History of the CNT (1910-13): The birth of revolutionary syndicalism in Spain

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In continuity with the series on revolutionary syndicalism which we began in International Review n°118 , the article below is the first in a series of articles on the experience of the Spanish CNT.

Today, a new generation of workers are gradually getting involved in the class struggle against capitalism. This confrontation raises a great many questions, one of the most frequent of which is the union question. It is no secret that the workers remain suspicious of the official unions, and the idea of a "revolutionary unionism" continues to hold a certain attraction; the idea, that is, of organising outside the state structure with the aim of unifying the immediate struggle and also the revolutionary struggle.

By examining the experience of the French CGT and the IWW in North America we have shown that this idea is unrealistic and utopian but the example of the CNT shows is even more striking, as we will now see. From the beginning of the 20th century history has repeatedly shown by experience that syndicalism and revolution are contradictory terms that cannot possibly be united.1

The contradictions of Spanish capitalism and the influence of Anarchism

Today, the CNT and anarchism are seen as inseparable. Anarchism, which played a minor part in the great workers' movements of the 19th and 20th centuries,2 presents the CNT as the proof that its ideology is able to build an extensive mass organisation that can play a decisive role in the workers' struggles, as did the Spanish CNT from 1919 to 1936.

However it was not anarchism that created the CNT because at its inception it had a revolutionary syndicalist orientation, although this does not mean that anarchism was completely absent from its foundation or that it did not leave its mark on the development of the organisation.3

As we have already shown in other articles in this series - we will not go back over this here - revolutionary syndicalism is an attempt to respond to new conditions: capitalism was no longer at its zenith and was gradually entering its decadent phase, which was clearly demonstrated by the immense slaughter of the First World War. Confronted with this reality, larger and larger sectors of the working class became aware of the rampant opportunism of the socialist parties - corrupted by parliamentary cretinism and reformism - as well as the bureaucratisation and conservatism of the unions. There were two kinds of reaction to this; on the one hand a revolutionary tendency within the socialist parties (the left formed by those groups whose best known militants were Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Pannekoek, etc) and on the other hand revolutionary syndicalism.

These general historic conditions are equally valid for Spain although they were also marked by the backwardness and the specific conditions of Spanish capitalism. Two of these particularities had a decisive, negative weight on the proletariat of the period.

The first contradiction was the obvious absence of any real economic unity among the various zones of the Iberian peninsula. This produced localist and regionalist dispersion which gave rise to a series of uprisings within the various regions, the most important of which was the republican cantonal insurrection of 1873. Because of its federalist positions anarchism proved a suitable representative of these archaic historic conditions: the autonomy of each region or zone, which declared itself sovereign and only accepted the fragile and random union of the "solidarity pact". As Peirats4 says in his work, The CNT in the Spanish revolution, "this programme, that of Bakunin's Alliance, suited the temperament of the Spanish underprivileged very well. The federal vision introduced by the Bakuninists was like rain upon damp soil because it resurrected memories of local rights, of village charters and the free municipalities of the Middle Ages" (page 3, volume 1).5

Given the general backwardness and the explosive differences in economic development of the various regions, the bourgeois state, although constitutional in form, in fact depended on the brute force of the army to ensure social cohesion. It unleashed periodic repression mainly against the proletariat and, to a lesser extent, against the middle classes in the towns. Not only the workers and the peasants, but also wide sections of the petty bourgeoisie, felt completely excluded from a state that was liberal in theory but violently repressive and authoritarian in practice and which was controlled by bosses who ignored the parliamentary system and its policies. This gave rise to a visceral apoliticism that was expressed in anarchism but which was also very strong within the working class. These general conditions resulted in the weakness of the Marxist tradition in Spain on the one hand and the strong influence of anarchism on the other. The group around Pablo Inglesias6 remained faithful to the Marxist current in the IWA and formed the Socialist Party in 1881.7 However the organisation was always extremely weak politically, to the point that Munis8 said that many of its leaders had never read anything by Marx: "The most fundamental and important works of theory had not been translated. And the few that had been published (the Communist Manifesto, Anti-Dühring, Misery of Philosophy, Utopian and Scientific Socialism) were read more by bourgeois intellectuals than by the socialists" (Signposts to Defeat, Promise of Victory, p59).9 This is why the party moved so rapidly towards opportunism and was one of the most right wing parties of the whole Second International.

