‘Anarchy's Brief Summer’ by Hans Magnus Enzensberger: An Excerpt

Northern Spain is the only part of Western Europe where anarchism played a significant role in political life of the twentieth century. Enjoying wide-ranging support among both the urban and rural working class, its importance peaked during its “brief summer”—the civil war between the Republic and General Franco’s Falangists, during which anarchists even participated in the government of Catalonia.

Anarchy’s Brief Summer brings anarchism to life by focusing on the charismatic leader Buenaventura Durruti (1896–1936), who became a key figure in the Spanish Civil War after a militant and adventurous youth. The basis of the book is a compilation of texts: personal testimony, interviews with survivors, contemporary documents, memoirs, and academic assessments. They are all linked by Enzenberger’s own assessment in a series of glosses—a literary form that is somewhere between retelling and reconstruction—with the contradiction between fiction and fact reflecting the political contradictions of the Spanish Revolution. On the trail of forgotten, half-suppressed struggles, Anarchy’s Brief Summer offers a unique portrait of a revolutionary movement that is largely unknown outside Spain.

Translated by Mike Mitchell

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An Excerpt: ‘On the Roots of Spanish Anarchism’

One October day in 1868 an Italian, Guiseppe Fanelli, arrived in Madrid. He was around forty, an engineer by profession, had a thick, black beard, shining eyes, was tall and of a quietly determined disposition. Immediately on arrival he went to an address he had in his notebook: a cafe where he met a small group of workers. Most of them were typesetters from the small-scale print shops of the Spanish capital.

‘His voice had a metallic sound and its expression was adapted precisely to what he had to say. He changed from a tone of anger and threat, when he spoke about tyrants and exploiters, to one of sadness, pain and encouragement when he switched to the sufferings of the oppressed. The remarkable thing about all this was that he couldn’t speak Spanish; he either spoke French, of which some of us at least had a smattering, or Italian, in which case we had as far as possible, to go by its similarities with our own language. Yet his thoughts made such good sense to us that, when he’d finished, we were gripped by boundless enthusiasm.’ Even thirty-two years after the Italian’s visit Anselmo Lorenzo, one of the first Spanish anarchists, can still quote the ‘apostle’ Fanelli word for word and remember the shiver that went down his spine when he exclaimed, ‘Cosa orribile! Spaventosa!’

‘Fanelli spent two or three evenings presenting his propaganda to us. He talked to us during walks and in cafes. He also gave us the statutes of the Internationale, the programme of the Alliance of Democratic Socialists and a few numbers of The Bell with articles and speeches by Bakunin. Before he left, he asked to have a group photo taken, with him in the middle.’

None of those listening to him had ever heard of the organization whose emissary to Spain Fanelli was: the International Workers’ Association. Fanelli was a follower of Bakunin, he belonged to the ‘anti-authoritarian’ wing of the First Internationale and the message he was bringing to Spain was that of anarchism.

The success of this revolutionary doctrine was immediate and sensational; it spread like wildfire among the agricultural and industrial workers of western and southern Spain. At its very first congress, in 1870, the Spanish labour movement decided in favour of Bakunin and against Marx and at its meeting in Cordoba two years later the Federation of Anarchists had 45,000 active members. The peasant uprisings of 1873, that spread across the whole of Andalusia, were already clearly under anarchist leadership. Spain is the only country in the world where Bakunin’s revolutionary theories have become a physical force. Until 1936, the anarchists maintained their leading role in the Spanish labour movement; they were not just numerically in the majority, they were also the most militant faction.

This unique historical situation has led to a whole series of attempts at explanation. Not one of them, taken individually, fulfils its promise, and no one has yet succeeded in supplying a coherent presentation derived according to the rules of political economy. But at least the conditions under which Spanish anarchism thrived can be identified; they may at least allow us to understand a development that has so far defied purely economic explanation.

Apart from a few regional exceptions Spain was, until the First World War, a purely agricultural country. The class differences in its society were so extreme and manifest that one can talk of two nations separated by a chasm. The political class, that dominated the affairs of state and was closely allied to the army and the church, consisted mainly of owners of large estates. It was entirely unproductive, corrupt and incapable of taking on for a time the progressive role that had fallen to the middle classes in other West European countries. Their parasitical way of life consisted of nothing more than consuming their rents; they had no interest in developing the productive forces through capitalist expansion. The development of the petty bourgeoisie was correspondingly weak. Apart from poor craftsmen and small traders it consisted of the lackeys of what Marx called the ‘state shitocracy’, a swollen, poorly paid bureaucracy which, as far as it was not entirely without function, was employed more for repressive than for administrative purposes.

The real Spain, the huge majority of the working people, lived in the country and it was there that, until after the turn of the century, the essential class struggles were fought out. The course they took is closely connected with the structure of agriculture. In places where, as in the northern provinces, medieval conditions of ownership and production managed to survive, where whole villages of small and medium farmers retained the common woods and meadows, where the land was fertile and well-watered, ancient social forms held out in proud isolation, almost outside of the money economy.

In other regions however, above all on the Levante coast and in Andalusia, after 1836 the nouveau-riche bourgeoisie pursued their own interests by force. In Spain the word liberalism means nothing other than the breaking up of the old common land, its ‘free’ sale, the expropriation of peasants’ land and the establishment of an economy based on great landed estates. The introduction of parliamentary government in 1843 put the seal on the power of the new landowners, who naturally lived in the towns, regarded their estates as distant colonies and had them run either by stewards or tenant farmers.

