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What role did the Anarchists play in the Spanish Revolution during 1936?

Guest blog contributions - Fri, 18/04/2014 - 8:44pm

By Oliver, Sydney

I wrote the following essay for my HSC History Extension Major Work in 2012. The History Extension course in New South Wales allows students to devise their own question, do all their own research and their answer the question in 2500 words. Already identifying as an Anarchist for about a year and reading of its theory from the likes of Kropotkin, Chomsky, Goldman and Berkman, I decided that exploring the practical side to Anarchism would be a good way to approach my Major Work. This essay, a research logbook and annotated bibliography contributed 40% to my overall HSC mark in History Extension, all of which I received full marks for.

The Anarchists played a leading role in the Spanish Revolution, despite their varying backgrounds as urban workers, rural peasants or ‘leaders’ of the influential CNT-FAI Anarcho-Syndicalist union. In 1936 they were responsible for the organisation of defence, collectivisation and bringing the benefits of socialisation to Spain, particularly in the areas of social welfare, education and medical aid. Later that year, however, the roles polarised between those played by the CNT-FAI leaders and those of the Anarchist workers. The leaders entered the Left-Wing government in the name of anti-Fascist union, whilst the general populace maintained their grassroots, traditional Anarchist values and direct action.

In 1868, Anarchism found support among the agricultural population of Spain, establishing a strong tradition and belief in the ideology that prevails even today. Brought to Spain by Giuseppe Fanelli, the ideology appealed especially to the 70% of Spaniards working the land, two thirds of which was in the hands of 2% of landowners1. In 1869, two representatives from Spain met with the International Workingmen’s Association, or First International, at The Basle Congress. In subsequent years, a branch of this ideology, Anarcho-Syndicalism, emerged, leading to the formation of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (National Confederation of Labour), or CNT, in 1911 and the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (Iberian Anarchist Federation), or FAI, in 1927.

In the years prior to 1936, Spain underwent tumultuous political and social changes. The Second Spanish Republic, founded in 1931, inspired workers and peasants who, believing a republic would represent their interests better than the former monarchy, expected their living and working conditions to improve. However, little changed, even after the democratically elected left-wing Popular Front government took power in February 1936. Consequently, civil disobedience increased and prompted the Fascist general, Francisco Franco, to stage a coup d’état, in part a reaction to the growing revolutionary attitude. The result was a Civil War, ultimately between the people, led by the Anarchists, and Franco’s Fascist military.

Despite the significant role undertaken by the Anarchists in the Revolution, few historians have documented their part in the Revolution, or even the Civil War. Edward Conlon, writes that the Anarchists’ participation is a “hidden history”, which “has been either totally ignored or reduced to a few footnotes … often composed of blatant lies or generalised slander”. George Orwell attributes this disregard to Spanish History from this time being recorded primarily by Left-Wing historians highly unsympathetic to Anarchism. Due to their ideological differences or political concern, few foreign historians highlighted the role of Anarchists in the Revolution. Conlon and others, such as Noam Chomsky, record the part played by Anarchists as principally an organisational one in all areas of society, most significantly “the formation of militias, the expropriation and reorganisation of the land, and the seizures in industry”2.

An early role of the Anarchists was the coordination of resistance against Franco’s forces. This involved arming the people, after acquiring 40,000 weapons, largely rifles and cannons, seized from army barracks3. Combat led to the formation of barricades throughout cities to protect the Anarchist workers fighting in the streets. Anarchist historian, Peter Marshall, writes that due to the Anarchists’ rapid resistance against the army’s coup, “by the end of July, [Franco] was left in control of only half the country”4 after he had organised a rising across all of Spain. It is estimated that 150 000 workers joined the Anarchist militias from Barcelona in the first two weeks of the emerging Civil War 5. The Anarchists’ military skill is commended by the German historian, Augustin Souchy, who writes, “where Anarchists were dominant, the Rightist insurrection was smashed in a few days”6. Popular resistance was a leading role embraced by the Anarchists in July 1936. Without their quick organisation and direct action, Franco would have taken over Spain in short order due to the naivety and ineptitude of the Government.
The subsequent formation of voluntary military Columns, based on Anarchist principles, to defend the Revolution, was ultimately another primary role of the Anarchists. The largest and most successful of these was the Durruti Column, led by Buenaventura Durruti, until his death in late 1936. British author George Orwell comments on these Columns in his memoir, writing, “the Anarchists … were the backbone of the resistance”7. Later, he elaborates, “the Anarchist militia, in spite of their indiscipline, were notoriously the best fighters among the purely Spanish forces”8. Without the noteworthy role of the Anarchist forces in continued resistance, Spain would have fallen comparatively quickly to the Fascists.

Extensive agricultural collectivisation exemplifies the role of the CNT-FAI, with two-thirds of all land in the anti-fascist zone collectivised. The most detailed study lists a total of 1,700 agrarian collectives9 established during the Revolution. French author Daniel Guérin records that “90 percent of land workers chose to join collectives from the very beginning”10. Aragon was arguably the greatest example of agricultural collectives, with more than three-quarters of the land socialised. As the Anarchist Columns made their way to the various military fronts, they would assist those peasants who wished to establish Anarchists collectives. Juan Giménez, a member of the Durruti Column, provides a first hand account of how, with his comrades’ help, they “transformed society with self-management and a series of collective activities”11. The success of widespread collectivisation resulted in half a million members joining 450 collectives in Aragon alone12. By the end of 1936, a recorded three million people were living in collectives throughout rural Spain13. Collectivised agriculture produced yields significantly higher than before the Revolution, despite the many who left to volunteer for the Columns. Souchy, who visited over a hundred Spanish collectives, writes of the increased production in his account of agricultural collectives during the Revolution, A Journey Through Aragon. For example, “production of potatoes increased 50 percent … and the production of sugar beets and feed for livestock doubled”. He concludes that during the Revolution, “the yield per hectare was 50 percent greater on collective property than on individually worked land” 14.

