Anarcho-syndicalism in Australia: Lived Solidarity, Trust and Hope

In the 1960s, a number of Spanish anarchists found themselves in exile, their application for asylum accepted by Australia, and their practice of radical solidarity continued in Melbourne. Dan Kelly explores some of the history behind IWA (International Workers Association) member Leigh Kendall’s presentation at the Tāmaki Makaurau Anarchists’ Anarcho-Syndicalist Day School.

#Squad (Barcelona, 1936)

“Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists… Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized… Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”

– George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia[1]

“It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.”

– Salman Rushdie, Home[2]


In an age of digital sound bites, virtue signalling and more hot takes than any human can claim to process, where does the strength of the left lie? Or to be more specific, in what ways do radical left values – those concerned with the elimination of state power, the elevation of mutual aid – manifest in our day to day? History, as always, has answers. In the fractured past of ascendant globalism and all the movements it has cast, we find seeds of a different strain: one of lived solidarity, trust and hope. This essay explores one of the outcomes of Spain’s civil war, the Spanish anarchists exiled at its end, and their eventual path to Australia, where their practice of radical solidarity continued in Melbourne, speaking to a common cause, still resonant here today.

We begin in Spain, in 1936. Following a coup by the right wing faction in Spain’s military, the centre-left government was unseated, and the country left divided. On one side was the ousted Republican government, and their socialist and anarchist allies; on the other, the Nationalist forces and their fascist supporters, including Hitler and Mussolini – the eventual intervention of whom would see the right triumph, and the fascist dictatorship of Franco established in Spain, where it would persist until 1975.

While political theorists Žižek and Jameson argue that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”,[3] for left-leaning Spaniards, the military coup instigated by Franco (and all the violence that followed) was indeed an ending, and into the void sprung a number of anarchist organisations. Well prepared by their history of lived solidarity, and the common working class cause to which it was tied, the anarchist revolution “came closer to realizing the ideal of the free stateless society on a vast scale than any other revolution in history.”[4] However, to understand this past and the significance that it holds, we must first clarify what anarchy means. [old hands, please skip this section!]

Anarchy 101

Despite popular references to anarchy as ‘chaos’ – in which the absence of centralised, top down control is mistaken for an absence of any control at all – anarchy is better understood as “the no-government system of socialism”,[5] emerging from the bottom up. As famous anarchist Peter Kropotkin explains, harmony in such a society is obtained, “not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being”.[6]

Such a system is guided by honour and the symmetry that it demands. In order to access the respect necessary for collaboration, leadership and trade, individuals and groups must live what they claim, offering others the same freedom and rights that they seek, doing nothing to others that they would not want done to themselves.[7] In absence of imposed hierarchy and its coercive powers, anarchists are required to attend to reciprocal relationships, and thus ethics. In this sense, ‘good’ behaviour is encoded – not imposed.

However, like all systems, anarchy is only as good as its people and the standards they choose to uphold. In situating responsibility at the individual level, and scaling up, anarchy lays the foundation for a lived co-dependence, in which the decentralization of power (and all the autonomy this provides) gives rise to diversity, and in it, collective strength. While individual groups may stumble or fail, their variation and accountability works to improve the whole: those with the most honour and mutual support prosper; those who cheat and manipulate fall behind. Or another way: those who promote diversity and acceptance welcome growth and difference into their world; those who restrict and exclude are left destitute. As one Zapatista slogan explains, ‘we want a world where many worlds fit.’[8]

At its core, anarchy is about dissolving the formal, hierarchical structures of oppression, and replacing them with freedom, equality and accountability. In the famous words of Bakunin, “Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.”[9] The anarchist symbol – the encircled ‘A’ both maligned and misappropriated throughout the world – reflects these two strains: the mutual support of the triangular ‘A’, and the order encapsulated in its ‘O’.

