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(en) Australia, Rebel Worker Vol.33 No.1 (219) April-May 2014 - Book Reviews from Rebel Worker by Graham Purchase

Date Mon, 07 Apr 2014 15:29:02 +0300


From Rebel Worker Paper of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Network www.rebelworker.org ---- Pistoleros: The Chronicles of Farquhar McHarg By Farquhar McHarg Volume 1: 1918 ---- Introduced by Stuart Christie. PM Press, Calif., 2011. ---- Continued from Last Edition of Rebel Worker ---- The Politics of War in Neutral Catalonia 1918 ---- The war-economy of Neutral Spain had been a boom for the capitalist classes. The war’s end inevitably caused economic recession. The workers knew that they would pay for it. Corrupt right wing politicians and capitalists raised Pistoleros or death squads and used them to suppress mounting labour unrest. ---- Pistoleros were indirectly controlled and illegally funded by pro-German agents and sympathizers. Spanish rulers feared a Bolshevik-like revolution. This fear was not unfounded in the wake of the failed Spanish General strike August 1917.

Spain, like Russia, was as an agricultural backwater in the eyes of the major European powers.
The Spanish state-capitalist, semi-feudal-agrarian and powerful clerical establishments feared Communism and anti-clericalism. German Catholicism and Imperialism were viewed by the ruling classes not as a threat, but as their possible salvation.

Neutrality was the Official position of the Spanish government whilst it turned a blind eye to clandestine support for German imperialism and Catholicism being the. This duplicitous unofficial arrangement emerged in part because of the Spanish upper-class/clerical hatred of republican-secular France—the perennial target of German militarism, aggression and misadventure.

The British sea-defence of Gibraltar runs the length of Spain from the mouth of the Mediterranean to where its coast meets the Southern French Pyrenees Mountain border.
Britain had to liquidate the pro-German elements active in ‘neutral Spain’ because of many acts of sabotage to British and American interests not only in Spain but Nth Africa and Sth. America as well. German-agent’s were very effective in the dispersal of pro-German propaganda through a network of hundreds of local and national Spanish newspapers.
Most importantly were the pro-German outfits who were fuelling and supplying U boats in Spanish coastal waters. U boats were inflicting mass casualties upon British merchant and military ships.
McHarg’s own crew mates whilst leaving port perished in a German U boat attack. The author had jumped ship to join the revolution but was inadvertently saved from a certain and grizzly death. The sinking of this civilian ship prompted McHarg to join the war-effort against German Militarism: “I finally stopped being a pacifist, and the war against Germany, for me, became a ‘just’ cause.” (1: p.45). This view was shared most famously by Kropotkin whose position on the German menace the author strongly supports (1: p.190).

The British secret service in Spain fully cranked-up in the last year of the War in order to counter costly illegalities committed by Spanish and German war-criminals pursuing a proxy war in Spain through espionage, propaganda, state-capitalist corruption and hired thugs.

The CNT formed in 1907 in Catalonia spread its tentacles over the whole of the Iberian Peninsula and beyond. Members of the organized industrial working classes through their syndicates and militia cells could both identify and liquidate proto-fascist traitors living on Germany’s pay-roll. Hence the urgent need for cooperation between the CNT and the British Secret Service in the last year of the war for the Destruction of German Militarism.

McHarg came to play a key role in this relationship as a paid go-between the British Imperial Establishment and the anarcho-syndicalists.

During his first year in Barcelona Mc Harg began to play a minor journalistic role for the CNT newspaper Solidaridad Obrera. On the 9th of June 1918 this anarchist CNT newspaper exposed the Chief Superintendent of police Manuel Bravo Portillo as Germany’s top agent in Catalonia. By his agency the U boats knew all about allied ships leaving Barcelona. Evidence acquired by workers organized into maritime syndicates showed how U-boats anchored regularly in a secluded cove where uniformed German naval officers were entertained in the local office of the Harbour master.
Portillo also funded and supervised saboteurs of British industrial and financial interests and death squads to protect capitalism and pro German Catalan employers. Following the report in Solidaridad Obrera Portillo was arrested and dismissed as the police chief but later released without charge.

