On the uselessness of heroes

Iron Column poster.
Iron Column poster.

Charles Reeves reviews "Los Incontrolados, Chronicles of the Iron Column", a book about the famous Spanish anarchist militia and its activities in the Civil War.

Submitted by Red Marriott on September 24, 2007

On the Uselessness of Heroes

Charles Reeve
(Le Monde Libertaire, February 6-12, 2002)

Nestor Romero wrote "Los Incontrolados, Chronicle of the Iron Column" in the seventies, [1] after having basked since childhood in the plethora of stories and anecdotes related around the family table. Using direct testimonies and his father’s personal archives, Romero tackles, once again, the question of the participation of anarchists in State power; the contradiction, so often emphasized, between the libertarian principles of "The Organization" (the C.N.T-F.A.I.) and its practice of compromise.[2] He does it in an original way. Putting aside the politics of the leaders, Romero emphasizes understanding how problems of power at the base are posed within activist collectives. The author’s object of study is the Iron Column, known as "Los Incontrolados, the CNT militia created by a group of CNT militants in the first days of the revolutionary uprising in Valencia. The fame of this militia - having become one of the anarchist icons of the Spanish Revolution in the same way as the Durrutti Column and Durrutti himself – comes above all from the fact that the Iron Column integrated common-law prisoners freed from local prisons within its ranks.[3] Much later, the Iron Column would find itself among the most uncompromising opponents of the militarization of the militias by the Republican government.

Avoiding the ideological approach which judges social reality according to political outlines, Romero starts from the contradictory functioning of everyday life. He intermingles memoirs and documents of the time with political reflection. Here, one is far from a simplistic version of a "pure rank and file" which would oppose leaders. Because it is in the rank-and-file first of all, including "Los Incontrolados" , that the division of authority was set up little by little. In the discrepancy quite naturally created between the mass of militants and the most respected personalities, the best and most active were politically trained. It was also out of respect of these ethical values (integrity and political training) that confidence was built between militias and militants; a mutual confidence that both would passionately oppose to the idea of military discipline. Romero reminds us that "all the federalist structure and direct democracy of the Spanish anarchist organization worked towards thwarting the tendency to produce leaders"(p. 58). This organizational structure was meant to be a barrier against bureaucratization. However, with the war, this equilibrium "was upset in favor of a surging flood of personality cult." The respect for personalities relying on charisma sustained the hero-worship propagated by the Organizations’ press and bodies; the case of Durrutti is the best known. In this way, praises of revolutionary intransigence and anarchist martyrology hence served to disguise the capitulation of the Organization’s link to libertarian communist principles. The compromise with State power appears as a pernicious outcome of the respect for leaders. "In this way, personalization and thus, bureaucratization, combined into an ideological conformism all the more pronounced because the two components, unionist and anarchist are merged, making up the decisive rung on which in July the CNT came to rely in its ascent into the government." (p.55)

If Romero puts critical emphasis on this personalization of power in the heart of the CNT, he doesn’t forget the role conformist values played. "If it is true that sexuality, more than any other behavior, reveals the ideological state of a human group, undeniably, it is puritanism which especially characterized the Spanish libertarian movement in 1936." (p. 90) And he devotes an especially interesting chapter to this theme. Despite the opposition of some groups like Mujeres Libres (Free Women), the family, civil weddings and the repression of sexual desire, would be mythologized in a masculine universe" (p. 90) where the image of women and of sexuality was sublimated into that of the mother.

Finally, there is the debate over the war. An essential question which at the time reflected the question of the unfolding of the social revolution in the capitalist confrontation between the Republic and fascism. The leaders of the CNT-FAI would often evoke "historic circumstances" and the war to justify their participation in the government, quite similar to tactical discussions of the orthodox Marxist type. But, as an "incontrolado" wrote in the Iron Column’s newspaper, Linea de fuego ("Line of Fire"): "We are finding ourselves compromising when we had to provide proof of absolute uncompromising." (p. 73) And, adding, "the question of the war is not a question which decided us to agree to sacrifice our participation in governmental responsibility ( . . . ) To the contrary, it is in the position of governmental participation that permanent danger is found" (p.75). At the time, a strategy of social guerrilla warfare, which should be carried out including in the fascist-controlled zones – was then defended by the radical fringes inside the CNT. This strategy wanted itself to be an alternative to classic guerrilla warfare, a confrontation capitalist in essence. For Romero, "if the organization of a guerrilla warfare by the anarchists was little invoked at the level of the leading authorities in the movement ( . . . ), it was in fact put in practice on the same terrain from the beginning of the war." (p. 71) "Perhaps such a form of struggle wouldn’t have changed anything in the war’s outcome. By contrast, it would have considerably changed the position of the libertarians in the "loyalist" camp. In a word, it would have safeguarded their status and the specificity of their conceptions." (p. 77)

The militiamen of the Iron Column never stopped linking their struggle on the front with the social struggle behind it. Often they would go out from the trenches of Terruel to impose revolutionary purges in Valencia, expropriating the bourgeoisie, recovering new weapons delivered to the Republican police and destroying police files and property deeds. Accused of immaturity, even of banditry, "Los Incontrolados" found themselves under fire from the Stalinist mercenaries of the Republic. In the name of historical necessity, the leaders of the CNT-FAI, one more time, were to let it happen.

History books matter as soon as they bring the past back into the present. In breaking with all libertarian literature’s heroic and romantic tones, Nestor Romero’s book in its own way, comes to complement Vernon Richard’s Lessons of the Spanish Revolution. That is not lightly said.

1. Nestor Romero, Los Incontralados, chronique de la colonne de Fer (Espagne 1936-37), Acratie, 1997, 192 p. 20 euros. A problem with this edition: the poor quality of the printing.

2. One can also read Abel Paz, Chronique passionnée de la colonne de Fer. Paris, Nautilus, 2002, 360 p., 17 euros.

3. Against myths, the author points out that Los Incontrolados selected the common-law prisoners who were integrated into the column, excluding among others, those prisoners known as "stool pigeons." One understands them . . .