A complete transcript of a 1977 interview with José Peirats, in which the Spanish historian and former militant of the CNT and FAI reminisces about his youth and discusses many of the controversies that plagued the CNT before as well as during the civil war, including the impact of the Russian Revolution, Angel Pestaña’s mission to Russia in 1920, the Asturian insurrection of October 1934, the CNT’s policy of collaboration with the government during the war, and the role of the Stalinists in the Republican coalition government’s counterrevolution against the anarchist revolutionary achievements of July 1936.
Interview with José Peirats – Josep Alemany
This interview took place in Barcelona, in an apartment on the Carretera de Collblanc, where the Peirats family has resided since before the war. Part of this interview was published in Catalunya. Revista d’Opinió Confederal, CNT-AIT, Series II, May 1977, no. 4, pp. 12-24. The rest of the interview, approximately half, is published here for the first time.
The editors of Anthropos have translated the original Catalan text to Castilian, and, with the permission of the author, have restructured the original order of the interview in order to provide a more cohesive arrangement of the various topics that are addressed.
We consolidated all the most directly autobiographical parts of the interview and those that express some of Peirats’ fundamental ideas, and present them first; in the second part of the interview the reader will find the opinions and testimonies of José Peirats concerning more diverse and specific topics.
What kind of ideological environment did you experience in your youth and how were the young people raised and what were they like?
In my ideological environment there are many phases but all with a convergent orientation towards anarchism. In my family there were socialists and republicans and even anarchists. None of them was able to influence me directly. But to them I owe my predilection for reading from a very young age, from before adolescence. The rest came later. I consider myself to be of the generation of Primo de Rivera. In those days I made very close friends, with a true hunger for reading. Our favorite authors, before we discovered the bearded ones of anarchy, were the famous French novelists of the previous century. Never in my life did I even flirt with Marxism. But I studied Marxism in depth, with reference to anarchism, which had by then won my heart. Despite the fact that I was very young when I joined the confederal organization I was always most attracted to its cultural activities: rationalist schools, social centers (I founded the one at La Torrassa L’Hospitalet) and the libertarian youth. That was my ideological context. The FAI came later although in fact I never really felt comfortable in it, since it did not make any truly anarchist proposals. The FAI was, above all else, a revolutionary organization that called itself anarchist.
In what kinds of activities were you involved in the libertarian movement?
I began my life as an activist working with the bricklayer comrades. I started by writing in their Bulletin. That was my debut as a writer. At the La Torrassa Social Center I taught at night and acted in plays. As a trade unionist I participated in the organization of strikes, boycotts and acts of sabotage. When necessary I carried a small pistol in my pocket, although I have never fired a gun at anybody. It was the fashion at the time. I told you about my experiences in the Libertarian Youth and the anarchist groups. What else? Oh, I spent two years as editor of Solidaridad Obrera, the confederal newspaper of Barcelona, and I contributed to numerous other publications. I would prefer not to speak of my books.
What was the orientation and kind of reader that the various libertarian publications were aimed at?
I have to admit that our publications were generally of low quality with the exception of Estudios (Generación Consciente) in Valencia. It did not occur to us to write for a broader audience. Our press was principally for combat purposes and was largely sectarian and demagogic. This caused us much harm. It was a misfortune to lose the tradition of writing in Catalan. The Castilian speakers dominated us.
I think that this oversight caused us to lose the Catalan peasantry, whom we served up on a platter to the politicians of the Esquerra. This is a lesson that we must heed.
Could you tell us a little about the experience of the Collectivizations?
The collectivist experience is made clear if you read the entire libertarian press from before July 19: the campaign of Isaac Puente with his famous pamphlet, Libertarian Communism, the articles by Carbó in Estudios in Valencia, the contributions of Martínez Rizo, even though he was not an anarchist…. In short, there was a group of people who dared to prefigure a libertarian communist future. At that time an environment was taking shape that was favorable to reflection concerning the question of how to structure the future. This environment was penetrating the people and when July 19 arrived we put it into practice, without orders from any committee. There is one thing that very few people are aware of and that is that there was no directive issued … I have very carefully scrutinized the documentary record of that time and I have not found any directive from any confederal committee (I am referring to the Local, Regional and National Federations, not to the enterprise trade union committees, the rank and file committees…), not one directive that gave the signal to carry out collectivizations.
The collectivizations were carried out spontaneously by the workers. For two reasons: first, because they wanted to; second, because the bourgeoisie, having fled, had cleared the way for them. Everyone knows that when someone opens up a new road, everyone imitates him; collectivism was amplified and became a reality.
However, to engage in a methodical study of this collectivism, I think is a project that has not yet been undertaken, because many elements are lacking for judgment. The revolution was carried out one way and then the historians come along and study it. Those who make revolution do not write it, they make it. This is the problem we face. Now is the time to carry out this labor, to unite all the elements of judgment of those times that we can.
They are looking for testimonies; people are running around like crazy looking for documents. They come to me and say: “Where can we find…?” There are those who are interested in the pedagogical work of the revolution…. Everyone talks about Ferrer and the Modern School. Hardly anyone talks about how the “Comité de l’Escola Nova Unificada” [Committee of the Unified New School] was structured.
Before the war, the trade unions, the libertarian social centers, and also certain individuals, promoted and sometimes even financed the rationalist schools inspired by the pedagogy of Francesc Ferrer. There, boys and girls were taught without religious or official dogmas of any kind, and teaching was carried out in the most scientific way possible. These schools were officially recognized when the CENU was formed and its teachers were granted the official recognition that many of them lacked.
Militias or popular army? Was the dilemma correctly posed: war or revolution?