The Shape of Resistance

While anarchy, like any political philosophy, takes a number of different forms, they remain united in their opposition to both capitalism and centralised government (which, as we will see, isn’t an opposition to organisation). Both operate as hierarchies, in which individual and collective agencies are undermined and eroded, where self-determination is replaced with a position of dependence and tribute, enriching those above and entrenching the power they claim. Central to this is the exclusive ownership of property, and ways in which it is used to extract wealth from those excluded from ownership – the subsequent reframing of this as reflecting individual effort (“I earned this”) a move that is shockingly, conveniently blind to history.[10]

As a cursory glance at the past reveals, the rise of both capitalism and the modern nation state are closely linked.[11] The seventeenth century enclosure of common holdings in the United Kingdom and the dismantling of communal life that followed operated as a crucial step in the concentration of wealth and power that was eventually formalised into nations, the feudal, locally accountable past replaced with one of national, and then quickly global, power, fuelled by both industrialisation and colonialism.[12] In the process, more intimate, localised networks of reciprocity and trade were replaced with faceless, alienated commerce,[13] the humanity of those driving the wealth either diminished – reduced to individual, replaceable cogs in a global machine – or, as with many Indigenous peoples and all who were enslaved and set to work, never acknowledged at all.

It is this injustice that anarchism seeks to remedy, returning power to those previously disenfranchised, elevating their voice and ensuring equitable distribution of resources while still allowing for agency, framing it in the context of both free association (you choose, or more poignantly, consent) and mutual aid (reflecting the notion, widely held, one is only ever collectively free). In this sense, anarchy is both a theory and a practice – calling for individuals to organise and live in such a way that the state is rendered redundant, and their politics made real. As Scottish anarchist Christie Brooks explains, “In an anarchist society, mutually respectful sovereign individuals would be organised in non-coercive relationships within naturally defined communities in which the means of production and distribution are held in common.” [14]

Poster from during the Spanish Civil War. It reads: Comrades! Work and Fight for the Revolution

Anarchists in Spain’s Civil War

For the anarchists in Spain, the military coup provided an opening into which to expand their claim.[15] In Barcelona, where the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo: National Confederation of Labour) had first formed in 1910, one in every two workers was a member – reflecting years of organizing and public outreach. When a tip off alerted them of the coming coup, the CNT mobilised, raiding the barracks and fighting the military in the streets, their numbers and organization such that the soldiers eventually surrendered: the people had won. This success triggered similar responses across Spain, leaving control over the country divided and a civil war under way.

In absence of centralised government response, and with the leadership of anarchist organisation such as CNT,[16] the citizens organized themselves. Industry, agriculture and public service were collectivised and run by committees of workers, operating in accordance with anarchist principles.[17] Central to this was the fundamental notion of equality: ‘From each according to their ability, and to each according to their need.’ No one was to go hungry or unhoused; work hours and capitalist constraints were loosened to tackle unemployment and privately-owned land was occupied and farmed collectively.[18] In many places, money was abolished, and property such as farming machinery expropriated for the benefit of the people.

However, despite this radical change, and the on-going costs of war against Franco’s fascism, the anarchist revolution resulted in an increase in wealth and production, especially in the realm of agriculture. Public services were improved, new schools built and industrial processes streamlined. In order to deal with the new surplus, a council was established to export on behalf of the various collectives, and experimental agriculture yielded further gains. Feminist organisations sprung up, producing a wave of publications that made their way to the front, covering such topics as consent, respect for sex workers and the legalisation of abortion. As historian Gaston Leval (who participated in the revolution) explains, the anarchists “instituted not bourgeois formal democracy but genuine grass roots functional libertarian democracy, where each individual participated directly in the revolutionary reorganization of social life. They replaced the war between men, ‘survival of the fittest,’ by the universal practice of mutual aid, and replaced rivalry by the principle of solidarity…”[19]

But it wasn’t to last. Bolstered by the support of Hitler and Mussolini, the fascist forces gained the upper hand. In strongholds like Barcelona, anarchists were undermined by both the return of traditional political parties and the manoeuvring of Stalin’s communists. A number of key figures were assassinated and attempts made to disband collectives, especially in the public sphere. Finally, it became clear that the war was lost, and, facing death or worse, a number of anarchists fled, some from ports along the Mediterranean coast and others over the Pyrenees to France. While Franco had promised that those who wished to leave would be able to, a huge number of anarchists were taken and imprisoned in concentration camps. For many who escaped, similar fates awaited – bringing us to the trials of Vicente Ruiz and the small number of anarchist families who would eventually end up in Melbourne, seeding their solidarity-based practice there.[20]

The Journey from Spain to Australia

As Franco’s army approached Alicante, a small number of anarchists – including those bound for Melbourne – managed to escape, some on fishing boats, others on the renowned British coal-ship, the Stanbrook, braving the Nazi blockade and the threat of U-boats to deliver some 2,600 refugees south to Algeria. However, such escape was bitter sweet, with the over-crowded ship forced to wait three months before French authorities allowed them to disembark, at which point they were placed in forced labour camps and set to work coal mining and building the Trans-Saharan railway. Disobedience and striking in these camps was met with severe punishment, including spells in hot tin sheds, being dragged behind horses or pushed down sand dunes in a barrel.