Among his many other activities and adventures of 1918 McHarg relates his experiences of joining a workers Defence Group, attending boot-camps at the weekends and robbing an armaments train with CNT workers for procuring weapons.
Pistoleros, Volume 2: 1919
Christie Books, UK, 2010.
An upsurge in Catalan separatism in January 1919 led the Madrid Government to sanction the imposition of martial law in Barcelona. However the new powers were used primarily against the anarcho-syndicalists by outlawing the CNT and imprisoning as many activists as the authorities could round-up.
Barcelona was dependent upon hydro-electric power from water flowing down the Pyrenees. A strike at the beginning of February 1919 by the power generation workers, with whom McHarg worked as an engineer, halted industry and transport networks and plunged the city into darkness.
By March 1919 the prisons were overflowing with thousands of service industry workers and union activists. But the state of siege only helped to increase support and membership of the CNT. After 45 days and following a mass-meeting of the membership at the Las Arenas Bullring the workers agreed to end the strike, resulting in: “national legislation confirming the eight-hour working day throughout the industry—the first law of its kind in Europe.” (2: p. 30).
However the Catalan authorities refused to release imprisoned all the CNT activists and workers as agreed. The strike recommenced 3 days later and Martial Law was once again imposed. The Madrid government sponsored an agreement with the CNT to end the general strike. But, Catalonia’s rulers ignored Madrid and proceeded to impose a lockout which lasted for many months and led to a terrifying escalation in tit for tat revenge attacks and wild-west like shoot-outs upon an almost daily basis.
In addition to repression meted out by the regular police and army forces there were a plethora of powerful and well-funded organizations with extensive intelligence networks and private armies of Pistoleros whom targeted CNT activists and sympathizers.
The Patronal: Catalan Employers Organization
The Patronal “consisted of prominent old-money industrialists, new-money businessmen and entrepreneurial movers and shakers from across the right-wing political, security and religious spectrum…The Patronal was no ordinary business lobby or pressure group…Nor was it content to just destroy the CNT; it wanted to erase, totally, the idea of organized labour.”
The Patronal “recruited nearly 5000 members and had built up a war chest of nearly half a million pesetas with which it openly subsidized the Guardia Civil, the police and the Sometent.” (2: p.115-17).
“The Patronal—which funded the pistolero campaign, being desirous of the end, though it shrank from the means—was formed in 1910 to protect employers’ interests and had sufficient political clout to have the CNT outlawed in 1911.” (1: p.181).
The Sometent: Unofficial Patriot Army
A “para-political auxiliary police force composed of right-wing and primarily rural middle-class militia…By the end of 1919 Catalonia’s ‘White Guard”, as the Sometent Freikorps was also known, had around 20, 000 members…These men formed an elite ‘ghost’ squad…a private plain clothes army…Their role, as they saw it, was defending ‘civilized society’ against the masses whom they genuinely thought of as belonging to an inferior race.” (2: p.110-13)
Libre Unions—Rt. Wing Corporate Union
The Libre was “the first properly fascist-corporatist labour organization in Spain…and was funded by Catalonia’s largest employers. The Libre quickly acquired centres across Barcelona, and soon claimed around 10, 000 semi-militarized sympathizers. The Libre was a labour union in name only—and was anything but ‘free’. It was a Mafia-type confederation of gangsters, Catholic zealots and anti CNT unionists whose role was to protect the Catalan establishment by dividing the labour movement.”
(2: p. 93-95)
Private Mercenary Agencies/Armies
After being sacked as head of the Police “Bravo Portillo reinvented himself as a freelance gangster and professional ‘hit-man’. Portillo’s ‘detective agency’ was a private mercenary company contracted to the Patronal whose real function was industrial and political espionage, providing the army and the employers with information acquired by his spies, informers and provocateurs. Portillo focused on organizing his agents, whom he divided into small groups who specialized either in intelligence-gathering and malicious infiltration or in violence.”
(2: p. 49-57)
Following the assassination of Portillo by McHarg and others his organization was taken over by the sinister Baron de Koenig and became known as the Black Gang.
The “death squads did not disappear. As well as inheriting Portillo’s army of informers, delinquents and killers, the Baron had his own retinue of ruffians and scoundrels” (2: p. 79). The Baron’s dark past caught up with him and he fled Spain. But other Pistoleros groups, such as those headed by Pedro Homs soon replaced him.
“Obsessed with destroying organized labour, Barcelona’s ‘men of order’ turned to the dregs of society and gave them free rein. But the demons quickly grew too powerful. They refused to return to the pit from whence they came. The oligarchs had given them the city—but lacked the political will to take it back.” (2: p. 100).
The workers defence groups were also composed in a nebulous and unstructured way. Because so many older activists had been imprisoned or killed younger and more hot headed members began to form anarchist gangs to counteract the Pistoleros menace.
“The CNT defence groups—usually consisted of around five or six friends all of them well known to each other and trusted. These defence groups were completely independent and informal bodies answerable to nobody but themselves—and certainly not to any of the CNT’s higher committees, including the Defence Commission.” “Responsibility for the assassinations did not lay with the CNT [leaders or general membership], so much as to the local groups of mainly young, action orientation anarchists, who believed that the only way to resist the gross injustices of the time was by targeting those responsible…a way to settle accounts…showing that arbitrary and oppressive actions did not have abstract consequence, but direct, immediate ones.” (1: p. 153 & 175-6)
A situation arose which could only lead to a spiral of violence and tit for tat gang warfare between unaccountable and uncontrollable anarchist gangs and “a clandestine, parallel Catalan police state with a legion of informers, agents, provocateurs, thugs and killers—people who set themselves above the law and beyond all morality” (2: p. 43).
To Be Continued

