A critical look at the Spanish revolution - Ricardo Fuego

A critical look at the Spanish revolution - Ricardo Fuego

A 2010 essay in which the author attributes the defeat of the Spanish Revolution not to its betrayal at the hands of a naïve and incompetent leadership, but to the fact that “If the Spanish proletariat valued acronyms and leaders more than their own interests this was because objective and subjective difficulties stood in the way of their potential to attain a level of class autonomy sufficient to do without such mediations”.

A Critical Look at the Spanish Revolution – Ricardo Fuego

Author’s Note

This text is not an essay by a professional historian; it is merely a collection of notes jotted down after reading some texts on the topic and after having discussed it with people holding a wide range of views. Nor is it intended to be used as an introduction to the topic; it is assumed that the reader has some basic knowledge concerning what has been referred to as the Spanish Revolution.

As one may discern by scanning the section headings of this text, it is a result of political discussions and constitutes an attempt to provoke political debate. It reflects the author’s formulation of a position on a period of history, a position that is related to the assumption of a position concerning organizations and ways of practicing politics (and history) today.

This text is, in its polemical aspect, a stand taken against cenetista-poumista historiography. Since the latter is a delimitation within the same class camp, it is understood that I will not bother to either refute or consult bourgeois and Stalinist historiography.

In its constructive aspect, it represents an attempt to synthesize the lessons of the Spanish Revolution for proletarian-revolutionary theory.

Against the History of “Deceptions” and “Errors”

The history of what happened in the past cannot be explained by what was not done, what could not be done, and/or what “should have been done”; it is explained by what effectively ended up being done.

Those who present theses concerning a handful of revolutionaries who had been manipulated and were too trusting of Stalinism, are interested in covering up for the complicity of these leaders with the processes that undermined the development of the revolutionary movement.

Rather than merely denouncing such contemporary examples of political bad faith that pose an obstacle to the drawing of a clear balance sheet of the Spanish Revolution, my intention is to proceed beyond asking the question of “how” in order to pose the question of “why” regarding the historical events, on the basis of the bibliography appended below and the discussions that I have had with the supporters of diverse interpretations and currents.

The Reasons for the Proletarian Failure

Beyond the exposure of the anti-revolutionary policies of the traditional workers organizations, what is of interest for present and future revolutionary praxis is understanding why the proletariat did not abandon and/or destroy those organizations, strengthening and coordinating the organizations created in the insurrection. This question is fundamental in order not to succumb to another false way of framing the question: the traditional workers organizations as accursed betrayers of the revolutionary proletarian masses, who were incapable of throwing off these organizations’ leadership.

The “how” of the question, viewed from the perspective of the organizations that represented the proletariat, is the following: they placed all the emphasis on their own development rather than on the movement that had arisen during the July insurrection. The party and trade union leaders and apparatuses, as soon as they had recovered from their initial shock, devoted their efforts to recovering the influence they had lost over “their” workers during the revolutionary events. As if that were not enough, they did so in alliance with Stalinism and the bourgeoisie, which led them to pursue policies that were even more detrimental to the needs of the revolution. The anarchist leadership, advocates of libertarian communism, ended up being accomplices in the dissolution of the enterprise committees and collectives in favor of a state-run war economy, as well as in the disarmament of the proletarian militias in order to create a professional bourgeois army, which reestablished the old hierarchical relations within its units.

The “how” of the question, as viewed from the perspective of the proletariat itself, is the following: the proletariat only acted in a revolutionary way when it disobeyed its traditional leaders and transcended the limitations of doctrines and acronyms, placing all its emphasis on practical revolutionary unity. Those who returned to the ranks of their traditional organizations abandoned the path of revolutionary class unity that had first been followed when the autonomous institutions for production and self-defense were first created, and thus sealed their doom.

But what about the “why” of this course of action? If the workers organizations were able to reimpose their leadership over the revolutionary proletariat, this was because they did not lose their influence over it. If the Spanish proletariat valued acronyms and leaders more than their own interests this was because objective and subjective difficulties stood in the way of their potential to attain a level of class autonomy sufficient to do without such mediations.

From that point forward the objective historical conditions condemned the isolated Spanish revolutionary movement to defeat. The military relations of forces were already bad enough without the support provided by Hitler and Mussolini to Franco, in the form of troops and arms. To this we must add the particular characteristics of Spanish capitalism, unfolding in a country whose economy, politics and culture still preserved significant features of semi-feudal relations, and in which the proletariat, despite major concentrations in industrial strongholds like Barcelona (which was advantageous for its constitution as a conscious social subject, with its own subculture), was nationally scattered and, in most parts of the country, was in the minority. Only the outbreak of a revolutionary movement in other countries of Western Europe could have compensated for its difficult position, but this did not happen and the Spanish revolutionary movement was left to its fate.

Nor was it capable of taking advantage of the opportunities that could have been offered by an anti-colonial policy. If it had proclaimed the abandonment of the Spanish colonies, this would most likely have bolstered an important socio-political movement in the latter, which could have been, in the best-case scenario, an ally of the revolution, and in the worst-case scenario it would have been another subversive hotspot that the fascists would have had to combat. This would have undoubtedly signified a military advantage for the republican side, and to some extent would have alleviated some of the pressure it faced in the war.

For those of us who lay claim to the spirit of the revolutionary movements of the past because we have that political perspective in the present, what is of most interest to us are not the causes of the defeat of the Spanish revolutionary movement but the reasons for its failure. Defeat means being overcome by an enemy, while failure means being overcome by (the most backward part) of one’s own side. The reasons for its failure, therefore, are less evident than the reasons for its defeat. It is the study of these latter reasons that is most relevant for our current praxis, because the determinant factor in our praxis is not only our circumstances, but our conduct. Before the defeat of the republican side by the nationalist side, there was a defeat of the revolutionary proletariat by the Popular Front, and the basis for this latter defeat was the defeat of the Spanish revolutionary movement.

Spanish Capitalism

In order to analyze the process that led to the Spanish revolutionary movement we must contextualize it in the preceding period of class struggle, which, in turn, must be contextualized in the capitalism of the Iberian peninsula of the time. I consider the historical-materialist analysis carried out by the Italian group Bilan in “La lección de los acontecimientos en España”1 to be an excellent resource for this purpose. Spanish capitalism was characterized by all of capitalism’s most disastrous features for the working class and peasant masses, without any of its advantages. The problem of the land was, of course, the most urgent for the majority of the population. Industrial underdevelopment, on the other hand, prevented the integration of the proletariat as citizenry. And this capitalism was not even satisfactory for the bourgeoisie, who were stifled by the pre-capitalist relations imposed by the monarchy, the army, the clergy and the state bureaucracy.

My particular contribution to this debate is to point out that the success of anarchosyndicalism among the proletariat and the peasantry was based on the impoverishment that resulted from Spain’s economic backwardness. The CNT, despite the fact that it had many anarchist elements among its ranks, was in reality a radical syndicalist organization that concentrated the proletarians who saw it as the most consistent defender of their interests, as opposed to the PSOE and its social-liberal policies as the left wing of bourgeois republicanism. Besides the fact that it formed a community of struggle for workers and peasants, the CNT also formed a cultural community characterized by solidarity and militant commitment, a refuge for class-conscious proletarians. The CNT clearly concentrated the proletariat opposed to semi-feudal Spanish capitalism.

This situation explains both the radicalization of the Spanish workers movement as well as its solid attachment to the forms of syndicalist/party activity with which it had only recently begun to have experience, under the effects of severe state and para-state repression. Furthermore, since the workers organization was not just an instrument of struggle but also a cultural community, this generated a bond of identification between the individual and his organization. The organization was his extended family, his homeland.

It was these factors, rather than support for the libertarian communist program of the anarchists, that account for the success of the CNT as a pole of attraction for the advanced proletariat. This radicalized workers movement could have been dissipated if the backward nature of Spanish capitalism had been overcome, but this did not happen because the republican bourgeoisie, more afraid of the proletariat than it was of reaction, never made the decision to champion national-democratic demands (agrarian reform, republican separation of powers, abolition of the monarchy, expropriation of the clergy) and rescue the country from its economic, political and cultural backwardness.

The tension between the interests of the ruling classes (the oligarchy, big landowners, the clergy and the monarchy), the interests of the bourgeois republican party, and the interests of a proletariat that the republican bourgeoisie was incapable of winning over to its cause, ended up by giving rise to the reactionary military rebellion, which in some parts of the country provoked the revolutionary insurrection of the proletariat and in other parts led to straight-out civil war.

The Cenetista Leadership: From the Rearguard of the Proletarian Revolution to the Extreme Left of the Popular Front

All the documents I have read lead me to conclude that the influence of the leadership of the CNT-FAI over its members and sympathizers was decisive in preventing the unity of the revolutionary part of the Spanish proletariat2 on the basis of the committees, militias and collectives that arose spontaneously after the insurrection against the military coup.

