Lessons of the Spanish Civil War: Ideological and Practical Mistakes of Anarchists
The "May Days" in 1937 Catalonia, doomed the republican cause, largely because so-called "anarchists" completely disregarded the principles of individual liberty and private property rights, as they completely upended the region's economic order.
The Spanish Civil War, that great interwar conflict that culminated in a series of bloody battles fought by proxy, has faded in historical memory. Most English-speakers who know something about it have gleaned their knowledge from George Orwell’s first-hand account of his exploits fighting in northeastern Spain in Homage to Catalonia.
Orwell had a front row seat to what emerged as the definitive episode in the bitter 1936-1939 conflict: a “war within a war” between Stalin-backed communists united under the banner of the PSUC (United Socialist Party of Catalonia) and anarchist and Trotskyist factions, particularly the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification), under which Orwell fought.
Unsurprisingly, the “anarchist army” was a complete and utter disaster, with rampant dissent in the ranks, lack of discipline, and utter collapse of morale. The anarchists’ modeled their army on the concept of egalitarianism, whereby common soldiers and officers enjoyed equal pay and benefits. Commands were only expected to be obeyed if they made sense to the rank-and-file. To say that it was unlike most armies, is putting it mildly.
As one former Spanish anarchist recalled, “Discipline was atrocious. If an order was given, that was not agreed with…the platoon or brigade could sit down and convene a discussion, culminating in a vote, as to their intentions to follow the order.”
If the ideology and practices of the “anarchist army” were laughable, their administration of the economy was downright hysterical. The anarchists took control of much of Barcelona and Catalonia and immediately implemented their bizarre mix of anarchism and communism. It was a total, abrupt, and jarring remake of society, the likes of which had never been seen in Western Europe.
As Orwell recalls: “Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black.”
With the economy now firmly in control of the anarchist revolutionaries, fundamental questions had to be answered. First and foremost: how to distribute goods and services? The brilliant idea proposed by the anarchists: based on hours of production. Thus an unskilled agricultural laborer earned as much as a skilled factory worker, who earned as much as a highly-educated engineer. The “government” such as it was, issued vouchers for everything “produced” by the “economy.”
With this radical and senseless egalitarianism everyone was equal, and thus entitled to equally enjoy the benefits of the fruits of their labor. What could possibly go wrong?
Unsurprisingly, small businessmen, real estate owners, middle class shopkeepers, and landowners were outraged at the expropriation of their property. So…they, and their allies in the dominant PSUC turned to Stalin, to stop the madness, restore some semblance of order, and return the focus to fighting the rapidly advancing nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco.
The middle classes, irate at the economic chaos and disorder, in a move that 100 years later sounds hilariously ironic, turned to the Stalin-backed communists, forming the Catalan Federation of Small Businessmen and Manufacturers, which represented over 18,000 small and medium-sized entrepreneurs.
Tensions simmered as between the Stalin-backed government and the ragtag band of anarcho-sindicalists and socialists, supported by the International Brigades. Then in May 1937, the infamous “May Days” would commence the “war within a war” as the republican government of Juan Negrin, aligned with the PSUC, and acting on the orders of Comintern, began to disarm all anarchist and anarchist-affiliated movements.
Purges began, which decimated the leadership of the anarchists, under the leadership of Stalin’s handpicked agent Alexander Orlov, who brutally and methodically exterminated anyone who differed with the Stalin/Comintern line. Andres Nin, a key figure in POUM leadership was kidnapped, abducted to a concentration camp in Madrid, brutally tortured, and murdered.
A house divided against itself can not stand. The Republicans had lost virtually every major battle of the war. Now they were fighting each other in their remaining strongholds of Aragon and Catalonia.
This was the final nail in the coffin for the republicans, and property rights played a key role in the disintegration of the Catalonian forces.
While the anarcho-sindicalists and socialists of POUM shrouded their ideology and practices in the language of “freedom”, some even going so far as to call their ideas “libertarian”…their disdain for free markets, capitalism, and private property rights proved to be their ultimate undoing.
When the citizenry must return to Stalinist Soviet-backed communists to preserve a semblance of order and guarantee the protection of private property (of course completely contrary to what Stalin was doing in the Soviet Union at the time)…the cause is lost.
Historians and academics often depict the Spanish Civil War as a tripartite conflict with one good side (the POUM and International Brigades) and two bad sides (the Soviet-backed republican government and Franco’s nationalists). The reality is that all three sides were far from espousing the principles of liberal democracy that made the rest of Western Europe the envy of the world.