Mutual aid is a core principle of Anarchism and is highlighted through their role in cooperation between collectives. José Sauces, the CNT Delegate of Provisions, describes the mutual aid organised between the collectives of each region. He gives the example of the Levante region being richer in wheat than others, and as such, any excess not needed for consumption would be sent to other regions with depleted supplies. In return, regions with larger yields of sugar, for example, would distribute their surplus to Levante. A key role of the Anarchists was their focus on maintaining mutual aid, seen in the CNT-FAI’s establishment of The Federation of Collectives. It comprised democratically elected representatives, facilitating communication between collectives, so that the supplies of each could be distributed to those in need.

The Anarchists also strove to create a more efficient system by ‘socialising’ industry in areas over which they held influence, becoming a crucial role in raising production levels, as well as bringing greater equality. This was most evident in Anarchist controlled Catalonia, which had 70 percent of all Spain’s industry and 50 percent of its industrial workers. 3,000 enterprises were collectivised by the CNT-FAI in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia,15 so that “80 percent of companies [were] collectivised and all services managed by the workers”16. Yet the Anarchists did not simply ‘seize’ urban workplaces from their bourgeoisie oppressors; they sought to create a more successful system throughout Spain. “Extensive reorganisation took place to make industry more efficient”17, in an effort by the proletariat “to fulfil their collective dreams of social and economic justice”18. The success of industry under the influence of the CNT-FAI spread with the Revolution, “forming a more or less solid block from Malaga to the French frontier, with considerable power also in Asturias and Madrid”19.

The extremely high level of unemployment in Spain prior to the Revolution, with one third of the reported working population jobless20, was targeted by the Anarchists. Right-libertarian Bryan Caplan, Professor of Economics at George Mason University, argues, “Unemployment by all accounts was correspondingly high” throughout the Revolution, and he criticises the CNT-FAI for their negligence. However, Caplan only references British Marxists Hugh Thomas and Ronald Fraser, lacking any first hand sources. He then writes unemployment fell by 10 percent between 1936 and 1937, yet he considers this a “truly abysmal performance”21. Conversely, Juan Romero, who was working in Spain at the time, explains, “The rich said there were 500 workers too many, the workers said there were five too many. When those five disappeared, there was work for everyone.”22 Without the bourgeoisie, Anarchists were able to play a leading role in the running of industry and their workplaces, allowing them to concentrate on communal needs, such as full employment.

One major role undertaken by the CNT-FAI was the closure of those workplaces deemed inefficient and uneconomic. This allowed production to be concentrated where the best equipment and conditions were available. In Barcelona, over 70 unsanitary milk pasteurising plants were shut down. Emma Goldman records that before the Revolution, this same milk industry “had a working capacity to produce 7,000 litres of milk daily”, yet after being socialised, “it could handle 100,000”. This massive improvement in production coincided with the closing of plants and reduction of employees from 350 to 200, allowing workers to seek jobs in areas where needed urgently or to volunteer for the Columns.

Industrial productivity doubled by the end of the Revolution due to the significant role played by the anarchists23. Edward Conlon writes that the unsympathetic Left-wing government even “admitted that the war industry of Catalonia produced ten times more than the rest of Spanish industry put together, and that this output could have been quadrupled if Catalonia had the access to necessary means of purchasing raw materials”, which had been withheld from Anarchist controlled industry by the government.

The Anarchists aimed to increase equality across the socialised nation. Benefits from the collectivisation of both agriculture and industry included social service, education and medical aid. It has been noted, “even hostile sources acknowledged that the Revolution brought an increase in social services”24. One such source is José Palou Garí’s Thirty-Two Months Of Slavery In The Red Zone Of Spain, which, although generally condemning Anarchism and the Revolution, praises the work in areas of community service.

An important role of the Anarchists was to establish public service organisations across the country, dealing for example with food distribution and housing for refugees of the Civil War. During the general strike that accompanied the beginning of the Revolution, Anarchists formed committees to organise food distribution throughout the barris, the working class quarters. After the resumption of work, this system was restructured, and ‘communal eating houses’ were instituted, which provided meals for members of the militia and urban workers. These were commonly in buildings previously exclusive to the bourgeois, such as the CNT-FAI controlled Hotel Gastronómico No. 1, formerly the Barcelona Ritz. Similarly, the office of the Barcelonan employers’ association and some previous homes of the bourgeoisie were converted into either public restaurants or housing for those left homeless by the Civil War25. Goldman describes associations, such as the Durruti-Ascaso Colony, founded to accommodate orphans produced by the Civil War. 200 children were looked after by “our comrades of the CNT-FAI [who] are doing their utmost to give to all children the necessities and care of life”26.

The Anarchists’ strong commitment to education was displayed throughout the Revolution, and observed firsthand by Goldman in her description of the La Escuela Nueva Unificada (the Council for the New Unified School) formed on 27 July 1936. Chris Ealham, a specialist in Spanish labour history and movements writes of the education boom created by the Anarchist pedagogues, which in the early months of the Revolution caused the number of schoolchildren in l’Hospitalet to double, rising to 8,000. He goes on to record, “during the same period, over 20,000 new school places were established in Barcelona alone, creating a right to education that had never existed previously”. The CNT-FAI also extended their programme to include classes for adults through neighbourhood councils, as many were illiterate and wished to gain a level of education already established in other European nations. Caplan argues, however, that “the Anarchists’ much-praised focus on education seems far more malevolent”, representing a form of indoctrination. In reply, Iain McKay criticises this, explaining that Spanish Anarchist schooling was based on the system of ‘Free Schooling’, which gives Caplan’s denouncement “no basis in fact”27. Either way, there is no doubt that greater levels of education in Spain resulted from the active role of the Anarchists, who were able to create a suitable educational network, especially in Catalonia.

In response to the public’s anxieties surrounding the lack of medical care for wounded soldiers, the Anarchists also played a significant role in developing a programme to both educate personnel and establish care centres. This initially led to the creation of ‘transitory hospitals’, set up to administer to the wounded street fighters repelling Franco’s troops from the cities. By the end of 1936, the medical standard had risen, and “for the first time in Spain, many workers had the benefit of a health service, organised by the CNT Federation of Health Workers”, allied with the various Anarchist collectives28. Ealham describes how “in addition to the many local medical centres located in houses once owned by the rich, six new hospitals had been established” in Barcelona alone. The nationwide Federation of Health Workers consisted of 40,000 health workers; its scale and work a testament to the Anarchists. Goldman describes how through the Solidaridad Internacional Antifascista (International Anti-Fascist Solidarity) organisation, the Spanish Anarchists were able to develop their social relief and medical aid scheme, creating greater “care for disabled militias, a hospital and dispensary treating an average of 80 patients daily, and an ambulance”.

