History of the CNT (1914-19): The CNT faced with war and revolution

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The first 14 years of the 20th century, known as the Belle Époque, marked capitalism’s high-point. An atmosphere of optimism pervaded society as the economy endlessly prospered and inventions and scientific discoveries followed one upon the other. The workers’ movement was infected with this atmosphere, accentuating tendencies towards reformism and illusions about to the possibility of reaching socialism peacefully through a series of gradual conquests.[1]

The explosion of the First World War thus came as a brutal blow, a tremendous electric shock. The beautiful hopes of uninterrupted progress, which had dulled minds so much, were replaced by an awful nightmare: a war of unheard of brutality and destructiveness. Men fell like flies on the battlefronts, while at the rear there was rationing, the state of siege, the militarisation of labour. Boundless optimism gave way to paralysing pessimism.

Proletarian organisations were put to a dramatic test. Events unfolded at a vertiginous speed. In 1913 – despite the gathering storm clouds of imperialist tensions – everything appeared rosy. In 1914 the war exploded. In 1915 the first proletarian responses against the war began. 1917 produced the revolution in Russia. From the historical point of view, all this happened in an extremely short space of time. This was an enormous challenge to proletarian consciousness, which cannot respond to such events according to some ready-made recipe, but rather needs to go through a profound process of reflection and discussion. The test of war and revolution – the two decisive events in contemporary life – was posed in barely three years.

Proletarian organisations in Spain faced with the test of war

In the first article in this series on the history of the CNT,[2] we highlighted the backwardness of Spanish capital and the contradictions that threatened it. When the war began Spain declared itself neutral and some sections of the national capital (above all in Catalonia) made some very lucrative deals selling all sorts of products to both sides. However, the world war hit the workers and the labouring masses in general very hard, above all through inflation. At the same time, the elementary sense of solidarity faced with the suffering affecting their brothers in other countries provoked a strong unease among the Spanish workers. All this demanded a response from the workers’ organisations.

However, the two great workers’ organisations that then existed – the PSOE[3] and the CNT – reacted in very different ways. The majority of the PSOE hastened their definitive integration into the capitalist state. The majority of the CNT by contrast adopted an internationalist and revolutionary position.

The PSOE had already begun to degenerate profoundly prior to the war;[4] it openly took the side of the Entente[5] gang (the Franco-British axis) and made the national interest its watchword.[6] With revolting cynicism, the report of the 10th Congress (October 1915) declared that “In relation to the European war, from the outset we have followed the stand of Iglesias[7] and of the circulars from the National Committee: the allied nations are defending democratic principles against the military crimes of German imperialism, and therefore, whilst not denying the capitalist origins of the war and the germ of imperialism and militarism that exists in all nations, we propose the defence of the allied countries”. Only a timid and confused minority put forward an internationalist position. Verdes Montenegro declared in a special vote that “the cause of the war is the ruling capitalist regime and not militarism nor the decisions of the crowned or uncrowned heads of various countries” and demanded that the Congress “call upon all the Socialist Parties of all those involved in the struggle to fulfil their duties towards the International”.

The CNT faced with the World War: a brave internationalist response

When the world war broke out, the CNT was legally dissolved. Nonetheless, workers’ societies in Barcelona maintained their tradition by publishing a manifesto against militarism in May 1914. Anselmo Lorenzo, a worker militant from the period of the First International and a founder of the CNT denounced – in an article published posthumously[8] – the treachery of German Social Democracy, the French CGT and the English trade unions for “having sacrificed their ideals on the altar of their respective fatherlands, denying the fundamental international nature of the social problem”.[9] The solution to war was not “a hegemony subscribed to by the victors and losers”, but the rebirth of the International: “animated by a rational optimism, the wage labourers who defend the tradition of the International Workingmen’s Association, with its historical and inviolable programme, present themselves as the saviours of human society”.

