Part 3: The Spanish Revolution

Chapter 9: The Uprising of July 19 1936

In July 1936, in response to a military-fascist mutiny of right-wing generals against the Spanish Republic, in Barcelona – the capital of the region of Catalonia and the largest industrial centre of the country – a general strike flared up and grew into a worker revolt. The core elements of this uprising were armed members and supporters of the CNT.

The uprising was prepared and organized by “committees of defense” which were created in Barcelona’s working class neighbourhoods from members of the CNT, the Federation of Anarchists of Iberia (FAI), and Libertarian Youth. The most active role in the uprising was played by members of one of the anarchist groups – Nosotros (Buenaventura Durruti, Francisco Ascaso, Juan García Oliver, Ricardo Sanz, Aurelio Fernandez, and others), which constituted something like a Central Revolutionary Committee of Defense.

The army mutiny in Barcelona was suppressed. But the workers did not limit themselves to simple clashes with army units. They spontaneously began to carry out the social revolution: they seized enterprises and introduced workers’ selfmanagement; they took supply, transport, and social services into their own hands; they organized a new life. The CNT union of food industry workers opened communal cafeterias where people could eat for free. Even during the fighting, in each working class quarter of the city food committees were organized to arrange the requisition of food products from warehouses and to set up the exchange of manufactured goods for food with the peasantry. Market commerce and the money system were replaced to a significant extent by non-monetary exchange. The food supplies acquired in these exchanges was distributed according to norms established by the committees. Clothing and other consumer goods were distributed through shops and stores. There were instances where workers raided banks and monasteries and burned the money confiscated as a symbol of the hated Capitalism. Items from pawn shops were returned to the people who had been compelled to pawn them. The labour unions (syndicates) confiscated large government and privately-owned buildings and set up their headquarters in them. At the majority of industrial enterprises, in transportation, and in social services, general meetings of worker collectives took place which elected management committees, most of the members of which were representatives of the CNT. Such a seizure of production units by a collective received the name “collectivization.” In several sectors (woodworking in Barcelona, bakeries, railway transport, and others the collectivization of industry went on to the next stage of socialization: the whole production process from start to finish was subject to the self-management of workers, who created the appropriate organs. Within a few days life in Barcelona had already normalized: transport was running, enterprises were working, shops were open, and communications systems were operating. Researchers concur that all the revolutionary measures and the normalization of daily living were, basically, the spontaneous actions of workers belong to the CNT; the corresponding orders had not been issued by some higher committee of the union federation. Initiatives most often came from rank-and-file members of the unions (syndicates) of the CNT or from front-line anarcho-syndicalist and anarchist activists.

“... the proletariat of Catalonia,” according to Andre Capdevilla, a member of a CNT syndicate of textile workers, “was saturated with anarcho-syndicalist revolutionary propaganda. Over a period of many decades the notion had taken root among the workers that they should make the most of any opportunity to carry out the Revolution. So they acted as soon as the possibility presented itself.”

The Revolution also took hold in other cities (above all, in Catalonia), and also rural areas (in Catalonia, parts of Aragon, Andalusia, and Valencia). In regions with large estates the peasants seized the land from its owners. In many regions they agreed to carry on agricultural work on a group basis – by forming “collectives.” In regions such as Aragon and Andalusia, the anarchists had carried on agitation among the village population over a period of many decades. “In those most backward regions to which they were sent,” according to [URL=/tags/gaston-leval] Gaston Leval, an eye-witness, participant, and researcher of these events, “our comrades joined in working in the fields and were able to communicate more advanced technical ideas, and teach the children to read. The result was that the Good News [anarchism] penetrated into the socially most backward areas of the countryside.” The German anarchosyndicalist Augustin Souchy told the story of an anarchist from the Aragonese village of Munesa, who worked for a long time in Barcelona, and then went back to his native village and acquainted the peasants with libertarian ideas. Under his influence his fellow-villagers organized a collective – a free commune. “A Spanish edition of Kropotkin’s book The Conquest of Bread lay on the table. In the evenings members of the collective would gather, and one of them would read the book out loud. This was the new Gospel.”

During the first days of the Revolution, new structures of social self-management appeared, spontaneously formed by revolutionary workers and peasants in enterprises, village communes, and urban neighbourhoods. At the base of these structures one always found general meetings (“assemblies”) of the residents or of the labour collective. They elected revolutionary committees, committees or councils of enterprises, councils of soldiers and sailors, etc. to carry out routine, coordinating, technical, and executive functions. The members of the committees acted within a framework where they were obligated to carry out the orders of the assembly which elected them, and could be recalled at any moment. All important decisions of the committees were adopted only in accordance with the wishes of the collective of the commune.

In Barcelona the revolutionary committees, which grew out of the neighbourhood committees of defense of the CNT and “barricade committees,” occupied themselves with street-level organizing – arranging food and other services, and maintaining order. In many villages, immediately after the failure of the military mutiny, the inhabitants removed the local administration, and a revolutionary committee, elected at a general meeting, took over administrative as well as economic functions. Often the revolutionary com- mittees immediately applied themselves to such revolutionary measures as the burning of all documents about private ownership; the confiscation of the land, buldings, crops, and inventory of big landowners; the conversion of churches into storage facilities; the collectivization of land, and the organization of a volunteer militia.

Of course it was not only the anarcho-syndicalists who took part in the formation of popular organs. There were also other workers, mainly rank-and-file members of the other trade union central – the General Union of Workers (UGT) – which was oriented towards the Socialist Party Consequently, the composition of these organs reflected the correlation of forces between the CNT, the UGT, and other forces.

In any case, the power of the State ceased to function over a significant part of the territory of Spain. The central government of the Republic in Madrid was completely discredited by its inability to oppose the military mutiny and lost all its authority. The regional government of Catalonia (the Generalitat) headed by Luis Companys controlled only its own building. Local administrations were either removed or neutralized. The army and police were either disbanded or destroyed. Barcelona was controlled by workers’ militias, primarily anarcho-syndicalist in composition. “... power was lying in the street, and it was embodied by the people armed,” noted the contemporary researcher Abel Paz. The anarcho-syndicalists, who now enjoyed a dominant influence among the workers of Catalonia, were confronted by a decision about what to do with this power: whether to destroy it, take it into their own hands, or hand it over to others.

Chapter 10: Libertarian Communism or Antifascist Unity?

Theoretically the relationship of the Spanish anarchosyndicalists to the question of power was determined long before July 1936. The Spanish anarchist (libertarian) movement from its very beginning in the 1870’s preached the simultaneous annihilation of Capitalism and the State by means of social revolution, and the transition to a stateless system – a federation of free communes and workers’ unions. A plan of action in a situation of social revolution had been outlined by the end of 1933, just before a planned uprising against a right-wing government which had just acceded to power. Guidelines for building a new society were enshrined in the Zaragoza Program (“The Conception of Libertarian Communism”) of 1936.

In spite of having a more or less clear idea about what had to be done at the moment of revolution, the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist movement paradoxically was unable to pin down the criteria for determining the “ripeness” of a society for social transformation. In other words: how does one establish if the time is right to start implementing a blueprint for building a new society? The CNT in July 1936 was not able to find an unambiguous answer to this question. “The Conception of Libertarian Communism” talked about the revolutionary character of the epoch as a whole, but was rather vague when it came to the moment of revolution itself. Within the CNT there had long existed a belief that a genuine social revolution would be possible only when the CNT represented an overwhelming majority of the workers in the whole of Spain, or when the CNT had created an all-embracing union structure which was prepared to take over the management of the whole economy in the course of a social revolution. There were radical anarchists in the CNT (the Nosotros group and others who shared its views) who took a different position. They considered that the readiness of the masses for revolution was first and foremost a matter of psychology, and that this readiness would develop under the conditions of an ongoing revolutionary situation. They also did not make much of an effort to theorize and explain the moment of qualitative change. Moreover, the CNT frequently emphasized that in Spain the alternatives were clear: fascism or libertarian communism – and the appropriate response to a fascist putsch was social revolution.1 There was also a lack of clarity concerning relations with the other large union federation – the UGT, which was controlled by the Socialist Party. On the one hand, the anarcho-syndicalists expressed their desire for an “alliance” with the UGT; but on the other hand, at the Zaragoza congress they approved the conditions for such a pact which would require the UGT to repudiate the Socialist Party and adopt a position of social revolution.

All this created uncertainty. That is why at the very moment when events in Barcelona, in practically the whole of Catalonia, and partly in other regions of the country, “gifted” the anarchists with that for which they had struggled and dreamed for decades, they found themselves unprepared to make use of this “gift.”

One must also take note of the fact that the CNT had always harboured reformist tendencies which from time to time took control of the organization. Thus, Pestaña and Piero, who headed the CNT at the end of the 1920’s and the beginning of the 1930’s, supported close contacts with republican political organizations, and in 1931-1932 became the leaders of a reformist group, the “Treintistas.” A significant part of this fraction quit the CNT, but returned to it in 1936.

However, besides the “Treintistas” there remained a substantial number of “pure” syndicalists in the union federation as well as members who were simply pragmatically inclined. To a certain extent, this was a consequence of the contradictory organizational vision of Spanish anarcho-syndicalism, which tried to combine anarchist goals and social ideals with the revolutionary syndicalist principle of trade unions being open “to all workers,” independently of their convictions.

The membership of the CNT were far from being made up entirely of conscious anarchists; this was particularly true of those who had joined during the period of the Republic (from 1931 on). These partisans of a pragmatic approach could be relied upon by those activists and members of the executive organs of the CNT who preferred to avoid risky, “extremist” decisions.

On July 20 1936 the president of the Generalitat, Companys, made contact with the Catalan Regional Committee of the CNT and invited its representatives to a meeting to discuss the situation emerging after the suppression of the “fascist mutiny” of the military. A plenary assembly of delegates of the CNT unions, committees, and FAI groups was convened to analyze this proposal. The opinions of the participants diverged right from the start. Their spectrum extended from the proposal of García Oliver, a member of the Nosotros group, to declare libertarian communism; to the position of Abad de Santillan, who spoke in favour of uniting with other antifascist forces. An intermediate position was maintained by those who, like Manuel Escorza, proposed for the time being a “hands off” policy towards the government of Companys, not making any agreements with him, but setting about carrying out the socialization of the economy and thereby depriving him of any real power. Escorza declared real power was found in the hands of the CNT; consequently, political power could be ignored. The delegation of anarcho-syndicalists from the working class area of Baja Llobregat led by José Xena objected strongly to collaborating with the government, but did not want to support García Oliver and was inclined to support Escorza’s point of view. The debate was turbulent, at times bitter. In the end a decision was arrived at which was provisional in nature: to send an armed delegation to meet with Companys for the purpose of exchanging information.