The role played by the Anarchists was instrumental from the origin and beginning of the Spanish Revolution, to its organisation and progression throughout 1936. They undertook significant roles in creating voluntary militias, collectivising both agriculture and industry, and endeavoured to bring equality to the nation in areas such as social aid and education. Yet, in late 1936, a division between the CNT-FAI leaders and the Anarchist workers who supported the union was created, when several leaders entered Francisco Largo Caballero’s Left-Wing government in the name of anti-fascist unity. Despite its later suppression and demise, the Spanish Revolution in 1936, “put into practice Anarchist ideas … production increased, work conditions improved, and there was greater social equality, whilst the economy functioned more rationally”29. As stated by Concha Liaño, “we were able to show that the collectives worked, everything worked”. However, this divide would prompt Leon Trotsky to observe that the CNT-FAI had become the “fifth wheel on the cart of bourgeois democracy”30. Their decision to join the government ultimately marked the beginning of the demise in Anarchist influence and control in anti-Fascist Spain.


  1. ‘Anarchists In The Spanish Civil War’, Geoff Bailey
  2. ‘The Spanish Civil War: Anarchism In Action’, Edward Conlon
  3. ‘Living Utopia’, Directed by Juan Gamero, Anarchist Film Channel, 1997 (English Subtitles)
  4. Demanding The Impossible: A History Of Anarchism, page 460, Peter Marshall, 2008
  5. ‘Two Weeks That Shook Spain’ – Andrew Flood
  6. Beware! Anarchist: A Life For Freedom, Augustin Souchy, 1992 (English Translation)
  7. Homage To Catalonia, page 200, George Orwell, 1989
  8. Homage To Catalonia, page 211
  9. Collectives In The Spanish Revolution, Gaston Leval, 1975
  10. Anarchism: From Theory To Practice, page 131, Daniel Guérin, 1970
  11. ‘Living Utopia’, Juan Gamero
  12. Anarchism: From Theory To Practice, page 134
  13. Demanding The Impossible: A History Of Anarchism, page 462
  14. Beware! Anarchist: A Life For Freedom, Augustin Souchy
  15. ‘The Spanish Civil War: Anarchism In Action’, Edward Conlon
  16. ‘Living Utopia’, Juan Gamero
  17. ‘The Spanish Civil War: Anarchism In Action’, Edward Conlon
  18. Anarchism And The City, Chris Ealham, 2010
  19. ‘The Anarchist Revolution In Spain’, Cyril Connolly, 1936
  20. ‘The Spanish Civil War: Anarchism In Action’, Edward Conlon
  21. ‘The Anarcho-Statists Of Spain’, Bryan Caplan, 1996
  22. ‘Living Utopia’, Juan Gamero
  23. ‘Living Utopia’, Juan Gamero
  24. Anarchism And The City, page 181
  25. Anarchism And The City, pages 180-182
  26. Vision On Fire: Emma Goldman On The Spanish Revolution, page 87-88
  27. ‘Objectivity And Right-Libertarian Scholarship’, Iain McKay, 1997
  28. ‘The Spanish Civil War: Anarchism In Action’, Edward Conlon
  29. ‘Living Utopia’, Juan Gamero
  30. Lessons Of Spain: The Last Warning, Leon Trotsky, Socialist Appeal Press 1937


  • Bailey, Geoff. ‘Anarchists In The Spanish Civil War’, International Socialist Review, No. 24, July 2002.
  • Caplan, Bryan. ‘The Anarcho-Statists Of Spain’, 1996.
  • Chomsky, Noam. Chomsky On Anarchism, AK Press, 2009.
  • Conlon, Edward. ‘The Spanish Civil War: Anarchism In Action’, 1993.
  • Connolly, Cyril. ‘The Anarchist Revolution In Spain’, New Statesman, 21st Novermber 1936.
  • Cunningham, Ray. ‘Which Way To The Revolution?’, Red And Black Revolution, Number 1, 2001, pg 13-16.
  • Dolgoff, Sam. ‘Anarchists In The Spanish Revolution’, ( From Fragments: A Memoir) Refract Publications, 1986.
  • Ealham, Chris. Anarchism And The City, AK Press, 2010.
  • Flood, Andrew. ‘Two Weeks That Shook Spain’, Workers Solidarity, Number 49, 1996.
  • Fontenis, George. ‘The Revolutionary Message Of The Friends Of Durruti’, 2000. (English Translation)
  • Gamero, Juan. ‘Living Utopia’, Anarchist Film Channel, 1997.
  • Graham, Helen. The Spanish Civil War, Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Guérin, Daniel. Anarchism: From Theory To Practice, Monthly Review Press, 1970.
  • Hogan, Deirdre. ‘Industrial Collectivisation During The Spanish Revolution’,  Red And Black Revolution, Number 7, 2003, pg 16-21.
  • Leval, Gaston. Collectives In The Spanish Revolution, Freedom Press, 1975.
  • McKay, Iain. ‘Objectivity And Right-Libertarian Scholarship’, 1997.
  • Marshall, Peter.     Demanding The Impossible: A History Of Anarchism, Harper Perennial, 2007.
  • Mompo, Enric. ‘Was There A Spanish Revolution?’, Razón y Revolución, Number 3, January 1997.
  • Orwell, George. Homage To Catalonia, Penguin Books, 1989.
  • ‘Spilling The Spanish Beans’, 1937.
  • Porter, David. Vision On Fire: Emma Goldman On The Spanish Revolution, AK Press, 2006.
  • Souchy, Augustin. Beware! Anarchist: A Life For Freedom, Charles H. Kerr, 1992. (English Translation)
  • ‘A Journey Through Aragon’, (From The Anarchist Collectives) Free Life Editions, 1974.
  • Trotsky, Leon. Lessons Of Spain: The Last Warning, Socialist Appeal Press, 1937.



