Madrid, 20 November 1936: Today is the 80th anniversary of the mysterious death of the anarchist Buenaventura Durruti.
November 1936 was a milestone in the civil war. Having surrounded Madrid, the mutinous fascist army was making a supreme effort to overrun the capital. On 4 November 1936 the ‘notable leaders’ [Horacio Prieto (CNT National Secretary before Vázquez), Mariano R. Vázquez (CNT National Secretary), Federica Montseny (Minister of Health), Diego Abad de Santillán (Secretary of the Peninsular Committee of the FAI), Joan Peiró (Minister for Industry), Juan López (Minister for Trade), García Oliver (Minister of Justice)] of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT and anarchist FAI Peninsular Committee finally and completely abandoned the Confederation’s apolitical stance by taking it upon themselves to accept four nominal ministries in the central government of Largo Caballero. Many believed this was a cynical move on the part of Caballero to facilitate the government’s flight to Valencia and to pre-empt any criticism, or, presumably, any revolutionary initiatives from the anarcho-syndicalist rank and file. Coincidentally (if you believe in coincidences!), two days later, on 6 November, Largo Caballero and his cabinet, including his newly appointed anarchist ministers, fled to Valencia — while the people of Madrid rallied to the city’s defence to cries of ‘Long Live Madrid Without Government!’
The CNT leadership’s obsession with antifascist unity steadily widened the gap between them and the aspirations of the mass of the working class membership. The class interests they now defended were those of the bourgeoisie and the property-owning classes. On 23 October a ‘Pact of Unity’ was signed between the CNT, the FAI, the UGT and the PSUC in Catalonia. Article Two of this agreement relating, to collectivisation, stated that although the Council supported collectivisation ‘of everything which may be essential in the interests of the war’, the council’s understanding was that ‘this collectivisation would fail to produce the desired results unless overseen and orchestrated by a body genuinely representative of the collectivity’, in this instance the Generalidad Council.
‘With regard to small industry we do not advocate collectivisation here except in cases of sedition by owners or of urgent war needs. Wheresoever small industry may be collectivised on grounds of war needs, the expropriated owners are to be compensated in such a way as to ensure their livelihoods, by means of their making a personal or professional contribution in the collectivised sector. In the event of collectivisation of foreign undertakings, a compensation formula shall be agreed which is equal to the total capital … We … advocate a single command to orchestrate the actions of every combat unit, the introduction of a conscript militia and its conversion into a great people’s army, and the strengthening of discipline …’
It was Article 15, however, the final chilling article that showed just how far down the road of bureaucratic conservatism this once great libertarian organisation had gone:
‘We are agreed upon common action to stamp out the harmful activities of uncontrollable groups which, out of lack of understanding or malice, pose a threat to the implementation of this programme.’
Also on that same day, 23 October, anarchist minister Juan Peiró gave the leadership’s analysis of the situation together with a thinly veiled warning to the ‘uncontrollables’ on Radio CNT-FAI:
‘The war’s end will lead to a transitional arrangement, and will do so because there is no other more rational, more logical, more just course, because our sense of justice on this occasion cannot be diverted from the straight and narrow path of the law of rewards. If we all make our contribution to success in the war, then it is only fair that we should all share in the fruits of the revolution. What does compromise matter, if compromise now be the only way to triumph? In my own view, my brothers of all the peoples of Iberia, the transitional arrangement best suited to the circumstances being created by the war and revolution is a Socialist Federal Republic … What matters, and what presently takes priority over everything else, is that we and others are capable of compromise on a basis of mutual understanding … The work of collectivisation which has been initiated will be able to proceed, though a portion of it will have to be reviewed and amended insofar as it is not consonant with any collectivist precept nor principle of socialisation … Woe to those who may attempt to overcome it by violence for theirs will be the immeasurable responsibility for having aborted everything and the triumph of the people in this criminal war, this war in which the people squanders its blood in torrents … that nobody, no matter how sublime his intentions may be, may frustrate … No matter how great may be the lack of perception of the potential of this unique hour in our history, and no matter how great may be the (to some extent, natural) lack of understanding in the proletarian multitudes, I do not accept that anything or anybody has the right to succumb to the lunacy of easing fascism’s triumph, which is synonymous with humiliation, indignity, slavery and death.’