In November 1914, a manifesto signed by anarchist groups, unions and workers’ societies from all over Spain, developed the same ideas: denouncing the war and the two opposing gangs, defending the need for a peace without victors or vanquished which “could only be guaranteed by the social revolution”. In order to achieve this they called for the urgent constitution of an International.[10]

The unease and reflection faced with the problem of the war led the Ateneo Sindicalista de Ferrol[11] to make an appeal in February 1915 “for all the workers’ organisations of the world to organise an international congress” against the war. The organisers did not have the means to carry this out: the Spanish authorities immediately prohibited the Congress and made arrangements to arrest all the foreign delegates. The PSOE also launched a campaign against this initiative. However, the Congress did succeed in meeting, despite everything, on the 29th April 1915 with the participation of anarcho-syndicalists from Portugal, France and Brazil.[12]

At the second session, the discussion about the cause and nature of the war was very thin: making “all the peoples[13] responsible for the war and including only a formal reference to the evils of the capitalist system. Everything centred on the question of what to do? At this level it posed “as the means for concluding the European war the calling of the revolutionary general strike”.

There was no real attempt to understand the causes of the war from the historical and international perspective, nor was there any effort to understand the situation of the world proletariat. It had total faith in the activist, voluntarist call for therevolutionary general strike”. Despite its weaknesses the congress came to very concrete conclusions. It organised an energetic campaign against the war which was carried out through a multitude of meetings, demonstrations and manifestos; it called for the constitution of a Workers’ International with the aim of organising all those who struggle against Capital and the State; and, above all, it agreed to reconstitute the CNT, which was indeed reorganised in Catalonia by a nucleus of young participants at the Ferrol Congress who decided to renew publication of La Soli (Solidaridad Obrera Workers Solidarity – the traditional organ of the Confederation). By the summer of 1915 the CNT already had 15,000 militants and from then on it grew spectacularly.

It is significant that the driving force behind the reconstitution of the CNT was opposition to the war. The central activity of the CNT in this period was the struggle against the war, which it linked to enthusiastic support for the economic struggles that proliferated from the end of 1915.

The CNT showed a clear will to discuss and a great openness to the positions of the Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences, which it welcomed enthusiastically. It discussed and collaborated with the minority Socialist groups in Spain who opposed the war. There was a great effort of reflection in order to understand the causes of the war and the way to struggle against it. Contrary to the idealist view that “all the peoples are to blame” which had been expressed in Ferrol, the editors of La Soli were much clearer; showing the responsibility of capitalism and its governments, supporting the positions of the Zimmerwald Left (Lenin) and showing that “the allies of the capitalist class want peace to come from a military triumph; for us and all workers, the only thing that can put an end to the war is the uprising of the proletariat of the countries involved in the war.[14]

An important and determined polemic took place within the CNT against positions in favour of participation in the war, which came from a part of the anarchist movement led by Kropotkin and Malato (authors of the famous Manifesto of the 16 where they declared their support for the Entente gang) and from a minority that supported these within the CNT itself. Soli and Tierra y Libertad clearly pronounced themselves against the Manifesto of 16 and systematically refuted its positions. The CNT openly broke with the French CGT, whose position they called “a devious orientation that did not respond to internationalist principles”.

In 1916, a La Soli editorial categorically reaffirmed the internationalist principle:

What is the strength of internationalism? Karl Marx and Michael Bakunin showed us it in all its robustness. We defend it no matter what the consequences are,

and we understand that with the war the principles of internationalism have become the stimulus of the Social Revolution (...) We, the Spanish workers, have more in common with the workers of France, Germany, Russia, etc, than with our bourgeoisie. This is our enemy, for whom there can be no quarter; as for the proletariat of other countries, we defend identical interests and aspirations, they are our allies, our compatriots in the International that aims for the disappearance of the capitalist regime (...) We cannot have any solidarity with the state, nor with the defence of national integrity.[15]