One Hundred Years of Workers Solidarity: The History of
Solidaridad Obrera by Mateo Rello, Ferran Aisa, Caries Sanz.
Translated by Paul Sharkey. Published by Kate Sharpley Library.

Associated with the emergence of a new alternative union movement moving in a syndicalist direction favouring direct action on the job and ultra democratic processes, would be its establishment and financing of mass circulation media in its various forms. Particularly print media, to combat the corporate media and assist syndicalist union campaigns and organising drives. Some have illusions with on-line media, websites and social media, but these mediums encourage workers atomisation, which the capitalist set up is so keen to encourage to prevent collective resistance.

The Urgency of building a Mass Circulation Syndicalist Media in Australia Today

Currently there is little in the way of any mass circulation alternative to the corporate media. Highlighted lately by the little countering of the corporate media's propaganda campaign to facilitate the Abbott Liberal Federal Government and other State Government attacks and an intensification of the employer offensive.
A key transitional step toward the formation of such a mass syndicalist unionism in roots friendly unions which were adopting various syndicalist features. It would create a much more favourable terrain for militants to organise. Such a bloc of unions with a base in strategic sectors would be critical to waging campaigns based on direct action, breaking out of enterprise bargaining, defying repressive IR legislation and launching strike waves throughout industry. Consequently, turning the tide against the employer offensive and wiping out the bases of bureaucratic unionism aligned with Unions NSW (a statewide bureaucratic union alliance), the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) similar to the US AFL-CIO or British TUC, the ALP (Australian Labor Party, and its various factions.

Australian Trade Union Media

In Australia, until the late 1930's, there existed a network of mass circulation weeklies and dailies sponsored by the bureaucratic unions, associated with different factions in the ALP. They proved unable to compete with the bourgeois media on the commercial level and were taken over by it, such as the case of the Sydney based "The World" and "The Labour Daily". Today, not even such a bureaucratic union controlled media exists. Apart from occasional journals, websites etc.

The Launching of SO

The pamphlet under review focuses on the history of the Solidaridad Obrera newspaper, which played a critical role in the development of mass syndicalism in Spain, in particular the CNT (National Confederation of Labour). The pamphlet looks at its emergence in the context of the federation of unions of different tendencies e.g. anarchist, republican, socialist party, etc, which culminated in the formation of the Solidarity Obrera (SO) Union confederation in 1907. Important factors contributing to its emergence was the formation of the employer federation "Catalan Solidarity" and the influence of syndicalism within a faction of the Socialist Party. Associated with the emergence of the SO federation was the launching of the SO newspaper. By 1916 it has become a daily with a print run of 30,000. The wealthy, rationalist school educationalist, Francisco Ferrer played a key role in bank rolling the paper initially and purchase of its editorial premises.
The pamphlet goes on to examine its stormy history in the context of the emergence of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist movement. It had constantly changing directors. Whilst, many involved in the editorial side of the paper were manual workers, particularly with backgrounds in the printing industry. It shows, that fearing the influence of the newspaper in working class circles and its role in countering the capitalist press, Governments constantly harassed and suspended its publication. Resulting in a certain irregularity at times and the creating of separate SO newspapers based in different provincial cities. The pamphlet, particularly looks at the critical role of SO as a mass circulation daily, in assisting the holding of the CNT's Sants Congress in 1918, via its exposure of the Bravo Portillo affair and so reducing the level of state repression, which the CNT was facing. Consequently, this Congress could be held which adopted industry rather than craft as the basis of CNT unionism. Contributing to its massive growth in its national membership from 345,000 in 1918 to 715,000 in 1919.
Whilst, the daily SO print run swelled to 100,000 per edition. Certainly, in the current Australian context, there is an absence of such a vitally important workers mass media favouring grass roots controlled unionism and direct action to fight the capitalist setup.

