Preface to the English-language edition

Submitted by Ed on August 4, 2011

Agustin Guillamón's monograph on the Friends of Durruti Group affords readers of English the most comprehensive and thorough exploration and account of the history and ideas of that group. Few groups if any have suffered from such widespread misunderstanding, exaggeration and interested misrepresentation. Guillamón has brought new evidence to light and disposes effectively of some of the most enduring misrepresentations.

Liberals, Stalinists, marxists and libertarians have vied with one another in their condemnation and misrepresentation of the group and its message. Italian Stalinists accounted association with the group grounds enough upon which to execute political opponents. On May 29, 1937, the Italian Communist Party paper Il Grido del Popolo carried an item which referred to Camillo Berneri as "one of the leaders of the 'Friends of Durruti' Group, which (…) provoked the bloody insurrection against the Popular Front Government in Catalonia [and] was given his just desserts during that revolt at the hands of the Democratic Revolution, whose legitimate right of self-defense no antifascist can deny." There is no evidence at all to connect Berneri with the Friends of Durruti. On behalf of the "Errico Malatesta" group, Domenico Ludovici, an Italian anarchist, retorted that "The unfortunate comrade Berneri was not a member of the 'Friends of Durruti' Group, not that there would be anything wrong in that and it would never excuse the cowardly murder of which he was the victim. No doubt the democratic 'journalist' from Il Grido del Popolo must be a co-religionist of the perpetrators of the barbarous act hence the concern to represent the 'Friends of Durruti' as the provocateurs of the bloodshed, which everybody, the whole world, save ll Grido del Popolo, knows were of 'democratic' derivation."1 Curious that the Italian anarchists of the Ascaso Column, whose scrupulous commitment to principle over pragmatism frequently set them at odds with their Spanish colleagues, seem to have found little if anything to criticize in the performance of the Friends of Durruti. Even with the benefit of ten years of hindsight, Ernesto Bonomini could speak approvingly of the group2 .

As to the allegation that the Friends of Durruti had instigated the fighting in Barcelona in May, they rebutted that when it came from Las Noticias. "They must think us real idiots, because, had the groups they named [the Friends of Durruti and the Libertarian Youth] been the instigators of the revolt, no way would we have surrendered the streets."3

If the Friends of Durruti certainly did not instigate the events of May 1937, they equally certainly were among the few with a ready response to them. They had been alive to the encroachments of the revived Catalan State and bourgeoisie for quite some time and had been yearning for a return to the uncomplicated radical confrontations that had brought such promise with the victory over the fascists in July 19364 . Such a feeling was a rather diffuse presence in many sectors of the libertarian movement in Catalonia. The dalliance of the organizations' higher committees with politicians and their pursuit of a unified and disciplined policy as an aid to them in their dealings with the latter had led to certain unwelcome changes in the everyday practices of those organizations. By January 1937 Ideas was issuing reminders of the proprieties of trade union federalism with the capitalized warning: "The so-called higher committees ought to be bound by the accords of the trade union organization. The unions dispose and the committees see to it that the dispositions are implemented. That is what federalism is, whatever else is done is dictatorship and that cannot be tolerated for one minute more."5 That same month the Libertarian Youth paper Ruta was pointedly reminding its readers that "All we can expect of self-sufficing minorities seeking to set themselves up as infallible guides is dictatorship and oppression."6

There seem to have been three major preoccupations among those uneasy with the stagnation and ebbing of the revolution: 1. the attempt to relegate the revolution to second place behind the war effort; 2. the erosion of accountability of the higher committees; 3. the suspicion that some compromise resolution brokered by outside powers was being hatched7 . Many reckoned that their very own leaders had been seduced and corrupted by association with politicians.