The CNT faced with the Russian Revolution

The revolution of February 1917, although it was seen as being of a bourgeois nature, was welcomed joyfully; “The Russian revolutionaries have not abandoned the interests of the proletariat which they represented by leaving them in the hands of the bourgeoisie, as the Socialists and Syndicalists of the Allied countries have done. La Soli emphasised the importance of the “Soviet, that is, the workers and soldiers council whose power opposed that of the bourgeoisie, represented by the Provisional Government, which has been forced to give in [to the Soviet], to recognise its distinct personality, to accept its direct and effective participation... the only real power resides in the proletariat[16]

The soviets were identified with the revolutionary unions: “The soviets in Russia today represent what in Spain are the workers’ federations, although their composition is more heterogeneous than the former since they are not class organisms, even though the majority of their members are workers and the so-called maximalists, anarchists, and pacifists that follow Lenin and Maxim Gorky have a preponderant influence in them.”[17] The identification of the soviets with revolutionary syndicalist unions had, as we will see in the next article, negative consequences; however, what is important is that they saw the Soviet form as the expression of the revolutionary force of the international proletariat. The 5th National Congress of Farm Workers,[18] held in May 1917, clearly laid out the perspective: “capitalism and the political state are heading towards ruin; the present war is causing revolutionary movements such as in Russia and others that will inevitably follow it, accelerating their downfall.

The October revolution generated enormous enthusiasm. It was seen as a genuine triumph of the proletariat. Tierra y Libertad declared in its 7th November 1917 issue that “anarchist ideas have triumphed” and on the 21st November it wrote that the Bolshevik regime was “guided by the spirit of anarchist maximalism”. The arrival of Lenin’s book State and Revolution stimulated a very serious study, leading to the conclusion that this book “establishes a bridge for the integration of marxism and anarchism”. An editorial in La Soli declared that October was “the road to follow”: “The Russians have shown us the road to follow. The Russian people have triumphed: we need to learn from their action in order to be victorious in our turn, wrenching hold of what is denied us”.

As Buenacasa, a remarkable anarchist militant of the time, recalled in his work El movimiento obrero español 1886-1926:[19]What anarchist in Spain scorned being called a Bolshevik?”. With the aim of drawing a balance sheet of one year of the revolution, Soli published on its front page nothing less than an article by Lenin, called “One year of the dictatorship of the proletariat. 1917-1918: the social and economic work of the Russian Soviets”; accompanied by a note by La Soli in which it defends the dictatorship of the proletariat, showing the importance of the transforming work “of every aspect of life carried out by the Russian workers, in the year that they have held power” and it also described the Bolsheviks as heroes “ sincere idealists, but at the same time practical men and realists, the least that we can hope for is that in Spain there is a transformation as profound as that in Russia: therefore it is necessary that the Spanish workers, manual and intellectual, follow the example of these Bolshevik heroes.[20] It added in an opinion article that “Bolshevism represents the end of superstition, dogma, slavery, tyranny, crime, (...) Bolshevism, is the new life that we are yearning for, it is peace, harmony, justice, equality, it is the life that we want and that we will impose in the world.[21]

Tierra y Libertad, in December 1917, even wrote that a revolution means violent confrontation, and requires “leaders and authority”.

Lest there be any doubt that this was the official position of the CNT, Bar’s book refers to a Manifesto published by the National Committee of the CNT on

the occasion of the end of the World War, titled Peace and revolution which has as its subtitle a slogan by Lenin “Only the proletariat should hold power” (12th November 1918). The Manifesto argues that the Russian Revolution had abolished private property, the exploitation of man by man and had established the laws of communism, freedom and justice.[22]

From the beginning of the revolution, the CNT realised that an international revolutionary wave was in progress and was in favour of the formation of an International that would lead the world revolution: “The First and Second Internationals have been broken by the treason of their most important representatives. It is necessary to form a Third, based exclusively on powerful organisations of the class, in order to put an end, through revolution, to the capitalist system and its loyal supporter the state;[23] and in the Manifesto: “The workers’ International, and nobody else, has to have the final word, to fix the date for continuing the social war on all fronts against universal capitalism, a war which has already triumphed in Russia and which is spreading to the central empires, on all fronts and against capitalism. Spain’s turn will also come. Fatally for capitalism”.

