A critique of Andrés Devesa’s essay on the “domestication of memory” with respect to the events of the Spanish civil war and revolution, which is faulted for having placed too much emphasis on the failure of leadership of the CNT-FAI as the reason for the failure of the revolution, which Ferreiro traces to the subjective disposition of the rank and file of anarchosyndicalism, who were too dependent on “their organization”, with which they strongly identified, to break free of its tutelage and their “conformist and passive attitude” towards its collaboration.
Critical Notes on the Text, “Spain, 1936. The Exorcism of the Ghost of the Revolution”, by Andrés Devesa – Roi Ferreiro
The text by Andrés Devesa, “Spain, 1936. The Exorcism of the Ghost of the Revolution” (May 2006) is a good critique of the dominant interpretation of history and how it has substantially mystified the revolutionary process in the Spanish state, especially by way of the fascism-democracy dialectic. (The mystification, however, has also been conducted by the “radical left”, by way of the artificial attempts to counterpose the proletariat and bourgeois society as a whole, which leads to an irrational dissociation between the proletariat and its own organizations and representatives and, in its logical conclusion, to the admission that only a “pure” minority can represent the “real” proletariat against “social democratic”, “reformist”, etc., positions of the majority, prisoners of stupidity, ignorance and bourgeois ideological manipulation—see the lines of “analysis” followed, for example, by the ICC and the ICG, respectively, in this and other historical cases).
My critique will be centered on the reductionist focus assumed by the author of the text by situating the problem of the transformation of the present, just as the “democratic” or “leftist opposition” did, in the struggle for the recovery of historical memory. As I shall attempt to make clear, this focus means giving priority to the leadership of the events, to the historical narrative, rather than to the living activity of individuals and its nature, historical creation.
“The revolutionary organizations, particularly the CNT, committed the very serious error of failing to address the question of power, in the belief that, once the social revolution had started, power would automatically collapse, swept aside by the emancipatory and creative force of the revolution. And this is the third key to understanding the victory of the counterrevolution, the lack of vision and determination on the part of a revolutionary left that was incapable of rising to the challenge of the circumstances and allowed itself to be dragged along by events, thus digging its own grave.” (A. Devesa)
The way I see it, the author insists too much on the problem of leadership, claiming that it did not rise to the challenge of the events, etc. This focus on leadership is not obviated even if it is extended beyond the highest levels of the organizations and their directives. However, the organizations act the way they do as a result of the practical attitude of their members and, in this sense, if the leaders do what they do this is because, among the rank and file, the people have created the conditions for such conduct, consciously or unconsciously. Taking this into account, the text seems to be about determining the incongruities of revolutionary action in the Spanish civil war by limiting its purview to undertaking a critique of the leadership in political terms. Such a critique, however, implies that what is decisive is always political activity. And if the historical analysis of the past has any use today—beyond pointing fingers at culprits or making possible an authentic analogy with more contemporary situations—it is that of supplying us with material for analysis for a profound theoretical development that is oriented towards the present. It is from this perspective that the knowledge of past history helps us to compare and establish correlations between the situations of the past and those of the present. It therefore makes it possible for us to concretely confront the question: why did the political leadership turn against the revolution? And then the question framed within the current context, related to the first one: Why does today’s leadership of the proletarian struggle not become revolutionary?
The first question helps us to approach the question of how political leadership develops historically and what role it plays in the course of the class struggle. From a non-reductionist perspective, the leadership is not merely the result of (presumably) rational debates, which are furthermore (supposedly) determined by certain existing social needs and by the pressure of the course of events, but is a social expression of the prevailing subjectivity as a whole, and of its process of formation by way of psycho-social interaction, by way of praxis. Then the question of why the political leadership turned against the revolution cannot be answered in terms of “rising to the challenge” of circumstances (which amounts to saying that consciousness was not equal to the practical situation and does not explain anything).
