The "Uncontrollables" in Spain

These last few days you have been reading, with a great deal of interest I am sure, the newspaper accounts of the fighting going on in Teruel. You have been cheered by every victory, especially in the light of the long period of military failures from which the loyalists are now emerging.

But regardless how concerned you may have been about news from the front, if you were dependent upon the ordinary sources of information, I am almost positive that you are not familiar with the nature of the military leader whose division is responsible for the decisive loyalist victory. His name is Vivencos [Vivancos]. Before the revolt of Franco, he was a transport worker in Barcelona and an active member in the anarcho-syndicalist movement—the C.N.T. When Franco revolted Vivencos [Vivancos] joined the other thousands of C.N.T. men in their march to wrest Aragon from fascist clutches, after they had crushed fascism in Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia.

It was not long before his courage and innate ability as a fighter were recognized, and he became the commander of a column of 200 men. As the war went on, the prestige of his column rose to its present status which is second to none in the military ranks of the loyalist forces. Certainly, you will agree, others who have done less have gotten greater commendation; but the nature in which the news is repressed and the sources from which it is gotten have so worked that the knowledge of this man and many more like him are kept from the reading public.

The extent of this conspiracy of silence can be estimated if we recognize that the majority of the military leaders on the Aragon front are anarcho-syndicalists. Yet, if your only source of information about syndicalism in Spain is the capitalist or the Communist (Stalinist) press, or even often the liberal journals, you are likely to associate the term anarcho-syndicalist with the word “uncontrollable.”

At the beginning of the struggle, when reporters got their information from more direct sources, or through direct observation, the tone of the articles of liberal writers about anarcho-syndicalists in Spain was somewhat different. Now when “information” is merely the interpretation of some intermediate agency, it has often little relation to the facts.

One of the reasons I want to discuss the Spanish labor organization, the C.N.T., is that it is so completely misunderstood, and the cooperative weakness of the corresponding organization in this country does not successfully counteract the misinformation by other partisans. It has thus come to pass that the militants of the C.N.T.-F.A.I., the most realistic and fervent anti-fascist fighters—those who recognize that only through a revolution in the rear can the war be carried out successfully in the front and its victories gather significance—it is they against whom the slogan “uncontrollable” has been often directed.

The origin of the slogan is not clear; its natural habitat seems to be in the communist, liberal, and capitalist press. It is a dirty and dangerous word because it has no limits and is so ill-defined that you can use it against anyone whom you cannot control, regardless of the nature of your control or how it is opposed. It is like the slogan “slacker” used against conscientious objectors during the World War—it means nothing special, but generates a great deal of heat and no light.

Another reason for which I wish to discuss the anarcho-syndicalists in Spain is that they were among the first to oppose fascism on the battlefront of Spain and they did so with such a complete fearlessness that Ralph Bates, the English novelist and their political critic has had to say, the proverb for impossible bravery in the future must be “as brave as a Spanish anarchist.”

Moreover, their influence was probably the greatest single force in the Spanish labor movement, and their teaching determined the tone of all Spanish radicalism.

And finally I want to talk about them because their efforts at social reconstruction have met with much material and moral success among the masses of the Spanish people, and they have begun a trend toward the liberation of all Spain. They are creating a new revolutionary pattern which does not make oppression a sine qua non of liberation, and dictatorship a first step to social and economic democracy…

On July 19, 1936, as we all know, one of the very popular undeclared wars of modern history broke out in Spain. It took the form of a military uprising of the army generals, who compensated for their lack of home talent with Italian brigades, German war-machinery and the paid donations of the Moorish Mohammedans—all generously offered to save Christianity from the infidel and politics from the radical.

But for many previous centuries, another undeclared war has constantly been fought, now overtly, now covertly, on Spanish soil—a war less publicized, it is true, but none the less serious; a war with as bloody battles, as significant international complications, as complete an alignment of forces. And this other undeclared war, this basic undeclared war is the CLASS WAR!

In Spain the war of the classes was particularly acute. The peasants lived as peons, or oriental farm hands, on the vast properties of the feudal lords. It was no unusual thing for them to hunt weeds and dry grasses as their only nourishment in the frequent times of famine. The industrial workers likewise suffered under extremely low living standards and the numbers of unemployed were high. Reliable authorities of every political complexion assert that Spain’s middle class was so small as to be almost negligible.

