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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation Organise #66 - A new world in our hearts

Date Sat, 15 Jul 2006 07:25:07 +0300


“We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the
earth. There is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeois may
blast and ruin it’s own world before it leaves the stage of history. We
carry a new world, here in our hearts. That world is growing this minute.”
Buenaventura Durruti, anarchist militant 1937
2006 sees the70th anniversary of one of the most important episodes
of European working class history – the Spanish Revolution.
Because the Spanish anarchist movement was historically such a
large and important one, anarchists have had a reputation for
idealising the Spanish events of 1936 – 1937 and the role of
libertarians in it. Unlike, for example, Britain or Ireland, anarchist
ideas had been at the forefront of socialist politics in Spain since the
1860s. The libertarian movement had deep roots amongst both the
peasantry and the emergent industrial working class for more than
half a century prior to the 1936 revolution.

CNT - FAI

Most of that movement could be found in the revolutionary
syndicalist National Labour Confederation (Confederación Nacional
del Trabajo - CNT), a union which in May 1936 numbered over half
a million. By no means all CNT members were anarchists, many
had joined for the simple reason that the union was the strongest and
most effective in their workplace. But the organisation was at least
nominally committed to a libertarian communist future and was
regarded as a de facto anarchist union. Partly in order to maintain
the CNT’s libertarian and revolutionary perspectives, anarchist
militants had in 1927 created the Iberian Anarchist Federation
(Federación Anarquista Iberica - FAI). This latter organisation had
a structure based upon affinity groups and in 1936 claimed
something in the region of 30,000 militants.

It is easy to see how the libertarian movement was a major player in
Spanish political life, vastly outnumbering the Communist Party and
challenging the social democratic party, the Workers’ Socialist
Party and their industrial wing, the General Workers Union (Unión
General de Trabajadores- UGT), for the allegiance of the urban and
rural working class. It was, therefore, inevitable that the anarchists
would play a major role in the social upheaval sparked by an
attempted military – clerical – fascist coup in July 1936.

July 1936

The July revolt by a large section of the Spanish army, led by
General Franco and supported by the Catholic Church and the
fascist Falange party, might be described as a pre-emptive
counter-revolution. A ‘Popular Front’ government had been
elected in February, bringing to power a coalition dominated by the
Left Republicans, a middle class democratic party with a programme
of modernisation and moderate reform. Despite their involvement in
this front, the Socialists would not take part. Even so, this was
enough to prompt the reactionary forces of the traditional ruling elite
to immediately prepare for civil war. On July 17th what became
known as the Nationalist revolt kicked off in Spanish Morocco,
quickly spreading into Spain itself. As town after town fell to the
militarists the Republican government vacillated, talked of coming to
an agreement with the rebel military and generally appeared
paralysed in the face of the revolt. As the initiative for resisting the
Nationalists was falling to the workers’ organisations,
particularly the CNT and UGT, the government slowly authorised
the arming of the union militias. In the capital, Madrid, the revolt
was rapidly disarmed by armed UGT militants alongside those
security forces who remained ‘loyal’ to the government. In
Barcelona the CNT took effective control.

Though large parts of Spain were in the hands of the Nationalists,
their overall advance was temporarily halted and the large cities of
Barcelona and Madrid were in the hands of the unions. In Barcelona
the CNT and FAI emptied the barracks and distributed arms to
groups of members across Catalonia and beyond. So, in the midst of
civil war and chaos, began the Spanish Revolution.

In Catalonia and Aragon, the two regions with the greatest
concentration of libertarian workers and peasants, there began a
social transformation. Real power was being taken into the hands of
the working class as the government looked on, temporarily
powerless. The distribution of food, the maintenance of public
services, the opening of collective restaurants and the organisation
of defence against the Nationalist forces were all being undertaken
by strictly unofficial elements! Human creativity was being
unleashed and the state was nowhere to be seen, though
undoubtedly it was there, waiting to regain strength.

