Rise and Fall of the FAI [Review of We, the anarchists! A study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927-1937]

We, the anarchists! A study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927-1937 by Stuart Christie

This works has a much broader relevance than the title would suggest. It offers an introduction to the revolutionary activities of the Spanish labour movement, from the First International to the rise of the National Confederation of Labour (CNT) - the context in which the anarchist militants of the FAI operated. A full history is given of the development of the FAI, taking the opportunity to debunk some of the gross misrepresentations erected by hostile writers, according to which members can be described as criminals or visionaries, but never working class militants.

Christie also attempts to analyse the role that the FAI - as much as a rallying cry as an organised body - played in the Spanish libertarian movement. The CNT's role as a trade union led to the formation of a layer of reformist officials, more interested in the security of their positions than the revolutionary change of society. Naturally these reformists wished to move the CNT towards a less combative stance. Opposition to dictatorship (and collaboration with other forces) led to an increasing desire to be 'practical' and engage with the world of politics. The trend came to be identified with Angel Pestaña and 'Treintismo'. However, the grassroots anarchist militants felt "it was not the job of the anarchists to resolve the problems of capitalism or to negotiate mutually acceptable solutions between boss and worker… but to nourish the spirit of revolt against exploitation and all coercive authority." It was the grassroots militants who bore the brunt of the bloody repression used against the CNT - and defeated it by attacking the hired guns of pistolerismo and their employers. They were also the forces that defeated the reformist trend represented by Treintismo.

"From a fairly low key and not particularly efficient propagandist and educational body under the dictatorship, the FAI became the voice of the revolutionary cutting edge of the CNT." Many opponents of the reformist line vowed allegiance to the FAI, even where they were not members. The success of this defence of the anarchist principles of the CNT ended the first phase of the FAI's existence: "The collapse of the reformist offensive within the CNT by late 1932 signalled that the FAI had served the main purpose which had brought it to prominence. The CNT militants who had spoken in its name and adopted its slogans quickly merged back into the Confederal Defence Committees and everyday union activity."

However, the FAI did not disappear but continued in existence, taking responsibility for the insurrections of the 'thirties which were actually organised by the CNT, and eventually coming under the influence of Diego Abad de Santillan and a "group of rootless intellectuals and economic planners."

This divorce from the grassroots of the CNT ended in the creation of a 'CNT-FAI' which was to become ensnared in politicking during the civil war which effectively meant the defeat of the revolutionary project. "The Catalan anarchist leadership renounced anarchism in the name of expediency and removed the social transformation of Spain from their agenda."

The history of the Spanish anarchist movement raises a number of issues of concern to anyone interested in social change: Despite the absence of a hierarchical structure, an informal leadership developed inside the CNT which was able to flout democratic procedures. Equally, the history of the FAI shows that organisations are capable of developing 'a life of their own', and become self-perpetuating structures which pay less and less heed to their original objectives. However, this work does show the constructive role that the 'conscious minority' of militants is able to play, and that if one avenue of approach is blocked, new voices (such as the 'Friends of Durruti Group') will spring up. This work highlights issues of perpetual concern to anarchists on organisation and the relationship of anarchists to other workers.

We, the anarchists is an authoritative study, well supported with quotes from the main players in the events it describes, and clearly defines the varying groups and positions in the organisational debates of the Spanish movement . However, its primary value is in raising issues of concern to all interested in building a free society - ones that apply here and now as much as in the Spain of the 'twenties and 'thirties.

We, the anarchists (paperback, 136 pages. ISBN 1-901172-06-6, Published 2000) costs £7.95 (plus p+p) and is available from the Kate Sharpley Library as well as the publishers:

The Meltzer Press; PO Box 35, Hastings; East Sussex TN34 2UX

and Jura Media, PO Box N32, Petersham North NSW 2049, Australia