DURRUTI WRITING FROM PRISON (1933) by Agustín Guillamón (Translated by Paul Sharkey)

Durruti, Ascaso and ‘Combina’ were arrested on Sunday 2 April 1933 as they left the Andalusia-Extremadura Regional Congress. The grounds offered for this action by the police were as follows: they were “to answer for the criminal notions they had voiced at the closing rally”[1], which is to say, a thought crime and this was a breach of the most fundamental freedom of personal expression.

On Sunday 9 April in Barcelona, the leading lights of Estat Català (EC) and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), assembled to pay tribute to the fascist Josep Dencàs who at the time was their Health Minister, believed that the arrests in Seville had decapitated the FAI and that said organisation could now be regarded as a dead duck. This was wishful thinking, the sort of thing regularly encountered among those running the bourgeois apparatus of repression when they seek to boil complex, deep-seated social and political issues to specific or run-of-the-mill “terrorist” and public order issues embodied by a few leaders or scapegoats. Josep Dencàs had, with the Badía brothers, been one of the main founders and sponsors of the pro-(Catalan)independence fascist escamots of the JEREC (Juventudes de Esquerra Republicana-Estat Català — Esquerra Republicana-Estat Català Youth)

Buenaventura Durruti, Francisco Ascaso and Vicente Pérez aka ‘Combina[2] spent a few days in jail in Seville and were then transferred to the Puerto de Santa María penitentiary in Cadiz.

From there, Durruti wrote a letter to his family, highlighting his definition of “homeland” as an “amalgamation of proprietorial rights” and contrasting imperialist war with social warfare, the latter being synonymous with class struggle. Most of the letter was meant for his brother Pedro in an attempt to help him delve a little deeper into the analysis of war, given that Buenaventura was of the view that Pedro had been a tough superficial in his treatment of the subject in an article he had recently had printed in the newspapers.

It is worth highlighting from the letter a few points that are of relevance to Durruti’s life story:

  1. During the Great War, he had spent a year in Paris.
  2. His dealings with [the novelist] Pío Baroja who paid him a visit in prison and who may have been interested in getting to know a man of action like Durruti at first hand.
  3. The discriminatory and vexatious treatment meted out to the anarchist militants by the republican authorities; such treatment prevented the anarcho-syndicalist movement from collaborating or coming to some accommodation with the Second Republic’s authorities.

That letter is reprinted in its entirety below:

Puerto de Santa María, [3]3 June 1933[4]

Beloved mother and siblings

I received your letter dated the 1st in which you tell me that you have the passes in your possession and ask me what you should do with them.

Hold on to the passes until I get out, then send them on to me once [I am] in Barcelona. The deplorable thing is that there is every chance that they won’t do me any good, as you have had them in your possession for two months; which means that they will have expired in another month; a month that will slip by quickly here; for it is plain to see that the Government is ready to hold us here in the shadows for the summer.

A few days ago as they were leaving the Madrid comrades wrote to me to tell me that Quiroga had issued instructions for us to be released. But all of a sudden, with no one expecting it, the judge from this little town turned up with a telegram from the court handling the indictment relating to the Congress’s closing rally; a charge on which we had been released on a personal surety of a thousand pesetas; and he told us that he had had a telegram from Seville instructing him to inform us that the trial was on again; and the surety was cancelled; so we were left at the disposal of the Seville court, facing trial and refused bail.

I asked the judge what was behind the change in such a piddling case; he had no answer for me; and confined himself to telling me that I was being held without bail.

I put it to the judge: what was the reason behind this change in relation to such a trifling charge; he had no answer for me; and restricted himself to telling me that I was being remanded in custody without bail. This I the first time this has been witnessed, for all charges relating to the printed or spoken word are bail-able and non-remandable. What was behind the change, I have no idea We have written to the Seville comrades to get them to get this mystery cleared up; once we have their response we shall see what these guys’ intentions are.