Likewise, the CNT followed the revolutionary events in Germany with great interest: denouncing the Social Democratic leadership as “opportunists, centrists and nationalist socialists”, at the same time it welcomed the “maximalist ideology” of the Spartacists as “a projection of the triumph in Russia and whose example, as that of Russia, has to be followed in Spain”. The CNT’s Manifesto also referred to the German Revolution “Look at Russia, Look at Germany. We have to imitate these champions of the Proletarian Revolution”.

It is important to note the intense discussions at the 1919 congress of the CNT which discussed two separate reports, one on the Russian Revolution, and above all, one on participation in the Communist International (CI).

The first report affirmed “That the Russian Revolution, in principle, incarnates the ideal of revolutionary syndicalism. That it has abolished class and caste privilege, giving power to the proletariat, finally gaining it the happiness and well being to which it has a undeniable right, installing the transitional dictatorship of the proletariat in order to ensure the victory of the revolution...”. The Congress declared that the CNT “unconditionally, supports all of the necessary moral and material measures needed for its advance.[24]

One of the members of the committee on the Russian Revolution declared emphatically; “The Russian Revolution embodies the ideal of revolutionary syndicalism, that is to give the proletariat power, all the elements of production and the socialisation of riches; I am in absolute agreement with the revolutionary action in Russia, which is more important than words. Once the proletariat has taken hold of power, everything it has decided will be carried out by its different unions and assemblies”. Another intervention: I propose to demonstrate that the Russian Revolution, by adopting from the moment that it made the second revolution in October a complete reform of its socialist programme, is in accord with the ideals embodied in the Spanish CNT”.

In fact, as Bar says, “In relation to the Russian Revolution there was only one reaction; absolutely all the interventions were laudatory and expressed admiration for the revolutionary events in Russia... The great majority of the interventions were clearly favourable to the Russian revolution, highlighting the identity between the principles and ideals of the CNT and those embodied in that revolution; the report expressed itself in this sense”.

However, there was not the same unanimity on the adhesion to the Communist International. There were many who hesitated to see it as the prolongation of the Russian Revolution and an instrument for its international extension, and considered it a priori as an “authoritarian body. The report on membership of the CI proposed the formation of a Syndicalist International and considered that the CI “although adopting methods of revolutionary struggle, pursues aims that are fundamentally opposed to the anti-authoritarian and de-centralising ideal in the life of the people proclaimed by the CNT”.

The congress was divided on membership of the CI. There were three fundamental tendencies:

The “pure” syndicalist one, which considered the CI a political organ and although not seeing it as hostile, preferred to organise a “revolutionary Syndicalist International”. Segui – a militant who had a real weight within the CNT at this time – did not oppose entry into the CI but saw this as a “tactical move”:We support entry into the Third International because it will give greater authority to the Spanish CNT’s appeal to the syndicalist organisations of the world to construct the true, unique, and genuine workers’ International.[25]

A second tendency, dedicated to full integration into the CI, was represented by Arlandis Buenacasa and Carbo who saw it as a product and emanation of the Russian Revolution.[26]

A third, more anarchist one that was in support of fraternal collaboration but which considered that the CI did not share anarchist principles.

The motion finally adopted by the Congress said:

To the Congress:

The National Committee, summarising the ideas expressed by the different comrades who participated in the session of the 17th on the question of the Russian Revolution, proposes the following;

First: that the National Confederation of Labour declares itself a firm defender of the principles of the First International, upheld by Bakunin.

