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.