As to this place, what can I tell you? This is one lousy prison; one goes in and has no idea when one is coming out: it’s worse that Dante’s Inferno. We are completely incommunicado; comrades have come to visit us and have been denied any communication. It is plain to see that the Interior Ministry is determined that nobody will see us. So now we are going to kick up a stink about the extra-ordinary measures employed against us, because every prisoner in Spain’s jails has the right to speak with his family and friends; and we, who are political prisoners, are denied the opportunity to communicate; and then they carp about our attacking the republican regime. What do they expect us to say when they mistreat us so?

When he came by to visit me in Seville, Pío Baroja[5] told me: what they are doing to you is horrible; and I asked Don Pío what stance he thought we ought to adopt vis a vis this mistreatment. He had no answer for me. Later I read an article of his in Ahora which is the answer he did not dare give me through the bars. [6]

Anyway, I am reluctant to say any more to you about these things because it puts me in a bad mood.

They have (re)arrested old Germinal[7], whom they had released and he finds himself in the same boat as Combina and me. Facing trial in relation to the rally and remanded without bail.

A few days back I received La Mañana, forwarded to me by Perico[8] and I saw and read through the article he wrote under the headline “Message from English Children”; it’s a very fine article: But Perico does not really get to grips with the war problem; and don’t take offence at that, brother. Just days before I was deported I reminded you that we held a huge anti-war rally in Barcelona; a great French pacifist took part in it, the ‘prince of peace’ as they call him in Paris. The name of that great international figure is Pioch[9]. Pioch did a lot for us when we were imprisoned in Paris. Pioch gave a splendid speech, majestically setting out the criminality of war. Mimi[10] took his speech down in short-hand: I spoke after Pioch; after welcoming him and introducing him to the Spanish audience, I dealt with two aspects of war. Imperialist war and social warfare. No offence to Pioch, but I asked him why the pacifists had waited until war was staring them in the face before they stood up against the monstrousness of war. Today’s pacifists needed the spur of crimes committed before they wrote articles for the press and spoke from the rostrum; as if the crimes committed in ’14-’18 were the only crimes committed by capitalism. Brother Perico, I have seen a lot of human beings mutilated by that awful war; on the other hand, you know that I lived for a year in Paris, with the war at its height. Well, brother, I didn’t need that horrific tragedy before I spoke out against all manner of crimes. Whereas the war may have mutilated thousands, the social war has also mutilated thousands of workers. What difference is there between a man who loses an arm defending his homeland and one who loses it working? What is a homeland? According to the academics, it is the place where one was born. But what rights does the Homeland grant the worker? The right to work if he can find somebody to exploit him. Which is to say that the Homeland is an amalgamation of proprietorial rights; and once another turns up that is ready to usurp those rights, then the proprietors take refuge behind the laws which they themselves devised; and arm us and compel us to perish on the battlefield in defence of sacrosanct ownership. In such battles men murder one another and, once the tragedy ends. the only beneficiaries are the property-owners.

What is the social war? The struggle between two social classes. One, the property-owning class, do not give a fig about their workers losing limbs in among the machines just as long as their profits are maximised; making money is the point. On the other and, that property-owning class can see that the other class is a threat to their assets; they also look to the laws devised by themselves and they kill off those who do not defer to sacrosanct property. In that struggle, brother, there are also a lot of mutilated, many more than in the imperialist wars.

How are we going to evade war? There is only one course, Perico. By urging the young not to produce the weapons to be used for killing; and not to defend anyone else’s interests. Let the property-owners defend their property themselves.

You’re going to say to me, Perico, that this is all well and good and it has to be avoided and there we agree, brother; war must be avoided. Only the organised workers have it in them to prevent the coming slaughter. When Herriot[11] got back to Paris from his trip to Spain, he made some very interesting comments in the Parisian newspapers. Spain is a very interesting country, said Herriot, and in future she will have to be reckoned with: but until such time as republican youth succeed in strengthening the Republic, she is a country that is going to render great service to keeping the peace.