Receiving the delegation of the CNT and FAI, Companys congratulated the anarchists on their victory and expressed his willingness to resign. But he then tried to convince them they would not be able to manage without traditional political forces. He reminded the libertarians that the battle with fascism was far from won and required a broad coalition of antifascist forces. Companys proposed to form a coalition organ with the participation of the anarcho-syndicalists – a “Committee of Militias” with the mission of organizing the final defeat of the rebels. The anarchist delegation explained it lacked the authority to make an agreement with him, but would transmit his proposal to their own organizations. Without waiting for the agreement of the CNT, Companys issued a declaration about the creation of popular militias and the corresponding chief organ made up of people close to him. The Regional Committee of the CNT, after listening to the reports of García Oliver and Durruti about the meeting, resolved to contact Companys and let him know the CNT could offer provisional support for the creation of such an organ, but that the final decision would have to come from a regional plenum of the Catalan CNT.

At the regional conference (plenum of local organizations) of the Catalan CNT on July 21 1936, the delegation from Baja Llobregat proposed to withdraw from the newlycreated Central Committee of Antifascist Militias (CCMA) and proclaim libertarian communism, as stipulated in the decisions, principles, and ideological goals of the organization.

The Nosotros member García Oliver, speaking for his group, supported the demand from Baja Llobregat. He called for the errors which had been committed to be rectified and for the social revolution to be carried through to the end: the CCMA should be dissolved and libertarian communism established throughout the whole country. Speaking against these proposals were the well known FAI activists Federica Montseny, Abad de Santillan, and the secretary of the Catalan CNT Mariano Vasquez. Montseny urged that events not be forced since, in her opinion, this would lead to the establishment of an anarchist dictatorship which would be in contradiction to the essence of anarchism. She proposed to have recourse to concessions: to take part in the CCMA, and then – after the final defeat of the military mutineers – withdraw from this organ and return to the work of creating an anarchist society. Abad de Santillan pronounced in favour of participation in the “Committee of Militias,” and stressed that global capitalism would not permit libertarian communism in Spain and would have recourse to military intervention. He warned against war on two fronts and called for “deferring” libertarian communism to the future.

Vasquez, speaking at the second session of the plenum, argued that even by not “carrying things through to the end,” the CNT could still rule from the street, depending on its own real strength. Consequently he considered it worthwhile to remain in the CCMA and avoid a dictatorship.

In the course of subsequent discussions, the delegation from Baja Llobregat stood firm on their proposals, and García Oliver attempted to refute the arguments of his opponents. He denied accusations of wanting a “trade unionist” or “anarchist” dictatorship and urged that a decision be made right away so as not to leave a vacuum which could be used by the enemies of the Revolution, as had happened in Russian in 1917. “I am convinced that syndicalism, both in Spain and in the rest of the world, finds itself faced with the act of proclaiming its values openly to humanity and to history,” he insisted. “If we don’t demonstrate that we can build libertarian socialism, the future will belong, just like before, to the sort of politics which came out of the French Revolution – starting with a bunch of political parties and ending with one.” García Oliver also criticized attempts to “sow fear,” emphasizing that the Revolution could deal with interventionists as well as the mutiny. García Oliver repeated his call to declare libertarian communism and “carry things through to the end.”

After everyone had spoken, Abad de Santillan officially stated the alternatives: endorse membership in the CCMA or declare libertarian communism. The question was put to a vote; only the delegation from Baja Llobregat voted for declaring libertarian communism; the rest of the delegates were in favour of “anti-fascist co-operation.” The decision adopted took the view that the Revolution was going through an “antifascist stage,” that libertarian communism was inappropriate, and that at the present time it was necessary to consolidate the “antifascist front which was taking shape in the street.”

What had caused such a major volte-face on the part of the CNT, essentially discarding the program of action which it had adopted just two months before these events?

The decision upheld by the Catalan CNT not to declare libertarian communism and to enter into collaboration with other antifascist forces (socialists, communists, and republicans) was, as many anarcho-syndicalists recognized later, the result of a hasty evaluation of a complex situation.

Victorious only in Catalonia, the libertarians did not feel sure of themselves in other regions of the country. “We agreed to cooperate,” said the CNT’s report to the IWA Congress in 1937, “Why? The Levant [Valencia] was defenseless and vacillating – its barracks were full of putschists. In Madrid our forces were in the minority. Andalusia was in a confused state, with groups of workers, badly armed with hunting rifles, carrying on the struggle in the mountains. The situation in the North remained uncertain, and the rest of Spain was presumably in the hands of the fascists. The enemy was established in Aragon, at the very gates of Catalonia. The real state of our foes was unknown to us – whether on the national or the international level.” The activists of the CNT did not risk taking the path of independent revolutionary action, dreading the prospect of war on three fronts: against the fascists, the government, and possibly foreign interventionists. In other words, the majority of the activists believed it was premature to talk about social revolution on a country-wide scale, while libertarian communism in Catalonia alone was inevitably doomed.

Nevertheless, the real situation of things was far from being as hopeless as it seemed to the Catalan anarchosyndicalists, who were probably still living in the shadow of the defeat of the insurrections of 1932-1933. This time it was not a case of an isolated local outbreak. The socialrevolutionary movement spread throughout Catalonia and parts of Aragon and Valencia, and the way to Andalusia was open. In other words, the economically pivotal industrial and agrarian regions of the Iberian peninsula had fallen into the hands of the revolutionaries. In such a situation it was possible to risk “going to the end.” “In the given case,” wrote the contemporary Spanish anarcho-syndicalist Abel Paz, “we believe the question of power was decided in too much of a hurry, and this haste prevented taking into account “the whole significance of the Revolution,” as the report [of the CNT] made clear. If the proposals of García Oliver had been accepted, then the problem of Revolution would undoubtedly have been cleared up at the grass roots level.” But now the anarcho-syndicalists lost valuable time and conceded the initiative to their enemies.

Finally, there was still one factor which García Oliver mentions casually in his memoirs: the delegates gathered hurriedly, not previously being aware about what they were to discuss. In other words, they adopted a decision at the plenum without having instructions from the unions and other organizations they were representing. This was the first serious violation of federalist procedure within the CNT – a tendency which was to become prevalent subsequently. “The first error,” notes Paz, “was committed already on July 19 and 20, when a group of activists substituted themselves for the members themselves and made decisions for them. From this moment on a gap manifested itself between the base and the upper levels: the base wanted to broaden the Revolution, the superstructure tried to control and limit it...”

Other members of Nosotros did not speak at the plenum. One of its prominent members, Ricardo Sanz, subsequently recalled: “As a group, we did not exert pressure on the results [of the discussion]. We knew our organization was against dictatorship. And that’s what would have happened if our position had been adopted... But in any case, we did not try to force a decision, since there was other urgent business:

Companys had agreed that Durruti would lead the militia forces, which must occupy Zaragoza which had fallen into the hands of the enemy...” In the evening after the conclusion of the CNT plenum, a meeting of Nosotros and its supporters (Marcos Alcon, García Vivancos, Domingo, Joaquín Ascasco, and others) was held. All were agreed it was necessary to move beyond alliances with political parties and form new organs of popular self-government, based on the revolutionary committees and labour unions of the CNT. However differences arose about the time-table for such actions. García Oliver urged the group “to finish the work begun on July 18” by having the forces of the anarchosyndicalist militia occupy the government buildings and key installations of Barcelona. Durruti called this plan “excellent,” but considered the moment “inauspicious” when the mood of the CNT activists was taken into account. He proposed to wait ten days, until the libertarian militia had taken Zaragoza – the capital of Aragon – thereby saving Catalonia itself from a possible economic and political blockade. García Oliver objected, arguing that the capture of the city could wait, but his arguments did not find support.

At the first meeting of the CCMA, the anarcho-syndicalists rejected the plan of Companys, which attempted to reduce the role of the new organ to carrying out military and technical tasks. They insisted on its transformation into an institution for the economic, political, and military administration of Catalonia, so that the functions of Companys as President of the Generalitat would become purely nominal. The CCMA became a semi-governmental, semi-grassroots organ. Besides the anarchists, who held key posts in it, there were also representatives of the UGT, the Catalan left nationalists, Communists (controlled by the Comintern and formed in July into the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia – closely linked with the Communist Party of Spain), anti-Stalinist Communists from the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity (POUM), and others. The Committee made decisions on fundamental social-political questions, but at the same time it was impossible to view it as an organ of a purely governmental type since its members were responsible primarily to the committees at the head of their organizations, to which they owed their positions as delegates. So in fact these organizations made decisions, and the CCMA only ratified them. Up until August 10 1936 its official documents were valid only if they bore the imprint of the Catalan Regional Committee of the FAI.

The maintenance of order in Catalonia was carried out by patrols organized by the militias of the various organizations and movements belonging to the CCMA. The most powerful of these was the militia of the CNT. The members of the CNT, the FAI, and FIJL also constituted the basis of those volunteer forces which fought with the insurgents at the front of the unfolding Civil War. On July 24 1936 the first of such columns with a complement of 2,000 led by Durruti set out for Aragon. So it happened that volunteer units, formed by various organizations and movements, were able successfully to oppose the insurgent armed forces for the whole first period of the Civil War and achieve significant successes.

Durruti’s column, which liberated a large part of Aragon from the enemy, was organized on the basis of libertarian principles: all the commanders were elected and lived in the same manner as the rank-and-filers, there was no penal code, and everyone observed voluntary self-discipline. The CNT columns which fought in Aragon were 16,000 strong.

The anarcho-syndicalists rejected the decree concerning mobilization of reservists issued by the central republican government at the beginning of August. However in Catalonia on August 6 1936 the CNT gave consent to partial conscription by the Generalitat and the CCMA, which was already a fundamental departure from principles. Nevertheless, the anarcho-syndicalist militias continued to be based on the principle of voluntary popular armed forces.

  • 1. “Only by carrying through the social revolution is it possible to smash fascism,” wrote, for example, the newspaper of the Catalan CNT Solidaridad Obrera just before July 19 [Solidaridad Obrera, 17.07.1936].