The Friends of Durruti shared and addressed all of these concerns. Alone among all the dissidents in the libertarian camp, they sought to devise a coherent set of alternatives. But the enforcement of discipline and the strength of sentimental attachment to organizations hobbled their efforts and reduced their audience. The mixture of discipline and sentiment is clearly seen in the letter which two members of the Friends of Durruti published in the pages of Solidaridad Obrera on May 29, 1937. Following a threat by the regional committees of the CNT and FAI and by the CNT's Local Federation in Barcelona to expel all members of the Friends who failed to publicly disassociate themselves from the Group, Joaquin Aubi and Rosa Muñoz resigned from it, albeit specifying that "I continue to regard the comrades belonging to the 'Friends of Durruti' as comrades: but I say again what I have always said at plenums in Barcelona: 'The CNT has been my womb and the CNT will be my tomb.'"

That dictum in fact could serve as an epitaph for the Friends of Durruti as a whole. It does not appear that the committees' decision to proceed with expulsions was ever activated, and that in itself seems to confirm the degree of rank and file support for the Friends, as does the CNT national plenum of regionals' endorsement of Catalonia's intention to "expel from the Organization the leading lights of the 'Friends of Durruti' Group and to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that no split ensues as a consequence of this."8

Again the Friends had to remind their "superiors" of the norms of the organization. No one ever joined the CNT, the Confederation. All CNT members belonged to local unions and federations and sovereignty resided in these. "We can only be expelled from the confederal organization by the assemblies of the unions. Local and comarcal plenums are not empowered to expel any comrade. We invite the committees to raise the matter of the 'Friends of Durruti' in the assemblies, which is where the organization's sovereignty resides."9

A similar concern with constitutional procedure can be seen in the Friends' reaction to the news that the arch-Treintista Angel Pestaña, leader of the Syndicalist Party, had been readmitted into the CNT fold. "We cannot understand how Pestaña had been admitted without having been required to wind up his Syndicalist Party, a precondition stipulated on other occasions when there was talk of his possibly rejoining."10

Preoccupied as it was with preserving the CNT-FAI's clout within the Republican coalition, the leadership of that conglomerate was ever alert to infiltration and to abuse of its initials. And prompt to see threats of both in the Friends. There were dark hints of "marxism", due to certain common ground in the declarations of the minuscule Bolshevik-Leninist contingent and of the Friends, as well as the Friends' non-sectarian acknowledgment of how the POUM had acquitted itself during the street-fighting in May. Here again, misrepresentation has been rife. Balius was moved to challenge his detractors to substantiate the charges of "marxist" leveled or whispered against him11 . Guillamón deals definitively with the allegations of POUM and Trotskyist connections, laying those allegations to rest. Less easily disposed of is the mythology surrounding what the Friends themselves recognized was a "slight innovation," the Revolutionary Junta.

The first thing that needs to be said is that Junta in Spanish does not have the same pejorative connotation as it does in English. Each CNT union was run by a Junta. In Mexico, the Mexican Liberal Party of the brothers Magón was run by a Junta. So the word itself carries no suggestion of authoritarianism.

The next point to be made plain is that the Friends were agitating for a Junta, not reporting the formation of one. Had they actually formed one and admitted the POUM into it alongside themselves, then the charges of "anarcho-Bolshevism" sometimes leveled against them, might stand up on the basis of that substitutionism. But no Junta was ever formed, in spite of what José Peirats among others claims12 .

One of the most invidious representations, or misrepresentations regarding the Friends has been the decision by César M. Lorenzo to incorporate into the footnotes of his book Los anarquistas españoles y el poder (Paris, 1972) of a reference to a Manifiesto de Unión Communista purporting to speak for the 'Friends of Durruti', the POUM and certain elements of the Libertarian Youth. On the face of it, this clinches the case for the Friends' having associated, indeed amalgamated themselves with marxist elements in a self-appointed vanguard union. But it is nothing of the sort. Lorenzo states that the manifesto was "distributed at the beginning of the month of June," without specifying where13 . In fact, the text he cites comes from a leaflet distributed in Paris at the Velodrome d'Hiver on June 16, 1937 by militants of the tiny French Union Communiste organization by way of a retort to Garcia Oliver and Federica Montseny, to contrast their official CNT-FAI line with the revolutionism displayed by the three named groups in May 1937. Whether Lorenzo's failure to make this clear is due to an oversight or to its serving his purposes in representing the Friends as an anarcho-Bolshevik formation is unclear, but the misrepresentation has been taken up uncritically by others and contributed to the shadow of ignorance hanging over the group and its ideas14 .

