Starting Over

When the opportunity comes to pass to sit in judgment of the conduct of the Spanish militants and organizations of every persuasion over the years between ’36 and ’39, observers are going to have a hard time believing that such an immense and blood-stained upheaval was punctuated by so many shortcomings, betrayals and so much ignorance.

The despicable habit that most revolutionaries have acquired – under the influence of snivelling, reactionary democrats – of pondering the facts only in the light of their own passive sentimentality, thwarting any reasoned critique of the deeds and feats of the Spanish revolutionary factions.

Even exile cannot quite unseal the lips of those in the know, lips so often gaping wide, however, in peddling huge untruths for propaganda purposes. The truth is that the coffers, the keys to them and the bank account signatures are in the hands of those responsible for the disasters and that the bulk of the followers or militants stagnating in the camps are required to agree to yet another compromise in order to get their hands of some allowance or to wait for a fare to Mexico.

However, there are supposedly so many mysteries in need of explanation, so many situations awaiting clarification, so many contradictions to be taken apart. But above all else, to that end the moral principles essential for any collective action would have to reawaken in those who were so forgetful of them when the revolution was in full flow.

Because it was precisely there that the Iberian revolution was found wanting, due to the absence of that minimum of revolutionary morality without which neither doctrine nor courage nor intellect can do a thing.

Above and beyond the labels, the tendencies and the jargon, the Spanish labour movement has succumbed to some commonplace vices: arrivisme, scheming, contempt for the masses and disdain for the ideas that move them. 

We have witnessed anarchist personalities becoming loyal supporters of a government, libertarians occupying ministerial armchairs, wild-eyed class war supporters anxiously craving the support of bourgeois republicans, internationalists bragging about the Spanish mind and anti-politicians rapturous over the speeches of Roosevelt or Vandervelde. These queer about-turns could still be argued over if we were dealing with an evolution in the light of new facts, but that is far from being the case. A trashy intellectual dishonesty provided cover for every retreat and every act of betrayal was accompanied by eloquent invocations of traditional principles.

The libertarian movement’s leaders did not even have the benefit of being bold adventurers or making up coup d’etat teams. Intoxicated by their own speechifying, admiring themselves in the mirror in generals’ uniforms, playing the boss-men in peasant villages, they were diddled by the old foxes of traditional enchufismo [wire-pulling] and made to toe the line by the Stalinist chekas. Garcia Oliver was overhauling the Code even as the GPU was carrying out assassinations and Federica Montseny was in charge of Health! All of the sub-Olivers and mini-Montsenys blathered about ‘historic trajectories’ even as the Bank of Spain’s gold was being funnelled out to the USSR or the USA. A right parcel of charlies! And the wretched militian found himself being shot for having filched a ring discovered in some village whilst the morale-boosters in the rearguard or abroad were turning up wonderful stores of goods for themselves!

Yet these privateer instincts, bureaucracy and respect for the outward show of power would never have managed to bring the Spanish revolution to grief, had the organization’s structures, traditions and lack of clear vision not fitted it with a bridle.

Throughout the months of revolution and war, the National Committee, the delegates from the regions lost and the Peninsular Committee acted and made decisions with neither oversight nor publicity. The Regionals lived lives of their own. At no time was there any widespread debate on the most significant issues. To this day, the Catalan militants cannot even name the leaders of the Centre region and vice versa.

The old habits of consorting with the left republicans, dating back to the last century, the custom of maintaining contacts with anti-government factions, regionalists and would-be coup-makers had an impact on the subsequent behaviour of the leaders.

As for familiarity with the most vital issues such as imperialist game-playing, organizing the economy, propaganda abroad, there was no sign of that anywhere. The fight against Franco was likened a hundred times to France’s against Germany in 1914-1918: the collectives swiftly took on the appearance of ventures being exploited by committees, without any overall planning or oversight by the organization: abroad, publications funded by anarcho-syndicalists sang paeans to militants or called upon the bourgeois democracies to show a greater understanding of their interests. 

The thousands of rank-and-file faithful who clung ferociously to their notion of libertarian, egalitarian socialism watched as, day by day, they became the pawns of a game, control over which was increasingly slipping from their fingers. 

Instead of casting around for formulas that might well have allowed them to grapple with the situation without hobbling the progress of the revolution, propagandists peddled slogans that furnished the most rabble-rousing cover for opportunism and counter-revolution.

Where there ought to have been an autonomous force operating in a specific direction, there was nothing but laissez-faire, blather and hope vested in events that might allow for a change in a reality that it was felt was less and less liable to be influenced or tamed.

The doctrinal patina has been scorched off by the fires of social revolution and we for one have no regrets about that. The reclassification of revolutionaries, the revision of tactics, the discarding of doctrinal gruel were all measures indispensable for the sake of workers’ health.

Stripped of their illusions, weaned off their partisan patriotism, thousands of revolutionaries today stand ready to begin afresh, endowed with a huge strength if they will but realize it;  their own strength, which derives from the conviction that socialism is built through the efforts of every one of us, on the basis of an untouchable equality, relying exclusively upon those who toil and fight, without doctrinal blinkers or humanitarian sentimentality.

Living out social struggles whilst devising answers daily to everyday problems, fighting with the unswerving belief that ever blow struck is down to the striker, building up his doctrine whilst keeping his feet on the ground and not denying reality and making idols out of principles – there is the program that every militant can espouse without fear of being gulled. The one that revolutionaries inoculated against Talmudic marxism and washed-out anarchism spontaneously embrace. And the principles of revolutionary morality, the class struggle, freedom and internationalism shall not divide them.


L’Espagne nouvelle, No 67-69, July-August-September 1939

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.