Anarchism in Spain in the 19th Century.

Anarchism in Spain in the 19th Century.

As far back as the Middle Ages, craftsmen and merchants had protected themselves and furthered their cause by creating associations of mutual interests, or guilds.

In Spain the guilds lost their monopoly when the Cortes (Parliament) of Cádiz approved laws in 1813 permitting “all Spaniards and foreigners resident in the country … [to] freely establish factories without requiring any permission… [and] without having been examined by any guild” (Shubert 117). There were attempted modifications in the following years but the 1813 laws were confirmed definitively by the Cortes in 1836. 

The guilds’ loss of power in the face of growing industrialisation meant the replacement of equal individuals within an association by workers who toiled for the owner of a company in return for wages. Where the guilds sheltered members against unfair competition or outsiders, the industrial or factory worker laboured at the mercy of the owner.

In the 19th century, Spain was primarily an agrarian society with four principal industrial areas: the textile industry of Catalonia, ship building and iron and steel foundries in the Basque Provinces, coal mining in Asturias, and light manufacturing and construction in Madrid. Labouring in miserable conditions and without protection from exploitation, workers inevitably funnelled their discontent into protest.

In rural areas, conditions were equally wretched. In the south, campesinos (peasants) lived in primitive conditions, primarily in chozas: huts with earthen floors, a mixture of mud and bits of stone for walls, and a covering of branches or straw.

The men worked in the surrounding  latifundios (large estates) as jornaleros i.e. they were hired by the day or for a specific task. This entailed turning up at the plaza (square) at dawn each day in the hope of being called upon by the landowner –or more likely his foreman; it was a humiliating, slave-market ritual that reenforced the hierarchical structure of local society.

It some cases, estates were leased, with absentee owners living off the rent. Tenants, with no security of tenure, could not plan long term and often resorted to subletting. But given the lack of incentive in investing in new crops or new technology, they often lived at subsistence level. And those who did own a smallholding were scarcely better off, since the practice of subdividing land as inheritance resulted in unsustainable plots inadequate to support a family.

In the north and east there were fewer day labourers and more small-scale farming. Whether smallholders or tenants, they struggled to survive, constantly subject to the vagaries of economic conditions or the whims of the weather. In Galicia the minifundio and the constant subdivision of land among sons made sustainable living increasingly difficult. Emigration to the former colonies was common, especially in the northern coastal areas.

Illness, disease, babies abandoned or even killed were often the result of the extreme poverty, and crime was common as desperate people resorted to desperate measures.

The Workers’ Movements in Spain.
Generally speaking, the workers’ protests in Spain were channelled in two directions, socialism  and anarchism. These were both by-products of the international workingmen’s movement, and reflected the bitter falling out of the two most influential figures of the movement, Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin.

Their struggle centred on the control and organisation of the First International Workingmen’s Association (better known as the Socialist International), founded by Marx in London in 1864 to coordinate socialist aims in various countries. 

In a nutshell, Marx envisaged a single, centralised, hierarchical body; Bakunin preferred loosely knit federated bodies capable of acting on their own according to local circumstances. In 1872 Bakunin was expelled from the International and Marx’s views prevailed in northern Europe.

In Spain, however, the ideological split was continued because anarchism had a strong following, initially greater than socialism. Their competing and often hostile rivalry, however, had serious consequences later when it contributed to the rise of two military dictators, Generals Miguel Primo de Rivera (1923-30) and Francisco Franco (1939-75).

Anarchism in Spain.
The September 1868 liberal revolution in Spain (called La Gloriosa) and the vacuum left after Queen Isabella II’s overthrow gave Bakunin an opportunity to promote his cause.

For an overview of the 19th century
in Spain, see 19th-Century Spain

With the fall of the monarchy after numerous coups, the political uncertainty resulting in the spread of civic unrest (especially in the south where municipalities even declared themselves sovereign), and the feeling of abandonment by an indifferent hierarchy… the timing was perfect for a new and different message of hope.

In October of 1868, Bakunin sent his Italian disciple, Giuseppe Fanelli, to Madrid and Barcelona to carry the anarchist message. Although Fanelli spoke no Spanish, his charismatic presence, evangelical fervour and passionate denunciation of tyranny and exploitation had immediate repercussions amongst the small groups gathered to listen to him. He left after just over two months (he ran out of money!). Although the enthusiasm Fanelli generated found roots in several parts of the country, it is principally with rural Andalusia and with Barcelona that it is associated.

What did Bakunin espouse? Besides calling for the overthrow of all authority, especially the traditional throne/state and altar (the new world order could only be achieved “after the last king has been strangled in the guts of the last priest” Williams 72), Bakunin called for the establishment of free federated communes where individuals would be treated with dignity and be unfettered by any central bureaucracy.

For Bakunin, the state and the church enslaved, the former by coercion dictated by a few, the latter by preaching a doctrine of man’s sinful origin, for which it alone had the answer. Anarchism, on the other hand, freed man to fulfil a collective rather than obedient role, which meant that it required a sense of social responsibility denied by the doctrines of subservience or obedience.

Andalusia’s response to the anarchist message did not spread to all corners of the province (it received little backing, for example, in Huelva or Granada) but several factors helped to explain its appeal where it did find support.

Anarchism made almost no headway in
Andalusia’s neighbour to the north,
Extremadura, where conditions were
equally desperate.