Chapter 11: Under the Pressure of Circumstances

Thus, the CNT made a principled decision (and one which, as became clear later, had fatal consequences) to renounce “total revolution,” to set aside libertarian communism until victory was gained over the coalition of military, fascist Falangists and Monarchists opposing the Republic. The official position of the anarcho-syndicalists on the question of State power in this period was expressed in the article “The Uselessness of Government,” published in the “Information Bulletin of Propaganda of the CNT-FAI” and in the Catalan CNT’s newspaper Solidaridad Obrera.

This position boiled down to the notion of the necessity of continuing the Revolution in the social-economic sphere, not paying any attention to the State, and preserving the Popular Anti-fascist Front “from below.” In the article it was emphasized that the central and Catalan republican governments had not undertaken any measures to prevent or suppress the mutiny and that their existence was inessential for the antifascist struggle. The anarcho-syndicalists believed the “social struggle” was unfolding throughout the country.

“The coordination of the forces of the Popular Front and the organization of the food supply by means of the simultaneous collectivization of enterprises is vitally important for the achievement of our goals...,” they noted. “However up until now this has been carried out not under the control of the State, but rather in a decentralized, demilitarized fashion,” based on the CNT and UGT labour unions. The existing government is “basically only a weak preserver of the ‘status quo’ in tending to the property rights of international financial interests.” In such a situation a government of the Popular Front was unnecessary and even harmful, since it would either serve as a means of compromise and paralyze the decision-making process with its coalition politics and internal struggles, or prepare the way for a new dictatorship in the form of a “workers’ state.”

The leaders of the CNT and the FAI compromised with the antifascist parties and movement and made concessions to them, justifying this by reference to “developing circumstances,” namely the necessity of victory in the Civil War. They agreed (in order to avoid foreign intervention) not to expropriate enterprises belonging to foreign capital; such enterprises would only be subject to workers’ control.

New organs (revolutionary committees, committees of the antifascist militias, etc.) were now quite often put together not at general meetings, but – like the CCMA – on the basis of agreements between the CNT, UGT, and other organizations. Frequently revolutionary organs existed in parallel to the surviving pre-revolutionary structures at the local level, which sometimes gave rise to sharp conflicts between them.

The anarcho-syndicalist masses paid little attention during the first months to the compromises agreed to “above.” They carried out the social revolution on their own “from below,” impelled by their own libertarian “idée-force.” The scale of self-management by workers during this period of the Spanish Revolution has no equal in history. Thus, in Barcelona 70% of enterprises were taken from their owners and transferred to the control of the CNT and UGT; in Valencia – 50%. Collectivization was also widely embraced in the rural economy. A regional plenum of the peasant syndicates of Catalonia, belonging to the CNT, resolved on September 5-7 1936 to collectivize large estates and any land which was being worked with the help of a hired workforce. All expropriated land passed under the control and management of a syndicate and was cultivated directly in the interests of its members, namely “the workers as a whole.” Subsequently in Catalonia, Valencia, and other regions a wide-ranging process evolved of peasants coming together in self-managed collectives. This phenomenon was particularly widespread in the territory of Aragon which had been liberated by the anarcho-syndicalist militias, where such peasant collectives controlled up to 60% of all the land of the region and transformed themselves essentially into free, self-managed communes in the anarcho-syndicalist spirit.

However very soon the political compromises became an obstacle in the path of the grassroots initiatives. Thus, since libertarian communism had not been proclaimed, the notion of abolishing money and carrying out distribution according to needs had to be renounced. In the cities the circulation of money was fully retained; the most that was accomplished was the introduction in a number of cases of the so-called “family allowance” system, namely equal pay for each worker with a supplement for members of the worker’s family. More typically, there was a significant increase in the wage rates for the lowest paid workers, which reduced the gap between the earnings of different groups of workers. In the villages, at first there were attempts to experiment with unfettered consumption, rationing, introduction of local currency, the “family allowance,” etc. However all these measures were characterized by a lack of coordination. There was an absence of any sort of coordination of the activities of local revolutionary organs; in spite of the anarcho-syndicalist “program,” these organs were not united in a federation, but operated exclusively at the local level.

In their efforts above all to advance beyond “collectivization” (transition stage of management by workers’ collectives) to complete socialization of the economy, the anarcho-syndicalists initiated the creation on August 11 1936 of the Economic Council of Catalonia, which was to carry out the overall coordination and planning of the economy and establishing pricing policy. However this organ also bore the stamp of compromise both as to its make-up (it included members of CNT, UGT, and political parties) and as to the tasks it undertook to carry out. Its goals included such diverse measures as the regulation of production guided by the needs of consumption; the monopoly of external trade; the development of collectivization in industry, commerce, in the rural economy, and in transport; the fostering of cooperation between the peasantry and consumers; job placement for the unemployed; reform of the tax system, etc.

Abad de Santillan, who played a key role in the Economic Council, was convinced this organ would be able to bring about the creation of a new economic system. On the other hand, the radical wing of the anarcho-syndicalists (Durruti and others) feared such a “legalization” of the conquests of the Revolution would only tend to strengthen the power of the Generalitat and could lead to “State Capitalism” or “State Socialism.”

The unstable equilibrium of forces could not be preserved for long. State power – not liquidated by the anarchists – as well as the political parties and social strata which supported them, made use of the breathing space granted them to pass over to an offensive against the Revolution. In the hands of the unabolished State remained powerful levers, above all currency and other financial resources. Collectivized industry lacked raw materials. “The Marxists and Republicans formed a bloc and, possessing money and armaments, they pursued a politics of patronage in relation to their supporters, distributing to them food, weapons, administrative jobs, means of communication and transport...,” it was acknowledged in the report of the CNT to the congress of the anarcho-syndicalist International in 1937. “Catalonia had to organize its own foreign trade, competing abroad with other parts of the country, in order to feed its own citizens and satisfy the needs of the Aragon Front... The government, taking advantage of our efforts to avoid causing harm to antifascist unity and to not provoke a rupture of official relations with foreign nations, used its privileged diplomatic situation and ruthlessly sabotaged our actions in all fields. [222]

The governments in Madrid and Catalonia began to exert increasing pressure on the anarcho-syndicalists in three directions at once: impeding the supply of weapons and ammunition to the badly armed militias, trying to limit the scope and course of collectivizations in industry and in the rural economy, and attempting to impose the replacement of the militias by the regular army. In September 1936 a massive campaign was begun in the Catalan press directed against “out-of-control” anarchists, who were accused of concealing weapons instead of sending them to the Front (it was the committees of defense which were being targeted here), and also against “utopian experiments” in the economy.

Having embedded itself in the power system, the leadership of the CNT was forced to change itself. It had reconstructed itself in order to conform to the demands of the moment, justifying the mushrooming bureaucratic apparatus by the real requirements of coordinating economic and social life. Taking advantage of the fact that the activist members of the CNT and FAI were either fighting at the Front or completely weighed down with the work of workers’ self-management at the local level, many labour federation officers (members of the national, regional, or district committees; aides to the various union commissions, the Committee of Militias, the Economic Council, etc.) began to take into account the needs and desires of the anarcho-syndicalist masses less and less . The rank-and-file activists simply could not keep track of the endless chain of conferences, plenums, and meetings and look into the matters discussed in detail.

As noted by José Peirats , the historiographer of the CNT, there was essentially a breakdown of the federalist norms of the organization (transformation of the National Committee into a “machine for issuing orders” to individual unions, the convening of plenums by means of announcements from above, the adoption of important decisions by committees at all levels or at meetings of picked activists with subsequent approval at general assemblies). All these practices were in contradiction to the principles of anarcho-syndicalism, corresponding to which initiatives in the organizations ought to advance not “from the top down,” but “from the bottom up,” and committees and commissions were to be convened not to adopt independent decisions on fundamental questions, but to carry out the orders of the “ordinary members” at general assemblies.

Many anarcho-syndicalists spoke out against the nascent bureaucratization of the CNT and against the policy of more and more concessions into it after 490 to the State and political parties on the part of the CNT leaders. Durruti frequently expressed his concern and indignation on this score. The radical wing tried to turn the course of events at the regional plenum of the Catalan CNT at the beginning of August 1936. García Oliver and Durruti demanded an end to the collaboration with political forces, which was causing the Revolution to lose its bearings and depriving it of its strength. They called for further progress in the Revolution. But the majority feared above all civil war in the “antifascist camp.” The course pursued since July 20 remained without significant changes.

A decision was adopted about the necessity of a “revolutionary alliance” with the UGT and the creation of a National Committee of Defense for military-political leadership. The radical minority, noted the historian Paz, submitted this time around, obeying organizational discipline. “The only way out of this impasse would have been to break with ‘the activist’s sense of responsibility’ and, without the consent of their own organization, take the revolutionary problem into the streets. But none of the activists felt capable of doing this...” In the middle of August the CNT attempted to put into practice the idea of an alliance with the UGT by entering into negotiations with its leader, the socialist Largo Caballero. The possibility was discussed that both union federations could combine to topple the central republican government and replace it with a revolutionary junta of defense. At the last moment Largo Caballero renounced this plan, since he did not want to destroy the legitimacy of the republican government. On September 4 1936, he was appointed prime minister of the Spanish Republic.

Tensions between the anarcho-syndicalists and the antifascist parties and movements continued to grow. In response to the accusation that the anarchists were “hiding weapons,” the “committees of defense” of Barcelona declared that it intended to store weapons “as long as the Revolution has not resolved the problem of political power, and as long as there exist armed forces submitting to the orders of the government in Madrid,” since they considered weapons “the guarantee of our revolutionary conquests.” The newspaper Solidaridad obrera defended the collectives in industry and in the rural economy, and reminded its readers about “the revolutionary character” of the war. In a radio broadcast from the Front, Durruti emphasized that “fascism and capitalism – are one and the same,” and the company committees and the military committee of the “Durruti column” threatened to march on Barcelona if weapons allegedly concealed in the Barcelona barracks of the Communists were not immediately sent to the Front. Eight machine guns, discovered in the office of the Communists in Sabadella, were sent to the front-line soldiers.

Chapter 12: The CNT Enters the Government

Meanwhile, the logic of “circumstances” induced the leadership of the CNT to take the following step: it began to seek ways to participate in the direction of military-political affairs, hoping this would help to consolidate the revolutionary conquests. On September 15 1936, at a plenum of the regional federations of the CNT, the National Committee was able to get adoption of a resolution about the necessity of a National Council of Defense as a “national organ, empowered to carry out executive functions in the area of military planning, and functions of coordination in the area of political and economic planning.” The Council, headed by Largo Caballero, was to include “delegates” from all three political tendencies (anarcho-syndicalist, Marxist, and republican), and the army and police were to be replaced by popular militias. The economic program of the Council was to include the socialization of banks and church property, estates, big industry, and commerce; the socialized means of production would be handed over to management by syndicates, and provision would be made for the freedom to carry out revolutionary economic experiments.

