Introduction: Ready for revolution

The Kate Sharpley Library team discuss Guillamón's work on the CNT's Defence Committees in relation to what we know about the start of the Spanish Revolution and why it's important.

Submitted by Kate Sharpley on January 23, 2014

The photographic images of the Spanish revolution are implanted in our memories and too often taken for granted. Iconic figures like Durruti blinking at a notebook or standing smiling in a circle of comrades, Ascaso, rifle on his shoulder, enjoying a chat and a smoke in the bright Barcelona sun shortly before he is killed. Most of all, though, there are the crowds. Men and women with black and red caps in buses, on lorries, in hastily put together armored cars with CNT-FAI scrawled on the sides. Every one generating a sense of excitement and, yes, cockiness that is still palpable nearly eighty years later. We have had films, radio shows, interviews, so many anniversaries and so many books. Now, surely, the anarchist historical narrative of Spain is as familiar and understood as the photographs: initial revolutionary exhilaration and autonomy; then gradual repression by forces on the Left and, worst of all, a perceived betrayal of what the revolution had achieved by some anarchists who should have known better, but believed that the priority of the struggle was against fascism and not for the social revolution. What else do we need to know?

The smoke from Spain still hangs over all aspects of today's anarchism whether or not we like it—even for those who want to deny that what happened there has any relevance to the world today. For some, it has proved to be the end of something, the moving out of anarchism's home on the Left. For them, class struggle is moribund and bankrupt, something that should be subsumed by the struggle of the individual. They haven't yet announced, as George Woodcock maintained for many years, that anarchism died in 1939, but for those comrades at least a type of anarchism did. Less dramatically, others attempted to explain the circumstances that the CNT-FAI found itself in, suggesting that calls for anarchist revolution took no cognizance of what was happening both in Spain and in the world beyond it. They want us to examine carefully the hard decisions the organization had to take. Still others pore obsessively over the events. When did it go wrong? What could we have done differently in that place and on that date? Some comrades have spent time exploring all these areas. And still it goes on. This agonizing over, or even the outright dismissal of Spain as being of any importance, is not hard to understand. Rightly or wrongly, Spain has been seen by many of us as the only sustained period of time that anarchism actually helped bring about revolutionary change in the everyday lives of many, many people and, just as importantly, sustained that change. In parts of Spain, anarchists took on the army and won, and for many, that victory led to the creation of what we may call libertarian communism; a change in economic and personal relations that people could only have dreamed of a few years earlier. Capitalism had apparently been destroyed. Dreams had come true. All those discussions, all those articles, all those plenums, all those years of exile or imprisonment were not worthless. Yet we are left asking what went wrong? Was there some awful flaw in anarchism that has made it, like Bolshevism, a revolutionary dead end? Or was it a combination of circumstances and poor decision making by individuals that brought about the nightmare of 1939, the loss of everything, and the years of exile, repression, and resistance?

The CNT-FAI in 1934 was not a naïve and unsophisticated grouping filled with saintly militants driven by the purity, righteousness, and moral correctness of their mission. It was a hard-headed organization, shaped by its members' experience of strikes, insurrections, imprisonment, exile, cultural activities, and lives led in the working-class barrios and villages of Spain and elsewhere. It had a coherent sense of what was happening to capitalism in Spain and worldwide, did not exist in a purely intellectual and moral vacuum, and was well aware of the nature of the forces ranged against it. The CNT-FAI had its own legends and stories that carried tremendous weight in its decision making and was a remarkably complex group that we might be better off seeing less as one homogenous grouping but instead as several, whose membership changed according to the situations the organization found itself in and with the strategies it was using at the time. Many CNT-FAI members of whatever tendency were ferociously loyal to the organization and the comrades they had lost—García Oliver, for instance, spoke about the CNT as being "an enormous tomb which contains all the largely anonymous dreamers who believed they were struggling for social revolution" [1]—while their debates suggested the organization's continually evolving -nature and refusal to become complacent or hidebound.

