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Spain 1936

Katie Leonard

June 24, 2012

In 1936 in Spain, workers responded to a fascist uprising by organizing a revolution.

A few months after winning the election, the Popular Front government of Spain—a coalition of left-wing Republicans, Socialists and Communists—was faced by an uprising within the army. The major resistance to the army came from the two major labour unions in Spain at the time, the anarcho-syndicalist CNT and the socialist UGT. The militias organized by these unions fought against the army of the fascists and quickly suppressed the uprising in more than half of the country. With the country effectively split between the fascists and the Republic, the militias not only fought a civil war against the fascist army of Francisco Franco, but also led the revolution within Republican Spain.

As the revolution spread, the militias, factories, local governant and well farms were run collectively. Large sections of Spain were run by democratically elected committees, organized by local people.

Farm collectives

The militias played a significant role in the collectivization of farmland, especially in the early days of the war. As they liberated towns from fascist control, they would encourage democratic collectivization of cultivated lands for farming. Although the majority participated, land owners were not forced to join the collectives. Farmers were permitted to keep as much land as they could cultivate without hiring labourers.

The hope was that the minority would join the collectives voluntarily once it was shown how much more effective they were. Ricardo Zabalza, the general secretary of the National Federation of Land Workers, said, “I prefer a small, enthusiastic collective, formed by a group of active and honest workers, to a large collective set up by force and composed of peasants without enthusiasm, who would sabotage it until it failed.” He, and others like him, believed that well-run voluntary collectives would eventually attract the entire peasantry, who would see the practically in the structure. Leaders of the CNT and UGT understood how many small farmers had sacrificed to get even a small parcel of land, and that those farmers were very attached to their land. Even so, it was made clear by the unions that this was a temporary allowance, and that all land would be collectivized once the war ended.

In practice, many farmers were coerced through various means into joining collectives. The presence of armed militiamen, who supported the collectivization, was enough to convince some otherwise unenthusiastic landowners. Fear of reprisals from former workers led some medium-sized landowners to agree to conditions that they did not like. In addition, restrictions on hiring labourers and limits to the size of private farms meant that individuals had to work harder and would produce less than they had previously when they could exploit those they hired. If individual farmers did produce surpluses, they were forced to sell it to the local committee on the committee’s terms.


The liberal government in Madrid could not maintain control over all the small towns and villages in Republican Spain, and so Spain was awash in experiments with self-governance. A basic structure emerged: an elected committee was formed to control production and distribution and deal with conflicts. Authority was democratized by limiting the amount of time any one person could serve on the committee.

In some towns, wages were abolished and money was replaced with coupons that could be exchanged for commodities and services. According to a local libertarian newspaper, “Here in Fraga, you can throw banknotes in the street and no one will take notice.” Coupons were given out in equal amount to everyone who participated in the collective. Those who were exempt from work because of age or ability received the same amount as those who could and did work. Those who refrained from joining the collective were excluded from receiving services and products from the community, making life very difficult.

Other towns did not abolish money, but instead implemented one wage for everyone. In the town of Muniesa, bread, olive oil and meat were freely distributed to those in the collective, but money was still in circulation and used for supplementary supplies. Services were free and those who provided the services (doctors, teachers, barbers, etc) received the same wage from the committee as everyone else. Anarchists who did not join the militia saw themselves as the rearguard of the revolution. They were engaged in dismantling the class structures that kept power in the hands of a few, and replacing it with a system of self-rule that could resist the centralized government, which would attempt to reassert control at the end of the war.

Although the government maintained better control over the larger cities, the CNT and the UGT succeeded in expropriating factories and equipment from their former owners. Both large and small manufacturers were collectivized and the unions established equal wages for both employees and their former owners and managers.

In Barcelona alone, workers collectivized slaughterhouses, pasteurizing plants, and the wholesale business of fish and eggs. They shut down small and unsanitary plants and moved all equipment and production to the largest plants, where they operated with better efficiency. The unions took over the woodworking plants, keeping the former employers on as managers at the same pay as the workers, and concentrated production in the largest factories. The same efforts were made in the tanning trade and in barbershops and beauty parlours. Similar reorganization was going on in other cities across Republican Spain. In Valencia, socialization, as it was called, was going on in the metal and carpentry trades as well as in the dressmaking and tailoring industries. Even the candy industry in Torrente was socialized and production was centralized.

In the militias, officers were elected by battalions and answered to the troops who elected them. They received the same wage as rank-and-file militiamen and received no special rations or accommodations. Political and practical education took place among the militias; political theories were discussed and those who could read attempted to teach those who were illiterate. Although the amount of authority held by officers varied based on the individual battalion and their politics, officers were often expected to justify their orders. Although this had the potential to, and sometimes did, decrease the effectiveness of the troops, it was held as a vital principle of organization.


At the moment when the revolution had the opportunity to seize control of the state, and to centralize the struggle against the fascists, the anarchist-led organizations refused based on their opposition to “all states.”

This was a tragic error, as it allowed the revolution to become isolated, and allowed other forces to seize control of trade and finance, communications and broadcasting, and the army—all of which were used to crush the radical experiments in democracy at the local level.

Only the POUM, a small revolutionary socialist organization, argued for the necessity of forming a workers’ revolutionary government based on the power of local councils of workers, peasants and farmers. But they weren’t big enough to influence the debates and outcome of the struggle.

The experience of the Spanish Civil War shows both the possiblity of ordinary people building a new and better world and the necessity of revolutionary organization to help make those gains last.

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