Categories: Blog

The revolutionary art of conversation

Jeremy's blog - Tue, 25/02/2014 - 12:08pm

We anarchists are often terrible at real conversations. The more introverted of us prefer reading quietly, while the more extroverted of us spend our time ranting at friends who already agree with us (online or in person). When we meet someone who is actually interested in anarchism, some of us will direct them to a book, others will bore them with a lecture, and others will ignore them - sure that they must be a cop. We hope people will spontaneously develop anarchist ideas, rise up and create a better society. But how is that strategy working out for us?

Perhaps we avoid real political conversations because we see them as inherently authoritarian? Certainly the sorts of people who regularly have these conversations - union organisers, Leninists, preachers and politicians - use them to manipulate and control.

But approaching a conversation with a clear political intention is not inherently authoritarian. In fact, if you don’t consciously choose your words and actions, you are more likely to fall into the authoritarian ways of interacting that are standard in this society. It’s better to think before we speak, and better still to translate anarchist politics into a conversational approach that is effective organising.

Organising means facilitating the process whereby people become angry and hopeful enough to overcome the passivity and brainwashing of the social system. In my earlier article, Organising in Australia, I argued that if we want to see social change along anarchist lines, we need to improve our organising. In this article I will focus on the most important skill of organising: the one-to-one, face-to-face conversation.

If you aren’t having regular, face-to-face political conversations, you aren’t organising effectively. No amount of writing, reading, gigs, or online posting will create the revolution. To organise a movement, we need to have thousands of conversations. Not chats or rants, but intentional conversations aimed at developing anarchist ideas, empowering people and bringing them into relationships of solidarity with each other. It doesn’t matter whether you’re quiet or loud, articulate or reticent: we all need to improve the quantity and quality of our conversations.

In order to begin the vital task of developing an anarchist approach to intentional conversation, we need to look at different organisers’ approaches. In this article I will discuss approaches from the union movement, community organising, and the feminist and enviro movements. We need to engage with these methods, with a view to adopting some components, while rejecting others which are authoritarian or apolitical.

Structured conversations

Unions in Australia tend to have a very tightly controlled approach to political conversations. It’s not uncommon in big organising campaigns for every single conversation between an official and a worker to be planned, structured, scripted, counted, categorised, debriefed, and analysed. This is because unions know that these conversations are the basis for organisation and power.

The classic conversation structure is ‘Anger Hope Action.’ Picture yourself as an organiser; you might spend five or more minutes finding the worker’s issues and agitating around them: eg ‘What’s the pay like here?’ ‘Does the management treat you with respect?’ ‘That doesn’t seem fair.’ Then you’ll spend a few minutes trying to inspire the worker with hope about the campaign: ‘Lots of other workers here have been saying the same thing, that’s why everyone is getting together in the union.’ ‘Last year workers at company X got a pay rise through running a campaign like this one.’ Finally, you’ll move on to the action, the ‘ask’: ‘Are you ready to join your union today?’ ‘Can all the other workers count on you to come to the picket on Friday?’ Other elements of the conversation that might come into play include building rapport, countering objections, and inoculating against management tactics.

The development of this ‘issues-based organising’ approach is often attributed to Saul Alinsky, who worked as a community organiser for many decades, beginning in Chicago in the 1930s. It is a powerful method with a proven success rate, however it has some problems. Firstly, the conversations (and the campaigns they are a part of) are not transformative or revolutionary, but focus on mobilising large numbers of people around pre-determined issues. Issues that have been chosen (by the 'leadership') because they are winnable in the current system, or suit the institution running the campaign. The organisation that is built through this process is instrumental, and often disappears when the issues are resolved (or turn out to be too big to resolve). The conversation and the campaign itself is focussed on tasks and incremental changes, not relationships or qualitative change. The sort of questions asked are those where the organiser already knows the answer. Also, it is a hierarchical approach, where a specialist organiser exercises a significant degree of power over the people being organised.

Relational organising

Unlike ‘issues-based organising’ which relies on pre-existing communities and pre-determined issues, ‘relational organising’ seeks to build community where there wasn’t any before. This is done through building trust and relationships, through conversations based on honesty and human warmth. The focus is on common values and relationships, not issues and anger. The goals and targets arise out of the process, from the people themselves. The focus is on the process, not solely on the tasks to be completed. And the organisation which is built this way lasts beyond specific issues - because it is based on cooperation and genuine relationships.

Edward T Chambers is a well-known community organiser (also in the Alinsky tradition) who argues for relational organising and the ‘relational meeting’. He defines it as a one-to-one, face-to-face, pre-scheduled, 30-minute meeting, outside the busy schedule of life and work. A good relational meeting involves ‘connection, confrontation and exchange’. It will have an intensity, a purpose and a focus beyond ordinary conversation.

As an organiser, you need to use your whole self in a relational meeting. You need to connect at the emotional level, before the intellectual level. Non-verbal communication is very important: keep eye contact, smile and be friendly, lean forward and nod to communicate interest, and try not to make the person uncomfortable by standing too close (or too far away).

Relational meetings should be mutual and reciprocal. Both people must be prepared to be open and vulnerable about their passions and values. They must be willing to question and doubt their own beliefs, and truly value the other person’s perspective and stories. A good relational meeting will expose two people to the deepest levels of what they care about and are willing to act on. This is why these conversations can be revolutionary in themselves.

Stories are a vital part of relational meetings. When people tell their stories, they become more conscious of their past, present and future, and their potential to change that future. As an organiser, you need to take risks and share some stories about yourself, as well as getting the person to tell their own stories. You should have a repertoire of stories (that you have written out and practiced in advance) that explain who you are, why you do what you do, why you’re an anarchist etc. Stories are an extremely effective way of communicating; people will remember good stories even if they forget your name. Good stories have a plot, obstacle and climax; they include description and imagery.

