The Catalan CNT and the Asturias uprising

Asturian miners in the trenches in October 1934.

Article responding to criticisms of the anarchist CNT union in Catalonia during the Asturias uprising of 1934. In particular it looks at how the CNT was being repressed by Catalan authorities at the time.

The activities of the CNT in Spain have been a source of much discussion due to its size and influence. Being the only nation in Western Europe where anarchism remained the largest influence on the labour movement, both anarchists and non-anarchists have studied the organisation and discussed its successes and failures. Unfortunately, as part of this process those opposed to anarchism (particularly Marxists) have spread numerous myths regarding the movement and specific events (most obviously, the social revolution of 1936). So common-place are these myths in Marxist accounts of Spanish Anarchism, An Anarchist FAQ (AFAQ) has a dedicated appendix on the subject (part of a bigger appendix on replying to Marxist attacks on anarchism).

One of the most common myths which is not related to the heady days of July 1936 are to do with the Socialist Party organised uprising of October 1934 and the reaction of the Catalan CNT. While, as we will discuss, the revolt only reached revolutionary levels in Asturias and was a farce in the Socialist stronghold of Madrid, the Catalan CNT is often held as betraying the revolt by passivity or remaining aloof. This assertion is a common refrain of Marxists seeking to discredit anarchism, although some historians also make this claim. For example, Chris Ealham in Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937 (AK Press, 2010) makes the following summary of the revolt:

“In Asturias, in October 1934, the Alianza Obrera (Workers’ Alliance) . . . launched the largest workers’ insurrection in Europe since the 1871 Paris Commune . . . The immediate cause of the rising was the news that the quasi-fascist CEDA was about to form a coalition government with the Radicals in Madrid . . . In Catalonia, however, the CNT leaders were locked in their local war against the Generalitat and the rest of the Catalan Left. So, while the ERC-controlled Generalitat was, for many republicans, the ‘bulwark of the Republic’, for Catalan anarchists devolution had resulted in ‘a historic offensive’ by the ERC-controlled police against the CNT. The repression of the Catalan CNT – which far exceeded anything the organisation faced in areas under the jurisdiction of the Spanish Right – made it impossible for Barcelona cenetistas to support the Generalitat . . . However, the opposition of the CNT and FAI to the development of the Alianca Obrera, the Catalan anti-fascist alliance, . . . was narrow-sighted sectarianism. The introspective Catalan CNT, thus, opposed the October 1934 mobilisation on the grounds it was a ‘political’ action designed to change the government of the day and not to make a genuine social revolution. Consequently, as Asturian workers fought for the survival of the ‘Asturian Commune, Francisco Ascaso, Nosotros member and secretary of the Catalan CRT, issued a call to the Barcelona proletariat to return to work from a radio station controlled by the Spanish Army. And so the Catalan radicals remained aloof from the revolution that they had desired for so long.” (p. 164)

Suffice to say, this account is extremely selective and, indeed, can be considered misleading in terms of what it omits. We shall explain why.

First, rather than being called in Asturias or by the Asturian Workers’ Alliance the October rebellion was called by the national Workers’ Alliance, dominated by the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and its trade union, the UGT. The Alliance was not seen by the UGT and Socialist Party as an organisation of equals. Rather, in words of historian Paul Preston, “from the first it seemed that the Socialists saw the Alianza Obrera was a possible means of dominating the workers movement in areas where the PSOE and UGT were relatively weak.” Unsurprisingly, only one month after the first alliance was set up, one of its founder members – the Catalan Socialist Union – left in protest over PSOE domination. [The Coming of the Spanish Civil War, p. 154 and p. 157] The Socialist Party only allowed regional branches of the Alianza Obrera to be formed only if they could guarantee Party control would never be lost. [Adrian Schubert “The Epic Failure: The Asturian Revolution of October 1934”, in Revolution and War in Spain, Paul Preston (ed.), p. 127] UGT leader Largo Caballero’s desire for trade union unity in 1936 was from a similar mould: “The clear implication was that proletarian unification meant Socialist take-over.” Little wonder Preston states that f the use that he [Caballero] made of the Alianza Obreras in 1934 had revealed anything, it was that the domination of the working class movement by the UGT meant far more to Largo Caballero than any future prospect of revolution.” [Op. Cit., p. 270] As Paul Heywood summarises:

“an important factor which contributed to the strike’s collapse and made the state’s task easier was the underlying attitude of the Socialists. For all their talk of united action by the Left, the Socialists still wished to dominate any combined moves. Unwilling to cede its traditional hegemony, the PSOE rendered the Alianza obrera necessarily ineffective.” [Marxism and the Failure of Organised Socialism in Spain 1879-1936, p. 144]

Second, it is debateable that the October uprising was intended as a workers’ insurrection. This can be seen from the actions of the Socialists in its traditional stronghold, Madrid. There the UGT gave the government 24 hours notice of the general strike, allowing the state to round up the Socialist leaders, seize arm depots and repress the insurrection before it got started. [Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, p. 30] As Murray Bookchin notes, the “massive strike in Madrid, which was supported by the entire left, foundered for want of arms and a revolutionary sense of direction.” [The Spanish Anarchists, p. 245] Given the criticism of the Catalan CNT, it is useful to note the attitude of the Madrid Socialists during the revolt:

“As usual, the Socialists emerged as unreliable allies of the Anarchists. A revolutionary committee, established by the CNT and FAI to co-ordinate their own operations, was denied direly needed weapons by the UGT. The arms, as it turned out, had been conveniently intercepted by government troops. But even if they had been available, it is almost certain that the Socialists would not have shared them with the Anarchists. Indeed, relationships between the two major sectors of the labour movement had already been poisoned by the failure of the Socialist Youth and the UGT to keep the CNT adequately informed of their plans or confer with Anarchosyndicalist delegates. Despite heavy fighting in Madrid, the CNT and FAI were obliged to function largely on their own. When, at length, a UGT delegate informed the revolutionary committee that Largo Caballero was not interested in common action with the CNT, the committee disbanded.” [Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 246]

Preston confirms that in Madrid “Socialists and Anarchists went on strike” and that “the Socialists actually rejected the participation of Anarchist and Trotskyist groups who offered to help make a revolutionary coup in Madrid.” [Op. Cit., p. 174] Moreover, “when [CNT] delegates travelled secretly to Madrid to try to co-ordinate support for the revolutionary Asturian miners, they were rebuffed by the UGT leadership.” [Graham Kelsey, Anarchism in Aragon, p. 73] As Periats notes, “[e]xcept in Asturias, the socialist leaders of the rising shunned all contact with the Confederation. The motion passed by the CNT’s national plenum of regional committees, dated 13 February of that year, drew no response from the UGT.” [Periats, Op. Cit., p. 83]

Even in Asturias (where the “key to the relative success of the insurrection . . . was the participation of the CNT” [Heywood, Op. Cit., p. 145]), the Socialists were hardly non-sectarian and co-operative: “despite the provisions of the terms of the alliance to which the CNT had subscribed, the order for the uprising was issued by the socialists. In Oviedo a specifically socialist, revolutionary committee was secretly at work in Oviedo, which contained no CNT representatives.” [Periats, The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, vol. 1, p. 78] This attitude had disastrous consequences:

“So far as the Aviles and Gijon Anarchists were concerned . . . their Socialist and Communist ‘brothers’ were to honour the slogan [of unity] only in the breach. When Anarchist delegates from the seaports arrived in Oviedo on October 7, pleading for arms to resist the imminent landings of government troops, their requests were totally ignored by Socialists and Communists who, as [historian Gabriel] Jackson notes, ‘clearly mistrusted them.’ The Oviedo Committee was to pay a bitter price for its refusal. The next day, when Anarchist resistance, hampered by the pitiful supply of weapons, failed to prevent the government from landing its troops, the way into Asturias lay open. The two seaports became the principal military bases for launching the savage repression of the Asturian insurrection that occupied so much of October and claimed thousands of lives.” [Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 248]

