Anarchism and Political Change in Spain Schism, Polarisation and Reconstruction of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, 1939–1979 by Maggie Torres. Preface by Stuart Christie

Sussex Academic Press, hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-936-4  £85.00 / $109.95

Maggie Torre’s welcome and rigorous study analysing the CNT’s trajectory during its thirty-five years of clandestinity and exile, describes, convincingly and in satisfying detail, the internal and external vicissitudes and complexities that led, in December 1979, to the steady eclipse of anarcho-syndicalist influence following the CNT’s first Congress in Spain since Zaragoza in 1936: the carrot and stick of thirty-five years of vicious and murderous repression and co-option of militants into the Francoist vertical unions; thirty years of the baleful and corrupting influence of the Gestapo-compromised Federica Montseny (1905-1994) and Germinal Esgleas (1903-1981) controlling an oligarchic mutual aid society in exile, and seeking to control — and betray, —the clandestine union organisation inside Spain; the changing nature of Spain’s labour movement in the 1950s and 1960s; the impact of the guerrilla action groups and Defensa Interior’s direct actions targeting Spanish tourism and its attempts to kill Franco; ‘cincopuntismo’ and the CNT’s relations with the vertical union; the ideological evolution of Spanish anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism in the 1960s and 1970s; the Scala-type machinations of the ‘Bunker’ to ensure a seamless, Dr Who-like transition to power and retain control in the brave new world of post-Francoist democracy.

The anarcho-syndicalist National Confederation of Labour, the CNT, played a crucial role in the tumultuous history of twentieth-century Spain, reaching its apogée in 1936-37, during the civil war, when its paid-up membership peaked at around two million. It declined steadily, thereafter, with the erosion of revolutionary morale, military defeat, 35 years years of relentless repression inside Spain and a despondent and bewildered aging exile aggravated by schism, treachery and oligarchy. There is also the important point that post-1939 the MLE-CNT was no longer a trades union but a mutual aid association of exiled ex-comrades — some of whom were employers. Hardly surprising then that between 1947 and 1960, the year before reunification, the membership of the MLE-CNT-in-exile dropped from 23,800 to around 5,000.

At the end of 1975, the first constitutive meeting of the reconstructed CNT took place in Madrid, followed a few months later by a meeting of militants in Sants, Barcelona, tasked with rebuilding the CNT in the interior, a move that did not go down well with the placemen and women who had controlled the entrenched MLE-CNT bureaucracy-in-exile in Toulouse for the previous thirty odd years. Former minister Federica Montseny and her husband, Germinal Esgleas, secretary general of the Council of the Movimiento Libertario Español (an ad hoc self-serving fusion of the CNT, FAI, FIJL set up in France in March 1939 without reference to the membership) saw the new militants as opportunistic arriviste upstarts threatening their institutional authority as the movement’s rightful and legitimate office holders.

While still an illegal organisation (until 6 May 1977), the CNT operated with impunity holding public meetings across Spain. The first, on 27 March 1977 in Madrid, Plaza de Toros de San Sebastian de los Reyes, attracted 25,000 with a 15,000 overspill assembled outside. The next, on 28 May 1977 in Valencia’s Plaza de Toros, attracted 40,000 supporters. By July, at a major rally in Montjuich, Barcelona, the CNT appeared, seemingly fully-grown, with an estimated 300,000 participants.

Later that month (July 22) a four-day ‘happening’, the ‘Jornadas Libertarias Internacionales’ in Barcelona, Parc Guëll — organised largely by the CNT’s Regional Committee of Catalonia, whose general secretary at the time was the veteran activist Luís Andrés Edo, and the anarchist journal Ajoblanco (1974-1980) — attracted an estimated 600,000 participants. These were drawn, largely, from a diverse collection of mainly new CNT and libertarian activists and sympathisers.

But the Barcelona of 1977 was a vastly different city to that of 1936, and not many of those present in the Parc Guëll that week had the experience or discipline of the previous generation of militants. Records show that the Catalan CNT of the time issued around 140,000 membership cards, 75 per cent of which had been given to those under 30, 15 per cent to the over 60s’ generation, and the remaining 10 per cent to members aged between 30 and 60.

Despite the initial enthusiasm and a seemingly promising re-birth, the CNT never recovered as a mass labour organisation. At its 1978 peak the CNT National Committee estimated union membership at 300,900, leaving it a poor third to the socialist UGT with around two million members while the Communist Parry dominated Workers’ Commissions  (CC.OO) claimed 1.8 million.

