From the Paris Commune to the Spanish Revolution (1937)

One after the other, our comrades Voline and Sébastien Faure have spoken out with clarity and truthfully. Moreover, they and I are of the same mind.

The “ministerialist” tactic is radically, utterly and definitively anti-anarchist. (As indeed were the Pestaña-ist run of 1931-1933, participation in the elections against Gil Robles and the July 1936 tolerance shown to bourgeois parties and politicians).

After that, a choice had to be made: either the ministerialist tactic was necessary, useful, effective and required by the circumstances and anarchism stands in need of a re-think from top to bottom. Or the ministerialist tactic is a mistake, a faux pas, a betrayal of the people and the revolution, the defence and material and moral interests of which remain indissolubly linked to the implementation of specifically anarchist means and methods.

That strikes us as the perfect encapsulation of the issue, regardless of what our comrade Bertoni may think. But it remains unresolved in this sense, that the practical value of the two approaches – the ministerialist and the anarchist – has not been debated in the light of developments in Spain and in history, to wit, in light of the experience acquired by our movement. That is the sense in which we should like to raise a few points for consideration.

The ministerialist comrades in Spain and elsewhere go to great lengths to have us believe that their position is legitimized by the exceptional circumstances of a state of war, foreign invasion, the Russian alliance, etc … According to them, the program of Social Revolution should be reserved for the ordinary circumstances in life – when there is no economic crisis, no duality of power, no risk of foreign intervention, no armed struggle against fascism.

On the other hand, the fact is that these “exceptional circumstances” would require anarchists to abjure all of their principles and, in defending themselves, to fall back on the methods advocated by the military and the professional politicians, the only experts qualified (!?) in armed struggle and the conduct of human affairs!

In the view of the pioneers of anarchist thought, though, as well as in the view of all authentic revolutionaries, it is precisely in extra-ordinary, disastrous and desperate situations, that the startling superiority of insurrectionist approaches over military and government conventions is made manifest.

After Sedan

Bakunin’s endeavours during 1870 and 1871 (that great anarchist’s writings from that time make up the very kernel of his output) are wholly given over to proving that destruction of the imperial army, the governing authorities’ going on holiday after Sedan and the presence a nearly a million Prussians on French soil imperiously necessitated recourse to the most extreme forms of revolutionary anarchy – the expropriationist class struggle, the root-and-branch destruction of all administrative or military centralism, the widespread proclamation of insurgent communes – as the only feasible approach to defence and success.

In September 1870 Bakunin hailed the collapse of imperial authority in these terms:

The Germans have just done the French people a huge service.  They have demolished its army.
The French army! That ghastly instrument of imperial despotism, that sole raison d’être of the Napoleons! As long as it was around, its fratricidal bayonets bristling, the French people had no salvation. France might witness pronunciamientos like in Spain, or military revolutions, but freedom – never! Paris, Lyon and so many other workers’ cities around France are well aware of that.
Today, that vast army, with its formidable organization, is no more. France can be free. And she will be, thanks to her German brethren.
But one good turn deserves another. It is now the French people’s turn to do the German people the same good turn. Woe betide the Germans if their armies return to Germany in triumph! That would put paid to all their hopes for the future and for their liberty, for fifty years at least.
(in Le Réveil des Peuples)

Territorial defence

The approaches that Bakunin advocated as a way of utterly destroying the German army were tried and tested against the armies of Napoleon I and remain the nightmare of all the military experts. They are the harrying of the adversary by irregulars operating in the rear of his armies, the defence of the towns being orchestrated by the locals, the widespread refusal to cooperate with the invader, terrorism striking at military and police cadres, revolutionary propaganda to demoralize the troops, in short, a tactical offensive across a wide area, without allowing stabilization of the front or pitched battles, whilst systematically throwing the adversary into disarray.

Since Bakunin who was, remember, an accomplished military expert and battle-hardened participant in several civil wars, there have been great strides made in military matters, but the current complexity of motorized divisions or airborne technology have simply sounded even more clearly the doom of the tactics of “lines of fire” and “mass offensives” on the part of a people that is poorly equipped in industrial terms and with questionable military cadres at its disposal.

The boundless complexity of the ultra-modern war machine as applied to operations by large units, by contrast, leaves the invading armies of the fascist outsider in Spain highly vulnerable to dis-organization in its rear or from within. That much was acknowledged in Guadalajara and intelligent observers were amazed to see Spanish militians, with that experience under their belts, striving clumsily to ape the Italians on ground where they had to grapple with huge material and organizational inferiority to them, when they might easily have fought them using non-military and non-statist “guerrilla “methods and revolutionary fraternization.