On the opposite side in the class struggle there were the three parasitical classes of the church, the army and the aristocracy. The Spanish catholic church has a long history of wealth and reaction. In Spain there was one priest to every 900 in the population, a figure to be compared with Italy’s one to every 20,000. The Church has been the chief capitalist, landlord and banker of Spain. As the greatest landowner, it naturally has opposed all land reform. As an investor in industrial enterprises, and the leading banker, it fought the organization of labor. Down to 1931, it controlled at least half of Spain’s meager school system, and with 45 per cent of the people illiterate (compared with about 4 per cent in France) the church opposed every educational improvement. The moral disgrace of the church is testified to by the selling of papal indulgences at a few pesetas each (and when signed by an arch-bishop they could be had at bargain prices in stores announcing, “Bulas are cheap today”); their unpopularity is further evidenced by the fact that the typical dirty joke in Spain, corresponding to our “traveling salesman” number here, is about a priest. (Small wonder that every uprising for the last 100 years has involved the burning of churches and the killing of clericals!)

The army was equally degenerate. Its only function since the 16th and 17th centuries when Spain was the great colonial power has been to suppress internal disorders and to provide an officers’ caste as a catch-all for the idle sons of the rich. Its ratio of officers to men is about three times as high as in the French army. Completing the lineup on the side of reaction is the aristocracy—the absentee landowners, the few industrialists, the remains of a nobility—all entirely dissociated from the Spanish masses.

Any time the workers or peasants tried to improve their miserable conditions (and their uprisings were frequent) landlord, clergy and army ganged-up together to preserve law and order and wage slavery. When the republican government came to power for the second time in 1936 through legitimate electoral channels, and mildly and vaguely threatened their hegemony, the army officers decided that things had gone too far; this despite the fact that the first republican government of 1931-3 had done little more than write a very pretty constitution of which even a mild democrat has admitted:

The proclamation of a republic and the adoption of a constitution again settled nothing. The old feudalism remained. The village bosses—the caciques—still held their power, the Church still controlled wealth and education, the monarchists still dominated the army, the wealthy few still owned the land.” 1

It is true that this government and the popular front government had made some effort to gradually relieve the army of its top-heavy useless officialdom, but the half-hearted nature of this rejection is amply described in that realistic novel by Elliott Paul called Life and Death in a Spanish Town:

When the government that succeeded Alfonso’s was organized, Azana, who was president in the tragic days of 1936, was made Minister of War. He knew that the Spanish army had been built up by the monarchists to take care of sons and relatives and that of the inordinate number of officers there were few who were not hostile to republican ideas. Instead of disbanding the army, which was of no use except as a threat to free government, Azana proceeded more cautiously. He retired the officers who were most flagrantly hostile to his regime, but in order not to stir them up too much he consented to pay them their full wages as long as they lived. They had done practically nothing when they were on active service, but that did not satisfy their ideal. The prospect of full pay, and no work whatsoever, was alluring. It bolstered up their disrespect of a government of the people and made them feel that their enemies, the people, were afraid of them.” (p. 37-8)

So we find one of their number, General Sanjurjo going to Berlin in 1936 to discuss ways and means with Mr. Hitler, and returning a few weeks before the uprising. We find workers organizations constantly warning the government of the militaristic plot but the government knew these men personally, and felt “They couldn’t—they wouldn’t—do this to us,” and therefore ordering neither arrest nor dismissal of any of the militarists who were conspiring; the government thereby permitted the barracks, the churches, the palace and some of the offices of the State to be converted into centers of conspiracy and they prevented the arming of the proletariat. Many provinces in Spain fell into the hands of the rebels because the civic governors did not have orders from the government to give arms to the people.

Thus we return to our starting point on the morning of July 19, 1936, with fascist troops marching into Barcelona, the nerve center of the industrial capital of Spain. The militarists reckoned on having a two- or three-day job, involving the wiping out of the most vital region of Spanish territory and the habitat of the most revolutionary workers in Spain. But they reckoned without their host. When the military emerged early that Sabbath morning from their barracks and the churches in which they were the guests, the workers rose from their slumbers, rose to the occasion and militantly and successfully defeated the trained armies with their miraculous enthusiasm, their crude weapons, their bare hands. And on the morrow, when the professional soldiers have been routed, and their civilian accomplices—especially the factory owners—have escaped, the workers must continue production on their own initiative. They must supply and strengthen Spain so that the struggle against fascism may continue. And the only avenue left open to them is to socialize industries. Thus the revolution comes to Catalonia, and in varying degree to the rest of Spain—in the form of a war measure.

