Balius' thoughts from exile in 1939

Submitted by Ed on October 11, 2011

An exiled Balius had two articles printed in the French anarchist review L'Espagne nouvelle. The first of these marked the third anniversary of July 19, 1936. The second, published in September 1939, by which time France and England had formally declared war on Germany, was devoted to May 1937. Both articles were the result of long, considered reflection by Balius, who signed both articles in his capacity as "secretary of the Friends of Durruti."

Both these articles stand out on account of the precision of the language used and of their central focus upon the fundamental issues raised by the Spanish revolution. Thus, they offer us with the utmost clarity of Balius's thinking on the question of power, the indispensable function of a revolutionary leadership and the need to destroy the State and introduce a new structure in its place (in earlier writings, this was described as a revolutionary junta) capable of repressing counterrevolutionary forces.

In the article entitled "July 1936: import and possibilities" he contradicted those who argued that the July events were simply the result of the struggle against the rising by the military and the fascists, which is to say that "without the army rebellion there would have been no armed popular movement." Instead, Balius claimed that this outlook was in keeping with Popular Front-ism, the result of the subordination of the working class to the republican bourgeoisie, itself the chief reason why the proletariat had been defeated. Balius recalled how the republican bourgeoisie had refused the workers the arms with which to confront the fascist rebellion:

In Barcelona itself, we had to suffer the Transport Union to be stormed by Generalidad goons who, only hours before the crucial battle, were still eager to take away the rifles which we had seized from aboard the Manuel ArnĂºs, and which were intended for use against the fascists.

According to Balius, the victory over the military had only been achieved in those places where the workers, weapons at the ready, and with no sort of deals with the petit bourgeoisie, had taken on the fascists. Wheresoever the workers - as in Zaragoza - had hesitated or made deals, the victory had gone to the fascists.

The most important issued raised in July 1936, according to Balius, was not the army's success in a few areas in Spain. The most important issue had arisen inside the republican zone: who took power and who directed the war? To which question there could be only two answers: the republican bourgeoisie, or the proletariat:

But the most important issue arose in our zone. It was a matter of determining who had won. Was it the workers? In which case the governance of the country fell to us. But . . . the petit bourgeoisie as well? That was the mistake.

Balius argued that the working class ought to have taken power regardless in July 1936. Which would have represented the only guarantee and only chance of victory in the war:

"The CNT and the FAI which were the soul of the movement in Catalonia could have afforded the July events their proper color. Who could have stopped them? Instead of which, we allowed the Communist Party (PSUC) to rally the opportunists, the bourgeois right, etc., . . . on the terrain of the counterrevolution.

In such times, it is up to one organization to take the lead. Only one could have: ours.

[. . .] Had the workers known how to act as masters in antifascist Spain, the war would have been won, and the revolution would not have had to endure so many deviations right from the start. We could have had the victory. But what we managed to gain with four handguns, we lost when we had whole arsenals full of arms. For those culpable for the defeat, we have to look past Stalinism's hired assassins, past the thieves like Prieto, past scum like Negrin and past the usual reformists: we bore the guilt for not having it in us to do away with all this riffraff [. . .] But, while we are all jointly to blame, there are those who bear a particularly heavy burden of responsibility. Namely, the leaders of the CNT-FAI, whose reformist approach in July and whose counterrevolutionary intervention in May 1937 especially barred the way to the working class and dealt the revolution a mortal blow.

Such was Balius's summing-up of the thousand doubts and objections which the anarcho-syndicalist leaders had faced in July 1936, regarding the minority status of the anarchist presence outside of Catalonia, the need to maintain antifascist unity and the repeated compromises which the war forced upon the revolution. Balius claimed that the anarchists' victory in Catalonia could have presaged the quick crushing of the fascist uprising all across Spain, had the proletariat taken power. According to Balius, that was the mistake made in July 1936: power had not been taken. And out of that mistake came the rapid degeneration of the revolution, and its difficulties. That mistake left the door open for the growth of the counterrevolution, of which Stalinism was the chief architect. But Balius reckoned the blame lay, not with the Stalinists and the republican bourgeoisie, but rather with those anarchist leaders who had preferred antifascist unity - which is to say, collaboration with the bourgeoisie, the State and capitalist institutions - over proletarian revolution.

In his article on the events of May 1937, published in September 1939, and entitled "May 1937: a historical date for the proletariat," Balius described the two years following May 1937 as the simple aftermath of those revolutionary events. According to Balius, May 1937 was not a protest, but rather a consciously revolutionary uprising of the Catalan proletariat, which succeeded militarily and failed politically.

The failure was down to treachery by the anarchist leaders. Again we find the charge of treason leveled by the Friends of Durruti during the events of May 1937, only to be retracted later in El Amigo del Pueblo:

But the treason of the reformist wing of the CNT-FAI manifested itself here.

Repeating the dereliction shown in the July events, again they sided with the bourgeois democrats. They issued the cease-fire order. The proletariat was reluctant to abide by that call and in a raging fury, ignoring the orders from its faint-hearted leaders, it carried on defending its positions.