While it was the republicans and especially the Stalinists who drenched their hands in the blood of the proletariat, it was the leaderships of the CNT-FAI and the POUM3 who contributed to laying the ground-works for the massacre and disarmament of the proletariat in a political and moral sense (the May Events of 1937 were exemplary in this respect), reinforcing the tendencies towards class conciliation and confidence in the hierarchy of specialists, and therefore contributing to the fact that the euphoria and initiative typical of the first months were gradually transformed into the normal behavior of the proletariat under a stable capitalist state. That is: delegation of its affairs to a layer of specialists, the stale routine of pre-revolutionary trade unionism, localism, uncritical acceptance of the policies of the leadership, etc.

Instead of supporting the revolutionary movement of the Spanish proletariat (a movement whose participants were largely members of the rank and file of the CNT-FAI), the leadership and institutional apparatus of the CNT-FAI pursued a policy that was oriented towards the organization instead of the class. Under the banner of anti-fascist unity, it embarked on a policy of agreements with the bourgeois and Stalinist forces. The cenetista leaders went from intransigent apoliticism to a terribly naïve political praxis, in which they renounced everything in exchange for practically nothing. This disaster was the direct result of the doctrinaire political indifferentism that had been cultivated since the time of Bakunin. Once it was trapped in this spiral of opportunism, the leadership of the CNT-FAI ended up advocating the blackmail of postponing—or directly renouncing—the revolution until “after winning the war”.

The transformation of the leadership of the CNT-FAI into the extreme left of the Popular Front began when, instead of daring to reinforce the spontaneous self-organizing processes of the insurrectionary proletariat (committees, militias, collectivized enterprises) it decided, with the excuse of not imposing an “anarchist dictatorship”, to share power with the anti-proletarian forces. In Catalonia this process took the form of the establishment of the Committee of Anti-fascist Militias.

The expectation of the cenetista leadership, which for reasons due as much to its lack of experience as to its doctrine did not want to even consider taking political power into its hands,4 but at the same time had a jaundiced view of the formation of organs of proletarian power that were independent of its apparatus, was that it would return to being an opposition as soon as the nationalists were defeated.

It is in this vacillating attitude that led them to their policy of collaboration that the practical bankruptcy of anarchist theory with regard to political power is expressed. Their phobia of political power led them to reconstitute the battered authority of the bourgeois political forces instead of reinforcing the authority of the institutions of proletarian power created during the insurrection. As a result of their opposition to the “authoritarian” perspective of proletarian power they contributed to the reconstruction of the power of the bourgeoisie.

It was this participation of the leaders of the CNT-FAI and of the POUM in the disarmament of the insurrectionary movement that facilitated its subsequent repression by the republicans and the Stalinists.

Summary of the Preceding Observations

1. The leaderships of the main working class organizations engaged in a collaborationist policy with the petty bourgeois and big bourgeois “anti-fascists”, which sabotaged any possibility of constructing a proletarian power that could effectively confront the challenges of the social revolution and the war against fascism.

2. The Spanish proletariat was organized in a relatively young workers movement without democratic experience. On the one hand, this explains its radicality, but on the other hand also explains the political inexperience it displayed at the time. There was a great deal of individual identification with the traditional organizations, which delayed the process of becoming conscious of the intrinsically counterrevolutionary nature of the party and trade union forms.5

3. Spanish capitalism had semi-feudal characteristics, so that the tasks involved in the revolutionary abolition of capitalism were interlaced with the tasks pertaining to the abolition of the particular form of capitalism that existed in Spain. This economic backwardness corresponded with a proletariat scattered throughout the territory of the state, with a handful of industrial concentrations.

Conclusions on Class Autonomy, the Question of Power and Revolutionary Theory

Frontal clashes with the state are sometimes decisive for tipping the balance of power between the ruling class and the exploited classes, but the real location of the backbone of social life is to be found in personal life, production, and the management of community affairs.

The history of the Spanish revolution provides a clear example of this: the proletariat rose up in arms and exercised its power in the streets; the workers collectivized the factories and the peasants collectivized the land (which were for the most part abandoned by the bourgeoisie and the landlords, respectively); it formed control patrols, militias and committees. Due to the fact, however, that it did not exercise its class power in the economy and in public affairs by way of structural coordination among the institutions that it had itself created in the insurrection, these matters were gradually delegated to specialists of the apparatus of its traditional organizations which, furthermore, pursued a policy of subordination to the anti-proletarian forces (bourgeois and Stalinist). In this manner, the bourgeois (republican) government was able to recover and, one by one, the conquests of July 1936, in the cities as well as the countryside, were undone, whether by way of counter-reforms hailed by the “revolutionary” organizations or by way of armed Stalino-bourgeois violence.

