The anarchist question in the Spanish revolution - Pepe Gutiérrez-Álvarez

Juan García Oliver celebrates victory on July 19, 1936

A critical, yet sympathetic assessment of the role of the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and the “circumstantialism” and collaborationism of the CNT-FAI, in which the author portrays the Workers Alliance (a revolutionary insurrection initiated by communist left groups in 1934, largely restricted to Asturias, based on the principle of trade union and proletarian unity) as not just a missed opportunity but also as a possible model for an alternative to the fatal choice between collaboration and an unacceptable “anarchist dictatorship”.

Submitted by Alias Recluse on June 15, 2016

The Anarchist Question in the Spanish Revolution – Pepe Gutiérrez-Álvarez 1

As everyone knows, world anarchism attained its high point in Spain. This has led some specialists to say that the libertarian presence has been the most distinctive feature of Spain’s modern history. What is certain in any case is that this fact was the most salient feature of the war and revolution of 1936-1939, dates that are absolutely crucial in the history of anarchy. After numerous defeats, the international libertarian movement thought that it could discover in the Spanish conflict its golden opportunity to prove to the world, and especially to the Marxists, how one makes a revolution, that is, how one does so in an anti-statist way, based on self-management, following guidelines different from those of the Bolshevik model of 1917, which it almost unanimously denounced.2

At the very moment when the “July events” broke out, the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), formed in 1922 in Berlin in opposition to the Second and Third Internationals, was clearly divided between its predominant section, the Spanish, with more than half a million members—the Spanish section would experience enormous growth in the next few months—and the rest of its sections, most of which had been decimated by the fascist upsurge—Portugal, Germany, Italy—or were in decline—France, Argentina—and all of which were definitely small minorities in their countries or else operating from exile, as was also true of the Russian anarchists.3

After a brief flash of prominence with the Anti-authoritarian, or Black, International, led by Bakunin himself, anarchism had been eclipsed in the main industrial regions by the Socialist International, which very early in its history rejected anarchist membership because of the anarchists’ opposition to political parties and participation in parliament. At the turn of the century, anarchism would have another momentous opportunity with the rise of revolutionary syndicalism—embodied by Ferdinand Pelloutier and the principles espoused in the Charter of Amiens—but at the moment of the outbreak of the First World War, and even more crucially, when the Bolsheviks were victorious in the Russian Revolution of October 1917, it would undergo a series of crises that worked to the advantage of the Communist International in the semi-industrialized countries, where many of its militants would be attracted by the ascendant Bolshevism.4 In this respect, as well, Spain would be the major exception. Thus, it remained largely immune to the appeal of Bolshevism even during the resistance against the Primo de Rivera dictatorship, and was still anti-Bolshevik when the Second Republic was established, and when the war and the revolution broke out. Then, world anarchism would place its hopes in the CNT-FAI and the anarchist militants of the whole world would pay very close attention to the war in Spain, and some of them would even go there to swell the ranks of organizations whose initials were already legendary.

The Spanish Exception

This Spanish exception, that has been so uniquely fascinating for a whole swarm of historians and students of Spanish culture who have tried to provide a “scientific” explanation for the phenomenon on the basis of a socio-economic schema—the existence of a vast sea of small industries and the latifundia that radicalized millions of landless peasants—or on the basis of the religious background—anarchism is thus explained as a variation on the theme of a religious heresy that had been historically frustrated in Spain because the country was chained to the Church of the Council of Trent—and we must not forget to mention the racial approach, so dear to the anarchists themselves that they have adopted the unique idea that the ordinary “Spaniard”—who is otherwise arbitrarily dressed up in a uniform—bears within his “idiosyncrasy” a larger or smaller dose of anarchism. For these historians, it is a matter of assimilating something that they consider, to one extent or another, an anomaly—as if history in general and the workers movement in particular could be explained with respect to a pattern of “normality” or a universal paradigm—and for some anarchists the question revolves around accentuating a “racial” trait whose horizon seems to them to be eternal. A militant kind of “patriotism” plays a significant part in this latter notion—which has been addressed theoretically by certain right wing elements and by authors like Heleno Saña—which would depict the Spanish anarchist phenomenon as something metaphysical and timeless.

Furthermore, these factors tend to conceal what is most important: the political factors. Some of these factors were underscored by a mature Joaquín Maurín, who offers a much more political and nuanced version of the “deep roots of anarchism in Spain” hypothesis,5 when he claims that the anarchists understood, much better than the “Marxists”, the radical character of the agrarian question in the South and the vanguard working class nature of Barcelona as opposed to bureaucratic Madrid, that they were much more capable propagandists,6 that they had a more receptive attitude towards the radical intellectuals and towards certain characteristics of the Spanish people, that they knew how to respond to institutional violence (Durruti) and how to conduct clandestine activity, and that they also possessed more spirit and more imagination than the socialists led by the “rigid” Pablo Iglesias.

Revolutionary syndicalism did much more on behalf of concrete improvements in living conditions and dignified working conditions than the feeble parliamentary initiatives for reforms; in fact, the few legal reforms that were achieved were made possible by workers struggles led for the most part by anarchosyndicalists. At that time, its revolutionary apoliticism did not seem to be a sectarian position in view of the moral instability of the liberal politicians, and when it presented its revolutionary project it seemed to be the logical consequence of a radical democratic project that had been betrayed by the bourgeoisie for centuries. Furthermore, anarchosyndicalism knew how to combine diverse forms of struggle and to incorporate a broad array of libertarian tendencies, from the pedagogical and pacifist gradualists to the insurrectionists and hard-core purists, and it was finally capable of weathering the crisis brought on by the surge of support for the Third International, at first by relying on a policy of tactical convergence—without abandoning Bakunin’s principles—in order to subsequently distance itself from the supporters of the Third International as a result of a series of events like those of the Ukraine and Kronstadt, as well as the peculiar report submitted by Angel Pestaña, at a time when the PCE was already undergoing its serious crisis. There was a communist “problem” only in Catalonia and Seville.7

Over its long history, Spanish anarchism had grown strong by weathering the “tests of fire” of constant repression, which was much harsher than the repression meted out to the PSOE. It survived the defeat of the local rebellions of 1873—for which it bore much less responsibility than the role attributed to it by Engels in his famous pamphlet, “The Bakuninists in Action”8 —the “pronunciamiento” of General Pavía in 1874, the obscure police machinations connected with the “Black Hand”, and the repression that followed the bomb attack on the Corpus Christi Procession; the first setback decapitated the very popular movement in the region of Jerez de la Frontera, and the second was an attempt to destroy the core of the movement in Barcelona, and made the torture chambers of Montjuich famous;9 anarchism also survived the defeat of the general strike that represented the most profound episode of the “Tragic Week”, the employers’ pistolerismo of the 1920s that knocked off a large number of its most skilled cadres,10 and finally the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera that tried to wipe out the CNT while allowing the PSOE to enjoy a limited legal status.

All of these things happened in a period when every setback only seemed to be a harbinger of a powerful resurgence, and when internal conflicts did not distort the development of anarchism, as was the case in other countries. The controversies and confrontations—largely based on personalities—between collectivists—in the Bakuninist sense of the word—and communists—as the term was defined by Kropotkin—were quite bitter, no less bitter, in fact, than those that pitted individualists—Urales y Mañe, Mella—against syndicalists—Lorenzo, Seguí, etc.; all of these tendencies nonetheless coexisted even though these differences reemerged along with other fundamental problems and were exacerbated during the last years of the Dictatorship, when one sector—the FAI, formed in accordance with the Argentinian position as a “bellwether” or “watchdog” against possible communist or possibilist influence—advocated a position of radical rupture and insurrection, while another sector—the “treintista”, or syndicalist faction—was inclined to accept tactical pacts with the republican and regionalist left.

This contradiction would characterize Spanish anarchism as a whole throughout the entire republican period right up to the reunification concluded at the Zaragoza Congress in January 1936, only to reemerge in other variations during the civil war, becoming chronic in exile, and lasting right up until the final split during the “Transition”. In this sense one may speak of the “two souls” of anarchism, and José Peirats explained it this way during the Republic: “There are two revolutionary conceptions among the anarchists: one that we may call Jacobin, and one that we may characterize as opportunist. The advocates of the former conception stake everything on one bold assault; the proponents of the other conception believe that the revolution has stages. The revolution is waged (or not waged) every day. The greatest historian of anarchy (Max Nettlau) referred to this latter idea as the continuity of history. The opportunist conception stood against the conspiratorial conception. The conspiratorial insurrectionary movements of 1933 displayed features of both tendencies. The conspiratorial revolution failed repeatedly. The movements were easily crushed by the government.”

In his critique, however, Peirats did not forget which side he favored, and added: “It failed for lack of a conducive climate. For some, the revolution is forged in cold water. Steel is subjected to possible damage by being heated when it is inserted into the red hot fire. The revolution will be carried out by bold minorities prepared to set an example by their sacrifice. Heated by their example, the people will follow it. For the opportunists, this is to play Russian Roulette. If you can get away with it…. Both currents think that the revolution is not possible without the intervention of the people. While the Jacobin current, however, thinks that this intervention can be provoked at will, the opportunists claim that only an unimaginable emotional event can mobilize the multitudes. Our mission consists in being prepared to bring fuel to the flames and to see to it that the revolution always advances. The Jacobin conspiracy might very well lead to dictatorship, which both tendencies repudiate.”11

It should also be pointed out that the existence of militants who combined—at least to some extent—both tendencies, does not constitute an exception to this distinction, nor does the fact that some of the “opportunist” leaders came from the most extreme tendency, such as Federica herself, García Oliver, “Marianet” and Prieto.

So little time

With the political revolution of April 14, 1931, the dilemma of Jacobinism or opportunism would spread throughout the CNT during its period of rapid growth. For the “moderate” current that rallied around the famous “Manifesto of the Thirty” (Angel Pestaña, Joan Peiró, Juan Lopéz, etc.), not all the preconditions for the revolution were present and what was needed was a labor of husbanding forces, fortifying the trade unions and cultural education. Thus, what was needed was not a direct confrontation with the State and the bourgeoisie but efforts to take advantage of possible agreements with their most advanced sectors, like the left wing supporters of Catalonian independence with whom the “treintistas” had established many contacts. The social model of this current—in which they inserted numerous minor variations such as municipalist, pacifist and Tolstoyan elements, etc.—would take the form of a translation of the theories of Pierre Besnard and Christian Cornelissen, who advocated a formula of “all power” to the trade union federations, an idea that was very fashionable within the historic revolutionary syndicalist current (IWW).

The “treintistas”, despite the immense prestige enjoyed by some members of the group, were treated very harshly by the CNT majority (Ricardo Sanz even wrote a pamphlet entitled, “The Thirty Judases”) and they were expelled from the Confederation. For a while they remained marginalized outside the CNT, although they did finally rejoin the Confederation, except for the fraction that was indisputably represented by Angel Pestaña who created—without success—the minuscule Syndicalist Party that participated in the Workers Alliance, and which would try to convince the members of the CNT of the importance of having a political organization as well as staying in contact with real Marxism. During the civil war, pestañismo (in which such notable personalities as Marín Civera, Eduardo Pons Prades and the newcomer Ángel Maria de Lera participated) would collaborate closely with a sector of the CNT with a background in the FAI led by Horacio Prieto, the leading figure of the Libertarian Party.12

The majority view that was imposed on the CNT in practically all of Spain was articulated by way of the irregular organic schema of the FAI on the basis of the premise that the CNT would be lost without anarchist hegemony. The rise of the mass movement in general and particularly its anarchosyndicalist expression were indications for the theoreticians of “revolutionary gymnastics” that the time had come for taking the road of revolution by way of a vast movement of local insurrections—along the lines of Bakunin’s project in Italy—that would be defined by the “treintistas” as a form of anarcho-Bolshevik activity (a term coined based on the reading of Bolshevism as the exponent of a technique of the coup d’état, along the lines depicted by Curzio Malaparte in his book of the same name), and which should be more correctly characterized as an anarchist variant of putschism. This movement, initiated in Figols, would experience its most famous and inspiring episode in Casas Viejas, where the forces of public order set an example for how to deal with these kinds of actions that never lasted more than a few hours or a few days, although their supporters were convinced that they were not just so many gymnastic exercises but rather days of “testing” the revolution.

The most articulate theoretical justifications for these uprisings were elaborated by Dr. Isaac Puente, the leading intellectual of the CNT at the time, who depicted them as follows: “A political revolution can take place on the urban front…. The social revolution needs to have a much broader front, so that every little hamlet will become a stronghold…. A handful of bold comrades or a small rural trade union can easily proceed to disarm their enemies and then arm the revolutionaries. In a small town it would be easy to resist a siege for many days, because there are abundant means of subsistence…. The comrades in the city have something more important to do. They can tie up the armed forces so that the latter cannot be dispatched to suppress their brothers, the rebellious peasants. Divert the forces of the enemy. Carry out the revolutionary strike and wage the violent struggle. Enable the experience of the countryside to last as long as possible so that no one can deny the evidence: the practicality of libertarian communism.”13

These “exemplary actions” that aroused the enthusiasm of such special personalities as Federica Montseny, disdainful towards programs—which were conceived as Marxist tricks that obstruct free initiative—were justified as a tactic in which the countryside surrounds the corrupt cities and imposes—directly, without any transitional processes—a libertarian communism that does not compromise with any trade union leaders or with any form of State. Its goal is to return to the natural, pre-capitalist way of life in which (it is not very clear how this is to be achieved) the equilibrium between individualism and collectivism will be reestablished. There is thus no room for any form of collaboration with other expressions of the workers movement and its primordial dilemma is: State or Revolution. A dilemma that is posed in a historical phase when the right wing had already been forewarned against having any faith in the “good intentions” represented by Kerensky and the Russian Provisional Government, when the ruling classes had already adopted the charter of the “preventive counterrevolution”, i.e., the “fascist revolution”.14

The role of the hegemony of the FAI

History usually presents this experience as the product of FAI hegemony, often overlooking the fact that the latter responded to a widespread sentiment among the middle level cadres of the CNT—the heart of the CNT—and among the organization’s ordinary members, and that it was understood to be a revolutionary alternative to the institutionalized and academic mediocrity of the republican-socialist coalition that proved to be much more intolerant of anarchosyndicalism than of the extreme right (it treated Sanjurjo and Juan March with kid gloves). It had a tendency to proclaim the immediate possibility of revolution in a childish and sectarian way, but there is no room for doubt that the revolution was in fact slowly and steadily being prepared. When this revolution came knocking on the door of the CNT-FAI, the latter was in the midst of a serious crisis that was also exacerbated by the fiasco of the campaign in favor of revolutionary apoliticism that would contribute (in the eyes of the workers) to the victory of the right wing parties which would subject the anarchists to much harsher repression than the previous government, and by the emergence of an international fascist threat that would be understood (although he was almost alone in doing so) by a witness of the rise to power of the Nazis, Orobón Fernández.15 The “faísta” majority, although in decline, would still manifest its sectarian hostility towards the Workers Alliance.

The Workers Alliance would respond to three basic demands: a) proletarian unity against the rise of fascism; b) the revolution understood as the destruction of the bourgeois State; and c) proletarian democracy as the predominant post-revolutionary formula….

At first proposed by the communist left, the idea of the Alliance spread to other groups of dissidents in the PSOE and the CNT—including Pestaña—and influenced the socialist left whose process of radicalization was scorned by the libertarian majority. The CNT’s entry into the Alliance would have been historically decisive, it would have been a determinant alternative to the new left wing alliance in which the republicans supplied the program and the leading personalities and the workers movement supplied the foot soldiers.

As the debates at the Zaragoza Congress demonstrated, however, the CNT was not giving much thought to the imminence of the fascist threat, nor did it propose to undertake the destruction of the State in conjunction with the other revolutionary formations, and it therefore failed to take into account the need for revolutionary pluralism.16 The Asturian CNT would tragically stand alone in that year of the UHP!, and while Federica Montseny declaimed against the Marxists without making any attempt to distinguish between the targets of her polemics, the Asturian José Ma Martínez proclaimed that two anarchists plus two Marxists equals four revolutionaries, or, to put it another way, while the Marxists could not do without the anarchists if they wanted to carry out a revolution—even a defensive one, as advocated by the socialist left—the anarchists, for their part, could not do without the Marxists, either, especially the most open-minded ones.

The theme of the united front was analyzed by the CNT leadership as merely another political maneuver by the various brands of Marxism, and it was resolved to deal with an iron hand with those who “infiltrated” the CNT, which did not prevent notorious libertarians like Cipriano Mera from working within the UGT in certain industrial centers—such as Madrid—where the confederation was relatively weak. The tendency towards unification and unitary struggle was nonetheless a part of the spirit of the early CNT, and experienced truly impressive achievements such as the general strike of August 1917. It was still a concern of more than a few federations and was advocated by theoreticians like the veteran Eleuterio Quintanilla and especially Orobón Fernández, who met a premature end.

