“The First example of how a revolution should be made”. This phrase by Emma Goldman, an early advocate of free speech, birth control, feminism, and workers’ rights sums up fairly well the book David Porter devoted to the Spanish social revolution of 1936-1939 titled “Vision on fire: Emma Goldman about the Spanish Revolution”.

Although the book is written in English, it is useful to have a look at it from this side of the Med, thus familiar readers of this language could be informed and those interested in the argument can always brush up their knowledge of the English language. Finally, all others could get useful information, whilst awaiting the publication of the book, hopefully, by an Algerian or French publishing house.

The writing style is simple, straightforward and clear. The author’s excellent presentation is based entirely on the writings of Emma Goldman. Although she does not need a presentation, let us give some brief information. An anarchist of Russian descent, exiled to the United States, where she continued her militancy, she returned to Russia during the Russian Revolution of 1917. She was among the supporters of the free Soviets, against their takeover by the Bolsheviks. She tried but in vain to prevent the ensuing dictatorship of a party naturally inclined towards totalitarianism; but she was forced to admit on the spot how Lenin-Trotsky’s policies were Fatal to this authentically popular revolution.

Then, she went to Spain during the country’s social revolution, and got involved again. It should be noted that the adjective used here is “social” as opposed to “political”. There lies the originality of this revolution; It was not intended, according to the Marxist and Bolshevik scheme, to take power of the state, by instituting a so-called dictatorship of the “proletariat”, a new domination of the people. On the contrary, following the Proudhonian – Bakouninian’s  anarchist conception, the Spanish Revolution was meant to be “social”. In other words, a change to the basis of society, in its various structures and areas of activity. This has been achieved by creating self-managed, free and autonomous workers and farmers’ associations. In this way, there would be no need for a dictatorial state, neither for its privileged bureaucracy, nor for a “guide” party to which blind obedience would be required, nor for a “genius” leader issuing indisputable decrees, nor for “people commissioners” imposing orders, nor for a “Red” army comprised of military and simple performers (1), nor for a political police Cheka style, nor for prisons, nor for forced collectivization. This is what Stalin and his totalitarian bureaucracy could not admit, lest this authentic social revolution unveil the Bolshevik sham and contribute to its end.

Goldman writes:

“[Spanish workers] have shown that dictatorship is not essential in a revolutionary period. It is true that those who have enjoyed political freedom in Spain have enjoyed it up to an alarming limit, but I agree with the comrades that there is less danger in the abuses of freedom than in the dictatorship. ” (2)

It is therefore through the writings of this partisan of a genuinely social revolution, her observations and her criticisms that David Porter accounts for this social rupture, the most Original and the richest the world has ever known. Unfortunately, she was the victim of slander, then of armed repression, finally of occultation by the “Communist” Stalinists, not to mention the “Liberals”. These misdeeds were (and the occult remains) as implacable as this uprising was the first authentic revolution in the world. Here is how: its protagonists were who only peasants, workers, small employees and enlightened intellectuals. they were nevertheless animated not by a classic “avant-garde party”, guided by its “genius” chef, but out of their own self-managed organization goals, where self-directed libertarian design was fully assumed. There was the greatness of these protagonists of the people, and there was the motive for which all authoritarians, “Communists”, “Liberals” and Fascists were hostile to. They united to crush what was an ideal example of how to undertake a genuine social change  in favor of the oppressed, the exploited and the dominated.

Let us see. These were the enemies that the Spanish social revolutionaries were confronted to. On the one hand, the Fascist army of General Franco, supplemented by some Moroccan proxy; The action of this army was reinforced by the Nazi aviation, which experimented with its first systematic bombardment of civilian population. Finally, Mussolini sent in reinforcement with Italian troops. On the other hand, the Spanish auto managers had to fight against the Russian “Communist” agents sent by Stalin, as well as against their subordinates of the Spanish “Communal” party, including their military columns.

It was a war of several armies coordinated against a people of peasants, workers, employees and enlightened intellectuals. And this war was not directed solely against the popular militias, which were badly lacking in arms and ammunition, but also against their economic, social and cultural achievements.

For it must be known, and this was found by Goldman as by other Witnesses on the spot, these realizations were consistent, impressive, unexpected, exemplary and meaningful. Totally the opposite of the regression and chaos that in Russia, the domination of the Bolshevik party had caused, the binding to a return to capitalism with the N.E.P.

“If ever, writes Goldman, there was a people loving enough freedom to fight for it, to live its daily relations and even die for it, Spanish workers and peasants have shown that they are placed at the highest peak.” (3)

David Porter’s book is not limited to quoting Emma Goldman’s essential writings about the Spanish revolution. He had that precious precaution of providing explanations and notes. These place the excerpts of the activist and theorist in their concrete historical-social context, while proposing avenues of reflection and action regarding the current situation. Finally, David Porter provides titles of books and their authors, thus, the arguments examined are widened and deepened, allowing access to additional information.