Similar councils would be formed at the regional and local level. The plenum resolved to submit this draft to the UGT along with a proposal about an alliance. As Peirats justly remarked, such a Council of Defense would have been the government, but under another name. Nevertheless, the “nongovernmental” form of this organ was important to the anarchists. Understanding perfectly the contradictions built into this proposal, Largo Caballero rejected it as violating constitutional principles. However, according to Paz who has made a detailed study of the events of those days, both sides – Largo Caballero and the National Committee of the CNT (headed by a new General Secretary and proponent of the reformist line Horacio Martínez Prieto), had a good grasp of what the other side wanted, and from this moment on carried on interminable haggling during which they had recourse to various kinds of pressure tactics. The trump card of the prime minister was the question about money and weapons for the anarchist militias at the Front, which carried on fighting in the hopes that by taking Zaragoza and Huesca they could compel the CNT committees to put an end to concessions and proclaim libertarian communism.

The volunteer units at the Front were becoming weaker and weaker due to lack of weapons and ammunition. The situation became so critical that Durruti and Abad de Santillan came up with a scheme for an anarchist column to attack the National Bank in Madrid in order to expropriate its resources and use them to purchase weapons. However the frightened members of the National Committee vetoed this. Meanwhile, in Catalonia the Regional Committee of the CNT, under constant pressure from the government of Largo Caballero to put an end to “dual power,” announced its consent to the dissolution of the CCMA; in exchange, three representatives of CNT joined the Generalitat. Thus, for the first time anarcho-syndicalists openly became part of a government organ. Prominent activists of the Catalan CNT such as García Oliver, A. Fernandez, Xena, and Marcos Alcon, gritting their teeth, reconciled themselves to this decision.

The reaction of the rank-and-file activists of the CNT to the continual concessions of the leadership of the Catalan organization was different. Marcus Alcon, one of the key figures of the CNT (first with the glassworkers’ union, then with the union of workers in the entertainment industry), who enjoyed great popularity in Barcelona, recalled that soon after the CCMA was dissolved and the CNT joined the Catalan government, he was confronted by representatives of a commission of Committees of Defense of Barcelona – Daniel Sanchez, Ángel Carbalera, Trapota, and others. They informed him that at a meeting of the Committees of Defense a resolution was passed empowering them to go to the headquarters of the CNT and the FAI and dismiss the Regional Committees of those organizations, which were “stifling the Revolution.” The delegates proposed that Marcos Alcon become the new secretary of the Catalan Regional Committee of the CNT. Alcon was in agreement with the activists in their evaluation of the situation and the concessions which had been made. But he was resolutely against the proposed measures, considering them “irresponsible” and harmful for the organization. With difficulty he persuaded the Committees of Defense to refrain from taking action, urging them instead to “build up their strength in the unions” and, basing themselves on the unions, compel the CNT committees to carry out the will of the members of the organization.

Thus one of the last chances to continue the development of the social revolution in Catalonia was lost.

At this critical juncture a plenum of the regional federations of the CNT was convened on September 28, at which there was an expression of regret in connection with the negative reaction of other unions and political organizations to the proposal about creating a National Council of Defense.

The CNT complained that the exclusion of its representatives from the leadership of the struggle was undermining the authority of that leadership, and once more called upon the UGT to join in a “revolutionary alliance,” threatening to “decline all responsibility” for the consequences in the case of refusal.

The problem of the lack of weaponry, it appeared, made some headway after a meeting of the General Secretary of the anarcho-syndicalist International, Pierre Besnard, and Durruti with Prime Minister Caballero in Madrid on October 1 1936. Durruti warned the Prime Minister that if the government did not allocate sufficient financial resources for the purchases of arms for the CNT-FAI columns, then the front-line soldiers would march on Madrid. After this, the Spanish government agreed to spend 1.6 million pesetas on the purchase of armaments, of which a third would be spent on material earmarked for Catalonia and Aragon. But just a few days later the proposed deal with an armaments firm was cancelled, since the Soviet Union had interfered in the matter, offering its own assistance to the Republican government.1 Aid from the USSR led to a dramatic increase in the influence of the enemies of the anarcho-syndicalists – the Communists of the PCE, who opposed socialist revolution in Spain.

As a counterbalance to the conciliatory course of the leaders of the CNT in Madrid and Catalonia, the front-line and Aragonese anarcho-syndicalists formed their own central. They began to hurl open challenges at their own organization and preferred to create something along the lines of a “rallying point” for the Spanish Revolution. After the return of Durruti from Madrid to the Aragon Front, a regional conference of delegates from the villages and anarcho-syndicalist columns was held on October 6 1936 in Bujaraloz. At this conference a Council for the Defense of Aragaon was formed, composed exclusively of anarchists. It was empowered to coordinate all activities in the military, economic, and social spheres. The Council was made up of sections assigned to various fields of activity and thus it resembled a governmental organ. However the originators of this organ envisaged federalist rather than hierarchical mutual relations between it and the grassroots general assemblies: “The sections will develop a plan which will be presented to the representatives of the organizations and requires their consent. But once approved, it will become generally obligatory and will be carried out in all its aspects.” In citing this document A. Paz notes: “For the first time in the history of society, an entire region initiated revolutionary activity independently of any political parties, having as its exclusive basis the General Assembly, which was declared sovereign. In actual fact, the organization of society which was developed in Aragon is about as close as you can get to libertarian communism.”

The central and Catalan governments did not recognize the Aragonese Councils.2 With the help of Durruti and the soldiers of his column, federations of self-managed villager collectives began to form in the region, which finally took shape at a congress in Caspe in February 1937.

But while the Revolution was in the ascendant in Aragon, in other parts of the Republic its development was slowing down. State power intensified its efforts to control revolutionary spontaneity, and the leadership of the CNT did nothing to prevent this from happening.

On October 9 the Catalan government issued a decree about the dissolution of all local committees and various administrative, cultural, and other organs created after July 20 1936. In their place, the Generalitat instituted new communal councils, the members of which were not elected, but delegated by the movements and parties which were taking part in the regional government. Failure to observe this decree was equated with treason with regard to the State. However in practice many revolutionary committees ignored the decree and were unwilling to give up their power to the new organs. A “dual power” system persisted for several months at the local level, until the revolutionary organs gave up, mainly because of constant pressure from the CNT which appealed to its own members to observe the government decree.

The central government of Largo Caballero issued a whole series of decrees which stipulated the restoration of military discipline, a command hierarchy, codes of punishment for their violation, and also aimed at assimilating the militias into the regular army. On September 30 a decree was issued according to which on October 10 militia detachments of the Central Front were to be converted to regular military units; the conversion was to take place on October 20 on the remaining fronts. On October 21 the government published a decree about the creation of a regular army. The government’s decision ignited a storm of indignation in the anarcho-syndicalist columns and militias. “If we deprive the war of all its revolutionary content, its ideas of social transformation..., then there is nothing left except a war for independence [of Spain], which ... is no longer ... a revolutionary war for a new society,” was stated in a declaration of internationalist soldiers of the anarchist “Ascaso” column.

The CNT militias in central Spain accused the government of trying to fetter the proletariat with “new chains,” and described the restoration of the army as a “typical tactic of authoritarianism” and the entrenchment of militarism as “an integral part of fascism.” They called the restoration of the army “a return to the past” and threatened the working class would not stand for the loss of that for which it had shed its blood. Durruti himself made it clear in an interview he had no objection to bolstering conscious discipline nor instituting a unified command (referring to the ongoing opposition of the communist columns to attempts at unification), but at the same time he did not intend to observe any military ranks, salutes, drills, or code of punishment. He continued to insist that in a revolutionary war, volunteer corps, made up of people who understood what they were fighting for, were extremely effective. In September – October 1936 soldiers of the anarchist “Iron Column” took part in sensational incidents in Valencia. They withdrew from the Front and made their way to the rear areas, where they demanded the break up and disarming of the State’s reserve formations and the dispatch of their members to the Front. Meanwhile the CNT leadership confirmed its commitment to militias in principle, but tried to get its fighters to comply with the government decision.

The Republican authorities began to ratchet up the pressure on self-management in industry and in the rural economy. The government of Largo Caballero ordered the nationalization of the war industry, placing it under control of the State bureaucracy. She The anarcho-syndicalist Fabregas, becoming minister of the economy in the Generalitat, on October 2 appealed to the workers to refrain from further expropriations of enterprises; his appeal was not heeded, at least in the beginning. However on October 24 in Catalonia a decree was approved which, on the one hand, legalized industrial collectivizations but, on the other hand, exempted small businesses with hired labour and a portion of medium sized businesses. The decree introduced the position of director (elected by the workers’ committee, it’s true) as well as State control over self-managed enterprises, especially in large-scale industry. Here a compromise with the State had already been effected through the direct participation of the leadership of the CNT, which was pursuing a policy of “legalizing the Revolution.” As far as the rural economy was concerned, a decree of October 7 1936, signed by the communist Uribe, minister of agriculture in the Largo Caballero government, recognized as legal only the confiscation of land belonging to estate owners who were considered mutineers. Thus many agrarian collectives which had seized large estates now found themselves outside the law.

In October 1936 H. Prieto, the General Secretary of the CNT, carried on negotiations about the entry of the union federation into the Republican government. He demanded six positions for the CNT, but Largo Caballero would agree to allocate only four to the anarcho-syndicalists. As a precursor to the agreement, on October 25 1936 a pact was signed about unity of action between the Catalan regional organizations of the CNT and the UGT, and also between the FAI and the pro-Soviet Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC). This pact stipulated that the collectivization of the economy must be directed and coordinated by the Generalitat. It also specified the municipalization of housing, the introduction of a unified military command, compulsory mobilization into the militias (with the intention of transforming them subsequently into a “people’s army”), the introduction of workers’ control, the nationalization of banks, and the establishment of State control over banking operations. There was special emphasis on the necessity of struggle with “undisciplined groups,” i.e. with independent initiatives from below.

In order to put pressure on the government of Largo Caballero, the leaders of the CNT had recourse to threats.

On October 23 1936 a plenum of the regional CNT federations of Central Spain, Valencia, Aragon, Catalonia, and Andalusia discussed the National Committee’s report about confronting the government “concerning our participation in the leadership of the struggle against fascism and in the structure of the political-economic life of the Revolution.”