The result of this was the growth of a huge agricultural proletariat. Until the outbreak of the civil war three-quarters of the population of Andalusia remained braceros, day-labourers who daily hired out their labour for a pittance. A twelve-hour day was the rule during harvest-time. For half the year there was almost complete unemployment. The consequences were endemic poverty, malnutrition and a flight from the land.

In the villages the state mainly appeared as an occupying power. One year after it had taken over the running of the country, the new political class of landowners created its own army of occupation, the Guardia Civil, a rural police force quartered in barracks. Its alleged purpose was to eliminate the most primitive form of self-defence in the countryside, banditry; in reality, however, its task was to keep the rural proletariat, that was adopting new methods of resistance, in check. The Guardia consists of carefully selected men, who are always stationed in districts well away from their homes. These troops are forbidden to marry locals or fraternize with them. They are not allowed to leave their quarters unarmed or alone; even today, out in the country they are still called la pareja, because they always patrol in pairs. Until the thirties, the open class hatred in the villages of Andalusia found expression in constant skirmishing, primitive rural guerrilla warfare that repeatedly turned into sudden, spontaneous peasant revolts. These uprisings unleashed elemental mass violence and were fought out with an unparalleled lack of concern for life and limb. They always followed the same stereotypical course: the agricultural labourers massacred the Guardia Civil, took the priest and officials prisoner, set fire to the church, burnt land registers and tenancy agreements, abolished money, broke away from the state, declared themselves independent communes and decided to cultivate the land communally. It is amazing to see how precisely those mostly illiterate peasants, without being aware of it, of course, were following Bakunin’s precepts. Since their revolts were purely local and lacked coordination, it was usually only a few days before they were brutally put down by government troops.

It was here, in the villages of Andalusia, that Spanish anarchism put down its first roots. Almost overnight it gave the spontaneous movement of the agricultural proletariat an ideological basis and a firm organizational structure, and built up the villagers’ naive but unshakeable expectation of an imminent and total revolution.

Around the turn of the century, everywhere in southern Spain you could meet ‘apostles of the idea’ who went round the country on foot, riding donkeys or in covered wagons, without a penny in their pockets. The labourers took them in and fed them. (Since the very beginning, the anarchist movement in Spain has never been supported or financed from outside, and the same is still true today.) In this way, a mass learning process got under way. Everywhere now you could meet labourers and farmers who could read, and even among the illiterate there were many who learnt whole articles from newspapers and pamphlets off by heart. In every village there was at least one ‘enlightened’ labourer, a ‘conscious worker’ who could be recognized by the fact that he neither smoked, nor gambled, nor drank, that he was a confessed atheist, that he wasn’t married to his wife, to whom he was faithful, that he didn’t have his children baptized, that he read a lot and tried to pass on everything he knew.

The economic antithesis to the impoverished barren zones of southern and western Spain is Catalonia, that has always been the richest and industrially most highly developed region in the country. Around the turn of the century Barcelona, the city of shipping, export, banks and the textile industry, was already the bridgehead of capitalism on the Iberian peninsula. Per capita tax revenue was twice that of the Spanish average. Apart from the Basque region, it was the only part of the country that produced a functioning entrepreneurial bourgeoisie; unlike the estate owners, the Catalan industrialists and bankers were not exclusively interested in an extravagant lifestyle but in accumulation. Between 1870 and 1930, a huge, highly concentrated industrial proletariat came into being in Barcelona.

However, in contrast to comparable European regions, the Catalan workers did not turn to social democracy and the reformist unions but to anarchism, that found its second, urban base there. By 1918, 80 per cent of all workers in Catalonia already belonged to anarchist organizations. This situation is more difficult to explain than the success of the followers of Bakunin in the countryside. Sociology can provide us with a first clue. Only the minority of the workforce in the industrial area of Barcelona is of local origin; half have been recruited from the barren provinces of Murcia and Almería, that is from the south, and, because of the structural unemployment in the countryside, this internal migration still continues today.

A second motive lies in the centrifugal forces that play such an important role in Spanish history. Many Spanish provinces are distinguished by a strong local spirit, a thirst for independence, for autonomy, stubborn resistance to the claims to dominance of the central government in Madrid; but nowhere does that make itself more strongly felt than in Catalonia that in many respects can be regarded as a separate nation and that as early as the seventeenth century waged a war of independence against the Spanish monarchy. Its discrete economic development has only served to reinforce these tendencies. There are two sides to Catalan nationalism. The right wing represented the interests of the local middle classes; it exploited the question of autonomy in order to obfuscate the class struggle. But on the side of the masses, the Catalan question was definitely a revolutionary factor. The longing for self-government, the hatred of the centralized authority of the state, the insistence on the radical decentralization of power—all these were issues that were to be found in anarchism.

No anarchists anywhere have ever seen themselves as a political party; it is one of their principles not to take part in parliamentary elections, nor to accept ministerial posts; they don’t want to take over the state, they want to abolish it. In their own groupings as well they resist the concentration of power at the top of the organization, in the central office. Their federations are determined from the grassroots level; each one of their local groups enjoys very extensive autonomy and, at least in theory, the grassroots members are not obliged to submit to the decisions of the leadership. Naturally it depends on the material circumstances how these principles are realized in practice. It wasn’t until 1910 that anarchism in Spain found its final organizational structure with the setting up of the anarchist federation of trade unions CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo).