“The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing.”
Karl Marx, Letter to Schweitzer (February 13, 1865)
THE COMMITTEES OF 1936
In July 1936, what was lacking was a revolutionary theory. Without theory there is no revolution. After seventy years of anti-state preaching, the Spanish anarchist movement, without understanding the real nature of power and the state, had come to a historical crossroads where it had to decide whether to advance by the revolutionary road, or collaborate with the bourgeois government of the Generalitat (and the Republic) in order to defeat fascism. The ambiguous option of “going for broke” proposed by Juan García Oliver was conceived as a coup d’état, in which the anarchosyndicalist leaders would impose an “anarchist dictatorship” that was contrary to their ideological principles. The high level leaders of the CNT-FAI, left behind by the rank and file militants, felt dizzy before their incapacity to manage the victory of the workers insurrection. And they chose to collaborate. The revolutionary situation as it existed in July, characterized by power that was fragmented into hundreds of committees, was throttled by that institution of class collaboration known as the Central Committee of Antifascist Militias (CCMA).
There was no revolutionary vanguard capable of inspiring the further development of the revolution of the committees. No working class organization, neither the CNT-FAI, nor the POUM, proposed in July the revolutionary road of reinforcing, intensifying, extending, coordinating and centralizing the revolutionary committees that, in the streets of Barcelona and in many municipalities of Catalonia, already exercised all power. And the committees by themselves were not able to do so, either, because they would have had to resolutely confront their own leaders and organizations.
In only two months this CCMA, with a predominant representation of the CNT-FAI, successfully weakened the multitude of revolutionary committees which had arisen everywhere, and reconstructed the state apparatus, which the CNT-FAI reinforced by accepting various official positions, first in the Catalonian government, and then a month later in the government of the Republic. The first decrees of the government of the Generalitat, reinforced with anarchist Ministers, ordered the militarization of the Militias and, naturally, the dissolution of the committees that nonetheless resisted their effective forced disappearance for several more months. May 1937 was therefore the necessary armed defeat of the proletariat required by the counterrevolution in order to finish off the least trace of the revolutionary threat.
The revolutionary committees that had arisen in July 1936 were incomplete and imperfect institutions, incapable of transforming themselves into authentic institutions of working class power. They differed from workers councils (which had arisen as institutions of workers power in the proletarian revolutions of Germany and Russia) in the following respects: 1. They were not institutions that were democratically elected by mass assemblies of rank and file workers and therefore independent of the trade union bureaucracies and the parties; 2. They were not unitary institutions of the working class, and were furthermore incapable of coordinating among themselves, in such a way as to create superior institutions that would centralize the power of the workers.
After the victory of the revolutionary insurrection of July 19 two choices were possible: the revolutionary option consisted in reinforcing, intensifying, coordinating and centralizing the revolutionary committees as institutions of workers power, TRANSFORMING THEM INTO WORKERS COUNCILS; the popular front or reformist option consisted in the integration of the workers movement into the state apparatus of the republican bourgeoisie and therefore in the weakening, isolation and final dissolution of the committees.
The government of Largo Caballero, despite its working class appearances, was based on the old state apparatus of the bourgeoisie and its purpose was to absorb all the revolutionary institutions and structures in order to gradually neutralize them until, once the bourgeois fraction of the government felt strong enough, they could be openly crushed.
The trade unions, by their very nature, were not institutions of workers power. The committees were not yet such institutions of workers power. The committees were not councils and therefore proved to be incapable of coordinating among themselves, and of creating superior institutions capable of centralizing, unifying and creating a working class power that would confront the capitalist state. The irreplaceable and necessary mission of a revolutionary vanguard or party would have been precisely to impel the transformation of the committees into workers councils.
The POUM and the CNT-FAI failed as revolutionary vanguards, and the committees were incapable of becoming (by their own efforts) councils. This was the principal limitation and determining cause of the rapid degeneration of the revolutionary situation that existed in July 1936, which made possible the sudden recovery of the bourgeois state apparatus.
We must therefore make the distinction, as Josep Rebull did in the spring of 1937,1 with precision, rigor and clarity, between committees,2 workers councils and trade unions. They were distinct working class institutions with different functions.
The trade unions, during a revolutionary period, were supposed to be the economic institutions in control of production and distribution, that is, technical and administrative institutions. But they could not be, nor could they fulfill, functions of political representation or institutions of working class power. The Councils are precisely those institutions of workers power that, due to their democratic election in assemblies, are independent of the trade union bureaucracies and the parties. The strengthening of the councils means that they will assume leadership functions in every locality, accelerating the decomposition of the capitalist system. They are therefore incompatible with the capitalist state, and their defense is irreconcilable with the parties that participate in the governments of the bourgeoisie.
