Laura Vicente has a doctorate in History from the University of Zaragoza and a professor of history of secondary education. She is a specialist in social history and women’s history, especially in Spain.
In line with her special interest in social initiatives with anarcho-feminist roots and in social movements, she has published works such as Historia del anarquismo en España (2013), Mujer contra mujer en la Cataluña insurgente: Rafaela Torrents (1838-1909) and Teresa Claramunt (1862-1931) (2018) or The Revolution of Words: The magazine Mujeres Libres (2020).
Currently, she also teaches a course on the Free Women organization in the Crisi space in Barcelona and she is part of the editorial team of the Libre Pensamiento magazine edited by CGT and the XIX y Veinte history magazine.
Interview with Laura Vicente Villanueva
Why were you interested during your career in anarchism and, specifically, in the anarcho-feminism? What came into your life before, anarchism or feminism?
As a historian, anarchism interested me, but what really interested me wasthe issue of conflict and unionism. That was the initial point of interest when I was doing my thesis, I thought of doing a paper on the general strike of 1917. Then, as I passed the ‘opposition exams’, I no longer needed the thesis and, starting from the strike conflict, I
I expanded into unionism and conflict.
The period that I liked was the one before the Second
Republic, because, at the time I was studying, everyone was interested in the stage of the Second Republic and the civil war. It was the great theme and it also generated a lot of controversy and confrontation (the same thing keeps happening but at that time it was much worse)
and I didn’t want to get into that bogged down area.
I went to the 1920s because somehow I had to understand that to understand what happened next. And then, as I say, I was interested in investigating exactly about unionism. The trade unionism that was best known was logically in Barcelona and some other cities, such as Madrid, and it made me very curious to see if really the unionism of not so big cities responded to the same dynamics and characteristics as the unionism of these cities.
I finally saw that it was not so. And the doctoral thesis was developed a little in that area, there was anarchism, obviously, but the trade unionism detached from anarchism was more important.
Feminism interested me from a personal point of view, because I was already involved in it. Since what I was doing was starting from scratch, since there was nothing studied on those years and on that subject, the subject of feminism was vast so I did not treat it.
But there I discovered a woman, suddenly, who was Teresa Claramunt, who arrived in Zaragoza as an expatriate for her participation in Tragic Week, in a rally speaking to male workers who were on strike, and she began to question them, asking where were their wives, their sisters, their companions, etc.
So I imagined that woman in front of a totally masculine audience creating such a scene and it remained with me, to such an extent that when I went back to investigate it had to be about Teresa Claramunt.
Therefore, the journey was this: syndicalism, then anarchism and finally the feminism, which had been growing in me.
Could you clarify for us what differentiates anarcho-feminism from anarchism and feminism in general? In other words, what characterizes it.
It’s a super complicated question. First we have to differentiate between what is “Anarchy”, “anarchists” and “anarchism”.
Anarchy would be the utopian imagination. To put it in a poetic way, it would be the space or spaces of invention, of evasion, that pierce in a way the compactness of reality.
That create the illusion of a different system, from another possible world. Of course, anarchists and anarchists are concrete people who
embrace that ideal we are talking about, anarchy. And within them there are the most diverse and different: there are pacifists, there are people who use violence, agnostics, believers, atheists …
And finally, anarchism would include the ideologies and movements that have gathered people behind that anarchic ideal. Let’s say that anarchism reached its peak in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at least in Spain.
Returning to the question, I would say that within anarcho-feminism, from the historical viewpoint, we could say that the anarchist women of the 1930s had fairly elementary anarchist conceptions.
They weren’t women who had worked too hard on ideology; they had very simple anarchist notions. I’m not saying this as a negative, because they were women deeply rooted in reality, in life management, in aspects that I believe we value in the 21st century even more than ideological approaches.
And this is what generated an evolution and a different approach by the organization Mujeres Libres with respect to the rest of the libertarian movement (the CNT, the FAI and even the Libertarian Youth).