Every revolution is a war and every war is counterrevolutionary. This principle might lead us to curse the revolution. On the other hand, war can be imposed upon us. I only know two ways to wage war: by means of continuous fronts or on the basis of guerrillas. The latter method is more consistent with the Spanish temperament. In a war of continuous fronts, the winner is the better army. From this point of view it was a mistake to accept classic warfare. Guerrilla war would have had better results. In the era of aviation, it has its shortcomings, but it is the only way to dislocate a better-organized army. The guerrillas first yield ground, and then carry out surprise attacks. But preparation is needed. The CNT and the FAI did not train their people for guerrilla war but for barricade combat in small or large cities. This was an error on the part of our strategists.
War or Revolution? Both. If one wages war instead of the revolution, the politicized militiaman or soldier will know that there will be no revolution and thus loses his will to fight. In our case, the counterrevolution in the rearguard was one of the main factors of the defeat.
What is the balance sheet of activities carried out during the years of exile?
Despite the numerous confrontations, conflicts and disagreements, as far as the CNT is concerned, I think that, taking into account the forty years of being separated from the land where we were born, our emigration can offer a positive balance at the level of cultural and other tasks. It never stopped publishing newspapers, pamphlets, journals and books, some of which were even original. On the other hand, in exile we had children and nieces and nephews who will no longer be Spanish but who have been integrated in all the classes and professions of the countries throughout the world that welcomed us. Soon enough our descendants will no longer feel the Spanish influence in so many countries. But in France I noted this during the events of May ’68. I think that, aside from the Jewish diaspora, our case is one of the most meaningful in the history of emigrations.
Considering the development of modern trade unionism, which has become an instrument of integration into the system and has given rise to a bureaucracy that controls the workers, to what extent are the concepts of anarchism and anarchosyndicalism antithetical?
This topic has always been the subject of polemics and will probably continue to be. I recall quite vividly, when I first became an anarchist, around 1927-1928: we accepted the trade unionist framework because there were no others. In our speeches at the assemblies of the bricklayers, for example, we always spoke of Rousseau, Han Ryder, Voltaire and the Russian revolutionary classics. And the bricklayers, with vacant stares, told us: “Good, we’ll see when you are done!”. The bulletin that we published was written in the same style. By this I mean that, to a young person, anything that had to do with the trade unions, economics, industry … seemed foreign. Such topics seemed to be more suited to people with more settled lives rather than romantics who were born for action. But in the history of anarchism both tendencies have always coexisted. The anarchist tendency, that we used to call the old anarchists; I am referring to the turn of the century, in 1905-1907 and even before, when the famous metal workers strike took place in 1902. During that time the group, “Tierra y Libertad” was formed, they were the purists, they did not even want to hear or talk about trade unions, they proclaimed they were integral, pure and specifically anarchists and who knows what else. And there were also the syndicalists, the anarchosyndicalists, influenced to a certain degree by the French CGT, which was then anarchosyndicalist. They tended to deal with trade union type problems, which entailed a lot of violence then.
In the book by Xavier Quadrat, Socialismo y Anarquismo en Catalunya: Los orígenes de la CNT, there is a discussion of the “Solidaridad Obrera” organization, which was formally constituted in 1907, but which seems to have been really operative since 1904. That organization, with the passing years, became the CNT. There were two tendencies within it: socialists and anarchists. The socialists….
Yes, that is how they described themselves. They were the socialists associated with Pablo Iglesias. The UGT was formed in 1888 in Barcelona, and “Solidaridad Obrera” was founded later, as I mentioned. And this is what the reader of the book by X. Quadrat will ask himself: how is it possible that there were socialists in Solidaridad Obrera, the author grants them as much or more importance than the anarchists, and on the other hand why does he not tell us why these Catalan socialists did not join the ranks of the UGT? He gives the excuse—or more correctly, the argument, since it is a very well-documented book—that the reason for this was the centralism of Pablo Iglesias, who lived in Madrid, and who saw everything from the point of view of the center, and here the Catalan socialists saw things differently, and preferred to be in “Solidaridad Obrera” instead of the UGT.
You are one of those people who think that the entry of the CNT in the government and the republican state was disastrous for the Libertarian Movement. To what extent, however, did the bureaucratization and authoritarianism that corrupted the CNT merely highlight a tendency and a reality that had already existed?
Obviously, nothing is created by spontaneous generation. I recall that before the movement erupted, I had already criticized certain tendencies that were surreptitiously favorable to a certain degree of collaboration with the politicians. And Carbó did, too (Carbó and I published a newspaper called Más Lejos [Further]). I even published an article critical of García Oliver, whom I reproached for some declarations he made that indicated he was an advocate of the seizure of power. This article turned up in the proceedings at the Zaragoza Congress. The delegate of the Leatherworkers Trade Union of Barcelona issued a challenge to me: “We challenge the delegate of L’Hospitalet.” “All right, let’s see, why? Explain it to me.” “Because of this!” And he began to read my article. The Congress broke out in laughter. García Oliver himself mounted the podium and said: “Please, comrades, enough, stop making fools of yourselves”. García Oliver had already revealed himself, during that period, as a supporter of the seizure of power; we (we may say we were the redskins) called this anarcho-bolshevism. That is, this tendency was clearly expressed. And this is not even taking into account the backsliding evidenced by the sector of the reformists, the Treintistas, of those who precipitated the split (well, I don’t know who brought about the split; surely all of them). In fact, what happened was that there were many tendencies that were often rebuffed, but finally these refutations convinced nobody, as in the case of Pestaña, Juan López … who were noted to have a certain understanding with the authorities, especially in Catalunya.