As regards the anarchist tendency, it would take a detailed study to understand all its various currents and the many positions contained within it. We would also have to distinguish the majority of militants sincerely committed to the proletarian cause and those who passed themselves off as their leaders. In general, the latter, apart from a few honest ones, betrayed at every step those "principles" that they ostensibly defended. We need do no more than recall the shameful actions of Bakunin's followers in Spain at the time of the cantonal insurrection of 1873, which Engels denounced so brilliantly in his pamphlet, The Bakuninists at work: "The same people who rejected the Hague resolution on the political attitude of the working class and who trampled under foot the Rules of the [International Working Men's] Association, thus bringing division, conflict and confusion into the Spanish Section of the International; the same people who had the effrontery to depict us to the workers as ambitious place-hunters, who, under the pretext of establishing the rule of the working class, sought to establish their own rule; the same people who call themselves autonomists, anarchist revolutionaries, etc., have on this occasion flung themselves into politics, bourgeois politics of the worst kind. They have worked, not to give political power to the working class -- on the contrary this idea is repugnant to them -- but to help to power a bourgeois faction of adventurers, ambitious men and place-hunters who call themselves Intransigent (irreconcilable) Republicans."10

After this episode and in the context of the international reflux of struggles that followed the defeat of the Paris Commune, the Spanish bourgeoisie unleashed a violent repression which lasted many years. In the face of state terror and its own ideological confusion, the anarchist current had only two inalienable certainties: federalism and apoliticism. These certainties aside, it constantly came up against a dilemma: should it carry forward an open struggle in order to create a mass organisation? Or should it carry out minority and clandestine actions on the basis of the anarchist slogan "the propaganda of the deed"? This dilemma plunged the movement into complete paralysis. In Andalusia this oscillating sometimes took the form of a "general strike" in the form of local, isolated uprisings which were easily crushed by the Guardia Civil and were followed by brutal repression. At other times it was expressed in "exemplary actions" (setting fire to crops, plundering farms, etc) which the government exploited to unleash new waves of repression.11

1900 - 1910: the international tendency towards the mass strike

The CNT was born in Barcelona, the main industrial concentration in Spain, on the basis of the historic conditions which existed internationally during the early decades of the 20th century. As we have shown elsewhere,12 the workers' struggle was tending to develop into the revolutionary mass strike, the most advanced example of which was to be seen in the 1905 Russian Revolution.

In Spain also, the change in historical period was expressed in new forms of workers' struggle. Two episodes, which we will describe briefly, illustrate this tendency: the 1902 strike in Barcelona and the Tragic Week of 1909, which also took place in Barcelona.

The former started in December 1901 with the engineering workers demanding the 9-hour day. When they were confronted with repression and the outright refusal of the bosses, the solidarity of the Barcelona proletariat spilled onto the streets. They arose massively and spontaneously at the end of January 1902 without the least encouragement from any union or political organisations. For several days, mass meetings united workers of all trades. However, as there was no echo in the rest of the country, the strike got progressively weaker. There were various factors that contributed to this situation. On the one hand the open sabotage of the Socialist Party, which even went so far as to block the solidarity funds from the British trade unions. On the other hand, there was the passivity of the anarchist societies.13 At the same time the Workers' Federation of the Spanish Region, which had been newly formed (1900) on an "apolitical" basis,14 was also absent and defended this by saying that "the metal workers of Barcelona have never belonged to any political or social grouping and were not disposed to collective action"15 This experience shook the existing workers' organisations profoundly because it did not follow the traditional "schema" of the struggle: it was neither a general strike according to the anarchist conception nor actions intended to put pressure on employers within a strictly trade and economic framework, in accordance with the vision of the Socialists.