They, however, did not consider themselves feminists, because they associated feminism with suffragism, and suffragism they regarded as bourgeois.
It could be said that they defended a class feminism. In fact, what they did was something very current, which is intersectionality,
that is, crossing the question of gender and class (at least these two questions), and this differentiated them from the prevailing feminism of the time.
Today it is still perhaps more difficult to define. There is no
anarcho-feminism as a social movement today. By a ‘social movement’ I understand a network of groups that share debates, reflections, activities, campaigns …
This doesn’t exist today in Spain, internationally there are also countries where anarcofeminism has some importance, but there is no international coordination. Therefore we talk about dispersed groups, which here are linked to the CGT and the CNT and other groups that are linked to athenaeums or squatters, but very often they have no contact with each other or are sporadic.
For all these reasons, it is difficult to characterize anarcho-feminism today.
It has coincidences with anarchism, for example, on three levels: in terms of political action (direct action, grassroots alternatives and search for community networks and confrontation with capital and the State), in terms of organization (horizontal, small
groups, seeking consensus) and in terms of political language (resistance to capital, resistance to the State, patriarchy and everything that is hierarchical and that advocates social or political domination).
With feminisms, anarcho-feminism converges with those
feminisms that coincide with these characteristics that I just mentioned: that they are more grassroots, non-institutional, anti-capitalist movements, etc.
One more current example, to some degree would be the 8M assemblies would be (those that function as such) with which there is more
confluence, or with types of movements such as the LGTBI movement or environmentalist approaches.
But of course, these confluences are relative.
When anarcho-feminism appeared, some initiatives were not well received by part of the men of the anarchist movement. We see, for example, in the book that you have recently published (The revolution of words: the magazine Mujeres Libres (2020)), where the objectives of the organization in question are raised, they were not seen as compatible with most nineteenth-century anarchism. What were those goals and why did they see them as incompatible?
Let’s see, it can be said that there were men who saw with good eyes the formation of anarchist feminism, but it is true that for the most part, and in organizations, they put difficulties in the way of the constitution of this feminism through a organization such as Mujeres Libres and the magazine itself.
Why? Well because they didn’t see it as relevant.
The anarchist movement was very class-centered, although
really the ideas of the libertarian movement are much broader, they do not focus everything on economic exploitation, but speak of domination in general, which comes out of the factories. But really in this era of strong growth of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism it was very class-centered.
Then everything related to the emancipation of women was considered to be secondary, thinking that when the revolution came, everything would be solved and the patriarchy would fall under its own weight.
They also accused these initiatives of breaking unity. That was quite a repetitive accusation. The idea was that if women formed their own groups they would break the unity within the three organizations of the libertarian movement.
Equally the women themselves did not all agree. Already from the pioneers: Teresa Claramunt was a supporter of forming women’s groups and Teresa Mañé, who was the mother of Federica Montseny,
was the opposite, though equally sharing the vision of anarchist feminism. And that went back to what occured during the Second Republic and during the civil war.
On the subject of objectives, anarchist women felt neglected continuously in the meetings and performances of the libertarian movement.
They felt that, and those who were still living until relatively few years ago have talked explicitly when being interviewed about the mistreatment they received and felt the men were taking away their authority when they talked and laughed at them.
This happened on the part of the men in the CNT and
perhaps also in some FAI groups. Less, however, in Libertarian Youth and much less in the athenaeums or in other types of movements that were not related to those three organizations.
Let’s say that this mistreatment and the little relevance that was given to the issue of emancipation of women ledthe pioneers, to try to create groups and magazines only ofor women, to be able to express themselves calmly, in safe spaces, where they would not be
The Mujeres Libres magazine was created before the organization itself, precisely for this reason. They also did not feel very sure of being able to promote a powerful group.