The workers, who for many years had dreamed of being their own masters, and learned and planned and fought for that dream, realized it in the first week of the fascist revolt; but socialization, freedom, equality are to them not merely war measures—they are life measures—the only way a people can survive and progress. The military uprising they saw as but a single item in the class war; victory in the battles of one meant success in the battles of the other. And so their slogan became, “War in the front; revolution in the rear.”

The democratic republic had given them neither bread nor land nor security; it had not dared to antagonize the wealthy nor to crush the fascist plotters. It offered only the classic phrases of unity and liberty… and then procrastinated its way into complete debility. It did absolutely nothing during the first days of the revolt but change ministers three times, try to keep the arms from the masses of the people whom they neither knew nor trusted. Could it be this the workers defend with their lives against such odds? Could they fight so spontaneously, so fiercely merely to return to the conditions before the rebellion?

No they couldn’t. Even Companys, head of the Catalonian Generalidad [autonomous regional government], recognized in which direction the wind was blowing:

Some republicans still believe, still dream of the possibility of establishing a political and social panorama similar to that which existed before July 19. This only demonstrates their blindness or their lack of loyalty. I have said it before, and I repeat it, that the moment has come for the workers to take over political power …” (Information Bulletin, January 5, 1937).

The policy of social reconstruction was advanced by that organization which contained approximately 90 per cent of the organized workers in the area first attacked. It had provided the leadership for the military offense and sacrificed its great comrades on the battlefront. It guided the syndicates in their conduct of the industries and agriculture after the revolt was quelled. It was the united revolutionary working class of Catalonia, Aragon, the Levante. It was the anarcho-syndicalist C.N.T.


Let us pause for a moment to review the history and the ideals of the labor organization of the National Confederation of Labor (C.N.T.) and its ideological leadership in the Iberian Anarchist Federation (F.A.I.). Spain has traditionally been the home of anarchism, from the time when the seeds of non-authoritarian communism were planted in Spanish soil by Bakunin, way back in the middle of the last century. From then until 1910 when the C.N.T. was formally organized from the various anarchistic sections of the Spanish labor movement, its active partisans have gained expert inside information about the jails of Spain and lived much of their public life “sub rosa.”

Both the terror of the state and the teaching of the anarchists made a pure and simple trade unionism impossible in Spain. Thus the C.N.T.’s aim was two-fold: 1. Under capitalism, to raise the material and cultural level of workers and peasants by direct action and the education of the masses; 2. the establishment of a new society based on libertarian communism, stressing not the conquest of political power but the conquest of the land, factories, means of production and the natural resources. It has constantly taught the workers that to turn to the state—be it autocratic or democratic—to establish advantages for the worker, is to misorient their struggles and to dissipate their energies; for the purpose and the raison d’etre of the state is to protect the interests of the class which is economically dominant, and therefore to suppress the workers. Rather has it counseled its members that through direct action alone is social betterment to be sought and social revolution to be accomplished. By direct action of the workers themselves—in their syndicates and communities—rather than by the dictatorship of a political party, however revolutionary, is society to be organized after the revolution.

Federalism rather than bureaucracy is not only the theory for the post-revolutionary society, but the pattern for the organization of the C.N.T. in practice; thus the C.N.T. is constructed from the bottom up, and much stress is laid on the autonomy of the separate syndicates. Paid officials there are, but only in the large unions where the work requires more than volunteer labor. Officers are elected for only one year, and their remuneration is strictly the same as that of the workers in the respective trades.

Recognizing that the Spanish social transformation is impossible without the peasantry and the intellectual worker, the C.N.T. unifies peasants, agriculture workers and white collar workers also—to the total tune of about 1.5 million workers in pre-July 19th Spain. There were approximately 7,000,000 workers in Spain then and about 1 million of them were organized in the other strong labor organization—the U.G.T., which is led by the social democrats. (If space permitted we would present a more complete picture of the Spanish situation—. and perhaps a fairer one—by describing the U.G.T. and other organizations—however small and uninfluential—in the labor movement there.)