Bear in mind, brother, that when men speak of peace, they mean war and when they talk of strengthening the Republic, they mean doing away with organisation, which, in war-time, might bring the nation’s industrial life grinding to a standstill. Herriot did not dare say in public that mobilisation is not feasible in Spain as long the Confederation is around.

It follows that war has to be averted but we have to lay the groundwork to ensure that it does not come. If it become inevitable, you have to come up with ways of ensuring that those who urge it fail. The same way as a man makes sure in autumn that he will have an overcoat to ward off the winter chill. We have to organise: but if war’s fateful hour should come, let us know how to bring the nation’s industry to a standstill; that is the unanswerable weapon if we are to thwart the machiavellian schemes of an unscrupulous class that is ready to dispatch half of the human race to its death just to hang on to its privileges.

Keep up with the writing, Perico: I really enjoyed both of your articles; what you need to do is read; if you need details by way of a background regarding war, I can send them to you, as there is a committee in Paris made up of very capable people who write a lot , and well, on the subject of war.

You read French and they will be very useful to you; I have some newspapers in Barcelona; if you need them, drop Mimi a line and ask her to send them to you and, if need be, ask her to put you in touch with that committee, and subscribe to its press; it works out at about one peseta a week. Those newspapers will do you great service. If I get out soon, we will talk about this and I will supply you with French reviews that are true literary and scientific gems.

Keep your pecker up, Perico and stick at it; but steer clear of rabble-rousing. Success goes to the brave.

Mimi has written me that her mother is off to Paris; the woman[12] is feeling sad she she is left on her own and has to make arrangements for the girl [13] to be looked after.

Rosa[14], send me what you have and that letter you read in the newspapers and which carries my signature, as I have never read it.

Give my best to our friends and to Manolín[15] who writes to me.

A big hug from the one who loves you, Pepé.

[Signature: Pepé [16]]

Snapshots of Durruti, Diez, Ascaso, Combina and Lorda were made up into a montage showing them behind bars in the prison in Puerto de Santa María in August 1933. This became a postcard that was widely distributed at the time and which Durruti sent to his family and fellow struggles along with one of two well chosen dedications on the reverse: “There will be no peace on earth as long as there are prisons.

Idealists should never forget that it is their job to tear them down” and “The only solution the republicans can come up with is to jail those who are not of the same mind as themselves.”

On 13 September, along with various other comrades, Durruti, Ascaso and Combina were transferred to Seville to stand trial under the Second Republic’s Vagrancy and Evildoers (‘Vagos y Maleantes’) Persons’ Act, to their own great indignation, as they held it an insult to be tried as vagrants, in that they had lived off the fruits of their labours all their lives. They went on hunger strike. In the end, Durruti and Combina were released from prison on 7 October 1933, arriving back in Barcelona on 10 October. However, Francisco Ascaso and another three comrades (Diez, Valiente and Paniza) were held in prison until 13 November, charged by the magistrate with a fresh offence, “disobedience”, for having refused to endorse the verdict he had handed down upon them as vagrants.

Generalitat Palace, 14 April 1933: President Macia presents a plaque commemorating the second anniversary of the Republic to Josep Dencàs and Miquel Badia, on behalf of the Joventuts d’Esquerra Republicana and Estat Català. (Others in the photo include Lluís Companys and Jaume Aiguader. )

On 22 October 1933, eight thousand uniformed members of the JEREC escamots paraded in military fashion on Montjuich, aping the Nazi model. Dressed in green shirts, dark corduroy trousers, Sam Brown belts and boots, they cheered speeches from Miguel Badía, Josep Dencàs (whom Soli ridiculed as an imitator of Hitler’s) and the much manipulated and ambitious President Macià.

The following day that demonstration triggered a heated debate in the Catalan Parliament, the majority of which repudiated such totalitarian displays, albeit that, for all the talk, no action was taken.