The resolution adopted reflected the inconsistency and vacillation of the anarcho-syndicalist activists: for them it was not a matter about the “cost” of taking power (as it was, probably, for H. Prieto himself and a number of the other “leaders”), but rather was about an attempt to alter the correlation of forces in their favour. The resolution represented essentially an ultimatum to the government of the Republic.

The plenum decided to create a commission of representatives of the regional organizations of Valencia, Central Spain, and Catalonia to engage in talks with President M. _____, “in order to explain to the crisis-ridden government the necessity ... of having the CNT join it ... under the conditions approved by the plenum of regional organizations of September 15.” The commission was instructed to wait up to 48 hours for an answer. In the case of a negative response, the CNT threatened to undertake “measures of a military character, in order to secure communication between Madrid, Valencia, Aragon, Andalusia, and Catalonia and to control the passage of people and supplies from these regions to Madrid.” To carry out this decision the National Committee was to appoint a National War Council to unify the fronts in Catalonia, Aragon, the Levant, and Andalusia. The CNT, together with the regional committees, proposed to mobilize 100,000 of its members for this Council. The confederation intended “to organize together with all our regional forces an action which would allow us to obtain control over the economy and the coordination of reserves.” At the same time, it was decided “to consult with diplomatic representatives of Russia, in the event this is necessary to achieve the carrying out of the decisions adopted at this plenum.”

The threats of the CNT were a bluff, as Largo Caballero understood perfectly, not to mention the USSR which was supporting his plans. As Abad de Santillan later acknowledged, in an article published in the newspaper Tierra y Libertad, at this time he was already convinced of the necessity of a “disciplined army” for the struggle with fascism and a “transitional State.”

In the final account, an agreement was reached according to which the CNT received four positions in the government with the proviso that it could appoint its own candidates. Their selection was made behind closed doors by H. Prieto himself, without even informing the National Committee. Juan López and Juan Peiró, representatives of the moderate wing of the CNT, were simply told over the phone by Prieto that they were appointed ministers of trade and industry, respectively. The FAI members Montseny and García Oliver had to be persuaded, and for this purpose Prieto travelled to Barcelona. Montseny at first refused to take up a ministerial post, however Prieto and the secretary of the Catalan regional organization of the CNT, Mariano Vasquez, insisted.

Then she asked for 24 hours to think it over and sought the advice of her father – the old anarchist Federico Urales. He told her that this meant “the liquidation of anarchism and the CNT,” but that if the organization demanded it, then, taking account of the circumstances, it was necessary to agree.

When the discussion with Prieto was taken up again, the General Secretary reminded her about her responsibility to the organization, and Montseny gave her consent although, in her own words, it was painful for her to take this step which represented “a break with the whole course of her life.” García Oliver also did not immediately agree to join the government. Up to now he had been considered one of the radicals. He was more swayed by tactical considerations: he did not wish to leave Barcelona where he was playing a key role in organizing the war effort. But in the end he gave in and agreed, although he insisted on the responsibility of the National Committee of the CNT for his action. Although subsequently García Oliver maintained he had only obeyed the decision of his organization, in reality from this moment on he became a fervent partisan of collaboration with political parties and tendencies.

Returning to Madrid, Prieto settled the last details with Largo Caballero. On November 4 1936 rank-and-file members of the CNT and FAI were amazed to learn from the newspapers of the appearance in the Largo Caballero government of four new members from their organizations: minister of justice García Oliver, minister of industry J. Peiró, minister of trade López Sánchez, and minister of public health Montseny. The CNT leadership assured the members of the organization that these ministers would be expressing not their own personal views, but the positions of their organization, the “collective will of the majority of the united toiling masses, previously formulated at general assemblies.”3
This line of argument was in stark contradiction to the antistatist ideals of anarchism, which always considered the State as an instrument of oppression and class rule. In an article it was maintained that “circumstances had altered the essence of the government and the Spanish State”: “The government in the current situation has ceased to be the main instrument of State rule, a force of oppression directed against the working class; just as the State is no longer an organ which divides society into classes. And both the government and the State, now that the CNT has entered into them, are still farther from oppressing the people.” That last thought was entirely compatible with the thesis of supporters of state socialism according to which that it was “merely” necessary to place the State at the service “of the people as a whole” by staffing it with the representatives of the people themselves. “The CNT’s entry into the central government,” announced the article, “is one of the most important events in the political history of our country.” Now “the functions of the State, with the concurrence of workers’ organizations, will be restricted to directing the course of the economic and social life of the country. And the government will only have the task of conducting the war properly and coordinating revolutionary work according to a common plan.” In a manifesto of the CNT National Committee, it was explained that consent to join the government was given in view of “the delicate situation of our military fronts.” The confederation was striving for “the triumph of the Iberian proletarian revolution,” “has never renounced and will never renounce its own tenets,” and remained apolitical; but in view of the serious situation was compelled “to demand a position of responsibility in the government.” The same tone was maintained in a manifesto of the CNT organization of the Central region: “The CNT in no way is renouncing its own program and its own principles. It agreed to enter the government only and exclusively in order to win the war.”

On the day the CNT joined the government, Durruti made an address on the radio. Its text has not been preserved and the versions published in the press, according to the testimony of some witnesses, were subjected to heavy censorship and distorted. Marcos Alcon recalled that Durruti “made them [the responsible figures of the CNT and FAI] tremble with fear, declaring to them in an extraordinarily harsh way that they had not succeeded in stifling the Revolution under the pretext of their insipid antifascism...” . This was the last speech by the leader of the anarchist radicals. Madrid was on the point of being captured by fascist troops, and the Republican government abandoned the city in a panic on November 6. Giving in to numerous entreaties, Durruti’s column went to the aid of besieged Madrid and, in stubborn battles, helped to save it from falling. However Durruti himself was killed on November 19 1936 under mysterious circumstances. The opponents of concessions and governmental collaboration lost their most outstanding, iconic, and popular with the anarcho-syndicalist masses figure.

  • 1. Details of these negotiations about the purchase of weapons are recounted in the report of the General Secretary to the IWA Congress of 1937, which is preserved in the archives of the International in the International Institute of Social History. See: IISG: IWMA Archive: Nr. 21, Extraordinary Congress, Paris, 1937, Rapport moral par P. Besnard, membre du Secretariat.
  • 2. The Council of Defense for Aragon received official recognition by the central authorities at the end of December 1936 after the anarchists agreed to include representatives of other tendencies in its make-up.
  • 3. V. Richards, op. cit., p. 69 (n219). It must be acknowledged that the members of the government from the CNT – FAI were able to carry out a number of transformations. Thus, on the initiative of F. Montseny, a free medical service was introduced throughout the whole Republican zone, new medical clinics were built, abortions were legalized, etc. Garcia Oliver achieved the legalization of “free” marriages, softened the regimen for prisons and concentration camps, etc. (For details, see: A. V. Shubin, Анархо-синдакалисты в испанской гражданской войне 1936-1939 гг. [Anarcho-syndicalists in the Spanish civil war 1936-1939], (Moscow, 1997), pp. 17-18. Nevertheless, these measures had no connection with the anarcho-syndicalists’ own program and did not correspond to their “identity.”

Chapter 13: The CNT in Government - Results and Lessons

The representatives of the CNT remained in the government until May 1937. The result of this “passage into power” turned out to be catastrophic for Spanish anarchosyndicalism. Its ministers were able neither to bring about an improvement in the military situation, nor stop the assault on the revolutionary conquests. Montseny publicly acknowledged the failure of participation in the government, and López stressed the impossibility of any kind of achievement in a situation where the other economic posts were in the hands of communists and right-wing socialists. The syndicalists were not able to obtain labour union control over “the monopoly of foreign trade” nor the adoption of their proposed drafts of decrees about collectivization in industry and financial assistance to collectives. A government decree of February 22 1937 envisaged the possibility of State control and ownership in industry.

Moreover, the activities of the “comrade-ministers,” as the CNT-FAI members of the government were known in libertarian circles, not only represented a break with the fundamental principles and traditions of the movement, but also caused trouble for the anarchists. Thus, the judicial reforms of García Oliver included not only the awarding of equal rights to women and the abrogation of punishment for crimes committed before July 19 1936, but also eliminated such “libertarian” projects as the organization of “labour camps” for criminals. Some of the decrees he came up with (for example, prison terms of up to 20 years for hiding weapons or explosives) were used against the anarchists themselves in Barcelona after May 1937.

Under the cover of “sharing responsibilities” with the CNT and FAI, the Spanish and Catalan republican authorities were able, during the period when the labour federations were represented in the government, to proceed to carry out counterrevolutionary measures such as liquidation of the popular militias and their complete replacement by the regular army (January 29 1937) – which, as the subsequent course of the war proved, was much less battle-worthy; the dissolution of revolutionary committees and local councils through the whole country, replacing them with appointed organs (January 4 1937);1 and the elimination of workers’ detachments for the maintenance of order in Catalonia (in favour of “disciplined patrols”) (March 1937). The basic problem for the authorities in this period was the disarming of the workers. Efforts to relieve anarcho-syndicalist workers’ organizations of frontier control in April 1937 led to fierce fighting in the Catalan border zone with France. Attacks by communists, right-wing socialists, and republicans on collectivization in the economy became more frequent; violent conflicts erupted between the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture and the workers’ collectives of the orange tree plantations of Valencia, created by the CNT and UGT; between the Catalan Ministry of Food Rationing and the Barcelona union of the CNT which was trying to socialize distribution; etc.

Finally in May 1937 a crisis, provoked by a police attack on the Barcelona telephone exchange (under workers’ control), set off a mass uprising of the city’s anarcho-syndicalist workers: the basic units of self-organization of the workers, just as in July 1936, were the block committees of defense. The anarcho-syndicalist masses succeeded in taking control of a large part of the city and the real possibility arose that the social revolution could become more profound. However the leadership of the CNT and FAI, fearing the collapse of “antifascist unity,” convinced the workers to abandon the barricades. After this the “republican counterrevolution” went on the counterattack: Largo Caballero – the supporter of compromise – was dismissed from the post of Premier, the representatives of the CNT and FAI were removed from their posts in the central and Catalan governments, the Council of Defense of Aragon was dissolved by a government decree in August 1937, and republican troops under the command of a member of the Communist Party, Enrique Lister, destroyed a large part of the rural communes of the region. In the course of the second half of 1937-1938, the government of Juan Negrín approved a number of decrees which dissolved unregistered agrarian collectives, placed the remaining ones under State control, and also (under the pretext of wartime necessity) gradually reduced the sphere of workers’ self-management in industry – to the point where a large part of industry was either nationalized or militarized. Thousands of anarcho-syndicalists were arrested as “undisciplined elements.” The leaders of the CNT and FAI offered virtually no resistance to this assault on the workers’ movement, continuing to proclaim the necessity of “first of all, winning the war with fascism.” But discord was growing in the leadership of these organizations. By and large, while the majority of the leading figures of the Peninsular Committee of the FAI continued to affirm they had not retreated one step from traditional anarcho-syndicalist ideas and would revert to their implementation after the victorious end of the war, at the same time people around the National Committee of the CNT, starting with the general secretary Vasquez and the éminence gris H. Prieto, increased their efforts to review a number of fundamental conceptions of anarcho-syndicalism from the social-democratic perspective of “workers’ democracy” with a “mixed economy.” They favoured the transformation of the FAI into a political party, controlling the CNT. In spite of internal disputes about the scale and extent of concessions to the political authorities, the leading circles of the movement until the end of the Civil War remained hostages to the notions of “antifascist unity” and “the lesser evil.” In April 1938 the CNT again occupied a second tier government post – the Ministry of Education and Public Health.