Even so, the rise in working-class militancy and the re-emergence of a revived anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist milieu was a cause of concern to Spain’s political and business elites who, as a counterweight, needed to reach an ‘understanding’ with the more compliant political parties such as the socialist PSOE, and the Workers’ Commissions and the UGT, to contain and restrain increased radical mobilisation, rank-and-file labour demands and social unrest during the transition to the post-Francoist version of liberal democracy. The carrot of the 1977 Monica pacts included government funding, increased unemployment benefits, legal recognition, a restored patrimony of Republican era assets seized following Franco’s victory, and the promise of political and welfare reforms.

The CNT, the only major union to reject the Moncloa accords, called for a series of anti-Pact protests, the first of which, on 15 January 1978, a 10,000-strong demonstration, culminated in a firebomb attack on the Scala nightclub in Barcelona’s Paseo de San Juan in which four maintenance workers in the club died. Two of the victims were members of the socialist UGT, the other two were cenetistas; 75 per cent of the nightclub staff belonged to the CNT.

The attack was an Interior Ministry provocation carried out by Joaquín Gambín Hernández, a police informer infiltrated into a FAI group in Murcia by Spain’s secret police chief (Brigada Político-Social, BPS) Roberto Conesa with the authority of Interior Minister Rodolfo Martín Villa. The purpose of the bombing was to besmirch, isolate and destroy the credibility of the nascent CNT unions whose worrying organisational successes in 1976 included intervention within ‘autonomous’ strikes, particularly the three-month long Roca de Gavá strike, despite the opposition of the CC.OO and the UGT — and their support for the general strike in Baja Llobregat.

The state provocation, which implicated members of a Murcian FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica) group infiltrated by Gambín, coupled with the FAI’s alleged symbiotic relationship to the CNT and backed up by a vicious, nation-wide anti-CNT media campaign, proved successful, seriously damaging to the union’s standing. The hostile media campaign coincided with the run-up to the first state-sponsored labour union elections in February 1978. Matters weren’t helped by a working-class disillusionment and apathy triggered by the Moncloa pacts, and the factional and schismatic struggles that exacerbated the anarcho-syndicalist union’s existing and long-running internal divisions between two distinct political cultures: the trade unionist and the revolutionary.

By December 1979, when the CNT held its first (Fifth) post-Franco Congress (which culminated in a massive walkout of delegates, largely over the negative influence of the attempts of the FAI and the ‘exilio’ to control the new CNT), membership had dropped from 300,000 to 150,000, later dwindling to around 60,000.

One area in which I take minor issue with the author is over the slightly misleading Godfather role she ascribes to Laureano Cerrada Santos, whose ‘criminal’/illegal enterprises she says — correctly! — funded the Montseny-Esgleas cabal and ‘created a climate of violence within the organisation’. A former railway worker and secretary of the local Paris Federation, Cerrada’s wealth and influence certainly made him, probably, the most powerful single individual in the CNT, but as a lifelong activist he was committed heart and soul to the CNT. His wartime and illegal post-war operations and largesse funded almost every aspect of the CNT’s logistics, materiél, publishing and Resistance activities — not just the payroll of the Toulouse MLE-CNT ‘notables’ and their placemen, which was the unfortunate corollary that undoubtedly contributed to the malaise of the exile organisation.

Cerrada’s financial commitment to the CNT continued until his ‘convenient’ arrest in 1950, ‘on information received’, for forging new issue Deutschmarks. By the time he came out of prison in 1954 his so-called ‘criminal empire’ had collapsed and he was penniless, no longer in a position to help anyone, although his technical skills as a forger and supplier of documents continued to be used by various action groups, including Defense Interior, the Grupo Primero de Mayo and the Grupos de Acción Revolucionario Internacional (GARI) until the early 1970s.

Far from Cerrada being the violent one, however, it was Esgleas and Roque Santamaría of the MLE-CNT National Committee who planned to have their ‘troublesome priest murdered, as they had tried to do, unsuccessfully, in France in 1938, with Joaquín Ascaso Budria (1906-1977), ex-president of the Council of Aragón, and Antonio Ortiz Ramírez (1907-1996), former head of the Confederal 25th Division in Caspe. This had to do with Esgleas and Montseny’s complicity in secretary-general Mariano ‘Marianet’ R. Váquez’s (1909-1939) plot to smuggle gold ingots and jewels out of the country after the events of May 1937, the consequences of which were borne, out of loyalty to the union, by Joaquín Ascaso, an innocent comrade of undisputable integrity.

