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.