The war in Spain exposes anarchism’s fatal flaws. Part two: Dissident voices within the anarchist movement

Friends of Durruti leaflet in May 1937

The second part of the article on anarchism in Spain in the 1930s, the most recent addition to the long-running series ‘Communism is not just a nice idea’ by the left communist International Communist Current. The first part can be found here: libcom

Submitted by Alf on January 2, 2015

The war in Spain exposes anarchism’s fatal flaws
Part two
Dissident voices within the anarchist movement

The Friends of Durruti
The first part of this article looked at the process which led to the integration of the official anarcho-syndicalist organisation, the CNT, into the bourgeois Republican state in Spain in 1936-37, and sought to link these betrayals to the underlying programmatic and theoretical weaknesses of the anarchist world-view. Certainly these capitulations did not go unopposed by proletarian currents inside and outside the CNT. The Libertarian Youth, a left tendency in the POUM around Rebull(1), the Bolshevik Leninist (Trotskyist) group around Munis, the Italian anarchist Camillo Berneri who edited Guerra di Classe, and in particular the Friends of Durruti, animated by Jaime Balius and others(2). To a greater or lesser extent all these groups were made up of working class militants who fought in the heroic struggles of July ‘36 and May ‘37, and without ever reaching the clarity of the Italian communist left, which we highlighted in the first part, opposed the official CNT/POUM policy of participation in the bourgeois state and the strike breaking role of the CNT and the POUM during the May days.

The Friends were perhaps the most important of all these tendencies. They greatly outweighed the other groups numerically, and were able to carry out a significant intervention in the May days, distributing the famous leaflet which defined their programmatic positions:

“CNT-FAI ‘Friends of Durruti’ group. Workers! A revolutionary Junta. Shoot the culprits. Disarm the armed corps. Socialise the economy. Disband the political parties which have turned on the working class. We must not surrender the streets. The revolution before all else. We salute our comrades from the POUM who fraternised with us on the streets. Long live the social revolution! Down with the counter-revolution!
This leaflet was a shorter version of the outline list of demands which the Friends had published in the form of a wall poster in April 1937:
From the Group of the Friends of Durruti. To the working class:
1. The immediate constitution of a Revolutionary Junta formed of workers from the city and the countryside and combatants.
2. The family wage. Rationing card. Direction of the economy and control over distribution by the trade unions.
3. Liquidation of the counterrevolution.
4. Creation of a revolutionary army.
5. Absolute control of public order by the working class.
6. Firm opposition to any armistice.
7. A proletarian justice system.
8. Abolition of prisoner exchanges.
Attention, workers: our group is opposed to the advancing counterrevolution. The decrees on public order, sponsored by Aiguadé, will not be implemented. We demand that Maroto and the other imprisoned comrades be released.
All power to the working class. All economic power to the trade unions. Against the Generalitat, the Revolutionary Junta

The other groups, including the Trotskyists, tended to look to the Friends of Durruti as a potential vanguard: Munis was even optimistic that they would evolve towards Trotskyism. But perhaps the most significant aspect of the Friends was that, despite emerging from inside the CNT, they recognised the inability of the CNT to develop a revolutionary theory and thus the revolutionary programme which they considered was demanded by the situation in Spain. Agustin Guillamon draws our attention to a passage in the pamphlet Towards a Fresh Revolution, published in January 1938, where the author, Balius, writes:

“The CNT was utterly devoid of revolutionary theory. We did not have a concrete programme. We had no idea of where we were going. We had lyricism aplenty: but when all is said and done, we did not know what to do with our masses of workers or how to give substance to the popular effusion which erupted inside our organisations. By not knowing what to do, we handed the revolution on a platter to the bourgeoisie and the Marxists who support the farce of yesteryear. What is worse, we allowed the bourgeoisie a breathing space: to return, to re-form and to behave as would a conqueror.”(3)

As pointed out in our article “The Friends of Durruti: lessons of an incomplete break with anarchism” in IR nº 102, the CNT did in fact have a theory of sorts at this stage – a theory justifying participation in the bourgeois state, above all in the name of anti-fascism. But the Friends were correct in the more general sense that the proletariat cannot make the revolution without a clear and conscious understanding of the direction in which it is heading, and it is the specific task of the revolutionary minority to develop and elaborate such an understanding, based on the experience of the class as a whole.

In this quest for programmatic clarity, the Friends were obliged to question some fundamental assumptions of anarchism: the necessity for the dictatorship of the proletariat and for a revolutionary vanguard to fight within the working class for its implementation. The advance made by the Friends at this level is clearly recognised by Guillamon, particularly in his analysis of the articles Balius wrote from exile,

After a reading of these two articles, it has to be acknowledged that the evolution of Balius’s political thinking, rooted in analysis of the wealth of experience garnered during the civil war, had led him to confront issues taboo in the anarchist ideology: 1) the need for the proletariat to take power. 2) the ineluctability of the destruction of the capitalist state apparatus to clear the way for a proletarian replacement. 3) the indispensable role of a revolutionary leadership.” (4)

Aside from Balius’s reflections, the notion of a revolutionary leadership was more implicit in the practical activity of the group than explicitly formulated, and was not really compatible with the Friends’ definition of itself as an “affinity group”, which at best implies a temporary formation limited to specific ends, rather than a permanent political organisation based on a definite set of programmatic and organisational principles. But the group’s recognition of the need for an organ of proletarian power is more explicit. It is contained in the idea of the “revolutionary junta”, which the Friends admitted was a kind of innovation for anarchism, “we are introducing a slight variation in anarchism into our programme. The establishment of a Revolutionary Junta.”(5) Munis, in an interview with the French Trotskyist paper Lutte Ouvrière, equates the junta with the idea of the soviet and has no doubt that “This circle of revolutionary workers (the Friends of Durruti) represented a beginning of anarchism’s evolving in the direction of Marxism. They had been driven to replace the theory of libertarian communism with that of the ‘revolutionary junta’ (soviet) as the embodiment of proletarian power, democratically elected by the workers”.(6)

In his book Guillamon recognises this convergence between the “innovations” of the Friends and the classic positions of marxism, although he is at pains to refute any idea that the Friends were directly influenced by the marxist groups that they were in contact with, such as the Bolshevik-Leninists. Certainly the group itself, as we can see from the passage in the Balius pamphlet above, would have angrily repudiated the charge that they were heading in the direction of marxism, which they were barely able to distinguish from its counter-revolutionary caricatures. But if marxism is indeed the revolutionary theory of the proletariat, it is not surprising that revolutionary proletarians, reflecting on the lessons of the class struggle, should be drawn towards its fundamental conclusions. The question of the specific influence in such a process of this or that political group is not unimportant, but it is a secondary element.

An incomplete break with anarchism
Nevertheless, despite these advances, the Friends never succeeded in making a profound break with anarchism.