The seizure of power is based on the armed struggle and the destruction of the capitalist state, which is replaced with a government of Workers Councils.
The function of a revolutionary vanguard is not to be a substitute for the working class in those functions that only pertain to the class itself: seizing power, exercise of the dictatorship of the proletariat, control of the economy and the militias, conduct of the war, centralization of workers power and class unity, etc. The function of this organization, in a revolutionary situation, is necessarily that of impelling the creation of the institutions of working class power, so that they can exercise their functions of workers power, and thus establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, incompatible with the capitalist state, and therefore without any political collaboration of any kind with the bourgeoisie.
Insurrections, rebellions and revolutions
If we define revolution, in the 20th century, as the violent confrontation with the state for the final goal (whether it is achieved or not) of the seizure of state power, carried out by political forces that are opposed, not only to the current regime, but to the existing social order, and the proletarian revolution as the attempt to destroy the capitalist state apparatus, we are differentiating the proletarian revolution from the popular revolutions and the latter from other political forms of changing the government, such as coups d’état, fascist and Stalinist counterrevolutions (as in the twenties and thirties), social revolts, riots and protests, the fall of totalitarian regimes (the fascist regimes during the forties, or the Stalinist ones at the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties), colonial wars of independence (especially those of the fifties and sixties) and civil wars.
Insurrections, revolts or revolutions are almost always violent, but this violence by itself lacks significance. All the insurrections of the past show us that, although they were violent, this violence has always been overcome by the subsequent counterrevolution, which has massacred, imprisoned or deported its enemies on a mass scale, especially after the fighting has ended, when it had already obtained military victory: the hatred and carnage born from the fear of the owning classes of the proletarian threat. If the revolution resides in the revolutionaries, then they must be exterminated in order to carry on with the peaceful exploitation of the “good citizens”. If the spirit of vengeance has played a certain role in working class insurrections, it has always been paid back with interest by the reaction. We need only consider the Kuomintang in 1926 or Francoist Spain (1939-1975). Working class insurrections have for their part been less bloody and ferocious than the anti-feudal peasant revolts, because the latter were the product of desperation. The destruction of property, or murders, which have taken place in some insurrections have generally been the spontaneous result of backwardness and desperation on the part of a lumpen sector that cannot escape from its poverty, or abolish oppression. Rebellions, revolts or insurrections, no matter how violent or socially radical they may be, cannot be defined as revolutionary if they are limited to attacking the local administrators of capitalism, and leave the capitalist economic and social system standing. Revolutions are always struggles for state power and lead to the attempt (whether or not it is successful) to seize state power by a group, a coalition or a class. The starting point of a proletarian revolution is the destruction of the bourgeois state. Therefore, in order to understand just what a revolution or an insurrection is, how it develops and what it seeks, we need to understand the nature of the state, and especially the nature of the capitalist state.
What is the state?
It is not the state, or political power, that creates the classes; it is the existence of a society that is divided into classes that creates the state, in order to defend all the privileges of the ruling class. We could find a thousand different definitions of the state. They can basically be reduced to just two, however. One, which is very broad, and that improperly speaks of the state as already existing in the first civilizations, with the development of major agricultural surpluses, of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and then Greece and Rome, we shall not use, as it is inadequate for the study of the capitalist society in which we live. This definition, in any event, requires that the state be defined according to the prevailing mode of production: the slave state, the feudal state, the capitalist state. The other definition, which is more specific, is the one that utilizes the current concept of the state, or the capitalist state, or the modern state, as an absolute sovereign power or as the sole power in each country, which is the one we shall use.
What is the capitalist state?
The modern, or capitalist, state, is a recent historical form of the political organization of society, which arose about five hundred years ago in a handful of countries, with the end of feudalism and the first manifestations of the system of capitalist production. The emergence of the (capitalist) state presupposed the disappearance of the feudal forms of political organization. The concept of the (modern) state is therefore quite recent and arises with the historical emergence of the system of capitalist production. It is the form of political organization that is proper for capitalism.
In feudal society sovereignty was understood as a hierarchical relation that mediated a plurality of powers. The power of the King was based on the loyalty of the other seigniorial powers and these royal powers were furthermore alienable, that is, they could be sold or granted to the nobility: the administration of justice, the recruitment of the army, the collection of taxes, the bishoprics, etc., could be sold to the highest bidder or were awarded in a complex network of favors and privileges. Sovereignty resided in a plurality of powers, which could be subordinated to one another or compete among themselves.
