THE COUNCIL OF ARAGÓN (from Building Utopia by Stuart Christie)

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To protect the hard won land of the rural communities and the new society the people of liberated Aragón were building, the regional committee of the CNT, acting in concert with Durruti and his column, organised by an assembly of militia, village, and trade union representatives from Rioja and Navarre which was held in Bujaraloz on 6 October 1936. Francisco Muñoz, the regional secretary of the Aragónese CNT outlined proposals for the formation of a special regional committee which would ensure that the Aragonese region was ready and able ‘to organise itself in this revolutionary hour and re-establish its personality among the other Iberian peoples, in preparation for the great federation of the future.

In spite of opposition from the two Catalan militia leaders, Gregorio Jover and Antonio Ortíz, the Aragónese delegates at the Bujaraloloz assembly, encouraged by Durruti, supported the proposals and the Regional Defence Council of Aragón was born with the specific objective of implementing Libertarian Communism. The meeting also decided to press for the setting up of a National Defence Committee that would link together a series of such regional bodies, similar to the one now established in Aragón.

Cesar Lorenzo, the CNT historian has underlined the revolutionary nature of this decision by the Aragónese in comparison with the collaborationist role of the Catalan regional committee:

‘That which the Catalan libertarians did not dare do, that is to say take all the power, was attempted by the Aragónese libertarians, despite the war which ravaged the countryside, despite the continual presence of important contingents of the POUM, the PSUC and Catalan forces, despite repercussions abroad, despite the Madrid government, and, finally, despite the CNT itself.’

The formation of the Regional Defence Council was an affirmation of commitment to the principles of Libertarian Communism. This principled stand for revolutionary social and economic change brought the newly formed Council into direct conflict not just with the Catalan Regional Committee of the CNT, but also the National Committee of the CNT, which was by now working in close collaboration with the bourgeoisie and Marxist political parties and the state apparatus. Mariano R. Vázquez, later to be the secretary of the National Committee of the CNT, had first made his opposition to the Regional Defence Council clear during an inter-regional meeting in Caspe at the end of August 1936.

The oligarchisation and hostility of the national leadership of the CNT left the militants of Aragón isolated. Their Regional Defence Council was faced with the problem of attempting to retain its libertarian character, relate to the political and geographic circumstances in Aragón and, at the same time, work with the other elements of republican Spain. The Council decided to send a delegation to Barcelona and Madrid to discuss their relationship with the Generalitat and the central government in Madrid. Anarchists Joaquin Ascaso, the council president, and Miguel Chueca, the CNT regional committee representative, and two republicans led the delegation.

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!

* * *

From Building Utopia: “On 2 August [1937], during a cabinet meeting, Communist minister Jesús Hernández declared:

‘… basically, the cabinet has been committed, on the public order front, to the prevention and curtailment, with maximum vigour, of any attempt to disturb or threaten [public order] that certain so called extremist groups, agents of fascism, may seek to provoke’.

Two weeks later Juan Comorera, PSUC leader spoke at a rally in Valencia on the question of eroding the dominant influence of anarchism in Catalonia:

‘With the unification of Catalonia’s four Marxist parties, this situation began to alter and there was opposition to the all but total dominion of anarchism and to the influence of the left wing parties. Today we have been victorious and we have put paid to the provocations and to the fascists’.

Comorera went on to speak of the ‘tribes’, referring to the anarchist militia columns, who allegedly commandeered trucks claiming they were on their way to capture Zaragoza:

‘Today we have a great army which takes its example from the glorious Karl Marx Division. We have surmounted the difficulties and eliminated those who are brave on the highways but cowards on the front.’

He conveniently forgot to mention that it was the CNT and FAI who kept their units at the front during the ‘May events’ while the Karl Marx Division was ‘brave on the highways’ in the rearguard. Repeated ministerial and press references to a ‘crisis of authority’ and a need to ‘concentrate the power of the state’ were to prepare the ground for the final assault on the last bastion of the social revolution — the Council of Aragón where, for the previous twelve months, a great social experiment had been taking place.