Before the present events the C.N.T. and F.A.I. published not only their daily papers in Madrid and Barcelona but about 40 weeklies and 5 monthly reviews. To say the anarcho-syndicalists were completely dominant in Catalonia means that they organizationally controlled the region which contained three-fourths of Spanish industry, one-half of its wealth, and a large per cent of the Spanish populace.

The slightest acquaintance with the role of the anarcho-syndicalists in their destruction of attacking fascism and their construction of a new society should serve to destroy any superstition of them as wild-eyed visionaries, adrift on a cloud of idealism. A superficial knowledge of their tolerance, their most sincere efforts at unity with other anti-fascist forces should serve to dispel any of the stereotypes of them as irresponsible bomb-throwing maniacs.

They take Over

We have already seen how the revolutionary change in economic relations in certain parts of Spain was a sine qua non of continuing the war, and recognized as such even by the traditional opponents of socialization. But the people of Spain and the C.N.T. were not content to wait for government requests that people continue Spanish industry and agriculture. (In fact, many of these so-called requests did not come until the people themselves had already made the required changes in ownership and production.)

Work on the social front was carried on with that same spontaneity, enthusiasm, and success as that on the military front. During the first months of the war we can recall reading one after the other inspired and astonished accounts of how industry, agriculture, and transportation, under the aegis of largely autonomous workers groups, flourished and progressed.

Let us take as an example of these accounts an article which appeared in The New Republic about one year ago, written by the international journalist Mr. Ravage. He tells us that the C.N.T. took over the railroads in Catalonia directly after the rebellion, and that for the first time in his long acquaintance with Spanish traveling conditions, trains were running on time. The C.N.T. management in the railroads immediately increased the rolling stock 25 per cent, doubled wages, reduced hours—and on top of all, were able to reduce fares. With all these, they were breaking even by February 2, 1937, and preparing to save for an amortization reserve. The workers’ control committees, he continues, enjoy evident autonomy; in every plant, shop or office—especially in the numerous enterprises where there are both C.N.T. and U.G.T. workers, debates go on constantly. Of these Mr. Ravage says, “Their educative value to speak of no other, can hardly be overestimated. They removed the threat of discord.” They had their final fruit in the pact between the two labor-union federations signed on October 22, 1936.

Unfortunately, time does not permit our indulging in many descriptive accounts of socialization in production, though the stories of the new life—in fishermen’s villages and textile mills, in orange orchards and ammunition factories are all inspiring. Everywhere there has been possible a reduction of hours of labor required, and an increase in wages; everywhere volunteer labor works cheerfully far beyond the number of hours settled for.

Some notion of the extent of this accomplishment comes from the recent Daily News press dispatch that the Catalonian factories, running 24 hours a day, provide more than one-half the war materials made in Spain for the loyalists; moreover, the C.N.T. declares that three-fourths of the land in Catalonia, Levante and Aragon is collectivized; no more than this amount because the C.N.T. does not want to force the workers.

Libertarian in Practice

Here we get a clue of the libertarian nature of the entire social revolution. The stories of forced collectivization that have been circulated around by certain of the press seem to have no foundation in fact. In every proclamation of collectivization one can read there is a special clause noting that small producers are privileged to work outside of the collective, if they wish; that members who have joined the collective may leave after the harvest if they so desire. This is no war communism that will have to be corrected and completely contradicted several years hence by a “new economic policy.” This is no nationalization, with some distant central government sending the local syndicate an order stipulating the number of hours to be worked or how the crop is to be raised.

The autonomous but federated communities go about the humble task of eliminating insects in the orange orchards with the same earnestness and skill with which they met the task of destroying the fascist invaders in their territories. Local councils regulate money content of wages in relation to prevailing prices, but try to get uniformity throughout in the “real” wage. Wages are increased for those having family dependents at set rates. About the problem of having a uniform policy on this matter throughout the country, or at least the province, the C.N.T. spokesmen talk in their typical manner:

Although the anarcho-syndicalist unions are in the majority in the province of Levante, they still recognize the need of coming to an understanding with the socialist unions on this plan. For this purpose, the convention recommends an intensive campaign of agitation and propaganda so as to persuade the backward workers who are still swayed by Marxist ideas.”

