After periods of clandestine operation followed by other shorter periods of legalization, in 1936 the CNT was finally legalized, and would remain legal until the end of the Civil War. During the war, the union collaborated with other republican groups opposed to the Nationalists. As the war developed, members of the CNT came to form part of the government of the Republic, holding various ministries and high positions within the administration.
In Barcelona, the anarchists came to control the majority of the functions of society, collectivizing a large part of the activity of the city, as George Orwell described:It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. 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 wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said Señor or Don or even Usted; everyone called everyone else Comrade and Thou, and even said Salud! instead of Buenos dias. —George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, ch. I
Across the border from Catalonia in the nominally Republican eastern portion of the divided Aragon, the republican state was similarly powerless. The CNT militias, which occupied Lower Teruel and Huesca, established defense committees that replaced the old city councils. In zones that had more anarchist presence before the war, collectivization of the land was carried out with great success. These first collectivizations were voluntary and were established from the lands that belonged to the members and those which had been requisitioned from those who were fugitive or missing. Those property-owners who wanted to keep possession of their land were not allowed to hire outside their families, and those lands they could not farm passed under community control.
George Orwell wrote of the nature of the new society that arose in the communities:I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragón one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilised life– snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.– had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master. —George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, ch. VII
Some of the most important communities in this respect were those of Alcañiz, Calanda, Alcorisa, Valderrobres, Fraga or Alcampel. Not only were the lands collectivized, but collective labours were also undertaken, like the retirement home in Fraga, the collectivization of some hospitals (such as in Barbastro or Binéfar), and the founding of schools such as the School of Anarchist Militants. These institutions would be destroyed by the Nationalist troops during the war.
The Committee held an extraordinary regional plenary session to protect the new rural organization, gathering all the union representatives from the supporting villages and backed by Buenaventura Durruti. Against the will of the mainly Catalonian CNT National Committee, the Regional Council for the Defense of Aragon was created.
The Civil War era also showed a spirit of sexual revolution. The anarchist women's organization Mujeres Libres established an equal opportunity for women in a society that traditionally had held women in lower regard. Women acquired power they had not previously had in Spanish society, fighting at the front and doing heavy jobs, things that had been forbidden to them until then. Free love became popular, although some parents' distrust produced the creation of the revolutionary weddings, informal ceremonies where the couples declared their status, and that could be annulled if both parties didn't want to continue their relationship.
Following Largo Caballero’s assumption of the position of Prime Minister of the government, he invited the CNT to join in the coalition of groups making up the national government. The CNT proposed instead that a National Defense Council should be formed, led by Largo Caballero, and containing five members each from the CNT and UGT, and four “liberal republicans”. When this proposal was declined, the CNT decided not to join the government. However, in Catalonia, the CNT joined the Central Committee of the Anti-Fascist Militias, which joined the Generalitat on 26 September. For the first time, three members of the CNT were also members of the government.
In November, Caballero once again asked the CNT to become part of the government. The leadership of the CNT requested the finance and war ministries, as well as three others, but were given four posts, the ministries of health, justice, industry, and commerce. With Federica Montseny became Minister of Health, the first female minister in Spain. Juan García Oliver, as minister of justice, abolished legal fees and destroyed all criminal files. Shortly afterwards, despite the disapproval of the anarchist ministers, the capital was moved from Madrid to Valencia.
On 23 December 1936, after receiving in Madrid a retinue formed by Joaquín Ascaso, Miguel Chueca and three republican and independent leaders, the government of Largo Caballero, which by then had four anarchists as ministers (García Oliver, Juan López, Federica Montseny and Joan Peiró), approved the formation of the National Defense Committee. It was a revolutionary body which represented anarchists as much as socialists and republicans.
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