In capitalist society, the state transforms sovereignty into a monopoly: the state is the sole political power in a country. The (modern or capitalist) state possesses the monopoly of political power, and as a result also lays claim to the monopoly on violence. Any challenge to the monopoly on violence is considered to be a crime and an attack on capitalist law and order, and is therefore persecuted, punished and annihilated. In feudal society, social relations were based on personal dependence and privileges. In capitalist society, social relations can only exist between juridically free and equal individuals. This juridical freedom and equality (not freedom and equality with regard to property) is indispensable for the formation and existence of a proletariat that provides the cheap labor for the new manufacturers. The worker must be free, and he also must be free of all property, in order to be available and prepared to rent himself for a wage to the owner of the factory, a business or to the state itself. He must be free and lacking any bond to the land that he farms, any reserves for survival, and any property, in order to be driven by hunger, pauperization and misery to the new industrial concentrations where he can sell the only commodity that he possesses: his strength and his intelligence, that is, his labor power and ability to work.
These new social relations, particular to capitalism, correspond with a new political organization, unlike the feudal organization: a state that monopolizes all political relations. In capitalism all individuals are theoretically (juridically) free and equal and no one is any longer subject to any kind of political dependence on the old form of feudal lords or the new owner of the factory. All political relations are monopolized by the state.
In pre-capitalist modes of production the relations of production were also relations of domination. The slave was the property of his master, the serf was bound to the land that he worked or he was directly bound to a lord. This dependence has disappeared in capitalism. The (modern) state is therefore the product of the capitalist relations of production. The (current) state is the specific form of organization of political power in capitalist societies. There is a radical separation between the economic, the social and the political spheres.
The (modern) state monopolizes power, violence and the political relations between individuals in the societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails. In the capitalist system of production capital is not just money, or factories, or machines; capital is also, and above all, a social relation of production, and precisely that social relation of production that exists between proletarians, sellers of their labor power for a wage, and the capitalists, buyers of the commodity known as “labor power”.
The (capitalist) state has only recently emerged, about five hundred years ago, and it will disappear along with the capitalist relations of production. The (capitalist) state is thus not eternal; it has a very recent origin and will also come to an end. The political theory of the modern state was born in England in the 17th century, anticipating or justifying that historical process known as the Industrial Revolution, with Hobbes (and Locke). Hobbes is not just the first theoretician, from the chronological point of view, but his works already express the present-day problematic of the (modern) state. From Plato to Machiavelli, pre-state political theory was characterized by its definition of political power and the community as something NATURAL, and by its identification of the civil community with the political community. After Hobbes, state political theory is characterized by its definition of the state as an ARTIFICIAL entity, its separation of the concepts of civil community (civil society) and political community (the state) and by its addressing the question of the reproduction of political power.
The (capitalist) state arises from a contradiction, which was its origin and its reason for existence, between the theoretical defense of the common or general good, and the practical defense of the interests of a minority. The manifest contradiction between the illusion of defending the general interest and the real defense of the interests of the bourgeois class. The reason for existence of the (current) state is nothing but to guarantee the reproduction of the social relations of capitalist production.
The (capitalist) state, however, reified in its institutions, is the mask of society, conveying the appearance of an external force that is motivated by a higher rationality that embodies a “just” order for which it performs the role of a neutral arbiter. This fetishization of the (modern) state ALLOWS the capitalist social relations of production to appear to be mere economic relations, rather than relations based on coercion, at the same time that it also VEILS the oppressive character of state institutions. In the market, worker and employer have the appearance of free individuals, who engage in a “purely” economic exchange: the worker sells his labor power in exchange for a wage. In this free, “exclusively” economic exchange, all coercion has been obscured, and the (capitalist) state has not intervened at all: it is not there, it has (apparently) disappeared.
The necessary split between the public and the private is a necessary precondition of the capitalist relations of production, because only thus can they APPEAR to be free agreements between juridically free and equal individuals, in which violence, monopolized by the (capitalist) state, has disappeared from the stage. All of this leads to a CONTRADICTION between the state AS FETISH, which must conceal its monopoly of violence, permanently exercised against the proletariat in order to guarantee the capitalist relations of production, that is, of the exploitation of the proletariat by capital, and the state AS THE ORGANIZER OF SOCIAL CONSENSUS and legality, which conducts free elections, tolerates democratic rights of freedom of expression, assembly, press and association; allows trade unions and legislates labor reforms like health coverage, pensions, the eight hour day, unemployment insurance, etc.