Unity was not the main theme of the Zaragoza Congress; it was only posed in connection with other discussions. Nor was the “climate” that seemed to presage a military coup a leading topic for debate, nor were the storm clouds of fascism that had attained such an alarming dimension since Hitler’s victory, and even less discussed was the situation in the USSR where Stalin had just undertaken his spectacular right turn, or even the initiatives of the Popular Front that could count on the open support of notorious “treintistas” and the tacit support of many “faístas”. The Congress was primarily devoted to determining how to introduce libertarian communism, and it was conducted in the shadow of the powerful, lyrical convictions of Isaac Puente; libertarian communism was afraid of neither the counterrevolution nor international isolation. It seems obvious, however, that its attainment would not be possible outside of the actually existing conditions (which were underestimated and, when they were cited in other historical cases—such as the Soviet case—they were described as mere “authoritarian” excuses). In Zaragoza, the will was everything, the conditions were nothing. It was during this period, when the so-called “Moscow trials” were reaching their peak, that the libertarian press treated the events in Moscow with indifference and explained them as the settling of accounts between Marxist “cliques”.

Anarchism and revolution

The revolution, of course, would not take place by following the guidelines of the IDEAL but would instead proceed along the course of an interrupted, broken line, disrupted by very complex and dramatic historical conditions, and its success was not the product of a general strike or a plethora of insurrections but rather, once the uprising was defeated in the major cities, was predicated on overcoming a double barrier that opposed it with very different methods:

1) the barrier of the military-fascist counterrevolution led by the most reactionary sector of the army that had constituted itself as a “party” and which had no hesitation in attempting to totally annihilate the workers movement and all civil liberties, including those pertaining to the foundations of the most moderate instances of cultural progress.

2) the barrier of an anti-revolution in the republican zone that took the form, in the Popular Front, of the supposedly legitimate expression, “anti-fascist unity”, materialized in a republican State that, led by the PCE-PSUC, took a position within the tendency of the pact that the USSR was attempting to conclude with the “western democracies”, and for that reason rejected—as is clearly expressed in its founding declaration—any demands that went beyond the republican framework.

With respect to the first barrier, it is clearly the case that the workers movement in general, and the anarchosyndicalist movement in particular, underestimated its importance, despite the existence of well known antecedents of repression in 1909, 1917, 1923 and 1934, the attempted coup d’état by Sanjurjo in 1932, and of course the repression of the Asturian “Commune”, which was carried out by colonial troops. This counterrevolutionary vocation of the army was reinforced when the ruling class considered its “reformist” experience in the Second Republic to be a closed book, and when the Nazi-fascist upsurge encouraged the proponents of a “preventive counterrevolution”. The opposition within the army would be widespread but unorganized; the army command was not challenged by the development of core groups committed to anti-militarist activity. Mola and Franco, on the other hand, had made preparations in advance to crush an expected general strike; but the fact that the response would be much more widespread and deeply rooted than they had expected shows that the basic conditions for revolution were present.

As for the republican zone, we should recall that the Popular Front was justified, by the azañista right wing, as a way to prevent a coup d’état by pursuing a policy of moderation. It was obvious, however, that the reactionaries had not only taken into account the intentions of Azaña and Prieto, but also the desires and resolve of the workers and peasants. When the military coup broke out—after having been a public secret that Minister Casares Quiroga dismissed with a miserable series of declarations—the republican right wing was totally sidelined, first, because its position towards the army was ambivalent—it was afraid of the army’s intentions to stage a coup but it needed the army to prevent a revolution—and second, because it had no idea of the meaning of a danger like the fascist threat. Its actions were therefore grotesque, oscillating between indifference (Quiroga), a zeal for alliances and agreements (Martínez Barrios), passivity (refusing to give arms to the workers), when not total betrayal or complicity. The workers’ trust of the republican governing elements proved to be fatal in many of the big cities.

Nothing had been prepared, but when the time came for the heroism of the multitude—especially that of the youngest combatants—it performed the miracle of stopping the coup dead in its tracks in most of Spain, and in this achievement the anarchosyndicalists displayed their valor where they knew how to fight; on the barricades. Nothing could be done without the CNT, although the CNT’s ingenuousness had tragic consequences in Seville, Zaragoza and Oviedo, as we must not forget; and then there were the cases of Mallorca and Canarias—all of them were key events for the coming war. The overall result was a victorious beginning, with some defeats. The situation would progressively be resolved in favor of the side that had the best weapons and a clearer understanding of the means necessary for victory. The counterrevolution had a terrifying confidence in the commitment, the shared purposes, aid and diplomatic support of its foreign allies, as well as the most absolute lack of scruples and mercy.

The momentous choices of anarchism

No faction in the Spanish workers movement was as ready for a revolution as the anarchists. Their odyssey began in the times of the First International, and they were battle-hardened in an ongoing struggle with the established powers. The CNT condensed within its federations a militant majority that had proven its ability to fight and possessed a firm resolve to change the world. Their program was Anarchy, “the highest expression of order” (Elisée Reclús). For that reason they rejected all dealings with the ruling class. They rejected the parliamentary game and traditional “politics” in favor of direct action, the struggle for the revolution.

When the CNT played an indisputable leading role in the defeat of the rebels during the “July Days”, everything seemed possible. Barcelona, Durruti said, had become “the spiritual capital of the world”, and the word “freedom” had materialized in a liberation movement that embraced all the oppressed. The connection between the counter-insurrection and the revolution was perfectly natural; the bourgeoisie had no difficulties finding the barricades, and their possessions were collectivized amidst an egalitarian festival. By virtue of its capacity for organization, the Spanish revolution proved to be much more profound than the Soviet revolution, and everything worked from the very first day. There was one weak point, however; the question of power. The revolution had turned the world upside-down, but who was in charge now?