Anyway, I began by saying that nothing is created by spontaneous generation. All movements have their antecedents…. Anarchism, in the final analysis, is a movement of men, and men are complex and we have our weaknesses.
There are some people (this is most forcefully argued by such critics of syndicalism as Richards, C. Semprún…) who claim that the fact that the CNT participated in state power and accepted—at least part of the CNT—authoritarian discipline, this was due not just to the fact that authoritarian tendencies had already previously arisen within the trade unions, but also to the very nature of syndicalism itself.
This is looking at things with a very particular focus. It is looking at the defects rather than the virtues. While what you say is true, there is also an opposite tendency. There are people who would sacrifice everything for their ideas. They were so suspicious that they condemned anyone, as if they were trying people for thought crimes. And on occasions the consequences of this attitude were that they really did drive the individual they were criticizing to do precisely what they were accusing him of wanting to do. This was the case with Medína González, an Andalusian who wrote a pamphlet and some quite dubious articles. Everyone put him down and I think that this guy finally ended up in the hands of the communists. Another example is what happened to Sender. Sender did not get a warm welcome from us. He worked for Solidaridad Obrera, and was its chief correspondent in Madrid for more than a year; and just when the editorial team of the moderates, led by Peiró, was swept away by the wave of the extremists, led by Felipe Alaiz, the first thing the latter did was to refuse to accept any more of Sender’s articles. Alaiz was a great writer, an individual whose work was very illuminating; in fact, I was a disciple of his to some extent. But this did not prevent me from perceiving his many defects, in the sense that someone who has risen very high, can then fall very far.
During those days there was a great deal of unrest caused by practical problems. There was a maximalist tendency in favor of action, you could call it a Bakuninist tendency, which claimed that destruction would lead to construction. At the same time, there were those who said, “no, it is necessary for us to have as accurate as possible of an idea and a design of the revolution that we are going to carry out”. This is where Isaac Puente comes in. Carbó himself wrote a series of futuristic articles. And so did Higinio Noja Ruiz, one of the best anarchist writers of the thirties. He was the driving force behind the journal Estudios. He is the only anarchist of that period who wrote novels for a mass audience. He was concerned with economic problems of a constructive type, and he was just as accomplished a journalist and art critic as he was a novelist.
So all these tendencies already existed before the war.
So what lessons can we learn from the CNT’s participation in power?
Catastrophic, overwhelmingly catastrophic, since the CNT took on a heart-rending burden. The CNT was in no condition to leave its own terrain and take up a position on another terrain that was full of traps and deceits. The CNT could not adapt in one month, or in two years, or even in four years. It could not make this transition, this involution of a political, despotic type, with its deceptions and fakery. It was incapable of doing this.
First of all, because it conflicted with its own psychology; secondly, because it could not undertake a program of self-reeducation for an accelerated conversion into a political organization with all the prerequisites of such an organization, like the others. All of this is assuming that the CNT was on the right road—I think it was not. The CNT could not, neither from the tactical point of view nor that of principles, accept unlimited collaboration. The CNT was capable of engaging in limited collaboration, without the need to have to dress up their militants like clowns and make them sit on stools, and make them haunt the hallways of government like ghosts.
The CNT could have engaged in very positive work without leaving its own terrain, which was that of the trade unions, and the economy; the latter was the decisive factor in the war and in the revolution.
And by leaving this terrain not only did it leave its own home territory but it also was obliged to combat its own comrades. We need only recall those speeches of the Marxists in which they insulted those who dared to uphold a classic position.
That is, without extremism, without throwing temper tantrums, without closing ourselves off in a 100% intransigent position from the philosophical point of view, the CNT, with the economic lever in its hands, with the collectives, and with so many things that it had in its reach, could have mounted an effective opposition, while by acting otherwise its enemies managed to crush the opposition of the CNT and turn the confederal institutions against it. In conclusion, participation in the government was negative from every point of view.
Federica now says that it could not have been done any other way. This means that in a similar situation she would do the same thing. I ask myself: how could someone call herself an anarchist when she accepts not just that she was, but even that she would once again be a minister?
Who represented the FAI within the libertarian movement and what tendencies existed within it? Don’t you think that the group that you call anarcho-bolshevik was in some respects very libertarian? I am asking you about the FAI because after the war both the bourgeoisie as well as the Marxists have depicted the militants of the FAI as monsters and those of the CNT as decent fellows.
This opens up a whole detective novel. Here you have right before you two persons who were members of the FAI (during the interview, J. Peirats was accompanied by his friend Canela); I was the secretary of the Local Federation of Groups and my friend Canela was the secretary of the Regional Federation of Groups. We were totally opposed to a certain kind of FAIsta propaganda that was not exactly emitted by the FAI itself. That is, there were individuals who did not even belong to the FAI, because I was, from the Local Federation, in a position to control them but was actually unable to do so, and I assume that Canela could not control them, either, from his position in the Regional Federation.
These individuals were the ones who mounted the podiums, who spoke in the name of the FAI. And we became aware of all of this through the newspapers, and it reached the point where one day we held a meeting with Ascaso, García Oliver and Aurelio Fernández at the Local Federation. And we told them that this had to stop, that in order to speak the way they were speaking they had to first make it clear what organization they belonged to and who they represented. And their response was that they did not represent the FAI, but certain authorized Defense Committees, which were organizations that existed at the time, created specifically for action, for strikes and times of unrest, and up to a point we must admit that they were effective: on July 19, for example, these committees worked quite well.