Union Communiste stole a march on anarchist sympathizers with the Friends (such as Andre Prudhommeaux) by publishing translations of articles from El Amigo del Pueblo in its own paper, L'Internationale in December 1937. Union Communiste somewhat overstates the case, however, when it added the comment that: "What the Friends of Durruti cannot say within the narrow confines of an editorial in a clandestine publication is that this revolutionary theory is the handiwork of a vanguard. The necessity of revolutionary theory implies the necessity of an organized vanguard, thrown up by the struggle, which debates and devises the elements of the revolution's program. The necessity, therefore, of a "party", or, since this word party has been overused to mean treacherous organizations, of a banding together of the most clear-sighted, most active, most committed workers." And their prediction that "… the Friends of Durruti will assuredly continue this trend which brought them into association with the left-wing elements of the POUM and which may lead them to the constitution of the revolutionary party that the Spanish proletariat lacked in the battles of recent years", was well wide of the mark, as Guillamón makes plain15 .

That there were certain questions raised but not quite clarified in the pages of El Amigo del Pueblo and in the Group's fuller manifesto Towards of Fresh Revolution cannot be denied. The Friends were making an honest effort to articulate in an anarchist idiom what they thought might provide a way out of the impasse of their much-abused generosity towards other antifascists and a second wind to the revolution which had been so denatured by collaboration under the umbrella of antifascism. One recurrent phrase is their claim that revolutionaries had to quemar una etapa (step things up a notch). They sought to re-found antifascism by asserting the hegemony of the working class libertarian element, ensuring that due recompense was received for effort expended. They sought to reinvigorate the trade unions which had become, if not moribund, then at least less vibrant, by reclaiming their autonomy and reasserting the protagonism lost to collaboration16 .

More recently, a rather absurd reading of the facts surrounding the Friends of Durruti and the character of Jaime Balius has emerged from the pens of a duo of Spanish academic historians, Enric Ucelay da Cal and Susana Tavera. Starting from the laudable intention of tracing the group dynamics within libertarian circles in Catalonia and with special reference to the ensconcement of Jacinto Toryho as editor of Solidaridad Obrera and as the spokesman for the "official line" of the CNT-FAI in Catalonia, the authors concoct a Machiavellian tale of Balius's frustrated journalistic ambition festering into cynical exploitation of the misgivings and resentments of dissenting libertarians. Guillamón rightly dismisses the article in question as "nonsense," "outrageous" and "derogatory" and it would be a pity if the authors' academic distinction were to breathe life into what is unquestionably a very shabby and shoddy piece of historical research, all the more aggravating for the pair's self-congratulation. Their concoction offers the reader a description of the launching of the Friends of Durruti in March 1937 as "an attempt to inject significant political content into personal frustration, singling out as the enemy the counter-revolution and the Stalinists and, to a lesser extent, those responsible for his [Balius's] displacement within the CNT."17

Agustin Guillamón is to be congratulated for having undertaken his research in a spirit of scientific inquiry. He deals comprehensively with the usual fictions and offers us a scrupulously accurate account of theIdeasand objectives of what remains the most fascinating and most articulate of the dissenting groups within the greater family of Spanish libertarianism in the crucial year of 1937.