The following day Jaime Balius, one of the ‘uncontrollable’ anarchist militants who had been warning against applying the brakes to the revolution, warned:
‘Let us remember that should any centralising organ come into existence, the creative opportunities which have cost so much blood and for which so much blood has yet to be shed … will largely be lost to us.’
To protect the hard-won land of the rural communities and the new society the people of Aragón were building the regional committee of the CNT, acting in concert with Durruti and his column, organised 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 Aragonese CNT, outlined proposals for the formation of a special regional committee which would ensure that the Aragón 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 Aragonese delegates at the Bujaraloz 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 Aragonese 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 Aragonese 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 bourgeois 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.
Meanwhile, Companys, the Catalan president, had had three months to rebuild his power base, contain the revolution and begin the process of rolling it back. Gone was the deference and gratitude to the anarchist saviours of 20 July. He was undisguisedly hostile to the Aragonese and described the proposed autonomous Council of Aragón as an absurdity which would seriously damage the country’s international image. The representatives then moved on to Madrid in early November where they received a more favourable reception from the new socialist premier, Largo Caballero, who agreed to recognise the Council provided the specifically CNT membership was dropped and other parties represented. Caballero’s positive response had, no doubt, much to do with bringing the autonomous body under its control and the military situation at the time. The fall of the capital appeared imminent and both Caballero and Manuel Azaña, the president of the Republic, were desperately trying to entice the CNT into the new government.
ON 30 OCTOBER, an optimistic editorial in the Barcelona CNT paper Solidaridad Obrera noted:
‘The Generalidad Council has embarked upon a series of measures that will, incontrovertibly, have an impact upon the course of events. Mobilisation has been decreed for all citizens who are of an age for military service. And, as expeditiously as the present situation requires, the classes of 1932, 1933, 1934 and 1935 have just been called up. In addition, the Council, whose jurisdiction covers Catalonia, has seen fit to invest these formations in the antifascist zone with military overtones. The militarisation of combatants may be distasteful to those idealists whose opinions are consonant with their ideas about the noxiousness of units that act in accordance with the dictates of orders which are more or less arbitrary. But the course of events on the battlefields makes it commendable that militians should adhere to instructions drawn up for the implementation of war tactics. One of the quintessential aspects of war is the military code. The revolution has smashed to smithereens the lengthy code worked out by [King] Alfonso’s brass hats and entirely abolished the phenomenon of barrack-drilled masses consonant with a servility that the capitalist regime instituted for economic reasons … We are not familiar with the contents of the new military code worked out by those individuals whom the antifascist organisations have appointed to positions of responsibility. In our estimation, the Code which the revolution needs at the present juncture in the war must be of clearly revolutionary derivation.’
A more detailed perusal of the ‘mobilisation’ decree made clear the reactionary intent of the Caballero government. The following day’s edition of Solidaridad Obrera carried a prescient reappraisal:
‘… It is one thing for us to recognise, as we all do, the need to regulate the whimsicality and volubility of the militias and furnish a strict basis for the fighting men’s sense of responsibility, even going so far as to enforce rigorous penalties on those who, once having committed themselves most solemnly, quit the field of battle, but this unfeasible corralling within the parameters destroyed by the army mutiny itself is quite another. Article No. 2 of the decree, which applies to enforcement of the existing Code of Military Justice until such time as a new Code for the militias may be devised, has made the most lamentable impression.
