From July to May: uncontrollables or revolutionaries?

The gestation of May 1937 began one week after the revolutionary events of July 1936.

In Catalonia, the revolutionary uprising of the working masses had successfully defeated the military, thrown the State's administrative and repressive machinery into disarray and removed the bourgeois class from its leadership functions. Not only had the military rising against the Republic been frustrated, but the capitalist State itself had succumbed. The Catalan working class seized weapons from the barracks it had stormed, ensured that the repressive agencies fraternized with the people in arms and introduced a new, revolutionary order1: it organized and directed production inside firms, which were either collectivized or socialized: and set up People's Militias, which set off for Aragon.

Power was in the streets. The people was armed. But no proletarian organization assumed power. The working class retained its trade union and political organizations, without creating new organs of (unified) workers' power. And that is not all. In order to keep afloat the spectral, discredited and impotent bourgeois Generalidad government, which was melting like a sugar-cube, the so-called Central Antifascist Militias Committee (CAMC) was established. At no time was the CAMC ever the embryo of a new workers' power: it was, rather, a class collaboration agency2, a provisional government that helped to restore the power of the bourgeois, republican Generalidad. The CAMC supplanted the Generalidad government in those functions - relative to the army, public order and production - which there was no one else capable of performing, following the disintegration of bourgeois institutions. President Company's power was merely nominal, but it was also the potential power of the capitalist State, which anarchists not merely allowed to subsist but actually helped to survive and resurrect itself, allowing it to "legalize," post facto, the revolutionary gains made during the events in July. Without looking for it, the CAMC acquired all of the accoutrements of a government. But instead of centralizing the revolutionary power of the committees - local committees, defense committees, workers' committees, peasants' committees and committees of every sort - it became the chief impediment to their unification and reinforcement. The CAMC was a life-jacket tossed to a Generalidad awash in a sea of local revolutionary committees, isolated from one another, which in Catalonia wielded the only real power between July 19 and September 263.

At no point was there a dual power situation in existence. This notion is crucial to any understanding of the Spanish revolution and civil war. The CAMC was a class collaborationist agency. It was not the germ of workers' power at loggerheads with the power of the capitalist State. And this was obvious to all the main political leaders4, whether or not participants in the CAMC. For this reason, the dissolution of the CAMC was not a traumatic event, nor unduly important: it was just one of many steps in the process of reconstructing the State power, dismantled and battered after the July events. The formation of the new Generalidad government, with the CNT and the POUM being incorporated into it, was the logical sequel to the work carried out by the various parties and trade unions within the CAMC.

This counterrevolutionary process, this process of reconstruction of capitalist State power necessarily spawned a number of contradictions, and naturally was camouflaged or covered up by the CNT's leading cadres with the familiar "circumstancialist" arguments invoking antifascist unity, the need to win the war, the CNT's being a minority elsewhere in Spain, the dangers of scandalizing the western democracies, etc. Or even the most naive argument - that they were turning away from an "anarchist dictatorship."

For the CNT, the chief contradiction in this unstoppable reconquest of all of the capitalist State's proper functions, lay in the fact that this was feasible only at the cost of an equally continuous and irreversible loss of the "gains" which the masses had won in July.

Between December 1936 and May 1937, we witness a tug of war and a growing tension between constant concessions by the CNT, marginalization of the POUM, the Generalidad's insatiable pressure to recover all of its functions, and the overbearing pressures from the Soviets and their infiltration into the State apparatuses, in Catalonia and in the central government alike.

It was for that reason that the Control Patrols, and everything having to do with public order, border control and communications, were in the eye of the hurricane. For revolutionary militants, labeled "uncontrollables" in the terminology of their adversaries, retention of control over public order, the borders and communications and, of course, the existence of the Control Patrols were the basic threshold marking the point of no return in the unceasing concessions by the CNT leadership.

The revolutionary insurrection of July 1936 had been based on the district or local Defense Committees set up and trained many months in advance5. In the wake of the July events, the Control Patrols were afforded "legal" recognition as a revolutionary police answerable to the CAMC.

But the Control Patrols did not account for the whole of the insurrectionist movement. There were also all these district or local Defense Committees and other groups and militants. Furthermore, we need to underline the radically different natures of the Control Patrols and the Defense Committees. The Control Patrols were an organization created by the CAMC, to which they owed their organization, orders and manpower. The Defense Committees were a CNT insurgent agency, in existence from well before July 1936. The Control Patrols were the institutionalization of the success of the workers' uprising; the Defense Committees, converted into Revolutionary Committees, which led a vegetative existence between July 1936 and May 1937, represented the insurrectionist movement6. Hence the attacks by all political forces, including the CNT-FAI and POUM, upon the so-called "uncontrollables."

This derogatory label fitted comfortably with facile highlighting of outrages and abuses by a few delinquents. But the charge also targeted the CNT and the measure of its "control" over its own membership. Indeed, in the newspapers - not excepting the confederal press, the vast majority of which supposed collaborationism - the term "uncontrollable" was used as a synonym for criminal. This implication was unremarkable in the bourgeois or Stalinist press, because they regarded revolutionaries as criminals. The serious paradox was when the CNT or the POUM used the idea of "uncontrollable" to excuse abandonment of their own ideological principles.

In every revolutionary process, there arise groups or individuals who utilize force of arms for their own advantage. But this minority can quickly and easily be subdued by a consolidated workers' power, as the Russian case demonstrates. In the Catalan case, it is apparent that the attack on the "uncontrollables" is almost always an attack upon proletarian justice (alien to bourgeois legality) and on revolutionaries, which is to say, on those refusing to let go of the gains secured by the proletariat in the July uprising, or indeed, keen to take them "further."7

Let us caution the reader that this approach presupposes a very particular political option8 that examines and accounts for the events, ideologies and contradictions of the Spanish revolution of 1936-1939 in terms of the consequence of the non-existence of a revolutionary party.

Naturally, the term "uncontrollable" was not, and even today, is not employed as an innocent, neutral term. It is absolutely a derogatory, class term, through which the bourgeoisie was trying to discredit and defame revolutionaries. It is no accident that in May 1937 the Friends of Durruti were obliged to hear themselves insulted as uncontrollables as well as agents provocateurs and mavericks, even by the FAI itself. Their only offense was to have attempted to present revolutionary goals to the proletariat fighting on the barricades.

In every historical narrative, there is always an option in favor of a particular political assumption. Very rarely is it explicit, and it is virtually always denied and hidden, in favor of a supposed "objectivity" which is both sublimated and nonexistent9.

One final observation: May 1937 signaled the final defeat of the revolutionary process launched in July 1936. But it was not the end of the process of counterrevolution, nor the end of CNT collaborationism, which would culminate in the conclusion of the CNT-UGT pact in March-April 1938 and in entry into the Negrin government.