  • 1Writing in Ideas (Bajo Llobregat) No 24, June 17, 1937, p. 4.
  • 2Ernesto Bonomini wrote an eyewitness account of the May events in Barcelona for Volonta No 11, May 1, 1947.
  • 3El Amigo del Pueblo No 4, June 22, 1937, p. 3, "El asalto a la Telefónica".
  • 4Spanish anarchism was more comfortable with radical contrasts than with the blurred edges created by, say, the antifascist umbrella, or, earlier, republican ralliement. "We Spanish anarcho-syndicalists were faithful to the dialectical principle to the very end. Liberal or reformist government we made an especial target of our spleen, out of a secret feeling of competition. We would rather unemployment lines than unemployment benefit. Given a choice between enslavement to bosses and cooperativism, we preferred the former. And emphatically rejected the latter." - José Peirats Examen criticoconstructivo del Movimiento Libertario Español (Editores Mexicanos Unidos, Mexico DF, 1967) p. 42.
  • 5Ideas No 4, January 21, 1937, p. 4.
  • 6Ruta (Barcelona) No 13, January 7, 1937, p. 6, "Centralismo."
  • 7Boldly displayed on the front page of El Amigo del Pueblo No 2, May 26, 1937, was this item: "We are against any armistice. The blood shed by Spanish workers is an impregnable bulwark upon which the intrigues sponsored by home-grown politicians and capitalist diplomats around the world will founder. Victory or death. There is no other solution." Similar defiance of suspected intrigues designed to bring about a diplomatic resolution of the war and taking things out of the hands of Spanish workers featured in Ideas, Ruta and other papers also.
  • 8José Peirats La CNT en la revolución española (Ed. Madre Tierra, Madrid, 1988, Vol. 11, p. 220) citing a CNT National Committee resume of the accords reached at a national plenum of regionals meeting on May 23, 1937.
  • 9El Amigo del Pueblo No 2, 26 May 1937, p. 3. The Friends pointedly added: "Whenever, in contravention of every confederal precept, someone goes over the heads of assemblies and militants and sets himself up as a general, making mistake after mistake, he has no option, assuming he has any shred of dignity left, but to set down. Garcia Oliver fits that bill!"
  • 10El Amigo del Pueblo No 8, September 21, 1937, p. 2. "The admission of Pestana sets the seal upon the bourgeois democratic mentality in a broad swathe of confederal circles. Watch out, comrades."
  • 11l Amigo del Pueblo No 4, June 22, 1937, p. 3, "En defensa propia: Necesito una aclaración." "I am aghast at countless instances of my being labeled a marxist, because I am 100 percent a revolutionary." This comment suggests that Balius regarded marxists as being something short of 100 percent revolutionaries, although the Friends were generous enough to recognize that the POUM had acquitted itself well in the street-fighting in Barcelona in May 1937. This rejection of marxism would have applied not to the marxian analysis of capitalist economics, but to the marxist recipe for changing society, not to the descriptive but to the prescriptive element.
  • 12José Peirats La CNT en la revolución española Vol 11, p. 147. Peirats reproduces a text which opens "A Revolutionary Junta has been formed [emphasis added] in Barcelona." César M. Lorenzo reproduces this text given by Peirats. But the Peirats text is not a quotation but a mistaken paraphrase.
  • 13César M. Lorenzo Los anarquistas espanoles y el poder (Ruedo Iberico, Paris, 1972) p. 219, n. 32.
  • 14The full text of the leaflet from which Lorenzo quotes can be found in Henri Chaze Chronique de la revolution espagnole: Union Communiste (1933-1939) (Paris, Cahiers Spartacus, 1979) pp. 114-115. Juan Gómez Casas Anarchist Organization: The History of the FAI (Black Rose Books, Montreal-Buffalo, 1986, p. 210) uncritically reproduces Lorenzo's curious footnote as if it were a Friends of Durruti text.
  • 15Henri Chaze, op. cit. p. 82 (from L'lnternationale No 33, December 18, 1937.
  • 16Exasperation with their republican "allies" was widespread by the summer of 1937 and before. There were even embarrassed arguments about the ingenuousness of anarchists. "Let us make very plain the principle that we owe no loyalty to him who is disloyal with us: that we owe no respect to him who secretly betrays us, that we have no duty of tolerance to anyone disposed to coerce us just as soon as he is strong enough to do so and get away with it, that principle cannot oblige us to respect the freedom of him whose principle is to take away our freedom" (Beobachter, in Ideas No 29, August 6, 1937).
  • 17Susana Tavera and Enric Ucelay Da Cal "Grupos de afinidad, disciplina bélica y periodismo libertario 1936-1938" in Historia Contemporanea, 9, (Servicio Ed. Universidad del Pais Vasco, 1993) pp. 184.