The inadequacy of government

For the powers of the State to be wielded to effect – Bakunin observes in the manuscript written in Marseilles (where he was plotting a second attempt at insurrection following his failure in Lyon) – it has to have at its disposal an effective rather than a fictitious power; it must have all of the instruments of the State at its disposal. What are those instruments? For one thing, a large, well-organized, -armed, -disciplined and -fed and above all well-led army. Next, a well-balanced and well-administered and very generous budget, or credits that can meet all of the extraordinary expenditure made necessary by the particular situation in the country. And finally, an honest, committed, intelligent and active administration.
These are the three instruments making up the actual power of the State. Take away but one of those instruments and the State is no longer mighty. What will become of it when it lacks all three together? The State will be nothing, it will be reduced to zero. It will then be nothing but a phantom, a ghost that can do damage by striking fear into imaginations and leaning on wills, but one incapable of any serious undertaking, any salutary action on the country’s behalf. Which is precisely where the State currently stands in France.

And after demonstrating the powerlessness and disorganization that had led to defeat, the resultant further aggravation from this, to wit, the moral and social bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie in general and of the government bureaucracy in particular – Bakunin comes to this conclusion, equally applicable to republican Spain today and to its machinery of State, undermined by sedition and prepared for any sort of acquiescence and connivance with the rebels and with imperialism.

The State not susceptible to reform

Had the lawyers and learned doctrinarians making up the government of National Defence displayed less supercilious vanity and greater commitment to the people’s cause; had they had a bit more intelligence and revolutionary resolve, had they not hated the revolution even more than they did the Prussian invaders, had they had the courage of truth with regard both to themselves and to the people and coolly weighed up France’s current situation, they might have said to themselves:
1. That using the imperial civil service which was its undoing and which is incapable of doing anything other than plotting against it, in any effort to rescue France is not a possibility.
2. That replacing the entire personnel of that administration in the compass of a few days, and coming up with more than a hundred thousand brand-new officials to stand in for the Empire’s officials, would likewise be an impossibility.
3. That a partial tinkering with it, with only the main officials being changed – the ministers, prefects, sub-prefects, advocates-general and procurators of the Empire – by more or less competent, insipid bourgeois republicans, whilst retaining the former officials of the Empire in the offices and in every other post, would have been a laughable, not to say pointless exercise. For the plain fact is that the incoming ministers, prefects, sub-prefects, advocates-general and procurators of the Republic would of necessity have become the puppets of their offices and subaltern officials, of whom they would have been only nominally in charge; and their offices and the bulk of those subordinate officials, committed by dint of habit, interest, necessity and the lure of criminal fellowship to the politics of the imperial camp, capitalizing upon the posts they would have been left with in order to quietly, secretly but at all times and everywhere protected the supporters of those politics and, in order to frustrate its adversaries by any and every means, would have compelled them – the ministers, prefects, sub-prefects, advocates-general and procurators of the Republic – to serve, contrary to their own wishes, the Bonapartes’ cause against the Republic.
4. That as a result, with the salvation of France and the Republic in mind, there was but one course open to them: breaking up the entire imperial civil service by means of the mass dismissal of all of the Empire’s civilian and military officials, from prime minister Palikao down to the very least country constable; not forgetting the courts which, from the High Court and Court of Cassation down to the last justice of the peace are, more than anything else, another branch of the State service, riddled with Bonapartism and, for the past twenty years in a row, they have been administering, not justice, but iniquity;
5. That the State having gone bankrupt and found itself broken up due to the imperial treachery that had in any event long since stretched and destroyed its resources and all its assets; having effectively been liquidated by the revolutionary action of the people, the immediate, inevitable consequence thereof; in short, that official France having ceased to exist, all that was left was the people’s France; there were no other forces or means of defence than the revolutionary energy of the people; no judges any more beyond the people’s justice; no finances any more, beyond the voluntary or forced contributions from the wealthy classes; and no constitution, no law, no code any more, beyond that of France’s salvation.

Arming the people in order to render it ungovernable

It is worth noting that Spanish military fascism was eliminated in the very first battle (19 July), everywhere that the people switched to direct action, heedless of the democratic bourgeoisie’s scruples regarding legality and its self-seeking arbitration, whereas everywhere where the latter managed to cling to its economic and political ascendancy (as was the case in Andalusia, Castile and the Basque Country) there was defeat.

Proving yet again the great principle underlying all revolutionary thinking: only an ungovernable people can claim invincibility in the face of foreign invasion.

As to Jules Guesde’s old dictum, when he entered the government of the Sacred Union in August 1914 to take up a ministerial post, proclaiming that the French people in arms should, after victory, turn its bayonets on the class enemy and carry out the social revolution once it had seen off the invader, we find that rebutted in advance in the Paroles d’un Révolté of Peter Kropotkin (who, in his dotage, would later slide down the same slippery slope).

Kropotkin did not blame the defeat of the Paris Commune on its having been insufficiently militaristic, insufficiently governmental, insufficiently nationalistic in the face of the foreign invader and the Versailles reaction. Rather (and agreeing here with Louise Michel, Lefrançais, Malato, Benoît Malon and Karl Marx, no less) he took it to task for have been insufficiently social, insufficiently anarchist and insufficiently revolutionary!

The Paris Commune

First secure the victory! – Kropotkin wrote in 1884. – As if there was any way of establishing a Commune without trespass against property! As if there was a way of defeating the enemy without the vast bulk of the people’s taking a direct interest in the success of the revolution as they witnessed the advent of material, intellectual and moral well-being for all! There was an attempt to consolidate the Commune by postponing the social revolution until later, whereas the only way to go was to consolidate the Commune by means of social revolution!”

The Revolution is not a theoretical and abstract “final objective”, it is merely a matter of means and methods needed to get past a certain practical impasse, a certain crisis festering into catastrophe! Revolution or counter-revolution, capitalism or socialism, governmentalism or anarchy … it depends entirely on the means selected and exclusively upon that selection!

In proclaiming the free Commune, the people of Paris were enunciating an essentially anarchist principle: but since the anarchist idea back then had made little inroads into minds, it stopped half-way and, within the Commune, still professed support for the old authority principle by endowing itself with a Commune Council modelled after the municipal councils. Actually, if we accept that a central government is entirely useless when it comes to the regulation of the relations between Communes, then why would we concede the need to regulate the mutual relations between the groups within the Commune? And if we leave it up to the free enterprise of Communes to come to an arrangement with one another in respect of ventures that are of concern to several cities at the same time, then why deny that same enterprise to the groups within a Commune? There is no more reason for a government to exist within the Commune than for there to be any government above the Commune.

Mistaken choice of means

But in 1871, the people of Paris, which had overthrown so many governments, had just come its first venture in revolt against the government system per se; so it let itself succumb to the governmental fetishism and gave itself a government. The consequences of which we know. It dispatched its devoted children to the Hôtel-de-Ville. There, marooned amid the paperwork, forced to govern when their instincts were prompting them to be with and walk alongside the people; forced to bandy words when what was needed was action and losing the inspiration provided by constant contact with the masses, they found themselves reduced to impotence. Stymied by their remove from the seat of revolutions, the people, they themselves stymied the people’s initiatives.

Having failed to select the means appropriate to its insurrectionist origins, its popular content, its revolutionary calling and the prestige it might expect from a boldly federalist and socialist performance, the Paris Commune  thereby let itself be lured by Versailles on to terrain on which its fate had been sealed in advance, the classic politico-military terrain, which merely showcased the incompetence of its generals and its makeshift ministers.

The upshot was that the Commune may have had armed forces, but they were amorphous armed forces, enormous uniformed flocks whose leaders were reduced to impotence. It had a government, which stifled the initiative needed by its sections, the masses’ fighting ability and constructive abilities, without quite managing to replace these with the effectiveness of a dictatorship. It had its diplomacy, which planted masses of the worst sorts of delusions and, without even being aware of it, enacted the most unforgivable betrayals. It had its police, which made itself a laughing-stock by its arrogance and pointlessness and its few needless atrocities rendered it odious. It had its official propaganda, but such propaganda was confined to the classic brain-washing, implanting bourgeois conformism and blithe opportunism at the first rumble of revolt and the first indication that an explosion was imminent.

Finally, in a systematic way, it put off the most crucial social measures until tomorrow, on the pretext that it first had to make sure of victory, and only then make the revolution.

The same mistakes over and over!

One fretfully wonders how many experiences of the same sort it will take before the proletariat is released from the inferiority complex that sets it to slavish imitation of the bourgeoisie and militarism – even when it makes up its mind to wage war of them!

The people of Iberia, fortified by its libertarian and syndicalist traditions, looked like it had tried a different tack. And then, lo and behold, the men of the Spanish revolution have let themselves be infected by dalliance with the representatives of bourgeois powerlessness within their own ranks! Yet again “lions led by donkeys” are allowing themselves to be led to the slaughter under the aegis of the most sterile anti-fascism and a sacred union patriotism. The Spanish anarchists have refused to win as anarchists and have agreed to die as governmentals, as champions of the legitimacy of the State!

Practically nothing is left of the internationalism, anti-statism, or principled anti-militarism, which were the main strongpoints of the insurgents of July 1936 and were splendidly played out through Durruti’s epic in Aragon over the months of August and September!

The Spanish revolution, which started out so well, has walked into stalinism’s snares, the latter having hypocritically offered the backing of its military machinery, with the new Spain’s acting as political, economic, financial and diplomatic vassals of Moscow’s embassies and high command. But at the time of writing, one would be hard put to say which was the deadliest, the poisoned gifts of Russian imperialism or the deadly concessions that it has assuredly demanded in return.

Enough! The cup runneth over!

At present, our Spanish comrades have been turned into cannon-fodder on behalf of a cause that is not their own. The only evidence we need here is the statement issued by the steering commission of the UA [Union Anarchiste] in Le Libertaire of 8 July:

Another tactic of elimination is deployed against the confederal columns in Madrid: they are systematically posted to the most dangerous positions and any who object are shot in accordance with the brand-new Military Code now in force.

If you remember, said Military Code is part of the government handiwork of the Justice minister, García Oliver, handiwork which Le Libertaire and the UA openly welcomed. You may well recall that the very same García Oliver, following the famous campaign for a united command, signed the order introducing the stalinist “International Brigades” into Spain and allowing them to raise a strictly isolated special corps in the rear of the people’s militias, with its own cadres and its own separate command, a real Trojan horse of Russian imperialism, as we pointed out at the time. Note too that García Oliver, strutting before braid-wearing graduates of the ‘People’s’ Military School on 1,200 pesetas a month had this to say to them: “You officers of the People’s Army must abide by an iron discipline and enforce it on your men who, once in the ranks, must cease being your comrades and be the cogs of our army’s military machine.” If you were to tot up everything that the war as it currently stands, plus the “war as a whole” represents in terms of blood sacrifice, human wastage, corruption and demoralization of Europe’s and the world’s revolutionary elites, then you could not help but cry out with us: Enough! Enough! Things cannot go on this way! …

Two dénouements

There are only two possible dénouements for the current imperialist war under way in Spain (under cover of the political alternative: Fascism or Popular Front).

We must be brave enough to look them in the face.

Either governmental Spain is going to stay governmental, in which case the only way of escaping a further military disaster in the war along the lines of the ones in Bilbao or Malaga is to give up on recapturing the lost provinces and make peace at the first favourable opportunity. Which is what the likes of Prieto and Negrín are ready to do, no matter how clear the CNT makes its intention of stepping out of the war and staying in opposition – and that act is the only thing that might offer the rule of democracy in eastern Spain any measure of de facto stability.

Or the imperialist, governmental and militarist war will be turned into a social uprising. Whereupon the armed struggle against Franco will recover its original meaning. In those conditions, the people’s victory is going to be that much harder to achieve of course than it might have been back in August or September 1936, but it is still a possibility.

Should the first solution prevail – the option of a Spanish Brest-Litovsk whereby the republican government would abandon to Franco and to the imperialists competing for his hand the provinces he currently occupies – our comrades’ role will be to effect their withdrawal into illegality, in an orderly fashion and with as few sacrifices as possible, thanks to prisoner exchanges and the retention of certain of the essential gains made in July.

If, on the other hand, the revolution triumphs tomorrow as it could have done on 5 May [1937], then there is the prospect of fascism’s, militarism’s and capitalism’s being destroyed and a free Federation of the peoples of Iberia being established on socialist and libertarian foundations.

The CNT is strong enough to choose its path and force events in this or that direction. But the precondition for any solution – a state peace or a revolution – is that it jettisons the tactic of self-sacrifice that the confederal organization has been following for more than six months to its own cost and that of international anarchism; that means dropping the “Sacred Union” and “Everything for the sake of the war” slogans which simply mean  “everything for and through the government” and which are leading the Spanish people from set-back to disaster as we move towards fascism’s totalitarian triumph.

Writing as A.P. in L’Espagne nouvelle (Nîmes), 31 July 1937. From Un anarchisme hors norme (a collection of texts by André Prudhommeaux, published by Tumult )

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.