From the Spanish Civil War to the fall of the Berlin Wall, anarchism pushes for a new social order
By Tommaso Segantini
The Spanish Civil War that occurred between 1936-1939 is always remembered as the fight between the Republicans and Franco’s nationalist semi-fascist forces. However, the war was marked by another, extraordinary event; in 1936, the year of the outbreak of the civil war, the world witnessed the first glimpses of an anarchist revolution. Sam Dolgoff, an American anarcho-syndicalist, stated that the Spanish Revolution “came closer to realizing the ideal of the free stateless society on a vast scale than any other revolution in history.”
The revolution was led by the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo), a confederation of anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist trade unions. A significant part of Spain’s economy was collectivized and put under direct worker’s control. In Catalonia, workers controlled more than 75% of the economy. We should not imagine Soviet-style forced collectivization, but, as Sam Dogloff said, “a genuine grass roots functional libertarian democracy, where each individual participated directly in the revolutionary reorganization of social life”. George Orwell, who has served as a combatant for the CNT, was able to document the revolution as a first-hand observer. Two short passages from his Homage to Catalonia, published in 1938, illustrate superbly the spirit of the revolution: “[T]here 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,” and “many of the normal motives of civilized life—snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.—had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves and no one owned anyone else as his master.”
Unfortunately, the Spanish anarchist utopia did not last long. The anarchists were crushed by a temporary alliance between all other political parties (including the Communists and the Socialists) and the brief—but real—experience of an anarchist society faded away.
However, an important lesson can be drawn from the anarchist utopia of 1936: another world is possible (which is also the slogan of the World Social Forum). Before discussing anarchism’s possible role in the resistance to the capitalist world order, let’s shortly retrace last century’s main stages of the capitalist system’s consolidation: elites have won the long-lasting struggle against the working class; this was achieved firstly by granting workers some benefits after World War II, notably through the implementation of welfare systems in the West, then by fragmenting them with the increase in specialization of labor and the growth of the service industry during the post-Fordist period and finally by assessing the knockout blow through neoliberal policies, which erased hard-fought social and economic rights, diminished trade unions’ bargaining power and weakened their influence.
The libertarian revolutions of 1968 have also ended up in disappointment. Hopes brought by the “New Left” political movement that emerged from the demands of students, activists and workers, came to a close when economic powers and politics colluded in the 80s, removing the last glimmers of hope that change could happen from within the current political system. The 1980s also marked the beginning of the neoliberal era (deregulation of the financial system, erosion of welfare states, privatization programs, financial crises, cuts to public spending).
Finally, the fall of the Berlin Wall represented the end of the last bastion of ideological resistance against capitalism: communism. Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man main thesis was emblematic in the representation of the world we faced and still face today: the triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism marked the end point of mankind’s ideological and political evolution.
We live in a historically specific cultural paradigm, shaped during the course of the last century through mass media, popular culture and advertising, which converged together and formed our consumer culture and in an economic and political system structured to serve the interests of a small elite. In this scenario, anarchist thought has a dual function of resistance: as a challenge to the neoliberal ideology, and as a possible concrete utopia that can guide us in the construction of a valid alternative social order.
The most accessible ground for us, “the 99%,” through which a radical change can be achieved, is that of ideas. No economic or political revolution can bring genuine change without, stated Serge Latouche, an advocator of the degrowth movement, “the decolonization of our minds” from the ideological framework we find ourselves in. Anarchism challenges the ideas, the dehistoricized and naturalized assumptions, and the taken-for-granted norms of today’s society. In an anarchist society, solidarity would replace individualism; mutual aid would prevail on competition; altruism on egoism; spirituality on materialism; the local on the global. Changing the current global framework of rules first necessitates an individual ideological liberation that can only come through self-awareness. To free our body we must first free our mind.