The Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution

Submitted by dalcassian on 2 January, 2014 - 1:05

M. Wilson

D. A. Santillan has written a tragic, very significant book* to tell the “real role” of the F.A.I. (Anarchist Federation of Iberia), the “only influential mass organization that remained incorruptible in the face of new loves” and to place the blame for the victory of Franco where he thinks it really falls – at the door of the “democracies,” Russia and the Popular Front government of Spain.

Santillan, leader and chief of the Anarchist Federation of Iberia, was the organizer and active leader of the militias that crushed the fascists in Barcelona in July, 1936, and then marched on to Aragon. He was later Defense Minister in the Catalan Popular Front Cabinet, member of the Economic Council of the same government, representative of the F.A.I, to the national Popular Front organization, and a key figure in the organization by the C.N.T. unions of the Catalan war economy.

He lists the three causes of the Spanish defeat, “the definitive defeat of our generation” as “(1) the Franco-British policy of non-intervention ... (2) the Russian intervention into our affairs ... (3) the centralist mania of the runaway Madrid-Valencia – Barcelona – Figueros government…”

These are the most superficial of reasons. We, as Marxists, don’t “blame” Britain for her anti-working class foreign polity; how could a revolutionary seriously expect capitalist England to contribute to the building of an independent working class state in Europe? Nor do we think that the “centralism” or “anti-Catalanism” of the Popular Front government was any more than a cover for much more serious objections against Catalonia – namely: that it was the focus and stronghold of the revolutionary power of the Spanish proletariat. Nor can “Russian influence” be blamed: the anarchists had complete control of Catalonia, most of Aragon and much of Levante when the Stalinists were only a tiny handful.

The Stalinists gained control over Spain and the Popular Front was enabled to carry out its disastrous military and economic policies because of the same fundamental factor that led the Anarchists to betray the Spanish workers. There was no Bolshevik party in Spain embodying the one set of ideas that could organize the situation: the tested truths of Marxist theory and methods.

Santillan’s book emphasizes again for us the great importance of our Marxist theoretical tools. He is forced by the tremendous experience he went through to realize that something went wrong – he finds it in every obscure corner, except in his own theories.

Marxists know that to carry on a victorious proletarian war in a capitalist world, an independent working class state apparatus – free from all reflections of ruling class interests – is a prerequisite. This state must be a means through which the courage, watchfulness and creative energy of the toiling masses is given expression. An effective, trustworthy army must be established, controlled from below, devoted to its class and ready to combine revolutionary propaganda, guerrilla warfare, or fraternization with other forms of combat. A war economy free from fascist or middle class saboteurs, supervised and run by the revolutionary committees, must be set up and its activities coordinated with the old task of supplying the rear guard.

Lastly, and most important of all, the working class of the neighboring countries must be made to understand the struggle and rallied to support it with independent revolutionary action.

This was all possible in Spain. The anarchists had the power to do it. But they didn’t. Because their theories – their tools for action – were smashed to pieces by the realities of proletarian revolution. Independent of the will of the Anarchist leaders, the Spanish workers built revolutionary committees throughout Spain – committees which enforced their will on all recalcitrant bourgeois. Capitalist England and France made the only choice possible to them: they chose to strangle the proletarian revolution that directly threatened to upset their control over their own working masses.

How did the leaders of the revolutionary anarchist masses meet this situation? Santillan tells us.

General strikes had closed all the industries throughout Catalonia and the rest of Spain, armed squads of Hombres de la F.A.I. – men of the F.A.I. – patrolled the streets, roads and forts. Companys, head of the petty-bourgeois Catalan nationalist government – called the Anarchist leaders into his office. Unshaven, exhausted, arms in hand, they came to answer his questions as to “what we proposed to do ... We could be the only rules, impose our will absolutely, declare the Generality fallen, and institute in its place the real power of the people, but we did not believe in dictatorship when it was exercised against us and we did not desire it when we could exercise it against others. The Generality would remain at its post with President Companys at its head, and the popular forces would organize into militias to continue the fight for the liberation of Spain. Thus surged forth the Central Anti-Fascist Militia of Catalonia, to which we allowed all liberal and proletarian sectors to enter.” (My emphasis. – M. W.)

All their anti-Marxist polemics on “pure democracy,” “libertarian communism,” the tyranny of the Soviet forms didn’t succeed in teaching them the first elementary principle of revolutionary democracy – its politics: the methods of expressing the will of the people in a democratically organized form.

A multitude of “practical” problems arose immediately to pose in all its sharpness the basic political problem: who was controlling and organizing Spanish economy? The Stalinist-led politicians of the bourgeoisie – whom the workers had forced ever so reluctantly to “be saved” from fascism – or the revolutionary workers in arms? Santillan recounts with tragic naivete how the bourgeois “democrats” sabotaged the proletarian organization of the war. Blind economism was confronted on every side with political reactions. Neither the Spanish bourgeoisie nor their political tools would help in the construction of a workers’ Spain – which alone could organize to stop fascism, as the republic of 1931-36 had proved. The F.A.I, faced all the complex economic, military and above all political problems of a twentieth century capitalist world – in Spain, where two classes were contesting for power; in the European market, where trading was strictly in terms of cash; in the military struggle, where a coordinated, centralized command was needed to fight Mussolini’s legions; and on the international political front, where a crystal-clear revolutionary analysis and interpretation of the war had to reach the French workers to rouse them into independent class action to stop non-intervention and organize proletarian support. What happened?

“We found ourselves from the first day faced with an alarming poverty of raw materials in a region that lacked minerals, textile fibers and coal. We lacked coal for industry and transport ... it was a constant tragedy, especially for the metallurgical industry. Asturias could have co-operated greatly, but one of its leaders replied to our proposals that he would prefer for the coal of the Asturias to remain in the mine, or in the Musel than to have it fall into the hands of the Catalans; in turn Asturias lacked the cloth that we had an abundance of, and the other elements that we offered to supply.” The Asturian bourgeoisie refused to cooperate with the Catalan proletariat – political problem.

“The Communist Party took advantage of its entry into the Ministry of Agriculture to deny credits, manure and seeds to the collective farms of the C.N.T.; they went so far as to create organizations of the dissatisfied peasants to destroy the work of the collectives in Levante, giving them all the support of the Ministry of Agriculture.” The Lister Division of the International Brigade destroyed hundreds of collectives in Aragon in blood and fire. Russia, the agent of the British and Spanish bourgeoisie, fights to put down the revolutionary peasant movement: a political problem.

“We could not develop the war industries without depending on foreign steel, zinc, copper, etc., that had to be paid in foreign exchange, which could only be got through the access of the Central Government to the gold of the Bank of Spain (which was consistently denied the Catalan anarchists. – M. W.). Basque steel also had to be paid for with foreign exchange . . . We encountered only difficulties and obstacles in providing ourselves with the raw materials that abounded in those regions (Asturias and Basque provinces. – M. W.)” The Basque and Asturian capitalists combine with the Central Popular Front government in their refusal to help their proletarian comrades in the anti-fascist struggle – also a political problem of a great magnitude.

In an interview with Giral in July, 1936 – even before the formation of the first Caballero government – Santillan “explains our military possibilities, emphasizing the importance of the Aragon front for linking economically the Catalan region with the heavy industry of Euzkadi and the coal mining zone of the Asturias. . . . We asked for a small advance of foreign exchange to buy airplanes and some armaments that had been offered us.” Giral “appeared convinced” but his government soon fell and “nothing remained of the episode but our memories.” And so it is, when you depend on bourgeois support in a time of proletarian revolution. Santillan also visited Azana to get money for an attack on Aragon – no results. Durruti the Militia Committees were “a complete assumption of total popular power” or a went to interview Caballero to get funds to buy arms available in Europe – he got promises but no money. Santillan organized 3,000 men in a secret plan to seize this Bank of Spain gold, but his organization and the C.N.T. said no, so he didn’t.

“The Central Government reiterated again and again to us that they would not help us while the power of the Militia Committee, the organ of the people’s revolution, was so manifest.” Politics is concentrated economics, and despite the blindness of the anarchists, the bourgeois Madrid government knew that a new economy and the defense of this economy were concentrated into the hands of these committees that were running Catalonia. These were political bodies, were attacked politically, and only through them, politically, could the revolution be defended.

Two very clear, simple facts hit you in the face with every line of the book: First, that there were two classes in “loyalist” . Spain. One was the workers and peasants who wanted to fight fascism for their own preservation and to build a revolutionary world ;the other was the terrified Spanish middle class and capitalists – whose stooges in the Popular Front government also served the interests of British imperialism. This petit bourgeoisie wanted at all costs, blindly and first of all, to crush the independent revolutionary class action of the Spanish masses. Second, there were two state forms contending for control, and the only hope of conquering fascism was to smash the old form that permitted economic and military sabotage and to put complete control in the hands of the revolutionary committees.

This apolitical anarchist could not see that the state still represented the bourgeoisie: that it was the last and strongest reservoir of bourgeois power, resisting stoutly all attempts to make it serve an alien class – even while covering itself with revolutionary phrases. He tries to right the errors and treachery he sees everywhere around him, but he expects the leopards to change their spots. He cannot see the basic class causes of the degeneration of the war and the revolution.

Santillan says: “Circumstances stronger than our own will carried us into situations and proceedings that disgusted us, but that we could not avoid.” No, it was circumstances that Anarchist theory was too weak to meet that led them into the path of class collaboration in the service of the enemy class.

How can a revolutionary know what to do about a situation if his theory can’t tell him what it is? You can’t save a drowning man if you are victim of the mirage that water is air. How could the F.A.I, know what to do about the Spanish revolution if they couldn’t decide whether [it should be] “Ministry of War in time of war”, or a guerrilla army, “the complement of the regular army” and the “most efficient guarantee of the revolution”?

Nowhere does he give in one single, simple formulation the role of these committees – which were the key to all the problems he struggled with. In each chapter where he takes up one job that only the committees could perform successfully, he proves that this was their function, and that the others should be assumed by the state. The militias are a “Ministry of War in time of war so the F.A.I, must organize a separate Council of Economy with the old Generality government to coordinate the economy with the war; they are the stateless “assumption of popular power” so coercive, repressive governmental functions must be organized independently – e.g., the workers’ police; they are a guerrilla army, so the bourgeois state must organize the “regular” army. They were not to control or organize the economy – that was a purely economic question to be handled by the unions – but when it became obvious that industry and agriculture must be coordinated with the conduct of the war – the whole program was abandoned to the bourgeois government.

Santillan’s work is an incomparable documentation on the failure of the Popular Front government to perform any of the functions that were stripped from the revolutionary committees. He concludes his bitter denunciation of this failure with: “We had no other instrument that could carry out the manifold functions of a government at war”! (My emphasis. – M. W.)

With theory so inadequate that they failed even to see what went on around them, how could the F.A.I, possibly have acted correctly?

*Ediciones Iman. Buenos Aires, Argentina. April, 1940.

New International May 1941

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