Writing History is a Nightmare

When reading history books it is easy to assume that any sentence with an endnote must be true. The thoughts that an author just happened to come up with can take on the appearance of objective neutral fact when they are printed on a page. The process of becoming a historian is, to a significant extent, about confronting the extent to which our knowledge of the past is built on shaky foundations: primary sources which contradict one another, are open to numerous interpretations, can be easily misunderstood, contain ambiguities, reflect a biased viewpoint and so on. Things only get harder when one lacks access to the relevant primary sources and is instead forced to rely on the conflicting opinions of other historians.

To illustrate this point I am going to examine a single topic. In 1927 a specific anarchist organization called the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) was founded. I briefly discuss this organization in my forthcoming book Means and Ends: The Revolutionary Practice of Anarchism in Europe and the United States. A discerning reader might wonder why I do not provide a membership figure for the FAI. The reason is that every source I have read gives a different number and at the time of writing I was yet to figure out the correct answer. In this essay I am going to go through all the evidence I am familiar with and thereby establish why the topic is so complicated. In so doing I aim to demonstrate that writing history books is a total nightmare.

Let us begin! George Woodcock claims that the FAI had 30,000 members in 1936 and 150,000 in 1938 (Woodcock 1986, 327). Woodcock is generally unreliable and often wrong. Peter Marshall, who is generally better than Woodcock but still makes errors, asserts that the FAI never had more than 30,000 members (Marshall 2008, 458). David Miller claims that in the early 1930s the FAI had “some 10,000” members (Miller 1984, 137). I have only cited three authors and already there are three different positions. It is, in addition to this, difficult to compare the numbers because the size of any organization varies over time.

Other authors note that it is difficult to establish how many people were in the FAI because it was a secret organization. Such claims typically go alongside very different estimates of how large the FAI was. Gerald Brenan writes that “as the F.A.I. was a secret organization, no figures of its strength have been published. One may assume however that from 1934 to 1936 its membership lay round about 10,000” (Brenan 2014, 298n22). Murray Bookchin provides a much larger membership figure. He notes that, “owing to the FAI’s passion for secrecy, we know very little about its membership figures. Judging by data published by Diego Abad de Santillián, a leading faista, the figure on the eve of the Civil War may have been close to 39,000” (Bookchin 1998, 198). Hugh Thomas, in comparison, writes that in 1930 the FAI’s “organization and numbers were unknown” and provides no membership figure for this period (Thomas 1977, 68-69). Later in the book Thomas asserts that by 1937 “the socialist party now numbered only 160,000, the FAI much the same number” (Thomas 1977, 523). Chris Ealham, a specialist in the history of anarchism in Spain, claims that the FAI only had around 2,000 members in 1931 (Ealham 2010, 100).

Different numbers are provided by Stuart Christie. He claims that between 1927 and 1930, which was during the CNT’s period of illegality under the Primo de Rivera dictatorship, “it is unlikely” that FAI “national membership exceeded 1,000” (Christie 2008, 46). After the inauguration of the Republic and the legalization of the CNT, the size of the FAI increased to a pre-1937 height of an estimated 5,500 members in late 1933 (Christie 2008, 147-48). The size of the FAI subsequently decreased to an estimated 3,500 in 1936 (Christie 2008, 173). Juan Gomez Casas provides higher figures. He claims that the FAI had around 10,000 members in 1933 (Casas 1986, 133). By February 1936 “the F.A.I. had 496 groups in all of Spain . . . If one estimates ten members per group, which was high in many instances, the F.A.I. had fewer than 5,000 members” (Casas 1986, 178). Later in his book Casas writes that “a general count of organized groups at the February 1937 plenum tallied 5000 F.A.I . members; the figure could be 7000 if we add groups not counted at the plenum for various reasons” (Casas 1986, 217-18).

It is difficult to evaluate which membership figures are true. This is because in most instances the secondary sources do not explain how they arrived at the number they give. Authors usually just assert a number and do not back it up with a source I can easily track down. Brenan tells us that “one may assume” that the FAI had 10,000 members between 1934 and 1936, but I have no idea why we should make this assumption. Bookchin refers to data published by the FAI member Santillián but I have been unable to find this myself. On other occasions the secondary source does provide a clear citation but I cannot find a copy of the book. For example, Ealham’s position that the FAI had only 2,000 members in 1931 cites Josep Maria Huertas Claveria’s Workers in Catalonia but there is no pdf of it online. Even I am not going to buy a book in a language I cannot read in order to find one citation.