1.    Day labourers of the area found themselves for the first time addressed as human beings and equals by educated men who offered them solutions to their problems;
2.    Anarchism replaced the church with its religious-like message of a promised land, a utopian society of equals. In reality, the church in Andalusia had never been as robust in the south as in the north, and in rural areas priests were generally illiterate and self-serving. 

Furthermore, the church hierarchy had allied itself progressively with the wealthy and even invested in business. This was especially so from the time of disamortisation (sale of church property) in the 1830s. In other words, the peasants became increasingly removed from the Catholic church and found the new message of salvation in the call of anarchism;
3.    There was a sense of alienation and disillusion with government which, irrespective of political stripe, appeared unconcerned by the fate of the peasants. Protest was suppressed violently, as happened for example in Seville in 1857 when 95 people were executed following a peasant uprising;
4.    Andalusian rural society, though still backward, was communal in spirit, its existence depending on local village cohesion against the hierarchy. To survive, members often resorted to illegal activities –banditry, smuggling, acts of sabotage, destruction of crops, farm occupation, arson. 

In other words, it was a society that already practiced disobedience. Bakunin’s message justified that disobedience and elevated it to an ideological level. (Interestingly, many rural Andalusians took to the hills in the 1940s, following the Civil War of 1936-39.)
5.    Within the village community the spirit of sharing was common. Barter was widespread, the family unit frequently ate from a single bowl, in the fields the campesinos shared a large dish of gazpacho together, and social sanctions within the community had greater impact on behaviour than government regulations.

Virtually every village had its anarchist who preached the new religion. In their efforts to cleanse themselves of any of the trappings of the establishment, converts often turned to atheism and rejected worldly vices –gambling, drinking, tobacco, coffee, even bullfighting. Perhaps the most daring steps were taken by those who advocated free love. What this meant, however, was not promiscuity, but freedom to choose partners without need of state or church approval.

Although an Anarchist Congress in Spain was held in Cordoba as early as 1872, the movement did not experience a sustained development and its support even in Andalusia was patchy. Rather, it was intermittent and went by fits and starts in response to local conditions. True to the spirit of anarchism, organization of aims was difficult and strikes were generally disconnected.

Anarchism was to remain a potent force in the south, but by the 1890s the impetus had moved to Catalonia where it acquired a distinctly urban face in the slums of Barcelona. When asked why Barcelona should have become the hotbed of anarchist activity, Catalans pointed to the influx of workers from Andalusia or Murcia, who flocked to find work in Barcelona. There is some truth to this, but there are other factors, too:

1.    As a major port, Barcelona maintained a close dialogue with other European anarchist centres, especially Italy (the only other country in Europe where anarchism found fertile soil);
2.    The slum conditions in what was a rich city favoured direct action, even violence, advocated by anarchism;
3.    The insensitivity of employers and the heavy hand of reprisal fuelled discontent;
4.    The anticlericalism that characterised worker disillusion with the Church’s cosy relationship with the wealthy. Robert Hughes recreated the anarchist fantasy of revenge vividly: “Those fat black beetles, fingering their pectoral crosses and smirking at the gent de be in the overstuffed salons of Passeig de Gracia as they murmured soothing words about Catalanism and Christian charity — break their heads, tear out their liver and lights, hang them by the heels! These fantasies ran deep in Barcelona” (Hughes 419).

The first anarchist bomb exploded in the offices of a powerful business group in 1891. It didn’t do much damage but set the tone and fulfilled the revolutionary maxim “propaganda by deed.” Barcelona was about to become the bomb capital of Spain.

In 1893, the Captain General of Catalonia, Arsenio Martínez Campos, was the intended victim. He escaped with a slight wound, but a Guardia Civil wasn’t so fortunate. The attacker, Pauli Pallas, made no effort to escape. He was tried and executed. His parting shot, “Vengeance will be terrible!” (Hughes 419) was no exaggeration.

A few weeks later a young anarchist friend, Santiago Salvador, bought a cheap upper-balcony ticket to see the opera, William Tell (a story ironically dealing with patriotism and tyranny). During the second act, Salvador tossed a bomb from the balcony killing 21 and injuring 30. He escaped but was later captured and garrotted with 5 other anarchists. His last words echoed defiantly “Long live anarchy!” (Hughes 421).

Finally, in 1896 a bomb was lobbed at a religious procession during the Feast of Corpus Christi. The bishop of Barcelona, who headed the procession, was lucky; not so 12 workers towards the end of the parade who were killed (Hughes 421 suggests that the bomb may have been thrown by a police provocateur since the bomb was thrown after all the “bigwigs” had passed).

The bombing triggered massive reaction by the police who filled the Montjuic prison in Barcelona with just about every anarchist and anticlerical they could find. The trials revealed brutal and unrelenting police torture that provoked international condemnation.

Mass protests were organised in European centres. One Italian anarchist believed that more direct action was required. A short time later (1897), he took off for Madrid and assassinated the most powerful man in Spain, the prime minister, Antonio Cánovas! Not with a bomb but with a revolver!

Balcells, Albert    Catalan Nationalism London 1996
Brenan, Gerald The Spanish Labyrinth 2nd ed. Cambridge 1950
Barton, Simon A History of Spain 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009
Hughes, Robert    Barcelona New York 1992
Mintz, Jerome R The Anarchists of Casas Viejas Chicago 1982 (Has good introduction to anarchism in Andalusia.)
Shubert, Adrian A Social History of Modern Spain London 1990
Williams, Mark The Story of Spain Fuengirola (Malaga) 1990