That is, there were people who were speaking in the manner I mentioned above, thus giving the impression that the FAI was a secret Masonic or Jacobin group. They spoke in the name of the FAI. But the truth is that we, at the Local Federation, had no control over them, although they had their supporters among our ranks.
So, with respect to the question of the influence of the CNT and the FAI: the CNT is an organization that was formed in 1910. It is therefore one of the oldest revolutionary organizations, socially speaking, that has ever existed in Spain. Actually, the CNT and the FAI were two separate organizations. The relation between them has been tendentiously falsified, since the creation of the FAI has been attributed to the need to control the CNT. This is false. Not long ago I discovered the summaries of the minutes of the Valencia Conference of July 1927 where the FAI was founded. The complete minutes of this conference do not exist. They were lost. Fortunately someone drafted summaries of them that fell into my hands when I was secretary of the FAI in 1933-1934. In this summary of the minutes CNT-FAI Committees are mentioned, at local, regional and national levels. That is, it mentioned collaboration, rather than the subordination of one organization to the other.
During the revolution, the FAI adopted the same policy as the CNT. And this allowed me to reach a conclusion that is very interesting. It has been claimed that the FAI was the one that dictated orders to the CNT. I always maintained the opposite: it was the CNT that gave the orders to the FAI; it was the CNT that influenced, absorbed and impressed the FAI with its own distinctive traits. The CNT was an organization of a syndicalist revolutionary type and the FAI had to be an organization of an ideological type. Problems of an economic nature and those that arose from the revolutionary context of the moment that affected the CNT also absorbed the FAI. Furthermore, all the militants of the FAI came from the CNT: for both these reasons, the FAI had to be the reflection of the CNT. That is why I always maintained that it was not the FAI that dominated the CNT, but the CNT that dominated the FAI. This was confirmed during the revolutionary period: it was the CNT that took the lead, and the FAI was nothing but a fellow traveler, a friend, a poor relation of the CNT.
So those who made the decision to join the government—García Oliver, Federica Montseny—were not members of the FAI? I only mention this because people normally associate them with the FAI.
García Oliver, Ascaso and others had their own FAI: the group, “Los Solidarios”. In any event, I have always said that there were two ministers from the CNT in the government, and two ministers from the FAI. Officially, however, there were four ministers from the CNT. The fact that the ministers were Peiró and López, on the one side, and García Oliver and Federica Montseny, on the other, clearly shows that there were two currents: the FAIsta and the trade union currents. It is true that Federica Montseny had always identified herself with the activities of the FAI, but I do not believe she belonged to any FAI grouping prior to the movement of 1936.
As for García Oliver, Ascaso, Durruti, etc., I have already mentioned that they had their own FAI. It had about thirty members. And this group worked autonomously. It spoke in the name of the FAI, because the FAI was its shield, its sword and its myth. And, of course, it would have been hard for them to invent a new organization.
The anarcho-bolsheviks identified with the FAI, although Federica Montseny was not a member of this tendency and could not be considered to be on the side of García Oliver. García Oliver, before and even during the first few days of the revolution, had already defined himself as an advocate of the seizure of power. I think that it is quite questionable whether he was sincere about this, however. I have always said, half seriously and half jokingly, that García Oliver was an advocate of the seizure of power during the first few days of July, because he knew that the CNT could not hold power alone. This is demonstrated by the fact that García changed his mind and not only changed his mind, but ended up where he did: in the cabinet.
Canela, myself, and four or five other people formed the group, “Afinitat”. We were always in the opposition within the FAI. We argued that the FAI should carry out work of an ideological, anarchist and doctrinal type in order to thus be capable of justifying the existence of two organizations: one that spoke of ideas and the other that addressed problems of a trade union type like the CNT. We believed that there should not be an FAI that is a copy of the CNT, because then one of the two was superfluous.
How did the CNT react to the course of events in Russia beginning in 1917, and with regard to the news of the extermination of the Russian libertarians at the hands of the Marxist Bolsheviks? And more generally, what position did the CNT take with regard to the Russian Revolution and the bureaucratic counterrevolution of the Marxists?
The Russian Revolution, like all revolutions, always, entailed confusions of an ideological and tactical type. At the time I was a very young child. In 1917, I was not yet a member of the organization; I joined it in 1922 at the age of 14. At the age of fourteen I was incapable of really understanding these things. I was only to get to know them later, through documents.
I remember quite well, as a cause of commotion, that my cousin, who was a militant, came to this very house (I was very young then), and spoke to my mother about the soviets. My cousin was a member of the CNT; he had already been arrested, and had already passed through his baptism of fire. He spoke to my mother about all these things and for the first time I heard talk of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and this idea became fixed in my mind. “Because,” my cousin told her, “there is universal dictatorship and universal suffrage.” (I said to myself: “Universal suffrage? That must be some kind of casserole or something.”) “There is the tendency of Bakunin and there is the tendency of Karl Marx and Lenin.” And I heard all this, and I was bemused but did not understand it. These were my first memories. Later, when I began to take up the sword and go in search of adventures, that was when we informed ourselves about these things.
In Spain it was a time of great confusion. During the Russian Revolution, the anarchists here were quite agitated because the Bolsheviks would say they were anarchists at one time and Marxists at another time. The anarchists of that period and the cenetistas both called themselves Bolsheviks as well as anarchists. That is, they made no distinctions between them. If you have read Lenin’s book, The State and Revolution, you will agree that it is a text that utilizes an anarchoid phraseology, although its true colors show through, and this book certainly created a great deal of confusion because it was published precisely in 1917. And in 1918 a second edition was published. But The State and Revolution was never finished, it was interrupted. Lenin explained that this was because the revolution itself was still not finished. But it turned out that in 1918 there was a second edition, and he neither added nor revised anything, which indicates that he already had a bad conscience about it.