So much for the theory and practice of the syndicalists on problems of economic adjustment. Another of the great sources of misunderstanding about the attitudes and actions of the Spanish unions is that of their stand on the problem of militarism, defense, the single command. There is a widespread notion that anarcho-syndicalists are by principle opposed to the unified command, which is related to the general feeling that they oppose organization of all kind and admit no sort of discipline.

The actual fact of the matter is that the syndicalists were the first to clamor for the unified command. In the first few months of the war we find them declaring:

All the weakness in the organization of the anti-fascist troops are due to:

1. Shortage of armament and ammunition;

2. Lack of a common plan of war operations at all fronts;

3. Lack of unified command.” (Information Bulletin, November 2, 1936).

What they definitely do not want, however, is a command which is dissociated from the workers or not responsible to them. They want no chance for a new military dictator to be nursed in the ranks of the anti-fascists. They want the general military headquarters to be composed of all the anti-fascist sections, and matters of policy to be referred to this headquarters.

To learn the syndicalist position regarding discipline in the ranks of the anti-fascists we can turn to no more authoritative source than Buenaventura Durruti, whose soldiers were admittedly among the bravest, whose slogan was “We never retreat,” and on whom rests much of the credit for the defense of Madrid in the first months of the war. He was a leader in the moments of peace between the fighting just as he was at the front, for Durruti’s battalion is known for success it had in socializing every town it passed through on the way to the front. The column would help the local organizations to establish economic councils and coordinate the work of the syndicates or communities. Of the problem of discipline, Durriti said:

Much is said about discipline, but little is understood. In my opinion, discipline is respect for one’s own responsibility. I oppose the barrack-discipline, leading to brutality, hate and automatism. But I also deny this false ‘liberty’ which does not correspond to the necessities of the war, and usually is the excuse of the coward. In our organization of the C.N.T. the best discipline reigns, because our members have confidence in the comrades represented in their Committee, whom they have entrusted with the right of leadership. In war time one must submit to the chosen leader. Otherwise war operations are impossible.” (Information Bulletin, October 15, 1936).

That he was successful in carrying out this sort of discipline is testified to by this statement of one of his militiamen, made at Durruti’s funeral:

Durruti was no general, he was our comrade. Not a very decorative position, but in this proletarian column popularity is not exploited. There is only one idea: Victory and Revolution!

…Durruti’s greatness was due to the fact that he hardly ever commanded but always educated. The comrades used to go to his tent—after his return to the front line. He explained and discussed the reason for his operations to them. Durruti did not command, he convinced. Only by conviction, a clear and precise action is guaranteed. Everyone of us knows the reason for his action and is convinced of its necessity. Thus everyone wants to obtain the best results of his action, at any price. Comrade Durruti gave the example …”

Then the same militiaman explains how everywhere the column of Durruti advanced, they collectivized, and

When resting in villages, the column forms a community with the inhabitants. In former times one used to say army and people, or even the army against the people. Today there are only a fighting and working proletariat. They both form an inseparable unity. The militia is a proletarian factor, its character and its organization are proletarian and must remain so. The militias are exponents of the class struggle.” 2

On the Battlefields

Another long-nourished misunderstanding, springing this time from slander, and entirely unbased in fact, is the claim that the anarchists, especially in Catalonia, were reluctant to go to the front, and preferred to stay at the rear, and as it has sometimes been put, “toy with the revolution.” Moreover, this libel continues, the syndicalists kept the arms from the front and saved them for the fight behind the lines with other anti-fascist elements. This is not, at least at its primary sources, a mere misunderstanding—it’s a downright lie.

Perhaps the first, and one of the most well known and heroic marches of the syndicalists into other parts of Spain was Durruti’s leadership, which we have just described, of a column of 9,000 through the Aragon front into Madrid—with not a defeat to their record. Vivencos [Vivancos] (whom we talked about at the opening of this discussion), Jover, Ortiz and many other anarcho-syndicalist leaders and their battalions have from the first days of the revolt fought on fronts near and far from their homes. The Libertarian Youth Organization of Catalonia has repeatedly urged the Government to send them into battle. “We are tired of waiting for a command to go to the front,” they have insisted. Yet the conspiracy of silence permits the old delusion about “anarchist” slackers to go on. Whatever delusions there may remain on the anarcho-syndicalist attitude on the subject of mobilization must be dissipated by the reading of the program put out in February of last year by the Peninsular Committee of the F.A.I. on mobilization:

1. Mobilization of all men and women capable of war activities. For this purpose and with this aim in view, should be suppressed all activities which do not assist in the prosecution of war, especially de luxe entertainments and mere frivolities, in view of the fact that men in the trenches are often short of bare necessities.