Thus, if the Spanish revolution proves anything, it is that the most important thing is not who has the weapons, but for what purpose they are used. The arming of the popular masses (and winning to their cause of portions of the police and/or army) might be decisive from the military angle for the insurrection, but for the defense of the social conquests of the insurrection and for the construction of a new society the principal tasks are not accomplished by means of arms but by means of self-management of production and community life. A successful proletarian revolution needs a proletariat armed with individual and class autonomy more than one armed with rifles.

The insurrectionary Spanish proletariat lacked not only an organized class power, but also even a theory about how to construct that power, how to manage the economy, how to deal with non-proletarian political forces, and what to do on the terrain of culture. To sum up: it lacked an effective revolutionary theory.6

Anarchosyndicalist doctrine was too backward in these respects to attempt to develop, in the midst of the events, a revolutionary political theory on this basis. And to top it all off, the anti-authoritarian dogmatism was applied in the most damaging way possible to proletarian interests, as if that were its purpose. Sectarian anti-authoritarianism was invoked with respect to the question of proletarian power, while “pragmatic” authoritarianism was invoked with respect to the question of the social order, in order to preserve the anti-fascist front.

The anarchist leaders in Barcelona did not see any other alternatives than either imposing their own dictatorship or collaborating with the anti-fascist bourgeois forces, but there was a third alternative: constituting a proletarian power organized on the basis of the myriad committees and militias that had been formed. To them, however, this option appeared to be too similar to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, and in addition would have meant the dissolution of the apparatus of the CNT and its merger into the newly formed class power. We must point out that this alternative was not raised by the masses, either; it was only proposed by a vanguard sector (“The Friends of Durruti Group”), although far too late (after the defeat of May 1937).

Conclusions concerning Revolutionary Motivation

All the analyses that I have found that deal with this topic have remained on the terrain of what we may refer to as the “technical” aspects of a social revolution (political, military, organizational, ideological). Each analysis competes with the others with respect to which aspect is emphasized and under what doctrinal lens the question is examined.7 But none of them has identified the revolutionary motivation of the proletarians and peasants as the most important point: what kind of society were they fighting for, how did they perceive their lives in that new world, and what were they ready to change about themselves in their everyday lives.

Reflection on the motivation of the masses has been circumvented as much due to superficiality as to cenetista demagogy. According to the latter, the motivation of the revolutionary workers and peasants was already represented in the CNT’s program of libertarian communism. According to the former, it is assumed that heroic behavior accompanied by some beautiful idealist slogans implies that this conduct was determined by an aspiration to live in freedom.

But what is demonstrated not only by the failure of the Spanish revolution, but also by some of its achievements, is the fact that the motivation of the exploited masses was determined by the type of backward capitalism of the Spanish state. Only the most advanced form of capitalism can generate the most profound revolutionary motivations, for within capitalism there is no longer anything to demand, because all one’s demands lie beyond capitalism. The aspiration for a full life, a life that not even the most “humanized” of the capitalist regimes can offer us, is the only demand that capitalism cannot recuperate.

In order for autonomy to become established as a way of life, a permanent motivation for the harmonic development of human abilities and qualities is necessary. This is what was lacking in the revolutionary movements of the past, including the Spanish movement. Both the ideals of social justice and equality as well as the class hatred that nourished the extreme left and anarchism in the revolutions of the past have proven to be insufficient to sustain the revolutionary motivation.8

For autonomy to be simultaneously the starting point and the horizon, it must be perceived to be an indispensable necessity for a full life. The latter is a positive goal that cannot be reduced to the classic negative and oppositional formulas of the left and of anarchism (a world without exploitation, without a state, without authority, without money, etc.). A full life is a life of self-realization; an integral and integrated development of human needs and abilities.

Ricardo Fuego

Translated from the Spanish original in November 2013.

Spanish text originally published in Huellas de la Historia, no. 22, vol. 2, July 2011.

Source: http://www.huellasdelahistoria.com/ampliar_contenido.php?id_noti=481.

Recommended Bibliography

Enric Mompó, “El Comité Central de Milicias Antifascistas de Cataluña y la situación de doble poder en los primeros meses de la guerra civil española”, http://www.somnisllibertaris.com/libro/el_comite_central_de_la/index_comite.htm.

