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Education, Environment and Sexuality in the Anarchist Movement in Spain

Richard Cleminson


Cet article analyse l’importance que l’anarchisme a donné au milieu pour changer la société par la voie de l’éducation. L’article emploie des exemples tirés de l’anarchisme espagnol, français et portugais pour suggérer que les anarchistes ont créé un lien entre la pédagogie non hierarchique, le changement social et la moralité sexual en le mot imprimé et les propres actions des militants du mouvement. Le résultat était un processus dynamique d’acculturation par la presse et l’acte qui ont constitués la base de la transformation sociales anarchiste.

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  • 1 This interest in Binet was also present in the next part of Romeo’s essay on the influence of the e (...)
  • 2 See, for example, Chueca, 1914 in the Argentinian rationalist school bulletin, La Escuela Popular, (...)
  • 3 In a discussion on determinism, the French anarchist André Lorulot argued that while the individual (...)

2In an article in the Revista Blanca, a review that was according to George Woodcock the « George Woodcock, Anarchism, London, 1970, p. 348 and states that the RB was "the most important anarchist theoretical journal in Spain".most important anarchist theoretical journal in Spain» (Woodcock, 1970, p. 348), the long standing contributor Constancio Romeo argued that « Es de todo punto incuestionable que el medio ejerce una poderosa influencia en la formación del individuo, como lo es que actúa sobre su inteligencia, sobre su carácter, sobre su moralidad, sobre su cerebro y sobre las circunstancias de toda su vida» (Romeo, 1925a, p. 18). This observation allowed the author to evaluate a number of scientific studies on heat, light, hygiene and food on children’s experiences of life generally and education in particular. One of these studies, by Daffner, on the consumption of bread, was, according to Romeo, interesting but required further confirmation in the view of one notable international figure in pedagogy and psychology: Alfred Binet (Romeo, 1925a, p. 20). This focus on education, the environment and theories articulated by international researchers such as Binet, provides evidence of the interest of anarchists in new educational techniques that were coming on stream in the early decades of the twentieth century.1 Such was the focus on education in anarchist milieus in countries such as Spain, France, Portugal and Argentina that it pervaded the pages of libertarian publications and became one of the hallmarks of the movement. This brief article examines the intellectual and philosophical foundations of this interest, highlighting how it was manifested beyond the written word and discusses, in particular, the relationship between education, cultural change and the attempted transformation of sexual relations.
In her Willful Subjects, Sara Ahmed discusses conflicting pedagogical traditions as analysed in Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good (1983). In this book, Miller discerns a tradition of « poisonous pedagogy», or one that seeks to impose values and modes of learning on children and which « assumes that the child [is] stained by original sin and that insists on violence as moral correction» (Ahmed, 2014, p. 2). In contrast to this tradition lie a range of libertarian or « free’ educational projects ranging from those of Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia’s rationalist « Modern School» (Ferrer Guardia, 1976 [1910]; Solà, 1978; Avilés Farré, 2006), through to A.S. Neill’s Summerhill (Neill, 1985 [1926]) and the present-day Mérida-based Paideia (Martín Luengo, 1993). In such alternative readings and philosophies, which evidently transcended national borders as part of anarchist internationalism,2 not only do questions of co-education (Ferrer Guardia, 1976 [1910], p. 89-102) and school hygiene feature (Martínez Vargas, 1976 [1910]). The background to such ideas was provided by an Enlightenment commitment to perfectibility and the malleability of the human individual, as argued in a range of writings from Rousseau’s Émile (1762) through to Godwin’s An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Anarchists concentrated on the perfectibility of the individual but understood that the environment was a key factor in changing attitudes and behaviours, thus providing a bridge between the moral and physical world. Such improvements were conceived as an end in themselves but they also responded to an understanding of social change as processual, dynamic and progressive. This in turn encapsulated what some authors have identified as a « pre-figurative» approach in anarchism as the « commitment to define and realise anarchist social relations within the activities and collective structures of the revolutionary movement itself» (Gordon, 2008, p. 35). The process whereby social transformation would take place was thus connected to the strong articulation of the power of « will» as an engine for change in which agency was afforded a major role. The debate between how much the individual was determined by his or her circumstances and how much he or she determined them was constant in the anarchist repertoire.3

3The Question of Sex Education.