Collectivisations of industry and the expropriation of the land,
initiated by CNT and, to a lesser extent, UGT members, were taking
place throughout these areas. Often, anarchist militias such as the
famous Durruti Column, would actively promote and defend
collectivisations as they travelled to the frontline. The collectivisation
of land has been described as “Probably the most creative legacy
of Spanish anarchism” by the writer and historian Daniel Guerin.
As large landowners abandoned their estates their workers took over
and ran them collectively. Where landowners stayed, those who had
appeared sympathetic to the militarist revolt were kicked off the land
whilst ‘good republican’ landowners were often invited to
join the collectives! In total it is estimated that possibly 3 million
people were involved in collectives in the ‘revolutionary period
‘of 1936-37.

The collectives variously attempted to put into practice libertarian
communism based on the principle of ‘from each according to
ability, to each according to need’ but, more commonly,
collectivism where a ‘family wage’ was paid by the

collective.

The social revolution

Socially, the revolution began to cast-off centuries of mental
servitude to the ruling class and the Catholic church. Working
people began to discard formal and deferential speech, common in
Spanish. People spoke to each other as equals. Churches found
themselves under attack, often being requisitioned for practical use
and sometimes simply burnt down as symbols of centuries-old
oppression.

New groups involving themselves in artistic, musical and cultural
activities emerged in a surge of creativity unleashed by the
possibilities the revolution offered.

The Industrial Collectivisations

In the industrial areas of ‘Loyalist Spain’, particularly
Catalonia, large parts of manufacturing and most public services
were immediately taken over and managed by the workers. The
collectivised factories and workshops were, for four months after the
July events, run without state involvement. The revolution in Russia
in 1917 had faced the problem of the desertion of skilled technicians
to the counter-revolution, and although this was not as widespread
in Spain, where many technical staff were themselves active
syndicalists, it was still a factor. Unlike the agricultural experiments
in self-management, the industrial efforts were faced with having to
reorganise the factories to produce armaments and military vehicles.
Added to this was the successful attempt by the state to co-opt the
collectivisations.

In October the Catalan regional government ratified the socialisation
of industry. The state was attempting to both control the
collectivisation process and to use it to its own advantage in building
the war effort and disciplining the workforce. The state decreed that
all factories employing more than 100 workers were to be brought
under the joint management of a Council of Enterprises. This
Council was to include both the workforce and a representative from
the Catalan regional government who would act as
‘controller’. The Collectivisation Decree of October 1936,
however, transferred all real power to the state’s General
Council for Industry. Although the workers who had taken control
through direct action in 1936 remained nominally in control, their
role was in reality only to be consulted and, naturally, to work.

How did this happen? In July 1936 the state was impotent and
almost invisible, yet a few months later it had returned and had
usurped power from the working class.

The CNT-FAI betrayal

The reason can be found in the fact that whilst the rank and file of
the libertarian organisations were engaging in collectivisations and
land seizures, the ‘leadership’ of the movement saved the
government from complete eclipse.

And it began this process as early as the 20th July, the day following
the halting of the militarist rising. On that fateful day Luis Companys
the President of the Generalitat, the regional government of
Catalonia, summoned representatives of the CNT and the FAI.
Companys offered to resign from a government which existed in
name only, its ability to ‘restore order’ non-existent. At this
meeting the CNT and FAI, representing the armed and mobilised
masses, decided that a new administration could be established
between the revolutionary workers movement and the leftist forces
of the Popular Front. The new structure was the Central Committee
of the Anti-Fascist Militias and it was this organisation which
oversaw the social re-organisation in the weeks following the
effective collapse. It was this committee which helped co-ordinate
the establishing and supplying of militias to fight at the front, the
collectivisations and the maintenance of social services. But the vital
breathing space gave the government the opportunity to recover and
re-establish its power. As the dissident anarcho-syndicalist group
‘Friends of Durruti’ were to reflect later

There can be absolutely no common ground between
exploiters and exploited. Which shall prevail, only battle can decide.
Bourgeoisie or workers. Certainly not both of them at once (Towards
a Fresh Revolution 1938).

So, with power in the hands of the working class, why did the
leadership of the CNT-FAI not simply dismiss the government and
maintain workers power? The betrayal cannot be blamed upon
reformist or moderate elements in the CNT, after all, the militant
FAI was also there. Indeed, the FAI’s Garcia Oliver, present at
the meeting, stated that the choice was between

“ Libertarian Communism, which means the anarchist
dictatorship, or democracy, which means collaboration.” (quoted
in Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, Vernon Richards 1953).