‘Above all there is clearly a total lack of any grasp of reality or any clear appreciation of what has occurred. In the view of many antifascists of liberal outlook, the revolution is not yet a fait accompli … There is still a vulgar mentality that wishes to revert to the situation that existed prior to 19 July and which had been destroyed by the inexorability of the revolutionary process … Such conduct merely succeeds in demoralising the multitudes, diminishing their enthusiasm and élan and turning the vast multitudes who have volunteered to face death into, not the revolutionary people’s army such as the militias can be, but, rather, a flock of scared and unenthusiastic folk who fight on even though they have lost the vigour and strength which only great social upheavals produce in the collective soul. No. Militarisation of the militias, mobilisation of the proletariat and of all the antifascist population cannot, must not, mean that the old army is resurrected. Let us devise new solutions, a new concept of duty and honour, far removed from the rigid, aristocratic Code which, were it something solid, might serve to manure the land. Instead, the people’s heroism has endorsed new concepts of struggle and of life that we can raise to the heights of moral codes, to the stature of implacable and inexorable laws of war …’
The militians were outraged by the proposal to militarise the popular columns. The War Committee of the Durruti Column on the Osera front immediately sent off a letter, dated 1 November, to the Generalidad Council informing them of its refusal to comply with the decree:
‘ANTIFASCIST MILITIAS — DURRUTI COLUMN
‘TO THE GENERALIDAD COUNCIL OF CATALONIA
‘IN LIGHT of the Decree on militarisation of the militias, the DURRUTI COLUMN’s War Committee, articulating the feelings of each and every one of the individuals enrolled in it, states the following:
‘The fascist military provocation of 19 July gave rise to an authentic and incontrovertibly popular movement by which, among other things, the hierarchical organisation of the military and the Code of Justice alluded to in Article 2 of the aforementioned decree stand utterly condemned.
‘This column, formed spontaneously in the heat of that protest in the streets of Barcelona and subsequently swelled by all who have felt an identification with our ideal, enjoys unity and of aims, and its individual members discipline themselves in every regard bearing upon the attainment of their aim of routing fascism. If the aim of discipline is to improve upon the contribution of the individual, this Column can furnish ample proof of such effectiveness in the work carried out on the front by our militians, and the constant advance of our positions is our finest testimony in favour of self-discipline.
‘The militians of this column have confidence in themselves and in us who lead it through their express and unreserved delegation. This being so, they believe, and we share their belief, that the decree of militarisation cannot improve upon our fighting capabilities but will instead lead to suspicions, misgivings and repugnance such as they have noted and would redound in a real state of disarray.
‘The proffered argument according to which the enemy fights well provided with equipment in great abundance obviously cannot be solved with militarisation of the militias.
‘In view of all that has been set out above, this committee, in response to the clamour of protest raised in this column by the aforementioned decree, finds itself called upon to refuse its acceptance.
‘In communicating this formal and specific decision, and taking the line that the struggle upon which we are embarked should not on this account slacken, we ask this Council, our freedom of organisation, and ask that it supply a detailed answer which may, as speedily as possible, bring to an end the state of anxiety which has been created.
‘Osera front, 1 November 1936
‘On behalf of the WAR COMMITTEE
‘(Signed) B. Durruti’
In an interview published in the French anarchist paper L’Espagne Antifasciste, Durruti openly criticised the proposed militarisation: ‘… This decision by the government has had a deplorable effect. It is absolutely devoid of any sense of reality. There is an irreconcilable contrast between that mentality and that of the militias … We know that one of these attitudes has to vanish in the face of the other one.’
CNT Entry into Madrid Government November 1936
At 10.30 p.m. on 4 November 1936 the Spanish government issued a news bulletin that the CNT had joined the government:
‘Being of the opinion that at the present moment none of the forces fighting against fascism ought to be left out of the government and that circumstances require that everyone have a share in its responsibilities and that each of the said forces may feel itself directly represented in positions of authority, the head of the government has advised the head of state to broaden the government by giving representation to the National Confederation of Labour.This suggestion, having met with acceptance from H.E. the President of the Republic, the head of the government proceeded immediately to reshuffle his council of ministers. As for the political outlook and programme of the government, once reformed, they shall remain as they have been hitherto.’
That same day Solidaridad Obrera explained its decision with a self-assurance reminiscent of Lenin in the summer of 1917:
‘The entry of the CNT into the central government represents one of the most momentous events in this country’s political history. As a matter of principle and conviction, the CNT has at all times been anti-statist and hostile to government under any form. But circumstances, nearly always superior to men’s wishes though determined by that same will, has wrought a transformation in the nature of the government and the Spanish state. At present the government, qua the regulating instrument of the organs of the state, no longer represents a source of oppression for the working class, just as the state no longer represents the source of the division of society into classes. And with the CNT’s entry, both will the more completely cease to oppress the people. The functions of the state are to be curtailed in accordance with the labour organisations to orchestration of the country’s economic and social affairs. And the government will have no preoccupation other than the proper management of the war and the co-ordination of the work of the revolution on a larger scale.
