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Democracy, Trade Unions and Political Violence in Spain

The Valencian Anarchist Movement, 1918–1936

Richard Purkiss recently completed his PhD at Lancaster University, having previously studied at the University of Wales, Swansea. His research interests include the Spanish left in the 1920s and 1930s, the history of trade unions, and inter-war Europe. He is particularly focused on bringing the understudied region of Valencia to the attention of Anglophone readers. The author currently lives in Brussels, Belgium.

“Anglo-Saxon readers are perhaps familiar with the anarchist movements of Andalusia and Catalonia yet can have read little of the Valencian branch of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, the national anarcho-syndicalist trade union federation. Yet Valencia had the third largest anarchist movement in Spain after those of Catalonia and Andalusia, consisting of the CNT and the smaller, terrorist wing, the Federación Anarquista Ibérica. Historians will therefore welcome Richard Purkiss’s richly layered study of the anarchists’ role in the local labour movement, their often conflictive relations with other political groups of the left, their cultural and educational efforts, and the bloody participation of the FAI in expropriations, assassinations and other forms of political violence, from 1918 up to and including the military coup of July 1936.” From the Series Editor’s Preface by Paul Preston, London School of Economics

Valencia has traditionally been seen as somewhat exceptional within Spain: a prosperous, agricultural export-oriented economy dominated by small- and medium-sized farmers. This tranquil image of Levante feliz contrasts sharply with those of rebellious, proletarian Barcelona, or impoverished, feudal Andalusia, with which the CNT and the Spanish anarchist movement is most closely associated. However, this new study shows that Valencia in the 1920s and 1930s was anything but tranquil. The vertiginous growth of the CNT between 1918 and 1920 led to the province being a major target of government repression. The situation there was considered by one Interior Minister as more worrying than in Barcelona. Later, in the 1930s, urban Valencia became the focus of a fierce struggle between hard-line revolutionaries linked to the anarchist FAI and more moderate trade unions, whilst numerous local insurrections broke out in rural areas of the province. Eventually, these two factions would form an uneasy truce in time to lead the Valencian left in the battle to overcome the military coup of July 1936 and secure this vital economic region for the Republican side.

In providing the first English-language study of this important movement, Dr Purkiss fills a significant gap in the historiography of the Spanish left. Drawing on a wide range of previously underused primary sources, he shows that not only was Valencia a hugely important source of anarchist support, but that the local movement was far more radical than has previously been thought. He thus provides a vital insight into the origins of the revolutionary and anti-clerical violence which swept the province in the early months of Civil War, introducing us to the ‘expropriators’ and ‘men of action’ whose activities terrified bourgeois Valencia in the 1930s.

Published in association with the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies


Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-461-1
Hardback Price: £55.00 / $74.95
Release Date: May 2011
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-648-6
Paperback Price: £29.50 / $39.95
Release Date: November 2014
Page Extent / Format: 320 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: With Maps


Glossary of Organisations


1: Valencian Politics, Society and Economy at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century
Blasquismo and the labour movement
Origins of the CNT in Valencia

2: The Rise of the CNT in Valencia, 1918–1920
Urban labour protest and the sharpening of class conflict
Anarcho-syndicalism becomes a mass movement Sindicatos Únicos: the emblem of the new unionism
The CNT and the republicans: a relationship turned sour
The tide turns: repression and recession in 1920
Anarchism and the Valencian peasantry, 191820
The FNOA in Valencia
1919 in the Valencian campo: a peasant revolt?
Anarchism and rebellion in El Camp de Túria
Anarchism and popular culture

3: Anarchist Violence, the Grupos and Repression, 19201923
Meeting ‘terror with terror’: the escalation of repression
Aftermath of the Trienio: decline of the rural unions
Effects of pistolerismo and repression on the CNT

4: Culture, Ideology, and Conspiracy: The Battle for Control of the CNT
The battle of ideas within the CNT
‘Some books and a Browning’: the revolutionary role of culture
The nature of anarchist culture and its dissemination
The anarchist press under Primo de Rivera

5: The Re-organisation of the CNT, 19301932: Consolidation and Conflict
The proclamation of the Republic in Valencia
‘The same dogs with different collars’: rupture between the CNT and the Republic
Protest and unemployment
Expansion of the anarchist cultural sphere
Women in anarchist culture
The libertarian and syndicalist youth movements

6: ‘Revolutionary Gymnastics’, Expropriations and the Split Within the CNT
Atracos and atentados
Industrial conflict, winter 1932–1933
Marginalisation of the moderates and the January 1933 uprising
The deepening of the split in the CNT
The 1933 elections and the December uprising

7: The Fascist Danger and the Search for Working-class Unity, 1934–1936
October 1934 in Valencia and its aftermath
Green shoots of recovery: re-unification and re- organisation
The July coup in Valencia



From the latter part of the 19th century to the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, anarchism was a potent political and social force in Spain, expressed in unions, political associations, and groups practicing direct action. Anarchism won adherents for many reasons – some for its idealism about a future society, some for its organization. For many people, it was the promise of rapid deliverance from a society deemed profoundly unequal in condition and opportunity. Numerous incidents testified to the appeal of anarchism, notably in Catalonia and Andalusia. Anarchist movements and activities, especially in Catalonia, have been much studied since the 1970s in several excellent accounts. This work is devoted to anarchism in the city and province of Valencia, hitherto absent from significant study. Purkiss demonstrates the central importance of anarchism in this area and its impact on national politics. His focus is on the CNT – the anarchist union and its culture, organization, and activities during the tumultuous years of the Second Spanish Republic, 1931–1939. This very intensive study of one area is primarily for specialists, but it is also extremely valuable for anyone interested in the history of Spain and the origins of its civil war. Highly recommended.

It is well known that anarchism had in Spain its most visible and influential expression in modern history. Within Spain, the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) labor union and the more radical anarchist Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) enjoyed no more dominant influence than in Catalunya and Andalucia. Most studies of Spanish anarchism have concentrated on the development of the movement in these two regions, often extending generalizations about the character of those regional movements to the rest of the country without much consideration for potential variance. There were, however, important variants in the libertarian movement in other regions of Spain that have slowly emerged in recent historiography. Pamela Radcliff offered us a closer look at the critical influence of anarchism in Gijón and the role it played in the build up to Civil War in that region. Some years ago, Eulàlia Vega described the differential elements of the Valencian anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movements, emphasizing their much more moderate character and their repeated attempts at calming the revolutionist tendencies of their northern Catalan counterparts. Although other contributions have appeared over the past twenty years, Vega’s work has remained the dominant interpretation of anarchism in the Spanish Levant. The publication of Richard Purkiss’ monograph Democracy, Trade Unions and Violence in Spain offers us an opportunity to revisit the Valencian anarchists and Vega’s earlier conclusions. The book’s title is somewhat vague and misleading – it reads like a checklist of attractive key words in recent historiography – and is clearly aimed at attracting the browsing eye. In addition, the recent publication in Spain of a long string of dryly written local histories overloaded with mildly interesting but irrelevant minutiae and little in the way of synthetic analysis incites questioning whether a new study on anarchism in the Spanish Levant can contribute anything novel to the historical debate. After reading the book, the answer to this question is a definite yes.
... Purkiss has made a significant contribution to the understanding of the development of the Valencian anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movement. His perspective is also a welcome addition to the larger discussion of the question of anarchism’s success in Spain, a question that continues to elude a satisfying answer. In this respect, all future works on anarcho-syndicalism will have to take Purkiss’ work into account.
Jordi Getman-Eraso, Bronx Community College – City University of New York, Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies

Reviewed in Italian, Spagna contemporanea (2014).

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