2. All arms to be sent to the front, and all armed to be employed only on war jobs.

3. All idle gold or other metals should be delivered up to the War department, or should even be confiscated if the necessities of war require it.

4. All organizations of workers and anti-fascists should pool their funds in a common stock to be used for means of the war.

5. A unified command of all fronts, and all ministries under the control of the syndical organizations.” (Information Bulletin, February 25, 1937).

I would prefer not to go into the details of the May uprising which has been so inadequately and incorrectly presented as a revolt in the rear on the part of the “uncontrollables.” I will omit also the stealing—on a forged order—of tanks by the communists and the placing of these behind the lines—and not for use at the front!—in the Voroshilov barracks: all of which occurred before the so-called uprising of the uncontrollables and the mythical fifth column.

It should be abundantly clear now that what the syndicalists opposed was the building of an army that was divorced from the people; the placing of the control in the rear in the hands of the old police, rather than in the workers’ guard, and the use of the slogan “unified command” to build a bureaucracy which would crush all that opposed it.

Humanitarian Principles

If we pass from the anarchist position on defense and militarism to the attitude on repression of their enemies and “justice,” we again are heartened by the humaneness of their approach. The theory of it is well expressed by Santillan, a longtime spokesman for the F.A.I.-C.N.T. and, although later a member of the Catalonian cabinet and minister of economy, always an open critic of the practices and policies of the workers’ organizations in control:

Society has a right to protect itself against those who attack its interests. But what benefit does society get from a delinquent shut up in a cell for months and years? In the prison cells and in the prison yards I used to think about the stupid penal system of the bourgeoisie and the State. In what way have we modified or revolutionized this system …?

I have been present, since July 19th, at the execution of military traitors. I have even commanded firing squads. I do not repent having done so. But today, when our comrades seem to have become accustomed to the idea that the only solution for a prisoner is to shoot him, I wish to revindicate my independence to tell you that it is time for us to think what we are doing … As a disciplined militant, as long as the organization does not dispose otherwise, I shall approve all the sentences dictated by the popular courts, but I want to have the right to exclaim at any time that the jails do not convince me, the executions do not convince me, and that I am not convinced by the perpetuation of the old penal system. I want a new form of punishment and I don’t find anything more adequate for those who have never worked than their re-education for useful labor. Instead of sentencing an enemy to 30 years of prison I would sentence him to build 10 km. of public highways, or plant 100,000 or 200,000 trees.” 3

Despite Santillan’s criticism the comparatively humane and scientific penal practice in Spain has won the appreciation of non-partisan observers of all sorts.

The syndicalist attitude toward government and its adjustment to the revolutionary situation has brought vituperations of every sort and from all kinds of critics—some from its own ranks. Before discussing the concrete problems of Spanish syndicalism within the last year and a half, it is perhaps wise to state clearly what form of organization of society is planned for in syndicalist theory.

There is an erroneous and widespread prejudice that anarchists reject organization completely. This is true to a very limited extent only among a very limited number of individualist anarchists. Syndicalist-anarchists especially, recognize the need for organization, as the very existence of the C.N.T. testifies.

Union Control

The anarcho-syndicalist plan for the organization of the new society is, as we noted before, pre-visioned in the present organization of the C.N.T. The ideal is one of a society of federated, autonomous syndicates in the towns and cities and communities in the villages. Every member of society is to be organized into some syndicate, even the public service workers and the military. This prevents any alienation from the workers and the workers’ organizations of the army, the police force, etc.

Now, all syndicates are represented in the central committee of the labor organization, whose function is to take care of those problems which cannot be locally determined. Every effort is made to avoid bureaucracy in this organ, and preventative measures include: short terms, no higher wages than the workers in the corresponding industry, direct responsibility, and federalism rather than centralism.

