When Franco's fascist troops invaded Spain in July 1936 with the purpose of overthrowing the young and unstable Republic, the Spanish working class responded by making a revolution that went much further toward realizing the classless and stateless ideal of proletarian socialism than any preceding popular revolt. Spontaneously and almost overnight, workers seized factories and other workplaces; land was collectivized; workers' militias were formed throughout the country; the church--age-old enemy of all workingclass radicalism and indeed, openly profascist--was dismantled, and its property confiscated; established political institutions disintegrated or were taken over by workers' committees.
In a decade of cataclysmic worldwide depression and spreading fascism, the revolution in Spain signaled a message of renewed hope to the scattered forces of working-class emancipation throughout the globe, not least in the United States. American intellectuals and unionists responded very favorably; for an overview of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, click here.
Supporting the workers' revolution were Spain's largest unions, the anarcho-syndicalist Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (National Confederation of Labor: CNT) and its rival, the Union Generale de Trabajadores (General Union of Workers: UGT), largely led by the Socialist Party (then in a markedly Left phase), as well as such revolutionary groups as the Iberian Anarchist Federation, the independent Workers Party of Marxist Unity (POUM), and a small nucleus of Trotskyists. The Spanish Communist Party, however, and many socialists, maintained that Spain was not historically ripe for an anticapitalist revolution and openly declared themselves for the bourgeois republic. After Franco secured military assistance from Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy, the Spanish Communist Party (CP), which, in the early days of the revolution, had been a small sect, rapidly became a major power in the land as Stalin's Russia sent numerous military officers and political advisers, as well as some military aid, to shield the fragile remnant of the republican government.
The anarchist movement in the United States in the 1930s was not large, but it quickly mounted a nationwide campaign in defense of workers' Spain that vastly exceeded its numerical energies. The CNT's U.S. representative, Spanish-born Maximiliano Olay--veteran of anarchist labor struggles in Cuba and among immigrant cigar-makers in Tampa, Florida, and for many years a leading figure of Chicago's Free Society Group--moved to New York and opened an office for propaganda on lower Fifth Avenue. At his instigation, the various U.S. Jewish, Russian, Spanish, and Italian anarchist federations and groups, as well as English-language groups such as the New York Vanguard group and several branches of the Industrial Workers of the World, formed the ad hoc United Libertarian Organizations to produce a paper of news and information titled Spanish Revolution. (Though not actually affiliated, the Gillespie, Illinois, branch of the Progressive Miners of America wholeheartedly supported the effort through a sizable monthly assessment of its members.) Besides publishing Spanish Revolution, the United Libertarian Organizations held mass meetings in many cities and raised thousands of dollars for their embattled comrades in Spain. The ULO's constituent groups also promoted the revolution in their own papers, and issued separate publications of their own. The Yiddish-language weekly Freie Arbeter Shtimme brought out an English translation of Rudolf Rocker's pamphlet The Truth About Spain. The Italian-language L'Adunata dei Refrattari carried important communications from Spain by the renowned anarchist theorist Camillo Berneri. The IWW's weekly Industrial Worker and One Big Union Monthly featured reports by Pat Read and other Wobblies in the Spanish trenches.
In many countries the social-democratic parties opposed the revolution, but in the United States the Socialist Party, large sections of which had moved sharply to the left--a development hastened by the influx of a disciplined and energetic group of Trotskyists--took up the banner of the workers' revolution and even organized and funded a substantial military unit, the [Eugene] Debs Column, to fight in Spain. Ernest Erber, a leader of the Young People's Socialist League, joined the editorial staff of the POUM's paper, La Batalla. The Friends of Workers' Spain in Chicago existed primarily to promote English-language POUM publications throughout the American labor movement. Also oriented toward the POUM, though not without sometimes severe criticisms of its policies, were Hugo Oehler's Revolutionary Workers League and Albert Weisbord's Communist League of Struggle. Oehler's oft-reprinted pamphlet Barricades in Barcelona remains an important eyewitness account of the workers' "May Days" revolt of 1937. Weisbord went to Spain as correspondent for the Nation, and issued a "Special Spanish Issue" of his own mimeographed journal, Class Struggle, in September 1937. The Trotskyists, inside the Socialist Party but still producing publications of their own, issued many polemics by Trotsky and others. Other small Marxist groups, including the Proletarian Party and the Lovestoneites [named after Jay Lovestone], also defended the revolution in Spain and devoted much space to it in their press.
When fascism emerged triumphant in Spain in 1939, many Spanish revolutionaries sought political asylum in the United States. By far the largest group rallied round Espana Libre, a broad-based bilingual paper devoted to news of struggles in Spain as well as of the widely scattered exile community. Produced in New York by the Confederated Spanish Societies, Espania Libre continued to appear monthly until the death of Franco in 1975.
The first U.S. study of the Spanish Revolution was Trotskyist Felix Morrow's pamphlet Civil War in Spain (September 1936), followed a little over a year later by his full-length Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain. American radicals, especially anarchists, have written prodigiously on the subject ever since. Noam Chomsky's essay "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship" in his American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), Sam Dolgoff's anthology The Anarchist Collectives (1974), and David Porter's Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution (1983) are among the more influential works that have emphasized the revolutionary nature of the struggle in Spain.