A Study of the Revolution in Spain

Chapter 4 October 1936

The obsession of the CNT leadership with antifascist unity steadily widened the gap between them and the aspirations of the mass of the radical working-class membership. The 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, 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.1

"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 " 2

It was Article 15, however, the final, chilling one, which 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." 3

Warning to the 'uncontrollables'

Also on that same day, 23 October, the anarchist minister in the Generalidad 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 dissevered 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." 4

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 that have cost so much blood and for which so much blood has yet to be shed will largely be lost to us."

The Council of Aragón

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 Aragonese 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."6

In spite of opposition from the two Catalan militia leaders, Gregorio Jover and Antonio Ortiz, 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 which would link together a series of regional bodies that were organised on principles similar to the one now established in Aragón.7

Cesar Lorenzo, the CNT historian, has underlined the revolutionary nature of this decision by the Aragonese in comparison with the collaborationist role of the CNT's 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 that ravaged the countryside, despite the continual presence of important contingencies of the POUM, the PSUC and Catalan forces, despite repercussions abroad, despite the Madrid government, and, finally, despite the CNT itself." 8

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 with 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. Vazquez, secretary first of the Catalan Regional Committee and then later of the National Committee, had first made his opposition to the Regional Defence Council clear during an inter-regional meeting in Caspe at the end of August 1936.

Aragón isolated

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 Generalidad and the central government in Madrid. The delegation was led by two anarchists, namely Joaquín Ascaso, the Council president, and Miguel Chueca, the CNT regional committee representative, and two republicans.

Rolling back the revolution

Meanwhile Companys, the Catalan president, had had three months to rebuild his power base, and to contain and begin the process of rolling back the revolution. 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.9 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 Madrid's control, and also the military situation at the time. The fall of the capital appeared imminent, and both Caballero and Manuel Azana, the president of the republic, were desperately trying to entice the CNT into the new government.

Berneri's strategy

That same day, 24 October, Italian anarchist writer Camillo Berneri offered constructive suggestions in his paper Guerra di Clase as to how the anarcho-syndicalist movement could pursue a revolutionary strategy and fight the war at the same time. By breaking off diplomatic relations with Portugal, Italy and Germany, the Spanish Republic would force the Allies to adopt a more resolute position. Fomenting revolution in the operational base of the insurgent army, Morocco, would seriously weaken the enemy. Other suggestions included taking stronger measures against the fascist rearguard, and the reconstruction of the Spanish diplomatic corps under the orders of a National Defence Committee.10

Berneri's unrelenting commitment to the anarchist ideal soon brought him into open conflict with the CNT-FAI leadership. On 5 November, the day after the CNT joined the Caballero government, he warned his comrades through the columns of Guerra di Clase:

"Madrid is not content just to reign; it wants to govern as well. As a whole, the Spanish government is just as hostile to the social revolution as to monarchist and clerical fascism. Madrid desired a 'return to legality' and nothing else. Arming Catalonia, financing Catalonia, that signifies to Madrid arming the columns that carry the revolution on the points of their bayonets and supplying the new egalitarian economic order. We must, therefore, addressing ourselves to the government in Madrid, give it the choice between defeat in the war and the revolution and victory."

He also urged the anarchist press to cure itself of its intoxication by the unfortunate spirit of 'holy union', which "has ended up by reducing political criticism to an imperceptible minimum. Solidaridad Obrera, by praising the Bolshevik government of the USSR, albeit in parenthesis, reached the heights of political naïvety."

Berneri ended his public criticism:

"To reconcile the 'necessities of war', the 'will' of the revolution and the 'aspirations' of anarchism: there lies the problem. This problem must be resolved. On it depend the military victory against fascism, the creation of a new economy, the social deliverance of Spain and the evaluation of the anarchists' beliefs and actions. Three great things which merit every sacrifice and impose on each the duty to have the courage to state his own beliefs in their entirety":.11

From A Study of the Revolution in Spain, 1936-1937 by Stuart Christie

Taken from the Meltzer Press site with permission of the author

To the Spanish Revolution archive