The extent of autonomy in the local organ is very important in distinguishing libertarian communism from authoritarian communism. Wherever possible the individual syndicate is the authority in its area. When a problem is the concern of all, it must be referred to the national committee. Policy is determined not by the national committee but when a decision is made, the disciplined militant is expected to follow it, as you have seen from the quotations from Durruti and Santillan. There is no more guarantee that he will follow it than there is that there will be no split in the various and sundry Marxian parties.

One of the differences between libertarian notions of discipline and the so-called “revolutionary discipline” of the Marxists is that the syndicalists retain always the right of criticism, regardless how the vote goes. Santillan’s quote abundantly illustrated this.

The anarcho-syndicalist does not have a “repressive state” as such. Repression of a sort must and does exist in the transition to libertarian communism. But it is largely a matter of degree and point of emphasis that distinguishes it from the repression of an authoritarian state, be it bourgeois or “proletarian.” Probably the fact that the anarchistic person is a humanist, that he emphasizes the individual—his integrity, the development of himself, as being all-important, the end toward which every effort is directed; the fact that he never loses sight of the proposition that to sacrifice an individual for the sake of the masses is to brutalize the individuals in the mass—at least to some extent, accounts for the anarchists’ peculiar reluctance to repress.

There is always thorough representation of those of different opinions who have a common aim; thus, when anarcho-syndicalists were dominant in Gijon (to the score of a 90 per cent majority of the people) they turned over representation on the Gijon economic council to every organization on the basis of its existence, rather than in terms of the number of its following. You will recall also, the selection quoted on the decision regarding uniform wages in the Levante, where the minority group is consulted despite its small numbers.

Now, if the revolutionary syndicalist organization is not able to gain the support of the workers it cannot accomplish a revolution over their heads by constituting itself a repressive state. One must have the potential support of the widest masses of people before any revolution can be successful. This does not mean that one sits around and waits for unanimous vote of approval on the social revolution; it means that one does not—largely because one cannot—accomplish a revolution of the society thereafter, unless the support of the masses is behind one. That is why, although one strives to get all the workers into the anarcho-syndicalist organization, one must—if different factions do exist—give representation to all of them.

If on the basis of this discussion you wish to regard your national committee of all syndicates as a political power, there is nothing to prevent you from doing so. The syndicalists generally prefer to think of it as an administration of things rather than a government of the people. (This, of course, can only be approximated at the present time.)

Position on the State

The bourgeois state to the syndicalist is merely, as it is to the Marxist, an executive committee of the dominant class, and can therefore not be used to bring about the destruction of this class. In the pre-revolutionary situation you are to ignore the state and its machinery; for to use it is to divide your efforts that might better be expended in building a strong labor union movement, and to misdirect the attentions of the workers.

Now let us review what the anarcho-syndicalists actually have done in Spain and how their actions square, or fail to square, with their theories. And regardless of what are our personal attitudes, on concrete situations, we must agree that if the fact does not coincide with the theory, one or both must be modified; and if they both continue unmodified alongside of each other, confusion results.

Before the revolt, and during the February elections which ushered in the popular front regime, the C.N.T. and F.A.I. did not carry on their usual anti-election campaign. They permitted, for the first time in their history, the question of voting to be a matter of individual conscience. While we can see how the tenseness of the situation and the conspicuous differences between a fascist government and one where some modicum of freedom is permitted might be a strong temptation to make a choice, we do not see how voting on the part of an anarcho-syndicalist can be reconciled with his convictions regarding the nature of the bourgeois state and the political process.

Actually the elections made little difference in the struggle for power, for if the workers did not disregard them, the fascists did; and regardless which side would have been elected, the dominance of the fascists could only be checked in a military struggle. The popular front government did not even offer (as its protagonists claim) a breathing spell or a preparation for better resisting the fascists.

It is true that the prisons were opened and 30,000 political prisoners released, and that much land was decreed to the land-starved peasants. But these were both spontaneous unofficial moves on the part of the workers themselves. After they had been accomplished, the government, seeing that the workers meant business, came in tardily and passed decrees OK’ing these steps..