Reasonable people would, surely, consider the UGT’s attitude somewhat sectarian? As leading anarchist Diego Abad de Santillán put it:

“Can there be talk of abstention of the CNT and censure of it by those who go on strike without warning our organisation about it, who refuse to meet with the delegates of the National Committee [of the CNT], who consent to let the Lerrous-Gil Robles Government take possession of the arms deposits and let them go unused before handing them over to the Confederation and the FAI?” [quoted by Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 246]

Ignoring the libertarians was hardly a new development. A CNT call, on the 13th of February 1934, for the UGT to clearly and publicly state its revolutionary objectives, had met with no reply. As Peirats argues, “[t]hat the absence of the CNT did not bother them [the UGT and Socialist Party] is clear from their silence in regards to the [CNT’s] National Plenary’s request.” [Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, p. 96]

Rhetoric aside, the Socialist Party’s main aim in October seems to have been to force new elections, so they could again form a (mildly reformist) coalition with the Republicans (their programme for the revolt was written by right-wing socialist Indalecio Prieto and seemed more like an election manifesto prepared by the Liberal Republicans than a programme for revolutionary change). This was the viewpoint of the CNT, for example. Little wonder Peirats asked:

“If the socialists really had intended to unleash a revolutionary uprising in Spain – and this has yet to be proven – the collaboration of the CNT was indispensable to their purpose . . . Their failure to take due consideration of this presupposed that the real intention of the socialists was to unleash a simple conflict which might force the Radical-CEDA government to resign.” [The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, vol. 1, p. 83]

Rather than unleash a revolution, the October revolt was simply an attempt to pressurise the regime and change governments. The events in Asturias far exceeded the desires of the Socialist leaders. As Peirats suggests:

“Although it seems absurd, one constantly has to ask whether the Socialists meant to start a true revolution [in October 1934] in Spain. If the answer is affirmative, the questions keep coming: Why did they not make the action a national one? Why did they try to do it without the powerful national CNT? Is a peaceful general strike revolutionary? Was what happened in Asturias expected, or were orders exceeded? Did they mean only to scare the Radical-CEDA government with their action?” [The Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, pp 95-6]

Regardless of the activities and aims of the revolt, the question of the reaction (or non-reaction) of the Catalan CNT remains. Ealham claims that, despite recounting previous massive state repression by the rebels of October 1934, the actions of the Calatan libertarians “was narrow-sighted sectarianism” as they “remained aloof from the revolution that they had desired for so long.” The reality of the revolt is somewhat at odds with this summary.

First, we have the strange paradox of how the CNT both “remained aloof” from the revolt and “issued a call to the Barcelona proletariat to return to work.” If the CNT workers were on strike, then how could the CNT be “aloof” of the revolt?

Second, ignoring this obvious contradiction, we know from libertarian sources (sources which Ealham is aware of) that the CNT did seek to take part in the rebellion – and was repressed for its troubles by the bourgeois Catalan nationalists who lead the revolt of October 1934. Moreover, this repression was just the latest in a long series of attacks on Catalan syndicalism by that party. The repression the CNT was suffering from the Catalan nationalists was very real and unsurprisingly “the Anarchists bitterly resented the way in which the Generalitat had followed a repressive policy against them in the previous months. This had been the work of the Generalitat’s counsellor for public order, Josep Dencas, leader of the quasi-fascist, ultra-nationalist party Estat Catala.” [Preston, Op. Cit., p. 176] In short, during the Catalan revolt, “the CNT had a difficult time because the insurgents were its worst enemies.” [Peirats, The Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, p. 98]

During the revolt itself, the Catalan Nationalists continued their policy of crushing the CNT.  “On the eve of the rebellion,” Peirats recounts, “the Catalan police jailed as many anarchists as they could put their hands on” while “union offices had been shut for some time.” [Op. Cit., pp. 98-9] On the day of the revolt, “the CNT daily newspaper was several hours late in appearing owning to the mutilations caused by censorship. As a result of that censorship, the CNT regional committee sought recourse to a clandestine handbill to offer guide to the Confederation’s workers.” [Peirats, The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, vol. 1, p. 85] When workers tried to take steps to implement this handbill they were met with repression:

“The first to act . . . were the militant’s of the Woodworkers’ Union. After they had seized their union premises . . . the security forces promptly appeared on the scene . . . and a fierce gun battle broke out . . . The workers were forced to beat a retreat and the premises were sealed again. A propos of this clash, the Generalitat minister of home affairs, Dr Dencas, issued a memo in which he extorted the police and those armed citizens who had began to patrol the city against ‘anarchist provocateurs in the pay of reactionaries.’ A 5 p.m. that day uniformed forces of the Generalitat government shot their way into the editorial offices of Solidaridad Obrera. The police intended to surprise a regional plenum that was then in session, but fortunately on different premises. The newspaper’s administrative offices and workshops were shut down.” [Pierats, Op. Cit., pp. 85-6]

“It is ironic,” notes Scottish anarchist Stuart Christie, “that the first shots to ring out in Barcelona were aimed against the CNT by those in revolt against the central government.” [We, the Anarchists!, p. 86] Hence the paradoxical situation in which the libertarians found themselves in during this time. As Abel Paz argued: “For the rank and file Catalan worker . . . the insurgents . . . were actually orienting their action in order to destroy the CNT. After that, how could they collaborate with the reactionary movement which was directing its blows against the working class? Here was the paradox of the Catalan uprising of October 6, 1934.” [Durruti: The People Armed, p. 158] Perhaps unsurprisingly many CNT members and activists were unhappy to be used as cannon-fodder to help produce another (left-wing) government that would attack the CNT.

Suffice to say, why these actions of state repression by the October rebels against the CNT are not “narrow-sighted sectarianism” is not explained by Ealham – perhaps arresting people, censoring their press, shooting at them, closing their offices and trying to arrest their committees is not sectarian?

Moreover, the Catalan CNT did not remain “aloof” of the revolt as Ealham states. As Christie notes, “in spite of this hostility, which verged on a state of war, the CNT declared a general strike in support of the rising.” [Op. Cit., p. 86] In addition, as noted, the CNT Regional Committee issued a leaflet on October 6th calling upon workers to join the revolt:

“the CNT must enter the battle in a manner consistent with its revolutionary anarchist principles . . . Our attitude cannot be one of contemplation, but rather one of strong and decisive action . . . This is no time to theorise, but a time to act and to act well, a time for independent action by the revolutionary proletariat . . . The revolt . . . must acquire the characteristics of a popular act through the independent actions of the proletariat . . . We demand the right to intervene in this struggle and we will take this . .  immediate opening of our unions buildings and the concentration of the workers on those premises . . . activation of the district committees . . . all the region’s unions are to liaise closely with this committee which will oversee the revolt by coordinating the belligerent forces.” [quoted by Periats, Op. Cit., vol.1, p. 85]

It was acting on this leaflet that lead to the police attacking CNT workers trying to open the hall of the Woodworkers’ Union. Thus the first shots of the revolt were directed at the members of the CNT simply because they were trying to take part in the revolt in an organised and coherent manner as urged by the CNT’s Regional Committee itself. So much for standing “aloof” of the struggle…

Significantly, the rebels of October did little to aid its situation. Perhaps understandably, given its repression of the CNT, the Generalitat did not seek to arm the people (or even to issue arms to the Alianza Obrera. [Christie, Op. Cit., p. 85]). At 8pm, October 6th, Companys spoke by radio from the balcony of the Generalitat and by dawn the next day he had surrendered to the army. As Abel Paz summarised:

“The [Spanish] government imposed Martial Law. When the army commander took over Police Headquarters, he found its cells full of anarchists arrested by the Generalitat’s police on October 4. The Generalitat was incapable of revolting successfully, but demonstrated its efficiency in persecuting the CNT.” [Durruti in the Spanish Revolution, p. 354]