But this book, taking into account the mentality of that era, the fever for action that existed then (the Russian Revolution, the unrest in Germany and Italy), only increased the confusion. The socialists themselves in Spain felt the pressure from the supporters of the Third International. Up to a point this is understandable.
The consequence of all this was that the CNT officially confronted this problem for the first time at its 1919 Congress, the Congress that we call the Comedia, because it was held at the Comedia de Madrid (the socialists always call it the “Congress of the Comedy”, which is their way of saying that we were just a bunch of comedians). There, a very comprehensive debate took place. There one could perceive the disorientation that affected even people who had a clear view of things like Carbó and Buenacasa. Carbó himself said: “We want the dictatorship of the proletariat, we love it, we defend it, we shall defend it.” That is what he said; anyone who knows Carbó, who knows that he was an anarchist from head to toe, would ask himself: how is it possible that Carbó would say such a contradictory thing at that moment? Buenacasa’s speeches were also catastrophic. In opposition, there was the speech of Quintanilla, who was a leader of the opposition. The speeches of Quintanilla, the old Asturian syndicalist, are much more clear. He was a man more firmly rooted in doctrine and with a vision of the future. He saw the development of the process of the revolution in Russia and he allowed himself to criticize it and to confront the Bolshevizing current that was led by precisely Hilari Arlandís (who was later to join the Communist Party).
The speeches in favor of the dictatorship of the proletariat were the result of a lack of information and the demagogy of the Bolsheviks. The word revolution is something that moves the minds of men. Whenever a revolution takes place there is confusion at first, although this confusion is later dissipated. But the mere fact of a revolution is something that causes men to seethe and to boil. It has an enormous attractive force. And these men were in the midst of this phase. I think—I have not seen any copies of it—that a newspaper was even published that was called El Soviet. It was published by the CNT.
Anyway, this polemic that developed at the Congress is summarized in a speech by El Noi del Sucre [“the sugar boy’], Seguí. It appears that he was trying to unite the two tendencies. He proposed that the CNT request provisional membership in the Third International, while awaiting the convocation in Spain of an international congress so that the International would have a consistent doctrine recognized by all its component groups.
This was the reason for Pestaña’s mission. Pestaña went to Russia, and soon after his arrival he began to notice a series of irregularities. While he was there he naturally made contact with the anarchists, who had been subjected to a massacre in 1918. The reaction against the Russian anarchists began in 1918. And in 1919, the anarchists, those who were not dead or in prison, began to wage an anti-Bolshevik struggle.
Among them we find, for example, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, who had been deported from the United States to their country of origin, for having carried out propaganda against the war.
Goldman and Berkman, despite their Bolshevoid tendencies (in the United States, Goldman had published a pamphlet defending the Bolsheviks), once having arrived in Russia quickly recognized what was really going on there; Goldman was the first to react, since Berkman, who was more sceptical, took a little longer to face the facts, because he thought that the situation might have been the product of improvisation, but that with the passage of time it would find its equilibrium point, undergoing changes and that finally the revolution would reach its true goal. Finally, however, he became convinced that the situation was irreversible.
When Pestaña arrived in Russia in 1920, he found all these people there. And the Bolsheviks could no longer deceive him. He made contact with the comrades. They informed him about the situation. Goldman and Berkman themselves were in contact with what we could call the anarchist resistance. So was Kropotkin, who was still living then. Pestaña visited him, too. So when Pestaña returned from Russia, he brought with him a rectification. What happened was that when he arrived in Barcelona, it was under the dictatorship of Martínez Anido, so Pestaña could not deliver his report. The organization was underground. Some time later, his report was published in the form of a pamphlet. Pestaña was dispatched to Russia to attend the Second Congress of the Third International, where he was the delegate of the CNT. In his report he explains all the outrages and underhanded machinations carried out behind closed doors by the Bolsheviks and their lackeys, at a congress where they had complete control over the proceedings. This situation led Pestaña to write that “the presidency was the congress and the congress was a caricature”. I am not referring here to his book, Seventy Days in Russia, but to the official report he submitted in his name to the Committee of the CNT.
This pamphlet by Pestaña, unfortunately, could not be published until much later. The report is dated 1921, from prison. This means that it was not published until the Confederal Conference of Zaragoza in 1922. In 1921 there had already been a reaction because the Russian anarchists who had not been shot succeeded, by means of a hunger strike in the Moscow prison, in drawing attention to their plight and the persecution to which they were subjected.
In 1921 another CNT delegation went to Russia. This delegation was composed of Nin, Maurín, Ibáñez and Hilari Arlandís. If Pestaña could have delivered his report in 1921, it is possible that the organization would have taken care not to send these particular delegates, since some of them were known for their Bolshevoid tendencies. Also, this was during a period of harsh repression and the most important elements of the organization were in jail and some had been assassinated under the “law of flight”: such was the fate of Evelio Boal (who was one of the best secretaries the Organization had ever had, according to Buenacasa).
It was these circumstances that allowed Nin to become the secretary of the CNT during that period, because the organization was young and its inexperienced members voted for him. The notice concerning the convocation of the Plenum stated that it would be held in Barcelona, but its location was then changed to Lérida, where Maurín had a lot of influence. So there is something very fishy about the whole history of this era. Anyway, since Pestaña’s report was not yet widely disseminated, this delegation was appointed, which left for Russia to attend the First Congress of the Red Trade Union International.