The Tragic Week of 1909 came about as a massive popular reaction against the embarkation of troops for Morocco.16 In this movement too we see expressed active class solidarity, the extension of the struggles and the demonstrators taking

possession of the streets. All of this was done on the immediate initiative of the workers without any previous planning or calls from the political organisations. The economic struggle and the political struggle were united. There were two aspects; firstly there was the solidarity of all sectors of workers with the strikers in the textile industry, the most important in Catalonia. Secondly, the refusal of imperialist war was expressed by the mobilisation against the embarkation of soldiers for the war in Morocco. Under the destructive influence of bourgeois republicanism, led by the famous demagogue Lerroux,17 the movement degenerated into violent and sterile actions, the most spectacular of which were the setting fire to churches and convents. The government made use of all this to unleash another wave of repression, which took a particularly barbaric and sadistic form.

This was the situation in 1907 which saw the birth of Workers' Solidarity (which would become the CNT three years later). Workers' Solidarity united five tendencies that were present in the workers' milieu:

  • "pure" trade unionism, which was very radical, but apolitical and corporatist;
  • the Catalan socialists, who acted independently of the rigid and schematic directives from the centre in Madrid;
  • the revolutionary syndicalists, a tendency recently emerged from the socialist unions, though influenced by anarchism;18
  • the anarchists who, in Catalonia, participated in union action;
  • finally, the members of the demagogic republican party of Lerroux, cited above.

The predominant concern was to form a single, unitary organisation which would weld together the entire class for struggle.

During this period, the theories of French revolutionary socialism were widely circulated. Anselmo Lorenzo, a prominent Spanish anarchist , had translated the The Union by Emile Pouget in 1904; José Prat translated and distributed other works, those by Pouget, Pelloutier and Pataud19 for example. In his own work The Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat (1908), Prat summarised revolutionary syndicalism by saying that it "in no way accepts the present order; it suffers it in the hope that union power can destroy it. By means of increasingly generalised strikes it gradually revolutionises the working class and moves towards the general strike. It snatches from the bourgeois bosses all the immediate improvements that are positive but its aim is the complete transformation of the present society into a socialist society. Through its action as a political agent it brings about economic and socialist revolution."

The founding of the CNT at the 1910 Congress

Workers' Solidarity had intended to hold its Congress at the end of September 1909 in Barcelona. However the congress could not take place because of the events of the Tragic Week and the repression that followed it. The First Congress of the CNT was therefore put off until 1910.

This organisation, that has been presented ever since as the model of anarcho-syndicalism, was in fact founded on the basis of revolutionary syndicalist positions: "there was not the slightest reference to anarchism, either as an aim or a basis for action or in terms of principles, etc. Moreover during the Congress the discussions, the resolutions and the Manifestos of the Confederation made not the slightest allusion to the theme of anarchism in a way that would suggest that there was a preponderant weight of this political current or at least that it had a certain influence on the new Confederation. It came across as a completely neutral organ, if the exclusive practice of revolutionary syndicalism can be understood in this way. It was apolitical in the sense that it did not participate in the game of politics or in the process of the government of society. However it was political in the sense that it proposed to replace the present system of social government by a different system based on its own union organisation." (A. Bar, The CNT in the red years).20

Nevertheless, it would of course be wrong to think that the CNT was not influenced by anarchist positions. This can be seen in the three pillars of revolutionary syndicalism that we have examined in the previous articles in this series that analysed the experience of the French CGT and the American IWW: apoliticism, direct action and centralism.


As we have seen in our previous articles, revolutionary syndicalism claims above all to be "sufficient unto itself": the union should provide the working class with its unitary organ of struggle, the means of organising future society, and even the framework for its theory, although the latter was generally under-estimated. Political organisations were often considered not so much as dangerous as useless. In France, this current nonetheless produced theoretical thinking and writing, thanks to which, for example, its positions reached Spain. But in Spain itself, revolutionary syndicalism remained entirely "practical"; it produced practically no theoretical work and its most important documents were the resolutions adopted at the Congress, in which the level of discussion was very limited. "Spanish revolutionary syndicalism was faithful to one of the basic principles of syndicalism: to be a means of action, a practice and not just a theory. For this reason, contrary to what happened in France, it is very unusual to find theoretical works from Spanish revolutionary syndicalism... The clearest declarations of revolutionary syndicalism are in fact the documents of the organisations, the manifestoes and agreements of Workers' Solidarity as well as of the CNT." (A. Bar, ibid)

It is remarkable that the Congress did not devote a single session to the international situation or to the problem of war. It is even more significant that there was no discussion around the recent events during the Tragic Week which encapsulated a multitude of burning issues (war, direct solidarity in the struggle, the extremely negative role of Lerroux's republicanism).21 From this we can draw the conclusion that there was a reluctance to analyse the conditions of the class struggle and the historic period, difficulty in carrying out theoretical reflection and consequently in drawing the lessons of the experience of the struggle. Instead there was a whole session devoted to a confused and interminable debate on how to interpret the phrase "the emancipation of the workers must be the task of the workers themselves". This ended up with the declaration that only manual workers could carry out this struggle and that intellectual workers must be kept to one side and accepted only as "collaborators".