José Peirats, Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, Freedom Press, London, 1998.

Carlos Semprún Maura, Revolución y contrarrevolución en Cataluña, http://www.somnisllibertaris.com/libro/revolucionycontrarevolucion/index02.htm.

Agustín Guillamón, The Friends of Durruti Group: 1937-1939, http://www.somnisllibertaris.com/libro/friends/index10.htm.

Los Amigos de Durruti, Towards a Fresh Revolution, http://www.somnisllibertaris.com/libro/towardfresh/index09.htm.

BALANCE. Cuadernos de historia del movimiento obrero (2001), “Theses on the Spanish Civil War and the revolutionary situation created on July 19, 1936”, http://libcom.org/library/theses-spanish-civil-war-revolutionary-situation-created-july-19-1936-balance-agust%C3%ADn-gu.

Paul Mattick, “‘The Barricades Must Be Torn Down’: Moscow-Fascism in Spain”, http://libcom.org/library/the-barricades-must-be-torn-down-moscow-fascism-in-spain-mattick.

Groep van Internationale Communisten, “Revolution and Counterrevolution in Spain”, http://libcom.org/library/revolution-counterrevolution-spain-groep-van-internationale-communisten.

Helmut Wagner, “Anarchism and the Spanish Revolution”, http://contentdm.warwick.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/scw/id/16987.

  • 1. See: http://es.internationalism.org/libros/1936/cap1/1_leccion. See the section under the heading, “La sociedad española es capitalista”. For an English translation, see: “Lessons of Spain 1936”, http://en.internationalism.org/node/2547.
  • 2. For the lack of a more concise term, by the “Spanish proletariat”, I am referring to the proletariat that lived within the borders of the Spanish state. Because Spain is not a real nation, but a disguise used by Madrid centralism to conceal the multi-national reality of the territory that it rules. In other words, I refer to Spain or Spanish as geographical terms, not as political or cultural terms.
  • 3. Because the POUM assumed the unfortunate role of following the leadership of the CNT-FAI in all their mistakes, with the idea of exercising “revolutionary” influence on the latter, it was transformed into the accomplice of the cenetista leadership in its entire counterrevolutionary policy. Doing something bad reluctantly amounts to the same thing as doing it eagerly.
  • 4. Which, under the circumstances, would have been a step in the right direction.
  • 5. In the Spanish state there was no experience of social democratic parliamentarism and strong centralized trade union organizations, as there was in Germany. The CNT was merely a confederation of trade unions in constant radical conflict with a bourgeoisie that outlawed the trade unions, resulting in the powerful sense of identification expressed by the radicalized proletariat with the CNT. Due to the relative youth of the Spanish workers movement, the theoretical lessons of the German revolution concerning the counterrevolutionary nature of parties and trade unions in a revolutionary situation and the necessity of constructing institutions of proletarian power based on the autonomy of the class did not gain a “foothold” nor could they be assimilated by the Iberian revolutionaries. Another barrier that stood in the way of this communication was the fact that council communism (the theory constructed on the basis of the German experience) was Marxist, and the prevailing anti-Marxism of the anarchist milieu prevented, then even more than now, this theoretical maturation.
  • 6. I speculate that the theory of council communism, with its radical critique of the ultimately reformist and authoritarian nature of parties and trade unions and its powerful emphasis on the construction of proletarian power “from the bottom up” on the basis of the rank and file organizations, could have been quite beneficial. But besides the fact that it is Marxist (which would have guaranteed its marginalization, due to the inveterate anti-Marxism of Spanish anarchism), it originated in Germany, a country that was much more highly developed in capitalist terms, and would not have presented many points of similarity with the Spanish situation.
  • 7. With regard to this aspect of the question, I have read claims like: “the anarchist leaders were not anarchist enough”; “it was not the cenetista strategy that was at fault, but human failures”; “they put too much trust in the Marxists”; “the CNT did not take power”; “the POUM did not pursue a Bolshevik policy”; “Montseny and the treintistas prevailed over Durruti and García Oliver”.
  • 8. When indignation against injustice and oppression, which constitutes the initial motivation for insurrection against the established order, is exhausted without being replaced by an aspiration for a life full of meaning, the proletariat ceases to act as a collective of persons in favor of its own liberation and begins to act as a subject class. That is when the dynamic of equal human beings cooperating for their liberation ends, and the leaders/masses dynamic resumes.

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Alias Recluse
Nov 28 2013 19:15


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