This mission was not a total catastrophe, since the delegation insulted Trotsky himself. At one point, right in the middle of the congress proceedings, as a result of the efforts of Emma Goldman and other anarchists who were in hiding, a loud protest was staged to obtain the release of the prisoners held in the Cheka prison at Taganka. They threatened, right in the middle of the congress, that if the prisoners were not freed they would speak out until the whole affair was totally exposed. The Bolsheviks were frightened and promised to free the prisoners. There were many machinations before they fulfilled their promise. Nin’s delegation played a role in the campaign. This is a relatively unknown fact that Emma Goldman comments on in her memoirs…. To the Bolsheviks, all the prisoners were bandits….
When the Congress adjourned the prisoners were released, but they were given bogus passports. When they arrived at their destinations, the authorities were warned that they were Soviet spies. That is, Lenin gave them some passports in order to screw them once they were outside of the Soviet Union. Thus, for example, when Goldman and Berkman arrived in Lithuania they were imprisoned. Finally, thanks to various protests, these comrades could finally live legally in other countries.
At that time in Germany there was a very small but most interesting and active organization: the FAUD. Its leading figure was Rocker. It had some very capable men, men who were actually the founders of the new anarchosyndicalism, since the old anarchosyndicalism of the CGT was in decline: the socialists were taking it over and those who were at first part of the anarchist tendency, like Monatte, were moving towards Bolshevism….
This organization, the FAUD, had direct contacts with the Russian anarchists; their geographical proximity allowed them to establish channels for the exchange of information. The FAUD was the organization that was most well informed with regard to the Russian reality and was engaged in making it known to the world. It published Rocker’s pamphlets, Bolshevism and Anarchism and Soviet or Dictatorship. Then it published Arshinov’s book about the Makhnovist movement, which was first published in a Spanish language edition in Argentina.
In 1922, the National Conference of the CNT was held in Zaragoza, after the fall of the regime of the executioner Martínez Anido. At this Conference everything could be told. Nin was not present because he remained in Russia; Maurín was not there, either, certainly because he had not even been invited. The only member of the delegation to the Red Trade Union International who attended the Conference was Arlandís: he was totally overwhelmed. Pestaña was there, and so was Peiró. Leval submitted a report that caused an uproar. That was when the 1919 resolution, which was provisional, was revised.
Some people say that Salvador Seguí was a “Marxist avant la lettre”. Do you think there is any truth to this opinion?
Frankly, this is an absurd opinion. Seguí was never a Marxist. He was a man who positioned himself in the center. He believed in the organization. He abhorred extremism, he was a constructive man, a syndicalist most of all. There was nothing Marxist about him.
Why were the Russian anarchists, even though they were more numerous than the Bolsheviks, crushed by them?
Look, I don’t know if there were more numerous. They were crushed because the more brutal will always crush those who are less brutal. If you analyze in a little more detail the conditions within which the Bolsheviks operated, their political skills, their Jesuitism, their endless verbiage, the motives they adduced to justify their actions, one will understand the difficult and disadvantageous situation faced by the anarchists. First of all, for example, there was the poverty of the people, which required many sacrifices. Then, there was the White offensive that attempted to conquer territory; and the international conspiracy of all the great powers, and so many other reasons. All of this was like our war, when we were appalled by the sight of Federica Montseny and all the others who were in the government bad-mouthing the collectives. We told ourselves: “What do you want? If we choose any other way, the whole world will turn against us, we will have to break with our policy of collaboration, and collaboration is the only thing that keeps the war going and the war […]” Anyway, those of us who have passed through such a situation will have a good understanding of the Russian case. Revolutions are dangerous because they lead to this kind of psychological situation not just on a mass level, but on the individual level as well. Hunger, for instance. “There is hunger because the economy has not yet been reconstructed”; fear of the reactionary forces: “We have to concentrate state power in an iron grip in order to confront the troops of the White generals”; and the lack of preparation of the people; and the international embargo. All of these things are crucial, just as they were crucial in our war. We were beating ourselves over the head. “We are heading for catastrophe”, we said to ourselves, “towards the negation of what we once were.” Not only did the mass of the people falter, so did many individuals, starting with the leaders, who made a 180-degree turn.
What was the reason for the Stalinist repression and assassination campaign directed against the POUMistas and the libertarians, especially following the political hegemony the Stalinists achieved after the events of May 1937?
The reasons for all these things must be sought in the influence of the GPU, the Russian secret police, in whose hands one might say that the decision-making powers regarding public order had been placed. The police forces were in the hands of these people. That is, they had so thoroughly infiltrated the republican regime that the time came when the government was no longer a government (if we grant that a government can cease to be a government). There was a state within a state. And this state within a state was composed, for example, of the sinister forces unleashed here by Stalin, and with the mentality of Stalin, everything has an explanation. What happened here was nothing but a reflection of the same policies that Stalin had implemented in Russia. You know that in Russia, contrary to what one would assume, against Russia’s own interests, Stalin murdered everyone, even the most talented people. Russia needed generals, officers and instead Stalin did away with them. It was an unreal reality.
These people could not have proceeded any other way. It was the physical elimination not just of the enemy but also of those who never considered themselves to be enemies. It was a purge, pure and simple. There are people who are ready to offer their services to carry out this purge; it was not the Russians themselves who did the work. The Spaniards are also capable of acting in this manner in certain circumstances, when there is fanaticism, as there was at the time, especially if interests of a bureaucratic type are created.
What social and political interests were the actions of the Stalinists supposed to serve?
