Slippery Slopes (The Anarchists in Spain) – Manuel Azaretto
In our view, none of the great social-political events of the last twenty-five years has given rise to as much hope or caused as much disappointment as the Spanish conflict. And we also believe that no single event that has taken place in this same quarter century has given rise to such profound or such opposed and passionate opinions as this conflict, whose sorrowful conclusion, unfortunately, still inflicts such pain in the hearts of those of us who, despite our distance from the events, have suffered from the defeat and the pain of the Iberian people.
But if the hopes and opinions that arose as a result of the events in Spain have been amply justified in all the so-called popular sectors, this awakening of hopes and clash of opinions has encountered no greater echo or more logical justification than on the terrain of the anarchist workers movement. For it must not be forgotten that while it is true that in the struggle against fascism other numerically strong fractions with significant influence over the multitudes also played a role, it is no less true that one of the forces with the greatest influence among the Spanish proletariat, was precisely the one that was represented in the institutions that in Spain advocated the same principles and aspirations as the anarchist workers movement. And it was precisely this community of principles and final goals that existed among all the organizations that were enrolled in the ranks of the International Workingmen’s Association, which explains the profound impact that the Spanish conflict has had on the international movement and especially on the Federaciones Obreras Regionales Uruguaya y Argentina.1 And we say especially on the Federaciones Obreras Regionales Uruguaya y Argentina because these two Federations—both with deep roots in the proletariat on both banks of the Río Plata—have been the most outstanding organizations on the international plane due to the zeal with which they pursued the historical continuity of their daily struggles and activities, which were always oriented towards anarchists ideals and principles, and it was logical that the Spanish events would produce in every sense a greater reaction among the militants of these two movements. This was to be expected because the anarchists of Spain on more than one occasion spoke to us of the social revolution, meaning to say that they not only fought to defeat fascism but also to establish a new order of things in harmony with the ideals they claimed to uphold.
However, this reaction that has been expressed on the basis of the unqualified support for all the actions and positions of Spanish anarchism, including spirited but sincere criticism of the orientation and conduct of the FAI and CNT during the conflict, has led to unfortunate results among our ranks. For under the pretext that it was not a question of criticizing but rather of giving immediate and complete solidarity to the anarchists who were fighting fascism in Spain with arms in hand, the exercise of criticism was set aside until after the struggle and the voices of those who, as the events unfolded and when it was necessary, dared to break the code of silence imposed by those who only wanted to hear applause and praise—even for the most humiliating attitudes of the anarchism of that country—were treated as expressions of unmitigated heresy.
But if the circumstances mentioned above justified the fact that the clash of opinions, as a result of the events in Spain, resulted in serious friction between the militants of the revolutionary workers movement, the attempts by enemies of all stripes and without any revolutionary morality, on the other hand, who have tried to subject anarchism to judgment by presenting it as having failed, are not at all justified. And even less justification can be adduced for those anarchists who, deaf and blind to all experience, are now attempting to teach lessons based on all the errors of Spanish anarchism, a schooling that is currently taking place at this moment in Argentina, Uruguay and other neighboring countries.
It is certainly true that many things happened in Spain, for which the anarchists of that country were responsible in whole or in part, which have cast a great deal of discredit on the idea of anarchism held by many people, who considered anarchism to be the only movement that was incapable of deviating from its old and committed position against the state, refusing all collaboration with its traditional enemies. This circumstance, however, which already constitutes a serious blow against anarchism, is much more serious still if we take account of the fact that our enemies, by pointing to the conversion of Spanish anarchism in practical terms on all terrains, also proclaim the failure of this movement. Of course, it is clear that this latter claim is absolutely untrue and even contrary to common sense. But the falsifications of our adversaries do not prevent confusion among the workers, nor do they lessen the danger of our movement being entangled in the web of discredit that threatens to have serious consequences for us in the future.
The lie is always a dangerous weapon, but if it is deployed at the right time and with intelligence it can yield results, even if transitory ones, that are favorable for those who wield it. But if the lie and the distortion of the truth provide easy although ephemeral victories, the greater and more noble task, so fruitful despite the frequent ingratitude of those who are at the receiving end of it, is to speak the truth, even if it injures us; the noble and fruitful task for our ideals is to clear away the confusion to which the defeat of a people gave rise, a confusion which entails the concealment of the history of a movement whose moral grandeur is based on ideals that cannot be tarnished by the calumny of its adversaries nor by defeatist desertion on the part of its defenders. And it is precisely this kind of task that is served by the work that is carried out by comrade Azaretto in this book.
For anarchism did not fail in Spain. The men who represented it, those who spoke and worked in its name, may have made mistakes; the Spanish anarchists may have delivered over to wrack and ruin all that up until now has constituted the best and most precious moral patrimony of the international anarchist movement, but we must ask whether all the mistakes they made, or might have made, authorize and justify the malevolence of the detractors of anarchism when they seek to present our movement as having failed and its ideals as plainly finished? And to attempt to transplant to America, or to the rest of Europe, invoking all kinds of reasons, practical modes of action and tactics that are clearly inspired by the Spanish events and by the practical experience of the anarchism of the Iberian Peninsula, does this not mean to justify, without any valid reasons, since the serious errors of Spanish anarchism are easily demonstrated, the arguments of our enemies with regard to this alleged failure? No. Neither the one nor the other is justified. Our enemies do not have the moral authority to attack us; nor do we have to tolerate, in the name of ideas, or other reasons, the introduction into the anarchist workers movement of practices and vices that, over a short period of time, would destroy it as a living and active expression of militant anarchism. It is instead a question of putting everything in its proper place, attempting to shed light on the intervention of Spanish anarchism in the recent unfortunate events of that country, and to do good work for anarchists ideas and the institutions that represent them on the terrain of the everyday struggle for freedom and a more comprehensive and effective social justice.
