A Century of Spanish Anarchism
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
A century of Spanish anarchism
November 30, 2012 at 11:54 am
By Eloise Horsfield
IN a busy Sevilla street, just yards from the world’s largest wooden
structure – the Metropol Parasol – is a large office sign in striking
red and black colours.
Hard to miss as you stroll down Calle Imagen, this is the headquarters
of the CNT in Andalucia, the still-surviving anarchist trade union.
While largely unknown by the majority of expats and tourists who visit
Spain every year, it is perhaps surprising this radical body still
exists at all.
But the fact is that the union has now been a key force in Spanish
cultural and political history for a century.
And this month – exactly 100 years ago – the prime minister of Spain was
shot dead in Madrid by no less than an anarchist.
Premier Jose Canalejas stopped to look in a book shop window on the
morning of November 12, 1912, when a man approached him, took out a
Browning pistol and shot him at point-blank range.
Spanish PM Jose Canalejas, shot dead in Madrid in 1912 by anarchist
Canalejas’ killer was Manuel Cardinas, who turned the gun on himself
when he realised he could not escape.
Cardinas was avenging the death by firing squad of Catalan anarchist
Francisco Ferrer, who, colleagues believed, was found guilty on
At the time, anarchism as a political force was relatively new to Spain.
Introduced into the country by Italian Giuseppe Fanelli in Barcelona 50
years earlier in 1868, the movement spread due to the harsh economic
conditions experienced by Spanish peasants, who made up 70% of the
The lack of industrial development in Spain meant 52% of the workforce
was employed in agriculture. Division of land was the worst in Europe,
with 67% of land owned by just 2% of all landowners.
Since anarchism believes in the abolition of all government and in the
cooperative organisation of society, it was an attractive alternative to
land workers – particularly in Andalucia – whose incomes were so low,
they often starved between harvests.
Anarchists believe in anti-capitalism, and argue that the majority too
have the right to share power and therefore need to organise themselves
to run society.
Spanish anarchists hated the powerful and wealthy institutions of Spain
– the Catholic church which owned much of the nation’s wealth, and whose
priests lived in luxury, and the army, with its close links to the
In 1911 the CNT (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo) was formed to
represent the views of the growing political force, which took hold in
particular in areas of Andalucia, such as Cadiz, and in Cataluna.
Until this point the only nationwide trade union had been the UGT, set
up by the socialist party in 1888, and anarchistic thinking had been
confined to individuals and small groups.
This was all to change after the First World War, in which Spain’s
neutral stance meant money came rolling in from foreign markets.
Sadly, this did not improve conditions for Spain’s peasant masses, since
it was the wealthy landowners who benefitted.
It caused more unrest and a further swelling of the anarchist ranks,
with the CNT union counting an incredible 750,000 members by 1919,
compared to the 208,000 in the UGT.
It was this year that the ‘La Canadiense’ general strike was called in
Barcelona by the union.
Triggered by the sacking of eight workers of a Canadian-financed
electrics plant, it started with 140 strikers from the factory’s
workforce and ended with the CNT mobilising 80% of Cataluna’s textile
industry, with most firms being forced to close.
Although the government reacted to the strikes, arresting some 3,000, in
the end employers agreed to enter into talks with the CNT.
As a result, worker’s rights were improved significantly – for example,
an eight-hour-day law was introduced.
La Canadiense is thus regarded as one of the most successful working
class actions in history.
When the Spanish Constitution was finally born in 1931, there was good
reason to be optimistic, with workers believing living standards would
improve and land reform would finally be introduced.
But the Institute of Agrarian Reform, which was set up to do just that,
did not manage it and conditions led to more revolt.
Press reports at the time showed many people in rural Spain were living
on little more than roots and boiled greens.
It led to more unrest and more outbreaks of violence between workers,
the police and army.
Few places typify the unrest more than that of Casas Viejas in inland
rural Cadiz, then, and still, one of Spain’s poorest regions.
Now better known as Benalup (a new name given it in an attempt to escape
its violent past) it was here that the local CNT branch led a uprising
in January 1933, which they believed was part of a nationwide call for
The local militants took the town easily, taking control of the town
hall and locking the mayor and local priest in the church while they
waited for orders, due to come from Barcelona.