  • 4 Two brief examples may illustrate this point. Articles by French anarchists interested in birth con (...)
  • 5 Montseny referred to the «Liga Panamericana en pro de la elevación de la mujer».

4As part of the anarchist endeavour that sought to transform mentalities, many libertarians were keen to dissolve the division between mind and body. In this sense, the legacy of religious education and morality came under particular fire and anarchists sought to distance themselves from and combat religious thought on sexuality. If one could unburden one’s mind of religious prejudice, it was argued, one could live a freer and more satisfactory life. A focus on sexuality was yet another transnational aspect of the anarchist movement and ideas on womanhood, reproduction, birth control, the body and sex travelled back and forth between countries and between the continents.4 The remainder of this article focuses on the transnational reception of such ideas in the Revista Blanca and other prominent anarchist reviews such as Estudios with special emphasis on the question of sex education. The specific discourse of sex education in general society is signalled here as part of a broader discourse on both sexuality and education. As a phenomenon, it grew out of late nineteenth-century concerns about the health and sexuality of the population, was often normative in terms of what it advised men and women to do in sexual terms, and can be understood as part of the emerging dynamics of bio-power in this century. Different ideologies, movements and institutions employed sex education for different aims; there were conservative and religious expressions of sex education through to liberal and anarchist varieties (Vázquez García and Moreno Mengíbar, 1997, pp. 131-171) and interventions were made from particular disciplines such as psychoanalysis (Del Cura and Huertas, 2011).
Common to anarchist periodicals was a section devoted to recent publications, reviews of books and books for sale. Although sex education as such was not a prominent issue within the Revista Blanca, which tended to discuss more generic issues such as female emancipation, the power of the Church in education and anarchist thought, the journal did mention favourably many of the new titles that were published on the subject. One of the editors of the Revista Blanca, Federica Montseny, discussed the importance of scientific sex education in an article on the international women’s movement (to be distinguished from the feminist movement, which was usually rejected by anarchists as being dedicated to gaining the vote and little else). Here, she stated that the Pan-American Women’s League’s recent congress in Mexico held discussions on sexual science in schools along internationalism as part of the overall struggle for female enlightenment and emancipation (Montseny, 1923, p. 4).5 Elsewhere, reference was made to the publication of a pamphlet by the Spanish endocrinologist and historian of science Gregorio Marañón under the title La Educación Sexual, published by the « Generación Consciente» imprint in the mid-1920s (Anon, 1926). Of more libertarian content, however, was the book by the French anarchist Jean Marestan, La Educación Sexual, also listed for purchase in the Revista Blanca on many occasions. Marestan’s book on sexual education underwent numerous editions across the French- and Spanish- speaking anarchist world and was published first in France (Marestan, 1910a), in Buenos Aires (Marestan, 1910b) and then in Barcelona throughout the 1920s and 1930s (Marestan, 1930).

5Marestan’s Éducation Sexuelle.

  • 6 This may lead us to suppose that more marginal sexual practices such as same-sex love were sanction (...)