On 24 October, a gang of escamots stormed, at gunpoint, a printworks where the Catalanist liberal satirical weekly El Be Negre was being printed, leading to slight damage; at the same time, they destroyed and impounded the five or six thousand copies of the edition of the paper that was on the presses. Nobody was arrested but the editor who had drawn the ire of certain ERC and Estat Català leaders prudently fled abroad as far he could and the owner of the printworks brought charges for the destruction of assets and damage to his machinery against the self-confessed participant in the raid, spoilt brat Jaume Aiguader (son of the ERC leader and mayor of Barcelona of the same name) who, together with his brother Artemi, had led the 15-atrong escamot gang that raided the weekly paper. Soli warned that if the escamots were to raid them, they would be up against a proper resistance, a far cry from the passive response forthcoming from El Be Negre.

30 April 1936: Funeral procession of the paramilitary neo-fascist strikebreakers Miquel and Josep Badia Capell, killed by a an anarchist action group on 28 April, 1936.

Over the months that followed the escamots’ aping of the fascists also extended to strike-breaking and boycotting the rallies of rival parties, whilst Badía and Dencàs took over the Interior and Public Order Departments, systematically torturing CNT personnel arrested in connection with the Barcelona tram strike. In the meantime, Durruti, Ascaso and Combina addressed monster rallies as part of the CNT’s abstentionist campaign. And the social war carried on its way.

Notes

[1] La Vanguardia , 5 April 1933

[2] Vicente Pérez Viche aka Combina was a french-polisher born in Barcelona on 28 June 1900. Exiled in France during the Primo de Rivera dictatorship, he, together with García Oliver, walked out of the Marseilles congress in 1926 after the case for working in cooperation with the politicians was rejected. He took part in many congresses, conferences and rallies right across Spain. Together with Durruti and García Oliver, he took part in the January 1932 agitational campaign launched in Sallent and culminating in the Upper Llobregat rising. He was arrested in Seville on 2 April 1933, after delivering the wind-up address of the Andalusian regional congress. Jailed in Puerto de Santa María prison until October. On 16 November 1933 he spoke at the FAI-organised rally held in the Palace of Decorative Arts in Montjuich, alongside Francisco Ascaso, Domingo Germinal, Alejandro Gilabert, Dolores Iturbe, Sébastien Faure and Buenaventura Durruti. Over the ensuing years he shared the bill at the main anarcho-syndicalist rallies with the most prominent CNT speakers. He attended the CNT congress in May 1936. During the war, he was one of none CNT representatives on Barcelona City Council. He was president of the Barcelona Transport Union. And backed the Friends of Durruti rally held at the Poliorama theatre. In August 1938, he was appointed secretary of the CNT’s National Transport Federation. Come the end of the war, he moved to Venezuela and then on to Mexico.

[3] The letter is mistakenly dated as 3-6-1926

[4] Santiago Casares Quiroga (1884-1950) was a lawyer and republican politician. He held various ministries during the Second Republic. In June 1933 (the date of this letter) he was Interior Minister, a post he held throughout the two years of socialist-republican coalition government. He was a personal friend of Azaña. After Azaña became President of the Republic, Quiroga was appointed prime minister and minister of War (May 1936), which posts he held until 18 July 1936 when he stepped down, overwhelmed by the military coup which he had failed to frustrate.