With the revolution in the hands of the CNT, its leading committees had to choose between one of three basic alternatives: 1) That of the Zaragoza Congress, i.e., the proclamation of libertarian communism, or, in other words, the Revolution against the State, or “go for broke”, as García Oliver called it; 2) Take advantage of this opportunity to join the Workers Alliance, i.e., to help to bring about the unity of the revolutionary left (CNT, Caballero’s faction in the PSOE, the POUM), defense of the revolution, proletarian democracy…. 3) Reach an agreement with the republican authorities, preserving the revolutionary conquests within an anti-fascist front that would not question the legitimacy of the Popular Front regime, which was the policy that was implemented … until May 1937.

At the historic Plenum held in Barcelona immediately after the July Days, the dilemma was reduced to a choice between two of these alternatives. The advocates of the first option were not very convincing: they continued to look at the question from the same perspective as in the past—we alone follow the correct line towards the “social totality”. Its most famous supporter was García Oliver who would then make the transition to being the most consistent advocate of the third option—according to him, he did not want to become another Trotsky—that he justified on the basis of the recognition of the “objective conditions”; there was a terrifying enemy, fascism, and there were other political and trade union forces that were dominant in other zones of the Spanish State. The first option, he said, implied—as he said he felt compelled to inform the delegates—an anarchist dictatorship that no one had previously even imagined, and this was a contradiction of their principles. The question that occurs to us is, Did you used to think that your program of libertarian communism could be imposed by unanimous consent? Obviously not. The anarchosyndicalists never had the slightest doubt that the revolution would never take place by “consensus”, but by way of revolutionary violence—the authoritarian form that Engels mentioned—and applied this principle without any compunction in their insurrections, and they merely acted in accordance with this idea when they imposed the collectives (against employers, government authorities and reluctant workers and peasants).

In addition, however, to the indisputable “objective conditions, there were the “subjective conditions” that were much more decisive because for the anarchists it was a matter of principle that power “was accursed” (Louise Michel), and that by taking the reins in his hands even the most saintly person would be transformed into a bloodthirsty tyrant (Proudhon). This principle had another side, however: the curse had to be abolished. But the “hour of truth” had arrived; as it turned out, not only was power preserved but it was reinforced from the very moment when the anarchosyndicalists recognized its legitimacy and consented to incorporate their militias and collectives into the republican authority. That was when the CNT’s daily newspaper, Solidaridad Obrera, wrote that this was obviously a different kind of power, it was a power during times of crisis, a power that was forced to fight against its own army; but its logical consequence was the restoration of order, of private property, of the “status” of the colonies….

During the “July Days” the anarchosyndicalists inherited the city from the barricades, and that is just how Companys saw the matter when, in a tour de force of liberal bourgeois political intelligence, he went to place himself at the service of the revolution by continuing to represent the Generalitat. Even then, Companys was involved in a long-range political maneuver. First, they rolled out the red carpet for the CNT-FAI to get them to accept their presence, then they coexisted with them, gradually recovering the initiative on every terrain, relying on their legitimacy, their control over financial resources and, above all, the erosion of the revolution; the most shrewd aspect of this plan was the intention to integrate the revolutionary conquests that would subsequently be consigned to control by government institutions. For the achievement of this plan they relied on a militant and radical ally, the PSUC, which, in accordance with the policy of the PCE in the rest of Spain, wasted no time in adopting a harder line that would soon render this coexistence impossible.17

It was the anarchosyndicalists themselves who rejected the first alternative as insane—without bothering to call their entire history into question—and opted for a “halfway measure”. At this point we must ask why they did not choose the second alternative that would have enjoyed the support of the socialist left—which was actually much more extreme than the CNT in its opposition to Giral—and of the POUM.18 This alternative had the advantage of capitalizing on the prestige of the UHP and it responded to the sentiment of the majority of the population that rejected fascism. In order to answer this question, we must ask the question of the nature of the CNT. The CNT was a very powerful organization that had come of age in competition with the various types of Marxism, and which had formulated a revolutionary project that stood alone, outside of time and space. It viewed the other working class tendencies with more mistrust than it viewed the ERC, with which it had been embroiled in some very serious conflicts not so many years before. It was afraid that the Marxists would horn in on their territory, and therefore it would not countenance joining a revolutionary front initiated by them. Having rejected the prospect of revolutionary power, it was oriented towards a position that was apparently more consistent with its rejection of power. Its leading figures thought that by collaborating in various institutions, or in various government departments—whose names they rather pathetically wanted to change—they would therefore leave their hands free for what they considered to be the number one priority that was consistent with their convictions: the consolidation of the collectives. With this idea in mind, the Council of Aragon sought to make allies among the ERC of Companys and the “caballeristas”, disregarding its other problems. They also thought that this “perfect” marriage—in the words of Santillán—would not fall apart. This explains, for example, the CNT leaders’ delight when the government of the Generalitat expelled one political party (the POUM) and welcomed three trade unionists from the UGT, who were leaders of the PSUC!

It is furthermore the case that this alternative had no other vanguard that could have implemented it. The socialist left might have supported it from a more right wing position, as it was mostly concerned with its role in the State apparatus, and the POUM did not have the power to rally the broader movement around its proposals. Neither the CNT, nor anyone else—apart from the “Trotskyists”, who were a marginal factor—even imagined what significance the PCE-PSUC would have in the future, as the product of a strange mixture in which the mystification of the October revolution coexisting with traditional republican social sectors would become a vanguard party that was more deeply-entrenched, consistent, and financially secure than the republican right. They would witness what had never been seen before, the irresistible rise of a party that used the symbols and characteristic methods of Bolshevism—discipline, efficiency, the unity of the executive, agitation and propaganda on a vast scale, etc.—to defeat the revolution and to establish a government that was in conformance with Stalin’s policy of alliance with the “western democracies”.

