From July to May: uncontrollables or revolutionaries?

The gestation of May 1937 began one week after the revolutionary events of July 1936.

In Catalonia, the revolutionary uprising of the working masses had successfully defeated the military, thrown the State's administrative and repressive machinery into disarray and removed the bourgeois class from its leadership functions. Not only had the military rising against the Republic been frustrated, but the capitalist State itself had succumbed. The Catalan working class seized weapons from the barracks it had stormed, ensured that the repressive agencies fraternized with the people in arms and introduced a new, revolutionary order1: it organized and directed production inside firms, which were either collectivized or socialized: and set up People's Militias, which set off for Aragon.

Power was in the streets. The people was armed. But no proletarian organization assumed power. The working class retained its trade union and political organizations, without creating new organs of (unified) workers' power. And that is not all. In order to keep afloat the spectral, discredited and impotent bourgeois Generalidad government, which was melting like a sugar-cube, the so-called Central Antifascist Militias Committee (CAMC) was established. At no time was the CAMC ever the embryo of a new workers' power: it was, rather, a class collaboration agency2, a provisional government that helped to restore the power of the bourgeois, republican Generalidad. The CAMC supplanted the Generalidad government in those functions - relative to the army, public order and production - which there was no one else capable of performing, following the disintegration of bourgeois institutions. President Company's power was merely nominal, but it was also the potential power of the capitalist State, which anarchists not merely allowed to subsist but actually helped to survive and resurrect itself, allowing it to "legalize," post facto, the revolutionary gains made during the events in July. Without looking for it, the CAMC acquired all of the accoutrements of a government. But instead of centralizing the revolutionary power of the committees - local committees, defense committees, workers' committees, peasants' committees and committees of every sort - it became the chief impediment to their unification and reinforcement. The CAMC was a life-jacket tossed to a Generalidad awash in a sea of local revolutionary committees, isolated from one another, which in Catalonia wielded the only real power between July 19 and September 263.

At no point was there a dual power situation in existence. This notion is crucial to any understanding of the Spanish revolution and civil war. The CAMC was a class collaborationist agency. It was not the germ of workers' power at loggerheads with the power of the capitalist State. And this was obvious to all the main political leaders4, whether or not participants in the CAMC. For this reason, the dissolution of the CAMC was not a traumatic event, nor unduly important: it was just one of many steps in the process of reconstructing the State power, dismantled and battered after the July events. The formation of the new Generalidad government, with the CNT and the POUM being incorporated into it, was the logical sequel to the work carried out by the various parties and trade unions within the CAMC.

This counterrevolutionary process, this process of reconstruction of capitalist State power necessarily spawned a number of contradictions, and naturally was camouflaged or covered up by the CNT's leading cadres with the familiar "circumstancialist" arguments invoking antifascist unity, the need to win the war, the CNT's being a minority elsewhere in Spain, the dangers of scandalizing the western democracies, etc. Or even the most naive argument - that they were turning away from an "anarchist dictatorship."

For the CNT, the chief contradiction in this unstoppable reconquest of all of the capitalist State's proper functions, lay in the fact that this was feasible only at the cost of an equally continuous and irreversible loss of the "gains" which the masses had won in July.

Between December 1936 and May 1937, we witness a tug of war and a growing tension between constant concessions by the CNT, marginalization of the POUM, the Generalidad's insatiable pressure to recover all of its functions, and the overbearing pressures from the Soviets and their infiltration into the State apparatuses, in Catalonia and in the central government alike.

It was for that reason that the Control Patrols, and everything having to do with public order, border control and communications, were in the eye of the hurricane. For revolutionary militants, labeled "uncontrollables" in the terminology of their adversaries, retention of control over public order, the borders and communications and, of course, the existence of the Control Patrols were the basic threshold marking the point of no return in the unceasing concessions by the CNT leadership.

The revolutionary insurrection of July 1936 had been based on the district or local Defense Committees set up and trained many months in advance5. In the wake of the July events, the Control Patrols were afforded "legal" recognition as a revolutionary police answerable to the CAMC.