The aim of the magazine, in the words of Lucía Sánchez Saornil, who was the main agitator and organizer, but always with the support of Mercedes Comaposada and Amparo Poch, was that they wanted to create a network of cordiality.
It was intended to give autonomy and train women, starting from the fact that many of them were illiterate, and from there try to create
small groups around the magazine based on friendliness.
From my point of view, cordiality is a political program. Inside the anarchist movement, if the continuous confrontations and disputes, stand out, among other things, it is perhaps because there is never a hierarchical organization, everything is assembly and is discussed.
Well, what these women are trying to do is get out of this dynamic of tensions and confrontations and be based on affection, on personal ties. In other words, a different political approach.
For example, the three women I mentioned, the editors of the magazine, got along very well and yet politically they had many differences, both in the political field of how to understand feminism and even in their sexual identity, but they were able to
put those differences aside and go to the goal, which was to create those nuclei that with the passage of time could generate an organization capable of fighting for the emancipation of women.
But of course, what happens is that the magazine is created in May 1936 and in July the coup d’état takes place, the revolution, civil war, and everything accelerates. The organization is created earlier than it was
scheduled, in September. And the objective there was very clear, it was the revolution understood in its double dimension, as feminist revolution and social class revolution.
One phenomenon we wanted to ask you about is how in a situation of war, the civil war, they managed to generate spaces of freedom for women, entering public spaces such as with the magazine Mujeres Libres that we just mentioned. How was that possible? Is it a coincidence that it was during those years?
My perspective on history is based on the fact that history has a nodal approach, not a linear one. Historians mostly assume that history is like a line that is always advancing in the line of progress, that we are always going to improve, which obviously it is a lie and that is why modernity has collapsed (and for other reasons).
This linear perspective, in some way, selects what is considered important: economic, political and social changes to a lesser extent. Everything else, let’s say, runs off or falls off. What happens when a war happens? Well, if those are the important changes, apparently, the others do not fit in very often with that perspective of the line
This also happens with revolution. The conventional revolution
such as the one they promoted in Russia or even the libertarian movement in Spain during the civil war, is what we call a modeled revolution, which aims at a model of society.
From this type of revolution, when it breaks out, you have to take steps towards that model.
The nodal perspective is different. It is as if it were a fishing net where rhombuses are formed by the union of four threads. What does it mean?
At the same time, very different issues converge and that may even be contradictory, but from this perspective everything is relevant, there is not something that is ahead andthe rest discarded.
In civil war, of which we are usually given a rather terrifying view, we can see that spaces of freedom are created, spaces of personal advancement. A situation where people are even well and remember the war as something unforgettable because positive attitudes were possible.
I really like something that Orwell says in Homenaje a Catalunya, where he affirms that he, in Spain and specifically in Barcelona, had the feeling of having entered suddenly in an age of equality and freedom, in which people tried to behave like people and not as elements of the capitalist machinery.
That is, from his perspective, despite the violence and persecution, a humanized situation was experienced which he remembered fondly.
Not only he, many of the women of Mujeres Libres explain it this way, that they lived an atmosphere of magic personal growth, not only because of the magazine but also because of the type of links that
they established among themselves, etc.
Therefore, it is feasible from this nodal perspective to say that these spaces gave freedom for women. That is a bit what I tried to develop in the book and in what I follow, that revolution was different from that of the libertarian movement, which actually lasted only a few months.
Instead, the revolution proposed by Mujeres Libres lasted the entire war, and no one appreciated it, they were women, they were in the rear and did not focus on the economic and political.
We know that there was a certain alliance relationship with differences between the CNT and UGT trade unions. You comment in the book Historia del anarquismo en España (2013) that anarcho-syndicalism had greater results than UGT (socialist party) syndicalism. Because? What did anarcho-syndicalism contribute to unionism?