This false dichotomy ignored the possibility of maintaining and
extending the gains of the working class without an ‘anarchist
dictatorship’ but through the suppression of the republican
democratic bourgeoisie, which was already in disarray.

The ‘anarchist’ politicians

The choice of collaboration sealed the fate of the revolution. Dual
power could not last very long. On September 27th representatives of
the CNT entered the new Council of the Generalitat, the reorganised
regional government of Catalonia and the Central Committee of the
Anti-Fascist Militias, in which the CNT had placed so much hope,
was gone. The decision to enter the government appears to have
been taken a week earlier by the National Committee of the CNT,
which was supposed to be answerable to the union as a whole. The
CNT had called for a Regional Defence Council which would
co-ordinate without being a government per se, but when offered
places in a coalition with bourgeois parties they did not hesitate to
cross the class divide. The ‘hard-line’ FAI militant Garcia
Oliver was to say “The Committees of the Anti-Fascist Militias
have been dissolved because now the Generalitat represents all of
us.” This amazing statement shows how quickly both anarchist
principles and class analysis were thrown away. The stage was set
for the ‘anarchist’ politicians to enter the National
Government of Spain, led by left socialist Largo Caballero, two
months later in November 1936.

The rise of the Communist Party

The growth of the Communist Party throughout what became the
Spanish Civil War was phenomenal. Two main factors promoted
that growth. Firstly, the Spanish Republic looked to the Soviet Union
for material aid and support and secondly, the Spanish Stalinists
opposed any revolutionary activity which might jeopardise the
bourgeois republic and thereby recruited heavily from all those who
might be inconvenienced by collectivisations. The Communist
Party, adept at infiltration and manipulation, took control of the
Socialist Party’s youth section and, through the importation of
Russian military advisors and their own political commissars, rapidly
gained an influence in the military of the Republic out of all
proportion to their size. In 1936 the party united with the Catalan
socialists to form the Catalan United Socialist Party (PSUC), which
it dominated.

The Communist Party was the main sponsor of the famous
International Brigades, the tens of thousands of volunteers who
came from across the globe to ‘defend the republic’. This
added to the Party’s kudos.

Militarization

The communists were also at the forefront of the campaign to
integrate the militias of the CNT-FAI and the Workers Party of
Marxist Unification (POUM), a large anti-Stalinist left socialist
grouping, into the ‘Popular Army’ of the Republic.

Opposition to militarization of the militias came mainly from the
grassroots of the CNT-FAI and, naturally, from the anarchist
militias which had emerged in July – September 1936 during the
existence of the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias. The
militias were not opposed to co-ordination of the physical fight
against the nationalist military, but of being forced into a traditional
army which would be controlled by whoever was in charge of the
state.

However, the military situation in the period following the entry of
the ‘anarchists’ into the regional and central governments
was dire for the Republican forces. The government left Madrid for
Valencia as the capital was besieged in November and the pressure
increased for the dissolving of the militias into a regular army. The
increasing militarization of the Republican area was another sign
that the revolution was being strangled and that the working class
was becoming used in a conventional war between two rival factions
of the ruling class.

The May Events, 1937

The last gasp of the Spanish revolution came in May 1937.
Throughout April the Generalitat, complete with 4
‘anarchist’ ministers, including the Minister for Justice, had
been escalating harassment of ‘uncontrollable elements’ in
the CNT and the POUM, disarming workers patrol groups, raiding
offices. On the morning of May 3rd a provocation occurred that
would signal the final defeat of the Revolution and the capitulation of
the CNT to the state.