The Friends remained powerfully attached to anarcho-syndicalist traditions and ideas. To be eligible to join the group, you had to also be member of the CNT. As can be seen from the April wall poster and other documents, they still considered that workers’ power could be expressed not only through a “revolutionary junta” or through the workers committees’ created in the course of the struggle, but simultaneously through union control of the economy and through “free municipalities”(7) – formulae which reveal a continuity with the Zaragoza programme whose severe limitations we examined in the first part of this article. Thus the programme elaborated by the Friends had not succeeded in drawing out the real experience of the revolutionary movements of 1905 and 1917-23, where the practice of the working class had seen workers going the beyond the union form, and where the Spartacists, for example, had called for the dissolution of all existing organs of local government in favour of the workers’ councils. It is significant in this respect that in the columns of the group’s paper, El Amigo del Pueblo, which tried to draw the lessons of the events of 36-37, a major historical series was written on the experience of the French bourgeois revolution, not the proletarian revolutions in Russia or Germany.

The Friends certainly saw the “revolutionary junta” as the means for the proletariat to take power in 1937, but was Munis right that the “revolutionary junta” was equivalent to the soviet? There is an area of ambiguity here, no doubt precisely because of the Friends’ apparent incapacity to connect with the experience of the workers’ councils outside Spain. For example, it is not clear how they saw the junta as being formed. Did they see it as the direct emanation of general assemblies in the factories and the militias, or was it to be the product of the most determined workers on their own? In an article in nº 6 of El Amigo, they “advocate that the only participants in the revolutionary Junta should be the workers of city and countryside and the combatants who have shown themselves at every crucial juncture in the conflict to be the champions of social revolution.” (8) Guillamon is in no doubt about the implication of this: “The evolution of the Friends of Durruti’s political thinking was by now unstoppable. After the necessity of a dictatorship of the proletariat had been acknowledged, the next issue to arise was: And who is to exercise that dictatorship of the proletariat? The answer was: the revolutionary Junta, promptly defined as the vanguard of revolutionaries. And its role? We cannot believe that it be anything other than the one which Marxists ascribe to the revolutionary party.”(9) But from our point of view, one of the fundamental lessons of the revolutionary movements of 1917-23, and the Russian revolution in particular, was that the revolutionary party cannot exercise its role if it identifies itself with the dictatorship of the proletariat. Here Guillamon seems to theorise the Friends’ own ambiguities on this question; we shall return to this shortly.

In any case, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the junta was a kind of expedient, rather than the “finally discovered form of the dictatorship of the proletariat” as marxists like Lenin and Trotsky had viewed the soviets. In Towards a fresh revolution, for example, Balius argues that the CNT itself should have taken power “When an organisation’s whole existence has been spent preaching revolution, it has an obligation to act whenever a favourable set of circumstances arises. And in July the occasion did present itself. The CNT ought to have leapt into the driver’s seat in the country, delivering a severe coup de grace to all that is outmoded and archaic. In this way, we would have won the war and saved the revolution” (10). Apart from severely underestimating the deep process of degeneration that had been gnawing away at the CNT well before 1936(11), this again reveals an inability to assimilate the lessons of the whole 1917-23 revolutionary wave, which had made it clear why the soviets, and not syndicalist unions, were the indispensable form of the proletarian dictatorship.

The Friends’ attachment to the CNT also had major implications at the organisational level. In their manifesto of 8th May, the role played by the CNT’s upper echelons in undermining the May 1937 uprising was characterised without hesitation as treason; those it denounced as traitors had already attacked the Friends as agents provocateurs, echoing the habitual slanders of the Stalinists, and threatened their immediate expulsion from the CNT. This fierce antagonism was without doubt a reflection of the class divide between the political camp of the proletariat and forces that had become an agency of the bourgeois state. But faced with the necessity to make a decisive break with the CNT, the Friends drew back and agreed to drop the charge of treason in exchange for the lifting of the call for expulsion, a move which undoubtedly undermined the capacity of the Friends to continue functioning as an independent group. The sentimental attachment to the CNT was simply too strong for a large part of the militants, even if many – and not only members of the Friends or other dissident groups - had torn up their membership cards on being ordered to dismantle the barricades and return to work in May ‘37. This attachment was summed up in the decision of Jaoquin Aubi and Rosa Muñoz to resign from the group under threat of expulsion from the CNT: “I continue to regard the comrades belonging to the ‘Friends of Durruti’ as comrades: but I say again what I have always said at plenums in Barcelona: ‘The CNT has been my womb and the CNT will be my tomb.” (12)

The “national” limitations of the Friends’ vision
In the first part of this article, we showed that the CNT programme was stuck in a narrowly national framework, one which saw “libertarian communism” as being possible in the context of a single self-sufficient country. The Friends certainly had a strong internationalist attitude at an almost instinctive level – for example, in their appeal to the international working class to come to the aid of the insurgent workers in May ‘37 – but this attitude was not informed theoretically either by a serious analysis of the balance of class forces on a global and historical scale, or in a capacity to develop a programme on the basis of the international experience of the working class, as we have already noted in discussing the imprecision of their notion of the “revolutionary junta”. Guillamon is particularly scathing in his criticisms of this weakness as revealed in a chapter of Balius’s pamphlet:

“The next chapter in the pamphlet tackles the subject of Spain's independence. The entire chapter is replete with wrong-headed notions which are short-sighted or better suited to the petit bourgeoisie. A cheap and vacuous nationalism is championed with limp, simplistic references to international politics. So we shall pass over this chapter, saying only that the Friends of Durruti subscribed to bourgeois, simplistic and/or backward-looking ideas with regard to nationalism” (13)
The influences of nationalism were particularly crucial in the Friends’ incapacity to understand the real nature of the war in Spain. As we wrote in our article in IR nº 102:

“In fact the Friends of Durruti's considerations on the war were made on the basis of anarchism's the narrow and ahistorical nationalist thinking. This led them to a vision of the events in Spain as the continuation of the bourgeoisie's ludicrous revolutionary efforts against the Napoleonic invasion of 1808. Whilst the international workers' movement was debating the defeat of the world proletariat and the perspective of a Second World War, the Anarchists in Spain thought about Fernando VII and Napoleon:

What is happening today is a re-enactment of what happened in the reign of Ferdinand VII. Once again in Vienna there has been a conference of fascist dictators for the purpose of organising their invasion of Spain. And today the workers in arms have taken up the mantle of El Empecinado. Germany and Italy need raw materials. They need iron, copper, lead and mercury. But these Spanish mineral deposits are the preserves of France and England. Yet even though Spain faces subjection, England does not protest. On the contrary - in a vile manoeuvre, she tries to negotiate with Franco (...) It is up to the working class to ensure Spain's independence. Native capitalism will not do it, since international capital crosses all frontiers. This is Spain's current predicament. It is up to us workers to root out the foreign capitalists. Patriotism does not enter into it. It is a matter of class interests’ (from Towards a fresh revolution).