Direct action

This was considered by the majority of workers to be the main difference in practice between the new organisation, the CNT, and the socialist UGT. In fact we can say that this was the very basis of the constitution of the CNT as a national union (no longer restricted to Catalonia). "The initiative to transform Workers' Solidarity into a Spanish Confederation did not come from the Confederation itself but from numerous entities outside Catalonia. The latter were motivated by the desire to unite with the societies which had not belonged to the General Workers' Union up to then and were interested in the means offered by the direct struggle" (José Negre, quoted by A. Bar in the work quoted above).

Many regroupments of workers in other regions of Spain had had enough of the reformist cretinism of the UGT, of its bureaucratic rigidity and its "quietism" - as many critical socialists recognised. So they greeted with enthusiasm the new workers' union which advocated direct mass struggle and a revolutionary perspective, even if this remained pretty vague. However there is one misunderstanding that ought to be cleared up: direct action is not the same thing as the mass strike. Struggles that break out without the workers having been called out but as a result of a subterranean maturation; general assemblies in which the workers reflect and decide together; massive street demonstrations; the organisation taken in hand directly by the workers without waiting for directives from the leaders: these characterise the workers' struggle in the historic period of capitalist decadence. But they have nothing whatever to do with direct action, by which groups constituted spontaneously by affinity carry out minority actions of "expropriation" or of "propaganda by the deed". The methods of the mass strike spring from the collective and independent action of the workers whereas the methods of direct action depend on the "sovereign will" of small groups of individuals. Enormous confusion has been caused by the amalgamation of "direct action" and the new methods of struggle developed by the class such as in 1905 in Russia or those of Barcelona in 1902 and 1909, that we have mentioned above.This confusion has dogged the CNT throughout its history.

This confusion was expressed in sterile debate between those for and those against the "general strike". The members of the PSOE were against the general strike, seeing in it the abstract and voluntarist attitude of anarchism which throws itself into this or that struggle in order to "transform it arbitrarily into revolution". They were no more capable than their colleagues in Europe's other socialist parties of understanding that the change in historic conditions meant that the Revolution was no longer a distant ideal, it had become the main axis around which must be united all efforts as regards the struggle and class consciousness.22 Rejecting the anarchists' "sublime, great and majestic Revolution", they remained equally ignorant of the concrete changes in the historic situation.

On the other hand, the revolutionary syndicalists wanted sincerely to take the struggle in hand, to develop assemblies and massive struggles but they dressed this up in the old clothes of the general strike, completely dependent on the unions. Although the theses of "direct action" and the "general strike" seemed very radical they were of necessity limited to the economic terrain and so took the form of a more or less radical union economism. It did not express the depth of the struggle, on the contrary it expressed its limitations: "The Confederation and the sections integrated into it must always fight on a purely economic terrain, that is on the terrain of direct action" (CNT Statutes).


A large part of the discussion at the Congress was devoted to the organisational question: how should a national union be structured? The rejection of centralisation and extreme federalism meant that the anarchist position prevailed on this point. So in the early period of its existence (up until the 1919 congress) the CNT adopted a structure that was completely anachronistic, formed of a juxtaposition of trade based societies on the one hand and of local federations on the other.

The events in Russia in 1905 proved that the unity of the working class was a revolutionary social force which organised in a centralised fashion. The Petersburg soviet regrouped workers regardless of sector or category and was also open to the intervention of revolutionary groups. Unfortunately the CNT passed motions that went in quite the opposite direction.