The Barcelona Telephone Exchange had been under the control of
its workers, mainly CNT members, since the July days. At 3
o’clock on the afternoon of Monday May 3rd the police
attempted to occupy the building but could not advance beyond the
first floor due to resistance from the workers. News of the assault
spread and rank and file CNT, FAI and POUM militants responded,
arming themselves and organising to resist. The leadership of the
CNT called for calm and the removal of the police from the building.
But events were overtaking the leaders and a general strike
developed in Barcelona as barricades were erected by the working
class across the city. Shooting started in the early hours of the next
day and continued sporadically. Still the CNT called for negotiations
to end the stand-off. Exactly 24 hours after the occupation of the
telephone exchange the CNT-FAI called for the workers
organisations to unilaterally lay down their arms in a radio broadcast.
“Workers of the CNT! Workers of the UGT! Don’t be
deceived by these manoeuvres. Above all else, Unity! Put down your
arms. Only one slogan: We must work to beat fascism! Down with
fascism!”

But the counter-revolution, spearheaded by the PSUC and the local
Catalan Nationalists, was determined to humble the anarchists.
Libertarians were shot in cold blood only yards from the
headquarters of the CNT. On the 5th the state escalated the
provocation by an assault on the local Libertarian Youth centre and
the surrounding of CNT headquarters. On the same night the Italian
anarchist Camillo Berneri and his comrade Barbieri were abducted
and murdered by a joint police and PSUC squad. Berneri, editor of
‘Guerra di Classe” (Class War) was one of the most
intelligent and constructive critics of the anarchist collaboration.

Again capitulation

At this time The Friends of Durruti group issued a proclamation
calling for a ‘Revolutionary Junta’ (Council) to be
established, which would include the POUM. The POUM, however,
remained indecisive and awaited the leadership of the CNT-FAI.
The leadership could only counsel ‘serenity’ and calm,
calling for a return to work and a ceasefire whilst the Catalan
government called in reinforcements from around Republican Spain!

Despite the encouragement not to abandon the streets which came
from the Friends of Durruti, the rank and file of the CNT, FAI and
Libertarian Youth complied with the leadership. The majority of
syndicalists and anarchists continued to trust those who had been
their most ardent militants in the years before. By Friday 7th, the
fighting in Barcelona had ended. The Catalan and national
governments, however, took this as a sign that the CNT would now
accept almost anything in the name of anti-fascist unity and despite
agreements to the contrary, occupied the entirety of the telephone
exchange and continued to harass, intimidate and arrest anarchists.

Aftermath

The aftermath of the May Days saw the power and confidence of the
state reinforced and the morale of the revolutionaries sapped. In
June the state outlawed the POUM, which subsequently
disappeared from the scene, mainly into Stalinist prisons. In July the
anarchists were excluded from the reorganised Catalan government
and from August onwards the state carried on a programme of
de-collectivisation. The revolution, in the sense of working class
power and of a libertarian reorganisation of society, was dead. The
revolution dead, the defeat of the Republic followed as the
nationalists, supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, crushed
the ‘Peoples Army’.

An impossible revolution?

The Spanish Revolution of 1936 was born in the midst of a period of
darkest reaction. Italy and Germany were under the jackboot of
fascism, their working class subdued by repression. The Soviet
Union, at the height of Stalin’s dictatorship over the proletariat,
dominated the left through the Communist International. Stalinism
internationally served to defend the Soviet Union and the policy of
the Communist Parties twisted and turned depending on the needs
of the ‘Workers’ Fatherland’. It is no exaggeration to
say that the working class was in a position of international defeat.

When the workers of Spain spontaneously moved to crush the
nationalist – militarist uprising they were alone, isolated and far
from being part of an international movement. What they had in
their favour were mass organisations, built over many years and
having come through repression and illegality.

From the very beginning the anarchist and syndicalist
movement’s ‘official’ leadership acted like politicians
and played the political games of the bourgeoisie. Paralysed by the
fear of establishing an ‘anarchist dictatorship’ they instead
effectively accepted the dictatorship of the democratic, anti-fascist
ruling class. And whilst the rank and file of the anarchist movement
strove to proceed towards libertarian communism, they failed to
challenge their own organisation’s integration into the historical
enemy of classical anarchism – the state. The Friends of Durruti
put it clearly when they said that “Democracy, not fascism,
defeated the Spanish people”.

An incredible creativity and capacity for creating a new world was
exhibited, in the worst possible conditions, by millions of Spanish
workers and peasants. This, tragically, was not enough to actually
make the new world, held deeply in their hearts, realised.
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