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(en) Black Flag #222 Reviews (1 of 2)

From anarcho@geocities.com
Date Sat, 14 Dec 2002 07:06:17 -0500 (EST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

Storming Heaven

Storming Heaven by Steve Wright is about the theory and the
organisations of the Italian Autonomist movement, especially the
evolution of operaismo (workerism) and the group Potere Operaio
(Workers' Power). The Autonomist movement came out of the specific
conditions of Italy in the seventies, where the recent experience of
armed resistance to the Nazi occupation and after, plus very harsh
living conditions for working class people during Italy's late
industrialisation, meant that social struggle was more intense than
anywhere else in Europe (apart from maybe Franco's Spain). The
different outbreaks of  insurgency were more connected than in other
countries and so the squatting movement and the factory occupations for
example were mutually supportive in many places. The different
revolutionary groups were also more integrated into the workers'
movement and less ghettoised and so the theory that they developed is
some of the most interesting of those times.
    The Italian uprisings of the seventies need to be better known and
understood, and this book makes an important contribution, especially
as it draws on a lot of original material which has never been
translated. This book isn't an introduction to the events of the
seventies and to get the most out of it you would need some background.
It would be nice to recommend a good introductory book at this moment
but as far as I know there isn't one. A pamphlet to look out for is
Living with an Earthquake but it isn't easy to get. The book doesn't
idealise any of the participants and makes fair criticism of all the
groups involved but at the same time it is not a detached or dry
academic exercise.  It comes from a perspective of understanding the
Autonomist movement, with all its mistakes, to learn for the next time.

Freedom Fighters:
Anarchist Intellectuals, Workers and Soldiers in Portugal's History
Joao Freire
Black Rose Books

This book is a disappointment. It fails as a portrayal of the history
of Portuguese anarchism. Rather, it is a snapshot of that movement
during its peak (the 1900s to 1930s) and a somewhat unconvincing
"sociological analysis" of it, backed up with copious data. Which is a
shame, as a book on Portuguese anarchism is sorely needed.
    However, saying that, the book does present an often fascinating
picture of an anarchist movement which rooted itself in working class
life and struggle. Unlike Spain, social-democracy dominated the early
labour movement. The anarchists successfully undermined this and by the
1920s the main union federation was anarcho-syndicalist in nature with
around 90,000 members enrolled it in. This movement had a healthy
interest in theory as well as action, with unions regularly discussing
not only day to day issues but also revolutionary goals such as the
socialisation of industry. Needless to say, similar discussions took
place in the substantial number of anarchist groups and federations
that existed. What strikes the reader is that the Portuguese movement
got its strength by applying its ideas in practice.
    The unions and their struggles were organised in libertarian
fashion by mass assemblies and bottom-up federations. The anarchist
groups, like the unions, federated from below upwards, organically
growing wider and wider as time went on. Both the unions and the
anarchist groups spent time creating centres, libraries, schools and
other forms of mutual aid.
    Sadly, the book is badly translated. While most of the text can be
understood, sometimes the more turgid "sociological analysis" can be
unreadable. Some editing would not have gone amiss, and not only to
correct the poor translation. Moreover, it desperately needs an
introductory essay to place the main text in context. For example,
while numerous insurrections and strikes are mentioned they are not
discussed in detail. This means that critical events such as the 1934
insurrection against the fascist regime are mentioned in passing, with
no attempt to discuss what happened. For a book claiming to be a
history, such an oversight is astounding.
    This lack of historic context makes the author's conclusions seem
even more superficial than they already are. As the book ignores the
repression of the resistance to fascism, it ends up blaming the decline
of anarchist influence on anarchism's inability to "learn from
experience." Incredibly, the possibility that the repression after the
defeated insurrection of 1934 together with 40 years of fascism may
have played a role in this decline is not discussed.
    What strikes the reader is that an anarchism that is not rooted in
working class life and struggle is doomed to wither and, worse, become
theoretically bankrupt. At the peak of its influence, Portuguese
anarchism was capable of organising an extensive network of
organisations, social projects and class conflicts. By 1987,
"anarchists" in Portugal could write that "the 'perfect society' does
not exist, fortunately, since it would probably be one of total
oppression for the individuals. Therefore we do not believe in any type
of 'anarchist society.'" How a once mighty movement had fallen!
    This book is for those with the patience to handle the bad
translation, who are not seeking a history of Portuguese anarchism but
rather want a book which discusses it within its social context. Sadly,
anarchism in Portugal still awaits a book to do its struggles justice.