It is clear to see that, by 1934, the policy of "revolutionary gymnastics," which had been followed between 1932 and 1934, was a failure. The idea that repeated calls for insurrection would lead to an awareness of the repressive nature of the state, a growing confidence amongst the working class, and a series of rolling insurrections leading to revolution had left the CNT-FAI exhausted, some of its bravest militants in prison, and the organization basically weaponless. In itself, the tactic was not new to anarchism; Carlo Cafiero wrote as early as 1880, "Not only, then, are ideas born from deeds, they also need deeds in order to develop, to the point that they can inspire other deeds" [2] but, here, at this time and in these economic and social circumstances, such a strategy simply had not worked. We should be, perhaps, a little wary of being too dismissive of it, however. One has to think that the experience of, and belief in, insurrection did provide some with the confidence and tactical skill to take on the army and win in Barcelona. Yet the CNT-FAI's move away from its insurrectionary policies was a practical, rather than a moral decision, and the move to the Defense Committees helped both initiate and sustain the Spanish revolution in a profound and astonishingly extensive manner. Here was an organization whose competing tendencies, however they defined themselves, all understood that their reason for existence was to configure the best way to defeat capitalism and bring about libertarian communism, acting as conscious agents of their own change rather than waiting passively for it to happen, or for events to occur and reacting to them.

The CNT-FAI was always more than a trade union. It could be found in every aspect of working-class life; in its social activities, in its literature and culture, in its education and relationships. So when we talk about the Defense Committees being the "armed organizations of the CNT" (p. 27) we are talking about these groups being the Defense Committees of the working-class districts they were part of. Being an organic part of the community was a critical factor in all of this. Many Defense Committee members had grown up in the areas they represented. They knew the friends and enemies of the revolutionary movement and they knew the mood and tenor of their neighborhoods. They participated in rent strikes, they helped resist evictions, they financially supported families in times of illness, and prevented price gouging by greedy shopkeepers, together with a host of other activities. They understood the losses and small victories that made up working-class life and, when July 19th happened, they could move quickly into action against the army with the help of the working-class people they knew and whose community they were part of. Above all this was a planned and prepared response even if, at times, the situation appeared chaotic. Within a handful of days, the Defense Committees had the streets. Thanks to them, the bravery of the FAI action groups, and the courage of the working-class communities, events in Barcelona became something thrilling—a marvelous victory over the armed forces that prepared the way for libertarian communism. The Defense Committees had the skills, the support, and, yes, the power to make that happen.

Guillamón documents the rest of the story from here and all we would like to do is make one or two observations that we hope complement the narrative. Chapter 11, "The Barcelona FAI Radicalized by the Defense Committees," is a wonderful opportunity for the reader to see the various groups discussing the situation they find themselves in. It's rare to find this type of material in English that is not written from memory and in reflection long after the events described. The discussion leaps off the page and is full of contradiction, confusion, affirmation, and certainty, all served with a high level of sophisticated perception. There is an immediacy to it, not least because these are not the voices of the more sophisticated speakers and writers who we are used to reading, but those of the ordinary militant. Nearly a year had gone by since the possibilities of July 1936 and the experience of those months permeate the discussions. There can be no further assessment whether this is going to be a long or short war. It's the long haul and the atmosphere of the plenum is charged; something is going to happen, perhaps something already has, and we are privileged to be able to be there to sense it. This is radical history at its finest as the anarchists attempt to deal with the actions of the Stalinists, their other supposed allies, and the behavior of the CNT's "higher committees."