Let’s say that the UGT practiced a management unionism. That is, their idea of unionism was to create a strong union to negotiate with employers, trying to resort as little as possible to conflict and strike. The stronger the unionism, the more bargaining power. And in this approach the idea is that the workers follow ‘whistle blow’, following and supporting what the union said. Also, the UGT was
linked to a party.
In other words, it is linked to a political project, which is that of the PSOE, in the line of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where the party predominated over the union, set objectives and tried to convince workers that if the party grew and reached parliament, it could get important improvements for the class worker.
Unionism served a bit of that function of providing support to the party
so that it obtained votes and managed to develop the approach of legal reforms to improve the situation of the working class. It should be said that the PSOE, still being a Marxist party, considered itself the representative of the working class, not of other social sectors
as happened later.
Of course, the unionism of the CNT has nothing to do with it. It is radical and revolutionary, where direct action is seen as the fundamental union tactic and its role was not to manage anything, but confront the employers, the employers, and, based on pressure (the strike as a key element but also other resources), impose the objectives it intended,
without ever losing sight of the fact that the ultimate goal was the revolution as something even immediate, hence the revolutionary general strikes.
It is not linked to any political party at all because it was contrary to institutional political activity and therefore it does not respond to that
model of achieving improvements in parliaments through laws. That would even reinforce the system.
If your goal is revolution obviously you cannot collaborate with the system, nor can you collaborate with the state and capital. Typically, the formula of management unionism is linked to the party, which is what happens nowadays in a large part of the European countries.
But here what happened is that the attempt to develop a more democratic political system, with the six-year term Revolutionary (1868-1874), failed and the Restoration system developed, which lasted a long time, from the early 70’s until the Second Republic, and is a gimmicky liberal system.
Really trusting that the party will achieve improvements in Parliament is an illusion. First, because the party will have a hard time getting enough deputies, as happened that until the beginning of the 20th century the PSOE did not get a majority and was in a coalition
with the republican parties, and, second, since there is this electoral manipulation and that peaceful taking turns between the conservative and liberal parties, they will never govern or obtain important majorities to achieve political reforms. Therefore, the project fails
on that side. But it is also a failure on the union side. Because the employer is quite aggressive, that it is not up to the task of recognizing unions and negotiating with them, and therefore the more moderate union practice largely fails. Instead, the direct action approach showed that it achieves more, as a matter of efficiency, and is this was shown
throughout the 1920s, and that is why the (anarchists) grew, unlike what was happening in other countries.
It is clear that the general strikes to mobilize the workers were a resource usual in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. How important was this mobilization strategy in Spain? What have the General Strikes led to nowadays in your opinion?
Of course the revolutionary general strike was something that the UGT did not want to hear about.
It was a tremendous mobilizing myth, around the 8-hour workday, which was also mobilized through the Second International in the socialist sphere, but not when it was posed with revolutionary character.
When they began to declare strikes in the 90’s of 19th century, they went on strike to got the 8-hour workday. Sure, they didn’t get it, but they were out there for 7, 8 or 9 days on a general strike, in some places more extensive than in others, which was also progressing as this mobilizing unionism grew.
Here I would highlight the first General strike that encompassed all of Catalonia in 1902. It was so spectacular and frightening for the
entrepreneurs who really began to learn even from the tactics of the
workers. For example, with the single union, the Barcelona Employers’ Federation adopted the same form and organized itself as a branch employer.
The workers progressed through many failures, arrests and executions.
It was not easy. This would already make a difference with the few general strikes that have happened in recent times, it has absolutely nothing to do with it. Of course now there is the danger of losing your job, but then there was also the danger of the repression which was terrifying.
There were no police in the cities (in the countryside, yes)..
. When a strike conflict broke out, they immediately declared suspended all constitutional guarantees and the army took to the streets with everything it had, cannons included.
In the strike of 1902 the soldiers camped in the central Plaza Catalunya directing cannons up all the streets that converge there. There were always dead, plus arrests, executions at the Montjuic Castle … We are talking about special laws only for anarchists, for example.
