In Gaston Leval's words, "it succeeded in achieving, in many cases completely, the finest ideal conceived by the human mind and this will be its permanent glory." It had already been an eventful week, eighty years ago, when a radio-station had been occupied for a short time by fascists on the 11th of July. A day later, the fascists shot a socialist assault guard lieutenant which was avenged by some of his comrades who 'arrested' the leader of the parliamentary right-wing. However, they were friendly enough to deliver his corpse to the cemetary (Murray Bookchin, The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936). The army had already, by that time, been planning a coup for several months. When the government was informed about these plans they merely replied by reiterating their faith in the military power of the government (Bookchin). A strange reaction, when that same military power was planning the coup.
On the 18th of July the generals issued a pronunciamento in which they declared they had taken power. Throughout Spain, soldiers began crawling out of their barracks and started to occupy strategic places. The CNT and FAI militants were well aware of the likely repercussions of a military take-over and had long since begun preparations to resist. In Barcelona, at the center of Spain's most important industrial region, the soldiers were greeted by the worker's bullets. The rebels were defeated in Barcelona, the North of Basque, Madrid, a significant area of the south of Spain, and one of the Balearic islands. A heroic but too often forgotten struggle that lasted more than two years ensued. However, this wasn't just a war between competing power-hungry dictators. The Spanish Civil War was also a struggle by workers who defended themselves and, in the rearguard, tried to build a new world.
All world events consist of multiple stories that act out more or less dependently on each other. Many of these stories are ignored, written out of history, or simply forgotten. This can lead to other stories becoming distorted, something that often happens in case of events that threaten to distort the dominant ideology. The Spanish Civil War is one of those events, and many stories are ignored and written out of history. Fortunately, there are historians who have done their best to uncover these stories and. There are also plenty of extant source materials from that time that have allowed historians to reconstruct many stories. As such, the Spanish Civil War knows many more stories than the merely military story. However, even the military story has elements that break with the dominant ideology. For example, people organized, especially in the beginning, themselves into militias which operated without officers or a repressive chain of command. At the same time, the Spanish Civil War has seen women traveling to the front together with the men to fight and make their revolution as equals.
Next to the military story there is, of course, a political story. The CNT send several well-known cenetistas into the government in the hopes of keeping control over the military aspects of the Civil War. They did so in an attepmt to protect the revolution. This course of action has led to harsh criticism both from organisations outside of Spain, such as the AIT of which the CNT was a member, but also from cenetistas in Spain. During the Civil War the CNT started to act more and more like a social democratic party. The workers and peasants started losing, under pressure of CNT participation in the government, many of the freedoms they had taken. Many cenetistas resisted these losses which, eventually, led to an armed confrontation during the May-days of 1937.
Freedom can, of course, only be defended once that freedom has been taken which leads us to the most impressive story of the Spanish Civil War: the Spanish Revolution. Different sources, such as the eye-witness accounts of Emma Goldman in Spain and the World and the ones by Gaston Leval, show us the most impressive social and economic changes. When Leval talks about completely realizing the finest ideal ever conceived he most certainly means the villages that have gone as far as to abolish money. These villages, which had implemented communisme libertario, easily organized themselves without money. In Barcelona itself the cenetistas made every effort to provide food for everyone. Money may not have been abolished but - so anarchists say - that doesn't mean those without a job have to be without food. In the short amount of time these collectives existed, the Stalinists in the rearguard and the Fascists at the front put in every effort to destroy them, these collectives have become a permanent source of inspiration for people around the world.
The Spanish Civil War did not start in vacuo. The historic story is extremely important. After Italy had already fallen to Mussolini, Austria to Dollfuss, and Germany to Hitler, many Spanish workers could clearly see what this political ideology would mean for Spain: a repetition of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship in the twenties and the Bienio Negro parlementary dictatorship after the November 1933 elections when extreme-right parties like the CEDA managed to get power. These periods in Spanish history were marked by extreme repression of the labour movement where it became impossible to demand even the slightest wage increase. The history of the Spanish labour movement is marked by significant economic and armed terror by the landlords and politicians. It is the awareness of this history caused the CNT to prepare for a revolutionary confrontation.
There are more stories, such as the influence of Stalin in Spain, the refugee stories after the war, an economic analysis into the causes of the rebellion, the way in which Hitler and Mussolini supported the crawling fascist hordes in Spain, but certainly also the influence of the church. I will return to the latter in another article.
The Spanish Civil War and Revolution are a complex of stories. It's unlikely that the CNT could have exterminated these hordes and created a free Spain. They would have needed more support from workers in other countries. Nevertheless, the Spanish Civil War has given us the stories of the collectives from which we can distill the most important lesson: workers can organize their own living environments - so do it! Those in power have only ever been in your way and extorted you, so why would you show them any form of respect?