This lack of understanding does not justify an attitude of complicity. The leaders of the CNT thought that they could get better treatment with regard to supplies of armaments and praised Stalin and the USSR, and maintained a policy of being good neighbors with the PCE-PSUC….

Governmental “circumstantialism”

The Spanish revolution, led mainly by the anarchosyndicalists, never really completely crystallized. It was profound in the arena of industry and agriculture, it registered significant achievements in the domain of customs and it provided a platform for the participation of women, above all by way of the efforts of Mujeres Libres. Its power was so indisputable that its most inveterate enemies, the official communists, did not attack it openly, but only in underhanded ways.

The communists maintained that it would be much better to postpone the revolution until after the war, and enumerated the reasons why it was inopportune, insofar as it hindered the war effort, alienated the moderates, and, last but not least, frightened the international allies, those “democracies” that, as one would expect, were much more afraid of “communism” (or anarchy) than of Franco who, furthermore, guaranteed the repatriation of their profits. The communists did not directly attack the CNT, but directed their attacks against the so-called “incontrolados”, a rather broad category that contained the local and regional “rebel” powers—the most important of which was none other than the Council of Aragon—along with the left wing elements present in the militias and in the rearguard, who were all lumped together in the same bag with those who, allowing themselves to be swept away by the most instinctive and primordial anticlerical traditions, burned down the churches and hunted down fascism behind every archaic manifestation of religious superstition.

The strength of the PCE and of the republican right was therefore also the weakness of the revolutionary sector and its majority component, the CNT-FAI. The latter did not have a political strategy and its leaders, like Horacio M. Prieto, first, and subsequently the sly Mariano Vázquez “Marianet”, reflected the inclination of its leading cadres to adopt pragmatic policies, that is, to work within institutions that were parts of a State undergoing reconstruction. These leaders would later come into open conflict with the collectives and with those who criticized official republican policies. They had converted, each in his own way, to the credo of “first, the war”, as if war and revolution were contradictory terms, as if the revolution was something that could not be applied during a war, when class antagonisms are most obvious.

The culmination of this process towards institutional politics would be the incorporation of four anarchist leaders into the government of Largo Caballero, a “transition” government in which, as in Catalonia, the balance of power was shifting irreversibly in favor of a republican right wing that was rebuilding the “legitimate” institutions against an inconclusive and rudderless revolution.

Not all the anarchist leaders accepted their new responsibilities with enthusiasm. Joan Peiró and Juan López, two dyed-in-the-wool “treintistas”, had no qualms (although Peiró later wrote an account of this period that was characterized by a great deal of self-criticism), but García Oliver did not want to accept the appointment unless he was joined by Federica Montseny, who embodied the purist tradition better than anyone else. At first Montseny viewed this dilemma, which touched upon one of the cardinal self-definitions of her current, as a matter of personal honor, but as the CNT became more and more engaged in “circumstantialist” positions, she relented and agreed to accept a Ministerial portfolio, but not before having received the blessing of her father, Federico Urales, who thought that she had to help democracy against fascism.

Incorporated in the government, the CNT suffered from the conflict between its two souls, and while the possibilists provided enthusiastic theoretical justifications for government participation, the spontaneists, submerged for the most part in the militant rank and file, beheld with disbelief how one revolutionary conquest after another was destroyed. Both positions would come out into the open when the process of republican “normalization” reached the point where it was time to put an end to ambivalences and to bring the process to a conclusion. Various obstacles stood in the way of this goal, but they can for the most part be reduced to two kinds: the still decisive influence of the revolution in Catalonia and Aragón, and the ambivalent, “centrist” attitude of Largo Caballero and the Ezquerra. And right in the middle of all this was the POUM, with which the PCE-PSUC had two additional quarrels; first, the POUM represented a more consistent revolutionary alternative, and therefore posed the threat of triggering a change in the overall situation in Spain, and second, it was sufficiently anti-Stalinist to be categorized as “Trotskyist”….

By late 1936 the political “climate” had become more tense due to the increasingly more audacious attitude of official communism. The contradictions were on the verge of exploding and they finally snapped during the events of May 1937, which can be characterized by at least three stages: 1) the provocation at the Telephone Exchange Building led to a revolutionary situation, which in its outward manifestations was very similar to the situation that prevailed in July 1936, but was internally oriented towards a defensive position; 2) the arrival of the anarchist Ministers—especially Federica Montseny, who was most persuasive because of her revolutionary past—and the shameful attitude of the leaders of the Barcelona CNT, led to a retreat of the movement without taking any serious precautions to defend its militants against reprisals; 3) the movement went into decline and a new offensive of the republican right was launched, within which Stalinism had successfully introduced itself as a “real power”.

Everyone knows what happened next: Nin and many other militants (Berneri, Wolf, Landau, etc.) all went down the same hole created by the defeat of 1937. The circle was closed. The POUM was outlawed, the decline of the CNT accelerated, the Council of Aragón was overthrown manu militari, numerous collectives were disbanded, Largo Caballero was forced to resign, and Catalonia lost its extensive autonomy. The CNT had striven above all to disavow its “enragés” in the Friends of Durruti, who had formulated their own analysis of “circumstantialism” and who expressed the anger, the discontent and the willingness to engage in resistance of a broad swath of the rank and file masses of the CNT, but who nonetheless lacked a political program, and were incapable of recovering what had been lost. The CNT was also late in coming to realize that the persecution directed against the POUM would be turned against it, too. Curiously, Emma Goldman, the most zealous theoretician of the idea that Bolshevism (Trotskyism) and Stalinism were two sides of the same coin, ultimately defended the “real Bolsheviks” like Nin, and Federica rediscovered her critical, angry voice.19