‘Our comrades shall present the government with the collective or majority decision of the toiling masses previously assembled in huge general assemblies. They will espouse no personal or whimsical objectives but rather the decisions freely reached by the hundreds of thousands of workers organised by the CNT. There is a historical necessity hanging over everything. And the CNT accepts that historical necessity to serve the country, with the emphasis on winning the war promptly and lest the popular revolution be disfigured.
‘We have absolute confidence that the comrades chosen to represent the CNT in the government will be able to accomplish the duty and the mission entrusted to them. In them we should see, not the individual personalities, but the organisation they represent. They are not governors nor statesmen, but warriors and revolutionaries in the service of victory over fascism. And that victory will be all the more speedy and complete the greater the support we may give them.’
The news of the entry of the anarcho-syndicalist leadership into central government was bitterly denounced by militia papers such as Linea del Fuego, the paper of the Iron Column, but the majority of the CNT membership accepted the news calmly. It should be stressed, however, that of the CNT’s approximately two million members, perhaps only 300,000 or so would have described themselves as anarcho-syndicalists or anarchists. It was for this reason that only articulate minorities and ‘uncontrollable’ elements, particularly in the militias, expressed their anger and discontent by subjecting the ‘influential’ militants to public criticism. But, according to anarchist historian José Peirats, ‘in many militants opposed to collaboration, there was an unavowed complicity, in that they railed about their sense of outrage whilst letting it all continue.’ The exigencies of the war and ‘force of circumstances’ left the majority resigned to the decision with an air of fatalism.
The international anarchist movement was, however, to prove less amenable to the ‘circumstances’ argument. At a meeting of the anarcho-syndicalist International (IWMA/AIT) in Paris in December that year, the CNT’s National Committee explained the problems which it felt justified its entry into government. It argued that probably the CNT could have unleashed a successful revolution, but to have done so would have meant fighting on three fronts, against the military insurgents, against central government and against foreign capitalism:
‘Levante was undefended, hesitant with the army contingents still inside their barracks; our people were in the minority in Madrid; Andalusia was in chaos, with groups of workers armed with fowling pieces and sickles fighting in the hill country. What the situation in the north was, was anyone’s guess, and we could only suppose that the rest of Spain had fallen to the fascists … What is more, the nervousness of foreign consular representatives was shown in the presence off our ports of many foreign warships … in the south our comrades, armed with shotguns, were resisting courageously but losing ground. They were reinforced with rifles, machine guns and artillery despatched from Catalonia and thereby weakening the thrust of revolution in Catalonia. Levante at last, determined to storm the barracks, had to be sent rifles and machine guns … The Aragón front with its 30,000–odd militiamen wound up almost devoid of ammunition. We would have needed about 6,000,000 shells a day and we had not a single one … The bourgeois democratic governments would have prevented us buying or receiving war material …’
‘In the end, we were invited to present the revolution under a less aggressive guise by dissolving the Central Committee of the Antifascist Militias. It was put to us that it would be better if the Generalidad government were rebuilt in Catalonia, under the presidency of a liberal bourgeois, like Companys, who would lead foreigners to believe that the revolution was being directed along less radical channels … So formidably and powerfully organised were we and so absolutely did we control political power, military power and economic power in Catalonia that, had we so desired, we had only to lift a finger to install a totalitarian anarchist regime. But we knew that in our hands the revolution would have burned itself out and that we anarchists would have received no effective support from abroad, nor could we have hoped for any such support.’
Referring to the growing pressure from the central government on the revolutionaries’ positions, the report continued:
‘Our columns, the strongest numerically and the most combative, were the very ones least well provisioned by the government and already our comrades were subject to persecution and intrigues … those in positions of power constantly obstructed the CNT’s work of construction and expropriation … We lacked the real basis for a policy of social reconstruction in that we lacked gold. In Catalonia we were systematically denied money, provisions and weapons. Likewise, in Levante and elsewhere in the rearguard where the CNT was boycotted … Marxists and republicans were in collusion and, since they were in charge of money and arms, they favoured their own supporters, allocating them supplies, arms, positions of command, means of communication and transportation … Catalonia had to organise its foreign trade by competing abroad with the rest of the country, in both the feeding of her citizens and in the provisioning of the Aragón front. Those in government, exploiting our desire not to shatter the unity among antifascists or interrupt official relations with countries abroad, abused their privileged diplomatic circumstances to sabotage us viciously at every turn …’
The arguments advanced by the CNT National Committee were undoubtedly weighty. However, the CNT’s entry into government, which took place, in part, as Federica Montseny, the anarchist Minister of Health, explained it: ‘in order to prevent the revolution deviating from its course and in order to pursue it beyond the war, and also in order to oppose all possibility of dictatorial endeavours, wherever they should come from’, proved to be an utter failure. The CNT were playing the state’s game according to the state’s rules and the anarcho-syndicalist leadership were absolutely powerless to resist it.
