The Congress of Zaragoza

Submitted by Reddebrek on June 4, 2016

On May 1st 1936 the CNT held a national congress at Zaragoza, in
an atmosphere of impending crisis. The Spanish general elections in
February had resulted in the replacement of the right-wing government
of the Bieno Negro (the 'two black years') by a parliament in which the
parties of the left held a decisive majority.

The internal position of the CNT was not a happy one. In January
and December 1933 it had been involved in unsuccessful revolutionary
action and in December 1934 the rising of the Asturian miners had been
savagely repressed. The Confederation was split, with one tendency,
represented by the 'Manifesto of the Thirty', the Treintistas, advocating
much closer ties with the socialist trade unions of the UGT, and a less
intransigent approach to the dilemma of reform or revolution. The
special problems facing the Congress were therefore to enquire into the
risings of 1933 and 1934 and evaluate the role of the CNT in them;
to discuss the continuing relevance of anarchist and revolutionary syndi-
calist principles to the critical situation then existing in Spain; to work
out some kind of relationship between syndicalism and socialism and
put it into practice in terms of a pact with the UGT; and to do all this
under the shadow of a split in the organisation which everyone felt had
to be healed as a matter of first importance. Besides these particular
issues there were the usual reviews of activity and publications and the
preparation of general statements on the Confederal attitude to the
agricultural problems of Spain and its ideas for the future liberatrian

It is therefore disappointing, in reading the published minutes of
the Congress,* to observe how much of it seems to have been spent
in personal disputes about the credentials of one comrade, the conduct
of another on a given occasion, whether the Congress should have been
held in Zaragoza or not, and similar matters. The important work
of preparing statements seems to have been referred to committees whose
reports were accepted after very short debates.
*El Congreso Confederal de Zaragoza, Ediciones CNT, 1955.

The scission in the CNT had come into the open shortly after the
advent of the Spanish Republic in 1931. The delegate of the Opposition
{Treintistas) of Catalonia explained that

Our current wanted to make use of the time put at our disposal to build
a powerful CNT. We felt that one of the prime tasks of that period had
to be to reach the young people who, without any ideological preparation,
were coming towards us, and to make them ready for the outbreak of the
revolution. We had to create in them a clear social consciousness which
would greatly assist the CNT in making its revolution.

The other current believed in revolutionary circumstances, believed that
the very conditions necessary for the transformation of society existed, and
they worked in that direction.

However, the very period which gave the CNT a chance to build up,
also gave the State time to put its house in order, a point made by the
delegate of Fabric and Textiles of Barcelona :

In 1931 there were circumstances favourable to the proletariat, to our
libertarian revolution, and to a transformation of society, that have not
been repeated since. The regime was in a state of decomposition; the State
was weak and had not yet consolidated itself in a position of power, the
army weakened by indiscipline; a poorly manned Civil Guard; badly organ-
ised forces of public order and a timid bureaucracy. It was the very
moment for our revolution. Anarchism had the right to bring about an
institute a genuine regime of libertarian comradeship. Socialism had not
attained the revolutionary prestige that it has today: it was a vaccilating
bourgeois party. We interpret this reality by saying, The further we are
from the 14th April, the further we go from our revolution because we give
the State time to reorganise itself and the counter-revolution'.

The real issue in everyone's mind was whether it was possible to
find any unity between these opposing currents which could be expressed
in terms of a declaration of unity, and a single organisation. The
declaration was drawn up and accepted, and the Opposition ceased to
exist on paper, although as later events showed, its spirit lived on.

Discussion on the unsuccessful popular movements of 1933 and
1934 revealed the same kind of cleavage in the movement, between the
comrades who looked on them as useful experiences, and only criticised
the organisation for not having made a more whole-hearted attempt
to exploit the opportunities which occurred, and those who were dubious
about the possibility of a rising bringing about libertarian communism
in such circumstances. Similarly when the subject of the alliance with
the socialist UGT came up, one of the important questions was whether
the CNT was or ever would be strong enough to make its own revolution,
or whether effective participation in day-to-day activities demanded com-
promises and collaboration.