Although relational organising is a powerful tool, it too has it’s limitations. Its practitioners tend to be very selective - only having relational meetings with ‘leaders’, and writing off everyone else as a ‘follower’. It also tends to be aligned with faith-based organising and can be very conservative in its goals. If all the emphasis is on building good relationships and confidence in the community, relational organising can simply accommodate people to the status quo. Also, relational organisers always look for ‘things we all have in common’ - and may try to include bosses, politicians and other ruling class types in the feel-good love-in.

Good listening

The approaches to conversation discussed so far are effective for mobilisation, but - especially in the hands of union officials - they tend towards authoritarianism and Taylorism (minute control over behaviour for maximum efficiency). They lack revolutionary spirit. I would now like to look at some methods and skills developed in the feminist and enviro movements. These methods suggest ways to open up the really transformative potential your conversations. The first and most important of these skills is good listening.

Good listening requires a discipline of the ego - you need to spend less time talking and thinking about yourself, and more time focussing on the other person. Silence your cynicism and arrogance, and don’t get impatient - even if you think you already know what they are saying. Don’t let your mind wander while they are speaking. Don’t interrupt.

Listening requires respect. If you don’t respect the person, you won’t be able to listen or engage meaningfully. It is a basic principle for many radicals (feminists, anarchists and others) to value the individual, their diversity, equality and participation. So, listen without judgement, with an open mind and genuine interest in where the other person is coming from. Listen for their passions and motivations, their ideas about change, their dreams and the blocks to them taking action. You can recall these elements to help them find hope and take action.

Really trying (and wanting) to listen can be challenging, but it is also deeply rewarding and is a way to connect to the humanity in others and ourselves. Listening is one way to show you care about someone, and people won’t listen to what you say unless they see that you care.

When you really listen, people may open up and talk about strong emotions such as suffering. This can be confronting, and you may feel like backing away, or intellectualising. Much better is to just listen and try to empathise, even if this exposes your own limitations and helplessness surrounding the issues at stake. Give the person your full attention, and you may both grow from the experience.

Strategic questioning

Good listening goes hand in hand with effective questioning. Short, succinct questions can unlock new and powerful ideas in the person you are talking with. Questioning is a basic tool of rebellion, and can cut through fear, ideology and apathy.

Fran Peavey, a well-known practitioner of strategic questioning, defines strategic questioning as a way of facilitating ‘dynamic listening’, where the participants create new ideas together about what could be. Answering a question can be an empowering experience; much more transformative than just being given a solution. The person feels ownership over their answer, even if it has been said many times before.

Critical educator Paolo Freire talks about the need for the oppressed to be agents of their own liberation. Through developing a critical consciousness, people break through the dominant silencing culture and begin to remake themselves. Strategic questioning is a process that can help a person develop this critical consciousness for  themselves and begin to ask their own questions and find their own solutions.

Strategic questioning is not about asking questions to manipulate. The goal isn’t to lay traps to get the answer you want! Strategic questions are open-ended and seek to uncover options. Your intention is important: rather than trying to put ideas into a person’s head, you are really trying to learn from them and help them develop what’s already in their head.

Strategic questioning is the skill of asking the questions that will make a difference. Questions that avoid simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Questions that create the confidence that change can happen. Some examples (depending on the context) might be:

  • What leads you to say that?
  • How come it matters?
  • How would you like it to be?
  • What are changes you have seen or read about?
  • How did those changes come about?
  • What would it take for you to participate in...?
  • Who else cares about this?

‘Why’ questions are controversial. When we ask them of ourselves they can be profound: ‘Why are things the way they are?’ ‘Why am I doing what I do?’ ‘Why don’t I spend more time doing the things I say are important to me?’ They can prompt a powerful focus on values and meaning. However, when you ask someone else a ‘why’ question they may feel forced to defend the existing state of affairs. For example, compare: ‘Why haven’t you joined this campaign’ to ‘What has kept you from joining this campaign?’

Strategic questioning is powerful and transformative in itself, however this can lead practitioners to a problematic rejection of political content. It is argued that the role of the strategic questioner is solely to uncover the solutions that the questionee already has in their head - even if the questioner disagrees with these solutions. The questioner is expected to put all of their opinions to one side, as they will ‘not be useful’ to the questionee. Most of us anarchists would have a hard time doing that! I think it’s fine that we want to expose people to perspectives that do not have mainstream circulation, and engage with people critically around false ideas. The challenge is to do this effectively and respectfully.

Towards anarchist conversation

There is value in each of the approaches and techniques discussed above; there are also flaws. I think each of us should be experimenting with parts of these approaches in our conversations. You already have a powerful vision, and a passion for social change; people will join you if you have inspiring conversations with them!

Together we need to develop an anarchist approach to organising. As a start, I think we need to increase the number and quality of face-to-face conversations that we have. These encounters must have some degree of structure and intentionality; they must build strong relationships between people, and they must involve good listening and strategic questioning.

We need to be persuasive - not by ranting or writing well, but by talking honestly with people, and by building trust and respect. These interactions help us to build organisation, and also to develop our humanity in the midst of the dehumanising system we find ourselves in.

We all need to be organisers - not paid professionals, but good listeners who help people to empower themselves and make connections with others in their communities, working towards revolutionary goals. An organiser must not be a specialist who selects and manipulates a few privileged leaders, but rather one of an ever-growing number of empowered rank-and-filers. An organiser is someone who practices and shares the skills of organising. Everyone must be an organiser. Including you.

Useful References

  • Barefoot Collective, www.barefootguide.org
  • Edward T Chambers, ’Roots for Radicals’
  • Fran Peavey, ’Strategic Questioning Manual’
  • Lawrence O’Halloran, ’Relational Organising’
  • Luke Bretherton, ’The Origins of Organising’
  • Paolo Freire, ’Pedagogy of the Oppressed’
  • Saul Alinsky, ’Rules for Radicals’
  • School of the Americas Watch, ’Working together for change’ in the ’Handbook for Nonviolent Action’
  • The Change Agency, ’10 rules for one-on-ones’
Categories: Blog

Organising in Australia

Jeremy's blog - Tue, 25/02/2014 - 12:06pm

Making social change in Australia isn't easy.