Essence and functions of the capitalist state
It is the existence of a society divided into classes that creates the state, in order to defend all the privileges of the ruling class. In crisis situations the capitalist state immediately reveals that it is first of all a capitalist state, rather than a state of the nation, the people, or its citizens, or a “welfare state”. The coercive component of the state, linked to class rule, is the FUNDAMENTAL ESSENCE of the state, which becomes transparent when social consensus and state legitimacy are sacrificed on the altar of subjecting the proletariat to the exploitation of capital. Proletarian revolts and insurrections always reveal the class nature of the state and its essential repressive function.
The capitalist state arises from this contradictory relation between its repressive essence and its apparent function as an arbiter. It attempts to conceal its repressive role, fulfilled as a guarantee of the rule of the bourgeois class by way of the monopoly on violence, at the same time that it seeks to appear to be the organizer of the consensus of civil society, which in turn legitimizes the (modern) state as a neutral arbiter. By this means the state also reinforces its ideological monopoly and obtains a more complete and disguised domination over civil society.
The fundamental institutions of the state are the standing army and the bureaucracy. The tasks of the army are defense of the territorial frontiers against other states, imperialist conquests, to extend markets and obtain control over raw materials, and above all to serve as the ultimate safeguard of the established order against working class subversion. The task of the bureaucracy is to administer all those functions that the bourgeoisie delegates to the state: education, police, public health, prisons, mail, railroads, highways…. The civil servant of the (capitalist) state, from the schoolteacher to the college professor, from the policeman to the cabinet minister, from the truck driver to the doctor all performed, or still perform, necessary functions for the normal operations of the affairs of the bourgeoisie; where they are detrimental to the latter, they are privatized, as has recently been taking place with regard to jails, police and the army in some countries.
The (modern) state is the ORGANIZATION of the political rule over, and the permanent coercion and economic exploitation of the proletariat by capital. The (capitalist) state is therefore not a machine or a tool that can be used for opposite purposes: yesterday to exploit the proletariat, tomorrow to emancipate the proletariat and suppress the bourgeoisie. It is not a machine that can be conquered, nor can it be manipulated according to the whims of the machine operator. The proletariat cannot conquer the state, because the state is the political organization of capital: it must destroy the state. If a victorious insurrection of the proletariat limits itself to conquering the state, and then reinforcing and rebuilding it, then we can speak of a coup d’état or a revolution, or even of a proletarian revolution (as in October 1917 in Russia), but in any event it is a revolution that has left standing the foundations of a rapid and powerful counterrevolution, which will soon lead to another form of managing capitalism, as was the case with Stalinism in Russia.
The proletariat must destroy the state because the state is the political organization of the economic exploitation of wage labor. The destruction of the state is a condition sine qua non of the beginning of a communist society. The capitalist state cannot really be destroyed, however, unless the proletariat immediately destroys the economic, social and historical preconditions for the existence of wage labor and the law of value on a world scale.
What replaces the state?
What replaces the state? The administration of things in communism. The proletarian revolution, however, is not a question of parties or organization. What determines the possibility for communism is a high degree of development of the productive forces and the extension of wage labor and the proletarian condition. Organizational problems cannot be posed outside of those who are being organized and the problems that crop up at any particular moment. There are no rules, or magic formulas, or guarantees against bureaucratization and the counterrevolution.3 Bureaucrats tend to be experts at organization, outside of society. The historical experience of the international proletariat points to the Russian Soviets, the German “rater” and the Spanish Committees, that is, the organization of the proletariat in workers councils, as the revolutionary form of organization of the working class.
We are therefore not speaking of one or another particular organizational form of committee or council, but of the councilist organization of society. The councils do not represent the workers, they are the organized proletariat. The council is a class institution and an institution for struggle. It is not a political body, it is the organization of society in new relations of production, and therefore it is not democratic, nor is it dictatorial, it is beyond politics, and avoids the separation between the public and the private that is characteristic of capitalism. Soviets, rater and committees failed in the past, but they existed, demonstrating the capacity of the proletariat for directing and managing factories, cities and countries; but also showing their limits and their limitations, which we must understand and correct. They have always appeared whenever the revolutionary proletariat rose up against capitalist barbarism. They were the working class response to the vacuum left by the bourgeoisie, rather than the result of a radicalization of the struggle. The councilist ideology contemplates the councils as a goal and not just as a moment of the struggle in the transition to communism. The councilists replace the “party” concept of the Leninists with the “council” concept. Both ideologies are sterile. The councils will only be what the proletariat makes them in the struggle to destroy the state and construct communism.
Bibliography of basic works utilized in this text:
Abad de Santillán, Diego, La revolución y la guerra en España, Nervio, Barcelona, 1937.
“Actes del Comité Central de Milícies Antifeixistes de Catalunya.”
