Bekken on Yeoman, 'Print Culture and the Formation of the Anarchist Movement in Spain, 1890–1915'

John Michael Yeoman
Jon Bekken

John Michael Yeoman. Print Culture and the Formation of the Anarchist Movement in Spain, 1890–1915. Routledge Studies in Cultural History Series. Chico: AK Press, 2022. Charts, maps, tables. 300 pp. $22.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-84935-458-5

Reviewed by Jon Bekken (Albright College) Published on H-Socialisms (January, 2023) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Printable Version:

Print Culture and Anarchism in Spain

We have seen growing attention to the role of regional and transnational print networks in sustaining the anarchist movement, with important work exploring their role in the Caribbean, France, the United States, and now Spain. James Michael Yeoman’s Print Culture and the Formation of the Anarchist Movement in Spain is an important contribution, both to this emerging literature and to the broader history of the anarchist movement in Spain—the country where the anarchist movement built its largest and most durable organizations, with more than a million members during the Spanish Revolution/Civil War.

After a substantive introduction that reviews the historiography on the Spanish anarchist movement and the vital role of print networks in an anarchist movement that often lacked formal structures to coordinate activities and debate strategy, Yeoman’s first chapter offers an overview of anarchist publishing in Spain from 1890 to 1915. Chapter 2 explores debates over the role of violence in the 1890s and the damage the movement suffered in response to failed insurrections and a range of actions justified as “propaganda by the deed” (p. 66). (Yeoman accepts that “propaganda by the deed” refers to violence—often indiscriminate terrorism—intended to shock the working class into revolutionary action. But early uses of the term were as likely to refer to public demonstrations under the outlawed red flag or the burning of property deeds as to insurrection or the assassination of brutal officials—let alone Ravachol’s random acts of violence or the 1893 bombing of Barcelona’s Liceo Opera Theater.) The authorities drew little distinction between insurrection and attacks on ordinary citizens, responding to both with brutal repression of advocates of education and movement organizing and the few who imagined that bombs might light the fuse of social revolution. Chapter 3 addresses the movement’s revival as the repression eased in 1899 and its shift to education as a revolutionary strategy. This educational thrust extended well beyond Cataluña and Francisco Ferrer; anarchists opened free schools and workers’ centers across the country, and their publications prominently featured articles on scientific developments, anarchist theory, and other educational material. The era also saw the emergence of an explicit anarchist-feminism. Finally, chapter 4 focuses on the return to labor organizing, culminating in the launch of the anarcho-syndicalist union federation, the CNT, and the first Spanish anarchist daily, Solidaridad Obrera, in 1915. (Yeoman terms this “the movement’s first stable daily publication,” presumably referring to the Spanish movement since the Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung sustained publication as an anarchist daily from 1883 to 1910—continuing and succeeded by publication as a socialist daily [p. 27]).

The scope of this book is ambitious, seeking to account for all Spanish anarchist newspapers published across a twenty-five-year span. Yeoman’s research supports a series of charts, tables, and maps that show the dispersion of publications across Spain, the number of titles and issues published in each city and province, the number of societies participating in key anarchist and labor congresses, distribution patterns for La Protesta, and the total numbers of anarchist papers published in Cataluña and in the rest of Spain. Periodicals played a central role in the movement, offering “a middle ground between the theoretical depth provided by books and pamphlets and the immediacy of hojas [broadsides]” (p. 41). Discussion and debates were carried out in their pages, discussions that often continued in local workers’ circles and propaganda groups. The anarchist movement took form through these publications and their distributors and readers. Anarchists debated strategy and refined their ideas in the pages of their newspapers, which also built and sustained networks of propaganda and action across Spain. Cataluña played a vital role in this network, but Yeoman demonstrates that the movement was much less concentrated than many historians believe—perhaps contributing to its ability to survive and recover from the waves of repression unleashed against the anarchists. Nearly two-thirds of the anarchist publications published during this era were published outside of Cataluña, though papers based in the province tended to last somewhat longer.

Anarchist publications were precarious. Few owned their own presses and so were forced to rely on commercial printers. This both increased their expenses and could lead to printers succumbing to official pressure. And, of course, there was the constant threat of arrest and forcible closure. Yeoman argues that a circulation of at least four thousand was required to make a publication financially viable, though many US weekly newspapers certainly survived for decades with much smaller circulations. (There is relatively little in this book about the finances of anarchist publishing. Workers’ publications in other countries often published financial accounts as part of their accountability to the movements they served, but Yeoman notes that this was less common in Spain: “those that did publish their balances reveal a common theme, with printing costs outstripping income from sale for every issue” [p. 51]. The deficits might be covered by local workers’ societies or remittances from abroad. While repression played a stronger role in silencing anarchist publications, precarious finances posed a continual challenge.)