The disarray of the CNT-FAI during the last stage of the civil war is revealed, for example, by its attempts to counteract communist hegemony by means of various maneuvers—it sent a delegation to Azaña to try to persuade him, even as he was dying, to dismiss Negrín—and desperate actions like its last and most significant one, when it supported the Casado Junta that opposed the more than dubious call for a suicidal last stand issued by Negrín and the PCE—who in fact limited their resistance against Casado’s Defense Committee to a few isolated groups—by means of which it futilely attempted to bring to a dignified conclusion a war that, within the republican camp, was first combined with a “war” against the revolution with the consent of the republican right as a whole and finally, with another “war”, this time between official communists and the Negrín tendency of the PSOE on one side, and the rest—republicans, right wing socialist followers of Prieto and Besteiro, nationalists and anarchists—on the other side.

This last “war” also had its different interpretations within the libertarian camp. We do not have to point out that the legendary collective and/or individual history of anarchosyndicalism during the Spanish civil war, with its extensions in the “maquis” and the French and Spanish resistance, would become the obsessively pondered question of questions for all subsequent anarchist debates. It would be hard to find a single theoretician or writer associated with the anarchist movement, from any part of the world, who has not produced at least one or more texts on the lessons of the Spanish revolution, including such outstanding contributions as those of Vernon Richards, André Prudhommeaux, Rudolf de Jong, Noam Chomsky, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and a long etcetera, stirring the ashes of an always unconcluded controversy, one that is always open to new approaches and contributions.


Generally speaking, there is a more or less official position concerning the construction the revolution—self-management—that justifies the CNT’s political action as inevitable in view of the historical conditions, and even goes so far as to claim (Federica Montseny) that there was no break with the continuity, but rather a reaffirmation, of the principles of anarchism. This position places particular emphasis on the experience of self-management without a State—which is not totally accurate—but does admit that “circumstantialism” led to the destruction of the revolution, although I do not know of any author who has offered an alternative assessment. A third, more “revisionist” position, is that of the followers of Pestaña and Horacio Prieto who assert that the error resided in not having pursued circumstantialism and political action with more coherence while at the same time conflating its cause with that of the Republic in opposition to the Stalinist version.20

This debate, endless and with many variations, was then inserted into another historical conjuncture for anarchosyndicalism. Radically divided in the resistance, disconnected from the new generations since the 1950s, anarchosyndicalism survived in exile with the firm conviction that with establishment of a framework of democratic liberties—their theoretical works would state that anarchosyndicalism was no longer suited to illegality, forgetting that it had been able to carry on with its operations in the past when it had been outlawed—it would gloriously reemerge because anarchosyndicalism is “inherent” to the individualist nature of the “Spaniard”, and for a brief moment in history one might have believed this was true, making the leap from the generation of the civil war to the efforts of an inexperienced person like Puig Antich, with his readings of New Left texts (Reich, Guevara, Sartre). The conservative course taken by the Transition put an end to this dream. The popular workers movement was basically colonized by various types of communists. Industrial and social relations were now very different from those that prevailed before the civil war. The influence of the “old guard” suffocated the new recruits and the clash between classical anarchism—the IWA—and the kind of anarchism that was the offspring of the new times led to a history of truly momentous crises and purges, above all when one considers that they took place in an organization that preached unlimited freedom.

Of course, anarchosyndicalism has not entirely disappeared; its memories are too powerful, its example too instructive, and the continuity of its militant action from below merits too much respect, but it has become a pale shadow of the glories of the past and its militance, voluntarily marginalized with some exceptions, devotes more and more of its attention to the music of the past, the more problems it encounters in understanding the music of the present and the future.

This is not to say that the history of anarchosyndicalism is a closed book, an archeological relic. The past never really dies and the past of anarchism is rich and splendid enough for us to be able to turn to its history to find an endless supply of lessons of great value and texts of the greatest interest, because the principal error of socialism was not that it wanted too much freedom but that it too often renounced freedom. That is why, in many ways, we have to lay claim to libertarianism although we will have to wash out our mouths many times after doing so.

Pepe Gutiérrez-Álvarez

Translated in June 2016 from the Spanish text (entitled La cuestión anarquista en la revolución española) published in the online edition of the Andreu Nin Foundation for May 2007, available on the website of the Fundación Andreu Nin.