And this is how Balius depicted the role played by the Friends of Durruti in May 1937:

We, the Friends of Durruti, who fought in the front lines, sought to ward off the disaster which would have been the people's constant fare, had they laid down their arms. We issued the call for the fighting to be resumed and that the fighting should not cease without certain conditions first having been met. Unfortunately, the spirit of attack had already been broken and the fighting was halted without its revolutionary objectives having been achieved.

Balius very vividly underlined the paradox of the proletariat's having succeeded militarily but failed politically:

This was the first time in the entire history of social struggles that the victors surrendered to the vanquished. And without even the slightest assurance that the vanguard of the proletariat would not be touched, dismantling of the barricades began: the city of Barcelona returned to its appearance of normality, as if nothing had happened.

In Balius's analysis, the May events appeared as a crossroads: either the revolution was forsworn once and for all, or power was taken. And he explained away the anarchists' constant retreat since July as the fruits of the damnable Popular Front-ist policy of alliance with the republican bourgeoisie. And also as a consequence of the divorce existing within the CNT between a counterrevolutionary leadership and a revolutionary rank and file. May 1937 was a failure because the workers failed to come up with a revolutionary leadership:

"The proletariat was at a fatal crossroads. There were only two courses to choose between: either bend the knee before the counterrevolution or prepare to impose one's own power, to wit, proletarian power.

The drama of the Spanish working class is characterized by the most absolute divorce existing between the grassroots and the leadership. The leadership was always counterrevolutionary. By contrast, the Spanish workers [. . .] have always stood head and shoulders above their leaders when it comes to perceiving events and to interpretation of them. Had those heroic workers found a revolutionary leadership, they would have written one of the most important pages in their history while the whole world looked on."

According to Balius, in May 1937, the Catalan proletariat had urged the CNT to take power:

For the essence of the May Events, one must look to the proletariat's unshakable determination to place a workers' leadership in charge of the armed struggle, the economy, and the entire existence of the country. Which is to say (for any anarchist not afraid of the words) that the proletariat was fighting for the taking of power which would have come to pass through the destruction of the old bourgeois instruments and the erection in their place, of a new structure based upon the committees that surfaced in July, only to be promptly suppressed by the reaction and the reformists."

In these two articles, Balius had broached the fundamental point of the revolution and Spanish civil war, without which what happened remains incomprehensible: the issue of power. And he indicated too the organs which were to have embodied that power, and above all recognized the need to dismantle the capitalist State apparatus in order to erect a proletarian replacement in its place. Moreover, Balius pointed to the absence of a revolutionary leadership as having been the root cause of the Spanish revolution's failure.

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.

What we have just said does not exclude the fact that there were other facets to Balius's thinking, secondary facets, maybe, not at issue in these articles and which are in keeping with the traditional anarcho-syndicalist ideology: 1. trade union direction of the economy. 2. committees as the organs of proletarian power. 3. municipalization of the administration, etc.

There cannot be any doubt that Balius, operating on the basis of the ideology of Spanish anarcho-syndicalism, had made tremendous efforts to digest the brutal experiences of civil war and the Spanish revolution. The merit of the Group lies precisely in that effort to comprehend reality and assimilate the first-hand experiences of the Spanish proletariat. Life was easier as an anarchist minister than as an anarchist revolutionary. It was easier to forswear ideology as such, that is, to renounce principles "temporarily" in the moment of truth, in order to revert to them once defeat and the passage of history had rendered contradictions irrelevant. It was easier to call for antifascist unity and a share in the governance of a capitalist State, and to embrace militarization in order to defer to a war directed by the republican bourgeoisie: than to confront those contradictions and assert that the CNT should have taken power, that the war was winnable only if the proletariat was in the driving seat, that the capitalist State had to be destroyed, and above all that the proletariat had to erect power structures of its own, use force to crush the counterrevolution and that all of this was impracticable in the absence of a revolutionary leadership. Whether or not these conclusions were anarchist mattered a lot to those who never paused to question whether it was anarchist to prop up the capitalist State. Between 1936 and 1939, the anarcho-syndicalist ideology was repeatedly put to the severest tests, with regards to its capability, coherence and validity. Balius's thinking, and that of the Friends of Durruti Group was the only worthwhile attempt by a Spanish anarchist group to resolve the contradictions and dereliction of principle which characterized the CNT and the FAI. If the theoretical endeavors of Balius and the Group led them to embrace conclusions that can be described as alien to anarcho-syndicalism, maybe it would be necessary to recognize anarchism's inadequacy as a revolutionary theory of the proletariat. Balius and the Group never took that step, and at all times regarded themselves as anarchists, although they stuck by their criticisms of the CNT's collaboration in the State.

We will not venture to describe such a stance as either coherent or contradictory. The Stalinist repression that battened upon revolutionaries following the May events did not target the Group as such, in that it was never outlawed, but targeted all CNT militants in general. Doubtless that helped preclude further theoretical clarification and an organizational rupture, which we, in any case, do not believe would have come to pass.

However, we concede that our analysis is overly political, subtle, inconvenient and problematical: it is much more convenient, whimsical, academic and suited to the anecdotes and caricatures on offer to fall back upon the deus ex machina of entryism and Trotskyist influences upon Balius and the Friends of Durruti.