"Did anarchist [election] abstentionism ever, in the slightest degree, affect the course of events? There was one occasion when it was tested simply because it was one of the rare times and places when anarchism really influenced a mass movement. And the irony was that the effectiveness of abstentionism was demonstrated only when it was abandoned.
In Spain, in the 1930s, there were two huge trade union
federations. On one side was the socialist UGT and on the other the
syndicalist CNT, strongly influenced by the anarchist federation FAI.
The membership of both these bodies was vast. (By the time they agreed
on joint action each could claim, according to whose estimates you read,
between a million and one and a half million members.) After the
dictator Primo de Rivera resigned in 1930, his supporter the King
abdicated in 1931, but the new socialist-republican government continued
the repression of the revolutionary left. In the elections of 1933 the
CNT used the slogan Frente a las urnas, la revolucion social
(the alternative to the polling booth is the social revolution). The
triumph of the right was attributed to the mass abstention of the
workers, and the usual sporadic confrontations followed.
Then came another chance to vote in the February elections of
1936. Very quietly, the CNT leadership tacitly abandoned the position it
had held since 1911, that elections were a fraud and that “workers and
peasants should seize the factories and the land to produce for all.
They and their members voted for the Popular Front (a kind of joint
Alliance and Labour tactical voting). Our most revered chronicler of the
events of 1936, Gerald Brenan in his Spanish Labyrinth,
explained that the electoral victory of the Popular Front ‘can to a
great extent be put down to the anarchist vote’. And certainly a deal
behind the scenes ensured that many thousands of political prisoners
would be released. Brenan says that ‘in many places the prisons had
already been opened without the local authorities daring to oppose it’.
But the triumph of electoral common sense over the convictions of
a lifetime had many consequences in Spain that no one had anticipated.
The Spanish workers were ready to take on the political right, but the
politicians of the left were not. The army was poised to seize power,
but the government was not willing to resist. In his book Lessons of the Spanish Revolution,
Vernon Richards raised a forbidden question: did the CNT leadership
take into account that by ensuring the electoral victory of the left it
was also ensuring that the generals of the right would stage a military
putsch which the respectable left politicians would not restrain? ‘On
the other hand a victory of the right, which was almost certain if the
CNT abstained, would mean the end of the military conspiracy and the
corning to power of a reactionary but ineffectual government which, like
its predecessors, would hold out for not more than a year or two. There
is no real evidence to show that there was any significant development
of a fascist movement in Spain along the lines of the regimes in Italy
In fact, Spain had three different Popular Front governments on
18 and 19 July 1936, each of which was anxious to cave in to the
insurgent generals. It was only the popular rising ( on traditional
anarchist lines) and the seizure by workers and peasants, not just of
arms and military installations, but of land, factories and railways,
that ensured that there was any resistance at all to the generals. These
are ordinary facts, totally contrary to what Orwell used to call the News Chronicle / New Statesman
version of what happened in Spain. The Spanish revolution of 1936 was
forced upon the working class by the election of the Popular Front and
its capitulation to the insurgent generals. It was subsequently
eliminated in the name of national unity in combating the right, which
by then had won international backing. Having participated in the
elections the next step was participation in government by the CNT/FAI
leadership. This led to the permanent destruction of their own movement
and the suppression of the popular revolution, and was followed by 40
years of fascist dictatorship.
And all this because of the decision to abandon the tradition of
non-voting. If history has any lessons for the conscientious
abstentionists it is that every time they get lured out of their
self-imposed political isolation into participation in the electoral
lottery, they make fools of themselves.
From The Case Against Voting, by Colin Ward