Nor did the ‘circumstances’ argument of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist movement satisfy the international anarchist movement. Writing in the French anarchist press the respected writer Sébastian Faure rebuked the CNT-FAI leadership with devastating lucidity:
‘If reality contradicts principles, then these principles must be mistaken in which case we should lose no time abandoning them; we should be honest enough to admit their falseness in public and we should have virtue enough to devote as much ardour to combating them and being as active against them as formerly we did in their defence. Similarly, we should strive forthwith to seek out more solid, more just and less fallible principles. If, on the other hand, the principles upon which our ideology and tactics depend still hold, regardless of the circumstances, and are as valid today as ever they were, then we should keep faith with them. To depart, even for a short space of time in exceptional circumstances, from the line our principles indicate we should adopt, is to commit a grave error, a dangerous error of judgement. To persist in this error is to commit a grievous mistake, the consequences of which lead on gradually to the temporary jettisoning of principles and, through concession after concession, to the absolute final abandonment of principle. Once again, this is the mechanism, the slippery slope which can lead us far astray.’
The anarchist ‘notables’ quickly discovered that their powers to influence events in Cabinet were minimal. The socialists controlled the six most important ministries: War, Sea and Air, State, Housing, Labour, Interior, and the Presidency. The CNT, on the other hand, had to settle for four: Industry (Juan Peiró); Trade (Juan López Sánchez); Justice (García Oliver); Health (Federica Montseny). Largo Caballero retained supreme executive power through his control of the War Council. Having successfully wedded the CNT leadership to the government, Caballero quickly began to undermine union control of the militias and restore to the state its monopoly of violence. He made it quite clear that he was not prepared to provide weapons and ammunition to any units not prepared to accept militarisation and convert to regular army formations. Equally serious, perhaps, was the fact that the decision by the CNT leadership to accept government office with a largely nominal degree of responsibility was a clear signal to both the Stalinists and the socialists of the confused thinking and weakness which characterised the CNT leadership. The anarchists had become, of their own volition, the agents of the state and servants of officialdom. Through their commitment to an illusory antifascist unity with bourgeois liberal and Marxist parties the CNT leadership had become totally compromised and were preparing the scenario for the coup de grace:
‘The telegraph brings us the news — which we hereby make public — of the CNT’s entry into the government. This is tantamount to accepting that which we have always denounced, thereby shattering the very foundations of our ideas. Henceforth there is to be no more talk of freedom, but rather of submission to “our government”, the only organ with the competence to run the war and manage our economic life. Four ministries have been allocated to the Confederal Organisation (…) Four junior ministries occupied by four individuals who have never taken an interest in the issues their posts will be concerned with (…), incompetent, inept politicians. The story continues. The state strengthens itself and all with the backing of an Organisation which styles itself libertarian. For how long comrades? ’(Quoted by Nestor Romero, Agora, No. 3, Autumn 1980, Ed. Pensée et Action, Toulouse, p. 37).
THAT SAME EVENING, at 9.30 pm on 4 November 1936, Buenaventura Durruti broadcast a speech over Radio CNT-FAI from the organisation’s transmitters in Barcelona. Everyone was anxious to hear his reponse to that day’s news that four anarchists had joined the Madrid government: Federica Montseny, Juan García Oliver, Juan López and Joan Peiró.
Durruti had been in Barcelona pressing the case for the liberation of Zaragoza and to stress his column’s urgent need for war material, but the bourgeois and Catalan CNT-controlled Central Anti-Fascist Militia Committee decided that the social revolution was subordinate to the contingencies of the war against fascism. According to the professional military advisers ‘seconded’ to the militia columns by the bourgeois Generalidad government of Catalonia; the attack on Majorca took precedence. Their unlikely and unconvincing argument being that taking Majorca would force an Italian intervention which, in turn, would lead to direct intervention by Britain to restore ‘the balance of power’ in the Mediterranean. And so Zaragoza was abandoned to its fate, the anarchist and revolutionary militias were prevented from taking control of northern Spain, and the social revolution received its first strategic setback.