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Flag of the Regional Defence Council of Aragón

The Consejo Regional de Defensa de Aragón had been officially recognised by government decree on 23 December 1936 and delegated various governmental powers, including those appropriate to civil governors. It was made up of six councillors from the CNT and two each from the republican, socialist and communist organisations in the region. Four weeks later, on 19 January, Joaquín Ascaso had been recognised as the official representative of the quasi-independent libertarian defence council of Aragón. The highpoint of its expansion was reached in February 1937 when it convened the constituent congress of the Regional Federation of Collectives, consisting of 25 cantonal federations, covering 275 local branches and representing 141,430 families through 465 delegates. These delegates, including delegates from the UGT, resolved to abolish money, set up a regional fund for external trade, socialise land under municipal ownerships, show tolerance to smallholders, set up work teams, co-ordinate production and statistical operations and agricultural training. The Council of Aragón and the revolutionary collectives it represented were, however, to be destroyed before these decisions could be implemented.

At a commemorative meeting held in Caspe on the first anniversary of 19 July, in the face of increasing criticism from its many enemies, including members of the National Committee of the CNT, Joaquín Ascaso defended the achievements of the Council of Aragón.1 Mistakes had been made and there had been instances of arbitrary authority, but he stressed that Aragón had had to rely entirely upon its own resources and pointed out that the abolition of speculation in the region had helped its development, as could be seen in the achievements in the field of transport and public works:

‘Countless roads have been made. With the support of the militias, highways have been built, as has a series of transport connections. Communications are functioning as normal, Likewise the telephone network. And a start has been made on a railway line… plans for which have lain, covered in dust, in a ministry file for sixteen years. The townships, restored to their proper status, have achieved that which… prior to 19 July… had only been a distant dream.’2

The Council of Aragón, in spite of the mistakes that were made, stands as a historical highpoint of the Spanish revolution, one of the most outstanding examples of the possibility of putting the theories of anarchist communism into practice.

Late in the evening of 10 August 1937 the Negrín government, anxious to press home its advantage over the CNT in the wake of the ‘May Days’, announced the dissolution of the Council of Aragón. The unwillingness of the CNT leadership to defend its position or its rank and file members was a clear signal to the central government that the anarcho-syndicalist organisation would not defend an institution which had been set up in opposition to the CNT leadership. The reason given for the decision to abolish the Council by force of arms was the organisation of a new Loyalist offensive:

‘The material and moral demands of the war make it a matter of urgency that the authority of the state be concentrated in such a way that it may be exercised in a single minded fashion and with a single aim. The division and sub-division of power and its attributes have on more than one occasion rendered action ineffective which, albeit purely administrative in i origins, has … how could it be otherwise?… profound repercussions upon the affairs of the war.

‘The region of Aragón, capable, thanks to the temper of its people, of the greatest human and economic contributions to the republic’s cause, is more sorely afflicted than any other by the shortcomings of the diffusion of authority and the consequent danger to the common and ideological interests.

‘Whatever its endeavours may have been, the Council of Aragón has not managed to remedy this affliction. Insofar as the rest of Spain is focussing upon a new discipline composed of responsibility and efficiency, wherein sacrifice is demanded in many instances, Aragón remains on the perimeters of this centralising trend to which we are indebted for much of the victory that is promised us.

‘In seeking to find a remedy to the power crisis detectable in Aragón, the government believes that it will succeed in its aims by concentrating power in its hands. And to this end, by agreement with the Council of Ministers and on the instigation of the premier,3 I hereby decree:

Article first: The Council of Aragón is dissolved and the post of government delegate held by the president of that council, abolished. As a result, Don Joaquín Ascaso y Budria and other councillors belonging to the aforementioned body are removed from the position of government delegate in Aragón.

Article second: The territories of the provinces of Aragón the jurisdiction of the Republic, remain under the purview of a governor-general for Aragón, appointed by the government, with whatever powers current legislation may invest the civil governors.’

According to a recent account of events by communist military leader, Enrique Lister, he claimed that he was ordered to appear before General Rojo in Valencia at 10.00 a.m. on the morning of 11 August.4 Roja then escorted him to a meeting with Defence Minister Indalecio Prieto who explained that the government was determined to dissolve the Council of Aragón, but was afraid that the anarchists might not agree to comply with the decree. Not only did the Council of Aragón have its own police force it also had three Army Divisions. It would therefore be necessary to send a military force capable of controlling the situation. That force was to be led by Lister in command of the 11th Division of the Army of Manoeuvres supported by the 27th (Karl Marx) Division and the 30th, all commanded by communists.