The Australian system of capitalism and government offers a range of comforts and opportunities to the exploited in order to keep us docile. At the same time, vast resources are channeled into an all-pervasive and self-sustaining system of thought control, disseminated through schools, universities, workplaces and mass media. The persistent message is that life in Australia is as good as it gets – or will be as long as we keep shopping. The whole edifice is underwritten by a ferocious exploitation of the planet and its people, and by the brute force of the State when necessary, with its administrative, surveillance, policing, and military apparatuses.

A number of other factors combine to create the Australian context: the society’s origins in dispossession and attempted genocide of Aboriginal people; the wilful ignorance and suppression of our history of oppression and resistance; the dispersion of a small population over a vast geography; the sense of exceptionalism and isolation from the rest of the world; the tight control of migration to strengthen reactionary forces; the political culture steeped in passivity and representative disempowerment; and the heavily bureaucratised union movement that frequently accepts the morbid embrace of government and bosses.

It’s not easy to organise in this context. We often try to impose tactics and strategies that worked in other times and places, but are ill-suited to our present needs. Instead, we need to understand and develop our own models of organsing.

Why organise?

Most of us actually agree on what that better world would look like. A world based on freedom, equality and dignity, where people control their own communities, work is meaningful and productive and human beings coexist peacefully with each other and sustainably on the earth. But how do we achieve this vision?

It’s deluded to think that we can achieve this world through gradual reforms enacted through parliament. It’s deceitful to argue that we can achieve it by seizing control of the government and using its essentially authoritarian apparatus to force people to be socialists. And it’s a dream to think that the entire population will wake up one day, realise they’re insurrectionists and spontaneously and instantly create the anarchist society.

We need to build a sustained revolutionary movement. A movement grounded in long-term, politically-conscious, mass-based organisation that can achieve social revolution.

What is organisation?

Organisation is a type of relationship between people. A relationship of solidarity, mutual aid, and common purpose. Organisation also implies a degree of structure, permanence and formality. Organisation does not have to be a political party.

Who is an organiser?

There is widespread discontent and resistance among millions of people in Australia. They talk to each other and build networks and take a variety of political actions. In this sense many people (who don’t think of themselves as such) are activists, agitators and organisers.

However I believe there is a role for those of us who have developed a particular interest in political activity.

Being an organiser doesn’t mean appointing yourself as the leadership, intelligence or professional arm of the movement. Instead it means fostering the capacity of participants in the movement to manage their own struggle, to build organisational relationships with others, to develop their political ideas and communicate those ideas with others, to participate in the revolution.

Those who see any sort of organiser role as authoritarian or elitist might enjoy their purist critique from their armchairs. But it’s extremely destructive to tell the few people in this world who are willing to commit themselves wholeheartedly to social change that they shouldn’t do so because it’s hierarchical. It is important to recognise our privilege as activists, but that’s precisely why those of us with anarchist ideas should work to be organisers who devolve power and increase the participation of others.

The union organising model in Australia

The union movement is the largest and arguably the most significant political force in Australia. It’s worth considering the union approach to organising, with its strengths and weaknesses.

Over the last fifteen years, a strategy know as ‘the organising model’ has gained popularity in Australian unions. Most unions in this country now either embrace or at least acknowledge the organising model as a whole or in part. The organising model was developed in order to reverse the crisis in unionism – the steep decline in union membership worldwide. Most would agree that this crisis is interconnected with the low state of political consciousness and organisation among the working class.

The organising model is usually contrasted with the ‘servicing model’. In the latter, unions are basically insurance companies that charge members a fee in exchange for industrial advice and other services (from movie tickets to funeral plans). Notionally, this model was prevalent in the 1980s under the Accord, where unions bargained centrally through legalistic, government-controlled arbitration with almost no involvement from members. Not surprisingly, members grew to see little value in their unions, and left en masse when closed shops were abolished. Many unions continue to function in whole or part with a servicing mentality – whether or not they adopt the rhetoric of organising.

The organising model draws a great deal on the union experience in the United States, where the union movement (although smaller and beset by many problems) is often more militant and connected organically with working class communities.

The Australian union organising model is characterised by a range of tactics and structures. The focus is on growing and building power in existing and new areas of membership. The union runs large, well-funded campaigns in areas significant for membership, economic, or tactical reasons. Specialist roles are created such as ‘lead organisers’ (who manage other organisers), corporate researchers, communications officers, and political (ie electoral) campaigners. Organisers work to develop activists and leaders amongst the membership who can solve problems for themselves, rather than organisers solving problems for members. Conversations with members are carefully structured and often scripted.

The organising model is a significant improvement on the 1980s when unions were virtually subsumed into government. It’s also better than the 1990s when they scrambled to make sense of haemorrhaging membership and conservative attacks. It is the more progressive elements within the Australian union movement who champion the organising model. They have had some success transforming some unions from zombie-like institutions into active, growing, social movement organisations.

However the Australian union organising model has a number of failings. It is very hierarchical and centralised in it’s structure. Although it seeks to activate members and develop member leaders, the high level of professionalisation and specialisation of an elite union bureaucracy works to exclude members from deeper participation. Another fundamental plank of the organising model is higher union dues – to fund the glitzy campaigns and expert roles. This leads to a greater disjunction between rank-and-file members whose main contribution is funding, and the paid organisers and communications experts who run campaigns as a substitute for mass action. Higher fees can also reinforce a servicing mentality.

However the core problem with the organising model is that it is set of tactics that doesn’t challenge the fundamental approach unions have towards capitalism, politics, and members. Organising model unions have been known to do deals with bosses that help the union grow, but at the expense of members involved. Even the best deals deliver only a small increase in pay or conditions, while strictly avoiding any deeper challenge to capitalism. They also talk about ‘doing politics differently’ but continue to get ALP politicians elected who do nothing for workers, and in fact channel workers into the disempowering system of parliamentary democracy. And ultimately, the unions continue to function without real internal democracy – members vote once every few years (if at all) for the leadership instead of regularly participating in setting the union’s direction.

The organising model is a step forward, but if unions continue to operate as a special sort of business, they will not reach their revolutionary potential. I would argue that we activists and agitators should join our unions and work to democratise them and bring anti-capitalist politics into the organising model.