On the one hand, influenced by federalism, in response to the extreme misery and hateful brutality of the capitalist regime local groups threw themselves periodically into insurrections that resulted in the declaration of libertarian communism in one locality. These met with brutal repression from bourgeois forces. In the five years preceding the First World War, this happened frequently in Andalucia and also in regions such as Valencia, where agriculture was more developed. One well-known example is the movement that broke out in 1912 in Cullera, a wealthy farming and industrial centre: a movement of day labourers took over the local council building and declared "libertarian communism" in the region. Completely isolated, they were brutally suppressed by the armed forces and the Guardia Civil together.

On the other hand whole groupsof workers were embroiled in corporatism.23 The method of the latter is to model the workers' organisation on the myriad of subdivisions and complexity of the capitalist organisation of production . The effect of this is to develop among the workers a narrow mindedness of the "every man is master in his own house" type. For corporatism, unity is not the unity of all workers, irrespective of trade, industry, or company, in a single and unique collective but the formation of a "pact for solidarity and mutual defence" between independent and sovereign parts of the working class. This vision is expressed in the rules adopted by the Congress which went so far as to accept the existence of two distinct societies for the same trade in the same locality.


One highly significant theme ran through the 1910 Congress. The very day that it began the workers of Sabadell (an industrial area near Barcelona) were engaged in a generalised strike in solidarity with their comrades of Seydoux, who had suffered several disciplinary sackings. The strikers sent delegates to the Congress to ask that it call for a general strike in solidarity. The Congress showed great enthusiasm and sympathy. However it adopted a resolution based on outworn union ideas that were increasingly being overtaken by the fresh wind of the mass workers' struggle: "We propose to the Congress that it adopt as a measure of solidarity with the strikers of Sabadell that all delegates here present encourage their respective entities to perform their solemn duty. That is, that they carry out the decisions of the delegate assemblies of Workers' Solidarity of Barcelona by materially aiding the strikers." This confused and hesitant motion was a real cold shower for the workers of Sabadell and they ended up by going back to work completely defeated.

This episode symbolises the contradiction which was to mark the evolution of the CNT in the period to come. It held the heart of an impetuous proletarian life beating within it, one that wanted to respond to the increasingly explosive situation within which capitalism was locked. However, by the way it responded, revolutionary syndicalism, was shown to be increasingly inadequate and counterproductive and would, in the end, be a hindrance rather than a help.

We will examine this question in the next article, in which we will analyse the action of the CNT in the difficult period of 1914-1923: the CNT faced with war and revolution.

RR and CMir (15th June 2006)

1 CGT - Confédération Générale du Travail, CNT - Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, IWW - International Workers of the World.

2 Its influence was very limited during the Paris Commune and its presence was insignificant in 1905 and 1917 in Russia, as it was in Germany 1918-23.

3 The preface to a book on the proceedings of the Constituent Congress of the CNT (Editorial Anagramme 1976) acknowledges that the CNT "was neither anarcho-collectivist nor anarcho-communist and not even completely revolutionary syndicalist but was rather apolitical and federalist."

4 Among anarchist historians Peirats is one of the best known and is widely recognised for his rigour. The work referred to is considered to be a point of reference in the Spanish anarchist milieu.

5 On the next page, Peirats develops the following idea: "in contrast to the unitary spirit, which is the reflection of a unified landscape - that of the meseta - the borders of the peninsula , with their mountain chains, their valleys and plains form a circle of compartments which house an infinite variety of peoples, languages and traditions. Every zone or nook of this uneven landscape is a sovereign entity, jealous of its institutions, proud of its freedom. This is the birthplace of Spanish federalism. This geographic configuration was always a seedbed of abutting autonomous zones, some of which were separatist, a retort to the absolutism of the East (...) Between separatism and absolutism, federalism lost its way. The latter is based on the free and voluntary connection of all the autonomous units; from individuals to natural regions or those with affinitary links and including free districts. The warm welcome that was accorded in Spain to certain ideological influences coming from abroad by no means contradicts the existence of a home grown federalism that was scarcely mitigated by centuries of extortion. It rather confirms it. (...) The Bakuninist ambassadors sowed their federalist seed - libertarianism - among the Spanish working class" (ibid, p18). Through associated labour at an international level, the working class represents the conscious unification - freely undertaken - of the whole of humanity. This is radically opposed to federalism which is an ideology that reflects dispersion, the fragmentation of the petty bourgeoisie and of the archaic modes of production that preceded capitalism.