The book reflects not only the general problems faced by the Spanish social revolution, but also through its aspects embodied by individualities. Their qualities and shortcomings are exposed, as well as their influence on the conduct of a Revolution (4).

In addition, the author stresses: “The fate of Spanish anarchism should be analyzed at the widest social level, instead of considering only personalities. In fact, the movement had against him the international conspiracy, and the lack of support of the world proletariat to the Spanish revolution. These two factors have caused the essential mistakes in Spain. Although individuals in the movement have made significant mistakes, their positive contribution must not be forgotten.” (5)

That said, it is stated: “But in general terms, anarchists, more than any other people affected by social change, have traditionally considered individual emancipation and the maintenance of personal integrity as important measures of the success of Movement.” (6)

A chapter is devoted to the role of women in the Spanish Revolution: “In the history of the anarchist movement, the emancipation of women was a crucial part of global social transformation” (7)

The author adds: From her (Emma Goldman) viewpoint, the organization of the movement in general, even among the anarchists, encouraged the careerism, petty jealousies and new hierarchies. There is no doubt that these tendencies were, to a certain degree, the result of a masculine predominance in the movement, as due to the organization of the movement itself. ” (8)

In a very interesting introduction to chapter three “the New Society”, David Porter provides explanations on anarchism as a social and human vision; he completes the presentation by considering the reactions of the opponents: as in the past, anarchists suffer most often from a bad image among
the « Progressive  from two viewpoints: as destructive negativists or irresponsible dreamers. (..).  For such people, the constructive experience of the Spanish Revolution, assumed enthusiastically by Emma Goldman in these pages, should be a welcome relief. It is also an invitation for them to broaden their own policies. (9)

The reading of David Porter’s book accurately reflects his assertion: “Goldman’s ratings are written directly for us in the present. They help deliver this incredibly precious gift from the Spanish people. (10)

Let us hope that this work is finally translated into French, Arabic, Tamazight and Dziriya, so it is informative about the best example of a social revolution in the world.


(1) Here are statements by Buenaventura Durruti, one of the most representative people of Spanish anarchism during the Civil War in Spain: -We will show you the Russian and Spanish Bolsheviks, how the revolution is made and how it is led to its end. At home there is a dictatorship, in your Red Army, there are colonels and generals, while in my column there is neither superior nor inferior, we all have the same rights, we are all soldiers, I too am a soldier. (…) It would not really be worth dressing up as a soldier if one were to be left to govern again by the pseudo-Republicans of 1931; we agree to make great concessions but, let us never forget that we must lead the war and the Revolution. (…) I have been an anarchist all my life, and I hope to remain so. I would regret indeed to become a general and command the men with a military stick. They have come to me voluntarily, they are ready to put their lives on the line for our anti-fascist fight. I believe that discipline is indispensable, but it must come from within, motivated by a common resolution and a strong sense of camaraderie. »

(2) « (The Spanish workers) have shown that dictatorship is not essential in a revolutionary period. It is true that those who are enjoying political freedom in Spain are taking advantage of it to an alarming extent, but I agree with the comrades that there is less danger in the abuses of freedom than in dictatorship. »

(3) « If ever there were a people who love liberty sufficiently enough to struggle for it, live it in their daily relationships and even die for it, the Spanish workers and peasants have demonstrated that they stand at the highest level. »

(4) See chapter TWO “particular individuals”.

(5) « One should analyze the plight of Spanish anarchism at the broader social level instead of solely through looking at personalities. It was in fact the international conspiracy against and lack of world proletarian support for the Spanish revolution which caused the essential mistakes made within Spain. Though individuals in the movement indeed made important errors, their positive service should not be forgotten. »

(6) « But in general terms, anarchists, more than others concerned with social change, traditionally have seen individual emancipation and maintenance of personal integrity as important measures of the movement’s success. »

(7) « In the historical anarchist movement generally, emancipation of women was a crucial part of overall social transformation. »

(8) « In her view, movement organization generally, even among anarchists, encouraged careerism, petty jealousies and new hierarchies. No doubt these tendencies were to some degree the result of male preponderance in the movement, as well as due to the movement organization itself. »

(9) « As in the past, current anarchists most often suffer a bad image among “progressives” on both counts—as either destructive negativists or irresponsible dreamers. (…) For such individuals, the constructive experience of the Spanish Revolution so enthusiastically endorsed by Emma Goldman in these pages should come as a welcome relief. It is also an invitation for them to expand their own politics. »

(10) « Goldman’s assessments are written directly to us in the present. They help to deliver to us this incredibly valuable gift from the Spanish people. »

David Porter, VISION ON FIRE : Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution. AK Press, 2006, Second Edition.

Further reading : Who made the October Revolution in Russia?