Meanwhile the assault on Asturias, by sea, started on 7th of October. Given the fact that the organisers of the revolt had surrendered the “Catalan Regional Committee of the CNT, unaware of events then taking place in the Asturias, ordered a return to work after two days general strike.” [Christie, Op. Cit., p. 86] As Peirats summarised:

“The absurd contention according to which the confederal proletariat of Catalonia betrayed their brethren in Asturias melts away in the face of a truthful narration of the facts.” [The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, vol. 1, p. 86]

Given all this, can the failure of the revolt be laid at the “narrow-sighted sectarianism” of the CNT? Is “sectarianism” the appropriate word to describe the actions of people who were being arrested, having their press censored, being stopped opening their union halls and being shot at when they tried to take part in a revolt by the very people organising the rebellion? Clearly, it strains credibility to suggest that the anarchists can be blamed for what happened during October 1934 in Catalonia.

While it is true that the CNT generally rejected the UGT’s Alianza Obrera, it is important to note that the organisation did not reject co-operation with other unions. All through this period the CNT approached the UGT with calls for joint action, all of which the UGT (as noted above) ignored. The libertarians also suggested their own form of workers alliance, one organised from below upwards rather than the UGT’s top-down approach. Durruti explained the idea behind this:

“For me, the factory committees are the basic organs of a workers’ alliance, which the workers elect in open assembly. Federated by neighbourhood, district, locality, county, region, and nationality, I believe that those committees will be the authentic expression of the base. In other words . . . from the bottom up . . . To think of the worker alliance in the opposite way is to denaturalise it . . . a workers’ alliance can be made . . . from above, through the CNT and UGT national committees. But I reject that, due to the bureaucratic danger it implies. . .” [quoted by Abel Paz, Durruti in the Spanish Revolution, p. 327]

This is addressed more fully in the appendix on “Marxism and Spanish Anarchism.” The results of the October revolt and the unwillingness of the Marxist organisations to favour a “bottom-up” alliance would both have influenced the decisions made after the defeat of the fascist coup in July 1936. As is well known, on the 20th of July the CNT decided to collaborate with other anti-fascist organisations in the “Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias” (CCAFM). This was, obviously, an application of the Spanish Marxist’s preferred form of alliance – a top-down joining of upper committees rather than a genuine alliance from below – driven by the fear of a fascist victory which would have made the repression after the Asturias revolt seem mild in comparison. Subsequent attempts by the CNT to suggest non-”Popular Front” style structures (such as the “National Defense Council” of September 1936) were rejected by the Socialist Party.

So in July 1936, the CNT supported the kind of alliance rejected in 1934. As such it is incredulous to suggest, as Ealham does, that “this unwillingness to create a coordinating revolutionary authority can, in part, be attributed to the ideology of the anarcho-syndicalist leadership.” (p. 179) After all, such an authority was created as Ealham recounts – although the net effect of it was as disastrous as libertarians had predicted before hand. Moreover, it must be stressed that the need to create a revolutionary coordinating body had long existed in anarchist (and so anarcho-syndicalist) theory (or “ideology”, as Ealham puts it). To quote Bakunin:

the Alliance of all labour associations . . . will constitute the Commune . . . there will be a standing federation of the barricades and a Revolutionary Communal Council . . . [made up of] delegates . . . invested with binding mandates and accountable and revocable at all times . . . all provinces, communes and associations . . . [will] delegate deputies to an agreed place of assembly (all . . . invested with binding mandated and accountable and subject to recall), in order to found the federation of insurgent associations, communes and provinces . . . and to organise a revolutionary force with the capacity of defeating the reaction . . . it is through the very act of extrapolation and organisation of the Revolution with an eye to the mutual defences of insurgent areas that the universality of the Revolution . . . will emerge triumphant.” [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, pp. 155-6]

