Review:

We, the Anarchists! A study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927-1937

by Stuart Christie.


Since the official birth of organised anarchism at the Saint Imier Congress of 1872, no anarchist organisation has been held up to greater opprobrium or subjected to such gross misrepresentation than the Federación Anarquista Iberica, better known by its initials - FAI. The hostility of extreme right wing commentators to revolutionary working class movements is hardly surprising and need not detain us long. The following quote is included merely as an example of how authoritarian commentators attempted to calibrate popular attitudes in such as way as to present the FAI, the rallying point for the defenders of the anarchist constitution of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union, as the agent of disharmony and the conspiratorial epicentre of mindless violence.

"The other (great corporation) unites the men who profess anarcho-syndicalist doctrines, styling itself on the Confederación Nacional de Trabajadores (National Confederation of Workers) [sic]. It is for brevity's sake designated as CNT. Its ruling committee, the FAI (Federación Anarquista Iberica - Iberian Anarchist Federation) bears a name which strikes terror into the heart of most Spaniards. If 'ruthless' be the qualification fitted for the UGT, 'bloodthirsty' does not sufficiently describe the FAI. The members of both of these associations are recruited by methods most closely resembling coercion than persuasion, the flourish of a pistol being one of the most frequent. They are inscribed on the rolls without the slightest regard to their trade. One and the other furnish gunmen for social crimes, voters for the elections and militiamen for the front. These three seem the only activities of the UGT, the CNT and the FAI. To belong to any of these three justify vehement suspicion of criminality: membership of the last makes it certain."


(ISBN 1 901172 02 3). First published 1966, The Meltzer Press. A4 limited spiral-bound publication, 110 pages, £12.95 (inc. p&p). (US$ price $26.00 if paid by Visa, MasterCard, Access, Amex or International Telegraphic Transfer. Payment by US$ cheque $65.00). This work is not available in hardback or paperback editions.

Present day attitudes toward the FAI have been and continue to be formed, in the main, by the works of Liberal and Marxist historians. More sophisticated than Arnold Lunn, these views, as the US writer, teacher and essayist Noam Chomsky has noted, continue to be supported 'by ideological conviction rather than history or investigation of the phenomena of social life.'

This study developed out of a sense of irritation that the same myths and distortions about the millenarian or manipulative role of the FAI in its symbiotic relationship with the CNT continue to circulate unchallenged. I was equally concerned to establish that indolent and intelligent commentators alike have sought to demonise the FAI - and Spanish anarchism in general - by cynically or unintentionally distorting the available historical evidence. Whether to reinforce their own political prejudices, refute their enemies, or plain ignorance or malice is immaterial; what is intriguing is that apparently diligent historians should adapt and perpetuate wild hearsay assertions such as those propagated by Arnold Lunn, making no attempt to distinguish between fact and fantasy, is more than simple infraction of the rules of historical hypothesis. Their failure to apply the rules of evidence in the case against the FAI not only undermines that case, but it also raises serious questions as to their intellectual and moral honesty.

There are two dimensions to this book. The first is descriptive and historical: it outlines the evolution of the organised anarchist movement in Spain and its relationship with the wider labour movement. At the same time it provides some insight into the main ideas which made the Spanish labour movement one of the most revolutionary of modern times. The second is analytical and tries to address from an anarchist perspective what is the particularly relevant problem of understanding change in the contemporary world; how can ideals survive the process of institutionalisation? If this is not feasible, at least to be able to identify the turning points so that we may be able to counter the process.

In tracing the history of the CNT and FAI it is clear that anarchist organisations, like all other organisations and civilisations before them, are subject to process of rise and fall. Once they achieve their specific objectives even the most committed libertarian and directly democratic organisations quickly degenerate. From being social instruments set up to meet real social needs they become transformed into self-perpetuating institutions with lives and purposes of their own, distinct to and in tension with the objectives which called them into being in the first place.

The main contention of the book is simple: briefly, it is that as the Primo de Rivera dictatorship began to founder in 1927 a struggle broke out between the non-anarchist leadership and anarchist base of the anarcho-syndicalist the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT). The leaders, that is, the members of the Regional and National Committees of the CNT, having become intermediaries between labour an capital, openly challenged the ideological objectives of the 'conscious minority' by seeking to overturn the federally structured anti-capitalist and anti-statist constitution of the CNT in order to compete with the Socialist Union General de Trabajadores (UGT) for hegemony over the Spanish working class. In their view the workers' cause would only be advanced when all workers belonged to their union, something that could only be achieved by operating within the legal parameters of the capitalist and statist system.

To the 'conscious minority' of anarchists this threatened to transform the CNT from a revolutionary weapon which could eliminate the misery of everyday life into a reformist labour union which served only to perpetuate and legitimise the exploitation of man by man. The anarchist militants who constituted the base of the CNT responded by founding the Federación Anarquista Iberica, an ad hoc federally structured association whose function was to reaffirm the revolutionary nature of anarchism and to provide a rallying point for the defence of the anti-political principles and immediate Libertarian Communist objectives of the CNT. By 1932 the reformist threat has been eliminated - democratically! - and the working class anarchists who had spoken in the name of the FAI (although many of these like Garcia Oliver and Durruti, had never been affiliated to the FAI) reverted to everyday union activity at Local Federation level or to conspiratorial revolutionary activity in the Confederal Defence Committee.

Instead of disbanding,, however, or confining itself to acting as a liaison secretariat between autonomous agitational or propaganda groups, the FAI was taken over in mid-1933 by a group of rootless intellectuals and economic planners under the leadership of Diego Abad de Santillan, a man for whom abstract theories took precedence over workers' practical experiences. With the coming of the Spanish Civil War two years later, the FAI had abandoned all pretence of being a revolutionary organ. Like the institutionalised CNT leadership it had successfully challenged in 1930-1932, the FAI had become, in its turn, a structure of vested interests serving to apply the brakes to the spontaneous revolutionary activity of the rank and file and repress the new generation of revolutionary activists among the Libertarian Youth and the 'Friends of Durruti' group. 'Anti-fascist unity' and state power were promoted at the expense of anarchist principles while the hegemony of the CNT-FAI leadership was imposed over the local revolutionary committees and the general assemblies. Its principal aim had become to perpetuate itself, even at the expense of the revolutionary anarchist principles which had inspired it: the instrumental means had become the organisational end.


Taken from the Meltzer Press site with permission


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