Anarchist organising in Australia

Anarchists in Australia have a varied approach to organising. Some of us spend a lot of time doing it, others reject it altogether. There are very few actions organised by anarchists, and very few organised political interventions by anarchists. This is partly because there aren’t very many of us, but more because of the hostility towards conventional methods of organising that is fashionable with some.

The anarchist hostility to organising originates, I believe, from our experience of authoritarian forms of organising, such as the union model described above, and Leninism. Leninist groups in Australia spend a great deal of time putting up posters, handing out leaflets, selling newspapers, doing ringarounds, talking to strangers and holding public forums. As a direct result of this work, Leninist groups have the widest reach of any leftist organisation in Australia (second only to unions) – connecting with thousands of people in every part of the country, in our cities’ outer suburbs and even in smaller cities and country towns. Anarchists rightly criticise Leninist organising as authoritarian, opportunistic, instrumentalist, and dishonest. Leninists often approach organising as if they are an elightened, professional vanguard. They build the party at the expense of the movement. They treat people as numbers or sheep, to be recruited and then managed and used. What they say and write is often dogmatic, repetitive and mechanical. But the question is, are these problems inherent to organising itself? I would argue no.

It is possible to put up posters, hand out leaflets, talk with people, genuinely listen and engage with a willingness to change our approach. It is possible to involve strangers in the movement without seeking to rule them and use them. It’s possible to organise without being authoritarian. And this is what we need to do. It is the task of conscious anarchists to develop these non-authoritarian forms of organising.

Small-scale, temporary, friendship-based organisation is important, but it’s not enough. If we actually want to make change, we need to do the hard work of building accessible, formal organisations, linked into larger networks. This doesn’t mean creating layers of bureaucracy, but rather creating active organisations that can facilitate ever-widening spheres of action and participation.

We need to develop a anarchist model of organising that is relevant to Australia today. We need to get out of our spaces and communicate about our ideas. We need to distribute material and put on discussions at times and places that are convenient for people we don’t already know. We need to get out of our comfort zones and into our communities – broadly imagined. We need to learn from the methods of organising used by unions and others and reclaim what we can for libertarian purposes. Above all we need to talk to people. It’s difficult, but immensely rewarding and powerful.

In the Jura Collective, we’ve been trying to put these ideas into practice. Over the last year we’ve organised about 30 stalls in suburbs all over Sydney and distributed approximately 13,000 flyers on anarchist ideas. We’ve organised dozens of publicly advertised political talks at Jura and other locations. Our last three forums on Chomsky attracted 60, 80 and 100 people (at the University of New South Wales, Sydney University and University of Technology Sydney respectively). We’ve hosted dozens of gigs and other social events. We’ve made over 300 phone calls to our supporters and talked with them about what’s happening politically and asked them to get more involved. We’ve put up thousands of street posters and published regular updates on our website, facebook and via email. We’ve built an email list of 1,200 people who receive our monthly anarchist newsletter. We’ve been open to the public five days every week, 5 hours each day. We’ve sold $16,000 worth of anarchist books and pamphlets to members of the community. We raised over $7,000 entirely through donations so that Jura could install a collectively-owned solar power system. Through all of this work we’ve managed to communicate anarchist ideas with thousands of people and begin to put anarchism on the political agenda. We’ve begun to create a social community around Jura. We’ve done all this with the aim of building a social revolution. The events we organise are democratic discussions, rather than dogmatic lectures. And all of this has been achieved by a small group of people – a collective of 10 to 15.

We can and must organise as anarchists. We must talk with people and build relationships based on solidarity and common purpose. We must create non-authoritarian organisation. It is absolutely vital that we continue to organise and develop anarchist models of organising. The circle A says it all – anarchy is organisation.


[Originally published in March 2012]

Categories: Blog

Anarchist Christmas comes to Australia

Jay's blog - Tue, 25/02/2014 - 11:53am

Class War’s Iain Bone once described the London Anarchist Bookfair as the anarchists' Christmas - where people come together, meet up with old friends and enemies, and buy presents for ourselves and others.

It's true that anarchist bookfairs are a peculiar phenomenon, a strange cross of radical, anti-capitalist politics and blatant consumerism, but as an ever-proliferating event they are not easily dismissed.

Anarchist bookfairs have become a firmly established feature of radical diaries across the world. From humble beginnings in London some thirty odd years ago the bookfair idea has spread to cities across the globe, on almost every continent, including Australia, with Sydney holding its first in March 2014 while Melbourne plans its fourth for later in 2014.

The London Anarchist Bookfair now boasts 5,000 visitors, 100 stalls and 50 meetings in a single day, and other cities aren't far behind. The success of the idea is tangible. But why do so many people come to the bookfairs, while so few attend anarchist conferences and meetings?

Perhaps it's the relaxed atmosphere that a bookfair creates? A bookfair offers political ideas and discussion in a way that leaves the individual free to choose their own pace and path. Whereas meetings  tend to be staunchly Political events (with an awkward hint of the social during the break), bookfairs are much more social events, with optional workshops and talks, and an organic, accessible element of the political. A conference tends to attract politically-minded people; the converts and their detractors, with a predetermined agendas. A bookfair tends to attract a wider range of people interested in new ideas.

Yes, there's a commercial element in anarchist bookfairs, but it's largely in the service of an internal economy. Bookfairs support radical publishers and distributors, propagators of radical ideas and promote various campaigns.

In a world where political action is increasingly seen as defined by likes, tweets, and online petitions, bookfairs provides a space in the real world for libertarian activists to meet, exchange ideas and present our causes. We meet real people one-to-one and build real action.

So, is the anarchist bookfair just anarchists' Christmas? Well, maybe. But it's a Christmas in which ever more people are attending ever more bookfairs in ever more cities around the world. New contacts are being made, new comrades mingling among old, new readers are finding newly published radical books. Anarchist ideas are spreading.

Categories: Blog

How I became an anarchist - by Stuart

Stuart's blog - Tue, 25/02/2014 - 10:54am

People ask you sometimes why you are an anarchist. I wonder how anyone can not be an anarchist! Anyone who looks around and really thinks about things will be likely to reach the same conclusion.

