Resisting the erasure of memory: The spanish revolution of the 18th of July 1936

For every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. … In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

Revolutions never die as long as their memory lives; and there memory lives in every gesture of resistance and rebellion.  In this sense, memory, history, are fields of battle, where the struggles of the present bring forth the past.  It is with this sense of a past that can be made present and thereby be re-written, that we remember spain’s revolution of 1936.

The occasion calls for far more than the essay below, but we hope that it will be but our first opportunity to recall what is the most radical revolutionary experience of the 20th century.

What follows is an article by the historian Julián Vadillo Muñoz published in Periodico Diagonal on the 18th of July of this year.  It appears below in translation.

And on the 18th of July, the revolution in spain broke out

“(…) the belief that only the causes that triumph should be of interest to historians leads, as James Joll recently observed, to the contempt of many aspects of the past that are of value and interest, and reduces our world view “.

This is one of the phrases with which Paul Avrich delights us in the introduction to his classic book The Russian Anarchists published in the US in 1967 and in Spain by Alianza in 1974. And this example Avrich cited with regard to the history of Russian anarchism applies equally well to what happened in Spain in July 1936.

In these days of anniversary, we see and read many articles about it. Some very serious, laboured over, written by historians or researchers that offer an approximate idea of what that coup d’etat was all about.

Others less fortunate, tendentious or supporting what was a coup against the Republic that led Spain into a civil war and the long night of dictatorship.

But in very few places is it remembered that along with the resistance of the Spanish people against a group of military and conservative forces, there developed in many places in the Republican rearguard a profound social transformation where the capacity to build, create, of the the working class was demonstrated.

Because in Spain on this 18th of July, a social revolution began. A Revolution channeled by anarchists but in which the protagonist was the working class as a whole.

The capacity of workerism

If there was a key player in this revolutionary process, it was the working class. Since 1868, when the International arrived in Spain and began to develop workers’ societies, the labour movement created for itself a leading role in Spanish politics.

A labour movement was divided in schools. Synthesising (and simplifying), one can speak of a school of socialist thought, represented the Spanish Socialist Workers Party [PSOE], founded in 1879, and the General Workers’ Union [UGT] founded in 1888, and a school of libertarian or anarchist thought which had several projects in the nineteenth century and crystallized strongly in 1910 with the founding of the National Confederation of Labour [CNT].

Then other movements appear of more or less orthodox marxism, or different views of libertarian organisations, but when on April 14th, 1931, the Republic was proclaimed, these were the large movements/organizations where the Spanish working class found expression.

This workerism not only developed workers associations and labour unions that served, either through reform or by direct action, to defend the working class. It also took care to educate and train the working class. It sought to empower it, to show it through education the importance of what it meant to be a labourer, and how the means of production and consumption were in their hands but at the same time were alienated from them by an economy whose interests were opposed to theirs.

That workerism formed a working class culture: a mode of behavior, habits, symbols, etc., to counteract bourgeois and capitalist society. The revolutionary workerism firmly believed in the alternative to capitalist economic society.

The worker was instructed in everyway: in letters, arts, sciences, etc. Libraries were created to fight the tavern, as well as cultural centres and schools to combat illiteracy: instruction and education.

The labour movement was aware that it had to put an end to capitalism and that it had to have the ability to assume social power. Some believed that this could be done conquering state institutions and from there transform them; others, that the State had to be destroyed and a horizontal society created. On that July 18th, 1936, the labor movement went from being an agent of resistance to the leading protagonist.

… and the Revolution broke out

The military uprising was stopped in most parts of Spain. Anarchism, which was one of the most dynamic movements in the country, took control of the situation in many places.

While militias were organised to fight the rebels on the battle fronts, the Spanish libertarians occupied positions in the workplace and in the countryside.

Many business people, conspiring with the rebels against the Republic, fled Republican Spain.

The workers found themselves in control of production. The factories had to produce. Fields had to be cultivated.  And workers and their organizations, after decades of preparation, took control of the situation.

