Welcome Visitor:

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

By Oliver, Sydney, guest contributor.

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.