At the time of the conflict there were two governments in Spain, the central government in Madrid and the Generalitat, the government of the autonomous region of Catalonia. The CNT-FAI entered the latter on September 27th 1936 referring to it as a Regional Defence Council; on November 4th 1936 four members of the CNT entered the central government [Richards 1995 p63 and 68].
|Juan Garcia Oliver : leading anarchist became Minister of Justice|
Was the entry of the CNT-FAI into the Popular Front (PF) government an abandonment of principle [Richards p42] or a strategic mistake that led to an abandonment of principle and a dismantling of its autonomous and revolutionary structures [Schmidt and Van der Walt 2009 p200]? From the start of the military uprising anarchists were placed in a very difficult, or maybe an impossible situation that according to Peirats they had no clear plan to deal with [ibid p202]. Lacking, as they saw it, the necessary support to carry through a revolution, they put all their efforts into the fight to defeat Franco. To many putting the war before revolution was a false dilemma [Guerin 1970 p129] and by this thinking they failed to recognise that the real enemy was the capitalist system of which fascism was but one form of expression [Richards p51]. The basis of the CNT, its independence from political parties, opposition to the state, its decentralised structure and opposition to permanent and paid officials should have prevented any temptation to participate in government [ibid p82]. There were tight rules preventing anyone representing a political party from becoming a militant of
the confederation or holding any representative position [Peirats 1998 p172]. However, prior to their collaboration, the CNT seemed to hold a contradictory position with regard to electoral activity. In 1930/31 they flirted with electoral politics, first to help overthrow the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera and then to get rid of the monarchy. After a firm policy of abstention led to the election of the right there was confusion about their attitude to the formation of the PF in 1936. Whilst after meeting in January 1936 to discuss their attitude to other working class organisations and the forthcoming election the Regional Committee of the CNT adopted a policy of abstention, their actual anti-election campaign was so weak that it had little effect and there seems little doubt that anarchists voted in the elections that helped bring about the victory of the PF [Richards p18 and 23, Guerin p19-20].
This contradictory position came to a head in September 1936. In early September in a manifesto entitled ‘The Uselessness of Government’ they had presented a clear picture of how a popular front government could do nothing to aid the struggle against fascism: “The existence of a Popular Front government, so very far from being an essential element in the struggle against fascism, in point of fact denotes a voluntary limit set to that same struggle”. [The Uselessness of Government: CNT Manifesto, Guerin 2005 p659] However by mid September 1936 the CNT issued a statement in support of their collaboration in government which reads like the Bolshevik support for a ‘workers’ state’ in Russia of 1917. The CNT statement argued that: “At present, the government as the instrument regulating the forces of the State, is no longer a force for oppression targeting the working class, just as the state is no longer the agency dividing society into classes. And with the participation of CNT personnel in both, the State and the government will refrain all the more from oppressing the people.” [A would-be justification, Guerin 2005 p659]
Collaboration and Democracy
Richards [p75-7] and Dolgoff [1986 p121-2] disagree over whether the decision to enter the PF was reached democratically and whether during the struggle against Franco the decentralised decision-making process in the CNT was replaced so that, as Richards puts it, “…. only too often were fundamental questions decided by ‘influential militants’ and accepted as fait accompli by delegates at the Plenums and not discussed at all by the rank and file in the syndicates.” [Richards p75-6] Dolgoff, in disputing Richards’s arguments, refers to a reply the CNT made to the IWA refuting charges that the organisation had violated anarchist federalist principles by imposing decisions on the rank and file. The report contends that the decisions to join both the Generalitat and Central government were ratified by Plenums, and that from July 19th 1936 to November 26th 1937 there were 17 regional and dozens of local Plenums as well as district federations and regional congresses of unions. The problem in following Dolgoff’s line is his use of words such as consult and ratified which are hardly the basis of a decentralised decision making process. Peirats argues that, in this period, despite meetings taking place there was a suspension of effective federalism in the CNT. The number of circulars sent out by the National Committee, he argues, shows that it was really giving out instructions. The higher committees were communicating directly and frequently and by-passing the intermediate levels of the organisation against usual procedure. Circulars were sent out to local and district committees and to unions on the basis of their sensitivity and agendas that were too sensitive did not reach the unions. The bottom to top procedure had broken down and to speak of the principle of majority rule in a situation where the sensitive matters put to the organisation are the products of committees and large meetings of militants of the old guard is hypocritical. Quick decisions needed to be made and sensitive information guarded from leaks and so the committee decided to abandon federalist principles [Peirats p186-7] Peirats concludes: “The National Committee’s report to the AIT asserts that the CNT ‘continues to develop along federalist lines’ and immediately demonstrates the opposite.” [Ibid p188].
Speaking at a congress of local federations in Paris in 1945 Federica Montseny, an anarchist minister in the PF government, spoke of the futility of their time in government [“Federica Montseny Sets the Record Straight”, Guerin 2005:674]. It was futile because the PF government and the ‘communists’ (who had a large influence due to the fact that Russia was the main source of weapons for the republican side), in particular, aimed at halting and dismantling the revolutionary process. So anarchists who were supposed to be supporting workers in pushing the revolution forward were instead involved in a process that sought to reverse it. The question remains: what would the CNT-FAI had done if the PF had defeated Franco? Remain in the government? Perhaps a futile question as by then many more anarchists and other revolutionary workers would have been murdered or imprisoned at the hands of the government they were involved with. Vital mistakes were made right from the start. The situation in Catalonia prior to the CNT-FAI entry into government was one in which the region was a virtual independent republic. An Anti-Fascist Militia Committee (AFMC) had been set up to represent workers’ organisations, various political parties and groupings. Instead of dissolving the Generalitat the CNT-FAI elected to leave it intact and support Companys; this decision put a brake on the revolution and within two months the AFMC which was more representative of the revolution and a less authoritarian power than the government was abolished [Richards p64, Marshall 1993 p461]. In government anarchists helped to check the collectivisation process and oversee the absorption of the popular militia into the army, and supported the regimentation and militarisation of the armed forces, a process that led to the demoralization of many anarchists and workers [Marshall p465].
Were there alternatives to collaboration? Richards [55-8] Suggests that a CNT-FAI alliance with the UGT from the start might have been a better option. The revolution was under a threat from Franco and the government, and an alliance between the two main workers’ organisations which he terms the main spearhead of the struggle, whilst it may have meant concessions to final objectives, would not have led to the abandonment of fundamental principles such as workers’ control. The political collaboration entered into led to the abandonment of all principles and objectives both long and short-term. Peirats [p188-9] argues that, given the situation, victory over Franco and continuing the revolution was not possible but suggests that a heroic defeat might have been better than collaboration. There were many militants in the CNT who whilst opposing collaboration allowed it to take place; not being able to offer final victory they stuck to their principles. Their refusal to compromise meant avoiding complicity with the counter-revolution within the government and they sought to leave indelible marks: constructive revolutionary experiments such as the collectives, artistic and cultural achievements and new forms of communal living. There is no better summing up of the fatal and failed experiment of anarchists in government in the Spanish Revolution than Peirats when he states: “Pity the revolution that devours itself in order to obtain victory” [ibid p189] . Perhaps that is one of the main lessons of the Spanish Revolution.
Peirats J, 1998 Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution. Freedom Press, London
Richards V, 1995 Lessons of the Spanish Revolution. Freedom Press, London
Chapters or Sections in Books
Dolgoff S, ‘Controversy in the Spanish Revolution’, pp.120-7 in Dogoffs S, 1986 Fragments: a Memoir. Refract Publications, Cambridge
Guerin D, ‘Hostility to Bourgeois Democracy’, pp.17-20 and ‘Anarchists in Government’, pp.128-30 in Guerin D, 1970 Anarchism. Monthly Review Press, New York
Guerin D, ‘Anarcho Syndicalism in Government’, pp.655-675 in Guerin D, 2005, No Gods, No Masters. AK Press, Oakland
Marshall P, ‘Spain’, pp.453-468, in Marshall P, 1993 Demanding the Impossible. Fontana Press, London
Schmidt M and Van der Walt L, ‘The Question of Power and the Spanish Revolution’, pp.198-202, in Schmidt M and Van der Walt L, 2009 Black Flame. AK Press, Oakland