Still unresolved too is the fate of the MLE-CNT funds and moveable assets entrusted to Esgleas’s and Marianet’s care in February-March 1939. Marianet died shortly after the transfer, in June 1939, in a questionable drowning accident in the River Marne leaving Esgleas, the sole co-signatory to the National Committee’s bank accounts (along with the shadowy FAI fixer André Germain (1900-1960) — an eye-witness to the drowning! — who, prior to relocating to Chile in late 1939, purchased two adjoining properties in the Dordogne, one for himself and the other for Esgleas and Montseny, who assumed the name ‘Fanny Germaine’ for a time), who always promised a full fiscal audit of the missing funds to the first full Congress of a reunited and reconciled CNT in Spain, but which never took place. Also unaccounted for are the 2.5 million francs Esgleas received from the Spanish Aid Committee when it was formally wound up in the summer of 1939.

This committee, headed by former prime minister and president of the Cortes, Diego Martínez Barrio, shared out the remaining governmental funds,on a pro-rata basis, to each of Spain’s political parties and organisations, of which 2.5 million francs were divided equally between the CNT and the FAI.

Juan García Oliver and Horatio Prieto were nominated, respectively, to receive these monies on behalf of the two organisations. García Oliver later reported that when he and Prieto visited Martínez Barrio, in the presence of Federica Montseny, they were each handed one-and-a-quarter million francs in 1,000-franc notes. ‘The money didn’t even have time to warm our hands,’ he recalled. ‘As we left the Aid office Germinal Esgleas was hovering outside the door waiting for us, like a vulture, to claim the money on behalf of the MLE Executive Council.’ Needless to say, Esgleas’s opposition to government collaboration didn’t preclude him from accepting a divvy-up of government funds.

Montseny’s compromise with the Gestapo — and ipso facto with Franco’s Brigada Político Social, occurred in 1940 when she was arrested in German occupied Paris in possession of forged identity papers that had been supplied by Laureano Cerrada. In return for a Nazi laissez-passer back to safety in Vichy France, where André Germain had purchased the farms in the Dordogne, she allegedly bartered fourteen cases of highly sensitive SERE files (Servicio de Evacuación de Refugiados Españoles) in her possession. The pass was arranged through her friend, André Berthon (1882-1962), a former Communist pro-Nazi lawyer who worked closely with the Greater Paris Kommandantur and who had represented Nazi interests in France prior to the Occupation. Montseny later claimed the SERE files were burnt during a fire in her apartment. The Vichy authorities arrested her in August 1941, on an extradition warrant alleging robbery and murder in Spain, but she was released three months later, in November — strange indeed when you consider the sad fate of other less prominent exiles, especially ex-ministers, in Metropolitan France and French North Africa.

The Vichy police arrested Esgleas himself in late October 1941, but he too never faced extradition. back to Spain to face a firing squad or the garrotte. Instead, he received a relatively mild three-year jail sentence. The leniency shown to him probably had to do with the fact that he exerted considerable influence within the exile community to oppose collaboration with the Allies. He also openly denounced the resistance activities of anarcho-syndicalist comrades such as Francisco Ponzán Vidal (1911-1944), organiser of one of the most efficient Resistance escape and evasion lines of WWII, the Reseau Pat O’Leary.

Ironically, Esgleas was sprung from Nontron (Dordogne) military prison20 months later, in June 1943, by the very people he had denounced — and possibly betrayed — the Spanish autonomous guerrilla groups — in his case by maquisards led by Communist Emilio Álvarez Canossa. All the freed prisoners, including Esgleas, joined the maquis, but — surprise, surprise — he didn’t remain with them long. Within two months he was back home in Salon with Montseny, claiming illness and manoeuvering to reassert his authority over the CNT both in exile and in Spain. Soon afterwards, in November 1943, the entire Regional Committee of Catalonia was arrested. In fact, six National Committees fell in rapid succession after that. Was it a coincidence? We will probably never know.

The remit of Torres’ study is truly wide-ranging and comprehensive; she has provided a valuable contribution to the historiography of Spanish anarcho-syndicalism. Between 1978 and 1981 she interviewed important primary sources: eighteen named eye-witnesses to key events and a variety of anonymous CNT, FAI, FIJL, veterans, militants and activists, as well as autonomous and independent anarchist, Marxist and Catholic group members. She has consulted important CNT document, newspaper and pamphlet archives, and referenced an extensive and useful bibliography.

What is also very clear from this work, however, is that although the old, historic CNT may have gone forever, it was prologue. Whatever happens, Spanish anarcho-syndicalism and the wider libertarian-anarchist-autonomist movements in Spain will surely continue to evolve and develop, and strike out down fresh highways.