Durruti in the Spanish Revolution by Abel Paz, translated by Chuck Morse, afterword by José Luis Gutierréz Molina [Review]

Buenaventura Durruti is the most famous Spanish anarchist militant. ‘Durruti had lived a good deal of his life underground and his trajectory had always been controversial. He was necessarily an enemy and a bandit to the bourgeoisie. But, for revolutionaries, Durruti was a uniquely gifted man who devoted himself body and soul to the cause.’ (p598) Durruti was active in some of the most important moments of Spanish anarchist history. He was notorious from the early 1920s as part of the action groups combating pistolerismo (the bosses’ assassination campaign against CNT militants). And probably no less notorious for his part in robbing banks to fund the movement, and in the anarchist insurrections of the 1930s. Finally, he was a key figure in building the ‘new world in our hearts’ in the Spanish Revolution.

Durruti did not leave stacks of diaries and manuscripts, which makes Paz’s reconstruction of his life such an achievement. The footnotes show the long and painstaking research that went into the book: Paz has not just looked through pamphlets and periodicals, he searched the Spanish anarchist diaspora for letters and personal recollections. As well as Durruti’s own words, there are some excellent quotes from his partner Emilienne Morin and his comrade Francisco Ascaso.

As well as a life of Durruti, this is also the story of the Spanish anarchist movement and its path to the revolution of 1936. Paz provides the essential context for Durruti’s life: what happened in 1936 is impossible to understand without talking about the 1934 Asturias revolt, for example. Chuck Morse has done a great job providing extra footnotes for even more background.

This dual focus means that this is a big book (800 pages plus). It’s not so much an expanded version as a complete reworking of Durruti: the people armed (1976), with much more primary evidence. It finishes with a wonderful biography of Paz by José Luis Gutierréz Molina, which shows how Paz exemplifies the militant historian ‘who is not given to playing with words because earlier he gambled with his life’, to quote ‘The fight for history - a manifesto’ (KSL Bulletin 20), which Paz signed. Apart from some trouble with footnote numbering and military jargon, it’s well written, well translated and well presented and produced.

Durruti in the Spanish Revolution is essential reading for anyone wanting to know more about Durruti or the history of the Spanish anarchist movement. For the Spanish revolution it ranks alongside The CNT in the Spanish Revolution by José Peirats, and the works of Burnett Bolloten. A chapter on the fate of the Durruti column (and its members) would have been good.

Durruti in the Spanish Revolution will doubtless feed the political arguments about the nature of anarchism, and its successes and failures in Spain. This committed, but still critical, study can only improve such debates. Durruti’s revolutionary thought and action went hand in hand. His speech in Barcelona (15 September 1932) sums up the challenge thrown down by the anarchists:

The Republican-Socialists need to understand this and so we’ll say it very clearly: either the Republic resolves the peasants and industrial workers’ problems or the people will do so on their own. But can the Republic resolve those and other pressing problems? We don’t want to deceive anyone and will reply firmly, so that the entire working class hears us: neither the Republic nor any political regime of the sort - with or without the Socialists - will ever resolve the workers’ problems. A system based on private property and the authority of power cannot live without slaves. And if the workers want to be dignified, to live freely and control their own destinies, then they shouldn’t wait for the government to give them their liberty. Economic and political freedom is not something given; it has to be taken. It depends on you, the workers listening to me, whether you’ll continue being modern slaves or free men! You must decide!’ (p285)

Durruti in the Spanish Revolution by Abel Paz,
translated by Chuck Morse, afterword by José Luis Gutierréz Molina
AK Press, ISBN 9781904859505