The militias had failed to take Zaragoza. The main problem having been the difficulty in procuring weapons, ammunition and supplies. Durruti had tried everything in his power to acquire arms, even dispatching some of his militians on an expropriativeraid against Sabadell at the beginning of September to force the surrender of the weapons stored there for the use of a Sabadell Column that had not been formed. Also, the Decree militarising the Militias had become effective on 20 October and friends and enemies alike were waiting to hear what Durruti had to say.
People began gathering around the loudspeakers hung from the trees in the Ramblas some time before the speech began. These normally churned out revolutionary anthems, music and news reports, but on this occasion the atmosphere was electric with expectation.
Durruti’s broadcast began at 9.30 pm:
‘Workers of Catalonia: I direct these words to the Catalan people, the selfless people who, four months ago, lowered the boom on the military goons who sought to ride roughshod over it. I bring you greetings from your brothers and comrades fighting on the Aragon front. They are within kilometres of Zaragoza and in sight of the towers of the Pilarica.
‘Despite the threat looming over Madrid, we should bear in mind that we are a risen people and that nothing in this world is going to make us back down. We shall hold out on the Aragón front against the Aragonese fascist hordes and we turn to our comrades in Madrid to tell them to hold out, for the militians of Catalonia will do their duty — just as they took to the streets of Barcelona to crush fascism. The workers’ organisations ought not to forget the over-riding duty at the present time. On the front lines as well as in the trenches, there is but one thought, a single aim. Eyes are fixed, looking ever forward to the sole aim of crushing fascism.
‘We ask the people of Catalonia to have done with the intrigues and internecine strife: to prove yourselves equal to the circumstances; set aside all rancour and focus on the war. The people of Catalonia have a duty to live up to the efforts of those fighting on the front. There is nothing for it but for everyone to mobilise. And it must not be thought that it is always the same people who should be mobilising. While Catalonia’s workers must shoulder the responsibility of serving on the front, the time has come to require sacrifice from the Catalan people living in the cities too. We need an effective mobilisation of all workers in the rearguard, because those of us already at the front want to know the calibre of the men we have at our backs.
‘Let me address the organisations and ask them to cease their squabbling and intrigues. Those of us at the front require honesty of them, especially from the National Confederation of Labour and the FAI. We ask the leaders to act with honesty. It is not enough for them to send us letters at the front egging us on and for them to send us clothing, food and ammunition and rifles. They too must prove equal to the circumstances and look forward into the future. This war boasts all of the drawbacks of modern warfare and is costing Catalonia dearly. Leaders must take it on board that if this war drags on, a start must be made to the organising of Catalonia’s economy and a code of conduct in economic affairs. I am not prepared to scribble more letters just to secure an extra crust of bread or glass of milk for the comrades or children of a militiaman while there are councillors who can eat and drink their fill. We turn to the CNT-FAI to tell them that if they, as an organisation, control the economy, they should be organising it properly. And let no one think right now about wage rises and cuts in working hours. All workers, especially CNT workers, have a duty to make sacrifices and work for as long as it may take.
‘If we truly are fighting for something better, the militians who blush when they read in the press of the donations raised for them and when they see the posters asking for aid for them will prove it to you. Fascist planes fly over us, dropping newspapers in which we can read of funds raised for their fighters, the very same as yourselves. So we have to tell you that we are not beggars and do not accept charity in any form. Fascism stands for and is, in effect, social inequality. Unless you want those of us who are fighting to confound those in the rearguard with our enemies, do your duty.
‘If you would make provision against that danger, you should form a granite block. Politics is the art of chicanery, the art of living the high life [drone-like] and this must give way to the art of toil. The time has come to invite the trade union organisations and political parties to have done with this once and for all. There must be proper administration in the rearguard. Those of us at the front want to feel that there is responsibility and reassurance at our backs and we insist that our organisations look out for our wives and our children.
