Living Anarchism: José Peirats and the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist Movement by Chris Ealham [Review]

José Peirats was a brickmaker, writer and above all a cenetista – a member of the anarcho-syndicalist union, the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo. Reading Living anarchism, it’s striking how the CNT was not just an economic and political organisation, nor just a source of hope. It also made a parallel alternative world. When the church schools had failed to beat young José into submission, working class rationalist education ignited a lifelong love of learning. This was between 8 and 9 years old, after which he joined the workforce. Once he had joined – even in exile, even when expelled – the CNT was Peirats’ life. The stories of their struggles run in parallel (and struggles he had aplenty: not just the obvious anarchist ones against employers and the state, either).

In the turbulent 1930s Peirats opposed insurrections by small groups. He fought on the barricades in Barcelona in 1936 as the Spanish Revolution exploded. He was a significant figure in the opposition to the collaborationist line adopted by the CNT leaders. That line not only went against anarchist principles but also the democratic structure of the organisation. In Lleida, he worked on the newspaper Acracia, both promoting the revolution and saving the lives of rightwingers. His humanism rejected ‘violence that was dressed up as “revolutionary terror”. As Peirats said: “Real revolutionaries kill (if they do) with disgust.”’ (p95). Like many others, after the defeat of the revolution (sacrificed to the popular front policy) ‘he felt he had “run out of gas”.’(p113). After that, he joined the 26th division (the former Durruti Column), surviving the last retreat over the Pyrenees.

Ealham really comes into his own in his account of Peirats’ exile years. Exile is never a happy time. Peirats got it right when he said ‘The nomad always has his eyes on his country of origin’ (letter to his parents, written from Panama in 1943, p.121). Peirats’ greatest achievement is his three volume history The CNT in the Spanish Revolution (1951-53, first published in English by Stuart Christie 2001-6). When approached to write it he pointed out others were better qualified. ‘They may be better and they may be “able” to do it […] but you will do it. You will write the book because you’re stubborn and have self-respect!’ (p147). The result was a landmark work, rescuing the story of the revolution and its grassroots protagonists: ‘he never writes a history of the heroic endeavours of great men; rather he shows that the untutored energies and aspirations of the large collectivities of anonymous masses were indeed the human agency of the dispossessed, the driving force behind revolution and historical change, of those who invariably go unrecorded in written history but who, very rarely, […] grasp an opportunity to reclaim control of their lives and make their own history.’ (p155)

Peirats’ exile was not just looking back and writing history, though. It was a time of poverty and insecurity. He was threatened with expulsion, tortured by the French police and wrote part of The CNT in the Spanish Revolution in prison (one Kropotkin had been in! – p152). Most tragic of all was the infighting within the CNT. That’s the curse of exile politics, but it was also the continuation of unresolved conflicts from the civil war years. Not that these disputes were only about ‘where were you in 1936?’, but also practical issues of what tactics to adopt.

Even The CNT in the Spanish Revolution caused conflict with exiled bureaucrats like Germinal Esgleas and Federica Montseny. The ‘rue Belfort leadership’ refused to consider an offer to republish it (by José Martínez of Ruedo ibérico in 1968): ‘Peirats lost patience and told Martínez to organise a new edition, thereby prompting a new conflict […] Peirats was branded a “double thief” and “con man”.’ (p191) Peirats gave the advance and royalties to a comrade for safekeeping; they were delivered ‘to the reconstituted CNT in post-Franco Spain.’ (p194)

Peirats, having devoted his life to it, was unable to consider walking away from the CNT. This is hardly a surprise. He always trusted in the young to revive it, though he found the young anarchists of the 1970s too far removed from his ‘ascetic brand of old-school anarcho-syndicalism’ (p209): ‘When the movement showed sensitivity towards other forms of oppression beyond the workplace and addressed feminist, gay and ecological groups, Peirats denounced this as “dog’s dinner”. (p207)

There’s little available in English on the CNT in exile, which makes this book all the more valuable. It covers the internal weaknesses that marred the revival of the CNT after Francoism, but also touches on the opposing forces that were working to make sure that the ‘transition’ ensured ‘business as usual’ (for example, the Scala Affair terrorist frameup).

Ealham never met or interviewed Peirats, though he interviewed his partner, Gracia Ventura. This means that Living anarchism is the result of a huge amount of effort expended on archives and manuscripts. I found it remarkable just how much Ealham could pull from Peirats’ letters. Living anarchism is a great read for anyone interested in the writing of history, radical politics or working class lives. Even if you’ve never read a book on the Spanish anarchist movement, you’ll not be lost. And if you’re read all the others, this is one you mustn’t miss. This isn’t just the story of a remarkable life. It’s also an account of the successes and failures of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists. Beyond that it’s a reminder that history is not a simple business; but that it is made by people.

Stan Brook

Living Anarchism: José Peirats and the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist Movement by Chris Ealham
AK Press, 2015. 9781849352383 $20/£15.