6Marestan’s book must be located within the emerging discourse on birth control, sexual hygiene and neo-Malthusianism, areas that sectors of the anarchist movement were involved in from the late nineteenth century and which were employed in order to legitimise libertarian attention to issues of sexuality and reproduction. Although, the English neo-Malthusian discourse was generally rather conservative (McLaren, 1978; Hall, 2000), despite the potentially radical nature of such ideas, in France it took on added dimensions that made it a target for the authorities’ attention, especially as it progressively adopted anti-militarist and anarchist hints (Gordon, 1990; Accampo, 2006). Marestan, a convinced neo-Malthusian and anarchist, published his Éducation Sexuelle in 1910 and made it clear what the book’s function was. It was time, he stated at the end of the first chapter, « d’en finir avec les superstitions, toutes les superstitions» (Marestan, 1910a, p. 16), a finality that would be achieved by a vigorous programme of sex education. This sex education programme would be dedicated to « remédier à l’ignorance fatale dans laquelle on a laissé le monde, d’affirmer que l’acte d’amour n’est jamais une faute et qu’il n’est point dans notre organisme de fonction condamnable» (Marestan, 1910a, p. 16). The « dédain du corps» (Marestan, 1910a, p. 10) suffered by western civilization was in part a result of the power of Catholicism (Marestan, 1910a, p. 11), coupled with hypocrisy, the rise of perversion, prostitution, suicide and crime (Marestan, 1910a, p. 14). In contrast to earlier more permissive historical periods, a cluster of « moralités néfastes» (Marestan, 1910a, p. 1) had subjected sex to a form of « pudibonderie ridicule» (Marestan, 1910a, p. 1). This historical justification together with a criticism of the « absurd morality» of the Church was a stock in trade for the anarchist sex educational current.
Marestan’s volume proceeded to describe the basics of sex education, including sections on the body, the reproductive apparatus, accompanied by illustrations, puberty, the “dangers of continence», sexual hygiene, marital intercourse, venereal disease, freedom to love, and a series of chapters on the balance between resources and population. In the chapter on the freedom to love and the freedom of maternity (Marestan, 1910a, pp. 117-122), Marestan argued that in a truly free society all should be allowed to come and go as they pleased and to make their own choices. Neither the state nor the family should afford themselves the privilege of « régenter autrui, de formuler suivant son caprice l’autorisation ou l’interdiction» in respect of sexual relations (Marestan, 1910a, p. 118). It was up to both men and women « d’aimer qui nous plait, quand il nous convient, sans autre condition que celle de la réciprocité du désir» (Marestan, 1910a, p. 119) within the context of a libertarian communist or collectivist society.6
Essential to the achievement of such a utopia and as a means of improving lives in the interim, many anarchists advocated the reduction of births and the employment of techniques to achieve what Marestan termed « prudence procréatrice» (Marestan, 1910a, p. 123) or « procréation consciente et limitée» (Marestan, 1910a, p. 129). Such an engagement with Malthus’ ideas was controversial within the anarchist movement itself, but enjoyed fairly widespread support as indicated by Francis Ronsin (1980) in the French case, Nash in the Spanish case (Nash, 1984) and Freire and Lousada in the Portuguese scenario (Freire and Lousada, 2012). The idea of curbing population growth allowed for the proletariat to fight back against capital and the state and deprive them of factory and cannon fodder. Marestan’s Éducation Sexuelle provided detailed accounts of the various devices that could be employed for women and men to take control of their bodies and reproductive functions. These devices, in turn, featured as illustrations in Marestan’s book. It is worth noting that such graphic detail often placed anarchists in the authorities’ firing line. The editor of the Barcelona-based Salud y Fuerza was taken to court on more than one occasion and, in England, the anarchists Guy Aldred and Rose Witcop at the Bakunin Press suffered a similar fate on publishing Margaret Sanger’s Family Limitation (Sanger, 1920). The second edition of this volume in 1923, with added illustrations, resulted in an obscenity trail. Aldred’s defence was supported by the New Generation League, the organization that had grown out of the Malthusian League in 1922, and by Dora Russell and John Meynard Keynes (Soloway, 1982, p. 230).
In Marestan’s final chapter, this desire for « bonne naissance» via « la stérilité volontaire» (Marestan, 1910a, p. 233), drawing on the anarchist educationalist and neo-Malthusian Paul Robin, responded to three main concerns. First, procreation should be avoided where individuals had serious illnesses. Second, where having a child would endanger the mother’s life. Third, where the home’s resources were so scarce as to prevent proper hygiene, good nutrition, high standards of education and the minimum of pleasures to sustain existence (Marestan, 1910a, p. 233). Only once procreation had been avoided under these circumstances would it respond to the noble design of « l’intention de créer à la fois du bonheur et de la beauté» (Marestan, 1910a, p. 248).