You can attribute any content you want to the revolution; but you cannot lose sight of the fact that it is, in essence, a total movement created by the praxis of a mass of individuals. Starting from the basis of the fact that the object of our analysis is a process and not an isolated moment (when it is always possible that there are simply mistaken decisions, which would be neither a coherent expression of subjectivity nor of the objective conditions), it is not possible then to claim that it did not theoretically rise to the challenge and whether, on the other hand, it practically rose to the challenge. Furthermore, if we claim that we are speaking of practice in terms of will, since whether one has “risen to the occasion” or not does not really refer back to practice, but to the mental attitude or aptitude towards practical tasks or their conditions. Both things, theory and practice, are indissoluble components of praxis as the living unity of thought and action in individuals. Both, of course, could be in contradiction with each other, but such a contradiction is therefore a sign of maladjustment between theory and practice rather than a sign of their separation. It reveals a lack of maturity of subjectivity or, if you prefer, a limitation of the development of consciousness (in the sense that social experience and subjective needs—both aspects are interconnected—do not fit with the practical content that is represented by conscious thought). The result is that practice that is consciously undertaken does not yield the desired or expected results. And this is basically not due to the pressure of external forces, nor is it due to an inability to evaluate the objective conditions, but due to the very constitutive incoherence of praxis. Thus, the problem did not reside in the fact that the leadership did not “rise to the challenge”; the problem was that there was a false consciousness of reality, of such a kind that the proclaimed goals did not correspond—consistently—with the practical leadership. The object of desire did not correspond with either practical consciousness or with the object of practice because, either the desire itself is psychologically idealized by the subject (Case Number 1), or else practical consciousness is too limited and imparts as a consequence upon desire a form of practical objectification that is equally limited (Case Number 2). In both cases, however, the result is the same: the purpose that is imminent to practice as the unity of thought and action does not correspond with the subjective motivation that set it in motion. This constant incoherence of praxis is not due, therefore, to erroneous political decisions, which involve what is to be done at this or that moment or in this or that situation. Nor is it due to contradictions of abstract thought, since the forms of abstract thought are determined in their effective content by the practical historical consciousness formed over the course of a long period of time. It is due to a psychological and social self-alienation (Case Number 1) or to self-alienation that is only social (Case Number 2—since one knows what one wants, but does not know any better way to obtain it than in a self-contradictory manner).
The focus on leadership, although it claims to be guided by an emancipatory perspective, still constantly refers us to rational debate and the rational execution of the decisions arrived at, as if they were the constitutional foundation of the leadership. We abstract from real individuals and their praxis, and only recognize their subjectivity in terms of political leadership. This “error”, in the case of the text under consideration, is much more distinct, since the author seeks, towards the end, to establish a parallel with the rise of the class struggle that overthrew the Francoist dictatorship. It is not my intention to imply that this reductionism was the conscious intention of the author; I only want to point out that the adoption of such a focus provokes a terrible omission from reality. If we base our considerations on an a priori simplification of reality, then the result of our research will be equally simplifying—and meanwhile also runs the risk of losing sight right from the beginning of the most important thing. If we take into account all the factors, then we can be in a position to effectively delineate, not only what was decisive in each separate moment of the class struggle, but also what were the effective conditions of the process of the struggle, both objective and subjective.
A leadership is the result of a subjectivity that acts on the basis of certain objective conditions which that subjectivity in turn transforms and which also transform that subjectivity in turn, in a cyclical process in which both aspects (the transformation of subjectivity by objective reality, and the transformation of objective reality by subjectivity) feed off each other and are indissociable. Consequently, if you want to understand how the CNT’s “betrayal”, the absence of a program oriented towards the destruction of the power of the state, or more generally the political decisions that did not “rise to the challenge” of circumstances, were possible—all intelligent and proper questions—we have to analyze the historical process from the perspective that I have mentioned: first, direct our attention to the historical constitution of proletarian subjectivity, on the one hand, and towards the constitution of the social reality that this subjectivity took, or had to take as the object of its action, on the other hand; second, proceed to analyze the interaction (reciprocal dependence and mutual determination) of these two planes of the effective movement in a concrete way, following the empirical course of the events.
This focus leads me to understand that the proletarian subjectivity of 1936 was molded by a capitalist society that was undergoing a crisis of development rather than a death crisis; a society whose historical backwardness led it, now, into a difficult situation in international competition. The crisis of the 1930s rapidly exacerbated the problem. The absence of a material situation that would have been favorable for a certain degree of social integration of the working class and to a democratic political tradition (both on the territorial plane as well as on the plane of the general relations between civil society and the state), determined a powerful presence of anarchosyndicalism—as well as a general tendency towards radicalization, which was also evident in the social democratic movement.
Based on the experience accumulated up until this point, we know that capitalism cannot be overthrown in one country, nor can it be overthrown until it has exhausted its ability to further social development. Even then, however, subjectivity is not exempt from alteration due to the economic decline and general unrest (the intensification of social and personal contradictions) that such a situation would provoke. Because the change of subjectivity only results from the conscious interaction of the individual with this reality, not from passive contemplation. Nor can this conscious interaction be generated or induced by way of rational speeches and debates, but requires a complex process of psycho-social maturation in people.
Under these circumstances, the way I look at it, it was just a matter of time before one of the empirical factors that were opposed to the revolution would be able to impose its power, thus assuming the guise of the determinant cause. Behind these factors, however, there was always the lack of revolutionary development of subjectivity itself, which never advanced very far beyond attempting to make a change in the material conditions of its life, but not a qualitative change in its life as a whole. That is, to create a general social well being that was unattainable in a backward capitalist country and which therefore was expressed in the form of mutually contradictory rationalizations. In such conditions, the most radical revolutionary ideals do not have behind them the corresponding concrete practical consciousness that could transcend the parameters of capitalism. The organization of production by means of the trade unions (thereby reducing the transition to communism to a question of abolishing money), based on the mystification of the trade unions as organs of the liberation of the proletariat and the mystification of the nature of the capitalist relations of production (which were identified with individually-owned private property), was translated into a kind of “trade union” capitalism. Apoliticism, which was a practical reaction against parliamentarism and to a kind of class politics whose origins lay for the most part in bourgeois or aristocratic traditions, was confused with opposition to the state entirely because of its class nature, which is why this erroneous apoliticism necessarily led the CNT to enter the government and thus identify with the Republic, claiming that its participation in the government had changed the nature of the latter from bourgeois to proletarian (which was especially clear in Catalonia). The same kind of thing happened with regard to education and gender issues, so that the substantial progress that was made against semi-feudal teaching methods, or the incorporation of women into non-domestic work, were interpreted as steps forward in the proletarian revolution, when they were nothing but steps forward in the development of mature capitalist society.
These limitations of subjectivity, manifested in the distance between the abstractly declared goals and the concrete identification of their method of practical realization, were most clearly displayed in anarchosyndicalism because it was the most radical movement. Among the rest of the masses, who supported the social democratic or Leninist parties, this distance was much reduced and therefore the contradiction between expectations and practical results was much less clearly highlighted, so that, for those individuals, it was almost impossible for them to objectively perceive the contradiction between their psycho-social desires or expectations and their effective social praxis. The fact that the openly revolutionary process was cut short after a relatively short time and was weighed down by the war in every respect, did not of course make it any easier for people to become aware of these contradictions, which was practically an isolated phenomenon and in addition much too late (The Friends of Durruti, etc.).
Even so, there are always doubts about what empirical factor was the most important factor in the defeat of the revolution, since there is always a complex confluence and mutual reinforcement of the factors in play. That is why any attempt to determine which factor was decisive in the defeat of the revolutionary process (Stalinist repression, anarchosyndicalist and POUMist illusions, the collaborationist deviation of the highest layers of the “workers organizations”, the military power of the Francoist forces supported by the fascist countries, the economic weakness of the republican forces) is, after a certain point, a waste of time. It is more important to recognize the roots of the defeat and, in this way, qualitatively differentiate between the particular and relatively transient factors and the more profound and basic factors, which effectively constituted the general and constant foundation of the process or movement.
The focus on leaders also leads to conceptualizing false factors such as, for example, the absence of a coherent revolutionary program and of action in conformance with such a program. Thus, one can claim that history would have been different if they had deprived the fascist forces of their economic base with a program of consistent expropriation, and deprived the republicans of their political power with the development of real organs of proletarian power. But to explain reality by what it lacks can only lead us to overlook the real forces at work and to replace the concrete analysis of these forces—of their formation, development and struggle—with theoretical postulates which, in practice, are not explanations of these processes, but assertions concerning what should have been—which, it is assumed, will be applicable to the future as well.
If we understand that it is the social-historical constitution of subjectivity and its surroundings that explains what is lacking, the study of its practical historical interaction and its subsequent development leads us to understand its forms of activity as expressions of that constitution, not merely as an ideological question, or as “natural”, “normal” or “common sense” facts, etc. This is why the theoreticians of council communism always insisted that the trade union and party forms were the expressions of reformism, and pointed out that their persistence was indicative of the fact that reformism had not yet lost its reason for existence, or else that it had not yet lost the support of the masses, who were psychologically conditioned by the capitalist way of life. That is, the classic councilists understood that, if the revolutionary proletariat still adopted these forms, this was a general and external sign of a radical contradiction between their revolutionary desires and their conscious thoughts. And the same reasoning can be applied to the opposite case: with a non-revolutionary proletariat, driven to revolutionary action by forces beyond their control, a contradiction emerges between their reformist desires and their assumption of forms of organization and struggle that unconsciously, although effectively, challenge the domination of capital. The distinction, however, between “revolutionary proletariat” and “non-revolutionary proletariat” is purely ideal. Any modern revolutionary process includes both conditions and a complex confrontation between both fractions of the proletariat (within which in turn there are layers that are differentiated according to the development of their subjectivity).
The resolution of the internal contradiction in the revolutionary proletariat is therefore decisive for the fruitful development of the social revolution. This revolution presupposes, on the one hand, that the proletarian masses that are still spiritually adherents to reformism should cease to be the majority, and on the other hand that the revolutionary masses should concretely solve their spiritual contradictions. Both factors continually feed off each other, causing global revolutionary activity to extend its field of operations, on the one hand, and to become more profound and integral, on the other hand. This revolutionary development requires, however, in order to be sustainable, conditions characterized by an irreversible and accelerated intensification of class antagonisms. It is with regard to this point that the factor of the illusions that the proletarians have concerning their own activity comes into play. Thus, global crises in accordance with the model of capitalist accumulation, which led to major transitions from the model of liberal capitalism to the model of state capitalism (Keynesianism, fascism, Bolshevism) between the world wars, were at that time confused with the final crisis of capitalism, which undoubtedly served as a stimulus for the revolutionary struggle, but did not help to overcome, but to the contrary actually contributed to fix even more firmly, the mental hold of the forms of practical consciousness of the era, blocking the way to further development.
As Marx said, however, we must not judge people by what they think of themselves, but by their actions. What matters is praxis as effective historical process. If the anarchosyndicalist and POUMist proletariat—because of their ideologies, or as a result of pragmatic support in the good sense of the term (in disregard of forms)—thought that their practice was revolutionary, in whatever sense, this is not relevant to us. What is relevant for us is instead the fact that they remained regimented in these organizations and were not prepared to act in any other way, except in the cases of small minorities, or, as was the case during the May Events in Barcelona, in an isolated and ephemeral way.
It is certainly the case that the dynamic engendered by dependence on these organizations, which also exercised formal control over war production, was decisive in giving rise among the working class to a conformist and passive attitude with regard to their organizations’ collaborationist practices, and at times even to an actively conservative and justificatory attitude. The defeat, then, was caused not only by the constitution of subjectivity and the material structure of social life; due to the molding of this subjectivity in the practical social movement, the defeat was also a result of the reproduction of the autonomized dynamic of social development, a dynamic that is especially visible in capitalist society.
Due to the fact that subjectivity and its surroundings relate to one another in this society in an atomized (as a mass of individuals separated from each other by competition and unequal economic development) and autonomized way (the dynamic of social life is determined by the capitalist economic dynamic, over which subjectivity has no control), their interaction takes place, in principle and globally, blindly and in mutual estrangement. It does not matter if attempts are made to compensate for or control this by means of state intervention or other superstructures. In the workers movement, the alienating character of the prevailing social relations is also introduced and reproduced in its own organizations; if not at first, then at some stage of their development, and if not sweeping them all at once, then gradually insinuating itself into their operations (“bureaucratic degeneration”). So that finally, in the absence of a continuing revolutionary impulse that would contain and abolish these alienating relations, the latter will create the same dynamic of autonomized global development within the workers movement as well, in the relations between working class subjectivity and the organizational structures that it has created.