Ealham’s figure might be derived from an article by the famous Spanish anarchist Durruti, who was not a member of the FAI but knew people who were and often spoke in the name of the FAI during debates within the CNT (Christie 2008, vii; Garner 2016, 344-45n3). In the 1931 article Durruti wrote that, “we of the FAI have only 2000 members enrolled in the Confederation” (Quoted in Christie 2008, 113). This could be where Ealham gets his figure from but it could also not be. I do not actually know and am just making an educated guess.  

Woodcock and Marshall both give the number of 30,000 members but neither provide a citation for this. This number probably comes from José Peirats, who was an important member of the CNT and briefly secretary of the Barcelona Federation of the FAI. In Volume 2 of The CNT in the Spanish Revolution he wrote that, “although the so-called ‘specific organization’ held great sway over the CNT and its committees, for nearly every one of the FAI’s members belonged to the Confederation, its numbers were quite limited by comparison with the magnitude of the CNT. The size of the FAI prior to the army revolt [of 1936] may be reckoned at around 30,000” (Peirats 2005, 203). Although Peirats was a participant in the CNT and the FAI, I should not assume that the number he provides is correct. This is because Peirats is writing a history book in the early 1950s decades after the events he is describing. He may be misremembering how large the FAI was or repeating information he was told by other people that is, without Peirats realizing, inaccurate. Peirats does not explain where this figure comes from. It appears to be an educated guess given his use of the expression “may be reckoned at around.”

In order to properly evaluate the number provided by Peirats I need to compare his account with the numbers provided by other members of the FAI. Unfortunately the vast majority of primary sources written by anarchists in Spain have not been translated into English. As a result I am forced to rely on tiny fragments of information quoted in secondary sources. This is often frustrating because secondary sources do not always provide the information I need in order to interpret the claims made by the primary source. For example, Ealham cites a letter where Peirats claims that at its high point the FAI had no more than 30,000 members in Spain, with an estimated 3,750 in Barcelona (Ealham 2015, 74-5). In an endnote Ealham adds the detail that Fidel Miró, another member of the FAI, claimed that there were only around 300 members in Barcelona (Ealham 2015, 241n21). Ealham does not specify which period Miró is talking about and thereby prevents me from being able to compare the figures. In order to solve this puzzle I had to look for Miró name in the indexes of various books until I discovered that Christie discusses the same passage by Miró. Christie writes, “Miró claims that although no one knows for certain the total number of FAI affiliates in Barcelona, generally considered to be the heart of the specific organization, ‘at no time, prior to July 1936, was it in excess of 300’” (Christie 2008, 46).

The best primary source for the membership of the FAI prior to the civil war is the organization’s October 1933 National Plenum. I lack access to the complete minutes of this plenum and have to instead rely on two secondary sources. These secondary sources interpret the same numbers in fundamentally different ways. According to Christie, the 1933 plenum was attended by 21 delegates representing 569 groups and 4,839 members. Groups from Levante and Asturias were unable to send delegates to the plenum and instead forwarded letters of support. If these groups are included in the total membership of the FAI then the federation was composed of 632 groups and 5,334 members (Christie 2008, 147-48, 148n2). Casas gives a different account of the same event. He claims that “twenty-two delegates attended the Peninsular plenum in Madrid in late October 1933, representing 569 groups, with 4,839 members, and they received letters of affiliation from 632 groups, with 5,334 members: a total of 10,173 members – almost the same count as in 1931 and 1932” (Casas 1986, 133). 

There is, in short, a disagreement about whether the figure of 632 groups and 5,334 members refers to the total membership of the FAI or just the FAI groups who sent letters of support to the plenum. Casas quotes the minutes of the plenum at length but does not quote the part about the letters of support that were sent in. Given this, I have to make a number of educated inferences from the evidence that is available. First, when Casas claimed that the plenum was attended by 22 delegates this was a typo.  His own source refers to 21 delegates (Casas 1986, 138). Second, it is very unlikely that over half of the organization did not send a delegate to the plenum. The minutes list the number of groups per region. The largest was in Catalonia where there were 206 groups. This should be the largest number of FAI groups in a region since it is where the CNT was largest in Spain and basically every member of the FAI was also a member of the CNT. The second largest region for FAI groups was Andalusia with 119 groups. Almost every other region had less than 50 groups, with some as low as just 10 (Casas 1986, 138). On the basis of this I have concluded that Christie’s account is probably correct.