The Stalinists in Spain did not have their own personalities. They executed the orders of Moscow and they were satisfied with the acquisition of political and military positions. Their interests were those of the Soviet state, not those that they might have had as Spaniards. They were puppets manipulated by Stalin, who flattered their personal ambitions. In general one can say that there were those who acted and those who ceased to act. Those who acted were, naturally, the communists, who were for their part acting on behalf of the secret agents of the GPU. And those who ceased to act were the liberal and bourgeois forces who feared the revolution and who preferred reaction to an actual revolution. I am referring above all to the petty bourgeoisie, such as the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, and the republicans more generally. To these people the revolution caused greater terror than fascism; it was the revolution that terrorized them first of all, to such an extent that when July 19 came around, you know that Martínez Barrio offered general Mola the Ministry of War. This shows how afraid they were of the revolution; they did not want it to continue.
Later there was another factor. The communists have a way of going about things that is always manifested in such situations. It was also manifested in May ’68 in Paris: they do not allow a leftist movement to their left to exist. They cannot tolerate the existence of a revolution alongside their revolution. I believe this was the reason for their declaration of war against the CNT. Because the war was against the CNT, not against the POUM. The POUM was caught in the crossfire, the weakest force. This was analyzed quite well by Broué and Temime in their book, La révolution et la guerre d’Espagne. It is the technique of the sausage that cuts one little slice at a time; everyone looks out for themselves and no one stops them; they cut off the weakest parts. When the republicans were in their hands and they saw how they had managed to divide the socialists, then they went straight for the CNT. The socialist party was already divided before the war. But as the war progressed, the communists exploited the rivalries between the Prieto and Caballero factions.
Prieto (Negrín’s patron) is the single person who is most responsible for the socialist crypto-communism of the war. Prieto was not really a Negrinist. He was a man with a grudge against Largo Caballero and prosecuted this grudge to the extent of playing the game of the others, precisely those who would later, with complete justice, get rid of him. The policy of Prieto is the policy of vengeance. Largo Caballero already shunned him even before the war. Do you remember that meeting in Egea held by the Caballero faction where they captured the Young Socialists? He never forgot this. And those young socialists were young socialists, but then they were young unified socialists, that is: Russified. Largo Caballero engaged in that maneuver of uniting the two youth organizations with the conviction that he would absorb the communists because the socialists were in the majority. And the result was just the opposite; the socialists were devoured. This is just one more proof that you cannot play with unity with the communists. They are more sly and always get their way.
During the war the communists succeeded in dividing the socialist party and the UGT. And this made them powerful…. And finally they attacked the Generalitat of Catalunya. It is a lie that the Statute of Autonomy was abolished by Franco: it had already been abolished by the Republic itself, it was abolished by Negrín. And if Negrín abolished it, this was because Companys had to do it after he made his move against the CNT and the POUM. Companys dug his own grave. It was Companys who played the communist hand during the May Events. Companys played the counterrevolutionary hand and then discovered that when the counterrevolution arrived the Statute of Autonomy was annulled.
For the most objective specialists, the May Events constituted a provocation, whose strategist and organizer was Antonov Ovseenko. The comrades, that is, the confederal comrades, reacted, some with the belief that it was another July 19, that the revolution was in danger and that it had to be defended; others, whom we may refer to as the bureaucrats of the organization, came out with other arguments, which in my view were not very sincere: they said that it is better not to respond to this provocation. I think that this was the opinion of those who had comfortable positions and were bureaucratized.
There was also the Group, “The Friends of Durruti”, concerning which a great deal has been said but to which I frankly do not grant much importance. There were people who were not from the CNT, and they spoke a Jacobin language: “Let’s cut off their heads, smash the committees, shoot them”. Knowing these people, they were certainly not the most capable of waging a coherent campaign.
The harshest repression was directed against the POUM. The circumstances surrounding the arrest of the POUM central committee and the kidnapping of Nin are well known. They killed the anarchist Berneri like a rabbit. There is evidence that they kidnapped him; that elements of the PSUC went after him and they got him. Just as they caught all the hostages of the libertarian youth that they had in their hands, and many of them reappeared in the cemetery of Cerdanyola. Alfred Martínez was never found. He disappeared.
When the expeditionary forces of the Valencia Government were on their way to Barcelona, in every area they passed through the elements of the PSUC and the republicans of the Esquerra were emboldened and hunted down the libertarian elements.
They could not go after the libertarians here in Barcelona because they were afraid to do so. At that time I was in Lérida. In Lérida we made them back down. They did not dare to attack us. In that city the POUM was the most powerful force, we were the second most powerful force and they had few supporters. The PSUC, in Lérida, was an import.
There is currently a campaign underway to mythologize President Companys. They are particularly exploiting the fact that he was shot by the fascists. What is your view of the political role of President Companys and the mythologization of his memory that is currently underway?
I think that they will succeed in creating a myth of Companys. However, speaking not just as an anarchist but as a citizen, I think that the policies of President Companys featured many errors and not just during the war.
Let’s just focus on the events of October : no statesman with his head screwed on right would participate in such a scheme and join such people, the way he did, counting on such sparse forces as he had at his disposal. It was a catastrophic movement. In addition, Companys could not have felt that he would have the support of those who were fighting in Asturias. He could not have felt that he would have the support of what the socialists in Madrid did or did not do, since I doubt that they had any idea of what they were doing. And we still do not know today what they thought they could gain from the events of October.
In any event, the actions of an individual can be as debatable as you like, but if they have a tragic outcome, some considerations of a humanist type arise which are quite understandable. I think that we all sympathize with his death. The shooting of Companys is something ignominious, shameful, outrageous, any adjective you want…. Anyway, except for that, his activity is not very impressive.