  • 1 This article first appeared in the magazine, Imprecor, and was translated for Cahiers Léon Trotsky, No. 50, May 1993.
  • 2 This rejection was at first proclaimed by the most doctrinaire anarchists, then it began to spread after the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty, and it became generalized after Kronstadt. Although the Kronstadt rebellion cannot be seriously identified as an anarchist uprising—a third revolution—it is nonetheless indicative of the growing hegemony of the apparatus of repression within the Soviet State. Concerning this latter point, there is abundant material (among which we may justly call attention to the contribution of Paul Avrich, Kronstadt 1921), and it has since been a bone of contention between the anarchists and the anti-Stalinist communists.
  • 3 Anarchosyndicalism had experienced numerous political defeats—we need only mention that of the CGT in 1914—but it had never played such a preeminent role as it did in the war in Spain. A little-known case is that of the Portuguese CGT, which was very powerful on the eve of Salazar’s coup d’état, which it opposed by advocating an openly suicidal policy that it called “proletarian neutrality”. I have never encountered a critical study of this experience in the anarchist literature.
  • 4 In every country where anarchism was a significant force, the communist parties were originally formed with a major admixture—sometimes a decisive one—of such anarchist cadres, and it was viewed as preferable as compared to the Social Democratic parties during the first several congresses of the Communist International. It is quite significant that some of the leading figures of the POUM—Nin, Maurín, Bonet, etc.—were members of the CNT and this phenomenon may be extrapolated to the entire International Left Opposition.
  • 5 One could say, without fear of exaggeration, that all of international anarchism had “its war in Spain”. A simple yet dramatic example of the meaning of the defeat may be found in an “outline” form in films like “La historia oficial”, directed by Luis Puenzo (Argentina, 1985), or “Salvador”, directed by Manuel Huerga (2006).
  • 6 Federica Montseny even discovered “features” of anarchism in the extreme right, and an author like Heleno Saña connects this anarchic nature with the marked presence of pre-capitalist society in Spain; John dos Passos makes similar observations in his Rocinante….
  • 7 Maurín (in his exchange with Joan Peiró), Nin and Jordi Arquer argued for the Marxist side in an extensive debate on this question. See Albert Balcells, ed., El arraigo del anarquismo en España. Textos de 1926/1932, A. Redondo, Barcelona, 1973. This question is also addressed in Revolución y contrarrevolución en España (Ruedo Ibérico, Paris, 1966). And Juan Andrade also devoted a lot of attention to anarchism in his Notas sobre la guerra civil, Ed. Libertarias, Madrid, 1986).
  • 8 An understanding of the distinction made by Ernst Bloch between “hot” language and “cold” language would be helpful in this context. Anarchist literature was perhaps not of the highest quality, but it did have the undeniable virtue of “reaching” even the most illiterate workers who listened with enlightenment—in the best sense of that word—to readings of works like The Conquest of Bread, as is related by Juan Díaz del Moral in his indispensable history of peasant uprisings in Andalusia (Alianza, Madrid). For a study of this important question, see A. Tirana Ferrer, Educación libertaria y revolución social, Univ. Nacional a Distancia, Madrid, 1987.
  • 9 It is of interest to note the differences between the positions of the Communist Left—the BOC and OIC—and the positions of the Stalinized PCE with regard to the question of working within the CNT. While the PCE only conceived such infiltration from an instrumental perspective—for the purpose of creating “its own” CNT—and viewed the anarchists as enemies—as anarcho-fascists or “incontrolados”—the Communist Left groups advocated trade union democracy and unity with the UGT, and criticized the conception that would transform the CNT into the exclusive patrimony of the anarchists, who would not allow workers to have any other political choices than their own, regardless of how “different” they were.
  • 10 With respect to this period, see the Manuel Sacristán’s Introduction to the writings of Marx and Engels on Spain, Ed. Ariel, Barcelona, 1966.
  • 11 Provocations of this kind were common enough. The existence of a desperate person was taken advantage of, and sometimes this was not even necessary. As in Chicago in 1885, there are those who will provoke a massacre or a series of “revenge” killings. There is no proof, or, when there is evidence pointing to the real culprits, as in Jerez, it is not pursued. The maneuver does, however, succeed in decapitating the movement. Although on a lesser scale, it seems obvious that something of this kind was intended to be carried out during the time of Interior Minister Martín Villa with the “Scala Case”.
  • 12 Eduardo Mendoza provides an excellent summary of these developments in his best work, La verdad sobre el caso Savolta, depicting them as a “test” of the fascist methodology.
  • 13 From the Introduction to Los de Barcelona, by H. E. Kaminski (Ed. del Cotal, Barcelona, 1977).
  • 14 Quoted by Antonio Elorza, La utopía anarquista durante la II República, Ed. Ayuso, Madrid, 1973. An indispensable work, whose only defect is that it isolates its focus on the debates within anarchism from the general historical context.
  • 15 See Elorza, op. cit. This dilemma would be temporarily ameliorated by a sector of the Libertarian Youth during the May Events of 1937, but, despite its categorical character, it was not seriously posed after 1936.
  • 16 See the special edition of Imprecor devoted to 1934 (December 1984).
  • 17 Long before May 1937, Comorera saw this quite clearly: whereas, for the ERC the problem was not rooted in the fact that their goals were different, but rather in the fact that their plans were intended to be implemented over a much longer time frame—Companys was persuaded that the CNT would end up betraying its principles—and tried to take measures to ensure that they did not lose their autonomy to the central government. Nonetheless, during the May Events, the ERC forgot about this precaution and appealed to Valencia for police reinforcements.
  • 18 In his important work on the postwar PCE, Gregorio Morán speaks disparagingly of the idea suggested by Fernando Claudín in The Crisis of the Communist Movement, in his chapter on Spain, to the effect that the rightward shift of the PCE in 1935-36 dislocated the revolutionary front. To us, the idea does not seem so crazy, as the political line of the PCE responded to demands that were foreign to the Spanish revolution rather than to the development of the movement or of the PCE itself, which in 1934 was making a painful transition towards more laudable positions on the united front than those that it upheld during the “third period”.
  • 19 Emma Goldman was one of the few spokespersons of international anarchism—along with Camilo Berneri—who criticized the CNT’s “circumstantialist” positions, above all the participation of the CNT in government ministries, yet she excused them with the argument that the cenetistas were honest and acted in good faith. During the “Moscow Trials” the CNT echoed the positions expressed in many of her writings, which may be summarized by the title of one of them: “Trotsky Protests Too Much”. She said that the Moscow Trials were merely the continuation of the anti-anarchist repression of Kronstadt and the Ukraine. After May 1937 she defended the POUM.
  • 20 These positions are expressed clearly enough in the book by César M. Lorenzo—the son of Horacio Prieto—Los anarquistas españoles y el poder, Ruedo Ibérico, Paris, 1972).



7 years 3 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by akai on June 17, 2016

More crap from a party leftist.

klas batalo

6 years 3 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by klas batalo on July 1, 2017

Anyone know what organization referred to here as OIC is?

After much research I think it's mean to be the ICE the Trotskyists around Nin.