Tragically though, they had jumped the gun – the CNT’s provisional call
for a national uprising had been called off at the last minute. The
message had not spread as far as this sleepy backwater of Cadiz.
While the uprising in Casas Viejas had initially been peaceful, the
much-feared Guardia Civil was sent from nearby Vejer to put it down.
They did this swiftly and violently, killing over 20 local peasants in
the process, including women and children and many who had not even
taken part ‘to teach the rest a lesson’.
It was a big blow for the CNT and caused much outrage around the country.
There were other similar incidents in the following years and it was
perhaps little surprise that by the start of the Civil War in 1936 the
CNT counted two million members.
Indeed, it is said that this huge mass of people was the reason that
Franco was not able to seize the country in his coup immediately.
“There is absolutely no doubt that the initial response to Franco’s coup
was determined by the fact that the CNT and its anarchist ideas held
sway among large sections of the working class,” explains Irish
anarchist Eddie Conlon.
“There was no waiting around for government ministers to act, the
workers took control.”
Anarchism continued to grow in part thanks to Mujeres Libres (Free
Women), the anarchist women’s organisation. It counted 30,000 members
during the war, with its female members opening centres for unmarried
mothers and prostitutes.
As the war rolled on, the peasants succeeded in taking over councils of
workers, with anarchists eventually making up the majority of the
anti-Fascist forces in revolutionary committees throughout the nation.
In 1936 four CNT members actually entered the national government in
Madrid, showing that anti-Fascism could finally get an official voice,
if it wanted it.
But, in the end, the working classes did not take complete control of
the country – even though the CNT was in a prime position to do so.
The reasons for this are a highly debated topic.
Some claim they were afraid of taking the reins, and that a movement
formed by illiterate peasants was not capable of ruling the country.
Others – including those within the movement – say the anarchists simply
reached their limitations.
“We did not have a concrete programme,” admitted a member of anarchist
group Friends of Durruti later. “We had no idea where we were going.
“We had lyricism aplenty but when all is said and done we did not know
what to do with our masses of workers or how to give effect to the
That said, the anarchist ideal and its basic concepts are still alive
today having kept going throughout Franco’s regime, as of course did the
In 1979 the CNT split into two factions – the CNT/AIT and the CGT
(Confederacion General del Trabajo), which was later to became the third
largest union in Spain.
Aside from the obvious attraction to its cause by students – its
striking red and black flags stand out a mile – it still has much to say
on modern Spanish society.
At every demonstration, members of the CNT and FAI anarchist unions are
present, with a huge banner (pictured above) leading one section of the
general strike in Madrid earlier this month.
Although organised by Spain’s biggest trades unions, the UGT and the
CCOO workers’ union, CNT members too were out in their droves and later
labelled the strike ‘a success’.
Today, rather than agrarian reform, the anarchists are fighting against
Rajoy’s cuts to the public sector and labour reforms – which essentially
make it easier to fire workers.
The CNT and the CGT are now small unions who do not have an influence at
an industrial level, but their work is still doubtless having an
influence in giving the millions of ‘voiceless’ citizens a platform and
fighting for causes such as the environment and equal opportunities.
Anarchist ideas are still extremely popular in some parts of Spain,
particularly in Barcelona, where groups often gather to squat buildings.
These squats, which are always at risk of being closed down by the
authorities, frequently double as social centres where events and
workshops are held to share ideas. Some even offer free internet.
Female anarchists have also been a campaigning force over the last few
At Eskalera Karakola, a feminist squat in the Lavapies area of Madrid
which began operating in 1996, women organise activities to fight racism
and domestic violence, helping in particular female immigrants to Spain.
Perhaps it is smaller-scale missions, like this, that best suit the
anarchism movement…helping people overcome difficulty at a local level
and listening to individuals’ tales in order to get things done.
It certainly seems that this sort of direct action is extremely relevant
in Spain’s current climate, where half of all young people are
unemployed, and up to 500 people are being evicted every day because
they cannot pay their mortgages.
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News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
in charge on this island?
Professor: Why, no one.
Skipper: No one?
Thurston Howell III: No one? Good heavens, this is anarchy!
-- _Gilligan's Island_, episode #6, "President Gilligan"