We the Anarchists! (Review)

A review by Black Flag of Stuart Christie's book on the Spanish FAI - Iberian Anarchist Federation from the time of the Spanish Civil War.

Submitted by martinh on October 26, 2006

The article below is an edited version of that which appeared in Black Flag 211, 1997. It refers to the original spiral-bound version of his book.

We, The Anarchists!
A Study of the Iberian Anarchist federation (FAI) 1927-1937
by Stuart Christie
Published by The Meltzer press; £12.50 spiral bound

This book contains some very important lessons for anarchists that deserve a wider circulation. The Spanish revolution and the events leading up to it are the most important events this century from an anarchist perspective (so far at least!). This issue of Black Flag marks 60 years since the May Day events in Barcelona marked the triumph of the Stalinist reaction and the defeat of the revolution.
The role of militants of the FAI and the CNT (Spain's anarcho-syndicalist union) in the revolution has been subject to much interpretation, particularly by those hostile to anarcho-syndicalism. Christie's book deals with most of what bourgeois commentators have said about Spain. But the real value in this work is that it places the betrayal of anarchist principles by the FAI and CNT in the context of the evolution of those organisations, and addresses the question of leadership, but more importantly, the question of "followership".

Christie starts by explaining how three factors need to be considered to understand recent Spanish history. Firstly, that anarchism was embedded deeply in the working class, at least partly because it reflected their relationships and values. Secondly, that anarchism was the predominant ideological influence within the labour movement. And thirdly, that the anarchist militants who defended and built up their organisations through decades of repression were motivated by a desire to bring about a libertarian communist society, objectives which brought them into conflict both with the state and the bosses, and the leaders of their own union confederation.

The book outlines the historical development of anarchism in Spain, and how it developed and influenced the labour movement, particularly in Catalonia, the industrial heartland. It also takes an analytical view and tries to address, in the author's words, "how can ideals survive the process of institutionalisation? If this is not feasible, at least to be able to identify the turning points so that we can counter the process".

From about 1927 onward, a struggle broke out within the CNT between the leadership of the CNT and conscious anarchist militants of the rank and file over the heart and soul of the union. This struggle was to culminate in the split of the CNT in 1931 when the treintistas, leadership figures who had signed the "manifesto of the Thirty", left the Confederation taking a small number of unions with them. Outside commentators have claimed the reformists were pushed out by a rigidly disciplined party-type organisation -the FAI. The truth is somewhat different.

Christie takes us through how the reformists, many of whom were national or regional secretaries, believed that they had to concentrate on trade union type issues and compete for members with the socialist UGT. However, the UGT's co-operation with the Primo de Rivera dictatorship, which passed labour laws favouring them and attacking the CNT, had lost them credibility and the CNT was growing with its message of open class warfare and direct action. The CNT leadership, though popular as individuals, were out of touch. One of the reasons that individuals like Angel Pestaña were in these positions was that anarchist militants refused to take them because of their corrupting nature.

The reformists tried to change the CNT's constitution, moving it away from federalism and anti-capitalism to being a mere mediator between workers and capital. At the same time the UGT was working with the structures of the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, and using this position to attack the CNT. The reformists wanted the CNT "in from the cold", so to speak, and able to operate free from the socialists' attacks. Against this background, a small number of militants met in Valencia in 1927, founding the Federacion Anarquista Iberica, the FAI, which also included Portuguese militants. The FAI addressed how it would relate to the CNT, a relationship described as the trabazon, an organic bond at local level between the CNT and FAI through Defence Committees and Pro-Prisoner Committees.

AT this time, the FAI was an ad hoc association of affinity groups. It never even grouped a majority of anarchists in the CNT into its ranks, despite the allegations of bourgeois and Marxist historians like Woodcock, Carr and Morrow that it was a centralised party-like apparatus. It consisted of anarchists who refused to go along with their union's leadership and asserted the historic anarchist role of fighting authoritarian ideas and defending the libertarian spirit of the CNT. Indeed, many of the more famous names associated with it were not even members, and there seems to be doubt whether Durruti was ever a fully fledged member.

The roots of the collaboration proposed by the reformists were in the tactical co-operation they had had with military and political oppositionists of all shades under the dictatorship. . Though the anarchists were a minority, they did exercise a powerful moral authority within the membership of the union. Many FAIstas had graduated from the open class war of pistolerismo, where employers hired gunmen to murder CNT members. When the dictatorship collapsed, there was a surge in strike activity and the FAI were blamed, even though in this period their very existence was nominal.

By now, Pestaña and his allies held the upper hand. They published a paper, Acción and controlled the National Committee. They were pressing for closer contacts with the republicans as a strategy, not just as a tactic. One of them, Juan Peiró, had to resign after signing a particularly dubious manifesto, Inteligencia Republicana. That April, after the CNT National Plenum advised a tactical vote for the left, a Socialist- Republican coalition won the elections overwhelmingly.

The Second Republic enacted a number of measures against the CNT, some deliberate to favour the UGT, others, such as the mixed juries, as a by product. On May Day, civil guards fired on the CNT demonstration, killing one and wounding 15. The FAI now began to emerge as a pole of dissent within CNT against the reformists. The arguments came out at the III Congress in June, but were not resolved.
During the summer, heightened social conflict with the government polarised these differences. The reformists gambled with the "manifesto of the 30", to isolate the revolutionaries. They failed. The rank and file, subject daily to the brutality of open class war from the bosses and the state, sided with the FAI. The Treintistas left the CNT and Pestaña went on to form the Syndicalist party.

Christie now argues that the FAI had done its job but was taken over by "rootless intellectuals" like Diego Abad de Santillan. It is certain that most of its militants went back to their day to day activity as members of the CNT. Many others were taken out of activity after the abortive uprising which led to the massacre at Casas Viejas and a wave of arrests and repression. De Santillan had joined the FAI in 1933. He had an obsession with economic planning and saw the FAI as providing anarchism with the discipline and organisation to fulfil its historic mission. Groups around De Santillan argued for "greater democracy" within the FAI and moves were made to expel the Nosotros group (which included Durruti, Ascaso etc) though nothing came of the latter. Quite definitely the culture changed and many of the working class militants no longer felt at home in the FAI, to quote Progreso Fernández, "Lots of people dropped out then, but we remained anarchists, because anarchism is an attitude to life".

Christie's analysis points out one of the failings of the most common criticism made of the Spanish anarchists by English speaking anarchists: that they did not take organisation seriously enough. If only, bemoaned the Platformist (later Leninist) Anarchist Workers Group, if only the Spanish translation of the "Platform" had reached them, they might have been equipped with better ideas to win. The fallacy of this argument is obvious - it was not a correct political line which could win the revolution, but the deeds and actions of the militants involved. Those who advocated greater organisation within the FAI were not those who were the first to rise and defeat the fascists in Barcelona and elsewhere.

The success of the revolution on July 19th 1936 is well documented. There is no need to go over it again here. But what is interesting is the way the FAI and CNT ended up collaborating with the State and even joining the government. Christie's view is that this happened because, just because of their history, these organisations substituted themselves for the organs of the revolution - the factory and neighbourhood committees. It was in this way that Federica Montseny became co-opted into the government. Her neighbourhood committee sent her along to the CNT-FAI headquarters to find out what was going on. Instead she got co-opted onto the committee. Christie's account of the defeat of the revolution does not make light reading. His conclusions are that we must not and cannot separate ends from means. By adapting to circumstances, the FAI found itself on the wrong side of the struggle for social justice and equality. It would be purely speculative to suggest other things that could have been done at the time. The anarchists of Spain faced a difficult dilemma, and we should not judge their failings too harshly, rather we should learn from them and try not to make the same mistakes ourselves. And he poses the question of why the anarchist rank and file went along with a lot of the actions of the CNT-FAI at the time which betrayed anarchist principles by ignoring the relationship between ends and means.