Those in the camps were eventually liberated by the US Military, their policy of hiring locals to do non-military work seeing a number of CNT anarchists employed – with Vicente Ruiz working as a diver clearing mines in the Mediterranean. With the money saved from such work, the CNT exiles were able to set up in Morocco, the 11 families who eventually moved to Melbourne part of a group of approximately 200 based in Casablanca who established the first anarchist community house or ateneo there, named Armonia, or harmony.

Like those from Spain that Armonia mirrored, ateneos were cultural associations set up to promote solidarity. These worked as a base for education, outreach, and international aid, providing a physical dimension to the philosophies they promoted. Lectures were held and a library established, helping to raise the profile of anarchy in Morocco. However, in 1965 the right wing leader Mulay Hussan II came to power, his close allegiance with Franco and hostility towards anarchy seeing the Spaniard again forced into exile. As part of the newly created UN’s refugee status, they were given four options: Mexico, Sweden, Canada, or Australia. While all those applying are alleged to have ranked them the same, in the order given above, for eleven families, it was distant Australia that eventuated and their anarchist strain brought down under.

On the 24th of October, 1965, the first meeting of Australia’s CNT exiles took place in Melbourne, establishing the ‘Grupo Cultural de Estudios Sociales de Melbourne’ – an anarchist affinity group paralleling that of Armonia – their stated purpose one that echoed out from Spain: “to develop and enhance the political, cultural, and social consciousness of the individual.” Similar affinity groups were established in exile communities around the world, working alongside and in support of the Spanish CNT, sending funds, sharing publications and supporting imprisoned and persecuted anarchists where they could. In Melbourne, this started slowly, first with Spanish language publications and then later English translations, their principle of international solidarity seeing networks forms with other exiled anarchist groups, including the Bulgarians based in Sydney, and a number of Italian anarchists who had fled from Mussolini.

This activity soon attracted a number of Australians, their exposure to anarchist ideals fuelled by the rising counterculture and opposition to the Vietnam War. A Free Store was established, and then the Fitzroy Free Legal Service, an institution which persists to this day, albeit in non-anarchist form. At their peak, the number of affiliated Spanish anarchists in Melbourne stretched across 50 families, encompassing some 200 individuals. A printing press was established and classes held to teach people how to use it, resulting in an explosion of publications, including a concentrated effort to get the anarchist encyclopaedia published by Mexican anarchist group Tierra y Libertad (Earth and Freedom) into public libraries – an action that seems strange in our age of information saturation, but one that was crucial pre-internet, and perhaps, now, is crucial again.

The information from these publications radiated out, seeding anarchist ideals around the antipodes and giving rise to further radical action. Examples from the day school included industrial strikes and boycotts, as well as the 1990 tramways occupation, in which anarchist principles infiltrated the South Melbourne Tram Union, resulting in radical solidarity and resistance against attempts to automate and lay off staff. This included both ‘stop work’ strikes, marches and eventually the occupation of the tram depo, where it was run according to anarcho-syndicalist principles – providing us with a local example of the collectivizing of public service that took place in Spain.

The World We Might Build

I want to end by taking a moment to acknowledge the vast forces that the Spanish anarchists faced, not to elevate them above all others,[21] but to acknowledge their work and the radical solidarity that coloured it, both in times of war and in times of peace. As so many have argued, it is how we live that makes our world – and in the face of climate breakdown, racial injustice and a system that seems hellbent on dehumanisation to squeeze a profit, anarchist principles provide us with a framework for an energising, fulfilling, solidarity-based resistance.[22]

Crucially, this is a resistance that turns on economic as well as political solidarity. It is workers who make this world, and it is worker’s movements and all the intersectionality that they contain which hold the greatest promise for transformation, not just resisting the life-destroying forces of modern capitalism, but carving out spaces of communal autonomy and culture as well. To this end, the ills of our world call us to radical action, to the democratisation of our economy and the elevation of worker’s rights. As the Spanish anarchists make clear, another way of life is possible. In adopting their practice of interdependence, solidarity and mutual aid we might help to establish a different perspective for engaging with our earth, growing communal, accountable power from the bottom up, working together for meaningful change.

