish people'.14 The hour had come for the trade unions and Largo Caballero, the undisputed leader of the UGT.
Was this article helpful?