The whole tactic of “postponing” or “restraining” the social revolution for the sake of victory in the Civil War between the bourgeois-republican and fascist camps turned out to be unfavourable even for the outcome of the war itself.

Events showed it was impossible to win by fighting a normal or even “antifascist” war, by means of a regular army and a militarized State, following all the rules of military expertise.

Only the Spanish workers could defeat Francoism, workers who were full of hope in July 1936 and had, as Durruti said, “a new world in our hearts” while defending their revolutionary conquests. “We knew,” acknowledged D. Abad de Santillan after the defeat, “that our cause could not triumph without winning the war. We sacrificed the Revolution, not understanding that this sacrifice entailed renouncing the real goals of the war.” With nothing to fight for, the masses had already lost their revolutionary enthusiasm. It’s no accident that by the beginning of 1939 desertion from the republican army had reach massive proportions, and there were even cases of fraternization between soldiers of the republican and Francoist troops.

  • 1. In connection with the re-constitution of local organs of power in Aragon, the agrarian collectives of the region passed a resolution at their conference in February 1937 that these organs must not interfere in the economy of the Federation of collectives.

Chapter 14: Notwithstanding “Circumstances”

Many researchers who belong to the Marxist tendency have attempted to lay all the blame for the defeat of the Spanish Revolution on the anarcho-syndicalist movement, maintaining that the governmental collaboration of leaders of the CNT and FAI was a consequence of anarchist ideology which rejects the taking of political power by the workers.1 However such a viewpoint is untenable. First of all, anarchist conceptions not only repudiate the creation of new, “proletarian” political authorities, but also envisage the liquidation of the old – a process which the leaders of the CNT acted to prevent. In any event, they acted in the way they did not “because of ” libertarian theory, but in spite of it.

Besides, it is incorrect to assert that the anarcho-syndicalist masses of Spain refused to carry out the social revolution only because their “leaders” called on them to put an end to the revolutionary process. The facts show that the hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file members of the CNT and FAI, who played an outstanding role in the organization of workers’ and peasants’ self-management, “did not consider themselves constrained by political maneuvering,” but took action independently at the level of the enterprise, the syndicate, or the commune without waiting for any orders or appeals. Namely, this autonomous creativity “from below” did not depend on the “leaders” and often took place in spite of them, thereby proving the power of the anarchist “ideé-force.”

Although anarcho-syndicalism was, first and foremost, an urban rather than a rural movement, the Revolution in the Spanish village on the whole went further than in the cities, where government pressure and concessions were more effective. Here the associations which were created (collectives) embraced not only the realm of production, but other spheres of life as well. Members of the collectives voluntarily combined their own land with the land seized from the estate owners and often pooled their own financial resources. Each family preserved a small garden exclusively for their own needs. The rights of those who wished to continue to work their land on an individual basis were usually respected, so long as they promised to do so only with their own efforts, without using hired labour. It’s difficult to exclude the possibility of moral pressure on “individuals” by fellow-villagers, but cases of direct physical compulsion were virtually unknown in the saga of Spanish “collectivization.”

The collectives often included all the inhabitants of a village or at least the overwhelming majority of them. In many collectives “family allowances” were introduced.

Monetary wealth was expropriated by revolutionary committees and deposited in banks. Some places issued their own money or coupons. Committees took over distribution, and prices were established collectively and controlled. Collective warehouses and stores were organized; frequently they were accommodated in former churches.

Social transformations were uncoordinated and took various forms. Often this was connected with peculiarities of the structure of land ownership. If in Aragon 80% of cultivated land belonged to large landowners, then in the Levant (Valencia region) and Catalonia small land-holdings predominated. And although there were a good many anarchists among these small owners, who also began to create collectives, there were greater obstacles in their path in the Levant and Catalonia. In these regions only the lands of the large estate owners were confiscated. But war-induced food shortages prompted the setting up of communal councils to take measures to limit private trade and to promote socialization.

This was followed by the creation of complete collectives, although these did not enjoy as much support from the local population as the Aragon collectives. Some of these collectives were very large and prosperous, but in the majority of them monetary relations were still retained.

In Aragon around 400 to 500 agricultural collectives were formed, in the regions of Valencia – 900, in Castile – 300, in Catalonia – 40, and in Estremadura – 30 collectives.

In Aragon at the end of 1936 and the beginning of 1937 between 300,000 and 400,000 people lived in agrarian collectives belonging to the Federation (until its destruction by republican troops, and then – also by the triumphant Francoists). Here to the maximum extent an anarchist social structure was put into effect – “without proprietors, casiques [local bosses], priests, and exploiters.”

The Aragonese collectives included up to 70% of the population of the region; approximately 60% of cultivated land was at their disposal. In February 1937 a congress of collectives in Caspe officially confirmed that persons who wished to farm individually, without joining a group and without using hired labour, had the right to do so, as long as they did not benefit from services provided by the collectives. Such individuals could only retain as much land as they could cultivate by their own efforts.

Handicraft workshops and other types of local industry in the Aragonese villages, as well as shops and institutions of education and culture, were also socialized. In these villages there were strong, ancient, communal traditions, and their preservation made it easier to bring people together in free territorial and economic communities, appropriate for an anarcho-communist society.

Inside the collectives there was an absence of any kind of hierarchy and all members possessed equal rights. The main decision-making body was the regular general meeting of the members, which convened usually once a month. For the on-going coordination of communal and economic life, committees were elected, often based on the former revolutionary committees. Their members – generally delegates from the various sections – did not enjoy any special privileges and did not receive any special reward for this work. All of them, except secretaries and bookkeepers, had to continue their normal work activity. Each adult member of the collective (with the exception of pregnant women) worked. Labour was organized on the basis of self-management. Brigades, composed of from five to ten people, made decisions about all basic work-related questions at meetings held every evening.

Delegates elected at these meetings also carried out functions of coordination and exchange of information with other brigades. In many collectives the principle of rotation of jobs was put into practice, and workers moved from one section to another according to the requirements of the moment. Industrial enterprises were included in the communal structure, which facilitated the integration of industry and the rural economy. Collectives were joined together through regional federations.

The circulation of currency was gradually liquidated. In the first weeks after their creation, many collectives abolished the remuneration of labour and introduced unlimited free consumption of all goods from the common stores. But under conditions of war and shortages, this turned out not to be an easy matter, especially since currency still circulated outside the collectives. In September 1936 the majority of communes converted to the so-called “family allowance” system. Each family in the collective received an equal sum of money (depending on the collective, this was approximately 7 – 10 pesetas for the head of the family, 50% more for his wife, and 15% more for each additional member of the family). These allowances were intended only for the purchase of food and objects of consumption and were not to be put into savings. In many communes coupons were introduced in place of the national currency. In others there were cards or tokens. Under war conditions, certain types of food products were rationed almost everywhere, while others (wine, butter, etc.) were available in virtually unlimited supply in many places. Until a final decision about abolishing money “in a third of the 510 villages and towns adopting collectivization in Aragon, money was abolished and goods were available free of charge from the collective’s store upon presentation of a consumer’s booklet,” and “in two thirds a replacement currency was put to use: bonds, coupons, tokens, etc. which were valid only within the confines of the communes issuing them.”

The first occasion in the activity of individual communes in which a certain parochial tendency displayed itself had to do with the initial inequality of collectives: some of them started off being more prosperous, others poorer. As confirmed by an eye-witness – the German syndicalist Souchy – in the beginning some collectives opposed the idea of economic planning under the slogan of “self-sufficiency.”

The complete independence of collectives from one another, and differences in the distribution systems of the communes, made it difficult to coordinate their economic activity. The anarchists – proponents of intensifying the social revolution – applied themselves to solving this problem, including Durruti, who personally campaigned for “collectives.” In February 1937 in the town of Caspe a congress of the Aragon collectives was held with the participation of hundreds of delegates. The participants agreed to step up propaganda on behalf of “collectivization,” to create experimental farms and technical schools, and to organize mutual aid between collectives so that machines and labour power could be shared. The boundaries between settlements were eliminated and limits on communal ownership were also abolished. The federated collectives decided to coordinate exchanges with the external world, creating for this purpose a common stock of products intended for exchange rather than the internal consumption of the communes, and also started the gathering of statistics about possible exchange products. Finally, it was proposed to completely do away with any form of money circulation inside the collectives and their federation and the introduction of a universal consumer booklet (normally upon the presentation of this booklet, items of consumption were given out free of charge). These booklets were to help to establish the real requirements of each of the inhabitants of the region, in order that production could be geared to the concrete needs of people, thereby moving to the anarchocommunist practice of “planning from below.”

The activity of the Aragonese collectives was very successful. Even according to official data, the harvest in the region in 1937 grew by 20% at a time when there was a decrease in many other areas of the country. In Aragon roads, schools, hospitals, farms, and cultural institutions were built – in many settlements for the first time; the mechanization of labour was also applied. The inhabitants received access to medical services and free, anti-authoritarian education (physicians and teachers became full-fledged members of the collectives). Many collectives did not pay taxes. They preferred to support the Front directly and voluntarily.

Social transformations in the Spanish cities took place in a more uncoordinated fashion. On the one hand, the majority of industrial enterprises were occupied by the workers and passed under their control. On the other hand, the transition from the expropriation of enterprises by unions and collectives to full-scale socialization of industry did not take place, since commodity-money relations had not been done away with and money remained in the hands of the capitalists and the State. According to the eye-witness Gaston Leval, “very often workers in Barcelona and Valencia took over the factory, the workshop, the machines, and the raw materials and, taking advantage of the preservation of the monetary system and normal capitalist commercial relations, they organized production on their own account, selling the products of their labour for their own benefit.”