By 1937 it is clear that, as Guillamón's narrative recognizes, the tensions in the CNT had resolved into two clear positions that cut right through any other previous overlapping tendencies that might have existed. Now more than ever, the distinction between CNT and FAI was irrelevant. The ideological conflict within the organization was now between revolutionaries and those who wished to collaborate with other parties and groups. It was a tension between those who felt that the primary struggle was to maintain and extend libertarian communism and those who felt that the primary struggle was against Fascism and revolutionary change should be postponed until that overarching struggle was won. Many of the latter were soon on what Guillamón calls the "higher committees" of the CNT. When De Santillán talks about being in a collaborative mode we can, perhaps, understand the position of people like himself, Montseny, and others who see the struggle against Fascism as central to all actions and strategies. There is a logic there. Whatt is harder to understand is their inability to see the enormous potential of the Defense Committees and to observe their apparent complicity when the Stalinists and their friends refer to the Defense Committees as bandits and gangsters or dismiss those who refused to surrender to the primacy of the war against Fascism, as "uncontrollables." We should not, though, forget the loyalty of the Defense Committees to the CNT-FAI. The higher committees existed because the Defense Committees let them. Defense Committee members were usually too busy to take part in strategic debate on the war and, as a consequence, gave the higher committees free rein. The members of these higher committees were not lacking in self importance and saw a vacuum only they could fill. And fill it they did.

This book is not an easy read for those of us looking for a comforting re-enforcement of the purity of our anarchist ideal. Reality has an awkward habit of getting in the way, and at times it can be an unsettling read. Guillamón makes no attempt to hide the brutality that took place in those first few July days in Barcelona and the part the Defense Committees played in the settling of scores. The notion of anarchist--controlled prisons and the behavior of the CNT-FAI Investigation and Intelligence Services do not sit easily even as there is a distinct pragmatism about them. The real worry of the Liaison Committee of the Anarchist Groups in Catalonia, that members of the Durruti Column might well turn their guns on each other over the question of militarization, may well make us understand the passions that filled up those days in late 1936 but still leaves us unsettled. All this though is what very good history does. It makes us think, makes us interrogate our ideas and leaves us richer for it. It makes us want to find out more when we thought we knew enough.

In telling the story of the Defense Committees, Guillamón has made it incontrovertibly clear that the July days in Barcelona did not just happen. They had been planned for, and after the success of the working class communities against the armed forces and others, the Defense Committees were there to help administer food and welfare support, as well as to create libertarian forms of administration and support in a multitude of areas. Theirs is a remarkable story. If we want to find faults in their inability to -coordinate or in their inability to sense, sometimes, what was happening on a national scale, we can. Sitting at our table, flicking through the Internet, we can find faults with nearly everything and, even if the faults are telling, we should be careful not to take away the reality of the magnificence of their particular achievements. For, as Guillamón writes, "The fighting, the killing, the suffering, and the dying was not done for the sake of a Republic or for democracy, but for the emancipation of labor and a better, freer, and fairer society, one that actually seemed within reach."

Agustín Guillamón has been editor of the magazine Balance since 1993. An ongoing investigation of events and personalities in the Spanish revolution, it has become a gradual recuperation of what we might call the "awkward squad"—those comrades from the revolutionary organizations who have been slandered by the neo-Stalinists and, more worryingly, sometimes, by members of their own organization looking to re-shape history and place themselves in the most flattering light. His book The Friends of Durruti Group, 1937–1939 was published by AK Press in 1996 and Ready for Revolution is part of a trilogy that examines Spanish working-class anarchism up to and after the May Days of 1937. He describes his work as a historian as part of the "unveiling of the real history of the class struggle." A battle, if you like, against the amnesia that can easily envelop us.

This is a book that develops the work done in equally seminal texts such as Vernon Richards's Lessons of the Spanish Revolution (Freedom Press, 1972, enlarged edition), Stuart Christie's We, the Anarchists (AK Press, 2008) and Chris Ealham's Anarchism and the City (AK Press, 2010). Like them, Ready for Revolution stops us in our tracks and makes us re-assess and debate what we thought we knew. It is a beautifully researched book that is forcefully presented and is, without doubt, a major work of radical scholarship.

Kate Sharpley Library August 2013


1, Juan García Oliver, Wrong Steps: Errors in the Spanish Revolution (London: Kate Sharpley Library, 2000), 13.

2, Carlo Cafiero, Revolution (Edmonton: Black Cat Press, 2012), 64.