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].


Jun 15 2011 16:28

The date of the IWA Congress should be 1937.

Jun 15 2011 16:42
Karetelnik wrote:
The date of the IWA Congress should be 1937.

brilliant, thanks mate. I'm going to add the rest of this book this evening