Early in September, the Giral government resigned to make way for a cabinet consisting of 3 left-wing and 3 right-wing socialists,15 republicans and 2 communists. The new government was led by the head of the socialist party, Largo Caballero. The new regime lost no time in moving to restore the balance of power to the state, which, in spite of the welter of declarations and decrees, had not existed since the working class victory over the military on 19 July.
The response of the CNT leadership to the new government, which they had not been invited to join, came in mid-September when a 'working party' consisting of Juan Lopez, Aurelio Alvarez and Federica Montseny issued a statement calling for the setting up of what they described as a National Defence Council. This was a government by another name, and a further indication of the willingness of the CNT leadership to collaborate with the political parties. The statement urged that the council should be chaired by Caballero as President of the Republic, with 5 CNT, 5 UGT and 4 republican members; among its functions should be to coordinate federally organised regional defence councils, to transform ministries into departments, to create a single popular militia for police functions and a war militia, with compulsory service, under a single unified military command.
Caballero, an experienced and wily politician, was fully aware of the kite-flying nature of the statement issued by the CNT's working party. A few days later, on the 20th of the month, the Madrid government responded by setting up a temporary police force, the Milicias de Vigilancia de la Retaguardia (MVR &endash; Rearguard Watch Militias), under the control of the Ministry of the Interior. The same decree also outlawed all other non-governmental bodies that "attempted to carry out functions peculiar to the same". Thus began the process of rebuilding the state apparatus.
In spite of this outright affront to the anarcho-syndicalist movement, the National Committee of the CNT bent even further backwards to renege on their principles. In a somewhat surprisingly naïve choice of words for anarchists to describe the actions of politicians, a further manifesto argued:
"The exclusion from the leadership of that struggle of a movement of the scale and significance of the CNT is tantamount to the introduction of a bias into that same leadership and to depriving it of its national character, and, thereby, shattering its effectiveness . . . But for this Confederation, which finds itself denied a place in the running of Spanish life at national levels, fascism would have scored an inexorable and tremendous victory . . . Why is there no recognition of its mettle and why no acceptance of the proportional representation owing to it in the oversight of the struggle?"
It went on to plead that because it had chosen to forego "the wholesale pursuit of its programme" (the implementation of libertarian communism), it had surely shown itself worthy of sharing in 'the oversight of the struggle' in its proposed National Defence Council.
In Catalonia, in the meantime, on 24 September, the Regional Committee of the CNT convened a Plenum of the CNT unions to study the economic problems facing the collectives and to assist the work of the recently formed Economic Council (see August). The report of the CNT delegate to the Economic Council, Juan P. Fabregas, provides a useful insight into the complexity of the problems of war and revolution as perceived by the small group of people who were now controlling the CNT and whose revolutionary ideas had been supplanted by the need for internal unity, harmony and the elimination of internal conflicts and tensions:
"Prior to 19 July there were 65,000 unemployed workers in Catalonia. There are huge stocks of manufactured goods that cannot be exported because of the war and on account of the strained relations existing between Madrid and Barcelona . . . I must tell you of the difficulties raised by the Madrid government, which has refused us all assistance in economic and financial matters, assuredly because it does not have much sympathy with the practical projects underway in Catalonia . . . The Madrid government has refused point blank to help Catalonia. There has been a change of government but still we run up against the same difficulties . . . We asked the government for a credit of 800 million pesetas, another of 30 millions for the purchase of war materials and a further 150 million francs for the purchase of raw materials. As a collateral we offered 1,000 million pesetas that the savings banks have on deposit in the form of securities with the Bank of Spain. All this was denied us." 2
The Plenum ended on 26 September 1936. The next day the Catalan press informed the world that following discussions between Companys and the CNT, the anarcho-syndicalist labour union had officially renounced its anti-political stance and was now a full member of the Generalidad government of Catalonia. The newspaper Claridad referred to a note to the Generalidad Council from the CNT Regional Committee accepting governmental responsibility, which stated the CNT's acceptance "indicates a realisation that reality is more instructive than any theoretical extremism and in no way implies abandonment of principle, but indeed the very opposite." 3
Later that same day, the Regional Committee issued a press statement 4 denying it had held discussions with Companys or that it had abandoned its anti-political principles by participating in government. What it did admit to, however, was an agreement to collaborate with a new body called 'The Council of the Generalidad'. This body developed out of the Economic Council, which had been constituted by decree in the previous month. It consisted of Esquerra members - 4, CNT - 3, PSUC - 2, Rabassaires-Esquerra - 1, POUM - 1, Acción Catalana - 1 and one defence expert. . The programme was: concentration on the war effort, the coordination of all fighting units under a single command, a conscript militia, a tightening of discipline, the economic reconstruction of the country, and to provide guidance to the working class in order "that its endeavours and its aspirations be coordinated and united".
In an article in Solidaridad Obrera a few days later, commenting on the decision to participate in the Council of the Generalidad, Federico Urales, Montseny's father, defended this decision:
"Some time ago we said: better proletarian dictatorship than bourgeois dictatorship. Now we proclaim: better any accommodation with those who, while not of us, are at least close to us, than that fascism should triumph; and in saying that we do not address ourselves to the anarchists but to all who struggle against fascism. We would do well to take on board the common peril and the mission that history has imposed on the Spanish people. All antifascists must be worthy of this moment. The salvation of the world's liberties lies in our hands. We have to rescue them with our hearts, our loyalty and our readiness to reach accommodations, bearing in mind that for us, the lesser evil should be É not the triumph of state communism over the libertarian variety, nor the triumph libertarian communism over the state variety, nor yet the triumph of a federal republic which may encourage common and collective possession of wealth É no, it would be fascism victorious, and today and for as long as the fascist threat remains, our actions must be bent only to the prevention of that victory. With the establishment of the Council of the Generalidad, the Central Committee of Antifascist Militias had come to the end of its useful life as a caretaker Catalan government and was disbanded. Diego Abad de Santillán later explained the collaborationist position: The Militias Committee guaranteed the supremacy of the people in arms, guaranteed Catalonia's autonomy, guaranteed the purity and legitimacy of the war, guaranteed the resurrection of the Spanish pulse and of the Spanish soul: but we were told and it was repeated to us endlessly that as long as we persisted in retaining it, that is, as long as we persisted in propping up the power of the people, weapons would not come to Catalonia, nor would we be granted the foreign currency to obtain them from abroad, nor would we be supplied with the raw materials for our industry. And since losing the war meant losing everything and returning to a state like the one that prevailed in the Spain of Ferdinand VII, and in the conviction that the drive given by us and by our people could not vanish completely from the militarised armed corps planned by the central government and from the new economic life, we quit the Militias Committee to join the Generalidad government in its Defence Councillorship and other vital departments of the autonomous government."
Taken from the Meltzer Press site with permission of the author
1.The principal difference between the wings was on the party's relations with the CNT, the communists, etc. The left had a corresponding pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric, while the right was made up of bourgeois liberals like Indalecio Prieto.
2.José Peirats, La CNT en la revolución española, op. cit., vol. 1, ch. 11.
4.'Yesterday, Saturday, the evening papers carried news that comrades Fabregas and Domenech had discussions with the President of the Generalidad, discussions that lasted 20 minutes. It has to be pointed out that the comrades in question talked, not with the President but had an audience with the Councillor for Culture. To clarify another point to the press and, may it serve as a warning É no government has been set up but rather a new body congruent with the circumstances in which we find ourselves and which goes by the name of the Council of the Generalidad.' Quoted by Peirats, ibid.