The pressure to compromise with the government did not allow the workers “to do more, and this distorted everything right from the start. This was ... not real socialization, but a workers’ neo-capitalism, a self-management vacillating between capitalism and socialism, which would not have happened – it should be emphasized – if the Revolution could have been carried out to completion under the direction of our Syndicates.” “We did not organize the economic body which did the planning. We were satisfied to chase the owners out of the factories and set up committees for control. We did not undertake any attempt to establish links between ourselves or coordinate the economy in a practical way. We worked without any plan, really not knowing what we were doing,” admitted Abad de Santillan, who dealt with economic questions in the CNT.

The socialization of distribution was not implemented in the cities, which soon had repercussions. In Barcelona, after the formation of the Catalan Central Committee of Militias, a Central Committee for Food Supply was created which included representatives of various political forces. It organized the supply of provisions for the Front and for hospitals, opened stores, and maintained a network of “people’s cafeterias.” But the system of private commerce was retained and towards the end of the year in Barcelona there such phenomena appeared as a shortage of food items, a speculative rise in prices, and other abuses. Already in December 1936 one syndicate of workers of the distribution sector of the CNT called on the workers of stores and shops to fight against speculation, by keeping a close watch on the owners to make sure they were not selling goods “to the wrong customers,” and also by not allowing arbitrary increases in prices.

Workers continued to receive wages. In a number of cases it was possible to inaugurate the so-called “family allowance,” namely equal pay for each worker with supplements for the members of his family (for example, in Barcelona). But more often matters were limited to reducing gaps in the scale of wages and a significant increase in the rates for the lowest-paid categories.

Nevertheless, in a number of places and branches of industry, syndicalization moved beyond the level of individual enterprises and spread to whole sectors. So-called “groups” of enterprises began to operate in a coordinated way like a single enterprise (in this manner were organized, for example, all the branches of industry in Alcoy; the supply of gas, water, and electricity in Catalonia; the streetcars in Barcelona; in various places – transport and public health facilities).

The anarcho-syndicalist unions strived to continue and deepen the revolutionary transformations, in spite of the war situation and the concessions of the “leaders.” Thus, one syndicate of the woodworking sector stressed that anarchists from the very beginning could realize their own will: “to replace the regime which died on July 19 with another which is more humane and equal – libertarian communism.” In Barcelona and in Catalonia “this transformation has begun.”

However “other organizations exploited the enthusiasm of the members of the CNT and FAI” to divert the “popular trend” in the direction of new defeats. As a result, “instead of proceeding to genuine expropriation, which would have satisfied the widespread desires of the people, the owners were forced to pay wages on a weekly basis and the daily pay increased but the hourly pay decreased – and this at the height of the war!” In enterprises which had already been confiscated, a large number of “parasitical bureaucrats” and control committees made their appearance – which were not involved in production as such. Moreover the collectives which sprang up in industry found themselves in an unequal situation. They tended to resemble co-operatives, trying to compete at their own risk, which gave rise to “two classes: the new rich and ever-present poor.”

The anarcho-syndicalists hoped to wrest economic activity from under the control of the estate. They were convinced “the petty bourgeoisie, represented in the government and similar official bodies,” bureaucrats, functionaries, and “useless agents and middlemen” were incapable of ensuring the normal operation and development of the economy. The unions and their organizations had an obligation “to control the whole of production and manage it.” As, for example, one of the syndicates of the woodworking sector explained, the anarcho-syndicalists recognized the Generalitat’s decree about collectivization, but in practice tried to impute to it a different orientation. “We agreed with the collectivization of all branches of industry, but with a single financial centre, switching to an egalitarian distribution system. We did not agree that some collectives should be rich and others poor... .”

The syndicates and federations of the CNT actively discussed plans for socialization of the economy. The federation which included the unions of workers of water, gas, and electrical utilities worked out a plan for collectivizing the supply of electrical power. Representatives of the textile federations of the CNT and the UGT, holding a joint meeting, resolved “to go over to full collectivization of the textile sector in Catalonia” and approved a system of self- management for it. The participants of a local plenum of syndicates of the CNT in Barcelona declared the necessity of “implementing the socialization of branches of industry on a nation-wide scale.” They proposed a scheme of organizing self-management at all levels, including councils for factories, sections, and branches as well as an overall Economic Council. Each section of an industrial branch would have to make a complete and detailed study of the situation in its branch and provide the Economic Council with a plan for socialization with a precise data on current capacity and productivity, number of workers, raw materials on hand, markets for sales, and possibilities for economic development. On January 1 1937 a national congress of the transport industry discussed the question of nationalization or socialization of its sector.

In the Levant the regional federation of peasants and the united syndicate of workers in the fruit export business issued an appeal to the peasants growing oranges and other fruits, which constituted one of the basic sources of foreign currency. The existing state of affairs, in which each population centre or syndicate engaged independently in the export business and disposed of the monies earned, and which resulted in rivalries, was termed “unfortunate.”

The syndicates called for the creation of a “central organ” with a common reserve of products and a mutual aid fund, controlled by the peasants themselves. Subsequently the peasant federations of the Levant succeeded in unifying about one half of the production of oranges; up to 70% of the harvest was routed through its trade organization to the European markets. [281]

In February 1937 a congress of the Catalan CNT approved a plan for re-structuring the industrial syndicates, which would embrace and control the whole cycle of production – from the cultivation of crops or extraction of raw materials to the distribution of the finished products. In Catalonia an economic survey of local syndicates and associations was organized. In this way information was gathered to serve for the creation of “revolutionary economics” with a system of “planning from below.” These statistics included, specifically, data about the geographical location and climate, traditions of the social-revolutionary movement, the economic situation and economic links of the locality, the housing situation, possibilities for the future, etc.

The gradual reversal of the Revolution from 1937 on did not allow plans for wide-scale socialization to be implemented. Under wartime conditions, the government was always more oriented to establishing State control over economic activity or even direct nationalization of industries, especially industries producing essential military goods. Correspondingly, the notion spread among some of the activists of forming a separate syndicalist managerial sector, run by the CNT, with autonomous structures of coordination and planning, to provide overall direction for the industrial federations and economic councils, with its own bank, etc. This concept was approved at the National Economic Congress of the CNT in Valencia in January 1938. In spite of all its suspended and incomplete projects, the significance of the social transformations brought about by the anarcho-syndicalist workers of Spain can scarcely be overestimated. These transformations have no equal in history on such a scale. Anarcho-syndicalism put into practice much of what had been “envisaged at all its congresses: workers’ control of factory and field, the planned development of production, equality in economic relations and in the possibility of adopting constructive decisions... All this took place outside the framework of the Republican government...”

In Aragon especially the possibility of implementing libertarian communism was demonstrated in principle.

The retreat of the leaders of the CNT and the FAI from the idea of “total revolution” and their concessions to the governments and parties of the Popular Front provoked bitter resistance and direct insubordination among the rank-and-file anarcho-syndicalists. Information about such happenings are fragmentary, and systematic investigations of organized opposition in the CNT, FAI, and Federation of Libertarian Youth do not exist up to this time. Therefore it is very difficult to gauge the real scale of opposition. Briefly summarizing the scattered information available, it is possible to distinguish three basic forms of such resistance. In the first place, this was resistance on the part of the lowest level unions of the CNT to the politics of nationalization (statification) of economic and social life, and a defense of gains in the area of workers’ self-management. Clashes between the republican authorities, on the one hand, and the unions and “collectives” on the other, were constantly flaring up. At the beginning of 1937 the Minister of Agriculture of Catalonia opposed plans for the socialization of distribution as proposed by the CNT syndicates in Barcelona. A sharp crisis was provoked by the efforts of the government to take over control of the economic activity of the workerp easant collectives of the orange plantations of the Valencia region. The Minister of Commerce Juan López, a member of the CNT, in support of the Minister of Agriculture – the communist Uribe, issued a decree at the beginning of 1937 about government control over the exports of agricultural collectives. However, a number of Valencian co-operatives refused to recognize his decree. The government sent military-police units with artillery and tanks against the strategic villages of Tulluera and Alfara, but the peasants, armed with hunting rifles and two old cannons, offered stubborn resistance. They were supported by the inhabitants of the neighbouring districts of Jativa, Carcagente, Gandia, and Sueca, forming the “Gandia Front.” The peasants of the villages of Catarroja, Liria, Moncada. Paterna, and Burriana formed the “Vilanesa Front.” To the aid of the collectives rush two battalions of the libertarian “Iron Column” and two battalions of the CNT columns, vacating the Teruel – Segorbe sector of the Front. Fighting in the region of Cullera continued for four days, after which the government forces attempted a flanking manoeuvre. After the intervention of the CNT an agreement was reached for a cease-fire and the mutual release of prisoners. The collectives of the Levant retained control over the production and export of oranges. Information exists about the strike launched by the union of workers in the entertainment industry of Barcelona early in 1938 (despite pressure from the leadership of the CNTFAI), in opposition to the introduction of State control of their sector. In the same category it is possible to include the protests of soldiers of the anarchist militias against their militarization and absorption into the regular army. As a result of the resultant crisis, the Catalan Regional Committee of the CNT was compelled to consent to allowing soldiers unwilling to submit to army orders to quit the Front. In the second place, a whole series of anarcho-syndicalist publications appeared which openly and quite severely criticized the “collaborationist” and “concessionist” course of the CNT and FAI committees. These publications denounced the winding down of the Revolution on the pretext of “antifascist unity” and collaboration with the government. The most important of these was the newspaper Ideas, which started coming out on December 29 1936. It was published by the local organizations of the CNT and FAI of Bajo Llobregat, and its editor was Liberto Calejas, formerly director of the Catalan CNT’s organ Solidaridad Obrera, but forced to vacate this post because of disagreements with the progovernment policies of the leadership of the CNT and FAI. Ideas became the centre of attraction of the whole revolutionary opposition inside the anarcho-syndicalist movement.

Among the writers who contributed blistering critiques were such well known anarchists as José Alberola, Felipe Alaiz, José Peirats, Severino Campos, Floreal Ocaña, Francisco Carreño, Jaime Balius, etc. Among the other oppositional anarchist publications it is possible to name Acracia in Lerida (editor – Peirats), Ciudad i Campo in Tortosa, Nosotros in Valencia; and also the organs of the Catalan Libertarian Youth (FIJL) – Ruta and Esfuerzo; and the newspapers of the Friends of Durruti (La Noche, and after May 1937 – El Amigo del Pueblo). All these publications were read with interest by the rank-and-file activists of the anarcho-syndicalist movement and enjoyed their support.