7Conscious Generation, Sex Education and Eugenics.

8These kinds of imperatives, supposedly taken on board consciously and voluntarily by individuals, formed the backbone of the anarchist education project that was centred on sexuality and reproduction. Like other areas of anarchist agitation, this was a « pre-figurative» approach that permitted adherents to live a better existence now and one that had its eyes focused on the future horizon of libertarian emancipation. One movement where this was at its strongest was the Spanish one, especially in Catalonia and Valencia in the 1920s and 1930s. In the last part of this article, we turn to this geographical area and discuss the educational culture that had sprung up around sexual issues as exemplified by two reviews, Generación Consciente (1923-1929) and Estudios. Revista Ecléctica (1929-1937) (Navarro Navarro, 1997). In particular, given considerations of space, we will focus on one article in this genre by Diógenes Ilurtensis on eugenics and sexual education (Ilurtensis, 1934).
Generación Consciente, edited by J. Juan Pastor initially in Alcoy, was an indicative example of the emphasis that anarchists placed on education and enlightenment in general as a route to emancipation. A « conscious» generation of workers, bred with purpose and with due regard to the stipulations made by individuals such as Marestan and Robin, would provide the means for overturning the superstitions and stupidities of the age. Generación Consciente explicitly acknowledged its trajectory in this area by recognising the fundamental role of the earlier Salud y Fuerza edited by Lluís Bulffi (Cleminson, 2000) and favoured conscious procreation, sex education and focused on « educación física y moral para saber combatir lo inícuo y lo inhumano, cuanto de trivial y tonto, de puerco y degenerante existe en esta sociedad corrompida» (Anon, 1923, p. 1). Estudios, published in Valencia, was committed to the same aims. In its opening address, it declared itself as the inheritor of this line of work, proceding « modestamente, pero con mayor tesón cada día» (Anon, 1930, p. 2). Further: « Entendemos que el problema social, el más importante de todos los problemas humanos, es una profunda cuestión de cultura y biología, de superación moral y física» (Anon, 1930, p. 2).
Numerous articles appeared in Estudios within the area of sexual education and the article by Diógenes Ilurtensis falls into this category. Ilurtensis contributed on numerous occasions to Estudios, writing about eugenics and neo-Malthusianism (Ilurtensis, 1933) and, specifically, eugenics and sex education in 1934. Although we cannot here enter into detail about the reception of ideas on eugenics within anarchism, perhaps a surprising crossover at first sight, we can say that Ilurtensis’ treatment of the issue fell very much within the existing frameworks that anarchists employed to discuss the matter (Puente, 1928). In his two-page piece, Ilurtensis argued that never more than now had it been necessary for people « se capaciten debidamente para orientar la propia actuación en un sentido de franco laborantismo para el mejoramiento colectivo» (Ilurtensis, 1934, p. 5). The dissemination of culture held a key role in this undertaking as did the insufficiently known phenomenon of eugenics. Given the airing that eugenics had already undergone in Estudios, Ilurtensis assumed a basic knowledge of the « science» and focused on an aspect that had been underestimated in the field: that of the action of eugenics « cuando se inicia la vida sexual de las juventudes de ambos sexos» (Ilurtensis, 1934, p. 5). Eugenics, therefore, was not confined to relations within marriage or partnerships; just as sexual education must be undertaken before children were born, so must eugenics, as a manifestation of sex education, guide the lives of youths.
Ilurtensis focused on the sanitary action of eugenics as a means of preventing against venereal disease. Given the high rate of venereal disease infection in Spain at the time, such an approach was entirely understandable (Castejón Bolea, 2004). How many « idiots, « imbeciles» and those « weak of spirit» could have been prevented from birth had the insights of eugenics been observed, Ilurtensis asked his readers. In cases of dementia, some 25 per cent of sufferers resulted from the effects of heredo-syphilis (Ilurtensis, 1934, p. 5). The only way of preventing the creation of such « sombras de hombre» (Ilurtensis, 1934, p. 5) was through the application of eugenics. Sex education, then, and its eugenic form in particular, must be instigated, he argued. But not « una educación sexual especiosa y a la violeta – mero barniz de conocimientos superficiales – sino una enseñanza integral y razonada» (Ilurtensis, 1934, p. 6). Such an approach would mean that « La sangre, limpia e inmaculada, correrá por las venas de los vástagos futuros sin ocasionar trastornos de índole alguna» (Ilurtensis, 1934, p. 6).