The Spanish Civil War
Antony Beevor

Originally published in 1982, this work has obviously been re-published
to take advantage of the success of Antony Beevor's later work
Stalingrad. It is a good thing that it was. Beevor has produced an
exceedingly good, if short, work on the Spanish Civil War.
Unsurprisingly, his account is primarily a military history, but do not
let that put you off - he clearly understands the role of the
revolution in Spain and how it impacted on the course and nature of the
war (and in the conflicts in the Republican side).
    Beevor attempts to analyse the Spanish Civil War from three angles:
class interest, centralism versus regionalism and authoritarian rule
versus libertarian instinct. Unsurprisingly, this means he discusses
the anarchist movement (indeed, he places it at the heart of the
story). His accounts of anarchism and the social revolution during the
war are excellent. For example, he defines anarchism as a "structure of
co-operative communities, associating freely" and which "corresponded
to deep-rooted traditions of mutual-aid, and the federalist
organisation appealed to anti-centralist feelings." He makes clear that
the anarchists were the main part of the labour movement as well as
their key role in defeating the fascist uprising. He discusses the
collectivisations that occurred in a positive light and notes the
disastrous effect on the morale of the anti-fascist side when they were
undermined and forcibly disbanded. It is nice to see a historian state
the obvious as regards the Aragon collectives: "the very fact that
every village was a mixture of collectivists and individualists shows
that peasants had not been forced into communal farming at the point of
a gun." He even mentions and discusses the Mujeres Libres and quotes
Malatesta when discussing the anarchist critic of reformism in
    From an anarchist perspective, his account of the failings of the
Popular Army makes interesting reading. Beevor argues that it was
unimaginative in its tactics, with its commanders blindly following
instructions even when circumstances on the ground made them
inadequate. The army allowed its commanders "little initiative," a
dangerous condition when the lines of communication were disrupted by
fighting (as was the habit of the commanders lying to their superiors
in and after battles to save face). Used to centralised, top-down
structures, the communists re-created these in the Popular Army and the
results were the exact opposite of the efficiency and success promised.
Ultimately, the Communist and Republican principle of "unified command"
and a regular, orthodox (bourgeois) army became a "bureaucratic
tourniquet" which was defeated in almost every battle in the war.
Indeed, Beevor accounts how its battle plans were usually drawn up
simply to gain prestige for the Communist Party.
    In this, his account is a useful antidote to those who argue that
the militarisation of the militias was a necessary step in winning the
war. As history clearly shows, the Popular Army was a disaster. As for
the International Brigades, while acknowledging their members courage,
he also paints a horrific picture of Communist Party control (which
included the shooting of about 500 Brigaders, nearly a tenth of the
total killed in the war) and mentions a few rebellions in their ranks.
    While the militias were hardly perfect, it is clear from his
account that the Popular Army was not a good replacement. Beevor
stresses that much of the problem with the militias, as George Orwell
also argued, was due to their lack of experience rather than their
libertarian nature. Beevor even argues that electing leaders was "not
so much a difficulty as a source of strength" as it "inspired mutual
confidence." The question was how to federate the militia columns, not
to abolish them. This solution, however, was dependent on whether the
revolution would be successful.
    Beevor gives a fair account of the dilemma facing the CNT after
they had put down the coup in Barcelona. The dangers of isolation
internally ("Madrid had the gold") and externally (unofficial sanctions
by governments and companies) and the fate of their comrades in other
parts of Republican Spain obviously played a key role. However, he
quotes Garcia Oliver's comments that the alternative was either an
"anarchist dictatorship, or democracy which signifies collaboration"
without any analysis. Made in 1937, these comments are both
historically and logically defective. On July 20th 1936, the CNT
leadership decided to not mention libertarian communism until Franco
had been defeated, yet his argument, if valid, was as much applicable
to a post-Franco Spain as it was on that day. Ultimately, Garcia Oliver
argued that representative democracy is more "democratic" than self-
managed communes (hardly a valid position, given the authoritarian and
repressive nature of any capitalist democracy and the Spanish Republic
itself in the 1930s). His argument simply reflected the CNT-FAI
leadership's attempts to justify their collaboration with the state
rather than a coherent and accurate argument.
    Of course Beevor's work has its weaknesses. His account of the
decisive CNT plenum on July 20th, as noted, is one. Similarly, his
account of the uprising and suppression at Casas Viejas is wrong,
relying as it does on accounts disproved by Jerome R. Mintz in his The
Anarchists of Casas Viejas. Similarly, his account of the conflict
between the radical anarchists and the treintistas is somewhat confused
chronologically, but at least he does not paint the usual picture of
the FAI seizing control of the CNT by conspiratorial methods. He does
suggest that the FAI advocated sudden and fragmented uprisings while,
in fact, most of the early uprisings were spontaneous and the later
ones co-ordinated by the CNT itself (his account of Casas Viejas fits
into this false picture of FAI activities). Ultimately, it would have
been nice for the work to be referenced more completely, allowing the
reader to investigate for themselves aspects of the Spanish Civil War
and Revolution that Beevor discusses in too short a space!
    However, be that as it may, Beevor's account is to be recommended.
His account of the first days of the revolution, when workers armed
themselves when the government refused, is excellent. His summary of
the collectivisations is positive. The role of the allied governments
and foreign capitalists in stabbing the Republican government in the
back is clearly shown. He even discusses the post-war resistance
against Franco and the part played by Spaniards in the French
    All in all, an informative and interesting read.

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