But just what is it that comrade M. Azaretto intends to accomplish with the publication of his book, Slippery Slopes? Precisely what we have just described: to point out the errors and the serious deviations brought to light by the events and the observed conduct of Iberian anarchism; to show that there was no general failure of anarchism but a pure and simple failure of men, and that the institutions that many people considered to be the most representative institutions of the anarchist revolution were too weak to realize the ideas they claimed to represent.
It remains to be said that in this book there is no over-abundance of eloquence. Its author knows nothing of the literary nuances and the sensationalist phraseology that are so fashionable these days. Slippery Slopes is thus not a book that one can read for pleasure, nor is it a book aimed at a broad public audience. This is a book meant for independent minds, for minds open to study and the serene analysis of the deeds and ideas that, it must be admitted, have burdened the history of international anarchism with disagreeable pages. A man of the people, a worker who is also a militant of the anarchist workers movement, Azaretto has sacrificed his leisure time to write this book and his goal, as he expressed it in a letter, is “to make a modest contribution to clearing the air of the international environment of an entire propaganda plagued with inconsistencies and denials and which has made a cult of the heroism of a people who were used as cannon fodder and who fought like lions but for a cause that was not their own.” As a result, in these pages you will not find meticulous and orderly arguments of the experiences of leaders. The book has been written for the purpose of “confronting those ruinous currents of the emancipatory movements”. And that is already a great deal.
In Slippery Slopes there are not many pages devoted to exposing the actions undertaken in Spain by the traditional enemies of anarchism. The book tends to defend our movement from the Bolshevizing inroads that threaten it as a consequence of the forgetting of many of their ideas by many anarchists, and for this and no other reason the basic thrust of its critique is directed not so much at our enemies as at the men and institutions of the movement who followed the CNT and FAI and who participated so actively in the Spanish conflict. Nor does the author spend much time discussing the causes of and who was responsible for the military defeats that culminated in the total defeat of the Spanish proletariat. For it must be admitted that it is not exactly these aspects of the question that are of the greatest interest to anarchist militants.
Azaretto, largely ignoring these aspects of the Spanish events, or only mentioning them in passing, has selected a series of excerpts from texts published by the CNT-FAI that, transcribed in the book in the order he has chosen, document the transgressions and serious errors committed by the responsible officials of these organizations to the prejudice of the revolution that the Spanish people launched with so much valor during the memorable days of July and which those same officials later suppressed. It is, of course, inevitable that deficiencies will be noted in this book. There are chapters, for example, that could easily be enriched with the insertion of more extensive or more carefully selected documentation. As we said above, Azaretto, who must divide his time between the factory where he works and the daily activities of propaganda, has written his book by robbing himself of his hours of rest. And it is only the urgent need to contribute to the clarification of the intellectual environment of the movement that led him to write Slippery Slopes. However, the defects that we have alluded to and which the reader will no doubt discover for himself, do not at all serve to discredit the work that he has done or the goal that Azaretto seeks to achieve with the publication of this book. Beyond all these factors, however, there is something that nothing can change and no one can deny: the sincerity of the author and the nobility of his intentions. This sincerity and these intentions that the reader will no doubt discern in the pages of this book are confirmed by the lack of interest in personal profit that characterizes comrade Azaretto. For he has announced that the small profit that the sale of the book might yield, if such a profit is realized, will be devoted entirely to the newspapers Organización Obrera and Solidaridad, the press organs of the FORA and the FORU, respectively. This, it seems to us, speaks eloquently enough about the noble purpose that motivates comrade Azaretto, and spares us from having to say anything more about this matter. It is nonetheless to be desired, and this is our hope, that other works of this same nature will be added to this modest contribution and help to further clarify the tumultuous anarchist milieu.
The return to the tactics and healthy norms inspired by the anarchist ideas that we call our own, is what must interest and be of concern to men who really want to retain unsullied the limpid course of a movement that cannot and must not silence those views that, even if the overriding necessities of the struggle are invoked, as was argued in order to justify the aberrations of the Spanish anarchists, degrade it and discredit it at home and throughout the world.
Given the current situation of the proletariat, confused and corrupted by a thousand currents that are opposed to freedom and progress, the very future of humanity, which today faces the most terrible crossroads of its history, obliges us to raise with the greatest determination the banner of Anarchy that not even the defeatist defection of some of its defenders or the calumnies of its enemies has succeeded, nor will they ever succeed, in distorting or besmirching, since everything that happened in Spain has only confirmed all that anarchism has proclaimed and recommended. This is our conviction and that is why, because we look forward to better days for the movement that counts us among its militants, we have happily accepted associating our name with that of comrade Azaretto. That the comrades and workers who read this book should reflect on its contents, and especially those who yesterday did not even want to delve into these problems, is what we desire and is the very best praise that we can give to Slippery Slopes.
José A. Barrionuevo
Buenos Aires, August 1939
- 1 The FOR, Regional Workers Federation; FORU= Regional Workers Federation of Uruguay; FORA=Regional Workers Federation of Argentina [Translator’s Note].