As we can see, it takes a clever piece of work to turn an imperialist war into a patriotic war, a ‘class’ war. This is an expression of Anarchism's political disarming of such sincere worker militants as the Friends of Durruti. These comrades who wanted to struggle against the war and for the revolution, were incapable of finding the point of departure for an effective struggle. This would have meant calling on the workers and peasants, enlisted in both gangs - the Republic and the Franquistas - to desert, to turn their guns on the officers who oppressed them and to return to the rear and struggle through strikes and demonstrations, on a class terrain, against the whole of capitalism.

And this takes us to the most crucial question of all: the Friends’ position on the nature of the war in Spain. Here there is no doubt that the group’s name signified more than a sentimental reference to Durruti (14), whose bravery and sincerity was much admired by the Spanish proletariat. Durruti was a militant of the working class but he was completely unable to make a thorough critique of what had happened to the Spanish workers after the July ‘36 uprising – of how the ideology of anti-fascism and the transfer of the struggle from the social front to the military fronts was already a decisive step which dragged the workers into an imperialist conflict. Durruti, along with many sincere anarchists, was a “jusqu’au boutiste”(15) when it came to the war, arguing that the war and the revolution, far from being in contradiction with each other, could reinforce each other as long as the struggle on the fronts was combined with the “social” transformations in the rear, which Durruti identified with the establishment of libertarian communism. But as Bilan insisted, in the context of a military war between capitalist blocs, the self-managed industrial and agricultural enterprises could only function as a means of further mobilising the workers for the war. This was a “war communism” that was feeding an imperialist war.

The Friends never challenged this idea that the war and the revolution had to be fought simultaneously. Like Durruti, they called for the total mobilisation of the population for the war, even when they analysed that the war was being lost(16).

Guillamon’s position on the war and his criticisms of Bilan
For Guillamon, summing up, the events in Spain were “the tomb of anarchism as a revolutionary theory.” (17). We can only add that despite the heroism of the Friends and their laudable efforts to develop a revolutionary theory, the anarchist soil on which they attempted to grow this flower proved inhospitable.

But Guillamon himself was not free from ambiguities about the war in Spain and this is evident in his criticisms of the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left that published Bilan.

On the central question of the war, Guillamon’s position, as summarised in his book, seems clear enough:

1. Without destruction of the State, there is no revolution. The Central Anti-fascist Militias Committee of Catalonia (CAMC) was not an organ of dual power, but an agency for military mobilization of the workers, for sacred union with the bourgeoisie, in short, an agency of class collaboration.
2. Arming of the people is meaningless. The nature of military warfare is determined by the nature of the class directing it. An army fighting in defense of a bourgeois State, even should it be antifascist, is an army in the service of capitalism.
3. War between a fascist State and an antifascist State is not a revolutionary class war. The proletariat's intervention on one side is an indication that it has already been defeated. Insuperable technical and professional inferiority on the part of the popular or militia-based army was implicit in military struggle on a military front.
4. War on the military fronts implied abandonment of the class terrain. Abandonment of the class struggle signified defeat for the revolutionary process.
5. In the Spain of August 1936, revolution was no more and there was scope only for war: A non-revolutionary military war.
6. The collectivizations and socializations in the economy count for nothing when State power is in the hands of the bourgeoisie.”

This looks very much like a reprise of the positions defended by the communist left. But Guillamon actually rejects some of the most important positions of Bilan, as we can see from another document, “Theses on the Spanish civil war and the revolutionary situation created on July 1936” published in 2001 by the group Balances(19). Despite his acknowledgment that there were brilliant aspects of Bilan’s analysis of the events in Spain, he makes some fundamental criticisms both of this analysis and the political conclusions drawn from it:

1. Bilan failed to recognise that there was a “revolutionary situation” in July ‘36. “On the one hand, Bilan acknowledges the class character of the struggles of July and May, but on the other hand not only denies their revolutionary character, but even denies the existence of a revolutionary situation. This viewpoint can only be explained by the distance of an absolutely isolated Parisian group, which placed a higher priority on its analyses than on the study of the Spanish reality. There is not even one word in Bilan about the real nature of the committees, or on the struggle of the Barcelona proletariat for socialization and against collectivization, or on the debates and confrontations within the Militia Columns concerning the militarization of the Militias, or a serious critique of the positions of The Friends of Durruti Group, for the simple reason that they are practically totally unaware of the existence and the significance of all these matters. It was easy to justify this ignorance by denying the existence of a revolutionary situation. Bilan’s analysis fails because in its view the absence of a revolutionary (Bordigist) party necessarily implies the absence of a revolutionary situation.”

2. Bilan’s analysis of the May events is incoherent: “The incoherence of Bilan is made evident by its analysis of the May Days of 1937. It turns out that the ‘revolution’ of July 19th, which one week later ceased to be a revolution, because its class goals had been turned into war goals, now reappears like the Phoenix of history, like a ghost that had been hiding in some unknown location. And now it turns out that in May 1937 the workers were once again ‘revolutionary’, and defended the revolution from the barricades. Was it not the case, however, that, according to Bilan, a revolution had not taken place? Here, Bilan gets all tangled up. On July 19 (according to Bilan) there was a revolution, but one week later, there was no longer a revolution, because there was no (Bordiguist) party; in May 1937 there was another revolutionary week. But how do we characterize the situation between July 26th 1936 and May 3rd, 1937? We are not told anything about this. The revolution is considered to be an intermittent river [“Guadiana”: a river in Spain that runs on the surface, then underground, then reappears on the surface— libcom Translator’s note] that emerges onto the historical stage when Bilan wants to explain certain events that it neither understands, nor is capable of explaining”.

3. Bilan’s position on the party and its idea that it’s the party, not the class that makes the revolution, is based on a “Leninist, totalitarian and substitutionist concept of the party.”

4. Bilan’s practical conclusions about the war were “reactionary”:“According to Bilan the proletariat was immersed in an antifascist war, that is, it was enrolled in an imperialist war between a democratic bourgeoisie and a fascist bourgeoisie. In this situation, the only appropriate positions were desertion and boycott, or to wait for better times, when the (Bordigist) party would enter the stage of history from the wings where it had been biding its time” Thus: denying the existence of a revolutionary situation in ‘36 led Bilan to “reactionary political positions such as breaking up the military fronts, fraternization with the Francoist troops, cutting off weapons to the republican troops.”

To respond in depth to Guillamon’s criticisms of the Italian Fraction would take a separate article but we want to make a few remarks in reply:

 It’s not true that Bilan were totally unaware of the real class movement in Spain. It is true that they didn’t appear to know about the Friends, but they were in touch with Camillo Berneri, so despite their stringent criticisms of anarchism they were quite capable of recognising that a proletarian resistance could still emerge within its ranks. More important, they were able, as Guillamaon accepts, to see the class character of the July and May events and it’s simply false to claim that they said not one word about the committees that emerged from the July uprising: in part one of this article we cited an extract from their text “Lessons of the events in Spain” in Bilan nº 36 which mentions these committees, sees them as proletarian organs but then also recognises the rapid process of recuperation via the “collectivisations”. Bilan do imply in that same article that power was within the workers’ grasp and that the next step was the destruction of the capitalist state. But they had a historic and international framework which enabled them to have a clearer view of the overall context which determined the tragic isolation of the Spanish proletariat - one of triumphant counter-revolution and a course towards world imperialist war, for which the Spanish conflict was a dress rehearsal. This is something which Guillamon hardly deals with, just as it was more or less absent from the analyses of the Spanish anarchists at the time;

- the May events confirmed Bilan’s analysis rather than showing its confusions. The class struggle, like class consciousness itself, is indeed rather like a river that can go underground only to resurface: the most important example being the revolutionary events of 1917-18, which followed a terrible defeat of the class on the ideological level in 1914. The fact that the initial proletarian impetus of July 1936 was stymied and diverted did not mean that the fighting spirit and class consciousness of the Spanish proletariat had been utterly smashed, and they re-appeared in a last rearguard action against the unending attacks on the class, imposed above all by the republican bourgeoisie; but this reaction was crushed by the combined forces of the capitalist class from the Stalinists to the CNT, and this was a blow from which the Spanish proletariat did not recover;

 - it is an example of lazy thinking, surprising in a historian normally as rigorous as Guillamon, to dismiss Bilan’s view of the party as “Leninist and substitutionist”. Guillamon implies that Bilan had the view that the party is a deus ex machina, which waits in the wings till the time is ripe. This could be said about today’s Bordigists who claim to be The Party, but Guillamon totally ignores Bilan’s conception of the fraction, which is based on the recognition that the party cannot exist in a situation of counter-revolution and defeat precisely because the party is the product of the class and not the other way round. It’s true that the Italian left had not yet broken with the substitutionist idea of the party that takes power and exercises the proletarian dictatorship –but we have already shown that Guillamon himself is not entirely free of this conception, and Bilan were beginning to provide a framework that would make it possible to break with the whole notion (20). In Spain ‘36 they explained the absence of the party as a product of the world-wide defeat of the working class, and although they did not discount the possibility of revolutionary upsurges, they saw that the cards were stacked against the proletariat. And as Guillamon himself acknowledges, a revolution which does not give birth to a revolutionary party cannot succeed. Thus, Bilan’s position was not, as was so often falsely asserted, the idealist “there is no revolution in Spain because there is no party”, but the materialist “there is no party because there is no revolution”;

 - Guillamon’s own incoherence is shown most clearly in his rejection of Bilan’s “revolutionary defeatist” position on the war. Guillamon accepts that the war was very rapidly transformed into a non-revolutionary war, and that this was in no way altered by the existence of armed militias, collectivisations, etc. But this idea of a “non-revolutionary war” is ambiguous: Guillamon seems reluctant to accept that this was an imperialist war and that the class struggle could only revive by returning to the class terrain of the defence of the material interests of the proletariat, against the labour discipline and sacrifices imposed by the war. This would have certainly undermined the military fronts and sabotaged the republican army – precisely the reason for the savage repression of the May events. And yet when push comes to shove Guillamon argues that the classic proletarian methods of struggle against imperialist war – strikes, mutinies, desertions, fraternisations, strikes in the rear – were reactionary, even though this is a “non-revolutionary war”. This is at best a centrist position which aligns Guillamon with all those who fell for the siren calls of participation in the war, from the Trotskyists to the anarchists and sections of the communist left itself.

As for Bilan’s isolation, they recognised that this was a product not of geography but of the dark times they were going through, when all about them were betraying the principles of internationalism. As they wrote in an article entitled precisely “The isolation of our Fraction faced with the events in Spain” in Bilan nº 36, October-November 1936.

“Our isolation is not fortuitous. It is the consequence of a profound victory by world capitalism which has managed to infect with gangrene even those groups of the communist left whose spokesman up until now was Trotsky. We do not claim that at the pre¬sent moment we are the only group whose positions have been confirmed by every turn of events, but what we do claim categorical¬ly is that, good or bad, our positions have been based on a permanent affirmation of the necessity for the autonomous class activity of the proletariat. And it is on this question that we have seen the bankruptcy of all Trotskyist and semi-Trotskyist groups”.

It was the strength of the Italian marxist tradition that it was able to give to give rise to a fraction as clear sighted as Bilan. It was a severe weakness of the Spanish workers’ movement, characterised by the historical predominance of anarchism over marxism, that no such fraction was able to emerge in Spain.

Berneri and his successors
In the manifesto produced in response to the crushing of the workers’ revolt in May 1937 in Barcelona, the Italian and Belgian Fractions of the Communist Left paid homage to the memory of the Camillo Berneri(21), whose murder at the hands of the Stalinist police was part of the general repression doled out by the republican state to all those, workers and revolutionaries, who had played an active part in the May Days and who, either by words or by action, came out in opposition to the CNT-FAI policy of collaboration with the capitalist state.

This is what the Left Fractions wrote in Bilan nº 41, June 1937:

The proletariat of the whole world salutes Berneri as one of its own, and his martyrdom for the ideal of anarchism is yet another protest against a political school which has met its downfall during these events in Spain. It was under the direction of a government in which the anarchists participated that the police have done to the body of Berneri what Mussolini did to the body of Matteotti!”

In another article in the same issue, “Antonio Gramsci –Camillo Berneri”, Bilan noted that these two militants, who had died with a few weeks of each other, had given their lives to the cause of the proletariat despite the serious weaknesses of their ideological standpoints.

“Berneri, a leader of the anarchists? No, because even after his murder, the CNT and the FAI are mobilising the workers around the danger that they will be kicked out of the government which is dripping with Berneri’s blood. The latter thought that he could count on the school of anarchism to contribute to the task of the social redemption of the oppressed, and it was a ministry made up of anarchists which launched the attack on the exploited of Barcelona!

“The lives of Gramsci and Berneri belong to the proletariat which will be inspired by their example to continue its struggle. And the communist victory will enable the masses to honour the two of them with all due dignity, because it will also enable them to better understand the errors to which they were victims and which certainly added, along with the action of the enemy class itself, the torment of seeing events tragically contradicting their convictions, their ideologies.”

The article ends by saying that more would be written on these two figures of the workers’ movement in the next issue of Bilan. There is indeed a specific article devoted to Gramsci in that issue (Bilan nº 42, July-August 1937), which though of considerable interest is outside the focus of this essay. Berneri himself was mentioned in the editorial to the issue, “The repression in Spain and in Russia”, which examines the tactics the police had used to assassinate Berneri and his comrade Barbieri.

We know how Berneri was murdered. Two policemen presented themselves at his house. ‘We are friends’ they said. Why had they come? They had come to check on where two rifles were kept. They came back, to make a simple requisition, and they took the two weapons away. They came back a last time and it was for the final blow. Now they were sure that Berneri and his comrade were disarmed, that they had no possibility of defending themselves, they arrested them on the basis of a legal order drawn up by the authority of a government of which Berneri’s political friends , the representatives of the CNT and the FAI, are a part. The wives of Berneri and Barbieri were then informed that the bodies of their two comrades were in the morgue.

“We know, finally, that in the streets of Madrid and Barcelona, this is standard practice from now on. Armed squads, controlled by the centrists, are wandering the streets killing workers suspected of subversive ideas.

“And all this without the edifice of socialisations, militias, trade union control of production, being wiped out by a new reorganisation of the capitalist state.”

In fact there are to this day different accounts of the murder: Augustin Souchy’s contemporary account, “The tragic week in May”, originally published in Spain and the World and republished in The May Days Barcelona 1937 (Freedom Press, 1998) is very similar to Bilan’s; on the other hand the short biography on libcom written by Toni (22) has it that he was gunned down in the street after going to the offices of Radio Barcelona to speak about the death of Gramsci; and there are other variations in descriptions of the details. But the key issue, as Bilan said, was that in the general repression that followed the defeat of the May revolt it was now standard practice to proceed to the physical elimination of troublesome elements like Berneri who had the courage to criticise the Socialist/Stalinist/anarchist government, and the counter-revolutionary foreign policy of the USSR. The Stalinists, who had a tight grip over the police apparatus, were in the vanguard of these assassinations. Despite the continuing use of the term, “centrists” to describe the Stalinists, Bilan clearly saw them for what they were: violent enemies of the working class, cops and assassins with whom no collaboration was possible. This was in marked contrast to the Trotskyists who continued to define the CPs as workers’ parties with whom a united front was still desirable, and the USSR as a regime that should still be defended against imperialist attack.

What was the common ground between Berneri and Bilan?
If some of the facts about Berneri’s murder are still rather hazy, we are even less clear about the relationship between the Italian Fraction and Berneri. Our book on the Italian left informs us that, following the departure of the minority of Bilan to fight in the militias of the POUM, the majority sent a delegation to Barcelona to try to find elements with whom a fruitful debate might be possible. Discussions with elements in the POUM proved fruitless, and “only a discussion with the anarchist teacher Camillo Berneri had any positive results” (p 98). But the book isn’t precise about what these positive results were.

At first sight, there is not an obvious reason why Bilan and Berneri should find common ground.

If for example we look at one of his better known texts, the open letter written to Frederica Montseny after she had become a minister in the Madrid government, dated April 1937(23), we don’t find a lot to distinguish Berneri’s position from that of many other “left” antifascists of the day. Underlying his approach – which is more a dialogue with an erring comrade than a denunciation of a traitor - is the conviction that there is indeed a revolution in progress in Spain, that there was no contradiction between deepening the revolution and prosecuting the war till victory, provided that revolutionary methods were used – but such methods did not preclude calling on the government to take more radical action, such as immediately granting political autonomy to Morocco to weaken the grip of the Francoist forces over their North African recruits. Certainly the article is very critical of the decision of the CNT-FAI leaders to enter the government, but there is much in this article to support Guillamon’s contention that “The Friends of Durruti’s criticism was even more radical than that of Berneri, because Berneri was critical of CNT participation in the Government, whereas the Group was critical of the CNT’s collaboration with the capitalist state.” (24) So why was the Italian Fraction able to hold positive discussions with him? We suspect that it was because Berneri was, like the Italian left, committed first and foremost to proletarian internationalism and a global outlook, whereas, as Guillamon himself has noted, a group like the Friends of Durruti still showed signs of bearing the heavy baggage of Spanish patriotism. Certainly Berneri had taken a very clear position during the First World War: when he has still a member of the Socialist Party, he had worked closely with Bordiga in expelling the “interventionists” from the Socialist paper L’Avanguardia. (25) His article on the imperialist rivalries behind the conflict, “Burgos and Moscow”(26), published in 'Guerra di Classe' nº 6, 16th December 1936, despite leaning towards calls for intervention by France in defence of its national interests (27), is at the same time rather clear about the anti-revolutionary and imperialist designs of all the big powers, fascist, democratic and “Soviet”, towards the conflict in Spain. Souchy in fact argues that it was in particular this denunciation of the USSR’s imperialist role in the situation which became Berneri’s death warrant.

In our text “Marxism and Ethics”, we wrote: “Characteristic of moral progress is the enlarging of the radius of application of social virtues and impulses, until the whole of humanity is encompassed. By far the highest expression of human solidarity, of the ethical progress of society to date, is proletarian internationalism. This principle is the indispensable means of the liberation of the working class, laying the basis for the future human community.” (28)

Behind the internationalism that united Bilan and Berneri, there lies a profound commitment to proletarian morality – the defence of fundamental principles no matter what the cost: isolation, ridicule, and physical threat. As Berneri put it in the last letter he wrote to his daughter Marie-Louise:

One can lose one's illusions about everything and about everyone, but not about what one affirms with one's moral conscience.” (29)

Berneri’s stand against the “circumstantialism” adopted by so many in the anarchist movement of the day – “principles are well and good, but in these particular circumstances we have to be more realistic and practical” - would certainly have struck a chord among the comrades of the Italian left, whose refusal to abandon principles in face of the euphoria of anti-fascist unity, of the opportunist immediatism that swept through almost the entire proletarian political movement at that time, had obliged them to furrow a very lonely path indeed.

Perhaps the best proof that, despite the illusions and confusions that remained, Berneri’s internationalism ran very deep, lies in what he succeeded in transmitting to his daughter Marie-Louise and to her partner, the Anglo-Italian anarchist Vernon Richards. As we have noted elsewhere (30), these two were among the few elements within the anarchist movement, in Britain or internationally, who carried on an internationalist activity during the Second World War, through their publication War Commentary. The paper “strongly denounced the pretence that the war was an ideological struggle between democracy and fascism, and the hypocrisy of the democratic allies’ denunciations of Nazi atrocities after their tacit support for the fascist regimes and for Stalin’s terror during the 1930s. Highlighting the hidden nature of the war as a power struggle between British, German and American imperialist interests, War Commentary also denounced the use of fascist methods by the ‘liberating’ allies and their totalitarian measures against the working class at home.” (31).Marie Louise and Richards were arrested at the end of the war on the charge of fomenting insubordination among the armed forces; although Marie-Louise did not stand trial on the basis that spouses cannot be considered to be conspiring together, Richards went to prison for nine months. Marie-Louise and their child both died in childbirth in 1949, a tragic loss for Richards and the proletarian movement.

Vernon Richards and the Lessons of the Spanish Revolution
Richards also published a very influential book, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, based on articles published in Spain and the World during the 1930s. This book, first published in 1953 and dedicated to Camillo and Marie-Louise, is quite unstinting in its exposure of the opportunism and degeneration of “official” anarchism in Spain. In his introduction to the first English edition, Richards tells us that some in the anarchist movement had “suggested to me that this study provides ammunition for the political enemies of anarchism”, to which Richards responds: “Apart from the fact that the cause of anarchy surely cannot be harmed by an attempt to establish the truth, the basis of my criticism is not that anarchist ideas were proved unworkable by the Spanish experience, but that the Spanish anarchists and syndicalists failed to put their theories to the test, adopting instead the tactics of the enemy. I fail to see, therefore, how believers in the enemy, i.e. government and political parties, can use this criticism against anarchism without it rebounding on themselves.” (32)

During the Second World War, large parts of the anarchist movement had succumbed to the seductions of anti-fascism and the Resistance. This was particularly true of important elements in the Spanish movement, who have bequeathed to history the image of armoured cars festooned with CNT-FAI banners leading the “Liberation” parade into Paris in 1944. In his book Richards attacks the “combination of political opportunism and naivety” which resulted in CNT-FAI leaders adopting the view “that every effort should be made to prolong the war at any cost until the outbreak of hostilities between Germany and Britain, which everyone knew to be inevitable sooner or later. Just as some hoped for victory as a result of the international conflagration, so many Spanish revolutionaries gave their support to World War II because they believed that a victory of the ‘democracies’ (including Russia!) would result in Spain’s automatic liberation from the Franco-fascist tyranny.” (33)

And again, this loyalty to internationalism is integrally linked to a powerful ethical stance, expressed both at the intellectual level and in Richard’s obvious indignation at the repellent behaviour and hypocritical self-justifications of the official representatives of Spanish anarchism.

In a response to the arguments of the anarchist minister Juan Peiro, Richards puts his finger on the mentality of “circumstantialism”: “every compromise, every deviation, it was explained, was not a ‘rectification’ of the ‘sacred principles’ of the CNT, but simply actions determined by the ‘circumstances’ and that once these were resolved there would be a return to principles.” (34). Elsewhere, he denounces the CNT leadership for being “prepared to abandon principles for tactics”, and for their capitulation to the ideology of “the end justifies the means”: “The fact of the matter is that for the revolutionaries as well as for the Government all means were justified to achieve the ends of mobilising the whole country on a war footing. And in those circumstances the assumption is that everybody would support the ‘cause’. Those who do not are made to; those who resist are hounded, humiliated, punished or liquidated.” (35)

In this particular example, Richards was talking about the CNT’s capitulation to traditional bourgeois methods for the disciplining of prisoners, but the same anger is lucidly expressed at the political betrayals of the CNT in a whole series of areas. Some of these are evident and well-known:

 - The rapid abandonment of the traditional critique of collaboration with government and political parties in favour of anti-fascist unity. Most famously this included the acceptance of ministerial posts in the central government and the infamous ideological justification of this step by the anarchist ministers, who claimed that it signified that the state was ceasing to be an instrument of oppression. But Richards also castigates anarchist participation in other state organs such as the regional government of Catalonia and the National Defence Council - which Camillo Berneri had himself recognised as part of the government apparatus, despite its “revolutionary” label, rejecting an invitation to serve on it.

 - CNT participation in the capitalist normalisation of all the institutions that had emerged out of the workers’ uprising in July 1936: the incorporation of the militias into a regular bourgeois army, and the institution of state control of the enterprises, even though masked by the syndicalist fiction that the workers were now masters in their own house. His analysis of the Extended National Economic Plenum of January 1938 (chapter XVII) shows how totally the CNT had adopted the methods of capitalist management, with its obsession with increasing productivity and punishing idlers. But the rot had certainly set in much earlier than that, as Richards shows by exposing what it meant for the CNT to sign the “Unity of Action” pact with the Socialist UGT union and the Stalinist PSUC – acceptance of militarisation, of nationalisation of the enterprises with a thin veneer of “workers control” , and so on(36).

 - The CNT’s role in sabotaging the May Days of 1937. Richards analysed these events as a spontaneous and potentially revolutionary rising by the working class, and as the concrete expression of a growing divide between the rank and file of the CNT and its bureaucratic apparatus, which used all its capacities for manoeuvring and outright deceit to disarm the workers and get them back to work.

But some of Richards’ most revealing exposés are of the manner in which the CNT’s political and organisational degeneration necessarily involved a growing moral corruption, above all of those most in the forefront of this process. He shows how this was expressed both in the statements of the anarchist leaders and in the CNT press. Three expressions of this corruption in particular aroused his fury:

 - A speech by Federica Montseny to a mass meeting on August 31st, 1936, which says of Franco and his followers that they were “this enemy lacking dignity or a conscience, without a feeling of being Spaniards, because if they were Spaniards, if they were patriots, they would not have let loose on Spain the Regulars and the Moors to impose the civilisation of the fascists, not as a Christian civilisation, but as a Moorish civilisation, people we went to colonise for them now come and colonise us, with religious principles and political ideas which they wish to impose on the minds of the Spanish people.” (37).Richards comments acidly: “Thus spoke a Spanish revolutionary, one of the most intelligent and gifted members of the organisation (and still treated as one of the outstanding figures by the majority section of the CNT in France). In that one sentence are expressed nationalist, racialist and imperialist sentiments. Did anyone protest at the meeting?”

 - The cult of leadership: Richards cites articles in the anarchist press which, almost from the beginning of the war, aim to create a semi-religious aura around figures like Garcia Oliver: “the lengths to which the sycophants went is displayed in a report published in Solidaridad Obrera (August 29th, 1936) on the occasion of Oliver’s departure to the front. He is variously described as ‘our dear comrade’, ‘the outstanding militant’, ‘the courageous comrade’. ‘our most beloved comrade’”, and so on and so forth. Richards adds further examples of this sycophancy and ends with the comment: “It goes without saying that an organisation which encourages the cult of the leader, cannot also cultivate a sense of responsibility among its members which is absolutely fundamental to the integrity of a libertarian organisation.” (38).Note that both Montseny’s speech and the canonisation of Oliver come from the period before they became government ministers.

 - The militarisation of the CNT: “Once committed to the idea of militarisation, the CNT-FAI threw themselves wholeheartedly into the task of demonstrating to everybody that their rank and filers were the most disciplined, the most courageous members of the armed forces. The Confederal Press published innumerable photographs of its military leaders (in their officers’ uniforms), interviewed them, wrote glowing tributes on their elevation to the exalted ranks of colonel or major. And as the military situation worsened so the tone of the Confederal Press became more aggressive and militaristic. Solidaridad Obrera published daily lists of men who had been condemned by the military Tribunals in Barcelona and shot for ‘fascist activities’, ‘defeatism’ or ‘desertion’. One reads of a man sentenced to death for helping conscripts to escape over the frontier...” Richards then quotes an item in Solidaridad Obrera of 21st April 1938 about another man executed for leaving his post, “to set a greater example. The soldiers of the garrison were present and filed past the body cheering the Republic”, and he concludes: “this campaign of discipline and obedience through fear and terror…did not prevent large-scale desertions from the fronts (though not often to Franco’s lines) and a falling output in the factories.” (39)

Anarchist ideology and proletarian principle
These examples of Richards’ outrage at the total betrayal of class principles by the CNT are an example of the proletarian morality which is an indispensable foundation to any form of revolutionary militancy. But we also know that anarchism tends to distort this morality with ahistorical abstractions, and this lack of method underlines some of the key weaknesses in the book.

This can be illustrated by Richards’ approach to the union question. Behind the question of the unions there is an “invariant” element of principle: the necessity for the proletariat to equip itself with forms of association to defend itself from the exploitation and oppression of capital. Anarchism historically has usually accepted that trade unions (or industrial unions of the IWW type, or anarcho-syndicalist organisations) are one such form of association while maintaining an opposition to all political parties. But because it rejects the materialist analysis of history, it cannot understand that these forms of association can change profoundly in different historical epochs. Hence the position of the marxist left that with capitalism’s entry into its epoch of decadence, the trade unions and the old mass parties lose their proletarian content and are integrated into the bourgeois state. The growth of anarcho-syndicalism at the beginning of the 20th century was a partial response to this process of degeneration in the old unions and parties, but it lacked the theoretical tools to really explain the process, and therefore got trapped into new versions of the old unionism: the tragic fate of the CNT in Spain was proof that in the new epoch, it would not be possible to maintain permanent mass organisations which retained their proletarian, let alone their overtly revolutionary, character. Influenced by Errico Malatesta(40) (as was Berneri), Richards (41) was aware of some of the limitations of the anarcho-syndicalist idea: the contradiction involved in constructing an organisation which both proclaims itself to be for the defence of the workers’ day-to- day interests, and is thus open to all workers, and which at the same time is committed to the social revolution, a goal which at any given time inside capitalist society will only be espoused by a minority of the class. This would inevitably foster tendencies towards bureaucratism and reformism, both of which exploded to the surface in the events of ‘36-‘39 in Spain. But this view doesn’t go far enough in explaining the process whereby all permanent mass organisations, which had been possible in the past as expressions of the proletariat, are now directly incorporated into the state. Thus Richards, despite some intuitions that the treason of the CNT was not simply a matter of the “leaders”, is unable to recognise that the apparatus of the CNT itself had, at the culmination of a long process of degeneration, become part of the capitalist state. This inability to understand the qualitative transformation of trade unions is also seen in his view about the Socialist union federation, the UGT: for him, while collaboration with the political parties and the government was a betrayal of principle, he was positively in favour of a united front with the UGT, which in reality could only have been a more radical version of the popular front.

The key weakness in the book, however, is the one shared by overwhelming majority of the dissident anarchists and oppositional groups of the day: that there had actually been a proletarian revolution in Spain, that the working class had indeed come to power, or had at least established a dual power situation which lasted well beyond the initial days of the July uprising. For Richards, the organ of dual power was the Central Committee of the Anti-fascist Militias, even though he was aware that the CCAM later on became an agent of militarisation. In fact, as we noted, following Bilan, in the previous article, the CCAM was crucial to preserving capitalist rule almost from day one of the uprising. From this fundamental error, Richards is unable to break from the notion, which we have already noted in the positions of the Friends of Durruti, that the war in Spain was in essence a revolutionary war which could have simultaneously beaten back Franco on the military front and established the bases for a new society, instead of seeing that the military fronts and the general mobilisation for war were in themselves a negation of the class struggle. Although Richards makes some very lucid criticisms of the concrete manner in which the mobilisation for war led to the forced militarisation of the working class, the crushing of its autonomous initiative, and the intensification of its exploitation, he remains ambiguous about questions like the necessity to increase the pace and hours of work in the factories in order to ensure the production of arms for the front. Lacking a global and historical view of the conditions of the class struggle in this period, which was one of defeat for the working class and preparation for a new imperialist re-division of the world, he does not grasp the nature of the war in Spain as an imperialist conflict, a general rehearsal for the coming world holocaust. His insistence that the “revolution” made a key error in not using Spain’s gold reserves to buy weapons from abroad shows (as did Berneri’s more or less open call for intervention by the democracies) a deep underestimation of the degree to which the very rapid shift from the terrain of class struggle to the military terrain also flung the conflict into the world-wide inter-imperialist pressure-cooker.
For Bilan, Spain 1936 was to anarchism what 1914 was to social democracy: a historical act of treason which marked a change in the class nature of those who had betrayed. It did not mean that all the various expressions of anarchism had passed to the other side of the barricade, but – as with the survivors of the shipwreck of social democracy – it did call for a process of ruthless self-examination, of profound theoretical reflection precisely on the part of those who had remained loyal to class principles. On the whole, the best tendencies within anarchism have not gone far enough in this self-critique, and certainly not as far as the communist left in analysing the successive failures of social democracy, the Russian revolution, and the Communist International. The majority – and this was certainly the case with the Friends of Durruti, the Berneris and Richards - have tried to preserve the core of anarchism when it is precisely this core which reflects the petty-bourgeois origins of anarchism and its resistance to the coherence and clarity of the “Marx party” (in other words, the authentically marxist tradition). Rejection of the historical materialist method prevented them from developing a clear perspective in the period of capitalism’s ascendancy, and then from understanding the changes in the life of the enemy class and of the proletarian struggle in the epoch of capitalist decay. And it still prevents them from reaching an adequate theory of the capitalist mode of production itself – its motor forces and its trajectory towards crisis and collapse. Perhaps most crucially of all, anarchism is unable to develop a materialist theory of the state – its origins, nature, and historical modifications - and of the organisational means the proletariat needs to overthrow it: the workers’ councils and the revolutionary party. In the final analysis, anarchist ideology is an obstacle to the task of elaborating the political, economic and social content of the communist revolution.

(1) See International Review nº 104, “Historical document: Josep Rebull of the POUM, On the 1937 May Days in Barcelona”
(2)The definitive work on this group, and one written from a clearly proletarian standpoint, is by Agustin Guillamon The Friends of Durruti Group 1937-39 (AK Press, 1996), which we shall refer to throughout this part of the article. See also the ICC article
(3)Guillamon, The Friends of Durruti Group, p 78.
(4)Friends, p 92.
(5)Towards a fresh revolution, cited in Friends, p 84.
(6) Lutte Ouvrière February 24 and March 3, 1939, quoted in Friends, p 98.
(7) Cf Friends, p64.
(8) Cited in Friends, p 68.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Cited in Friends, p79.
(11) See our articles on the history of the CNT from the broader series on anarcho-syndicalism:;,,
(12) Quoted in the preface to Friends, p vii.
(13) Friends, p82.
(14) Buenaventura Durruti was born in 1896, the son of a railworker. From the age of 17 he was involved in militant workers’ struggles – first on the railways, then in the mines, and later in the massive class movements that swept through Spain during the post-war revolutionary wave. He joined the CNT around this time. During the reflux of the post-war wave, Durruti was involved in the “pistolero” battles against hired guns of the state and employers, and carried out at least one high-profile assassination. Exiled to South America and Europe during most of the 20s, he was under sentence of death in several countries. In 1931, following the fall of the monarchy, he returned to Spain and became a member of the FAI and of the Nosostros group, both of which were formed with the intention of combating the increasingly reformist tendencies in the CNT. In July 1936, in Barcelona, he took a very active part in the workers’ response to the Franco coup, and then formed the Iron Column, a specifically anarchist militia which went to fight at the front against the Francoists, while at the same time initiating or supporting the agrarian collectivisations. In November 1936 he went to Madrid with a large contingent of militiamen to try to relieve the besieged city, but was killed by a stray bullet. 500,000 people attended his funeral. For these and many more Spanish workers, Durruti was a symbol of courage and dedication to the cause of the proletariat. A short biographical sketch of Durruti can be found here:
(15) A term coined during the First World War to describe those who insisted that the war must be fought “to the bitter end”.
(16) Cf Friends, p71.
(17) Friends, p108
(18) Ibid, p 10.
(20) In particular, their insistence that the party could not become entangled with the transitional state, a mistake which they saw as having proved fatal for the Bolsheviks in Russia. See an earlier article in this series:
(21)Camillo Berneri was born in northern Italy in 1897, son of a civil servant and a school teacher. Berneri himself worked for a while as a teacher and at a teacher training college. He joined the Italian Socialist Party during his teenage years, and during the 1914-18 war, along with Bordiga and others, took an internationalist position against the party’s centrist wavering and against the outright treason of the likes of Mussolini. But by the end of the war he had become an anarchist and was close to the ideas of Errico Malatesta. Driven into exile by the fascist regime, he remained a target of the machinations of the fascist secret police, the OVRA. It was during this period that he wrote a number of contributions on the psychology of Mussolini, on anti-Semitism and the regime in the USSR. On hearing of the workers’ uprising in Barcelona, he went to Spain and fought on the Aragon front. Returning to Barcelona, he was a consistent critic of the opportunist and openly bourgeois tendencies in the CNT, writing for Guerra di Classe and making contact with the Friends of Durruti. As recounted in this article, he was assassinated by Stalinist killers during the 1937 May Days. See the short biographical sketch here:
(23) Guerra di Classe' nº. 12, 14th April 1937. Reprinted here:
(24) Friends, p 82.
(25) “Interventionists” refers to those who were in favour of Italy joining the First World War on the side of the Entente.
(26) Also known as “Between the war and the revolution”,
(27) This dangerous position is even more explicit in other articles: eg “Non-intervention and international involvement in the Spanish civil war”,, an article first published in Guerra di Class, 7, July 18 1937.
(30); see also our book The British Communist Left, p101
(32) Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, 1995 edition by Freedom Press, p.14.
(33) Lessons, p. 153-4.
(34) Lessons p. 179-80
(35) Lessons p. 213
(36) Richards’ concern for the truth also means that the book is far from being an apology for the anarchist collectives, which for some were proof that the “Spanish revolution” far outstripped the Russian in terms of the its social content. What Richards really shows is that while decision-making by assemblies and experiments in money-less distribution lasted longer in the countryside, above all in more or less self-sufficient areas, any challenge to the norms of capitalist management were very quickly eliminated in the factories, which were more immediately dominated by the needs of war production. A union-managed form of state capitalism very soon re-imposed discipline over the industrial proletariat.
(37) Lessons, p. 211.
(38) Lessons, p. 181.
(39) Lessons p 161. Marc Chirik, a founding member of the Gauche Communiste de France and of the ICC, was part of the delegation of the majority of the Fraction that went to Barcelona. In later years he talked about the extreme difficulty of the discussions with most of the anarchists and felt that some of them would be quite capable of shooting him and his comrades for questioning the validity of the anti-fascist war. This attitude was a clear reflection of the calls in the CNT press for the shooting of deserters.
(40)See for example “Syndicalism and anarchism”, 1925:
(41)See for example Lessons, p. 196.



8 years 10 months ago

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Submitted by Alf on February 7, 2015

We've corrected a couple of paragraphs at the end of the section on Berneri and the beginning of the one on Vernon Richards. . These paras should now read as follows:

Berneri’s stand against the “circumstantialism” adopted by so many in the anarchist movement of the day – “principles are well and good, but in these particular circumstances we have to be more realistic and practical” - would certainly have struck a chord among the comrades of the Italian left, whose refusal to abandon principles in face of the euphoria of anti-fascist unity, of the opportunist immediatism that swept through almost the entire proletarian political movement at that time, had obliged them to furrow a very lonely path indeed.

Vernon Richards and the Lessons of the Spanish Revolution
As we have noted elsewhere, Camillo Berneri’s daughter Marie-Louise Berneri, and her partner, the Anglo-Italian anarchist Vernon Richards, were among the few elements within the anarchist movement, in Britain or internationally, who carried on an internationalist activity during the Second World War, through their publication War Commentary. The paper “strongly denounced the pretence that the war was an ideological struggle between democracy and fascism, and the hypocrisy of the democratic allies’ denunciations of Nazi atrocities after their tacit support for the fascist regimes and for Stalin’s terror during the 1930s. Highlighting the hidden nature of the war as a power struggle between British, German and American imperialist interests, War Commentary also denounced the use of fascist methods by the ‘liberating’ allies and their totalitarian measures against the working class at home.” Marie Louise and Richards were arrested at the end of the war on the charge of fomenting insubordination among the armed forces; although Marie-Louise did not stand trial on the basis that spouses cannot be considered to be conspiring together, Richards went to prison for nine months. Marie-Louise gave birth to a still-born child and died not long afterwards in April 1949 as a result of a viral infection contracted during childbirth, a tragic loss for Richards and the proletarian movement.