Adsuar Torra, Josep Eduard, Catalunya: Juliol-Octubre 1936. Una dualitat de poder? (2 Vols.), Tesina de Llicenciatura, Departament Història Contemporània, Universitat de Barcelona, 1979.
Bernecker, W., Colectividades y revolución social, Crítica, Barcelona, 1982.
Bolloten, Burnett, La Guerra Civil española, Alianza, Madrid, 1989. [In English: Bolloten, Burnett, The Spanish Revolution: The Left and the Struggle for Power during the Civil War, Revised and Expanded Edition, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1979. Originally published in 1961 under the title, The Grand Camouflage.]
Diaz Sandino, Felipe, De la conspiración a la revolución, mimeographed text.
Escofet, Federico, De una derrota a una victoria: 5 de octubre de 1934 – 19 de Julio de 1936, Argos Vergara, Barcelona, 1984.
García, Piotrowski, Rosés (eds.), Barcelona, mayo 1937, Alikornio, Barcelona, 2006.
García Oliver, Juan, El eco de los pasos, Ruedo Ibérico, Barcelona, 1978.
Guillamón, Agustín, “Los Amigos de Durruti 1937-1939”, Balance (1994). [English translation: Guillamón, Agustín, The Friends of Durruti Group: 1937-1938, tr. Paul Sharkey, AK Press, San Francisco, 2001.]
Lacruz, Francisco, El alzamiento, la revolución y el terror en Barcelona, Librería Arysel, Barcelona, 1943.
Lorenzo, César, Los anarquistas españoles y el poder, Ruedo Ibérico, Paris, 1972.
Llauge, Félix, El terror staliniano en la España republicana, Aura, Barcelona, 1974.
Mompó, Enric, El Comité Central de Milicias Antifascistas de Catalunya y la situación de doble poder en los primeros meses de la guerra civil española, Tesis doctoral leída el 8 de junio de 1994, Departamento de Historia Contemporánea, Universidad de Barcelona.
Munis, G., Jalones de derrota, promesa de victoria. Crítica y teoría de la revolución española (1930-1939), Muñoz Moya, Brenes, 2003.
Paz, Abel, Durruti en la Revolución española, Fundación Anselmo Lorenzo, Madrid, 1996. [English translation: Paz, Abel, Durruti in the Spanish Revolution, tr. Chuck Morse, AK Press, San Francisco, 2006.]
Peirats, José, La CNT en la revolución española, Ruedo Ibérico, Paris, 1971. [English translation: The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, Vol. 1, tr. Paul Sharkey and Chris Ealham, PM Press, Oakland, 2011; Vols. 2 and 3, PM Press, Oakland, 2012.]
Pons i Garlandí, Joan, “Memorias”, text in Spanish, mimeographed.
Pozo González, Josep Antoni, El poder revolucionari a Catalunya Durant els mesos de juliol a octubre de 1936. Crisi i recomposició de l’Estat, Tesi doctoral defensada el 21 de juny de 2002, Departament Historia Moderna i Contemporània, Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona.
Romero, Luis, Tres días de Julio, Ariel, Barcelona, 1976 (a novel).
[Souchy, Agustín], Los sucesos de Barcelona, Ed. Ebro, August 1937.
Tarradellas, Josep, “La crisi prèvia als Fets de Maig. 26 dies de desgovern de la Generalitat”. (Report).
Translated in September-October 2013 from the Spanish text:
Agustín Guillamón, Barricadas en Barcelona: La CNT de la victoria de Julio de 1936 a la necesaria derrota de Mayo de 1937, Ediciones Espartaco Internacional, Barcelona, 2006.
Spanish original available (October 2013) online at: http://www.edicionesespartaco.com/libros/barricadas.pdf
- 1 See Agustín Guillamón, “Josep Rebull de 1937 a 1939”, Balance, issues number 19 and 20 (2000).
- 2 The committees were bureaucratic rather than democratic institutions, in which the delegates were not democratically elected by the working class rank and file in mass assemblies, but were appointed by the trade union or political bureaucracies. This implies, on the one hand, a separation between the committees and the rank and file workers, and on the other hand, their dependence on the bureaucracy. This was the reason for their inability to coordinate among themselves and to create centralized and unitary class institutions; coordination was carried out by the various trade unions and parties, and the problematic of unity and centralization (with regard to military, economic, productive, supply issues, etc.) became a kind of jigsaw puzzle of multifarious discussion circles, on all scales and in every field, involving the various antifascist organizations, both working class and bourgeois and Stalinist.
- 3 The Paris Commune of 1871 transformed all public offices into elected and revocable positions, paid the average wage of the workers.