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.”