The Sten Gang

In January 1971 we set up the first MIL meeting in an apartment on the outskirts of Toulouse. Those present were Oriol, “La Carpa”, “Bermejo” and a few others of whom my sole remaining recollection is of their smiles.

The comrades newly arrived from the Interior, as we used to refer back in those days to the country under the Francoist jackboot, made no bones about their thirst for revolutionary discoveries. We, the guys from Toulouse, were the children of that other Spain, the Spain of the July 1936 barricades and of the maquis, the Spain of the “Red terrorists” and with adolescent enthusiasm we were waiting for our turn to “take to the hills”, And were getting ourselves ready for that. 

On both sides of the Pyrenees, engagement with May ’68 had prompted us to plump for arms and we proclaimed the act with an indescribable hope embedded deep within us. None of us were older than twenty, and through words … and deeds, we staked our claim to participate in revolutionary terrorism. 

Basing our actions and deeds on our practice, distributing left communist and pugnacious anarchist texts, we were out to defy our elders, persuaded that as Bertolt Brecht had it “At twenty, the only thing one can do for an idea is die for it.”

But words are meaningless when they are orphaned and blind, and the deed comes fully into its own when it is claimed. However clumsily. And even though at the time we devised a name for one group on the fascist police’s wanted list, its name never mentioned in Spanish journalism or it was represented as “The Sten Gang.”

Very often, at the end of MIL texts we used to tack on a list of actions, no matter how insignificant, such as the theft of a few hundred ID cards or the expropriation of a printer.  As ever, this struck some hacks and mouthpieces as bluster, but, given the routine failure to follow through that was coming from them, our attitude was that we did and would carry the can for our actions and doings. And the truth of the matter is that we never tried to go for the easy way out. Above all else and regardless of clandestinity, unity of words and deeds consisted of bringing legibility to something that was not initially readable There is no revolutionary sabotage without the subversion entailed in speaking out. Especially when we were confronting a regime founded upon the imposition of silence and constraint upon the masses. 

Those who would argue that the MIL’s priority was distributing texts or, on the other hand, armed struggle actions, are betraying the very spirit behind our practice. Because, even though it brought with it a tremendous operational and compartmentalization effort, at no point did the idea ever occur to us of dissociating that which could not be dissociated.

There is no revolutionary theory that does out entail the establishment of practical relations for the purpose of acting, and such action cannot consist mainly of the assertion and propagation of revolutionary theory.” To grasp the importance that we attributed to this postulate, suffice to say that on the cover of the last pamphlet distributed in Barcelona and illustrated with three drawings of the five-pointed star that was the MIL initials, there was a fist transformed into a hand grenade. A criticism right to very end of the peaceable, law-abiding concessions that the old left and its avatars were coming up with when it came to the armed challenge. The questioning of the monopoly on violence and the recourse to arms allowed us to overcome the taboos and illusions of institutionalized protest.  In so doing, we were spinning out the rebellious thread of a hidden history. A heretical history written in defiance of the reformist orthodoxies for decades past.  

On that January day back in ’71, the arms we were about to take up spoke to us of the maquis and the guerrilla “bands”.  Some of them had been in storage in the old dumps of the anarchist guerrilla Quico Sabaté. Others had been dropped by parachute to communist resistance in the Montagne Noir back in ’44. Still others had been recovered in the wake of the fighting from the body of some German soldier and still bore Nazi insignia. Our arms hummed old liberation anthems. And were growing impatient by then. 

35 years ago, that was, But not a week goes by that I do not find myself mulling over that past time and again. A month back, I had a letter from a student at a high-school in the Gracia barrio. He put some questions to me for an essay on the MIL set for him by his teacher … In Toulouse, in a cinema we used to frequent back then, the organizers of a Spanish cinema festival screened Salvador which covers the imprisonment and execution of our comrade [Puig Antich] … A publisher in Madrid got wind of my manuscript on the last day of September in Barcelona back in ’73 and displayed some interest … One night I sat up late watching a documentary on the Arte channel recounting the story of the MIL Committee in Dusseldorf … A young woman asked me if I could confirm for her what her bricklayer uncle in Barcelona had told her, that “One day when he was working in a site near the Avenida Carlos III, he witnessed a MIL action”. She had her doubts, but I was able to authenticate that family recollection. And so the years have been slipping by … Books have been published. Lots of pamphlets circulated. A few movies or documentaries screened. I have always wondered why the MIL wields such attraction. Nothing of the sort has happened with the GARI, even though they involved a lot more militants and, during the one year that they were active, they mounted ten times as many guerrilla actions. Same with the FRAP or any other revolutionary organization from the dying days of the dictatorship. And the maquis who also suffered a terrifying repression. But how come? You are not going to find the answer in this book. It still eludes me and it always will.  

Ever since Sergi Rosés’s book was published in Barcelona back in 2002 [Sergi Roses Cordovilla. El MIL: una historica politica], it has been my usual practice to say that it is the best one and for a reason. Rosés is too young to have been a MIL member or sympathizer, but he has scoured our political history, patiently sifting the false from the true. And that was no easy undertaking, since, ever since the Transition, counter-truths have been pounded into a single truth, in a bourgeois re-vamp of the truth. In a sign of the times, most of the comrades who have recounted their anecdotes were the very people with the least knowledge of the thing, due to the assignments they performed and the distance between them and the organizational core. Some of them were mere friends, old girlfriends or relatives, the sisters or cousins of such-and-such a person who died in action. And so there was an accumulation more of rumours than of real truths. A typical contribution to the legendary nature of that epic!

And the secrets of those who were in the know … Where are they hiding? Did the repression not make that a necessity? “Never say where you are going to sleep the next night nor where you will be the day after … Give no details of the contacts you may be aware of … Never say anything to those who ought not to know”. The old guerrillas schooled me in that. Their warnings began, like any good story-teller, with the ritual phrase: “When you’re in Barcelona …”

And it has to be conceded to that in “the heat of the action” the MIL’s veterans did give out phoney information to the cops, the judges and the reporters … And afterwards, we either did not have the time or the inclination to set these things straight. And what can we say of the statements made by comrades under torture or in front of the Councils of War? Historically, they were welcomed as sound currency! But just imagine, Salvador dictating a 600-page statement when he couldn’t utter a word because of his wounded jaw!

Several books have been written on the basis of all these phoney tales, and at least one or two of then translated into French. All the better then that Sergi Rosés’s book should have re-made all the connections. All credit it to him for that, but his greatest achievement has been to free the MIL’s history from vulgar rewriting which at the same time tackling it from a political viewpoint.

However, and whilst acknowledging its merits, that book does not tell the full story of the MIL. Faced with the trivial anecdotes of the forgers and “old battlers”, those celebrated anti-Francoists with whose paths ours never crossed back in the days when we were fighting the regime, and indeed, faced with anecdotes from members of the organization, the MIL took a wicked delight in hiding itself away from others and even eluding the grasp of ourselves, its own member. How many leads have yet to be followed up? There are lingering areas that remain shadowy, even to me, who was there from that first afternoon back in 1971 through to the fateful evening of those final exchanges of gunfire in September 1973. Often, haphazardly, in mid-discussion, the memory of forgotten adventure, international gatherings, encounters with comrades from other countries, other struggles comes flooding back … Folk from far away places. So many things happened in such a brief period of time …

To paraphrase Marx regarding how time stretches, let me stress that in reactionary times 20 years counts as a single day and, when revolution is the driver, 24 hours can count as 20 years …

I have seen Sancho again and I also regularly see “Queso” and Eva, as well as Aurora and Txus. Other comrades have written to me … Comrades such as “Montes” and Joan, Beth’s brother … Plus “Zapata” from the libertarian students. The veterans of the MIL have stayed in touch, more or less. And when we meet up again in the prison visiting room we spend hours wrangling like brothers to put a name or a nick-name on such-and-such a comrade who acted as our “go-between” in the mountains, or put together the timers for our bombs or came to Barcelona two or three times or who drove the getaway car in the Sarriá operation … Often, these militants have faded away without ever attempting to claim their places centre stage. Even when ex-combatants came into fashion. And so, contacts with militants and the workers’ groups have left behind no traces of their activity alongside us …

Going back to those days, I can recall almost word for word from the introduction to Régis Debray’s book Revolution in the Revolution? “In spite of everything, we are never the contemporaries of our present. History edges forwards in disguise: it arrives on stage wearing the mask of the previous scene and that is all we recognize in the play. Every time the curtain is raised, the threads need replacing. Of course, the blame lies, not with history, but with our gaze, laden with learnt memories and images. We see the past superimposed upon the present, even should that present be a revolution …” 

What images does our 1971 Barcelona superimpose upon the present? The July 1936 uprising and the fighting of May ’37, of course, or the fight of the communist or anarchist maquis in the 40s and 50s … plus, of course, the South American and Cuban “guerrilla wars”.

As Rosés’s book rightly illustrates, the vast majority of the militants of the MIL had an incontrovertibly marxist background. And professed to be communists, like Salvador Puig Antich, Oriol Solé Sugranyes, Santi Soler or “El Secretari”. Those comrades set themselves the task “placing back on the agenda the communist theory fossilized by various sects and orthodoxies (Stalinism, Trotskyism, Councilism …”). We anarchists were in the minority and essentially came from Toulouse. Even though we were not members of any faction or union. From May ’68 onwards and over the ensuing months, the comrades from the city flattered us by hanging the label “anarcho-Guevarists” on us. Like many of the militants engaged in the practicalities of those years of insurrection, we were non-sectarian. We rejected any single political line, democratic centralism, “class line” … and the litanies of the of the grouplets’ priesthood. Even jokingly, we never pronounced upon who was or was not genuinely a communist. We issued no ukases. Of course, we were burdened by mind-sets thrown up in the agitation of the general meetings and smoke-filled rooms of the cafes. Nor were we exempt from ideological caricature. Our influences proved to be many and various, like our reading. Because we read Gorter, Makhno, Che and Rosa Luxemburg. In clandestine hide-outs what we came upon most often were Marx’s Grundrisse or Anton Pannekoek’s text The Workers’ Councils, but there was also the Régis Debray book I mentioned or “30 Questions to the Tupamaros” and, beyond the shadow of a doubt, Liberating Action by the Brazilian guerrilla Carlos Marighela who had been killed in action.

A few comrades such as Santi Soler,  “Montes” and “El Secretari” had their gaze fixed on the old European revolutions of 1918-1923, in Germany, Hungary and northern Italy … And on the experience of the KAPD in particular. That communist party had, throughout its existence, preserved a direct connection with armed insurrectionist struggles. And as far as we were concerned Max Hölz was another legendary figure, like the guerrillas Sabaté and Caracremada. I think the former members of the Theory Team liaised and collaborated with the armed organization based on that super-imposition. As militants of the communist left, they did not let themselves be dazzled by the wordy dexterity of “theorists” who had never engaged in any revolutionary practice and who had written almost always in hope of being published, having not the slightest connection to the everyday struggles of proletarians.

The comrades from Barcelona had a political history dating back to ’68. Those of us in Toulouse had ours. They were quite different. Sometimes it might be thought that inside the MIL these histories clashed with each other and fed on each other. And, ultimately, that might be right. But the contradiction was one of the driving forces behind our action, a quite real action that marked Francoism’s last years in the Catalan capital.

We were all drawn from that generation that had broken with the traditional left and with the limitations of its practice (parliamentarism and trade unionism). In Barcelona, we were critical in advance of the vagaries of Transition and the compacts with constitutional neo-Francoism. As if we sensed within that assuredly illegal yet overly-cautious opposition the ultimate betrayal of the revolutionary thrust of ’36 and the popular republic. A few comrades derived a wicked pleasure from reiterating that we were “isolated” or, worse still, “imprudent”. Such charges amounted to the ultimate alibi for their “legendary patience” and their ramblings back in those fascist times. The first article of their creed was base on the notorious “do nothing” policy since there was nothing genuinely revolutionary to do other than wait for the dictator to die and for democratization of the country (which boiled down to mere adaptation of the bourgeois dictatorship to European norms). Article two prompted them to link up “with the masses” in a common front embracing the traditional political and trade union forces.  

All as a way of covering up their irresponsibility and practical inconsistency. Because, within that front, the masses were not playing the role of an actor in the transformation of society, but had been reduced to the role  onlookers at the bourgeois mode of doing politics. On pre-established dates, they were electing their leaders and future rulers. In both instances, militants with that sort of “commitment” handed out pamphlets and leaflets filled with revolutionary rhetoric. And attended meetings that were pretty much tolerated. Taking part in demonstrations between the police motorcades. Doing precisely what they or their heirs are doing today, except for the odd detail. There is less repression now, to be sure. At present, bourgeois rule has loosened the reins a little since it has no reason to fear them, absolutely none; of that, it has no doubt. And at the same time, such punishment-free agitation helps to advertise their regimented rights.  

Naturally, we were isolated because separating ourselves from such rabbit-hearted opposition was our choice. This was a choice born to struggle. However, we had our connections to the radical workers’ groups, the grassroots committees, the strike coordinators as in the Harry Walker and Cordero disputes. We printed up their bulletins such as Caballo Loco from the workers’ group at Bultaco and we supplied them with printing presses that could guarantee their real autonomy. 

As far as the traditional left was concerned, such worker action is non-existent unless they are in control of it, or when they cannot exploit it for the sake of their own short-term interests. That being the way that reformist political representatives help out with the negation of the real proletarian movement. As far as that left is concerned, we had no contacts with anybody, since we were only active with this Nothing and on behalf of its social and political emancipation (Helping it become the negation of negation!).

Despite clandestinity, we were in touch with many comrades of varying outlooks, workers and students alike. Too many, of course, for a fighting group to remain secure. And when we looked abroad (to the Exterior) we used to organize and take part in meetings in Lyon, Milan, Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels …  in solidarity with the Catalan workers’ movement’s struggles.

There was absolutely no way that we thought of ourselves as a vanguard, in the sense of a tiny self-styled revolutionary sect. But we were part of the vanguard of that generation’s contestation and revolutionary unrest. Over the ensuing months and years, thousands of young people took up arms the way we did. Which is tantamount to saying that we were no more than a drop in the formidable ocean of those years of agitation. But there was no separating us from it. Our hearts beat to the same hope of emancipation. 

Since the barricades back in ’68-’69, we had been part of the “New Left” as the Italian comrades from Il Manifesto characterized it. Later, as the months went by, we were waking up to the limitations that were coming to light each day. Although it had managed to clarify revolutionary objectives, this new left had proved incapable of reaching them, tactically as well as in organizational terms. Along with the restless of those times, we thought that we had been through our own 1905 and were now looking forward to a fabulous 1917. For their part, the leftists had set themselves the task of building the new Bolshevik party which had, they argued, cruelly let down the spontaneous rebellions by the masses (And 40 years later they are still working on that site!) Our thinking was that the time had come “to arm the proletariat with the determination to arm itself” and thereby crash through the barriers that rioting had failed to break through. In short, despite the conditions peculiar to Francoism, we followed the same path as thousands of other young people across Europe … They too had plumped for the life of the guerrilla! The earliest bombs planted by the RAF or the Angry Brigade went off in West Berlin and in London. The Red Brigades were making ready to go into action in Milan and Turin. We were not all that different. As we realized on reading their literature and at our first meetings with them. 

One night, at a meeting at the ‘Le Père Léon’ bar, “Petit Loup” handed us a book on the RAF published by Champ Libre. We debated it at length. And, on our return from Barcelona, we decided to reprint the introduction. Our thinking was that we had to be critical and adopt a line to the left of the German comrades, not realizing that this was only words (and, phonier still, not even our own words). 

Ten years later, at the beginning of the 1980s, I shared the struggle, the same apartments and the day to day clandestine life with the German comrades and I thought to myself: “I have never fought alongside any organization as tight as we were back in the days of the MIL”. To put that a better way, as what we set out to be and what we intended to accomplish with our weapons and our words. I am well aware that that recollection is going to startle those who draw dividing-lines where there are none and, above all, where the ex-members of the MIL never drew any in their actions. And the temple guardians (Not that we were never a sect!) will grind their teeth. What do I care?

Due to breakages, once we had to switch to action, our baggage was not that heavy. One night in August ’63, on a road leading out of Castellnou del Bages, Caracremada, the last guerrilla to have fought with the groups back in the 30s, with the ‘Tierra y Libertad’ column during the revolution and then in the French and Catalan maquis, was murdered by the Civil Guard. Less than ten years separated us from that most recent combat, but a huge gulf had opened up between him and us. The counter-revolution busied itself destroying memory and destroying accumulated experience, knowing the threat that they represent. Determined to stand up to it, we found ourselves obliged to begin the learning process all over again … Forging ID cards … Looking into various methods for stealing cars … Renting safe houses … Learning how to move around … Familiarizing ourselves with trails through the Pyrenees … We had get on top of expertise in clandestine living. And trying these out in actual practice. Armed struggle is not a practice than can be improvised. Nothing falls out of the sky. A lot of stuff can be picked up from books or be handed on by old hands, but very little when set alongside what the struggle held in store for us. Comrades who think that armed insurrection and resistance will suddenly pop up “come the day” out of sheer spontaneous generation are completely mistaken. The insurrection in ’17 succeeded because the Russian proletariat had been imbued with a clandestine education in violence, as had the Catalan proletariat faced by the July ’36 uprising. There is no learning process, other than the ongoing practice of subversion. Negating the monopoly on violence day after day. Exposing it as what underpins the bourgeois dictatorship.

Those who rule out minority revolutionary violence are equally inconsequential in their denial of the violence endured on a daily basis by the proletariat. They start from a wrong-headed premise regarding class struggle. The fight is not coming down the rack. Under Capital, it is here all the time, around the clock. In our day, the bourgeoisie’s violence holds a patent on supremacy and terrorizes all, male and female, who might dare to query its totalitarian hegemony.

Once acquired, experience spreads wider and deeper. Month on month we learn how to kill the policeman inside our heads. The one foisted upon us by a slavish education, Judaeo-Christian morality, political dragooning and social terror. Gradually, we were learning what was doable and arming ourselves with that morsel of experience … and make no mistake, it was anything but easy.

Some people reckon that in the end we didn’t do anything great, a few actions at most. About ten translations, a few publications … Maybe they are right. And much more would have needed done. That much is sure.

These days, with “democracy restored”, a few commercial publishers have made it their business to distribute revolutionary writings (well, the sale-able, less dusty ones). No need for clandestine presses any more … Nor for secret deliveries. Things are much easier. Also, we are swamped by words galore … Once upon a time the dictatorship imposed silence; these days its liberal offspring orchestrates a cacophony of chaos …

With the passage of time, we must admit that the MIL’s most important practice took place after it was dismantled. Primarily in Barcelona, with the proliferation of actions as part of the campaign to get the political prisoners released and later, with the struggles mounted by the various grupos autónomos before and during the transition. But the experience of the MIL carried over in France and elsewhere. For instance, if it was Action Directe’s practice to post a protection team outside during its operations, this was because one February morning in ’73 we had been caught on the hop and surrounded by officers from the Crime Squad at the Banco Hispano-Americano branch in the Paseo Fabra y Puig …

Like so many other lessons arising out of the MIL’s practices we passed this experience on to foreign comrades we trained during the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Thus, as veterans from the combat groups, we imparted what we had learnt on the streets of Barcelona as part of the practice of the revolutionary left during our common struggles.

In that sense, the MIL lives on through the revolutionary struggle in spite of its having disappeared as an organization.

The only fight lost is the one abandoned.”

Jean Marc Rouillan “Sebas”
Lannemezan Prison (France), October 2006. 

Source : Original was Por la memoria anticapitalista - published jointly by Editorial Klinamen and Desorden Distro (1st edition 2008/2nd edition 2009/3rd edition 2013) This article filled pages 277-292 but I’m not sure which edition, most likely the 3rd. The downloadable text reads: “We invite full or partial reproduction of this text for the purposes of discussion and/or non-commercial distribution” [See ]

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.