This blind dynamic therefore presupposes the autonomization of the working class organizations against the class (so that they no longer operate as class instruments, but only in accordance with the needs of part of the class, that is, in a corporativist manner) and of their delegatory structures against the masses of their members. This autonomized development generates a material and spiritual inertia that is not easy to overcome, and which cannot of course be broken with instantly, thanks to a sudden dawning of awareness of the problem. It involves habits of thought and behavior that have been internalized over the course of many years, some of which have been ideologically reinforced, while others have been assimilated as natural attitudes. On this foundation, the awareness of the alienated character of the prevailing forms of organization must take the form, at first—for the majority of people who are subject to these conditioning processes—in a self-perception of material and spiritual impotence, magnifying the power created by this dynamic, which seems to be deposited in organizational structures (fetishism). At the level of individuals or groups, this self-perception of impotence is projected on the masses, as if it were an element of their effective nature, thus favoring the emergence of leadership-substitutionist ideas or the assumption of a defeatist attitude that leads to desertion from the class movement. Only by being compelled to engage in the struggle against this autonomized power can advanced individuals or groups practically challenge the dynamic that creates it (autonomization) and which in turn enables its spiritual instillation in the masses (compulsory activity in accordance with the demands of this autonomized power).
Nonetheless, despite all these obstacles, the revolutionary consciousness that develops in this struggle for an authentic revolutionary movement—which is no longer limited to the distribution and use of wealth, but which challenges the forms of self-activity that integrate the prevailing way of life—begins with a minority. The majority of the masses will have to be free in order to abolish this dynamic of autonomization and its social reinforcement. Thus, the need and the problem arise of how to constitute this minority as a force capable of overcoming this self-alienation of the masses and therefore also the problem of how to organize it. Consequently, between the recognition of the problem and its resolution an entire process of the development of consciousness intervenes, both in its aspect of recognition of the prevailing reality as well as in its aspect as a creative projection of subjective needs, creating forms of activity that are consistent with their conscious goals. And here lies a key problem: this development cannot be undertaken during the revolutionary high point without becoming an easy target for the counterrevolutionary forces. There is not time, then, for this maturation (note the case of The Friends of Durruti, to give one example), even assuming that the evolution of subjectivity would have proceeded far enough to take this step.
What is being demonstrated by historical experience is the fact that such development will have to have foundations and material structures that have been built in advance, during the whole pre-revolutionary stage in the broadest sense of the term (although its material existence will only be socially meaningful in a context of rising class struggle). And that the actual revolution itself must be, above all, a process of extension and amplification of these previously created and materialized forms of activity—which does not mean that their external forms will not change or that we can casually speak of “pre-revolutionary embryos” of the organization of the revolution: here I am talking about its internal form or the entire set of its constitutive social characteristics, which are determined by the practical social function that they fulfill and by the social relations that are its vehicles (both aspects, social function and social relations, are inter-related as base and superstructure). Essentially, it will be a matter of transitional forms—not complete, perfected or free of contradictions—whose revolutionary foundations and functions will be combined with tasks and functions involving non-revolutionary everyday struggles.
In conclusion, Devesa’s text points to the need to recover historical memory, in order to understand this history as a class struggle. Unfortunately, the way I see it, this is to fall into an apology for what exists. For, regardless of what we say about the past, it will still be nothing but dead words. The movement for the recovery of historical memory in the Spanish state instead functions, and does so independently of whatever political orientation it seeks to represent, as a movement of reinforcement of today’s bourgeois democracy. This is because, even if we assume that the current political regime is the heir of Francoism, and that we have to confront it as an unreal democracy and an instrument of capital against the proletariat, the proposal to define historical memory as memory of the class struggle does not lead us beyond justifying opposition to the political regime in the present. The question is: is it necessary to justify this opposition? And this leads directly to the question of just what is it that you consider to be the purpose of revolutionary thought.