Lister’s troops moved immediately. As they marched through Aragón they dismantled the collectives at bayonet point and returned the land to its former owners. Between 300 and 600 anarchists were arrested, including all the anarchist ministers and four members of the National Committee, of whom 120 remained in custody. According to anarchist historian Juan Gómez Casas ‘some were killed or wounded, and over a thousand had to flee to other regions or seek shelter in friendly trenches.’ CNT, FAI and FIJL centres were raided and destroyed, as were the local councils. The premises of the Regional Committee of the CNT were raided and sacked on the morning of 12 August on the ‘secret’ orders of Lister (according to the officer in charge when challenged by a spokesman for the new governor general José Ignacio Mantecón).

AscasocoversmallerJoaquín Ascaso, President of the Council, was arrested and charged with possession of stolen jewels, a charge that was later withdrawn. As occurred during the ‘May Days’, the rank-and-file of the anarchist units on the Aragón front, the 25th, 26th and 28th Divisions, together with the 153rd Brigade, were outraged and were only prevented from leaving their lines by threats from their military commanders and the intervention of the National Committee of the CNT, still obsessed with the spectre of antifascist unity and the priority of the war over the revolution.

Miguel García García, an anarchist militian on the Aragón front explained why the rank and file tolerated these acts of provocation against their comrades and their ideals:

‘We had to put up with all this because their friends abroad were supposed to be sending us arms. Surely they could understand we would not win this war by defence? We saved Barcelona, we saved Madrid. But when the enemy conquered we could not drive him back. Not a dog could live among that withering mortar fire. All we could do was stand firm, hold our positions and wait, while men were dying around us, waiting for that happy day when Russia would sell us so many arms that the Republic could spare guns from police duties and give them to us who were defending its very existence.’

It was the collectives that suffered most, however. A meeting of agrarian workers’ delegates in Valencia later that year stated:

‘The government has nominated management commissions which have seized the food warehouses and have distributed supplies haphazardly. The land, draught animals and agricultural implements have been returned to the members of fascist families…The harvest has been similarly distributed, as well as the animals raised by the collectives. A large number of collective piggeries, stables, stockyards and barns have been destroyed. In such villages as Bordon and Calaceite even the peasants’ seed stock have been seized.’5

The repression of the Council of Aragón provoked an angry but muted response from the CNT. Lister claims he was ordered back to Valencia the following day, 12 August, by Rojo who informed him that the minister was waiting to see him and was furious:

‘As on that first occasion,’ Lister later recalled, ’he accompanied me to Prieto’s office, but now there were no smiles, no arms across the shoulder and no chair to sit on. Prieto, standing in the middle of the room, availing himself of all his histrionic talents, began to rail at me for the benefit of the 30 or 40 persons outside in his anteroom. “What have you done in Aragón? You’ve killed the anarchists and now they’re demanding your head and I have to give it to them: otherwise a new civil war may break out”. I left him to get on with his charade and when he paused to draw breath I answered in a voice louder than his own, so that the public might hear. “Senor Minister: I must ask your forgiveness for not having carried out your order in relation to the shooting of the anarchists: things worked out in such a way that it proved unnecessary to take such a drastic step. There are 100-odd prisoners who will be handed over to the courts or released, whichever you may order.” At this point Prieto played what he believed to be his trump card. “In the office of Interior Minister Zugazagoitia”, he said, “there is at present a delegation from the CNT’s National Committee which claims that four members of its National Committee have been murdered, that their corpses have turned up on the Caspe-Alcaniz highway and that the CNT is about to order a general strike.“

‘Unfortunately for them and for Prieto, the alleged victims of the shootings were alive and well and in the custody of the 11th Division. Had his Aragón plan worked out, Prieto would have killed two birds with one stone, opened up a new civil war between communists and the CNT, ensuring that the two organisations would destroy each other, and brought the war to an end that suited his agenda. In practice, Prieto was a precursor of Casado, Carrillo and company. Had his plans succeeded, the defeat of the republic would have been assured two years before the casadistas ensured it. And Prieto thought that the best tool for implementing his plans was the 11th Division, with me at its head, but his ploy backfired. The antifascist press approved and welcomed the government’s decision to restore republican order in Aragón.’ 6

The Communist newspaper Frente Rojo of 14 August launched a disinformation campaign in an attempt to justify the actions of the communist troops. It alleged that “Under the now defunct Council of Aragón, neither citizen nor property was guaranteed” and that Aragón was one enormous arms dump, that the government had discovered huge caches of arms and ammunition and dumps containing thousands of bombs, hundreds of machine guns, cannons and the latest model of tanks. This equipment was being “held back as the property of those who sought to turn Aragón into a battlefield against the government and the republic.” The Executive Committee of the PCE was unable to substantiate any of these charges when challenged to do so by the National Committee of the CNT.