‘If the militarisation decreed by the Generalidad is meant to scare us and foist an iron discipline upon us, you are sadly mistaken. You are mistaken, councillors, with the decree militarising the militias. Since you prattle about iron discipline, I say to you: come with me to the front lines. We who are there do not accept any discipline because we have enough conscience to do our duty. And you will see our order and our organisation. Then we shall go down to Barcelona and ask you about your discipline, your order and your control, which are non-existent.
‘Rest easy. There is no chaos and no indiscipline on the front. We are all responsible, and we know the prize you have entrusted to us. Sleep easy. But we left Catalonia entrusting the economy to your care. Take responsibility and discipline yourselves. Let us not, through our incompetence, spark another civil war in our own ranks after this war.
‘If there is anyone thinking that his party may be in a better position to impose its policy, he is mistaken, because fascist tyranny can only be resisted by means of a single force and there should be only one organisation with a single discipline. There is no way in this world that these fascist tyrants are going to get past us. That is the watchword here at the front. To them, we say: “You shall not pass!” And it is up to you to chorus: “They shall not pass!”’
FOLLOWING the entry of the CNT into the Madrid government, Domingo Navasal observed in Solidaridad Obrera:
‘Spawned in the fever of revolution, the committees of the armed Corps have not been designed to seize command of their units, but, rather, observing all the formalities, have only been concerned with what has been truly necessary; with monitoring the activities of those who do wield command and ensuring that those who carry out the orders do not impinge against revolutionary norms. In principle, this healthy activity on the part of the committees was considered indispensable and those who always thought along revolutionary lines would not have failed somehow to perform a duty which, had it not been performed, would find us in dire straits today …
‘In proceeding directly towards the establishment of a unified command, the committees of the armed corps, working in close conjunction with the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, cannot be considered anything other than keen and dependable collaborators: for in one way or another their sole mission is to ensure that the organisms which they monitor do not deviate by as much as one single iota from the revolutionary trajectory upon which we have embarked. But it appears to be the case that people who style themselves revolutionaries and who, undeservedly no doubt, hold office and feel their prerogatives jeopardised, are resentful of this “interference”, as they describe that which is only proper, and are straining with all their might to get an absolutely free hand in their decision making. And this state of affairs cannot go on. When we finish off the fascists we shall see whether we can leave those who occupy official posts a free hand in their intrigues. For the present, what we cannot tolerate is that anyone — no matter who he be — should permit himself the luxury of dispensing with a control that we, the lower orders, the ones who in the last analysis have made and are making this revolution are obliged to mount …’
In early November the insidious Federica Montseny, one of the CNT’s collaborationist ministers, called on Durruti, then with his column on the Aragón front pushing for the liberation of Zaragoza, insisting that he and his men come to the defence of Madrid — which, incidentally, already had 200,000 defenders! From a military point of view many considered his presence in Madrid unnecessary, and Montseny’s demand prompted García Oliver to pose the question: ‘Did she want to kill Durruti?’ There may have been other reasons to lure Durruti and his volunteers to Madrid. It was , however, García Oliver, who originally suggested to Largo Caballero that Durruti could bring a force of 12,000 men from Aragón and that he should be appointed major and given the command of three ‘mixed brigades’ (militians and regular troops) on the Madrid front.
Before leaving for Madrid, on 4 November, Durruti, as Column delegate, broadcast a call for volunteers to come to the aid of the capital on CNT-FAI radio. The broadcast was an opportunity to spell out the indignation and sense of betrayal felt by militians on the Aragón front at the counterrevolutionary events and developments behind the lines. It was a powerful denunciation of the erosion of the revolution’s successes and an indictment of government’s policy, whether it contained CNT ministers or not. Durruti was making it clear to the CNT leaders that he and his men were not fighting for the Republic or for bourgeois democracy; theirs was a fight to see the social revolution succeed and the people emancipated.
Durruti was an increasingly painful thorn in the side not only of the bourgeois and Stalinist politicians but also especially of the leadership of his own anarcho-syndicalist union, the CNT. He was convinced that the only way to win the war was by prosecuting the libertarian revolution that had prevented a successful military pronunciamento / fascist coup in the early hours of 19 July. To Durruti and many other anarchists, war and revolution were inseparable; only a libertarian revolution could finally destroy fascism — because doing so meant destroying the state, since fascism was only a particular mode of the state; all states turn fascist when privilege is threatened.