In factories, workers’ committees were established to manage production . In the countryside, agrarian collectives were developed that put the land into the service of those who worked it.

Although there were individualists who continued to cultivate land in their own way, to be in a collective was presented as beneficial to the progress of society: production for the war effort, but also to show that things could be done differently.

In most cases, the anarchists were enthusiastic followers of a revolutionary process that they had demanded since their origin. In many other cases, the UGT also participated in workers’ control and in these agrarian communities. In some places, the situation was such that even money disappeared, in what was fully a horizontal, anti-authoritarian and communist society.

Everything in life, in the rear, was collectivized. The CNT developed an intense propaganda for the socialization of the means of production and consumption. Economic Councils were created with the aim of making efficient production. Organizations such as the CLUEA (the United Levantine Export Council of Citrus Fruits) were created to control production.

All factories had their control committee or workers’ council. But all of this was not only in the economic sphere. In Catalonia, for example, the CENU (Unified Council of the New School) was created for educational development. Something that was also done in other parts of Spain.

The Trade Union of the Public Entertainment Industry of the CNT took control of the main audiovisual centres and created a whole cinema theatre network. Propaganda and fiction film was in the hands of workers. Celluloid was collectivised. Cinemas, theatre, leisure spaces, were under workers’ control, as well as transportation, housing, etc.

A whole revolutionary effort was defended tenaciously by many workers because they saw in it something tangible to fight for.

However, the anarchists, who were always the forgotten ones after having been defeated on several fronts, also saw the reality of war impose sacrifices. Anarchists were anti-statists, yet they were given five ministers, along with mayors, councilors, etc. Anarchists were anti-militarist and yet they were given responsibilities in the People’s Army of the Republic, the military police, etc. The victory over fascism imposed itself. And they understood that this had to be at any price, but without losing the gains; an effort and a sacrifice it is quite true that not everyone committed to.

There were those who saw this revolutionary development as harmful and did everything that was in their power to stop it; forces which were equally antifascist along with the libertarians, but they differed on strategies and tactics. Sometimes the anti-revolutionary methods were criminal.

What is true was that these communities, that workers’ control, had enormously successful results in many places. In others it was not so. We must not forget that they developed in a context of war. And although from 1937 on, the revolutionary ferment was in decline, it is the case that until the end of the war, libertarian communist experiences developed in many parts of Republican Spain.

That collective dream was crushed when on the 1st of April, 1939, the military struggle came to an end. And the labour movement that had been selflessly created for decades was cruelly repressed. Its physical and ideological destruction was sought.

If franquismo accomplished something, in the ditches and mass graves filled with antifascists, it was to create a cloak of oblivion over the revolutionary process that also broke out in July 1936.

Since then the history has been written by the victors. But as Avrich says, sometimes one has to take advantage of some cracks to show that there was a time when everything was possible.


From George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia

Chapter One
In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, the day before I joined the militia,
I saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers’ table.

He was a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow
hair and powerful shoulders. His peaked leather cap was pulled fiercely
over one eye. He was standing in profile to me, his chin on his breast,
gazing with a puzzled frown at a map which one of the officers had open
on the table. Something in his face deeply moved me. It was the face of
a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend–the
kind of face you would expect in an Anarchist, though as likely as not
he was a Communist. There were both candour and ferocity in it; also the
pathetic reverence that illiterate people have for their supposed
superiors. Obviously he could not make head or tail of the map;
obviously he regarded map-reading as a stupendous intellectual feat. I
hardly know why, but I have seldom seen anyone–any man, I mean–to whom
I have taken such an immediate liking. While they were talking round the
table some remark brought it out that I was a foreigner. The Italian
raised his head and said quickly:


I answered in my bad Spanish: ‘_No, Inglés. Y tú?_’


As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard.
Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his
spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of
language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hoped he liked
me as well as I liked him. But I also knew that to retain my first
impression of him I must not see him again; and needless to say I never
did see him again. One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.

