But, before addressing the events and their analysis, we must lay out, as briefly as possible, the composition of the forces present on the "antifascist" side, in order to assist the journey of the non expert reader across what one author has called the "Spanish Labyrinth". The bibliography which we give will allow one to find fuller information.
The pressure of regional autonomies in Spain, whose unity was imposed by the central government, goes back far. It carries on today, on the institutional level (There exists in various regions, administrations which enjoy limited autonomy), or as subversive action (which is the case in the Basque country). In the 1930's it barely existed outside two regions which were otherwise the most economically developed, Catalonia and the Basque country. The Republic had granted them their own institutions. In Catalonia, a region which was to be in the forefront of the revolution, there was a regional power : the government of the Generalidad of Catalonia, a regional parliament, and forces of public order: the guards of the Generalidad (Mozos de escuadra). The parties and organisations often had a singular composition here, as we shall see.
In Catalonia there existed organisations without any institutional or historic links with the parties and groups which were found throughout the rest of Spain. We mention the most important.
-The "Catalan Left" (La Esquarra catalana) controlled the Generalidad. It was a party of workers, intellectuals, but mostly elements of the "left-wing" petite Bourgeois. It was the party of Companys, the president of the Generalidad.
-The union of rabassaires (sharecroppers, agricultural small holders) was of a similar leaning.
-The party of the Catalan state (l'Estat Catala) was openly separatist, its nationalism leaned towards fascism.
The federalist spirit appeared in Spain during the 19th century, as a strong current within Republicanism. A certain number of these Republicans saw themselves as being very close to the federalist ideas of the anti-authoritarian wing of the 1st International. The federalist Republicans recruited mainly from the liberal petite bourgeoisie and in certain peasant circles.
In 1936, in the Madrid parliament (the Cortes), there was an astonishing parliamentary extreme left. It was made up of federalist republicans. There was among them, notably, lawyers who defended anarchist and anarcho-syndiacalist activists in court.
These liberals didn't at all want to overturn the basis of bourgeois society but they had radical rhetoric, reasonably close to the declarations of the revolutionaries. The CNT treated them delicately and even supported them, despite it being anti-parliament.
The socialist party (socialist workers party of Spain) was a reformist party, composed mainly of petite bourgeois intellectuals and bureaucrats. However, it contained a working class base grouped in a Union organisation, the General Union of Workers (UGT) in so far as the paths of the party and the unions were interlinked. A good example: the socialist leader Largo Caballero, who was to be, for a long time, a pure reformist and repressive minister - was secretary general of the UGT. The leaders of the UGT openly fought the syndicalists of the CNT, however there was, among the rank and file, in many circumstances, a desire for unity of the working class.
The communists were divided and few, their Stalinism was excessive. Their influence grew quickly during the revolution. We shall see why. In Catalonia, the Stalinist party took the name of PSUC, united socialist party of Catalonia, born from the fusion of the small communist party and a socialist Catalan party.
The Trotskyists made up only a few groups whose activity was primarily in the field of theory. Their best known militant Andreas Nin, joined the POUM. It is incorrect to see this 'Workers Party of Marxist Unity' as being Trotskyist. It was, from 1935 on, the guise of the block of communists, essentially Catalan workers and peasants, who had broken with Moscow. It was a party which exercised a certain influence, notably in Barcelona, but it was ceaselessly buffeted between support for the Catalan nationalists and internationalism, between electoralism and the fact that a certain number of its members were in the CNT, between the denunciations of the rulers in Moscow and its proclaimed admiration for Stalin's regime. In Trotskyist jargon, it was a "Centrist" workers party.
Let's pass on now to the National Confederation of labour. Without going into the details of its history we have to further elaborate on this CNT of which the "Friends of Durruti" were members.
It was founded in 1910, by the workers and libertarian groups which had persisted as inheritors of the Spanish federation of the 1st international. It was inspired by French revolutionary syndicalism, thus at its inception it adopted the form of organisation and struggle of the trade union, but it defined its final objective as being anarchist communism. It saw the union as the fundamental structure towards the realisation of this goal . It was a mass anarcho-syndicalist organisation whose membership came close to 1 million in 1936.
Its history is extremely complex, having passed through numerous conflicts. It contained two fundamental currents which were often opposed. One was purely anarcho-syndicalist and considered that the CNT was the only organisation needed and regarded the existence of organised anarchist groups, outside the CNT, as superfluous or even troubling. On the other side was the current, inspired by the activists, which saw themselves as being primarily revolutionary anarchists and only then members of a syndicalist confederation where they had the mission of combating every reformist tendency. The conflict escalated when, in 1927, the anarchist groups, until then weakly tied together in a very loose federation, formed the famous FAI (Federation of Iberian anarchists) along with some Portuguese groups. We now arrive at the problem of relations between the mass organisation and the organisation of the avant-garde. Even though the relations between the FAI and the CNT weren't relations of straightforward domination, you could find militant anarchists who were opposed to the FAI and who condemned "the FAI dictatorship". In fact while a certain number of the CNT officers were members of the FAI, properly speaking this didn't amount to a dictatorship, rather a dominant ideological influence. The conflict reached a head in 1931, at the CNT congress held in Madrid. It set the activists who proposed a realistic analysis and very considered approach against those activists who wanted to launch the revolutionary uprisings immediately. The former drew up a manifesto, receiving 30 signatures (they were called the "Trente" and their tendency was called "Trentisme"). In the manifesto they denounced the superficial analysis, the simplistic and catastrophic conception of revolution, the cult of violence for its own sake, which seemed to them to be characteristic of the militants of the FAI[*1]. Certainly, it was far from being true that all the members of the FAI were hooligans. However, it is true that adventurist revolutionary attempts had been attempted and were to be attempted in the period that followed, at the instigation, or with the support of some groups of the FAI. These attempts were doomed to failure and resulted in fierce repression. To cut a long story short, the "trentistes" who called themselves prudent, but not any less revolutionary for this, counted in their number some activists who were incontestably inclined towards reformism. One of their leaders, Angel Pestana went on to found the "Syndicalist party" and would become a deputy in the Cortes.
The activists and the unions which rallied to the manifesto of the thirty were expelled from the Confederation and constituted the "unions of opposition". Their influence in some regions was far from negligible. So much so that they were re-admitted into the CNT five years later at the congress of Zaragozza.
We will soon see ministers whose origin was "trentiste" and even militants of the FAI or intransigents who had battled against "Trentism", like Garcia Oliver and Federical Montseny, in the Madrid central government and that of the Generalidad of Catalonia, in Barcelona. Also in September 1937, Pestana joined the CNT.[*2]
If we want to give a brief but relatively complete overview of the currents which were present in the Spanish libertarian movement, we can distinguish:
- a small revisionist "fringe" which ended up in the syndicalist party alongside Pestana.
- a "trentist" current, which saw itself as revolutionary but realistic which included a certain Juan Peiro. It had fought for the creation of Federations of industries in the CNT and had denounced the adventurist practices of some groups of the FAI.
- a traditionalist component consisting of many union officers who didn't always see the utility of a specific organisation bringing together anarchist groups (sometimes they even combated its existence). These militants considered themselves anarchist but for them anarchist groups should simply be centres of thought and general propaganda. This point of view is currently very popular among anarcho-syndicalists[3*].
Consequently, it was far from being the case that the FAI included all the anarchists for whom the trade-union wasn't the answer to all the problems. Furthermore one must distinguish the working class FAI-ists, primarily anarcho-syndicalists like Garcia Oliver and Durruti, from the anarchists from intellectual backgrounds like Federica Montseny.
The Libertarian youth who defended the purity of the "acrate"[4*] ideal and played a large part in the cultural and educational fields especially in Catalonia. On this point it should be stated that the Spanish libertarian movement in its entirety was very concerned with spreading literacy and education(from which came the creation of numerous modern schools, inspired by the teachings of Fracisco Ferrer, and the proliferation of "atheneums" a kind of popular university which were very active).
The "Friends of Durruti", all members of the CNT, most also members of the FAI, formed a specific current from 1937.
From July 1936 on the links between the CNT and the FAI became so close that the two emblems appeared together more often than not (People spoke of the "CNT-FAI"). There was even a "libertarian movement" consisting of the three branches: CNT, FAI, FIJL (Iberian federation of libertarian youth). But in the midst of the difficulties of the war we will see an opposition emerge between the direction of the CNT, sacrificing all to the ideology of "resistance to the extreme" and submitting to the instructions of the Negrin government, and the FAI committee for the peninsula which made a late effort to save its honour by denouncing the advance of the counter-revolution.
To finish with this rapid overview, it would be useful to note that the FAI, founded in the beginning by practically underground "affinity groups", was at all stages on the margins of the law and was numerically confined with about 30,000 members in July 1936. From then on it was active in public, and in July 1937 it transformed itself into a Federation of local and district groups, considerably more open to membership than the affinity groups, although the decision making powers of the committees increased. Thus the specific organisation, "la specifica" as the Spaniards said, became a party in the modern style, aiming to become a "specific mass organisation". Without doubt we can consider that the affinity groups were no longer the same with the advent of the period which began in July 1936, but on the other hand how could they not see the poverty and the confusion of their theoretic base which consisted of a declaration of principles of a mere few lines?[*5]
1 La CNT en la revolucion Espanola, J Peirats, ed. CNT, tome 1, pages 55 to 58.
2 This was denounced by the Friends of Durruti as a manoeveur of the reformist wing of the CNT (in no. 8 of their Organ, El Amigo del Pueblo)
3 You can frequently find this conception among the German anarcho-syndicalists of the FAUD, the Swedes of the SAC, the Argentinians of the FORA etc...
4 "A-cratie", total absence of authority, often seemed to Spanish anarchists as a clearer term than anarchy, from which comes the use of the adjective "acrate" in place of anarchist.
5 La CNT en la revolucion espanola, J. Peirats, tome 2 p. 328 (ed. CNT, Toulouse 1952)