Some Mistakes of the Spanish Revolution 1936-1937. (Notes for a talk on the Spanish Revolution at Marxism 2011, London, 1 July 2011)

Within the Spanish anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movements there were three distinct points of view on the question of war and revolution. The first, probably the majority view, was that the war would be over in a matter of weeks, after all, a few days had been enough to rout the army in Barcelona and other industrial centres, and that the social revolution and Libertarian Communism as debated and adopted by the CNT’s national congress at Zaragoza in February, five months previously, was an inseparable aspect of the struggle against economic and social oppression. Thus, the movement should proceed immediately to socialise the factories, the land and their communities.

The second position was that held by members of the regional, national and peninsular committees of the CNT-FAI, the so-called ‘notables’, office holders such as such as Horacio Prieto, Mariano Rodriguez, Federica Montseny, Diego Abad de Santillan, García Oliver, etc. They anticipated a lengthy war and opposed implementing Libertarian Communism until the war was won. They opted instead for compromising alliances with the bourgeois Republican, Catalanist and Stalinist parties.

Their argument was that such a strategy would prevent a situation developing wherein a victorious but exhausted CNT might be overwhelmed by another political force which had been more sparing with its forces ie, the Spanish Communist Party.

It was a fatal strategy that quickly absorbed them, undermined their principles and transformed what had hitherto been a great instrument of the working class into just another rigid bureaucratic institution.

The third body of opinion, a minority one held by militants such as Durruti, Camillo Berneri, Jaime Balius, and so on (and one which I incidentally agree with) also anticipated a lengthy war because of the involvement of Germany and Italy — but held that war and revolution were inseparable.

Only a libertarian revolution could finally destroy fascism because to do so meant destroying the state, since fascism only means a certain mode of the state: all states turn fascist when the threat to the privilege that the state protects — and to a degree also embodies — becomes strong enough, which happens when the participatory procedures of the state can no longer secure that privilege.

Fascism, in other words, is enforced class collaboration, as opposed to the voluntary class collaboration of parliamentary government.

My main contention is, briefly, that between July 21 and the end of August 1936, the so-called ‘notables’ of the CNT-FAI regional, national and peninsular committees abandoned all pretence of being revolutionary organs.

Instead, they constituted a vested interest structure that served, primarily, to apply the brakes to the spontaneous revolutionary activity of the union rank and file and to repress the revolutionary activists of the Libertarian Youth, the confederal defence cadres, the action groups and affinity groups such as the ‘Friends of Durruti’ .

They promoted ‘Anti-fascist unity’ and state power at the expense of anarchist principles and values, and imposed the hegemony of the Catalan CNT–FAI leadership over the local revolutionary committees and the general assemblies, not only of Catalonia, but of Aragón as well particularly the Regional Defence Council of Aragón. Their principal aim being to perpetuate their power base, even at the expense of the revolutionary anarchist principles and values that had inspired the largest mass labour union in Spanish history

For them the instrumental means had become the organisational end. Not only that; they were now part of a state that was increasingly dominated not just by reformist, welfarist, egalitarian social democrats, but by the agents of Soviet communism, anarchism’s deadliest enemy

The ‘notables’ careers as anarchists were over — they were now counter-revolutionaries.

* * *

When the army’s Barcelona garrison moved out of their barracks at 4.30 in the morning of 19 July the military lacked an essential ingredient for success, surprise!

The Regional Defence Committee of the CNT and the Anarchist Groups’ Liaison Commission had had precise information as to the date of the military rising since the 13th. Within minutes, factory and ships’ sirens were wailing their pre-arranged signal to the 300 or so so CNT defence cadres waiting on the streets. They had also organised two mobile command centres, which were quickly on site at their pre-arranged strategic vantage points.

Despite having been presented with evidence that advanced preparations for a military rising were under way, neither President Luis Companys of the Catalan Government nor Prime Minister Casares Quiroga trusted the anarcho-syndicalist CNT, and refused to authorise — unsurprisingly perhaps— the distribution of arms to a mass labour union whose stated objective was libertarian communism.

The prospect of unleashing a social revolution by arming the people was, to the Republican bourgeoisie, more catastrophic than the alternative scenario of a military coup and fascism. The slogan of the reactionaries was — at least — the defence of tradition, family and property!

