Wrong Steps: Errors in the Spanish Revolution

Juan Garcia Oliver

Kate Sharpley Library

Juan Garcia Oliver, a leading militant of the Spanish CNT during the 1930s, is most famous for becoming the first ever (and hopefully last) anarchist Minister of Justice during the Civil War and Revolution of 1936. The bulk of this pamphlet is a section from his 1978 autobiography on the events of July 1936, particularly the decision made on July 20th to reject anarchism and collaborate with other anti-fascist groupings, parties and unions in the name of "anti-fascist unity."

While being remembered as an "anarchist" Minister, as the pamphlet makes clear, Garcia Oliver's position in July of 1936 had been entirely different. He had been one of the militants to argue in favour of overthrowing the government in Catalonia in the crucial meetings of July 20-21. Unfortunately, the majority decided to reject the implementation of the resolutions passed in May that year at the Sarragosa conference of the CNT. The idea that implementing libertarian communism would be an "anarchist dictatorship" sprang from Federica Montseny, a middle-class intellectual, while Diego de Santillan argued that the revolution would be isolated and perhaps subject to international intervention.

If Montseny's argument was valid, then it logically means that anarchism itself would be impossible, for there will always be sectors of society -- bosses, politicians, etc. -- who will oppose social re-organisation on a libertarian basis. As Malatesta once argued, some people "seem almost to believe that after having brought down government and private property we would allow both to be quietly built up again, because of a respect for the freedom of those who might feel the need to be rulers and property owners. A truly curious way of interpreting our ideas!" It is doubtful he would have predicted that certain anarchists would be included in such company! To state the obvious, it is hardly "dictatorship" to create a society based on federations of self-managed associations nor is it "authoritarian" to destroy authority.

It appears that fear of isolation was the decisive factor. The CNT was a majority organisation in Catalonia and certain other parts of Spain, but a minority in Castille and Asturias. Also, the fear of fascism played an important role in the decision -- implementing libertarian communism may have resulted in the CNT fighting both the Republican state plus the fascists, so ensuring victory for Franco. However, while isolation may explain the decision, it does not justify it. After all, as Bakunin and Kropotkin continually stressed, revolutions break out in specific areas and then spread outward -- isolation is a feature of revolution which can only be overcome by action, by showing a practical example which others can follow.

One thing is true, by abandoning the politics and previous practice of the CNT and anarchism in those days, the CNT only weakened the revolution, ensured the victory of fascism and helped discredit libertarian socialism. Ever since we have had Trots using the example of the Spanish Revolution to attack anarchism (while, of course, ignoring all other parts of the anarchist and CNT history which refute their "analysis").

This pamphlet presents a taste of the events of that time and the thoughts doing through people's minds. For this it is to be recommended. It has its flaws, of course. These are mainly due to it being Garcia Oliver's memoirs. The one thing that strikes the reader is the pure arrogance of Oliver, who appears to have been always right and acknowledged as such by everyone he argues with. He is particularly critical of Durruti, claiming that he always did and said what the masses wanted. He was obviously a bit annoyed that while Durruti is remembered as a revolutionary hero, he is remembered as one of the anarchists who joined the government.

The pamphlet is worth reading to get a feel of what actually happened during those days and some of the arguments presented to ignore 70 years of anarchist theory and practice. In addition, it provides useful summaries of the relationship between the FAI and CNT as well as the anarchists' role in the revolution of October 1934 (another event which the Trots slander the CNT about).

For readers who want to find out more about the history of CNT during the 1930s and a detailed refutation of Marxist attacks on Spanish Anarchism, visit this webpage:


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