The Story of the Iron Column [Book Review]

This is an important and long-awaited account of perhaps the most militant anarchist column in the Civil War in its fight against fascism and, more importantly the encroaching reformism that increasingly sought to stifle the social revolution. Written by Abel Paz, the author of the definitive biography of Durruti, this volume brilliantly portrays the spirit of revolutionary anarchism and resistance that characterized the brief lifetime of the Column.

Formed in Valencia in August 1936, the Column immediately headed for the Teruel front, a crucial military position, in defence of the entire Levante region. Proclaiming Libertarian Communism on the way, we read of a chronic shortage of arms and ammunition, so common among many of the anarchist columns. Indeed with 12,000 members initially enlisted, only 3,000 were armed.

Famously, (or infamously!), its membership was bolstered by inmates from the San Miguel do los Reyes prison which was liberated by a small number of comrades. As Iron Column member Roque Santamaría comments: “The opening of the prison was prompted by principle and nothing more. It was an attempt to do away with something we regarded as a product of bourgeois rule: the inmates were victims of society and had to be given a chance, at which point most of them joined the Iron Column, fighting and conducting themselves in an extraordinarily brave and intrepid fashion.” (p35)

Vilified from all sides from its very inception as comprising “extremists” and “uncontrollables” the Column was soon subject to counter-revolutionary communist treachery. At the funeral of a comrade murdered by the Guardia Popular Antifascista (Popular Antifascist Group – GPA) in Valencia in late October, delegates from the Column come under unprovoked machine-gun fire from the offices of the PCE, sustaining very heavy casualties. Clearly, this can be seen as a prelude to the ‘May Days’ in Barcelona the following year. The response of the Column seems to be marked by an admirable restraint in not exacting immediate revenge. However in a manifesto published in its bulletin Linea de Fuego shortly afterwards we read rather ominously: “the day will come when we re-examine and remember these events and give the responsible parties what they deserve.” The writer concludes with a bold statement of intent: “The Iron Column, in spite of adversity and come hell or high water, holds fast to its revolutionary stance… we will continue to fight everywhere for the triumph of the revolution and of liberty” (p93) This unshakeable faith in the principles of revolutionary anarchism fills the pages of this book and certainly makes for an inspirational and thought-provoking read for the present-day anarchist!

The issue of the forced militarisation of the anarchist columns into ‘regular’ Republican army units lies at the heart of this book, and we are presented with a wealth of material on this topic.

Vehemently protesting against the CNT’s entry into the Largo Caballero government and the gradual bureaucracy and ‘circumstantalism’ of the CNT/FAI ‘leadership’, the Iron Column were bitter opponents of the entire militarisation process. The move from a freely-formed and self-organising libertarian column to a conventional army unit was a fundamentally reactionary and counter-revolutionary strategy that struck at the heart of the Column’s ethos. We follow the absorbing accounts of the resistance to militarisation within the wider context of the steady decline of a genuine social revolution. Most readers will of course be aware of the fate of the Iron Column as it eventually became part of the 83rd Mixed Brigade, and indeed we are left with a sad and poignant sense of the inevitability of this process in the face of such great odds. The basic dilemma facing the Column in the early months of 1937 was either dissolution or an acceptance of militarisation. The reader is struck by both the self-contradictory position of the CNT/FAI leadership and the ideological resolve of the Column’s rank and file membership. The bitterness and sense of betrayal felt by many members is evident in an account of a meeting of militants held in Barcelona in March 1937. A militian, Blumenthal, clearly spoke for many of his comrades when he states: “An attempt is being made to divide us with the principle: ‘First win the war’. In Barcelona I saw some truly repulsive things, including stripes and stars… I am an anarchist and stand with other anarchists. I refuse to be a soldier and a servant of capitalism” (p162)

Perhaps the most moving and revealing section of the book is the ‘Testimony of an Uncontrollable’, published [in a different translation] as a pamphlet by the Kate Sharpley Library as ‘A day mournful and overcast’. Written by a young Column militant freed from jail after killing a tyrannical village cacique (boss), this piece is an often painful read, exposing the sense of personal betrayal felt by many.

Overall, the reader is left in total sympathy with the Column’s rank and file membership and, indeed, bemused by the often openly hostile attitude of the National Committee of the CNT itself.

This engrossing story is admirably rounded-off by a fine set of appendices in which we learn the fate of many of the militants and the subsequent military operations of the 83rd Brigade throughout the remainder of the war. Of particular interest is a piece by George Orwell on the elimination of the POUM, written in August 1937, and an account of the life of José Pellicier, a leading light of the Iron Column, executed on 8th June 1942.

In summary, this is an essential text for anyone seeking to understand the spirit of rebellion, hope and idealism that informed the most dedicated and uncompromising anarchists of the Civil War. We are left with a greater understanding of not just the role of the Iron Column itself, which Paz describes as: “a grain of sand in the descent of the Republican zone” (p147), but the often complicated debates and issues that raged throughout the revolutionary period regarding anarchist organisation and how to truly achieve a libertarian communist society.

Highly recommended.

The Story of the Iron Column: Militant Anarchism in the Spanish Civil War

by Abel Paz. Published by AK Press and the Kate Sharpley Library. ISBN 9781849350648.