It is almost impossible to sum up this part of the debate from mere
reading, and it could only be dealt with by someone who took part in
the events. The questions that need answering are: To what extent
were the mass of Spanish workers influencd by the CNT, and to what
extent was the card-holding membership of the Confederation inbued
with the libertarian ideology held by at least some of its militants?

When we turn to the actual statements drawn up by the Congress
it is clear that no simple formula can sum up the attitude of the anarcho-
syndicalists during this period. In its declaration on unemployment
the Congress states that this is 'ultimately a product of the multiple con-
tradictions of capitalism' and goes on to 'urge, then, that for the moral
and material health of humanity, that the working masses hasten to
put an end to the capitalist regime and to organise the production and
distribution of social wealth for themselves'. However, they did not
intend to appear as pure idealists and so the declaration ends with
demands for a thirty-six hour week, abolition of overtime, and the
development of municipal works.

The statement on the political-military situation draws attention
to the failure of parliament and the parties, the growing threat of
fascism, and declares that the only solution lies in educating the people
to want libertarian communism. It ends by calling for a revolutionary
general strike in the event of a declaration of war.

The problem of choosing between a revolutionary and a reformist
line also made itself felt in the declaration on agrarian reform. This
recognised that a reform passed by law would not liberate the peasants,
and it also recognised the possibility that its ameliorating effect might
weaken the influence of revolutionary syndicalism among them. With
this in view they proposed a programme of nine specific points demand-
ing radical expropriation of big farmers, abolition of rents, and the
introduction of irrigation schemes, agricultural colleges, and so on.

However, the most interesting of the resolutions of the Congress
was that on The Confederal Conception of Libertarian Communism'.
It is a powerful reply to the authoritarian socialist critics of Spanish
anarchism, whether Spanish or foreign, who claim that the anarchists
were just confused and generous-hearted people who did not know what
they wanted.

The resolution begins nevertheless by drawing attention to the two
currents of emphasis on the individual and social aspects of libertarian-
ism respectively. It also disclaims any desire to present a blueprint
for the future :

We all feel that to predict the structure of the future society would be
absurd, since there is often a great chasm between theory and practice.
We do not therefore fall into the error of the politicians who present well-
defined solutions to all problems, which fail drastically in practice.

It goes on to criticise the prevailing conception of revolution as being
a single violent act, and characterising revolution as beginning.

Firstly, as a psychological phenomenon in opposition to the state of
things which oppresses the aspirations and needs of the individual.

Secondly as a social manifestation, when that feeling takes collective
hold, it clashes with the forces of capitalism.

Thirdly, as organisation, when it feels the need to create a force capable
of bringing about its biological conclusion.

The first tasks of the revolution are defined thus :

The violent aspect of the revolution having been concluded, the following
will be declared abolished: private property, the State, the principle of
authority, and consequently, the class division of men into exploiters and
exploited, oppressors and oppressed.

Happy land!

Next comes a long section devoted to the details of the structure
of the communes and their federations. It is well-known anarcho-
syndicalist theory, but it is worth mentioning some points about which
individualist anarchists are not too happy, concerning the relations of
the persons with the federal structure. The economic plan takes

as base (in the work place, in the Syndicate, in the Commune, in all
the regulating organs of the new society) the producer, the individual as the
cell, as the cornerstone of all social, economic and moral creation.

However, there was no doubt left that all good men would welcome
the commune:

In accordance with the fundamental principles of libertarian communism,
as we have stated above, all men will hasten to fulfil the voluntary duty —
which will be converted into a true right when men work freely — of giving
his assistance to the collective, according to his strength and capabilities,
and the commune will accept the obligation of satisfying his needs.

