Interview with Agustín Guillamón, historian of the working class revolution in Barcelona in 1936

Agustín Guillamón was born in Barcelona in 1950, the son of textile workers. From the age of 13 he lived in the working class barrio of Poble Nou and later in La Verneda. He graduated from the University of Barcelona in contemporary history; his dissertation, under the supervision of Muniesa, dealt with the activism and political thought of Amadeo Bordiga.

He has published four books on the 1936 revolution, Barricadas en Barcelona; Els Comités de Defensa en Barcelona 1936-1938; La Revolución de los Comités, and most recently La Guerra del Pan:Hambre y violencia en Barcelona revolucionaria. De diciembre de 1936 a mayo de 1937 wherein he provides a platform for the protagonists of the revolution themselves. His books are essential reading for anyone investigating the revolution and for any Catalan eager to know what happened in Barcelona during the revolution and the counter-revolution in 1937. Agustín Guillamón lets the protagonists speak for themselves and this entails complicated and dogged research. A non-directional, non-interpretative, superb way of showing us the history by letting the ‘cast’ do the talking. Vital books on self-organisation among the Barcelona proletariat, mostly, the handiwork of a non-aligned historian involved in class struggle.

Agustín is a font of knowledge and I often question him further about the people he writes about; his contributions open up the research field and bring a fresh perspective. He is a fine consultant.

Tell us about your political awakening.

My paternal grandfather was the youngest of a family of eleven siblings born in the ‘Barrac de la Fam’, as its inhabitants popularly referred to the uplands of the Alt Millars comarca situated between Castellón and Teruel. During the First World War they moved to Barcelona. The highly precarious circumstances, in terms of work and accommodation, led to their shuttling between Poble Nou and Terrassa, the oldest sister’s home in Olesa being a safe haven (from the police or from hunger). Together with some of his brothers, my grandfather was a member of the CNT’s defence committees. His CNT membership card dated from April 1931. He worked in the chemical industry. When the fascists entered Terrassa, my grandfather’s brother Pascual, disabled in the fighting on 19 July 1936 in Barcelona, vanished: some say he was shot by the Falangists. My grandfather, Eliseo, went into exile, winding up in the Argelès concentration camp [in France] and later in the labour battalions working on the strengthening of the Atlantic Wall, from where he ran away, escaping into the hills , eking out a living in the forest as a charcoal-maker. He got involved with the maquis in Gers, not so much on account of any political decision of his own as because it was the only way he had of surviving. He was involved in the liberation of the small town of Mirande where he lived until his death in 1970.

In the meantime, with Barcelona having fallen to the fascists, my grandmother was having to cope with five young children, like it or not. Two rough anecdotes from the times. One, the arrival in her home (which was repeatedly subjected to searches by the fascist police), of the war bride of her brother Vicente, conscripted into the military on the Nationalist side and killed on the Madrid front by a stray bullet, just days before the war ended. The neighbours had no idea what was going on, what with repeated police raids followed a sympathy visit by a Falangist bigwig bringing his condolences to the Carrer Amistat. Then there was the forcible baptism of my aunts at the hands of some Falangist “ladies”. My aunt Natura was rechristened with the name Ana, although she was always known just as Nita. My aunt Libertad was rechristened Cruz, albeit that she was still referred to by everyone as Nati, so that when she wanted to get married years later, the priest turned her away because the names Natividad and Cruz and Libertad did not match up. In the end the priest gave in because the only alternative was for the couple to live together “in sin”.

The absence of my grandfather in a bleak, unfair, hostile world left me with lots of unanswered questions, unless his offence was to have lost a war and then gone into hiding.

Who were your greatest influences?

My father and his insistence on education, freedom and fairness as goals that could be achieved through reading and effort and learning; and for his strict ethical outlook as he roundly rejected drinking, gambling and every other vice as the snares of capitalism and the employer. In a world of fascist values, from my innocent, happy childhood days his exemplary lifestyle was a shining beacon.

… and which books influenced you most?

In the historical field, the works of the medievalist Georges Duby, Broué, Brinton, Bolloten, Bernecker, Carr, Peirats, Voline, Michelet, Soboul, Mathiez and Abel Paz; in the realm of theory, Darwin, Canfora, Marx, Kropotkin, Rocker, Munis, Dauvé and the Cahiers Spartacus; in literature, Quevedo, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Troyes and the medieval literature published by Siruela, plus Gide, Malaquais, Yourcenar and Diderot, not forgetting the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Lamb’s Adventures of Ulysses and Joseph Dietzgen’s The Essence of Intellectual Work.