Barcelona police chief Federico Escofet for example was perfectly happy to arm the mainly reformist UGT union members, but as he explained:

‘To arm the CNT represented an immediate or later danger for the Republican regime in Catalonia of EQUAL danger for its existence as the military rebellion. Companys and I agreed on the necessity of NOT distributing the arms, because the CNT–FAI was the dominant force. These armed elements, who undoubtedly would provide invaluable assistance in the struggle against the rebels, could also endanger the existence of the Republic and the government of the Generalitat.’

Escofet did everything in his power to prevent the militants getting their hands on the weapons in the San Andrés arsenal. He knew that once the people had those arms the monopoly of coercion, which gave the state its authority, would be broken and state power would collapse.

To this end he sent a company of loyal Civil Guard to defend the place, but they arrived too late. By that time the barracks had already been invaded and ransacked by workers.

This was probably the first pivotal event that transformed what the military hoped would be a straightforward military pronunciamento into a rebellion, and then into a social revolution.

It was the moment when political power shifted, albeit briefy, from the Generalitat Palace to the union branches and to the local revolutionary committees.

* * *

Next morning, the 20th of July, police chief Escofet reported to President Companys that the rebellion had been put down, to which Companys replied, somewhat acidly, that that was all very well but the situation was still chaotic with armed and uncontrollable mobs rampaging through the streets.

Escofet threw the ball back into the politician’s court:

‘Mr President, I undertook to dominate the military revolt in Barcelona and I have done this. But an authority requires the means of coercion to make itself obeyed, and these means do not exist today. As a result, there is no authority. And I, my dear President, do not know how to perform miracles for the moment we are all overcome by the situation including the leaders of the CNT. The only solution, Mr President is to contain the situation politically, without minimising our respective authorities.’

As Escofet foresaw, the administrative leadership of the CNT, the ‘notables, overtaken by events were as surprised as the politicians at the overnight shift in power. Having extolled the organisational virtues of the working class throughout their lives as militants, now that the workers were breaking their chains —and not just mentally but physically too — and that the dream was becoming a reality by a revolutionary process which threatened to make their role superfluous, they began having second thoughts, openly doubting the people’s ability to administer their own lives in their own interests.

This is the thinking of all authoritarians who cannot even understand, let alone tolerate, the communal creativity that comes with the ending of division.

Once human beings see through the fragile egotistical characters that authoritarian society has bestowed upon them, to keep them divided, weak, and dependent on their supposed superiors, and realise that they have nothing to lose by sinking their differences, discovering their humanity and making common cause with each other — they have a world to win.

Despite their threats of social revolution earlier that summer in response to the much-talked-about rightist coup, the ‘influential militants’ who met on the 20th of July concluded that the ‘objective conditions for social revolution’ were not right. The military rebellion that had been unleashed, although it had triggered the revolutionary situation, would be the chief obstacle to the consolidation of the revolution, and would ultimately destroy it.

The higher committees of the CNT–FAI–FIJL in Catalonia were, therefore, caught on the horns of a dilemma — social revolution or bourgeois democracy.

They either committed themselves to the social revolution regardless of the difficulties involved in fighting both fascism and international capitalism or, whether through fear of fascism or fear of the people, they abandoned their anarchist principles and revolutionary objectives to bolster and become part of the bourgeois state in the hope that after the defeat of fascism it would undergo a transition and become a genuinely humane organ of power that operated in the interests of the people.

Faced with an imperfect state of affairs and preferring defeat to a possibly pyrrhic victory, the Catalan anarchist leadership renounced anarchism in the name of expediency and removed the social transformation of Spain from their agenda.

BUT what the CNT–FAI ‘notables’ failed to grasp was that the decision whether or not to implement Libertarian Communism was not THEIRS to make.

Anarchism was not something that could be transformed from theory into practice by organisational dictat. The anarchists had performed their task as the pathfinders and shock troops of the revolution. They had implanted the ideas, and helped create the necessary environment in which those ideas and practices could be nourished and flourish.

But it was beyond their brief or their abilities to put anarchism into practice that was a task only the people themselves could perform.