A meeting took place on 16 August between the PCE’s Central Committee and the National Committee of the CNT to discuss the ‘current problems’. After a ‘broad exchange of views’ an agreement was reached whereby both sides would try to improve relations between them.

The consequences of Prieto’s decision to dissolve the Council of Aragón and the collectives were disastrous both for Aragón and the Republic. According to Graham Kelsey:

‘There were approximately 450 kilometres of front line in the region and the forces manning it had been largely ignored by the central government, as much in respect of military materials as of food supplies. From the opening days of the conflict when Durruti had issued his decree emphasising the vital importance of the harvest, those at the front had been dependent upon the agrarian produce of the Aragonese rearguard. Many outside observers argued, no doubt correctly, that the organisation of supplies had been irregular. It must be considered very unlikely, however, that supplies were reliably organised on any front; the Aragonese fronts were probably a good deal better than most, thanks to the presence of the regional authority of the Defence Council and the economic co-ordination of the regional confederation of collectives.

‘After the invasion of Lister, as the Secretary General of the Institute of Agrarian Reform noted, agricultural production slumped. The majority of those lands confiscated in August and September 1936 from the larger landowners, which had been communally harvested and had then gone to form the basis of each village’s collective, were now returned to private ownership. In several cases this meant they were not cultivated. At Cretas Encarnita Renato Simoni found that the food situation now began to become ‘preoccupying’. More specifically, the mortality figures started to rise; the causes were primarily gastric, infections being brought on by the return to a diminished and impoverished diet…caciquismo raised its head again.

It is clear that the destruction of the collectives and the presence in the rearguard of considerable numbers of communist led troops brought a social readjustment. This was noted by the Secretary General of the Institute of Agrarian Reform [José Silva]: “Under cover of the order issued by the Governor general those persons who were discontented with the collectives … took them by assault, carrying away and dividing up the harvest and the farm implements without respecting the collectives which had been formed without violence or pressure and that were a model of organisation.” 7

Ronald Fraser quotes another Aragonese communist even more damning in his denunciation of the situation created by Lister:

“…people who had been and always would be enemies of the working class, because their interests were fundamentally opposed, were given encouragement and support simply because of their hostility to the CNT”. 8

The assault on the Aragonese collectives was soon seen to have been a regrettable mistake. Vicente Uribe, the communist Minister for Agriculture, was forced to reverse his policy and encourage the re-establishing of collectives. They were, in fact, established in areas that had only set them up, originally, after outside pressure. Trotskyist G. Munis, no great admirer of the anarchists, later affirmed:

“This was one of the most exemplary episodes of the Spanish revolution. The peasants once more affirmed their libertarian convictions despite the governmental terror and economic boycotting of which they were the object.’9

Concluding his study of Libertarian Aragón, Kelsey notes:

“Nevertheless, despite the successful re-establishment of collective farms in many parts of Aragón, the situation in the aftermath of August 1937 was totally alien to that which had first inspired the development of collectivisation and had brought the agricultural successes and social improvements associated with it. The destruction of libertarian Aragón proved to be the first stage in the final collapse of Loyalist Spain. The complete disintegration of the front lines in March 1938 emphasised the profound effect that the devastation of the rearguard had had on the Aragonese will to resist. It marked, furthermore, the final defeat of that liberal republican-socialist ethic which had, for the most part, controlled the fortunes and epitomised the character of the Spanish Second Republic.” 10

Stuart Christie (Building Uopia)

NOTES

1   Cuadernos para una enciclopaedia histórica del anarquismo español, No. 22, May 1984, Vitoria.

2   Quoted in Interviú, 27 June, 1984.

3   Manuel Azaña, Obras Completas, Mexico City, 1966-68, Vol. IV, p. 614.

4   This conflicts with what Lister states in his book, Nuestra Guerra (Paris, 1966), where he claims Prieto briefed him five days before his forces went into action. The Minister told him that “…I should act unhesitatingly, without bureaucratic or legal formalities, in whatever way seemed to me the best because I had the government behind me unanimously.” (p.152)

5   Leval, Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, p. 336.

6   Interviú, 27 June 1984.

7   G. Kelsey, Civil War and Civil Peace: Libertarian Aragón 1936-37

8   Ronald Fraser, Blood of Spain, p. 391.

9   G. Munis, Jalones de derrota. Promesa de victoria, Barcelona, 1977, p. 430.

10 G. Kelsey, ibid.