July 2001 is the 65th anniversary of the Spanish revolution. To mark the date we're reprinting here an interview with a veteran of that struggle.
It was during the Spanish revolution that the ideas of Anarcho-Syndicalism were not just political theory but a practical reality. In many areas of Spain the CNT was faced with the problems of fighting the civil war but also with restructuring the whole of society based on the ideas of libertarian communism.
During the post civil war years under the dictatorship of Franco the CNT and libertarian communist influence was almost but smashed. Since the death of Franco the Anarcho-Syndicalist movement has come out of hiding and is again beginning to grow, though at this point in time it is obviously a shadow of its former self.
For the first time documents, reports and eye witness accounts of problems the CNT faced and the solutions arrived at are becoming available. Unfortunately no real attempt has been made to translate these documents and make them accessible to the English reader - that is until now.
Currently in the North East a small group of people are working at this task with the view of publishing some of this material.
We interviewed Miguel Rico who witnessed these events first hand about some of his experiences.
Syndicalist- When and where were you born and how did you become involved with the anarchist movement?
Miguel- I was born in the Hospitalet area of Barcelona on the 1st October 1919 but when I was very young my father found work at a cement quarry in a place called Villanueva y Getru. It was there that I was raised and educated. When I was 16 I joined the FIJL (Federation of Libertarian Youth).
Syndicalist- Was that the average age of the members of the federation?
Miguel- Some were younger but most were 17, 18 and 19 years of age.
Syndicalist- How did you become involved?
Miguel- You did not just join, things were not done like that. At that time the police were trying to infiltrate the movement at all levels and there were many informers everywhere. In our town you became a member of the Libertarian Youth on the recommendation of an already respected member. This is what happened to me. I was recommended by an older person who knew my views and beliefs and knew I was to be trusted. I then joined. My brother who was two years younger than me joined by the same method.
Syndicalist- How many were in the Libertarian Youth, and what activities did you engage in?
Miguel- At one time there was as many as 200 in the Libertarian Youth in our small town. Our activities were mainly propaganda, getting our ideas across to the workers but also raising funds for the movement. We would also hold a meeting, as I said we had to be very careful so although the secretary and committee could meet in safe cafes and bars our full meetings were always held outside of town. You see at that time it was very common for people to go on picnics in large groups at weekends, this was what we would do.
Syndicalist- In 1936 the revolution broke out. How did this affect the Libertarian Youth in Villanueva y Getru?
Miguel- The first affect that it had was that the older members joined the militia and went to the battle front. We who were left knew that the work of the Federation had to go on, the fight against the fascists was not just at the front but also at home, a rearguard was needed. A new committee was elected and the work went on. At one time I held the position of local secretary. Once I was delegated to attend a conference in Barcelona it was at the time that the anarchists controlled the city. It was then that I saw what was really possible, how things could be organised with true equality and freedom. We as delegates were booked into one of the biggest hotels in Barcelona. The dining room provided free meals to the delegates. It was here that I met a fellow anarchist nicknamed 'Zupa'. He was once one of the best pickpockets in Barcelona. I'll always remember the time that a group of us went to a restaurant that before the revolution was considered very posh, a place that only the rich could afford to eat in, but now it was run by the workers it provided cheap meals to the people of Barcelona as well as the militias who were passing through. The restaurant still used the silver cutlery that it had used before the revolution. While we were eating our meal we noticed that the knives, forks and spoons began to go missing one by one. We all knew it was 'Zupa' but we could not catch him in the act. When we got outside 'Zupa' put his hand in his pocket and took out all the missing cutlery "'Zupa,' we all said "'you don't need to steal anymore." "I know" 'Zupa' said after he had taken them back "I was just practising."
Syndicalist- How long were you secretary of the local Libertarian Youth ?
Miguel- About four months and then I joined the militia. I did not tell my mother that I was going to join because I knew that this would upset her.
Syndicalist- What was the name of the militia you joined?
Miguel- I joined the Hortiz Column which was sent to Caspe in Aragon. After that we were sent to help in the battle for Belchite but in order to do this we had first to take a small town called Fuen de Todos. As we entered the town a machine gun started to cut down our comrades. The firing came from a priest who had mounted a machine gun on top of the bell tower of his church. We had to send for a Republican plane to bomb the church, it was the only way that we could take the town. It was during the battle for Belchite that I was wounded, we lost many comrades there.
Syndicalist- You were wounded more than once. Is that right ?
Miguel- Yes, after I recovered from the wound I received in the Battle for Belchite I rejoined my Column but was wounded again. I was taken to the hospital and the doctor told me that I was being sent to a recuperation centre and then on to the army barracks at Olot. This was at the time that the Communists were trying to militarize the militias. I told the doctor that I would go home until I was fully recovered and then report to the barracks at Olot. After about three weeks I went to report and was arrested for collaboration with the fascists. I was taken before a court martial and found guilty. I just could not understand it, but later I found out that the communists were doing this to anarchists everywhere. I was put in a cell to await sentence. Eventually I heard the keys in the door and was convinced that I would be taken out and shot. This was the first time that I was really scared. Everyone is scared when going into battle but you tell yourself that somehow you'll survive but this time I was convinced that I was about to die. The door of the cell opened and there stood a Colonel who said 'release this man'. I then recognised him as a Colonel who we had fought beside in Aragon. He was only there to inspect the new recruits but had heard that a prisoner was being held and had insisted on seeing me. On his word I was released. There was no doubt about it this man saved my life. Under the communist advisers from Russia the militarization went on and I ended up in a communist led brigade.
Syndicalist- Do you remember the name of the brigade?
Miguel- If I remember rightly I was sent to the 134 Brigade 10th Division First Company.
Syndicalist- What were your experiences there as an anarchist in a communist dominated brigade?
Miguel- Well I kept myself to myself after my experiences at the barracks in Olot. I thought the best thing to do was keep very quiet. By my actions it was clear to everyone that I was not a communist member. One day I was approached by a captain (who I found out later had been a centurion delegate in an anarchist column), he explained that it was not safe for anarchists and that I should be careful what I said and did. I stayed with this captain as his assistant. The collapse of the Republic was soon to follow and I managed to cross the border into France.
Syndicalist- Now were the refugees treated by the French Government ?
Miguel- The refugee camp that I was in was just like a concentration camp. People there starved. There was food in the camp but the guards made people barter for it with any possessions they might have left. There was no medical treatment so disease spread through the camp. Many of the very old and very young died.
Miguel went on to fight against the Nazis in the French army and eventually with the British troops in North Africa. We finally asked Miguel if he would one day write a book about his life, he replied, "maybe one day I will but at the moment there are more important things to do like translating as much material a possible."
From: The Syndicalist (Tyneside) Number 7, July 1986..
In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 27, July 2001