Second: that it declares its provisional adherence to the Third International, because of its revolutionary character, whilst it organises and holds in Spain an International Congress that will put in place the foundations for the true workers’ International”.[27]

Elements for a balance sheet

This necessarily rapid survey of the reaction of the CNT faced with the First World War and the first international revolutionary wave demonstrates the deeply striking difference between the French anarcho-syndicalist CGT and Spanish CNT of that time. While the CGT sank in treason and support for the bourgeoisie’s war effort, the CNT worked for the internationalist struggle against the war and declared itself on the side of the Russian Revolution.

In part this difference is the result of the specific situation in Spain. The country was not directly involved in the war, and the CNT was therefore not directly confronted with the need to take position faced with invasion; likewise, the national tradition in Spain was clearly not as strong as in France, where even revolutionaries had a tendency to be obsessed by the traditions of the Great French Revolution of 1789.

One can compare the Spanish situation to that in Italy which was not implicated in the war in 1914 and where the majority of the Socialist party continued to defend class positions.

Similarly, and contrary to the French CGT, the CNT was not a well established legal union which risked losing its funds and apparatus due to the wartime state of emergency. Here one can make a parallel with the Bolsheviks in Russia, equally inured by years of clandestinity and repression.

The uncompromising internationalism of the CNT in 1914 is a glowing demonstration of its proletarian nature at that time. Likewise, faced with the Russian and German revolutions, it showed a capacity to learn from the revolutionary process and the practice of the working class itself in a way that appears astonishing today. Thus the CNT took a clear position in support of the revolution without trying to impose the organisational schemas of revolutionary syndicalism: the Russian revolution “embodied, in principle, the ideal of revolutionary syndicalism”; it recognised the necessity for the dictatorship of the proletariat and sided firmly and explicitly with the Bolsheviks. From this position, there is no doubt about its loyal collaboration and open-minded discussion with internationalist organisations, without any sectarian considerations. The militants of the CNT did not see the Russian revolution through the prism of distrust of “politics” and “authority”, but knew how to appreciate the collective struggle of the proletariat. They expressed this attitude with a critical spirit, without renouncing in any way their own convictions. The proletarian behaviour of the CNT in the period 1914-1919 constituted without a doubt one of the best expressions of the working class in Spain.

Nevertheless, one can distinguish certain specific weaknesses of the anarcho-syndicalist movement that were to weigh heavily on the later development of the CNT and its commitment to the revolution in Russia. It is necessary to underline that the CNT in 1914 found itself in essentially the same situation as Monatte, of the internationalist wing of the French CGT. Neither the anarcho-syndicalists nor the revolutionary syndicalists had succeeded in building an International within which a revolutionary left could appear, comparable to the left of the Social Democracy notably around Lenin and Luxembourg. The reference to the International Workingmen’s Association was an historic reference to a past period, which was no longer applicable to the new situation. In 1919, the only International that existed was the new Communist International. The discussion within the CNT on adhesion to the CI and, notably, the tendency that preferred a Syndicalist International which in 1919 did not exist (a Red Trade Union International was created in 1921 in an effort to compete with the unions that had supported the war), showed the danger of the anarchists rejection of everything that had to do with “politics”.

The CNT in the period 1914-1919, was clearly based on an internationalist terrain and open to the Communist International (actively pushed forward, as we have seen, by some remarkable anarchist militants and groups), Faced with the barbarity of the First World War which revealed the threat that capitalism posed to humanity, faced with the beginning of a proletarian response to this barbarity through the Russian Revolution, the CNT showed itself to be with the proletariat, with oppressed humanity, and with the struggle for the revolutionary transformation of the world.

The CNT’s attitude changed radically from the middle of the 1920’s. It was to witness a return towards syndicalism, apoliticism, the rejection of political action and a powerfully sectarian attitude faced with revolutionary marxism. Even worse, by the 1930s the CNT was no longer a resolutely internationalist and proletarian organisation as it had been in 1914. It had become an organisation that participated in the Catalan government and the Spanish Republic and, in this position, participated in the massacre of workers, notably during the events of May 1937.

