BOOK REVIEW | Spanish Revolution Remembered: Peirats’ “The CNT in the Spanish Revolution”

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Reviewed by Jakes Factoria

book coverAlmost 80 years ago the peasantry and working class of Spain, inspired by anarchism and syndicalism, rose up to change the world. The Spanish Revolution of 1936-1939 involved millions creating, from below, a new society of freedom based upon equality and participatory democracy. Had the revolution succeeded and spread, the world would have changed forever. Rather than being trapped in decades of oppression and crisis and futility, humanity could have invested the last three generations into a universal human community of libertarian communism and scientific advance.

Remarkably, the Spanish Revolution has received very little attention. The republication in English of volume 1 of José Peirats’ masterwork The CNT in the Spanish Revolution by Merlin Press and PM Press should go some way to addressing the problem. The book originally appeared in 1951 in Spanish, finally appeared in English in 2001 but soon went out of print, and is now, finally, readily available (see contact details at end). (A much-abridged version appeared in one volume in English in 1990, called the Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution) [1].

Revolution

Peirats, himself a militant, passed away in 1989. A man of the working class, he spent his last decades in exile, during which he produced his three-volume study of the anarchist revolution. This trilogy is an indispensable chronicle of inspiring, astonishing events: popular militias, self-managed collectives in the cities and the countryside, the masses in power, and a desperate struggle against counter-revolution.

Peirats’ account gives insights, from the inside, into the power of the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo or National Confederation of Labour) – the massive anarchist syndicalist trade union that was the centre of gravity for Spain’s vast anarchist movement. He traces the accumulation of power by the CNT and its allied forces, including events such as the CNT’s leading (but often ignored) role in the miners’ revolt at Asturias in 1934.

The account is a passionate one, as might be expected of a man who participated directly in the Spanish Revolution, and who was at one stage the editor of the CNT’s mass circulation daily, Solidaridad Obrera (“Workers Solidarity”).

His study is also, however, a learned and rigorous account of these revolutionary events, using primary sources, many of which are quoted at great length – a real treasure. He chronicles the triumphs and tragedies of the Revolution, and its terrible defeat. The defeat was followed by a long midnight of terror under the semi-fascist regime of General Francisco Franco; hundreds of thousands fled the country, and the dictatorship lasted into the mid-1970s.

Counterpower, Counterculture

The Spanish anarchist/ syndicalist movement, centred on the CNT, built a revolutionary counterpower and counterculture in the forms of people’s schools, of mass media, of women’s and youth groups, of community activism, and of revolutionary trade unionism. It also included the anarchist political organisation, the FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica, or Anarchist Federation of Iberia), which was in the Bakuninist/ dual organisationalist tradition (mass movement complemented by specific anarchist-only political group, the latter to push anarchism), dating back to Bakunin’s “Alliance” of the 1860s. These were all built through engagement with immediate issues: wages, rents, discrimination, and military conscription.

It was this mass movement that fostered the capacities, skills, structures and ideological understanding that made the Spanish Revolution possible. (Peirats was himself, for example, part of the FAI, and received much of his schooling from the anarchist people’s schools.)

Decades of militant mass work, plus the development of proletarian and peasant anarchist cadre, were essential foundations for the events of 1936-1939. As Mikhail Bakunin, leading anarchist, always stressed: without a widespread popular embrace of a revolutionary theory and practice (a “new social philosophy”), a constructive social revolution from-the-bottom-up is not possible. [2]

Lessons: Defence, Power

The reader may not agree with all of Peirats’ positions, or draw the same lessons. However, he honestly catalogues the fierce debates within the CNT/ FAI over tactics and strategy, including issues like alliances with non-anarchists, and the best means to militarily defend revolution.

The CNT/ FAI made crucial mistakes in 1936, I would argue, not least of which was joining the Popular Front government in a common bloc against Franco – the man, backed by a section of the ruling class, who was behind a military coup attempt in 1936, and who subsequently led a counter-revolutionary invasion of Spain.

The idea of joining the Popular Front was to maximise the anti-Franco alliance. But joining the Popular Front effectively meant sharing power with a wing of the bourgeoisie – as well as working with hostile parties. The price of unity was a retreat from the revolution; the payment for the retreat was betrayal and treachery by the supposed allies in the Popular Front.

Joining the Popular Front meant, above all, a retreat from the CNT/ FAI programme of placing all power in the hands of the popular classes, as a counterpower that replaces ruling class power. The anarchism of the CNT/ FAI recognised power: it was not against power, but argued for placing power in the hands of all.

This was incompatible with the Popular Front, which required concession after concession, involved betrayal after betrayal, and meant containing the revolution within Spanish borders, until the Revolution unravelled. By the time Franco’s forces marched into Barcelona in 1939, ending the Revolution and inaugurating the semi-fascist dictatorship, the collectives, militias, land reforms and popular energies had been dissipated – although not completely destroyed – by the Popular Front.

Although the CNT/FAI withdrew from the Popular Front in November 1938, it was too late. The “internal” war against the Revolution by the Popular Front helped open the door to Franco’s “external” war for power. The organisational and political havoc wreaked on the CNT/ FAI, caused by a period of participation in the state, can also not be understated.

Reaffirmation: Bakunin’s Road

These mistakes and were not inevitable. They did not arise from a failure to take military defence and co-ordination seriously, [3] as some Marxists and others have claimed. Participation in the Popular Front did not arise from the absence of an anarchist/ syndicalist plan to make and defend and spread a social revolution internationally; it involved the conscious suspension of that plan, justified on the grounds of adverse circumstances.

The CNT/ FAI had repeatedly affirmed the mainstream anarchist position of defending revolution with force, based on popular militias with a coordinated military effort, but subject always to direct popular control, notably in 1917, 1932, 1933 and twice in 1936. It is simply untrue that the CNT / FAI had “no idea what to do with power,” a “theoretical inability to face up to the problems posed by the war and the revolution,” or that they were “reformist” etc. [4]

Mistakes on the military question arose from contingent factors, like the decision to use flawed tactics (the Popular Front), rather than an inherent flaw in anarchist doctrine; from a tendency at times to simplify issues (notably, underestimating the resilience of counter-revolutionary forces, and to underestimate the challenges of transition); and, tragically, also from an unprincipled revision of existing positions by a wing of the CNT/ FAI.

They did not arise from a lack of a strategy, but from the effective abandonment of that strategy.

The classic CNT/ FAI position was subsequently reaffirmed by the Friends of Durruti (a dissident CNT faction), which called in 1937 for withdrawal from the Popular Front and for a Revolutionary Council (“junta”). [5]

However, the warning came too late.

Conclusions: Draw Lessons

The CNT/ FAI experience remains proof of the possibility of mass anarchism, based on building movements of, by, and for the popular classes to struggle today and change tomorrow. A new world is possible, but only through working class-peasant revolution, based on deep, strong counterpower and counterculture.

The CNT/ FAI experience illustrates this, providing a rich reservoir of experiences from which lessons must be drawn, firmly and unflinchingly.

All too often, anarchist and syndicalist historiography is based on a chronicle of successes, and a silence on failures; far too many accounts of the defeat of the CNT blame Franco and the Popular Front, without explaining why Franco won, or how the Popular Front survived.

That will not do. Unless anarchists learn hard lessons from the failures of the past, as well as from the triumphs, the movement will not move forward.

** Copies may be obtained for a reasonable rate by contacting Tony Zurbrugg at globalbook@btconnect.com


Notes:

1. José Peirats, [1964] 1990, Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, Freedom Press, London.

2. M. Bakunin, 1871] 1971, “The Programme of the Alliance,” in S. Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy, George Allen& Unwin. pp. 249-251

3. For a Marxist example, P. Blackledge, 2010, “Marxism and Anarchism,” International Socialism, no. 125, p, 139

4. e.g. A. Guillamón, 1996, The Friends of Durruti Group, 1937-1939, AK Press, pp. 99, 108, 111

5. Friends of Durruti, 1938, 1978, Towards a Fresh Revolution, Zabalaza Books, p. 25

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