Finally, there also existed opposition groups. Thus, in Valencia some sections of the FAI and Libertarian Youth were grouped around the publication Nosotros which took a strong position against participation in the government.

In the same place in December 1936 manifestos were frequently distributed signed by the Iconoclasta group. They contained harsh criticism of the persons representing the CNT in the government and other organs of the State. It is likely these manifestos received a favourable response from members of the CNT, since the National Committee of the CNT considered it necessary to react in a brusque manner, denouncing its “undisciplined and irresponsible” critics which “do not represent anyone.”

The most important of the regional federations of libertarian youth – the Libertarian Youth of Catalonia – openly took a position against participation in the government, turning away from anarchist ideas, giving in to “circumstances,” and the collaboration of the “leaders.” After taking an active part in the events of May 1937, Libertarian Youth passed over into open opposition, refusing to submit to the decisions of the leadership of the CNT and FAI and concluding an agreement with the youth organizations of the antifascist parties. In response the leaders of the anarcho-syndicalist movement threatened sanctions against the “undisciplined” organ of Libertarian Youth – the newspaper Ruta.

In the spring of 1937 a section of the anarcho-syndicalists, dissatisfied with policies of the committees of the CNT and FAI, along with former soldiers of the militias, created the “Friends of Durruti” group, which included as many as four or five thousand members. They condemned the refusal to proclaim libertarian communism, participation in the government, and collaboration with socialists, communists, and bourgeois republicans. The members of the group also criticized both “orthodox” and reformist notions of anarchism, and called for a further development of anarchist theory and tactics, which would be based on the following fundamental positions: “the free city” (commune), management of the economy by syndicates, creation of a revolutionary committee for the defense of the Revolution, and coordination of the activities of local committees of defense.

But the Friends of Durruti did not become a centre of attraction for other oppositional groups in the anarchist movement, which criticized them for having an inclination for authoritarian methods. These groups, active in the FAI and CNT (Ideas and The Incorrigibles from Baja Llobregat, Los Quijotes del Ideal in Barcelona, Acracia in Lerida, etc.), advocated a return to the traditional principles and ideals of anarcho-syndicalism, resisting plans to transform the organizations into a political party and attempts at unifying and centralizing the libertarian movement. Thus, at the end of 1937 the prominent anarchists Santana Calero, Severino Campos, and Peirats published a brochure on behalf of “the main oppositional current of the conscious part of the libertarian movement.” Accusing the “leaders” of betraying the “ideological principles of anarchism,” violating the “essence of anarchism” in the name of “the demands of circumstances,” and “poisoning the lungs and brain of the body of the CNT-FAI with their stinking abomination of a policy,” they called for deliverance from being “strangled by statification and centralization.”

Like the Friends of Durruti, the supporters of a return to orthodox anarcho-syndicalism did not envisage any field of action for themselves other than the mass libertarian organizations – the CNT and FAI. Working among rank-and-file activists, they tried to alter the official line of the movement by speaking out at plenums and conferences. At the national plenum of regional committees of the CNT, FAI, and FIJL in October 1938, the opponents of “collaboration” tried to give battle one last time to the policy of taking part in government. A delegate of the Catalan “Libertarian Youth” declared: “Trying to insinuate yourself inside the State in order to destroy it, is like sending your wife and sister to a brothel in order to liquidate prostitution,” and Xena, a representative of the Catalan FAI, stormed out of the meeting hall as a sign of protest against the stated possibility of participation of the Federation in politics. However the opposition did not succeed in getting the changes they sought. It remained fragmented and organizationally inchoate. As usual the activists were encumbered with their faith in “their own organization” and any sort of appeal to the masses outside of its framework seemed inconceivable. Moreover, in Spanish anarcho-syndicalism there was no experience of systematic, coordinated fractional struggle, which could have helped the oppositionists to remove the leadership of the CNT and FAI committees.

  • 1. One of the first to make this assertion was the Trotskyist writer F. Morrow in 1938. See: F. Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain (Atlanta, 1974).

Chapter 15: The Spanish Revolution and World Anarcho-syndicalism

The international anarcho-syndicalist movement in 1936- 1939 was torn between all out practical solidarity with the Spanish Revolution and criticism of the policies of the leading activists of the CNT. Besnard, the General Secretary of the IWA from 1936, visited revolutionary Spain three times in the autumn of that year and ultimately found a deep departure from the principles of anarcho-syndicalism which he associated with the regression of the Revolution.

He sharply criticized the entry into the government, collaboration with political parties, militarization, the refusal to allow the syndicates to take control of the economy, the refusal to criticize the Stalinist USSR, and the refusal to work on establishing libertarian communism. But at the same time, as shown by the plenums of the International in 1936 and 1937 as well as the Extraordinary Congress of 1937, the IWA did not possess any real possibility of exerting influence on the line being pursued by the CNT. The Secretariat of the International itself was split: its members Helmut Rüdiger and Nemesio Galve differed with P. Besnard and defended the “forced” tactics of the CNT. The anarchist workers’ organizations of Argentina and Uruguay (the FORA and FORU) denounced the Spanish CNT in very strong terms, viewing its policies as the logical result of the errors of revolutionary syndicalism. The French CGT-SR also condemned the CNT. These organizations called on the Spanish comrades to review their decisions and tactics and confirm their adherence to the principles of the IWA.

The “Francophone Anarchist Federation” (FAF), in which the Russian emigrant-anarchist Volin played a prominent role, declared its solidarity with the oppositional tendencies of the Spanish anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists which were struggling against the participation of the CNT in the government and the collaborationist line of its leadership. The FAF addressed itself to “the genuine CNT-FAI,” to those Spanish anarchists who condemned “spinelessness” and “ideological betrayal,” and declared that it considered “as inevitable a split in the ranks of the CNT and FAI themselves, as well as in the entire international anarchist movement.”

Before the Extraordinary Congress of the IWA in 1937 there were even discussions about expelling the CNT from the International.

But the leadership of the CNT was able to paralyze the waves of critics by referring to the “extraordinary circumstances” in which the Spanish Revolution found itself, to the weakness of the anarcho-syndicalist movement in other countries, and the absence elsewhere of revolutionary outbreaks.

It succeeded in obtaining the removal of Besnard from the post of General Secretary of the IWA. Moreover, the CNT leadership demanded changes in the declaration of principles and statutes of the IWA so as to exclude “obsolete” points and add provisions concerning the armed defense of the Revolution and “sweeping autonomy” for the sections, which would allow them to pursue whatever tactical line they considered necessary. The anarcho-syndicalist groups of German emigrants, led by Rüdiger, went even further in this direction. They called for a fundamental revision of the ideas and tactics of anarcho-syndicalism, for a review of the declaration of principles in order to have it register the possibility of collaboration with other antifascist forces, as well as taking an anti-imperialist stance and expressing support for revolutionary wars. Rüdiger spoke in favour of “elastic” tactics and a “clearer conception” which would include the necessity of political activities, “revolutionary” government, collaboration with statist and party organs, the creation of a disciplined “revolutionary army” and apparatus of repression, as well as retention of the bourgeoisie and safeguarding private property. However there was also no unity in the ranks of the critics of the CNT. The Swedish SAC condemned participation in government, but defended the policy of “antifascist co-operation” and also proposed to include in IWA documents a policy about the tactical autonomy of the sections. The French CGT-SR and Besnard sharply denounced “participation in democratic Capitalism,” collaboration with the State, with parties, and with armies, and the rejection of basic principles of anarcho-syndicalism.

But these critics could not offer any clear alternatives and agreed to a certain “modification of tactics,” and the inclusion in the declaration of principles of clauses about the possibility of revolutionary and anti-colonial wars. From another perspective, the Argentine and Uruguayan FORA and FORU took a resolute stance against changing the principles and tactics of the IWA, which were grounded in the struggle with the State and direct action, as well as the rejection of politics and collaboration with political forces. They called for the re-affirmation of opposition to all wars, since wars were inevitably tied to the struggle for power between different groups of capitalists, and for opposing war with revolution.

Finally, the Latin American anarchists made a clear statement that they saw no distinction in principle between fascism and non-class-based antifascism, i.e. the defense of democracy, since either one were “enemies of proletarian liberation.”

This ideological and tactical confusion impeded the work of the IWA and allowed the leaders of the Spanish CNT to obtain approval of their course of action from the international organization. Although the Extraordinary Congress in December 1937 turned down the proposal of the Spanish delegation about holding a meeting of “the three Internationals” and the creation of a permanent committee of representatives of all “three socialist schools” (anarchists, party communists, and social-democrats) for the struggle with fascism and imperialism, the participants adopted a resolution introduced by the CGT-SR which gave the right to the CNT to continue the “experiment” it had started “under its own responsibility.” An appeal to the international association of social-democratic unions (the Amsterdam International) was drafted, with a proposal to organize a global boycott of ships and goods from fascist countries. However the leaders of this International rejected this overture.

Finally, at the 6th Congress in 1938, in the absence of Latin American delegates and representatives of the French CGT-SR, the delegates of Spain, Sweden, and Portugal succeeded, despite the opposition of the Dutch delegates, in revising the charter of the IWA. These alterations envisaged, among other things, the “broad tactical autonomy” of sections and control of the syndicates over workers’ militias during revolutionary periods. The actions of the CGT-SR were officially condemned. The opinions of the FORA and FORU, expressed in written form in the absence of their delegates, were generally not taken into account.

The victory of the leaders of the CNT over their critics in the international arena could change nothing in the general situation and did not help to strengthen their position inside Spain. The war was lost. Early in 1939 the whole territory of the Spanish republic was under the control of the troops of the rebel generals. The bloody regime of terror was firmly established in the country, the CNT was annihilated, and hundreds of thousands of people were forced to flee across the border. Individual armed groups of anarcho-syndicalists continued partisan struggle in Spain until the beginning of the 1960’s.

In emigration, the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist movement found within itself the strength to give a self-critical evaluation of its experience of “participation in government” during the Civil War and to draw the appropriate lessons.

The intercontinental conference of the “Spanish Libertarian Movement (CNT – FAI – Federation of Libertarian Youth), held in April 1947 in Toulouse, considered the “consequences of collaboration in government” “catastrophic” and announced the return to traditional anarchist concepts about the necessity of liquidating State power and its replacement by universal self-management by the workers.