How and why this change took place will be the object of the next article in this series.

RR and CMir (30th March 2007)


[1]. The resistance to this tide was expressed, on the one hand, by the revolutionary wing of Social Democracy and on the other, more partially, by revolutionary syndicalism and some tendencies within anarchism.


[3]. Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party).


[4]. It is not the aim of this article to analyse the evolution of the PSOE. However, this Party – as we demonstrated in the previous article – was one of the most right-wing in the 2nd International. It followed a profoundly opportunist course which threw it into the arms of capital. The formation of the Republican-Socialist Alliance of 1910, an electoral pact that placed its leader Pablo Iglesias on the parliamentary stage, was one of the decisive moments in this process.


[5]. The Entente cordiale was the name commonly given to the alliance between Britain and France in the years leading up to World War I. It sprang from the series of partially secret diplomatic agreements signed on 8th April 1904 (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entente_cordiale ).


[6]. Fabra Ribas, a member of the PSOE critical of this direction, but still clearly a warmonger, lamented that Spanish capital did not participate in the war: “if the military and navel power of Spain had an effective value, it could contribute to the defeat of Kaiserism, and if the Spanish army and navy were truly national institutions, we would be fervent supporters of armed intervention on the side of the allies (from his book: Socialism and the European Conflict, published in Valencia, without a date but probably about 1914).


[7]. Pablo Iglesias, leader of the PSOE. See the previous article in this series.


[8]. He died on the 30th November 1914


[9]. This appeared in the annual Almanac of Tierra y Libertad (“Land and Freedom”) in January 1915. Tierra y Libertad was an anarchist review close to the CNT.


[10]. The convergence of this idea with that defended by Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and other internationalist militants from the very beginning of the war is clear.


[11]. Syndicalist cultural circle of Ferrol. Ferrol is an industrial city in Galicia, based on shipyards and the navel arsenals, with an old and combative proletariat.


[12]. These were only able to participate in the first session because they were detained by the Spanish authorities and immediately expelled


[13]. There should be an end to criticisms about the fact that the German socialists bear their share of the responsibility, or the French, or that Malato or Kropotkin are traitors to the International. Belligerents or neutrals, we all share responsibility for the conflict for having betrayed the principles of the International” (text for the convocation of the congress published in Tierra y Libertad, March 1915).


[14]. “Sobre la paz dos criterios (Two criteria concerning peace”), in Solidaridad Obrera June 1917.


[15]. Quoted by A Bar, page 433-4.


[16]. Cited in A Bar, La CNT en los anos rojos, (‘The CNT in the Red Years’) p 438. We have already quoted this well documented book in the previous article in this series.


[17]. Buenacasa in La Soli, November 1917.


[18]18. Closely linked to the CNT.


[19]. The Spanish workers’ movement published in Barcelona in 1928.


[20]. Soli, 24th November 1918.


[21]. J. Viadiu, Bolsheviki! Bolsheviki!”, Soli 16th December 1918.


[22]. Bar, op.cit, p 445.


[23]. Soli, October 1918.


[24]. Bar, op cit, p 526.


[25]. Segui quoted in A. Bar page 531.


[26]. The delegation of the engineering union of Valencia declared “If there exists a clear and concrete affinity between the Third International and the Russian Revolution (and the CNT’s supports this), how can we be separate from the Third International?”.


[27]. The Confederal Committee. Madrid 17 December 1919. We can add that when in the summer of 1920 Kropotkin sent a “Message to the workers of Western Europe”, opposing the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks, Buenacasa, who was then editor of Solidaridad Obrera in Bilbao and the official spokesman for the CNT, denounced this “Message” and took the side of the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks and the dictatorship of the proletariat.



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