[5] A description of Durruti appears in the novel El cabo de las tormentas

[6][6] Pío Baroja’s article, carried in Ahora of 23 April 1933 was headed “Latifundio and communism”

[7] Domingo Miguel González (1880-1936), known by his assumed name Domingo Germinal, or just Germinal. He spent his youth in Vizcaya. Sometime around 1905 he joined the merchant navy. During the 1920s he lived in Cuba and Mexico. In 1929 he returned to Spain. During 1929-1030 he lived in Blanes or in Barcelona, contributing to La Revista Blanca. On 15 September 1930 he took part in a rally held at the Fine Arts Palace in Barcelona, lobbying on behalf of prisoners; there he insisted that the state grant an amnesty to political and social offenders. On 16 October, a talk that he was due to give at the Apolo theatre in Vilanova i la Geltrú was banned by order of the government. During the 1930s he held rallies all over the country. He was an excellent public speaker with a command of several languages and was a big ‘draw’. Arrested in Seville on 2 April 1933, he was held in Puerto de Santa Maria up until October. On 5 November 1933 he and Josep Corbella, Framcesc Esgleas, Valeriano Orobon , Benito Pabon and Buenavenbtura Durruti addressed a huge CNT- and FAI-organised rally in the Momumental bullring in Barcelona, opposing the election. On the 16th he spoke at a FAI-organised rally at the Palace of Decorative Arts in Montjuich, with Francisco Ascaso, Vicente Perez Viche (Combina), Alejandro Gilabert, Dolores Iturbe, Sébastien Faure and Buenaventura Durruti. On the run from republican repression, he went to ground in various locations around Valencia and later, looking for a climate that might assist his health, he settled in Palma de Mallorca (and, occasionally, Ibiza) where he ran the newspaper Cultura Obrera between 1935 and 1936. He died in Elche in March 1936.

[8] Perico, short for Pedro, was Durruti’s brother Marciano Pedro Durruti Domingo (1911-1937). After some anarchist activism, he joined the Falange in 1936 and even had dealings with José Antonio Primo de Rivera, having ended up with him in the Modelo prison in Madrid; José Antonio endorsed his application for admission to the Falange. Perico died nine months after his brother. He was shot on 22 August 1937 in a tiny village in Leon, by people from his own side who regarded him as a radical, following a rather tokenistic drumhead court martial.

[9] Georges Pioch (1873-1953) was a journalist and prominent French peace activist. Towards the end of 1930 he created and chaired the International Fighters for Peace League, of which Romain Rolland was honorary president and Victor Méric the general secretary. Its honorable committee included Albert Einstein, Stefan Zweig, Upton Sinclair, Paul Langevin, Georges Duhamel, Charles Vildrac and Jules Romains. In 1937, Georges Pioch resigned because of his belief that the Moscow Trials were not being condemned with sufficient vigour and efficacy. Together with Jean Giono, Victor Margueritte, Marcel Martinet and Simone Weil, he signed a petition demanding non-intervention in Spanish affairs, along with a petition for mediation between the warring sides. He withdrew from all public activity in 1943 and died in Nice on 27 March 1953.

[10] Mimi was Durruti’s partner, Emilienne Morin (1901-1991)

[11] Édouard Herriot (1972-1957), French politician, statesman and writer. A member of the Republican Radical Party and a leading light of the Third and Fourth Republics. He was educated at the École Normale Supérieure and taught in Nantes and, from 1902 in Lyon, where he served as mayor from 1905 to 1925 and, after the Second World War, up until his death. From 1910 onwards his local political activities were overtaken by his national activities and he served in nine governments and was prime minister on three occasions. His main political posts were as Minister of Transport and Public Works (1916-1917), Minister of Education (1926-1928), Prime Minister and Foreign Relations Minister (1924-1925, and in July 1926 and June to December 1932) and Minister of State (1934-1936). In 1946 he was elected as a member of the Académie Française. From 1947 to 1954 he was speaker of the National Assembly.

[12] i.e. Émilienne Morin

[13] Colette Durruti (b. December 1931), the only daughter of Buenaventura Durruti and Émilienne Morin

[14] Rosa Durruti, his sister

[15] Manuel Durruti, Buenaventura’s socialist sympathiser brother. He was shot dead during the October 1934 revolution near the San Marcos bridge in the city of León.

[16] In family correspondence, he used to sign himself Pepé. Bear in mind that his full name was José Buenaventura.