Nor did the CNT–FAI leadership take on board the fact that the movement of 19 July had acquired a political direction of its own. On their own initiative, and without any intervention by the leadership of the unions or political parties, the CNT rank and file along with other union militants had, with the collapse of state power, superseded their individual partisan identities and had been welded — Catholics, Communists, Socialists, Republicans, Marxists and Anarchists — into genuinely popular non-partisan revolutionary committees controlling their respective neighbourhoods.

They were the natural organisms of the revolution — and the direct expression of popular power.

By failing to supplant the ‘legitimate’ political element within the state, the military had provoked the collapse of State power. It was the people in arms — led by the union defence committees — who had resisted the reactionaries wresting the initiative from the government and thereby depriving its rule of either legitimacy or effect. It was the people who now wielded power — in the working class districts the barrios and at the point of production and distribution, not the State or the union leaders /

In the immediate aftermath of the defeat of the fascist coup a dual power situation existed, an actual popular power against a collapsed centralised political and union power now in total eclipse, although tragically as events were to prove not for long.

From the very first moment, therefore, the higher committees of the CNT-FAI set aside traditional anarcho-syndicalist reliance on the creative spirit of the people and their capacity for self-organisation, blindly disregarding Isaac Puente’s warning in his pamphlet Libertarian Communism’

There should be no superstructure above the local organisation other than that with a specific function which cannot be carried out locally’ thereby becoming the unwitting agents in a tragically destructive process.

By imposing their leadership, these partisan committees suffocated the mushrooming popular autonomous revolutionary centres — the grass-roots assemblies in every factory and neighbourhood, the identifying feature of all great revolutions — preventing them from developing and proving themselves as an efficient and viable means of coordinating communications, defence and provisioning.

They also prevented the local revolutionary committees from integrating with each other to form a regional, provincial and national federal network that would facilitate the revolutionary task of social and economic reconstruction.

This process involved many complex factors — psychological as well as political.

Particularly powerful were the close ties of loyalty and the moral imperatives of solidarity that bound the individual CNT rank and file militants to the Organisation, and which made them hesitate to express public disagreement with the leadership in a time of crisis.

Equally, the sharp break with normal democratic union procedures —due to the ‘circumstances’ of war, governmental collaboration and the need for ‘antifascist unity’ — led to the higher committees ruling in the ‘interests’ of the base. What had been moral authority became coercive authority.

As I said earlier, they became de facto part of the state. There’s also the fact that large numbers of particularly seasoned militants — i.e. wise and combat-hardened comrades — “marched in the direction of gunfire” and were too busy fighting the fascists to fight counter-revolution of any colour in the rear. This surely explains a lot.

For example, militants delegated by their district committees to go to the new CNT headquarters for news and advice on behalf of those local committees ,were cherry-picked and arbitrarily co-opted into the centralised union apparatus.

The person principally responsible for this disastrous policy, was the clownish and, even to me, anyway, criminally incompetent Mariano Vázquez, the recently appointed CNT Regional Secretary and member of the FAI Peninsular committee:

‘Your place is here, not in the Locals’ was how he greeted suitable local militants who came in search of news.

Federica Montseny was another of those ‘influential militants’ catapulted to organisational prominence — without any democratic mandate either from her barrio committee or from the teachers’ union, to which she had only recently affiliated.

Sent by her local revolutionary committee of San Martin district to act as liaison, she suddenly found herself co-opted onto the Regional Committee by Mariano Vazquez. Later that same day she was also co-opted onto the FAI Peninsular Committee by a similar process.

I should explain that Mariano Vazquez’s appointment as Regional Secretary of the Catalan CNT was the result of the policy of the revolutionary anarchists refusing to accept administrative positions within the union. Anarchist members of the union tended not to get involved in the intermediatory functions of the CNT in order to avoid the inevitable tension between their role as revolutionaries and union officials, whose job it is to defend the moral and economic interests of the workers.

At the union elections earlier that year for the post of Catalan Regional Secretary, most votes went to Marcos Alcón but he turned it down, as did Francesc Esgleas, the second choice, which left the door open for the third candidate, ‘Marianet’, Mariano Vazquez. His name according to García Oliver had originally been put forward as a ‘joke’ by comrades from the building workers’ union. The result of this ‘joke was that he was elected Regional Secretary on the basis of just four votes — an indication of the amount of confidence he inspired among his fellow workers.