10This kind of rationalisation by Ilurtensis was certainly powerful in its message and sought to engender agency among its primarily self-taught readership. His words were faithful to a strong current running through European and Latin American anarchism whereby education was seen to be the key, or one of the keys, to emancipation. The focus on sex education as part of this endeavour was logical within a movement that sought to tear down barriers to knowledge and to diminish the influence of the Catholic Church. Articles such as that by Ilurtensis, however, did have their dark side. The discussion of the disabled and ill in such terms causes us to recoil before their potential consequences. Rather than a purely dismissive or critical response, however, we must recall that, situated in their proper timescale, anarchist discussions of eugenics, understood as part of a wider programme of sex education, were consistent, to a large degree with the humanitarian approach that they favoured and were viewed as part of a « progressive» engagement with both science and sexuality at the time. We can say, at the very least, that the focus on sex education, the dissemination of birth control, sexual freedom for women and a sexual politics shorn of prejudice are objectives that still resonate as urgent for many societies today.

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Anon. (1926). Pequeñas notas bibliográficas. IV (79), supplement, VI.

Anon. (1930). Revisiones. Del momento político. Estudios, 79, 1-2.

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1 This interest in Binet was also present in the next part of Romeo’s essay on the influence of the environment, where he cites Binet and Simon’s study of «La miseria fisiológica y la miseria social», in Año fisiológico, 1906. See Romeo, 1925b, p. 26.

2 See, for example, Chueca, 1914 in the Argentinian rationalist school bulletin, La Escuela Popular, where he highlighted the role of cultural transmission as a social improver. Chueca wrote for numerous Spanish anarchist reviews, notably on the issue of neo-Malthusianism.

3 In a discussion on determinism, the French anarchist André Lorulot argued that while the individual was certainly «déterminé» to much a degree, he or she was also «déterminant» of their life. See Lorulot, 1912.

4 Two brief examples may illustrate this point. Articles by French anarchists interested in birth control often appeared in the Barcelona-based Salud y Fuerza. The work of the anarchist individualist E. Armand is a case in point: Armand, 1911a; 1911b. The work of the Argentinian libertarian socialist Dr. Juan Lazarte as well as appearing in counter-cultural Argentine reviews was also published in Spanish sources. See Lazarte, 1933a; 1933b.

5 Montseny referred to the «Liga Panamericana en pro de la elevación de la mujer».

6 This may lead us to suppose that more marginal sexual practices such as same-sex love were sanctioned by Marestan. This was unlikely, despite his opposition to the state and religious imposition of norms. In the chapter on sexual continence, Marestan warned that the failure to satisfy one’s desires naturally could lead to neurasthenia and other conditions. See Marestan, 1910a, pp. 47-48. This failure could also lead to worse consequences: «Lorsque les jeunes gens sont réduits à la fréquentation des individus de leur sexe, leurs instincts naturels se pervertissent et, faute d’un plus charmant objet, c’est sur des semblables que se porte leur concupiscence» (Marestan, 1910a, p. 50). This, in turn, was a common argument in favour of co-education.

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Richard Cleminson

University of Leeds

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