SO & CNT Factional Struggles

Another focus of the pamphlet is the factional struggle in the CNT in the early thirties in which SO was an important arena. It looks at how the tendency associated with the FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation) pushing an insurrectionary, revolution around the corner position was successful in seizing control of its editorial committee.
The pamphlet shows how the cycle of insurrections in the early thirties which the CNT was drawn into and encouraged by SO led to massive membership declines and reductions in SO's circulation.
In the pamphlet's discussion of the Spanish civil war and revolution period of 1936-39, it outlines how SO became swept up by the higher committees of the CNT into collaboration with the Popular Front Government. Associated with this development, editorial staff who opposed collaboration and pursuit of the revolutionary/workers control project
were driven out of their positions. Despite this collaboration with the Republican Government, the pamphlet shows that SO was still heavily affected by Republican state censorship and as the counter revolution progressed and the civil war lengthened, its print run was considerably reduced due to Republican authorities restriction of paper, justified due to alleged paper shortages. However, it was able to produce 3 daily editions.

SO After the Spanish Civil War

With the victory of Francoist forces in 1939, the pamphlet looks at the emergence of the CNT in exile and the formation after a few years of an extensive CNT and anarchist underground movement in Spain, which produced various editions of SO which played an important role as a means of counterpropaganda and assisting CNT organising and industrial activity. This activity, membership and regular publication expansion which reached 30,000 copies per edition, was stymied by a new wave of repression targeted at the CNT following the Barcelona tram strike of 1951 and reached a new intensity in 1957. With the death of Franco in 1975 and the turn to parliamentary so called democracy in Spain, the CNT was re-established by numerous leftist groups of different tendencies. It initially experienced explosive growth and involvement in many industrial disputes, but experienced tremendous internal confusion and became an expression of the Spanish youth counter culture to a large degree, similar to developments in Western countries in the 1960's. Unfortunately, the pamphlet does not really discuss this development.

SO in Post Franco Spain

In this context, the Barcelona based SO resumed publication, attaining a print run of 15,000 per fortnight with distribution at many kiosks and penetrating into the workplace. Subsequent state repression associated with the state provocation of the Scala Bombing Affair, the recalling of a director of SO who was accused of turning it into a commercial style paper and a splitting process in the CNT, initially over participation in State controlled union committee elections in workplaces, led to a major decline in CNT membership and later on the splitting of SO, into two different Barcelona based publications. Both declined in regularity and circulation. Whilst many unions left both CNT's. One of the SO's associated with the "The Joaquin Costa Sector" CNT, was closer to the anti-globalist movement in its coverage and with an emphasis on producing "cultural supplements". Whilst, the rival "Medinaceli Sector" associated SO, had a greater emphasis on reaching workers, as it was free of charge to workers, as the cost was entirely met by the organisation.
However, both publications were somewhat limited in industrial coverage, reflecting the lack of the rival CNT's significant presence in the workplace, particularly in Barcelona. The pamphlet ends on this note of decline in SO's fortunes.

To Stop a Whirlwind: Lessons for Syndicalists in Australia Today

In conclusion, the pamphlet generally provides a good sketch of the stormy history of SO and how it was affected by factional struggles in the CNT and the important role of hostile employers and state repression in contributing to difficulties with its continued publication. A more detailed discussion of the Post Franco situation and the problems it caused for the CNT and SO would be welcomed.
Any contemporary similar publication in Australia or elsewhere is likely to be facing a similar onslaught and must be prepared. It highlights again the importance of building a mass syndicalist labour movement to establish this mass circulation media and the hard yards it must require by militants, who are not just looking for excuses for social occasions to guzzle the "sacrament of Coopers" or micro psuedo churches with red and black colour schemes to join, to escape the alienation of Bourgeois society. Unfortunately, it’s going to be all about work, work and more work! It will involve establishing the transitional steps toward mass syndicalist unionism and pursuing the long range strategic organising aimed at slowing the employer offensive and turning the tide.
Mark McGuire
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