If Marianet’s nomination was a ‘joke’ it was one that was to have tragic consequences for the Confederation. His career as Catalan Regional Secretary and, later, National Secretary of the CNT was catastrophic. Like Horacio Prieto whose place as CNT National Secretary he took later that year Marianet, the building worker turned administrator — like Federica Montseny — was a prime example of the lengths to which people in public life, including anarchist,s will go when they abandon principles for expediency. Like Prieto, he. Montseny and others were putty in the hands of Negrín and the Stalinists, and were continually entering into pacts with the UGT and attending pro-government rallies and — by 1938, along with Prieto and Federica Montseny, he was arguing for the opening of negotiations with Franco.

There’s obviously much more that can be said on the subject, but unfortunately not in the time available this evening


There’s lots that can be said about the mistakes that were made, and how the revolutionary process in Spain was derailed between July 1936 and August 1937. Certainly, with regard to the CNT-FAI, the most perceptive contemporary analysis, in my view, was that of the ‘Friends of Durruti’ group of rank and file activists originating from the Durruti Column.

Since the early Spring of 1937, when their paper, El Amigo del Pueblo, first appeared, this ‘conscious minority’ was the only organised section within the anarchist movement to publicly challenge the ever-deepening embroilment of the CNT–FAI ‘notables’ in governmental collaboration, and urge a return to the revolutionary spirit of the summer of 1936. The ‘Friends of Durruti’ saw that the real purpose behind the changes that would only benefit self-serving elitists, was to justify and perpetuate collaboration.

The CNT–FAI ‘notables’ had gone so far down the governmental road that the situational etiquette of the relationship they had established with state functionaries meant they were now embedded in the authority system that as anarchists they had previously repudiated. They had become part of the problem.

To withdraw from government now would have been a public admission that their repudiation of Libertarian Communism and all their actions to date had been destructive and negative. They had no choice but to see collaboration through to the bitter end. If social revolution were to be restored to the agenda it certainly would not come through the official apparatus of the CNT–FAI According to El Amigo del Pueblo:

‘…The real meaning of the decision of the FAI plenum is the fact that the band of comrades who recommend this metamorphosis, aim not only to see the FAI possessed of an organisation structure similar to that of other sectors but also, on the basis of this ill-considered step, the intention is to perpetuate the governmental collaboration begun after July. At the very moment when a complete re-assessment of mistakes is called for the error is compounded and the whole catalogue of catastrophes and counter-revolution blessed and absolved.

‘The lesson has been in vain. During the course of the past year it has become clear that it is not possible to share revolutionary responsibility with the petite-bourgeoisie and with those parties which although they claim the label ‘Marxist’ are self-evidently appendages of the deskocracy. But common sense has yet to have its way in our ranks.

‘It has been stated with the utmost clarity that Libertarian Communism is being foresworn for the sake of a rapprochement with antifascist groupings. Excellent! Are these other groupings by some chance forswearing their programmes so as to win over the CNT and the FAI…?

‘It is truly deplorable that certain comrades with a long history in the anarchist movement have yet to grasp the reason why the anarchist groups have been able to work feats of such colossal importance which may be equalled but cannot possibly be outdone. And it defies understanding that entering once again a period of oppression there is this wish to tear up the formula which has opened up so many possibilities to the struggles waged by the proletariat of this peninsula.

* * *

By the end of August 1937, with the break up of the Council of Aragón the last stronghold of anarchist practice, the Spanish revolution perhaps the most profound and inspiring social experiment in recorded history was over; the Republican bourgeoisie and the Soviet advisers of the Spanish Communist Party were now free from the immediate danger from the enemy within: the Catalan Nationalists had been neutralised, the Socialist Party split, and the influence of the ‘conscious minority’ of anarchists and non-Stalinist Marxists had collapsed — but the rank and file activists such as ‘The Friends of Durruti’ were too late.

Having surrendered their political, military and economic power to their own leaders they had seen these leaders acquiesce to the systematic dismantling of their achievements, the terrorising, imprisonment and murder of their militants, and the perversion of their aspirations for a free society out of all identifiable shape.

With nothing left to fight for it was only a matter of time before the will to resist collapsed, taking with it the Second Republic and that institutionalised monstrosity which had grown out of what had once been a great working class association — the CNT-FAI!

Stuart Christie