Suffice to say, on the ground the libertarians of the CNT and FAI did create the kind of organisations anarchist theory had advocated as essential for any revolution. Workers expropriated their workplaces, creating collectives and federations of collectives. Voluntary democratic militias were formed to liberate areas under Franco and defend the revolution. Neighbourhood bodies were also formed. To quote Ealham:

“The district committees formed the basis of the only genuinely revolutionary body established in July, the ephemeral Federacion de barricadas (Federation of Barricades), which was founded by base activists in the heat of the struggle against the military. Mirroring the district committees of the Paris Commune or the councils established during the other major working-class insurrections in Paris (1848 and 1871), Petrograd (1917), Berlin (1918-19) and Turin (1920), the Federacion de barricades represented, in embryonic form, a revolutionary alternative to state power.” (p. 178)

The idea of a “Federation of Barricades” can be found, down to the very words, in Bakunin and so has been in revolutionary anarchism form the start. Kropotkin pointed to the directly democratic assemblies of Paris during the French Revolution. These were “constituted as so many mediums of popular administration, it remained of the people, and this is what made the revolutionary power of these organisations.” This ensured that the local revolutionary councils “which sprang from the popular movement was not separated from the people.” In this popular self-organisation “the masses, accustoming themselves to act without receiving orders from the national representatives, were practising what was described later on as Direct Self-Government.” These assemblies federated to co-ordinate joint activity but it was based on their permanence: “that is, the possibility of calling the general assembly whenever it was wanted by the members of the section and of discussing everything in the general assembly.” In short, “the Commune of Paris was not to be a governed State, but a people governing itself directly -- when possible -- without intermediaries, without masters” and so “the principles of anarchism . . . had their origin, not in theoretic speculations, but in the deeds of the Great French Revolution.” This “laid the foundations of a new, free, social organisation” and Kropotkin predicted that “the libertarians would no doubt do the same to-day.” [Great French Revolution, vol. 1, p. 201, p. 203, pp. 210-1, p. 210, p. 204 and p. 206] As Kropotkin stressed:

To make a revolution it is not . . . enough that there should be . . . risings . . . It is necessary that after the risings there should be something new in the institutions [that make up society], which would permit new forms of life to be elaborated and established.” [Op. Cit., p. 200]

This process was started in 1936 but the CNT ignored the state and failed to smash it, in the name of unity against fascism. This meant that these embryonic organs of a free society could not develop fully and, once the state was strong enough, they were smashed. As such, the Catalan CNT ignored one of the key notions of anarchism (and its pre-war political programme) – the need to destroy the state and replace it with organs of popular self-management. Such a body was created by the CNT in Aragon, for example. This is means that the decision to participate in “Popular Front” style structures in Catalonia was not driven by “ideology” but rather by the circumstances the CNT found itself in (not least the ideology and attitude of the second largest union and the various Marxist political parties). This issue is discussed in more detail in AFAQ and so will not be done here beyond note the irony of the CNT being condemned in 1934 for not joining the Workers’ Alliance and for joining one in 1936.

A complete account of the October revolt raises the obvious question: “Why was it necessary to prevent the CNT from engaging in the rebellion . . .?” [Abel  Paz, Durruti in the Spanish Revolution, p. 351] The answer is all too clear: the organisers of the Catalan revolt did not desire a social revolution and did not want the CNT to be involved as it would have created one. The last thing they wanted was to give arms to the libertarians and weaken the coercive powers of the bourgeois (Catalan) republic. As Ealham himself suggests as regards the aftermath of the 19th of July, 1936:

“Companys now faced something he had feared since 1931: the republican project was genuinely threatened by the armed power of the CNT.” (p. 172)

Needless to say, the attitude of Companys had not miraculously changed since October 1934 and explains the repression directed against the CNT which made it effectively impossible for that organisation to participate in that revolt even though it tried. In short, Ealham’s account omits too many relevant facts to present anything but a distorted account of how the Catalan CNT responded to the October events. It is little better than the standard (and utterly misleading) Trotskyite account by Felix Morrow – a damning judgement on any historian.

[i] Taken from