With which political groups and organisations have you been involved?

Back in the early 1970s I joined the Plataformas. I came into contact with groups such as the ICC and the FOR, without actually joining them. I developed an interest in the Italian Communist Left, in councilism and in worker autonomy. And as ever, my consistent studies were designed to explore the roots of the defeat suffered by the revolutionaries during the civil war.

What prompted you to research the civil war?

My family background. The oppressive reality of Francoism, the dictatorship of which was bereft of any excuse other than the success of an army in a war against its own population, especially against the working class. There were two questions to which I wanted answers: Why and how was that war lost? Why and how was the revolution lost?

What is the point of history?

It helps me to learn, publicise and deepen my familiarity with revolutionary history, refuting the fallacies and misrepresentations devised and concocted by “sacrosanct” bourgeois history. The simple unveiling of the real history of class struggle, written from the angle of the revolutionary proletariat, is of itself a fight for history, for revolutionary history. A fight that is part and parcel of the class struggle, just like wildcat strikes, factory occupations, revolutionary uprisings, ‘The Conquest of Bread’ or ‘Das Kapital’. In order to stake its claim to its past, the working class has to fight against social democratic, neo-stalinist, Catalanist, liberal and neo-Francoist interpretations. The proletariat’s battle to learn about its own history is one front among many in the class struggle. It is not merely theoretical, nor is it abstract or banal, in that it is part and parcel of class consciousness itself and can be defined as the theorisation of the historical experiences of the world proletariat. Spain needs to understand, assimilate and, crucially, ‘take ownership of ‘ the experiences of the anarcho-syndicalist movement of the 1930s.

What lessons can be drawn from the civil war?

Whether in its fascist form or in its democratic form, the capitalist state needs destroying. The proletariat cannot call a truce with the republican (or democratic) bourgeoisie in order to smash the fascist bourgeoisie because such a truce suggests the defeat of the revolutionary alternative and the abjuring of the proletariat’s revolutionary programme (and the methods of struggle that are quintessentially its own) so as to embrace a programme of antifascist unity with the democratic bourgeoisie for the sake of winning that war against fascism.

What was the role of defence committees? Why did they lose power — and what became of them following the counter-revolution in May 1937?

Answering those questions would take up a lot of space. This is something I delve into in my book Los comités de defensa de la CNT a Barcelona (available in English as Ready For Revolution). Their main shortcoming was their failure to organise and coordinate outside of the CNT apparatus. The higher committees swamped the revolutionary committees politically and in organisational terms, making them their worst enemies and the greatest obstacle to their yearned-for and necessary absorption into the machinery of the bourgeois state, the ultimate aim being a process of institutionalisation.

What was the connection or differences between defence committees and the anarchist affinity or action groups?

The defence committees could be described as the underground army of the revolution, fully and seriously committed to intelligence-gathering, armaments, training, strategy and the business of making preparations for the worker uprising. They were bodies dependent on the CNT because it was the unions that funded and sustained them with their members.

The affinity groups made up the FAI’s organisational structure. They were essentially groups of friends and/or activists bound together by an ideological affinity and who embraced the tasks, postulates and tactics shared by the group. The Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) was merely a shared platform or coordinating body marshalling the affinity groups, which were often at odds with the Peninsular or Regional Committee.

The action groups were launched back in the days of pistolerismo (1917-1923) as trade unionist self-defence groups in that their sole mission, in the face of brutal state terrorism, the militarization of the Somatén [a sort of yeomanry] and the funding being channelled to the gunmen from the Sindicato Libre by the Catalan employers, was to ensure that the CNT militant survived and to avert the eradication of the CNT due to the slaughter of its members and resultant mass de-unionisation.

Was there an actual revolution in 1936? Did the CNT’s pact with the Generalitat put paid to any chance of revolution?

There was a revolutionary situation in Barcelona in July 1936. But for the very first time in history, a successful workers’ revolutionary uprising failed to take power, leaving the bourgeois state machinery intact. The CNT-FAI, which was the dominant labour organisation in Catalonia, had no appropriate revolutionary theory and decided to collaborate with the other antifascist organisations and to share the government business of the Generalitat home rule government. Its sole objective was to win the war against fascism. Its leaders gave up on revolution even as the revolutionary barrio committees (in Barcelona) and local revolutionary committees (across Catalonia), the factory committees, barricade committees, supplies committees and all manner of committees were seizing the property of the bourgeois, the Church and state assets, with no forces of public order on hand, the latter having been confined to their barracks (to await a time better suited to counter-revolution).

Why did the barricades work in July 1936 but not those errected in May ‘37 barricades against the Stalinists?

The difference between the July 1936 and May 1937 uprisings is that the revolutionaries back in July were unarmed but possessed of a specific political purpose: defeating the military and fascist onslaught, whereas in May, even with arms far superior to those held in July, they were, politically speaking, unarmed. The working masses launched a revolt against Stalinism and the bourgeois Generalitat government and even its own organisations, and without its leaders, but proved incapable of seeing the fight through to the finish without their organisations and in defiance of their leaders. The barricades put up in July 1936 were still in position months later, whereas those erected in May 1937 were taken down immediately, aside from the few that the PSUC wanted left up in token of its power and its victory.

What lay behind May 1937?

May ‘37 was without doubt the outcome of the growing discontent in the face of soaring prices, short rations, the battle within firms over the socialisation of the economy and workers’ control, the Generalitat’s escalating drive to disarm the rearguard and secure control of public order, etc., etc., entailing above all the inevitable defeat of the proletariat in arms, which the counter-revolution had to achieve if it was to banish once and for all any revolutionary threat to bourgeois republican institutions.

Who are the main misrepresenters and falsifiers of the civil war?

The misrepresenters do not matter that much, nor their misrepresentation. Besides, the misrepresenters are the usual suspects: the neo-stalinists, social democrats, liberals, Catalanists and neo-Francoists, meaning the sacrosanct history of the bourgeoisie.

Can you cite one example of such misrepresenters?

Take for instance the clash between the CNT and the PSUC. It was a political clash, in the Greek sense of the term, that is, a contest between two different approaches to guaranteeing supplies to the Barcelona ‘polis’: on one side the barrio committees which prioritised egalitarian, efficient and adequate bread and basic foodstuff supplies; and on the other, the PSUC whose priority was, above any other consideration, strengthening the Generalitat government. And this PSUC strategy required above all else that the barrio committees be wound up and that a free market be imposed. Free market meant removing the cap on prices and it encouraged small traders to line their pockets, even should the people go hungry. The PSUC’s ideological and theoretical excuse was that the free market and unrestrained pricing ensured the arrival on the market of produce which would otherwise have been hoarded. In practice what happened was that the free market encouraged hoarding of foodstuffs, due to punting on rising prices. The free market of theory quickly translated into black-marketeering and into workers going hungry.

The official pricing of foodstuffs, obtained by means of a ration card, was nominal, because they immediately ran out of them and they could only be got on the black market. The statistics do not reflect the simple non-availability of regulated basic foodstuffs. Nor do they reflect the black market pricing dictated by the law of supply and demand. Worry, hunger, the long hours spent exhaustedly queueing with the outcome uncertain and the trips out to farming villages for provisions obtained by means of barter or bullying, looting or thievery became general practice throughout the population of Barcelona from spring 1937 onwards.

From February 1938 on, the supplies issue was militarised: by August 1938 that militarization was complete after three grades of rations were introduced – combatant rations, armed rearguard rations and civilian rations. The Stalinists and the bourgeois were trying to break the revolutionaries, using hunger as a weapon.

Could you name a few of the falsifiers of our history?

There’s Miquel Mir from the trash school. Not so much a historian as a novelist and con-man who concocts, manipulates and tampers with documents. He is backed, financially, by the Equestrian Circle, a deeply pro-Franco Catalan aristocratic association. He represents the Catalan bourgeoisie’s failed and discredited attempt to blacken the anarchists who scared the life out of their forebears back in 1936.

Pio Moa, César Alcalà and others of that ilk, come from the neo-Francoist school of history. They rehearse the usual far right Francoist nonsense, their purpose being to justify and praise the Franco dictatorship’s blood-letting.

Gallego, Martin Ramos and a considerable list of others come from the neo-stalinist school of history. They have been in the ascendant for years now and there is a very high percentage of them in Catalan universities. They emphatically deny that any social revolution occurred in Barcelona in 1936, so much so that that very denial is their defining characteristic as a school of history. These days they reject the offensive description ‘Stalinist’ and prefer to think of themselves as social democrats. They hate anarchists and are the chief peddlers of the dark legend that surrounds Catalan anarchism, the one that depicts anarchists as bloodthirsty vampires. The legend devised and popularised by the saintly founding fathers of the PSUC and their predecessors (Max Rieger, Ehrenburg, Stepanov, Perucho ..) who specialised in turning advertising campaigns into misrepresentations of fact, even as they unleashed the crackdown on the CNT in the summer of 1937, successfully driving the CNT out of certain comarcas and thousands of libertarians into the prisons. They purport to be objective and scientific, but are ferociously sectarian and the best defenders of the obsolete capitalist system and corrupt bourgeois democracy. They run the review and publishing house L’Avenç and El Viejo Topo. Among this list of academics one finds a few notable exceptions such as Izard, Muniesa, Pagès … but damned few others.

The neo-liberal school includes prestigious professional historians like Viñas, or Catalan historians marginalised by their neo-stalinist colleagues – people such as Ucelay Da Cal. They are brighter and less compromised than the neo-Francoists and not as dogmatic as the neo-stalinists. They are destined to succeed and replace the latter, if only as a result of a generational rising above the tired old division into Francoists and anti-Francoists.

One alternative to collaborating with the Generalitat was to “go for broke” as urged by García Oliver, which you construe as an anarchist dictatorship. Does ‘going for broke’ not amount to trying to make the revolution? Putting paid to the power of the ruling bourgeoisie?

At the Casa CNT-FAI which occupied the two buildings confiscated from the Board of Labour and the Casa Cambó, Companys’s suggestion that the CNT join the CAMC was put to a Regional Plenum of Union Locals and Comarcals, convened by the Committee of the Regional Confederation of Labour of Catalonia, for its approval.

Following an introductory report from Marianet, José Xena, representing the Lower Llobregat comarcal federation, moved that the CNT delegates should pull out of the CAMC and get on with the revolution so as to establish libertarian communism. Then Juan García Oliver portrayed the debate and the decision to be made as being a choice between a “nonsensical” anarchist dictatorship and collaborating with other antifascist factions through the Central Militias Committee by way of carrying on the fight against fascism.

So, deliberately or otherwise, García Oliver swayed the plenum away from the muddled and ambiguous “going for broke”. As against some uncompromising “anarchist dictatorship” it seemed more logical , more level-headed and reasonable to champion anarchist principle over any sort of dictatorship, as Federica Montseny did, supported by the arguments of Diego Abad de Santillán about the dangers of isolation and foreign intervention. A third position emerged, championed by Manuel Escorza, who moved that the Generalitat be put to use as a tool for socialising and collectivising, until such time as, having outlived its usefulness to the CNT, it could be discarded.

The plenum came out in favour of the CNT’s collaborating with other antifascist forces within the Central Antifascist Militias Committee (CAMC), with the Lower Llobregat comarca voting against this. Most of those attending the plenum, including Durruti and Ortiz, failed to speak, because they reckoned, like so many others, that the revolution would have to be postponed until Zaragoza was taken and fascism defeated. Without further ado or philosophising, the next step was to institutionalise the Committee that had been liaising between the CNT and the Generalitat in the run-up to 19 July; this would be overhauled, boosted and widened out to form the CAMC which, by means of antifascist unity between all the parties and trade unions, was to impose order in the rearguard and see to the organising and supplying of the militias whose task it was to tackle the fascists in Aragon.

The real revolutionary option was not Garcia Oliver’s “going for broke”, that being merely the seizure of power by a minority of anarcho-syndicalist leaders, but rather the revolutionary committees at street level, expropriating the factories, raising and feeding the militias, manning the barricades, running the city, forming rearguard patrols and .. ultimately – taking over all state functions and effectively wielding power.

Which figure from the 1936 revolution do you admire most? And why?

The Barcelona barrio revolutionary committees because they were potential organs of working class power.

Is revolution feasible without violence?

The big lesson of the 1936 revolution as far as revolutionaries are concerned is the inescapable need to destroy the state. Violence is not a matter of taste or ethics, but of the balance of strength between the contending classes.

Public order cannot be construed as anything other than institutionalised violence. Public order defies and confronts revolutionary violence. The state champions bourgeois society’s institutions and possesses a monopoly on violence which it exercises through the so-called forces of Public Order and which, to capitalist society, has all of the appearances of “normality”. Revolutionary violence, challenging that monopoly, is portrayed as a maverick phenomenon, chaotic, arbitrary and abnormal, that is, as a breach of the law and public order and thus as criminality.

The clash with the military opened up the path of violence as the way to resolve social and political differences. In war, problems are solved by killing the enemy. The extraordinary situation of institutional crisis and social revolution, triggered by the army revolt and civil war, was fertile ground populated by revolutionaries who were slandered as “uncontrollables” and who took justice into their own hands.

Against a backdrop where all the institutions had failed and where there was a power vacuum, the revolutionary committees plus the specialist investigation committees awarded themselves the authority to judge and execute the fascist enemy or indeed those suspected of being so, be they clergy, property-owner, right-winger, rich or disaffected. And their “right” to wipe out this enemy derived from the weapons to which they had access. Because it was time to put fascism to death, there being no alternative other than to kill or be killed on account of their being at war with the fascists. Has anybody ever accused a soldier of killing his enemy? Then why would anybody be accused of killing an enemy lurking in the rearguard? In war, the enemy is killed precisely because he is the enemy; there is no other law, no other morality, no other philosophy.

With many years of hindsight, learned academics devise elaborate explanations and theories to explain things, but all the historical documentation on the matter suggests to us that the militiaman who took some cleric, boss or fascist “for a walk” was applying a very straightforward rule: in war, the enemy gets killed or he kills you. Everybody, absolutely everybody followed the very same line of reasoning – from Health minister Federica Montseny to the head of the Death Squad Pasqual Frasquet, from Vidiella, the PSUC’s councillor for Justice to África de las Heras, the leader of one PSUC squad, from Joan Pau Fábregas, the CNT’s councillor for Economy, to the humblest militian or patrolman.

Were violence and revolution inseparable?

Violence and power were the same thing. In times of revolution, violence, be it destructive (of the old order) or constructive (building the new order) and as long as it cannot gain the upper hand, can always find people to carry it out, whether nameless or not. That holds from the French revolution through to the revolution yet to come. But once that violence, having arrived at July’s revolutionary situation and found power reduced to smithereens, began to be regulated after October 1936 (given its new characteristic as legitimised violence and/or lawful violence of the ‘new’ order) by the antifascist authorities, it ceased to be a revolutionary, collective, popular, wrong-righting, celebratory and spontaneous violence and became a cruel, unfathomable phenomenon in the eyes of the new bourgeois republican, centralised and monopolistic counter-revolutionary order which was founded upon the imposition of control upon and eradication of the earlier revolutionary situation.

At a rally at the Olimpia theatre on 21 July 1937, Federica Montseny denounced the legal proceedings against CNT personnel who were monstrously facing prosecution over the revolutionary events of July 1936, because having killed clerics, soldiers, gunmen or right-wingers simply for being such was not considered criminal. And that view was shared by the vast majority of anarcho-syndicalists. By September 1937 when this crackdown turned its attention to UGT activists as well, Vidiella (of the PSUC) took much the same line as Montseny.

What can we learn from the anarcho-syndicalist experiences and the revolution of ‘36?

During the civil war, the political objective of state anarchism, constituted as an antifascist faction, employing class collaborationist methods (sharing in government, organising along bureaucratic lines and in the main aim of winning the war against fascism) was a resounding failure on every score: but the social movement of revolutionary anarchism, organised into barrio and local revolutionary committees or workers; control or defence committees, etc., amounted to the embryonic form of a worker power that brought forth instances of economic management, revolutionary popular initiatives and working class autonomy which, to this day, illuminate and herald a future radically different from capitalist barbarism, fascist horror or Stalinist enslavement.

And even though that revolutionary anarchism was ultimately to succumb to the coordinated, concerted repression from state, stalinists and higher committees, its legacy is the example and the battle put up by certain minorities such as the Friends of Durruti, the Libertarian Youth and certain anarchist groups from the Barcelona Local Federation, that allow us to weave theory today with their experiences, learning from their mistakes and claiming their struggles and their history as our own. In the wake of the successful uprising of workers and the defeat of the army, with the forces of order confined to barracks, the destruction of the state ceases to be some abstract futuristic utopia. The destruction of the state by revolutionary committees was a very concrete and real mission, in which those committees shouldered all of the tasks performed by the state prior to July 1936.

Have you been self-censoring or have you been subjected to censorship?

Never. I would rather not publish at all than countenance any sort of censorship.

Could you give us a run-down on your published books or what books you are working on or are on the brink of publishing?

Barricades in Barcelona” was an attempt to set out how the ideology of antifascist unity implied the abandonment by the committees of any revolutionary programme, all in the name of winning the war on fascism. It has been published also in French. The Barcelona CNT Defence Committees (1933-1938) [published by AK Press in 2014 as Ready for Revolution] is an introduction to the subject of the war and the revolution in Catalonia from the vantage point of the clandestine organs of a revolutionary army, to wit, the defence committees. It has been published in Italy too.

The Revolution of the Committees (from July to December 1936)” is the first volume of a trilogy and will be followed by “The Bread War (December 1936 to May 1937)” and the third instalment will be “The Crackdown on the CNT (May to September 1937)”. All three books share the sub-title “Hunger and Violence in Revolutionary Barcelona. From July to December 1936“. Publication of the last two volumes in the trilogy is pending. Each of the books can be read independently of the others but plainly they make up part of the same work on the Spanish Revolution in Catalonia and the floor is thrown open to the protagonists as they are full of previously unpublished documents and deals essentially with hunger and revolutionary violence, lifting the lid and stressing how the Stalinists and the Generalitat government between them managed to defeat the revolutionaries by means of hunger and recapturing the monopoly on violence in the rearguard.

You are the director, historian, publisher and distributor of the history review Balance. Sum Balance up for us.

Balance has been appearing since 1993. It represents an attempt to remember the “bad guys ” of the Civil War who were disowned, “forgotten”, “canonised” or on many occasions slandered by their own organisations and by “sacred (bourgeois) history”, people like Josep Rebull (of the left wing of the POUM), or the Friends of Durruti, Munis, Fosco, Mary Low, Benjamin Péret, Balius, Orwell, Nin and so on. It also deals with the Stalinist killers, people such as Gerö, Stepanov, and their Spanish fellow travellers. Various editions of the review, such as one given over to the Friends of Durruti and others have been published in translation in English, French, Italian and Czech. Many articles can be read on the web on the ‘La Bataille socialiste’ website at http://www.bataillesocialiste.wordpress

And where can we buy your books and the review Balance?

In Barcelona, at the Aldarull bookshop (Torrent de l’Olla 24), La Rosa de Foc (Joaquín Costa 24) and in Madrid at the La Malatesta bookshop (Jesús y María 24) or via the internet from ..

And you write a regular column for Catalunya called “Militant Dictionary”, Can you give a short description to our readers?

It is an attempt to publicise workers’ history, lives of militants as well as some concepts crucial to the workers’ movement … biographies such as lives of Seguí or Ascaso and notions such as direct action, lock-out, sindicato único, Stalinism, capitalism and so on.

And you are also an active member of the Ateneo Enciclopèdic Popular (AEP). What do you do there?

Archive, arrange and classify old papers such as the papers of Abel Paz and others.

How do you see the current state of the workers’ movement?

It’s do or die. Revolution or barbarism. The proletariat does not consist merely of the industrial working class and not just the active population but also includes all of the waged, as well as claimants, part-timers, pensioners, all those who have nothing to fall back on in order to survive. At present we are witnessing an all-out attack by capital and the state upon the living conditions of the proletariat. An attack that can only be responded to via class struggle. In the absence of that struggle, the proletariat has no prospects ahead other than the fate of the sixty million dead generated by the Second World War and the destruction of the bulk of industry.

And how do you see the libertarian movement today?

Behind the harsh realities and the occasionally weak and disheartening facts we can hear the grass growing. The social, economic and political conditions in this country are explosive. The system has no answer to the crisis. No future to offer anybody. The only way out, the only realistic option is the ongoing struggle to destroy the state which guarantees the survival of the system; it has to carry on so that capital and/or the state can be forced into granting a living wage and benefits, and only relentless struggle can extract these.

What do you think of the divisions within anarcho-syndicalism and between libertarians?

We need the ability to be able to work together on the basis of diversity and mutual respect, stressing what unites us and discarding that which divides us. We need to march in step with each other and strike blows together and build a shared home.

You identify with the Friends of Durruti, CNT members critical of the collaborationism of the CNT leadership. What have their thinking and practice to offer us today?

Whereas the higher committees at a meeting subordinated everything to victory in the war on fascism, the barrio committees and the streets clung to the programme for a workers’ revolution.

The process whereby those higher CNT-FAI committees were institutionalised turned them into servants of the state, making the barrio-level revolutionary committees their worst enemies, as the Regional Committee itself was to describe them at the 25 November 1936 get-together of the higher committees.

Institutionalisation of the CNT was to have significant and inevitable implications for the very organisational and ideological make-up of the CNT. The influx of the more distinguished militants into various levels of the civil service, from town councils up to the ministries of the republican government, including the departments of the Generalitat or the new “revolutionary” institutions, was to generate fresh functions and imperatives that had to be covered by a restricted pool of militants equipped to hold down such positions of responsibility.

The functions of leadership or power exercised by those higher committees was to create a range of interests, approaches and aims that differed from those of the CNT’s activist rank-and-file. Hence the widespread falling away and dissent among the grassroots membership and militants who were grappling with hunger and repression. Hence also the emergence of a revolutionary opposition, embodied mainly by the Friends of Durruti, the Libertarian Youth of Catalonia, a few anarchist groups from the Barcelona Local Federation of Anarchist Groups, especially after May 1937, but which had evolved much earlier, during the summer of 1936, among the barrio defence committees in the various wards of Barcelona.

A new phenomenon emerged that was very worrying, the emergence from July 1936 onwards of a committee of committees, a select executive of leading lights who, because of the importance and urgency of the problems requiring resolution, and the impossibility of grappling with these through the slow, horizontal, assembly-centred processes, stood in for the Organisation when it came to the decision-making.

That committee di tutti committees, which the higher committees tried to keep under wraps, was publicly consolidated in July 1937 as the CAP (Policy Advisory Commission) and was later named the Libertarian Movement Executive Committee. Making a clear distinction between state anarchism and revolutionary anarchism.

Anything to add?

Existence predates consciousness. In the absence of a theoretical framework for the past historical experiences of the proletariat there can be no revolutionary theory, nor any theoretical advancement. Between theory and practice there may be a short or longer time-lapse, during which the weapon of criticism turns into the criticism of weapons. When a revolutionary movement steps on to the stage of history, it cuts loose from all the dead theories and sounds the hour of the long yearned for revolutionary action which is, more than anything else, a theoretical text because it tears the veil away from its mistakes and shortcomings. That practical experience, acted out collectively, smashes through the useless barriers and clumsy boundaries set up during long periods of counter-revolution. Revolutionary theories prove their validity in the laboratory of history.

Class barriers deepen the gulf between revolutionaries and reformists, between anti-capitalists or champions of capitalism. Those who run up the nationalist flag, pronounce the proletariat dead or defend the endlessness of the existence of Capital and the State stand on the opposite side or the barricades, even though they may profess to be anarchists or Marxists. The alternative is to be found among the revolutionaries who are out to abolish all borders, furl up all flags, disband all armies and police forces and destroy all states; breaking with all totalitarianism or messianism by means of assembly-based, self-liberating practices, doing away with waged labour, surplus value and the exploitation of human beings throughout the world; abolishing the threats of nuclear destruction and defending natural resources for generations yet unborn … as well as those who would cling to the established order as its guardians and share the outlook of their masters who champion capitalism and its ravages.

The proletariat is thrust into the class struggle by its very nature as a wage-enslaved, exploited class and needs no lessons from anyone; it fights out of the need to survive. When the proletariat sets itself up as a consciously revolutionary class getting to grips with the party of capital, it needs to absorb the lessons from past revolutionary experiences and to rise above their inevitable mistakes, critically amend the mistakes made, bolster its own political position by means of taking cognisance of its adequacies or shortcomings and round out its programme, in short, sort out whatever issues are outstanding in its day.

We need to learn the lessons taught by history.

And that learning process can only take place through the practice of class struggle by the various revolutionary affinity groups and the various organisations of the proletariat.

From: Interviewed by Txema Bofill for Catalunya, 24/04/13. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.