At the outbreak of the revolt, as we have noted before, the Popular Front government was completely bankrupt. It did not predict the uprising, it did not prepare for it, and what is more culpable, it sabotaged those who were prepared to fight by refusing them arms. What was true of the central government was also true of the local governments. And so, after the first days of the rebellion, economic councils of workers and Committees of Public Safety and Defence arose and took care of all the new business and all the old business of the localities. The actual governments were only theoretical; they were a sort of a rubber stamp to be added automatically after things had been decided on in other bodies. No one came to the governments for advice or permission..

Labor unions increased in membership, because the only way to have a say in what was going on was to be a member of one of the unions. The labor organization stamped your passport and distributed your food and contributed to your militias. Non-workers accepted steps like socialization because there was no alternative way to keep them fed and clothed, and protected from fascism.

The justification of the entrance of the anarcho-syndicalists in these economic and defense councils seems to me to be contingent entirely upon the composition of these councils. When these were representative of the workers and soldiers—that is, a replacement of the parliamentary-geographical state—their participation seems to me to be an honest fulfillment of their aims—for they would thereby be joining with other workers to assure the victory of the revolution. As soon as these organizations gained, however, the membership of parties with no bond in any syndicate or agricultural organization—and from that step became adjuncts to the state, participation by anarcho-syndicalists seems to me to be a violation of theory.

In all their propaganda the anarcho-syndicalists were clamoring for an all-Spanish Defence Council, or Economic Council, which would coordinate the local organizations of that sort already in existence and make possible a unified command. But while this was being publicized, the Madrid government gradually sputtered its way back into existence. It found ready loyalty among the small numbers of the bourgeois and the communists, who though almost insignificant in number were extremely bold and articulate and seemed to hold in the palm of their hand the key to Russian aid to Spain.

They traded on the vestiges of a revolutionary reputation, to achieve prominence and bourgeois support on the slogans of unity and a democratic program. The C.N.T. recognized that to antagonize these anti-fascist parties might have meant to incur harm in the war and sabotage at the rear. The C.N.T.-F.A.I. apparently took the war against fascism more seriously than other organizations and individuals who devote much of their time to mouthing slogans and discovering plots, fifth columns, and nests of uncontrollables.

Their desire for anti-fascist unity determined the position of the anarchists. Subsequent events make it clear however, that the structure of this organization, rendered possible (though not inevitable) the hegemony of political groups non-representative of the masses of the people. When that became abundantly clear to the anarchists, they moved out and have since refused to collaborate with the Negrin government.

The anarcho-syndicalists refuse to stuff anything down the necks of the workers, even if that thing be revolutionary unionism. Yet their propaganda against the Negrin government must go on, along with their fight against fascism. That they are not slighting the latter is testified to by their constant activity at the front. That they must not slight their work of exposure of the Negrin government, not only to save Spain for after the war, but to have her win the war, should be clear to all.

No civil war can be carried on for so long a time without some definite hope and proof of social amelioration for the volunteer fighters. But Negrin declares:

Economic reforms, which have been carried out in Spain since the beginning of the civil war, have been accomplished according to the law, and once the smoke has blown away it will be seen that they have gone no further than reforms already carried out in other countries which pass for being conservative strongholds. (Edgar Ansel Mower’s article in The News, September 22, 1937).

But this cannot be an expression of the sentiment of the people who so many times have risen in revolt and sacrificed the lives of their dearest so that Spain would be more than a “stronghold of conservation.” It is the expression of Negrin and his government. That government is a menace to the fighting people of Spain.

The Negrin government, representing the most backward and bourgeois elements in the country consistently fights the gains of socialization, tries to chain the army to its control, and flirts with the exiled industrialists to induce them to return to their old position of dominance. At the same time it betrays its non-democratic nature by its suppression of those who question its correctness and its motives.

Those who teach against it, and yet fight valiantly at the front, those who may be ranked among the uncontrollables, represent the hope of Spain. Just as the war in Spain is not a private matter, but an international one, so is the revolution. Libertarian communism in Spain would mean impetus to social progress the world over! It would be a real threat to fascism, and an inspiration to those whose government is an insipid democracy.


1. Hubert C. Herring, Spain, Battleground of Democratic Social Action.

2. Memorial booklet for Durruti, pp. 24-26.

3. Santillan, After the Revolution, p. 118-9.

From: One Big Union Monthly, February, 1938.