When unions were most powerful, the first relevant general strike was in 1916. The next important one was that of 1917. All these strikes showed that the strongest opposition force against the Restoration was trade unionism, and specifically anarcho-syndicalism, and the repressive response was not enough.
Therefore, in the 1920s, which is the most brutal time of confrontation, there were groups of gunmen, the law of ‘killing while trying to escape’,
assassinations of the main leaders like Salvador Seguí, etc. And the Employers’ Federation financed all this in collaboration with the State and the Catholic Church, with the creation of Catholic unions to break strikes.
All this leads to the coup d’état of Primo de Rivera, who was Captain General of Catalonia. Immediately after the coup, he first congratulated, before anyone else, the Catalan Employers’ Federation.
And well, in relation to what you ask about the general strikes of now, it is obvious. First, what it costs the unions, especially the majority, to convene them. The last ones I think were those of 15M because they were already embarrassed, but of course, it was just a day, trying to get everything under control.
The difference is that the majority Unions are part of the State institutions. So how will they call strikes of these characteristics? It is impossible.
What are the main causes of the uprooting of the anarchist movement in Spain?
The amount of dead and the exile of thousands of people already indicates a significant weakening. The postwar period was extremely tough: practically more than 50,000 people were executed in almost 10 years.
This dismantled the entire left. Anarchists are less able to adapt to
clandestinity than, for example, communists, because they still try to maintain a horizontal organizational. The communist party had more capacity to adapt to repression usually.
In the 1960s, economic developmentalism began and lifted a little the poverty lived by the peasant and working class that, as Marx said, had nothing to lose save our chains. Well, it started to not be like that, you already had something else to lose. So, the working class was losing the revolutionary approaches of the previous period.
Finally, with the arrival of democracy, those illusions that had failed to forge in the 1920s, that improvements could be achieved through institutional channels, triumphed. The idea that if you vote to the left it will achieve improvements was more successful in the working class. And the confrontational unionism that we mentioned was not that effective either.
All this made, especially anarcho-syndicalism, really have a lot of difficulty growing. I don’t want to forget to say what during the Transition there was a moment when it seemed that it could grow. In some areas, such as in Catalonia, so many years of repression had not been able to eradicate the hope of anarchy and the formation of an anarchist union again.
And the repression also of the Scala case (False Flag)against the anarcho-syndicalism of that time, must be taken into account because it deflated the idea when it was returning, with the usual trope that anarchists only know how to use violence and blah-blah-blah.
This theme, that talking about anarchism is talking about violence and
bombs, is not true, but it does not matter because it became already very much in the imaginary of the majority of the population, and continues to be encouraged.
I would say that anarchism as a movement has declined and is a minority, but I think that anarchy, as an egalitarian dream and utopian imagination, not so much. There may be anarchy without there being anarchism. I believe, and this is how I explain it in History of Anarchism in Spain, that in the 15M movement (Take The Square) there were many aspects of what is understood as anarchy and its approaches; in feminism, at least in the most radical ones, too, and in many other
That’s my point. Are anarchist movements only really anarchist when they call themselves as such or are they anarchist when they use the tactics and organizational forms that anarchism has always defended?
Well I think it’s this secondpoint.
Just to end the interview I wanted to read a quote from the book you just mentioned (History of anarchism in Spain) when you talk about the decline of anarchism with the civil war and Franco.
«(…) anarchism is not a corpse […] it is “Stardust” that was detached from the ruins into which it was converted by the Franco regime and the
social changes produced in the sixties, infiltrated through the cracks of the welfare society and emerged, and is emerging, in different forms today.
Whether it will remain only that, in primal matter that emerges here or there, or will reinvent itself, “from within the stars”, is something for the future » (2013, page. 169- 170). You wrote this 8 years ago. Although I think somehow you just answered it.
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Entrevista a Laura Vicente Villanueva
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