[1] Homage to Catalonia (Penguin Classics, London, 2000 [1938]) 3.

[2] Home (Vintage Minis, London, 2017) 43.

[3] See Mark Fisher Capitalist Realism (Zero Books, Winchester, UK, 2009) 2.

[4] Sam Dolgoff, 1974, 5.

[5] Peter Kropotkin Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings (Dover Press, New York, 2002) 46.

[6] From the Encyclopedia Britannia, as quoted by David Graeber Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004) 1.

[7] This refers, respectively, to the Golden and Silver rules of ethics. For Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s arguments as to why the Silver rule is more robust (a reflection of its negative framing), see Skin in the Game (Random House, New York, 2018) 22.

[8]Queremos un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos”. The Zapatistas are a revolutionary anarchist peasant organization in the south of Mexico.

[9] G.P. Maximov (ed) The Political Philosophy of Bakunin (The Free Press, New York, 1953) 269.

[10] “You know well enough that we are exploiters. You know too that we have laid hands on first the gold and metals, then the petroleum of the “new continents,” and that we have brought them back to the old countries. This was not without excellent results, as witness our palaces, our cathedrals, and our great industrial cities; and then when there was the threat of a slump, the colonial markets were there to soften the blow or to divert it. Crammed with riches, Europe accorded the human status de jure to its inhabitants. With us, to be a man is to be an accomplice of colonialism, since all of us without exception have profited by colonial exploitation.” Jean-Paul Satre in the introduction to Frantz Fanon The Wretched of the Earth (1961).

[11] See generally Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel A History of the Work in Seven Cheap Things (University of California Press, San Francisco, 2018).

[12] Karl Polyani The Great Transformation (Beacon Press, Boston, 1957 [1944]).

[13] The anthropologist Anna Tsing describes this alienation as a claimed ability “to stand alone, as if the entanglements of living did not matter.” The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton University Press, New York, 2015). See generally, David Graeber Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Random House, London, 2004).

[14] My Granny made me an Anarchist (The Christie File part 1, 1946-1964) (Christie Books, Hastings, 2002). 162-3.

[15] See generally, ‘Vivir La Utopia’ (1997), directed by Juan Gamero, available online.

[16] Of its membership, CNT – which persists – notes: “We make no distinction at the time of admission, we require only that you are a worker, student or unemployed. The only people who cannot join are those belonging to repressive organisations (police, military, security guards), employers or other exploiters”

[17] “Very quickly more than 60% of the land was collectively cultivated by the peasants themselves, without landlords, without bosses, and without instituting capitalist competition to spur production. In almost all the industries, factories, mills, workshops, transportation services, public services, and utilities, the rank and file workers, their revolutionary committees, and their syndicates reorganized and administered production, distribution, and public services without capitalists, high salaried managers, or the authority of the state.” Gaston Leval, as discussed by Dolgoff, 6.

[18] Note that while property was confiscated, it wasn’t abolished. While many of the land-owning class fled, those who remained and had property confiscated were established as members on the committee determining how their land would work. That is, they weren’t alienated, but rather subject to collective will, of which theirs is but one of the voices.

[19] Ibid.

[20] See generally Vicente Ruiz Gutiérrez In Memory of a Revolutionary Spanish Anarchist (Acracia Publications, with the co-operation of the Grupo Cultural de Estudios Sociales de Melbourne, 2016), available online.

[21] For a wide-ranging, fascinating discussion of a number of different international anarchist movements and whakaaro, see generally Barry Maxwell and Raymond Craib (eds.) No Gods, No Masters, No Peripheries: Global Anarchisms (PM Press, Oakland, 2015).

[22] This isn’t limited to the anarchist tradition, but it is one that illuminates how a different mode of organizing can have radically different outcomes. Different Indigenous traditions (and the decentralisations they contain) provide further, fertile ground for both inspiration and solidarity – I leave them for another time.

[23] “In order to survive, a plurality of true communities would require not egalitarianism and tolerance but knowledge, an understanding of difference, and respect. Respect, I think, always implies imagination – the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls.” Wendell Berry The Art of the Commonplace (Shoemaker & Hoard, Washington D.C., 2002) 181.

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