Yeoman’s count of titles and publication runs is based on surviving archival holdings and mentions in other sources. Yet despite the evident care that has gone into compiling these statistics, the precision with which he states the number of issues for each title is open to question. In my own work on the New York-based Cultura Obrera, I found that many more issues had been published than the handful of scholars who had previously written about the paper realized. This was due to their reliance on the archival holdings, which are demonstrably incomplete. The weekly suspended publication at some point during a bitter 1912 coast-wide strike by the immigrant marine firemen who published it; however, although the archival holdings only run through March 23, an article from the July 20 issue was reprinted in the Industrial Worker. Precisely how many issues were published that year cannot be determined, as the holdings resume with the November 30 issue, labeled vol. 2 #1. The file stops again with the October 6, 1917, issue, although a federal agent seized the June 22, June 29, July 20, and August 10, 1918, issues from the mail, complaining that publication had continued even though Cultura Obrera had been barred from the mails in March 1918. (His reports survive in government archives, but the newspapers he forwarded appear to have been discarded.) More than two hundred issues (likely dozens more) are missing from the archives across the paper’s fifteen-year run. (I can provide a table documenting this to anyone who is interested.) Several of the newspapers studied in this volume were published under fiercer repression than Cultura Obrera faced, and it seems likely that many issues were published that did not make it into the archives.

Workers and activists flooded publications with material, including theoretical reflections, poetry, calls for solidarity, denunciations of employers and police, and news of local meetings and campaigns. Many local groups served as distributors and designated a member to serve as local correspondent. Many publications circulated across Spain and to Spanish emigrants around the world. Yeoman prefers to conceptualize this as a translocal movement, noting that the borders anarchists confronted went far beyond those imposed by nation-states: “Anarchists faced borders at these junctures as well: borders of language, culture, history, class, gender and race, as well as between urban and rural contexts.... In the process of building a mass movement in Spain, anarchists were constantly attempting to cross these borders,... developing flows of information and exchange.... The term I believe best encapsulates this activity is translocalism. This concept aims to explain the process by which individuals and groups prioritise action in their immediate environment, while at the same time aspiring to transcend boundaries both within and between nations” (p. 20). The pages of their newspapers bear witness to the vitality of the movement and to the connections forged and maintained through print and on the ground. In later years, publishers organized speaking tours to build the movement, provided materials for local propaganda, and—at least as important—reaffirmed the vitality of the cause and offered examples of successful activism that could inspire local efforts.

Yeoman argues that the press was vital to sustaining a movement that repeatedly collapsed as repression silenced anarchist papers only to revive once publication was resumed. And yet the speed with which periodicals were launched and movement activities resumed once the repression eased suggests that this may have been reciprocal. There were dangers to this reliance on print culture. When the nascent CNT was outlawed shortly after its 1911 Congress, police raided Solidaridad Obrera and seized its subscription lists as part of their efforts to track down and arrest hundreds of militants. But publication was resumed in 1913, after the repression had eased and the number and reach of anarchist publications increased dramatically. The CNT was revived in 1915, and Solidaridad Obrera converted to daily publication. Its growth “marked the ascendancy of a more organised and coherent movement, and a waning in importance of the anarchist print network” (p. 249).

For Yeoman, Spanish anarchism between 1890 and 1915 “relied upon the fragile, contested, informal structures created by publishing groups and distributors.” But while local publications persisted, they now played a secondary role: “After this point, anarchists in Spain were not only part of a movement, but also an organisation; as well as a local periodical, they now had a paper. The consolidation of these two institutions cemented Barcelona’s position as the focal point of the movement” (p. 274). Yeoman’s conclusion argues that the way anarchism was culturally constructed and maintained through these informal publication networks has significant parallels to modern movements and their reliance on social media and decentralized networks, “illustrating the ways in which bottom-up movements operate across boundaries within and between nations. In Spain, the anarchist press provided a forum in which local struggles were used to articulate universal truths. Print networks also made translocal action possible, creating and managing networks of exchange, which gave a practical significance to ideas such as solidarity, unity and organisation” (p. 276).

AK Press has performed a useful service in making this book available to a larger audience. However, although it asserts a 2022 copyright for “this edition ... published by arrangement with Routledge,” the text is identical to the 2020 hardcover edition, down to the type and the line and page breaks. Other than the copyright page, the only changes are the omission of Routledge’s short description of the book, a slightly expanded author description that now appears on the back cover, the addition of four blurbs (one on the front cover, three on the back) by eminent historians praising the book, and the use of a slightly heavier cream stock instead of the white paper in the original. As a result, a few words missing from the original are still absent. For example, on page 73, “the handful [of] anarcho-communist [newspapers] published outside Cataluña at this time.” But while one might have wished for a corrected edition and a postscript addressing advances in the study of transnational anarchist networks, Print Culture and the Formation of the Anarchist Movement in Spain is a major contribution to its immediate subject and our understanding of the broader evolution of anarchist thought and organization across Spain in the movement’s formative years.

Citation: Jon Bekken. Review of Yeoman, John Michael, Print Culture and the Formation of the Anarchist Movement in Spain, 1890–1915. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL:

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