The majority of authors I have read claim that the FAI grew in size during the Spanish revolution and civil war. It is nonetheless not clear how large the FAI became. The secretary of the FAI Peninsular Committee announced in 1937 that the FAI had 160,000 members (Christie 2008, 218). Alejandro Gilabert, who was secretary of the Barcelona Federation of the FAI, claimed in an August 1937 article for Solidaridad Obrera that the FAI had “30,000 members in Barcelona alone” (Quoted in Christie 2008, 219). These numbers should not be automatically trusted. They could be inflating membership figures in order to make the FAI appear more important than they actually were and persuade new people to join. This seems to be the case given that, as was previously mentioned, Casas refers to a February 1937 plenum of the FAI that did “a general count of organized groups” and listed only 5000 members (Casas 1986, 217-218). Even if membership figures dramatically increased between February and August it is unlikely that they increased that much. But I could be wrong about this. I am just making an educated guess.

Having gone through the evidence I can establish a number of conclusions. First, the size of the FAI is difficult to establish due to it being a secret organization. Second, the FAI had at least a few thousand members during the early to mid 1930s. Third, the size of the FAI increased during the Spanish civil war. Establishing these minor conclusions took a huge amount of work and lots of time looking through the indexes of history books. I cite eleven books in this essay but read far more that mentioned the FAI several times but never specified how large the organization was. Despite all this work, my knowledge of the past is extremely limited. I am largely relying on secondary sources citing the minutes of plenums that I did not attend and which I have not read in an archive. I am trusting that Christie and Casas accurately repeat what the original primary sources claim and that the people who wrote the primary sources were providing correct information.

It should also be kept in mind that I could have missed crucial information in the books that I do cite. I carefully looked through the indexes and relevant chapters but did not re-read multiple books from start to finish in order to answer my question. Some days when working on this essay I had bad sleep or was feeling stressed out and this affected my ability to process the information I was reading. I try to counter-act this issue by double checking all my page references and claims before I release anything. The problem I have is that when I do this I am not always operating at peak performance. If I had the time and energy I would triple check my double checking. This is of course an infinite regress. I can always keep fact checking my fact checking. At some point I have to accept that what I have written is as good as I can realistically make it.

When reading history books it can be easy to forget that they are written by flawed imperfect people trying their best to understand and write about very complex topics. I could have read Brenan’s figure of 10,000 members first and then repeated it as fact without realizing how controversial this number is. During the course of writing my book, I routinely thought I understood a topic given what I had read. I then researched more or read new research on the topic and realized that I had been wrong or that the topic was far more complex than I had initially thought. The consequence of these experiences is that I am now permanently paranoid that I might be wrong about something because I stopped digging for information.

This paranoia goes alongside a constant frustration at my inability to work as much as I would like. I read very slowly due to dyslexia and can only read 1 to 2 hours a day without destroying myself. I have a vast number of topics I need to research and have to be very careful about how I use my time. I can only do so much work per day before my brain loses the capacity to read. The consequence of this is that I often have to stop myself from falling too deep down a research rabbit hole. I want to obsessively read about how many members the FAI had, but if I do that I will not be researching other topics, including ones that are much more important and complicated. At some point I have to tell myself that I tried my best to establish the answer and need to move on to other work. If I did not do this I would never finish writing anything. Ultimately everything I release to the public is work-in-progress that I decided was good enough and, as far as I could tell at the time, factually correct.


Brenan, Gerald. 2014. The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Bookchin, Murray. 1998. The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Casas, Juan Gómez. 1986. Anarchist Organisation: The History of the F.A.I. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Christie, Stuart. 2008. We, The Anarchists! A Study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927-1937. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Ealham, Chris. 2010. Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Ealham, Chris. 2015. Living Anarchism: José Peirats and the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist Movement. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Garner, Jason. 2016. Goals and Means: Anarchism, Syndicalism, and Internationalism in the Origins of the Federación Anarquista Ibérica. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Marshall, Peter. 2008. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. Harper Perennial.

Miller, David. 1984. Anarchism. London: J.M Dent and Sons.

Peirats, José. 2005. The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, Volume II. Christie Books.

Thomas, Hugh. 1977. The Spanish Civil War. 3rd ed. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books. 

Woodcock, George. 1986. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideals and Movements. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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