Living Utopia: The Anarchists and the Spanish Revolution
Directed by Juan Gamero (1997)
Spanish with English subtitles
In this documentary, the history of the 1936 Spanish revolution is told by anarchists* who actually participated in it. What imperialists commonly refer to as the Spanish Civil War, Spanish anarchists refer to as the Spanish revolution. The revolution lasted from 1936-39 before the counterrevolution, led my Franco, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin (in conjunction with the western powers), overturned it.
The film begins by describing the roots of Spain’s anarchist movement, in Europe’s first workers society, formed in Barcelona in 1840. In 1902, they organized the first free (ie non-Catholic schools) to combat Spain’s high illiteracy rate (50%). In 1910 they formed the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) and won an 8-hour day through a series of major strikes. By 1919, the CNT had a membership of 700,000.
Banned in 1923, the CNT organized in secret, until 1931 when the king was deposed. By this point they had one million members. However 90% of them boycotted the 1934 election. This enabled fascists to take control of the government and reverse most of the land and other reforms enacted by the Republic.
CNT Steps Up to Defend Against Franco’s Coup
In 1936, the CNT united with other Spanish leftist groups to elect a National Front government. Under General Franco, the military’s response was to launch a military coup. Failing to organize any resistance, the government of the Republic crumbled. Thus it was left up to civilians to organize military resistance to prevent the fall of Madrid – as well as to organize basic survival infrastructure in the territory under their control.
The CNT joined with other resistance forces to form the Anti-Fascist Militias Committee. As volunteer militias marched towards the front line, they assisted rural peasants in bringing in the harvest and expropriating barren land from large landowners to put it into cultivation. A total of 7 million peasants voluntarily formed collectives.
Republic Crumbles Leaving Civilians to Re-organize Society
In the cities and villages, working people seized large buildings to provide lodging for the homeless and set up committees to distribute food, clothing and other necessities and put a halt to revenge killings. In Barcelona, the advance guard of the revolution, 80% of factories were seized by workers. Factory owners either fled or joined the worker-run management teams. Participation in the collectivization scheme was totally voluntary.
All production significantly increased during the revolution, as worker-run committees increased production efficiency and adopted new technology. After seizing Ford, GM and other factories, workers converted them into arms factories. Revolutionary councils coordinated the exchange of commodities between regions and exports, via sympathetic contacts, to other European countries. They also enacted decrees guaranteeing equal rights for women and legalizing abortion.
In May 1937, strengthened by Stalin’s support (the Soviet Union was the only country willing to arm the Spanish Republic against Franco’s coup), the Republican leadership declared war against the anarchists who ran Barcelona when they refused to surrender the telephone exchange. After five days and 500 deaths, Barcelona’s anarchists allowed anarchist ministers who had joined the government to persuade them to accept a ceasefire. According to several interviewees, this was their big mistake and ultimately cost them their revolution.
In view of their vast numerical superiority, it would have made more sense to continue guerilla warfare against both the communists who controlled the government and Franco’s forces.
*Most of the interviewees refer to the movement behind the Spanish revolution as “libertarian” communism,” rather than anarchism.