At the outbreak of the First World War the Spanish anarchist movement was in disarray. Four years earlier, the movement had succeeded in creating a national organisation of syndicates, named the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT). The CNT was initially a source of pride and optimism for the movement, however, in 1911 the organisation was repressed, and the movement’s most active militants were arrested and forced into exile, while the mouthpiece of the CNT – the weekly periodical Solidaridad Obrera (Barcelona) – was closed. A gradual reconstruction of the organisation began in 1913, when Solidaridad Obrera returned to print and the Catalan Regional Federation of Labour (CRT) reformed, however this organisation had limited contact with groups in the rest of Spain.
Lacking an organisational focal point, the movement was fragmented and prone to internal disputes. The spring of 1915 marked the beginning of a new era for anarchism in Spain. The decisions made at a meeting held from 30 April-2 May in Ferrol (La Coruña) laid the foundations for a full reestablishment of the movement and the adoption of syndicalism as its key organisational and revolutionary tactic. This meeting was crucial to the reconstruction and dramatic expansion of the CNT. Membership of the confederation rocketed upwards from 30,000 in 1915 to almost 800,000 in 1919, making the CNT the largest organisation associated with anarchist ideology in world history, a feat which was only surpassed by itself twenty years later at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. These developments were only possible because of the unprecedented economic and social upheaval brought about by the outbreak of the First World War.
Although Spain remained neutral in the conflict, the First World War was a transformative event for the entire country. Industries which supplied both belligerent blocs boomed from 1914 onwards, sparking a huge shift towards urbanisation and industrial employment. Many other areas experienced a profound economic crisis. Across Spain, a dramatic spike in inflation saw prices of food and housing soar far beyond wage increases and basic living standards were eroded. The turmoil triggered by the First World War across Spain gave the CNT a context in which it could expand. Yet this would not have been possible had the war not also provoked a crisis within Spanish anarchism, in which a significant section of the movement challenged the longstanding anarchist position of neutrality.
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