I think that he never was a politician in the classical meaning of the word. He committed many blunders. He allowed himself to be dragged along by elements that he believed could help him but it was in fact just those elements that caused him to falter. That is what the PSUC did. Companys was the one they heaped praise upon. And it was Companys whom they helped to undermine and towards the end, the PSUC was even more powerful than the Esquerra Republicana itself, since the latter did not possess a mass of militants that it could mobilize at a moment’s notice, while the PSUC had the UGT. It had managed to attract the most active elements of the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry and had successfully constructed a powerful UGT. And of course, this base had always been the base of the Esquerra—the peasants, the white-collar workers—but the PSUC won it over to its side. The PSUC conducted an anti-FAIsta propaganda that flattered the small and large landowners and in this sector it was a formidable competitor of the Esquerra itself. It went on undermining his position and Companys kept playing its game. Companys could have relied on other forces….
Getting back to the events of October; according to Munis, the socialist party threatened to revolt unless the government accepted its participation in the cabinet; in the north, the insurrection only made serious headway in those locations where the bureaucracy of the socialist party could not control the rank and file. The workers started a revolution, but Largo Caballero and company used the insurrection of the Asturian workers as leverage to compel the President of the Republic to accept another republican socialist coalition government.
This is the thesis of my book. I think that those people did not really intend to start a revolution. And I also add one other argument; I am referring to the document of Prieto, which I copied from a pamphlet by Llopis, which includes the program of that movement. If you examine it in detail, you will see that it is a completely bourgeois program. There is no mention of a social revolution. And besides, it is a fact that neither in Madrid nor anywhere else in Spain did the socialists mobilize their forces.
I think that the few leaders who did mobilize were dragged along by the rank and file, a particular kind of rank and file. The origin of the Asturian socialist movement is basically anarchist. That is, in Asturias it was the opposite of the way it was in Catalonia. Just as in Catalonia the socialists were active but it was the anarchists who finally dominated the organization, in Asturias the opposite was the case, the anarchists lit the fire, it was the anarchists who trained the Asturian temperament: but then the socialists arrived with electoral promises and they conquered the miners movement and only left the islands of La Felguera and Gijón. In any event, the Asturian miner had always been a revolutionary element. And he left his leaders behind. Because this is not what his leaders wanted: they just wanted to strike fear into the hearts of Gil Robles and company, in order to get them to back down.
Cruells, in El 6 d’octobre a Catalunya, mentions the inferiority complex of the UGT with respect to the CNT, with reference to the revolutionary question, due to the fact that the UGT (Largo Caballero) had collaborated with Primo de Rivera and then with the republican-bourgeois government. To overcome this complex, they had to do something….
I share this opinion because the socialists constituted the pillar of the republican position; the government was republican-socialist. This discouraged them and even discredited them because the Republic had to resort to arms to suppress the insurrection.
Then, in the Center, which had been the private preserve of the socialist party, the organization, the CNT, which had always been in a minority there, began to raise its head—beginning with the construction trade union and continuing with the rest of them—and it was gaining ground.
And this naturally aroused in the socialists, if not an inferiority complex, at least a certain degree of alarm. These people became alarmed and said: “OK, here, against a CNT that is always in the streets, with strikes, which fights and has a critical attitude and attracts the masses, we have to do something.” It was in this context that Largo Caballero delivered those incendiary speeches about the dictatorship of the proletariat. That was the most catastrophic thing he could have done. Gradually it was becoming more and more clear just how insincere he was. I think that it was electoral propaganda. Everyone knows that Largo Caballero discovered Lenin while he was in prison.
Before July 1936, was an alliance between the CNT and the UGT possible, which, according to some historians, could have prevented the “glorious national uprising”?
The fact that the UGT was an appendage of the PSOE and comprised its electoral base, rendered a CNT-UGT pact almost impossible. Besides, the CNT, at its congress of Zaragoza, imposed, as a condition for such a pact, the practical separation of the UGT from the PSOE. I don’t think that a CNT-UGT pact would have prevented the military coup d’état. Instead, it would have precipitated it. The revolutionary pact between the CNT and the UGT in Asturias horrified all the right wing elements, who rapidly encouraged the military to revolt. We already saw what happened in 1934 with that catastrophic plan. And I say that with all due respect for those who sacrificed their lives there.
To what factors do you attribute the loss of ground by the organized anarchist workers movement after the Second World War?
Communism, making use of its populist demagogy, has shaken all the social and political foundations of the world. What is unfortunate is that, by doing so, the classic humanitarian values have been suppressed, more than one might think.
These scholastics and Jesuits of the 20th century have robbed us of the flag of liberty in order to give it a modern touch-up. What they have not been able to conquer they have crushed. This accursed invasion, which has even affected the intellectual classes of the entire world, has transformed the meaning of the revolutionary mystique that represented the spearhead of anarchosyndicalism, and the workers camp has been seriously weakened as a result.
On the other hand, the anarchists have attempted to confront this situation by withdrawing into themselves and carrying out a witch-hunt against all those persons and things that are suspected of heresy. The result has been that new values have not arisen and that we continue to nourish ourselves on the legacy of the old masters. Unless this pernicious trend ceases and unless man recovers his sense of direction, it will be hard for libertarian syndicalism to once again make progress. Another factor of decline has been the invasion of all domains by the state. Social reform laws have brought many benefits to the workers but they have tranquilized their non-conformist spirit, intensified the process of their embourgeoisification within consumer society. Finally, industrialization, with its accompanying technocracy, has shattered the proletarian class into little pieces, transforming it into a scattering of categories, and it thus lost its unity. The anarchists have not yet found their tactical equilibrium within this constantly shifting context.
Published in Anthropos, no. 102, November 1989, pp. 26-35.
Translated from the Spanish in October-November 2013.