Although no doubt meant in the best way, the imposition of 'volun-
tary duties' is not so appealing in the light of misplaced revolutions,
besides which:

It is important to make it clear . . . that the early days of the revolution
will not be easy . . . Any constructive period calls for sacrifice and individual
and collective acceptance of efforts necessary for overcoming problems, and
of not creating difficulties for the work of social reconstruction which we
will all be realising in agreement.

On the other hand it is pointed out that the National Confederation
of Communes will not be a uniform organisation. The example is given
of a commune of delightfully-named 'naturistas-desnudistas', enemies
of industrialisation, whose delegates attend a 'Congress of the Iberian
Confederation of Autonomous Libertarian Communes', which where
necessary enters into relations with other communes. Even if the
editors' tongues were in their cheeks in presenting the example, it is
important that they could, in all sincerity, include it. Furthermore,
although the network of federation is drawn in pretty closely, the follow-
ing paragraph is revealing :

We consider that in time the new society should assure each commune
of all the agricultural and industrial elements necessary for its autonomy,
in accordance with the biological principle which affirms that the man, and
in this case, the commune, is most free, who has least need of others.

Finally, after having described the ways in which the communes
will take decisions, the declaration states :

All these functions will have no bureaucratic or executive character.
Apart from those who work as technicians or simply statisticians, the rest
will simply be carrying out their job as producers, gathered together at the
end of the working day to discuss questions of detail which do not call
for reference to a general assembly.

Not only economic and social organisation, but the very ideas of
justice, love and education, are reviewed.

Libertarian communism is incompatible with any punitive regime, which
implies the disappearance of the present system of punitive justice and all
its instruments, such as prisons.

The committee considers.

Firstly, that man is not bad by nature, and that delinquency is the
logical result of the state of social injustice in which we live.

Secondly, that when his needs are satisfied, and he is given rational and
humane education, its causes will disappear.

Therefore we consider that when an individual falls down in his duties,
either in the moral realm or as a producer, it will be for the assemblies of
the people to find a just and harmonious solution to the case.

On the family and on sexual relations, the resolution points out
that the family has fulfilled many admirable functions of solidarity and
declares that the revolution will not involve an attack on the family.

Libertarian communism proclaims free love, with no more regulation
than the free will of the men and women concerned, guaranteeing the
children with the security of the community.

Education was discussed in two stages; one designed for the imme-
diate battle against illiteracy, and another the long-term development
of a human system of education.

The resolution ended by declaring that when achieved, the revolu-
tion would be defended by the people in arms.

This declaration on The Confederal Conception of Libertarian
Communism' carried unanimously by delegates speaking for a million
workers represents the height of anarcho-syndicalist expression. To
what extent did the individual members share its aspirations? To what
extent was it the expression of a handful of militant anarchists kidding
themselves that their own ideas were held throughout the CNT? How
representative was the other side of the Congress with its violent personal
and factional disputes? As the events fade into the past, these prob-
lems can only be unravelled by someone who shares a knowledge of
Spain, a feeling for anarchism and the skill of a historian.

However, the fact that the workers of the CNT, in the face of
oppression and persecution, and the imminence of a violent rising,
could present such a clear and humanistic view of what they wanted
society to be like, shows that they were the most socially conscious
people that recent history has seen, and makes it even more tragic that
circumstances conspired to prevent them from realising thir desires.


CNT {Confederation National del Trabajo— National Confederation of
Labour). Revolutionary syndicalist union influenced by the anarchists.
FAI (Federation Anarquista Iberica— Anarchist Federation of Iberia).
UGT (Union General de Trabajadores— General Workers' Union). Re-
formist trade union controlled by the socialists.
PSO (Partido Socialista Obrero— Workers' Socialist Party).
PCE (Partido Communista Espanol — Spanish Communist Party).
PSUC (Partido Socialista Unificat de Catalunya— Catalan United Socialist
Party). The combined Socialist and Communist parties of Catalonia.
POUM (Partido Obrero de Unification Marxista). Dissident revolutionary
Communist party.
Generalitat: the government of the autonomous province of Catalonia.