When he left the Aragón front Durruti had with him 1,000 volunteers; by the time they arrived at the Vallecas barricades on the outskirts of the besieged capital on 14 November his column had grown to 1,800 militians.
The defence of Madrid was bloody and vicious, lasting from 7 November until 20 November. On his arrival on the evening of 14 November, Durruti was given responsibility for a sector of the University campus where another column, the Libertad-López-Tienda, commanded by a certain ‘Negus’ of the PSUC (the Catalan Stalinist party), had also been posted. At dawn the following day, 15 November, both the Durruti and Libertad-López-Tienda columns launched a frontal assault in an attempt to prevent Franco’s Moorish troops from crossing the Manzanares river, but the pressure was too great. Fresh fascist reinforcements under General Asensio forced their way into the School of Architecture, wiping out most of the Libertad-López-Tienda Column and around a third of Durruti’s men.
On 17 November, German Junkers aircraft began their intensive blitzkrieg bombing raids wreaking death and destruction throughout the city. That day Durruti wrote what were to be his last pronouncement:
‘I have come from the land of Aragón to win this fight which today is a question of life or death, not merely for the Spanish proletariat but for the world as a whole. Everything hinges upon Madrid and I will not attempt to disguise my delight at finding myself face to face with the enemy, if only because it lends nobility to the struggle. Before taking my leave of Catalonia, I asked that those involved in the struggle be conscientious. I am not referring to the poor in spirit or those who are lacking in vigour. I mean those of us committed to pressing onwards, ever onwards. Rifles are of no avail if there is no determination, no ingenuity in their use. There is no question of the fascists entering Madrid, but they must be repulsed soon, for Spain must be retaken. I am happy in Madrid, I make no bones about that; it delights me to see her now with the composure of the serious-minded man who is alive to his responsibility and not the frivolity and bewilderment displayed by a man when the torment looms.’
On 19 November, shortly after midday, Durruti — accompanied by his driver Julio Graves, Miguel Yoldi, Antonio Bonilla and his military adviser Sergeant José Manzana — set out for the Clinical Hospital, the scene of serious fighting with Moorish troops. Spotting a group of militians he thought were deserters, Durruti stopped the car and got out, ordering them to return to their positions, which they did. On opening the car door to re-enter, a burst of machine gun fire from inside hit Durruti in the chest at point blank range. According to Miguel Yoldi and Sergeant Manzana, the bullets came from Durruti’s own machine gun, which had knocked accidentally against the car door. However, according to the third occupant of the car, Bonilla, the fatal shot was fired ‘deliberately or accidentally’, by Sergeant Manzana. According to García Oliver and other witnesses, Durruti never carried a machine gun, only a pistol.
Buenaventura Durruti, the ‘troublesome priest’ of anarchism, died from his wounds in the early hours of November 20, aged 40 years.
The day after Durruti’s death CNT general secretary Mariano Vázquez, ‘Marianet’, allegedly summoned everyone who had been in the car with Durruti at the time of the incident and persuaded them to swear an oath of silence as to what had happened. The myth that Durruti had died at the hands of a fascist sniper was launched by García Oliver — in spite of the personal doubts he claims to have harboured about Durruti’s death — who had little faith in the capacity of the rank and file to accept the circumstances of the death, at face value, and judge for themselves. It was he who took it upon himself to release the manipulative lie that Buenaventura Durruti had died a hero at the hands of an unknown sniper.
Unconvinced that Durruti’s death was work of a sniper as represented by the National Committee of the CNT, and worried that Madrid was a trap designed to eliminate the anarcho-syndicalist militants, what remained of the Durruti Column wanted to leave the Capital immediately. It was only the hurried arrival and pleas of Federica Montseny which persuaded them to remain in Madrid.
Durruti’s body was taken by car to Barcelona where the funeral took place on 23 November. It was one of the most important working-class demonstrations in the history of the Spanish labour movement, with over half a million people lining the streets of the Catalan capital to pay their respects to an indomitable working class hero. This was the biggest public display of grief in Barcelona’s history. Durruti was laid to rest beside his closest comrade, Francisco Ascaso, who had died in the assault on the Atarazanas barracks four months earlier, and an earlier anarchist victim of vicious state repression, Francisco Ferrer Guardia.