If revolutionary thought serves the revolutionary transformation of human life, then its justification resides in this labor and not in its ability to recognize the effective reality of the past—or even that of the present. It is not a matter of knowing history, but of making history. It will be objected, however, that it is necessary to know history in order to change it in the future. But to this one could respond that not all knowledge is equally useful to the transformation. Certain knowledge could be useful, but not fundamental, and this applies in general to the descriptions of the past. At the very moment we lose sight of the present, we are mentally distanced from revolutionary activity. Then in our consciousness, as in the general consciousness of bourgeois society, “the past dominates the present” (The Communist Manifesto). What we have to seek to bring about is instead to grasp the future in the present, and to remain attentive to this creative unfolding of history, always keeping in mind the fact that this becoming is the integral result of all the actions and interactions of individuals as total persons, and that the fundamental question is therefore the creation of a revolutionary praxis on the part of these individuals and not the creation of an abstract revolutionary consciousness.
Our problem is not “the domestication of memory” (Devesa), but the domestication of our spirits. This is a rather more complicated issue and cannot be resolved by way of simple speeches about historical truth. It is the actual individuals who, by way of their own praxis, must discover the historical truth of their lives and then, for them, past history can acquire a revolutionary meaning, transcending the opposition that is embedded in the system: the closed circle between right and left, government and opposition, forgetting and memory of the class struggle. Here, too, Marx’s methodological principle applies: historical problems can only find their solution in historical praxis itself; everything else leads us to intellectual forms of mysticism, to the ideologization of reality. The project of “historical memory”, such as it currently exists in the Spanish state, is above all a representation of the (failed) reformism of the remnants of Leninism and cenetismo, for whom all that remains is an appeal to the memory of the past as a justification for their current existence. However legitimate it may be to recover the memory of the dead and the victims of repression, however much importance this could have as an element of agitation in political struggles (which in reality is not much; it rather favors regression1 to the ideology of anti-fascism and thus of populist republicanism and its parliamentary reformism), we, as revolutionaries, must devote our efforts to understanding the conditions and forms of struggle against capitalism in the present and the future.
Written on August 13, 2007 as a contribution to debate on the CICA discussion forum. Revised, corrected and expanded for publication on January 4, 2008. The text by Andrés Devesa may be consulted at his blog Fahrenheit 451 or in the post he uploaded to the CICA discussion forum.
Translated from the Spanish in November 2013.
The Spanish original of Andrés Devesa’s text, “España, 1936. El fantasma de la Revolución conjurado”, can be found online (in November 2013) at: http://fcuatrocincouno.blogspot.com/2006_05_01_archive.html
For an English translation of Devesa’s text, see: http://libcom.org/history/exorcism-ghost-revolution-andr%C3%A9s-devesa.
- 1 I say “regression” because it involves ideological forms that, as they are commonly used, respond to conditions of society that are now things of the past. Neither the contemporary Catholic right nor the groups of the extreme right have the same political and social meaning today that they had during the years of the Second Republic. It is not just a quantitative question, either, but a qualitative one as well. Politically, Francoism was a counterrevolutionary movement because it had to confront a real revolutionary process, just as Italian fascism and Nazism responded to the liquidation of the foundations of the revolutionary processes that were taking place after the First World War. Today there is not the slightest trace of a revolutionary process, so that, beyond a certain partial kind of continuity with regard to personnel and ideology, there is neither any political nor historical continuity beyond the obvious fact that Francoism (in the past) and parliamentary monarchy (in the present) represent the general interests of capitalism. Therefore, the contemporary extreme right acquires relevance, as in other European countries, due to the changes in the global composition of labor power (precariousness, increasing numbers of immigrant workers) and thus represents a reaction not to the rise of the class struggle or the radical workers movement, but to its absence.
The real political enemy of the proletariat today is therefore not fascism or the monarchy, but directly and unequivocally capitalism as such, including every kind of reformist republicanism or anti-fascism—which, furthermore, in a way similar to what took place during the era of the civil war, once again arrive on the scene to fulfill a mystifying and recuperative function in the class struggle. If they once played some kind of progressive or democratic role in the past, today, with the general historical decline of the opportunities for success of working class and “social” reformists, republicanism and anti-fascism can only perform, in a veiled and peaceful manner, a counterrevolutionary role—against any attempts to construct a new revolutionary movement—similar to the role openly and violently played by fascism in the past against a really existing revolutionary movement.