The system we currently live under, of capitalism and hierarchical government, so often seems to bring out the worst in people, the ignorance, laziness, fear, hate and violence that we are all capable of. These negative human attributes can be promoted, manipulated and exploited by cynical politicians and others looking to give their careers a boost. The words of a Dead Kennedys song, When Ya Get Drafted, come to mind, '...Fan the fires of racist hatred, war is coming back in style, especially when you build the bombs that blow big cities off the map. Guess who profits when we build 'em back up. Big business gets what big business wants. Call the army, call the navy, stocked with kids from slums. If you can't afford a slick attorney we might make you a spy...' 

I got into punk rock in my late teenage years. The rebel look appealed to me, the 'Fuck you!' attitude. It offered an exciting, defiant alternative to family conformity and suburban boredom What was the point of being alive if you spent all your time doing as you're told, doing what's expected of you, not daring to question authority? It's a big world out there, with almost unlimited potential. Why let yourself be boxed in, limited and restricted by people who want to tell you what to do all the time? 

I listened to as much punk music as I could get my hands on and continued to read and to talk with people wherever I was. Trying to understand how the world worked and looking for a way to be. The more I learned and discovered, the more I realised that much of what I'd been brought up to believe wasn't true, or truly important. I read the Sydney Morning Herald for example to find answers but it left me feeling frustrated and disappointed because much was left unexplained. Socialism seemed to make more sense. I felt a lot more comfortable with it. And anarchism, when I discovered it, made even more sense. 

I met someone who said she was an anarchist. I wanted to know how things would work without government and authority. That was the start of a learning process which is still ongoing 30 years later.

The more I read and learn and think the stronger I become in my anarchist convictions. And you have to be strong to stand up against the cynicism, the negativity and hostility to anarchism. 

Anarchism is a better way to do things. Doesn't it make sense to have mutual aid and voluntary co-operation, with equal access for all to power and society's wealth rather than the chaotic system which is ruining our planet now? The Clive Palmers and Gina Rineharts of the world, for whose benefit the dominant system operates, have conned the rest of us into going along with it. They won't give up their power and wealth willingly.  The more aware and organised we become, the sooner we'll be able to replace their system with a rational and sustainable anarchist one. The challenge for us is getting there from here. 

It's not enough having convictions and ideas. It took me a while to realise this. We have to act on them, put them into practice in our day-to-day lives. Life is politics. Politics is life. There's no getting away from that. Those who say they're not 'political' and shy away from taking a political stance are merely supporting the status quo by allowing it to continue. 

'The strength of us all could demolish the walls...' (words from another song, by the Subhumans). It's up to all of us to realise this and do our bit.  Let's play our part in history/herstory. There's that saying 'Be the change you want to see.' Yeah!  

Categories: Blog

How I became an anarchist - by Jay

Jay's blog - Mon, 24/02/2014 - 11:11am

As a twelve year old wannabe punk who had just discovered The Sex Pistols I asked my father, ‘Dad, what is anarchy?’ after hearing Anarchy in the UK. ‘It means no government’ he replied, ‘but that’s impossible. You can’t have a world without any government, there has to be something’. ‘Oh’, I said, and fell silent, pondering his answer, feeling unconvinced that this could be the case, that what Jonny Rotten was singing about was impossible, there had to be more to it than that.

I never pursued the question further back then, I went onto other interests and other punk bands as music came to be a major part of my life. But a seed had been planted.

Six years later I went off to college, an optional post-school pit stop in the Britain before going on to university or employment. In studying politics I soon rediscovered that question from years before, but now framed, ‘what is anarchism?’

I found another unsatisfactory answer as my teacher explained anarchism in a little more detail, saying that ‘the anarchist believes that if all government was abolished tomorrow the world would be a better place, we would all just go in living our lives and things would work themselves out’, and he gestured sweepingly with his arm across the fifth floor window, out over the landscape below. A vision of chaos came to the minds of everyone in the class as we contemplated what the teacher had said.

I was unconvinced but undeterred. I began to study and seek my own answers. I soon discovered the Anarchist FAQ website on the internet, and read that anarchy is a world without hierarchy, where no government existed, where no authority dictated, where no one ruled another. In a state of anarchy all would be equal without denying the freedom of the individual; a freedom that would be restrained only by the freedom of others.
This description of anarchism made sense to me.  As a young punk I had come to consider my individuality sacred, while in my heart I felt a great hatred of injustice and social inequality. Now, in this description a vision of a new world opened up to me. Anarchism was freedom and equality combined.

I went on to discover new ideas like federation, decentralisation and autonomy. I came to understand that anarchism means people working together, taking control of our lives and making decisions in our communities and workplaces together, as equals, building up from the local to the national and beyond. The seed that had been planted years before with that early question, ‘what is anarchy?’ was beginning to bear fruit. I became an anarchist.

Since then I have questioned the tenets of anarchism many times. I have questioned whether society can be organised without hierarchy, without government, without authority. Events in the world around us often make the idea seem remote. However, at some point along the way I discovered a concept that has helped me maintain my conviction: it already exists around us, in a sense, and can be seen everywhere – when friends and workmates help each other, when people take control of their lives and their communities, without waiting for permission or compulsion. As Colin Ward put it, anarchism is like a ‘seed beneath the snow.’

So I continue to be an anarchist, to believe in the possibility of a truly free society, I join others in promoting this idea on a wider scale and try to identify and nurture t in the world around me. In conversations I have with others, I look to plant those seeds, plant the idea that we can take our world back from the authorities that control it, and that people can exist without the dictates of a government. 

A few years ago the conversation of a family meal turned to politics, not the politics of the day but the ideas of politics. My father announced to everyone at the table that, years ago, he’d thought that “anarchism is impossible; you couldn’t have a world without government, you had to have something. But since then, he declared, after many conversations with my son, I have come to understand that anarchism isn’t impossible, that it means more than simply having no government, anarchism is that something that could replace it.” In that statement I knew another seed had been planted.  

Categories: Blog