I mention this Italian militiaman because he has stuck vividly in my
memory. With his shabby uniform and fierce pathetic face he typifies for
me the special atmosphere of that time. He is bound up with all my
memories of that period of the war–the red flags in Barcelona, the
gaunt trains full of shabby soldiers creeping to the front, the grey
war-stricken towns farther up the line, the muddy, ice-cold trenches in
the mountains.

This was in late December 1936, less than seven months ago as I write,
and yet it is a period that has already receded into enormous distance.
Later events have obliterated it much more completely than they have
obliterated 1935, or 1905, for that matter. I had come to Spain with
some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia
almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it
seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in
virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing.
To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even
in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but
when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was
something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had
ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle.

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 café had
an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the
bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black.
Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an
equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily
disappeared. Nobody said ‘_Señor_’ or ‘_Don_’ or even ‘_Usted_’; everyone
called everyone else ‘_Comrade_’ and ‘_Thou_’, and said ‘_Salud!_’ instead
of ‘_Buenos días_’. Tipping was forbidden by law since the time of Primo
de Rivera; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel
manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars,
they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of
the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary
posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues
that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down
the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people
streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing
revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the
aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward
appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically
ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there
were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough
working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia
uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did
not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it
immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also I believed
that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State
and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed, or
voluntarily come over to the workers’ side; I did not realize that great
numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising
themselves as proletarians for the time being.

Together with all this there was something of the evil atmosphere of
war. The town had a gaunt untidy look, roads and buildings were in poor
repair, the streets at night were dimly lit for fear of air-raids, the
shops were mostly shabby and half-empty. Meat was scarce and milk
practically unobtainable, there was a shortage of coal, sugar, and
petrol, and a really serious shortage of bread. Even at this period the
bread-queues were often hundreds of yards long. Yet so far as one could
judge the people were contented and hopeful. There was no unemployment,
and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few
conspicuously destitute people, and no beggars except the gipsies. Above
all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of
having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human
beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the
capitalist machine. In the barbers’ shops were Anarchist notices (the
barbers were mostly Anarchists) solemnly explaining that barbers were no
longer slaves. In the streets were coloured posters appealing to
prostitutes to stop being prostitutes. To anyone from the hard-boiled,
sneering civilization of the English-speaking races there was something
rather pathetic in the literalness with which these idealistic Spaniards
took the hackneyed phrases of revolution. At that time revolutionary
ballads of the naivest kind, all about proletarian brotherhood and the
wickedness of Mussolini, were being sold on the streets for a few
centimes each. I have often seen an illiterate militiaman buy one of
these ballads, laboriously spell out the words, and then, when he had
got the hang of it, begin singing it to an appropriate tune.

The excellent documentary, Vivir la Utopia/Living Utopia tells the story of spanish anarchism …

The spanish anarchist “anthem”, with lyrics …

Lyrics in spanish …

Negras tormentas agitan los aires
nubes oscuras nos impiden ver
Aunque nos espere el dolor y la muerte
contra el enemigo nos llama el deber.

El bien más preciado
es la libertad
hay que defenderla
con fe y valor.

Alza la bandera revolucionaria
que del triunfo sin cesar no lleva
en pos
Alza la bandera revolucionaria
que del triunfo sin cesar no lleva
en pos

En pie el pueblo obrero
a la batalla
hay que derrocar
a la reacción

¡A las Barricadas! ¡A las Barricadas!
‘por el triunfo de la Confederación.
¡A las Barricadas! ¡A las Barricadas!
por el triunfo de la Confederación.


Lyrics in english translation …

Black storms shake the sky
Dark clouds blind us
Although pain and death await us
Duty calls us against the enemy

The most precious good
is freedom
And we have to defend it
With faith and courage

Raise the revolutionary flag
Which carries the people to emancipation
Raise the revolutionary flag
Which carries the people to emancipation

Working people march
onwards to the battle
We have to smash
the reaction

To the Barricades! To the Barricades!
For the triumph of the Confederation
To the Barricades! To the Barricades!
For the triumph of the Confederation

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