Review - Red Barcelona : Social Protest & Labor Mobilisation in the 20th Century

Edited by Angel Smith published Routledge

Left Subcultural Ghetto or Revolutionary Strategy?


Fundamental to the development of a strategy for workers_ control directed activity is the setting of priorities in regard to the deployment of very limited resources and personnel and the facilitation of a climate favourable to scientific enquiry and debate. Such a climate must be free of sub cultural codes of behaviour, childish conformism and _pseudo tribal folkways_ - infatuations with the bogus identity politics - women, queer, indigenous, etc, and its political expressions - the inter class movements manipulated by middle class elites, of feminism, black nationalism/autonomism, etc.

These unwholesome features which characterise many _anti-capitalist_ events such as the recent _State of Emergency_ Conference held in Melbourne transform them into Leftist _pseudo tribal ceremonies_ or _corroborees_ and are certain to alienate most militant workers. Whilst precluding the scientific climate essential for effective debate and rational discussion necessary to develop strategies which would be relevant to workers_ control directed activity.

Instead recipes for aimless activism and the cultivation of elitist _activist_ identities are manifested and particularly _hot houses_ for the flowering of exotic noxious vanguardist Leftist sects and cults are provided. Groupings which below the exotic ideological veneer of various left sub cultural codes and dogmas are based on personal loyalties and consist of pseudo families for those seeking refuge from the alienation of capitalist society and life support systems for certain swell headed _gurus_. Certainly the growth of these exotic leftist weeds must be seen in the context of the historical legacy of the predominance of Stalinism and Social Democracy in the Anti-Capitalist movement for many decades in countries like Australia and the loss of a core of revolutionary worker activists associated with syndicalist groups such as the early Industrial Workers of the World. This historical legacy has led anti-capitalist groups to adopt consciously or unconsciously the project of forming a sect to some extent infected by vanguardist/elitist tendencies.

The importance of the book under review lies in focusing upon the negative consequences for the workers control/revolutionary project of vanguardist and sectarian elements spotlighted in the takeover of a mass anarcho-syndicalist labour movement - the C.N.T. - the National Confederation of Labour by such elements in the early 1930_s and the associated engulfing of much of the organisation in an hysterical climate, hostile to rational processes of debate and analysis. This climate ensured its inability to develop a revolutionary political strategy, and subsequent collaboration with the Popular Front government during the Civil War and Revolution of 1936-39. Encouraging the growth of counter revolutionary forces in the Republican zone.

This volume is comprised of a series of essays by experts on Spanish History focusing particularly on the development of the Barcelona and wider Spanish labour movement. The rise and fall of the anarcho-syndicalist tendency and the initial decline and rise of social democratic unionism associated with the U.G.T. (General Confederation of Labour) connected with the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (P.S.O.E.) and the Communist Party associated C.C.O.O. (Workers Commissions) form a key back drop to this trajectory. The associated factional struggle between an ultra sectarian current associated with the Barcelona based F.A.I. (Iberian Anarchist Federation) and other more coherent anarcho-syndicalist currents and state socialist groupings is discussed in detail.

The Rise of Anarcho-Syndicalism

The contributors do a good job in explaining the reasons for the rise to predominance in the post WWI period of the anarcho-syndicalist tendency (a current favouring ultra democratic processes, pluralism amongst its membership, direct action and a workers_ control orientation). A situation in sharp contrast to other similar sized Mediterranean industrial cities which developed predominantly reformist/social democratic (seeking incremental improvements in workers_ situation, relying on negotiations and avoiding direct action and without challenging wage labour relations and capitalist ownership of the means of production) labour movements.

Economic Background to the Rise of Anarcho-Syndicalism Particularly focused upon is the general hard line attitude of Catalan employers to all unions regardless of orientation which encouraged anarcho-syndicalist direct action unionism. This approach stemmed from the limited room to manoeuvre of Catalan industrialists in making profits - they were encouraged to stridently oppose wages and conditions improvements for workers due to the loss of markets for textiles in the Spanish Empire as a result of the Spanish defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the lack of financial capital to finance new labour saving technology.

In this context, anarcho-syndicalist influence grew in such important Barcelona unions as the metal workers as forms of direct action culminating in the General Strike to win demands from intransigent employers had a wide appeal. Another key area discussed is the emergence of a radical intelligentsia associated with the militant labour press which converged with the Ferrer Rationalist School and cooperative movements.

The International Syndicalist Movement

A key ingredient which led to the emergence of the C.N.T. which the contributors fail to adequately discuss is the emergence of a syndicalist current within the U.G.T. in Barcelona which was inspired by developments in the international syndicalist movement such as the adoption of the Charter of Amiens by the C.G.T.(General Confederation of Labour) Bourses du Travail Confederation in France. This charter provided for a union movement independent of political parties and committed to the revolutionary project. This current crystallised into Solidaridad Obrera (SO) - a local alliance of Barcelona unions of differing political tendencies in 1907. The contributors go on to chart the initial rise of the C.N.T. which formed in 1910 as S.O. expanded into a national confederation particularly stemming from economic expansion associated with Spanish industries supplying combatant powers during WWI and the rise in workers_ morale and revolutionary contagion associated with the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The central role of the C.N.T. in the post war strike wave and revolutionary upsurge, the volume shows was greatly contributed by the adoption of the _syndicats unics_ structure involving the setting up of local industrial unions. Whilst the C.N.T._s pursuit of aggressive large scale industrial action led to an employer and state backlash which resulted in much violent conflict encouraging the emergence of an ultra militant anarchist tendency which was heavily involved and intoxicated with street fighting/urban guerrilla activity.

_Anarchist Vanguard Party_

This grouping crystallised into the Barcelona based F.A.I. (Iberian Anarchist Federation) formed in 1927 which adhered to a very simplistic concept of a revolutionary strategy - that the C.N.T. Was self sufficient for the revolutionary project and the formation of an _anarchist workers movement_. The book looks at the influence of the Argentine F.O.R.A. (Argentine Regional Workers_ Federation) and such influential militants as Diego Abad de Santillan, an ex-F.O.R.A. activist in adopting this anti-syndicalist orientation. The book goes along to discuss the destructive impact of the Barcelona based F.A.I. following its seizure of various commanding heights of the C.N.T. such as the editorial boards of mass circulation newspapers like Solidaridad Obrera and Defence Committees. The books does a particularly effective job in showing how the C.N.T._s defencive direct action against the Depression era employer attacks led to a major crack down by the Republican state preventing conventional mass union activities and mobilisations which played into the hands of F.A.I. urban guerrilla extremists.

The book shows that this takeover led to the adoption of the _Trabazon_ between the C.N.T. and the F.A.I. which provided for the direct intervention of F.A.I. groups in C.N.T. Affairs. The book examines this groupings_ campaigns against more coherent anarcho-syndicalist tendencies such as the BOC (Worker Peasant Bloc) formed in 1931, previously associated with the Revolutionary Syndicalist Committees, later to largely comprise the P.O.U.M. (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) and the Trientistas (a tendency which favoured a more long term, gradualist build up of the C.N.T. organisation avoiding massive state repression and the destabilising of the Republican State). The hysterical climate in the C.N.T. encouraged by F.A.I. propagandists and heavy state repression precluded any considered discussion of the Trientistas_ manifesto and BOC initiatives, and a more sophisticated revolutionary strategy for the C.N.T. involving the grassroots of other rival union and political organisations.

The book makes the interesting point that this takeover and subsequent sweeping of the C.N.T. into a whirlwind of sectarian conflict and hopeless insurrections and associated waves of employer and state repression contributed to the decline of the C.N.T. as the predominant labour union in Barcelona from the early thirties. Through alienating many groups of workers and creating openings for the resurgence of various Marxist and Leninist groupings associated union movements and the massive growth of reformist unionism in the shape of the U.G.T. heavily influenced by Stalinism at the Catalan leadership level during the Civil War. The book focuses on some key issues in which this struggle was most explicitly manifested - unemployment and revolutionary strategy.

Spain in the Great Depression

The early thirties manifested high levels of unemployment particularly in Spain associated with the global depression and the rise of fascist movements such as the Nazis in Germany which won over a portion of the working class entailing demoralised unemployed. The book shows that the Barcelona based F.A.I. took a simplistic and ultra militant approach to the growth of unemployment with its notion of _revolution around the corner_ resolving the problem and encouraged a cycle of unsuccessful insurrections and resort to such initiatives as mass shoplifting and threats of bombings against employers to employ workers. A key by product of these _revolutionary gymnastics_ the book outlines was massive repression affecting the C.N.T. and also rival groupings, leading to vast membership losses, less frequent membership assemblies and the growth of Marxist party affiliated unions.

Culminating in the Communist Party influenced U.G.T. unions gaining a substantial membership base of 85,000 in Catalonia, mostly in Barcelona prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and was well sited for counter revolutionary activity. A more constructive C.N.T. initiative to counter the working class impoverishment of the depression particularly in regard to the unemployed which the book discusses was its support of a city wide mass rent strike in 1931. In contrast, rivals to the C.N.T. and F.A.I. such as the P.O.U.M. campaigned for such measures as the state subsidising of the unemployed through the heavy taxing of the rich, the 6 hour day, etc. So as to preclude the kind of desperation amongst the unemployed which would turn them to support fascism. In regard to revolutionary strategy, such groupings as the P.O.U.M. and its associated union confederation - the F.O.U.S. (Workers Federation of United Unions) sought to build a united front of workers_ organisations to oppose employers and the rise of fascism. Whilst the F.A.I. elements who viewed the C.N.T. as self sufficient for the revolutionary project fought furious battles to establish and preserve C.N.T. closed shops leading to violence between workers of different unions in sectors such as the Barcelona Textile industry.

A deficiency of the book is that it fails to consider the _affinity group_ basis of the F.A.I. as a significant contribution to its ultra sectarian path and wild slandering of rival groups. In such groups often personal loyalties get in the way of rational considerations. In examining the differences between the C.N.T. and its rivals, the book shows how the C.N.T. largely organised blue collar workers in Barcelona, whilst its Marxist rivals organised particularly amongst white collar, specialised crafts and service sectors. Although due to F.A.I. antics, these unions were steadily eroding the C.N.T. base in key bastions. Elements in such white collar sectors as banking were later to play during the Civil War an important role in the Republican State sabotage of collectivisation championed by the C.N.T. by frustrating the financing of the collectives. Whilst, non-working class elements hostile to the revolution and collectivisation such as small employers joined the U.G.T. en masse, and established branches of the U.G.T. affiliated G.E.P.S.I. (Corporations and Bodies of the Small Retailers and Industrialists). Technicians whose power and privileges were threatened by collectivisation were also attracted to the U.G.T. and Stalinism which favoured nationalisation of industry preserving the hierarchical management and elite of technicians structure.

Anarcho-Syndicalist Eclipse & Decline

The book sketches the decline of the C.N.T. and revolutionary forces generally during the Civil War after initial dazzling achievements such as widespread collectivisation of industry, rationalisation of production in industries, a single wage for workers of the same category, reductions in wage differentials, etc particularly following the May Days events of 1937 orchestrated by Republican State and Stalinist forces. The book looks at the role of the C.N.T. which had become bureaucratised at various levels through participation in Popular Front Govt. structures in assisting the counter revolution through its agreement in 1938 to state control of armaments and large scale industry and the privatisation of other sectors. The book makes the interesting point that the Republican state used nationalisation of collectivised industry as a key step toward privatisation.

Subsequent essays examine the post WWII community based resistance movement in Barcelona to the Francoist Regime, the further marginalisation of the C.N.T. and anarchist forces which were unable to develop an appropriate strategy to cope with the highly repressive Francoist State and the rise of the _Workers Commissions_ a genuine grass roots assemblyist movement which became active within the Franco State controlled _vertical unions_. A movement which the Communist Party lacking effective rivals was able to successfully infiltrate and control. Finally, the contemporary predominantly reformist oriented Barcelona labour movement is discussed in the context of the decline of manufacturing industry.

In conclusion, the book under review definitely provides an excellent discussion of the development o f the Barcelona labour movement in late 19th and 20th centuries, brilliantly capturing its complexity and detailing its internal struggles. In this discussion it provides a devastating critique of vanguardist and sectarian elements and the great threat they pose to the workers control project.

Certainly, it must be understood that the contemporary success of the employer offensive is related not just to the intensifying pace of new work organisation, speedups, the various tentacles of the A.L.P. and union hierarchy octopuses and associated low morale and disorganisation of grass roots on the job organisation.

I t must also be seen in the context of the lack of outside the job organisation which could help short circuit the disorganising impact of employer attacks and union officialdom_s manipulation in regard to building militant on the job organisation. Unfortunately much of what could help form this critical _catalyst_ for workers self organisation is lost in vanguard, sect and exotic subcultural antics.

Mark McGuire

From "Rebel Worker" which is a Paper of Anarcho-Syndicalist Network in Australia


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