6 Pablo Iglesias (1850-1925) founder and leader of the PSOE until his death.

7 IWA - International Workingmen's Association (the First International), PSOE - Partido Socialista Obrero Español.

8 Spanish revolutionary (1911-1989). He came from Trotsky's Left Opposition but broke with it when it capitulated by participating in the Second World War, and continued to defend class positions against the Trotskyists. Founder of the group FOR (Fomento Obrero Revolucionario). See our article in the International Review n°58, "In memory of Munis, a militant of the working class".

9 See our commentary on this book in our Spanish language brochure: "1936: Franco and the Republic massacre the workers"

10 See Archive of Marxist authors: 'The Bakuninists at Work'.

11 In 1882-1883, the state unleashed ferocious repression against day labourers and anarchists under the pretext that it was fighting against a society that organised such attacks; La Mano Negra. The existence of this society has never been proved.

12 See our series on the 1905 revolution beginning in the International Review n°120.

13 The openly anarchist historian, Francisco Olaya Morales makes the following statement in his book History of the Spanish Workers' Movement (1900-1936): "at the end of December, the strike committee contacted some anarchist societies but they refused to join the committee on the grounds that it had transgressed the rule of direct action" (sic) (page 54).

14 We will come back to this experience latter.

15 See Olaya's book referred to in a previous note, p54.

16 Spanish capital was engaged in a costly war in Morocco in defence of its imperialist interests (to take possession of a number of colonial zones by picking up the remains left by the big powers). This war made it necessary to send a continuous supply of troops, so sacrificing a large number of workers and peasants. Many young men knew that being sent to Morocco meant, not only that they would have to suffer the misery of life in the barracks, but also that they would die or be invalids for the rest of their lives.

17 A dubious individual and an adventurer, founder of the radical party, which was important in Spanish politics until the 1930s.

18 Unlike the French experience (see the articles from this series in International Review n°118 and 120), or that of the IWW in the USA (see n°124 and 125 of the Review), in Spain no revolutionary syndicalist tendency found a clear expression in written works or even in articles. It was made up of trades unions which had broken from the Socialist Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), and some anarchists like José Prat (of whom more later) who were more open to the different tendencies existing in the workers' movement.

19 Theoreticians of French revolutionary syndicalism. See the articles in this series previously referred to.

20 When the anarchist historian, Francisco Olaya Morales, talks about the period of the CNT's founding in his book History of the Spanish Workers' Movement (1900-1936), he says clearly (p277 onwards) that the socialists participated in the founding and in the early life of the CNT. He quotes José Prat, an anarchist author although independent (mentioned above) who was in favour of this participation.

21 There was only a brief mention in passing about the painful problem of the number of prisoners.

22 This is the problem that Rosa Luxemburg clarified in this period, when she examined the huge mass strike of 1905: "On the other hand, the incessant economic war waged by the workers against capital keeps combative energy on the alert even in times of political calm. It constitutes a sort of permanent reservoir of energy from which the political struggle continually draws fresh forces. At the same time the tireless work of chipping away for reforms unleashes here or there sharp conflicts from which political struggles suddenly burst forth. In brief, the economic struggle provides a continuity, it is the thread that ties together the various political knots; the political struggle is a periodic fertilisation that prepares the soil for the economic struggles. Cause and effect succeed one another and alternate constantly. So, in a period of mass strike, the economic factor and the political factor, far from being completely distinct or even mutually exclusive, as the schema of the pedants affirms, represent two complementary aspects of the proletarian class struggle in Russia." (Mass strike, party and unions)

23 The following example illustrates the weight of corporatism. In 1915 the Federation Committee of Reus, an industrial zone near Tarragona - dominated by the socialists - signed an agreement with the bosses behind the backs of the striking workers which resulted in the defeat of the latter. The petitions that the workers circulated, asking that the Committee campaign for a general solidarity strike, were buried. The Committee, which was dominated by men, was suspicious of the demands of the women and gave preference to the interests of the sector - the engineering workers - that the majority of them came from. They did so to the detriment of the basic interests of the working class as a whole, which lay in expressing an indispensable solidarity with the female comrades in struggle.


History of the workers' movement: 

Political currents and reference: