Distinguishing Between Defence Groups, Affinity Groups and Action Groups

Defence cadres, affinity groups and action groups must be distinguished one from another.

From October 1934 onwards the defence cadres were the secret, anonymous militia of the CNT unions; previously they had handled trade union defence matters, ranging from strike pickets through to attempted insurrections. They might be described as the clandestine army of the revolution, fully and seriously committed to intelligence-gathering, arms procurement, training, strategy and laying the groundwork for a workers’ uprising. They were an agency dependent on the CNT because it was the unions that supplied their funding and their militants. This basic structure of the defence cadres, made up of six members, was ready to expand through the massive influx of thousands of trade unionists and to embrace other secondary groups such as the FAI’s affinity groups, the Libertarian Youth and the ateneos. But the defence committees were never a FAI organization, nor were they independent and autonomous; they were the armed organization of the CNT, forever beholden to the CNT regional (or national) committee for their decision-making and initiatives. 

There was more to the CNT than just the trade union. In virtually every barrio of Barcelona there was a barrio committee which encompassed the entire social, cultural and family life of the worker, creating a very well-defined and familiar theatre of struggle and solidarity that facilitated a natural relationship with neighbours, friends and comrades and facilitating ideological training, intelligence-gathering and schedules of demands.

In García Oliver’s motion on Libertarian Communism, as presented to the May 1936 congress of Zaragoza, Juan García Oliver offered this definition of his notion of a revolutionary army: “We call for the creation of a revolutionary army, which, to my mind, had to be looked upon as such from that moment on. Turning what we had achieved in Barcelona in terms of confederal defence cadres into a tactic applicable to the whole of Spain. That was it; nothing more nor less than that.”

García Oliver’s stance on the revolutionary army ran into stiff opposition from within the FAI, which accused him of jettisoning anarchist principles for militarism: “Cipriano Mera (a very fine comrade from the Construction Union in Madrid), even as I was speaking about the army, among other things [at the Zaragoza congress] shouted out: ‘Perhaps comrade García Oliver could tell us what colour he would like his braid to be?’ The curious thing is that Cipriano Mera was the first to go on to embrace militarization and army braid.”

Affinity groups made up the organizational structure of the anarchists in the FAI. Essentially, they were a bunch of pals and/or militants who embraced the tasks, postulates and tactics shared by the group, very possibly opposing other affinity groups. In terms of significance, there was a remarkable clash between the Nosotros group and an anti-Nosotros front made up of a range of groups clustered around the m group. The FAI [Iberian Anarchist Federation] was just a common platform or coordinating body for the affinity groups which were frequently at odds with the regional or peninsular committee. In July 1937, the FAI turned itself into yet another antifascist party when an organizational overhaul replaced (or displaced) the affinity group as the organizational building block of the FAI, turning instead to a brand new territorial organization which in the city of Barcelona was reduced to just 23 militants. A vote was hardly ever taken in the FAI: and pains were taken to ensure that plenum resolutions were always passed unanimously by thrashing out a consensus between the different stances in a text that would be adopted by them all, or left to wait for endorsement.

The characteristic features of the affinity groups were that they were transitory, self-financing, decentralized, autonomous and federalist. Clandestine circumstance as well as their own inclinations meant that these groups came together to mount some specific action or given task, after which they would break up following a brief existence. Some of the same individuals might meet up again in other affinity groups with an eye to some specific undertaking. This ongoing volatility and clandestinity was a product of the requisite adaptation to unrelenting police crackdowns as well as anarchist suspicion of any organizational structure, something that makes historical investigation of them very tricky. Even though there was the odd longer-lived affinity group, they were the exceptions. Normally they were made up of no less than four and no more than twenty comrades, so much so that once they grew to more than twenty members they would split into two separate groups. This was the case, say, with the Faros group in the 1920s. The extreme autonomy enjoyed by the affinity groups made them very independent of the FAI. For instance, the Nosotros group which was in the habit of addressing rallies in the FAI’s name, only formally entered that organization much later on – in late 1933, according to some sources, or early 1934 according to others. Another feature of the affinity groups was their ongoing dearth of funds or material resources. Their purposes were very diverse and wide-ranging, encompassing a wide range of cultural, social, leisure or mutual aid concerns ranging from the popularization and spread of science and literature, amateur dramatics, choirs, publications, debates, lectures, outings, cooperativism, etc, through to the upkeep of an ateneo or a rationalist school. Other affinity groups had more trade union-centred concerns (pushing the anarchist message) or related to prisoners’ aid, or the funding of the press and the ateneos. The affinity groups might well emerge from within the unions or the Libertarian Youth or the ateneos and their greatest enthusiasm was for the practice of alternative ethical and social values.

During the civil war, the affinity groups achieved their greatest presence and impact at meetings of the Local Federations (especially in urban Barcelona) where they forcefully articulated their criticisms of and disagreements with the higher committees, but the latter completely dominated at regional and national levels. The overhauling of the FAI’s structures in July 1937 entailed bureaucratic marginalization of the affinity groups which, albeit that they survived in name only, were no longer able to argue their cases at local plenums. Which led to their isolation and ineffectuality. By then the FAI had become just another antifascist party, organizing individuals geographically. The important thing about this reshuffle of the FAI’s organization was to boost the propaganda machine, training people capable of holding down administrative and government posts and also of course – although this was never admitted – controlling and over-ruling those revolutionary affinity groups that were defiant and critical of the higher committees.

During the years of the pistoleros back in 1917-1923, action groups were formed as self-defence groups for trade unionists and for the organization, because, in the face of brutal state terrorism, militarization of the Somaten and Catalan employers’ financing of the gunmen from the Sindicato Libre, what was at stake was the very survival of the CNT membership and ensuring that the CNT was not stamped out through the murders of its militants and the ensuing mass dis-affliliation. The label ‘terrorist’ habitually pinned on these action groups by Marxists in the days of the pistoleros in Barcelona, was not just undeserved, but actually is a manifestation of a failure to grasp the very demanding actual circumstances in which the labour movement was having to operate. Following the murders of Salvador Seguí and Peronas (10 March 1923), an executive made up of Juan Peiró, Ángel Pestaña, Camilo Piñón and Narciso Marcó, gave the green light to the establishment of action groups which replied to the terrorism coming from the state and employers by mounting personal attacks on Martínez Anido and the Carlist pretender Don Jaime. They failed on both counts, but Cardinal Soldevila was assassinated (4 June 1923) and the former governor of Bilbao, Regueral, and there were clashes with pistoleros from the Sindicato Libre and Carlist requetés.

A national plenum of regionals held secretly in Valencia in the summer of 1923 raised the alarm about the imminent coup d’état of the military and approval was given for preparations to be made to resist the coup-makers by means of carrying out hold-ups to raise the funds to buy arms and cast hand grenades. But by then it was too late to stand up to Primo de Rivera’s coup d’état and the CNT entered a long period of underground organization, harassment, imprisonment and/or exile for its membership.

In the 1930s such action groups were vehemently rejected by certain factions (the treintistas) because they were bringing the CNT into disrepute and creating a confusion of revolutionary action with armed criminality, but, above all, because the years of pistolerismo had ended in defeat for the workers. Unreasonably, the state and the bosses criminalized those action groups, but they also criminalized the CNT’s unions, ateneos and affinity groups. Each sindicato único spawned its own action groups as the essential instruments of trade union direct action in the face of work-place misdeeds by foremen and employers, the failure to respect agreements, the training of pickets and general self-defence and even as something that might replace or shorten strikes in which there was often no strike funds accessible.

The most radical trade unionists or workers who had been to the fore in some strike were targeted by employers through the pacto del hambre (blacklist) and, once sacked, could never find another job at any firm, thereby swelling the numbers of the action groups dedicated to carrying out hold-ups.

In the 1930s, the state was a lot weaker than it is today: there was no social security, no unemployment benefit, sickness benefit or old age pensions. And security measures in the banks were also less. The resourcing and training of the police fell far short of today’s standards. Broad sectors of the population were living in dire poverty, excluded from all gainful employment. Street-hawking was a very important part of such poverty economics, not just because it provided a living to a sizeable group of hawkers and popular solidarity but also because it lowered the cost of some basic necessities in working class districts. And above all we should stress how massive and persistent unemployment was during the years of the Republic, including the civil war years. The demands of strikers and the protests and looting of foodstuffs by the unemployed as they asserted their “right to life” were of necessity radical and unlawful, just like the action groups and were forever being criminalized by the police and the bourgeois newspapers: but in the minds of the people, the distinction between lawful and unlawful made no sense in a wretched, ruinous world prey to unrestrained exploitation in which they were hard pressed to survive.

It was the state and the employers that were confused, with their oppressive ferocity towards trade unionists, the jobless, the needy and the gunmen: it was the courts and the police that were randomly outlawing and persecuting. The difference between a group carrying out expropriations in order to help the prisoners or fund a publication and an action group that (literally) fed on or feathered its need with its swag lay exclusively where the swag ended up. Moreover, life does not usually conform to the black and white of an abstract theoretical definition and the real shades of grey may be endless. Some action groups walked the tightrope between class struggle against the state, the bosses and bourgeois society on the one hand and a milleniarist or anti-social rebelliousness in the marginalized, the bohemians and the wretched on the other. 

We should never lose sight of the pre-eminent cultural outlook and efficient educational endeavours of the libertarian movement which consistently played out, through all these action groups (perhaps exceptional and on a short-lived basis) into a widespread network of ateneos, cooperatives, rationalist schools and cultural centres. Moreover, in the days of pistolerismo the CNT militant had (or knew how and where to obtain one) a handgun, with the consent of the CNT, since it was vital for the purposes of self-defence and an effective way of cutting down the number of trade unionists being murdered. Later, in the 1930s, the handgun bestowed upon the bearer a cachet of authority, commitment and prestige, in the eyes of a working class that lived out and built an ethic and a society alternative to the bourgeois society of the day.

The workers’ movement’s violence was the result of the state terrorism embedded in the institutions and flanked by the Sindicato Libre (an organization of gunmen in the hire of the bosses) as an auxiliary of the police, an auxiliary tolerated and protected by the civil governors.

Given those political and social factors, reformist or social democratic organizations failed to put down roots in Catalonia. The CNT’s radicalism was a response to the terrorism coming from the state and the bosses. The murders of Evelio Boal in 1921 and of Salvador Seguí in 1923 pre-empted the CNT’s following a purely trade unionist and peaceable path. In the 1930s, republicanism came to grief when confronted by the troglodyte opposition from the right and from the Church to any attempt to introduce any meaningful reform and due to its own inability to resolve or alleviate the scary problem of mass unemployment, pushing to the margins and into illegality and insurgency people with no aspirations beyond a crust of bread to eat and bereft of weaponry other than their despair. 

After late 1933 and January 1934, when the Dencás-Badía duo took over responsibility for Public Order devolved to the Generalidad government, they ousted more moderately-minded nationalists from security positions. Dencás, from the Department of the Interior and Badía from Police Headquarters enforced a fascistic, racist policy of repression of the CNT. They meddled systematically and tellingly in strikes in an effort to break them and defeat them and they methodically mistreated and tortured CNT prisoners at headquarters, stepping up the pursuit of the many hold-ups carried out by the action groups and they misused the “tramps and vagrant law” to target the organization and actions of the unemployed. At the same time, they resurrected the Somaten and encouraged the organization and arming of the escamots, the Catalanist militia, as anti-CNT para-military organizations. The events of 6 October 1934 and the resultant dissolution of the Generalidad government by the central government broke the back of a dynamic that would in all likelihood have led to a conflict akin to the one during the years of pistolerismo.

In May 1935, a plenum of anarchist groups slated action groups wedded to hold-ups, whether in order to raise funds for the organization or so that the robbers, unemployed or otherwise, could survive. Durruti argued that the days of individual expropriation were now over because collective expropriation – the revolution – was looming on the horizon.

Bourgeois “investigative” journalists had fed on the bourgeois, nationalist and racist dismissal of these action groups as “Murcians” and “criminals”, applying this denunciation more widely and dismissively to the anarcho-syndicalist movement at large, without troubling to point out that they were talking about a fringe, an exception, as the purpose was to blacken the name of the CNT. There was a very real and worrying danger that the tide of “private” hold-ups might meddle with the preparation of the population for revolution.

The distinction and theoretical cataloguing of the defence cadres, affinity groups and action groups as set out above, are fine as a snapshot in time. But the facts are always more complicated and subject to variation, like a movie: which is why we need to keep it in mind that the tram-lines of a snapshot fail to take into consideration how one might switch from one label or classification to another, adapting to the trends within the organization and to historical change, depending on whether the context as one of clandestinity, or cashing in on periods when the CNT enjoyed lawful status, or when new prospects were opening up thanks to the “revolutionary gains” of July 1936.  

This, for instance, is what happened to the San Martín revolutionary committee between 1936 and 1937. It was already a pretty special barrio committee in that it appeared to be more radicalized than the rest and operated as a special detention and interrogation centre for the defence committees at the Committee’s base at No 7 Rambla Volart. In the wake of a serious incident kicked up by Antonio Conesa in a rural hospital, as a result of which he was arrested and tried, the core group behind the defence committee of the San Martín Revolutionary Committee decided to set themselves up as the FAI-affiliated El Nuevo Porvenir affinity group. This proved to be an exceptional historical example of an action group that, ahead of July 1936, turned into the driving force behind a defence committee and, after 19 July 1936, the driving force behind a revolutionary ward committee, before going on to carry on with its activities as an affinity group.

Part one of ‘La “Nebulosa” como fórmula organizativa ácrata’ https://kaosenlared.net/la-nebulosa-como-formula-organizativa-acrata/

[See also: The Affinity Group That Published the Underground Anarchist Paper, Alerta! https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/z614s0 ]

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.