But the Control Patrols did not account for the whole of the insurrectionist movement. There were also all these district or local Defense Committees and other groups and militants. Furthermore, we need to underline the radically different natures of the Control Patrols and the Defense Committees. The Control Patrols were an organization created by the CAMC, to which they owed their organization, orders and manpower. The Defense Committees were a CNT insurgent agency, in existence from well before July 1936. The Control Patrols were the institutionalization of the success of the workers' uprising; the Defense Committees, converted into Revolutionary Committees, which led a vegetative existence between July 1936 and May 1937, represented the insurrectionist movement6. Hence the attacks by all political forces, including the CNT-FAI and POUM, upon the so-called "uncontrollables."

This derogatory label fitted comfortably with facile highlighting of outrages and abuses by a few delinquents. But the charge also targeted the CNT and the measure of its "control" over its own membership. Indeed, in the newspapers - not excepting the confederal press, the vast majority of which supposed collaborationism - the term "uncontrollable" was used as a synonym for criminal. This implication was unremarkable in the bourgeois or Stalinist press, because they regarded revolutionaries as criminals. The serious paradox was when the CNT or the POUM used the idea of "uncontrollable" to excuse abandonment of their own ideological principles.

In every revolutionary process, there arise groups or individuals who utilize force of arms for their own advantage. But this minority can quickly and easily be subdued by a consolidated workers' power, as the Russian case demonstrates. In the Catalan case, it is apparent that the attack on the "uncontrollables" is almost always an attack upon proletarian justice (alien to bourgeois legality) and on revolutionaries, which is to say, on those refusing to let go of the gains secured by the proletariat in the July uprising, or indeed, keen to take them "further."7

Let us caution the reader that this approach presupposes a very particular political option8 that examines and accounts for the events, ideologies and contradictions of the Spanish revolution of 1936-1939 in terms of the consequence of the non-existence of a revolutionary party.

Naturally, the term "uncontrollable" was not, and even today, is not employed as an innocent, neutral term. It is absolutely a derogatory, class term, through which the bourgeoisie was trying to discredit and defame revolutionaries. It is no accident that in May 1937 the Friends of Durruti were obliged to hear themselves insulted as uncontrollables as well as agents provocateurs and mavericks, even by the FAI itself. Their only offense was to have attempted to present revolutionary goals to the proletariat fighting on the barricades.

In every historical narrative, there is always an option in favor of a particular political assumption. Very rarely is it explicit, and it is virtually always denied and hidden, in favor of a supposed "objectivity" which is both sublimated and nonexistent9.

One final observation: May 1937 signaled the final defeat of the revolutionary process launched in July 1936. But it was not the end of the process of counterrevolution, nor the end of CNT collaborationism, which would culminate in the conclusion of the CNT-UGT pact in March-April 1938 and in entry into the Negrin government.

  • 1. See Balius's arguments: "the establishment of committees of workers, peasants, militians and sailors was an instantaneous reaction to the destruction of the capitalist machinery of coercion. There was not a single factory, working class district, village, militias battalion or vessel where a committee was not set up. The committee was the ultimate authority, whose ordinances and agreements had to be abided by. Its justice, revolutionary justice, to the exclusion of every other (. . .) the only law was the imperious requirements of the revolution. Most of the committees were democratically elected by the workers, militians, sailors and peasants, regardless of denomination, thereby representing proletarian democracy, superseding a treacherous bourgeois parliamentary democracy. In short, there was but one power in the workplace: labor and the workers.

    Generally, expropriation of the bourgeoisie and landowners was carried out as the committees were established (. . .) there was a similar transfer of powers with regard to arms. (. . .) Militias were set up (. . .) Control patrols were founded to see to the maintenance of the nascent, new revolutionary order (. . .)

    The Spanish proletariat's answer (. . .) was highly categorical and intelligent. The reaction had been crushed on the streets and expropriated economically, and the proletariat set itself up as the country's arbiter (. . .)"

    (Jaime Balius "Recordando julio de 1936" in Le Combat syndicaliste of April 1, 1971) [This article by Balius lifts whole sentences, word for word, from pages 292-294 of G. Munis's book Jalones de derrota, promesa de victoria (Zero, Bilbao, 1977)]

  • 2. See, for instance, the sharp and radical alternative posited by Garcia Oliver: "Between social revolution and the Militias' Committee, the Organization plumped for the Militias Committee." (Juan Garcia Oliver El eco de los pasos Ruedo Ibérico, Paris-Barcelona, 1978, p. 188)
  • 3. Munis contends that after the July events all that remained was the governing power of the committees: "If the situation in the weeks following July 19 is to be characterized more precisely, it has to be defined as power diffused into the hands of the proletariat and the peasants. These were fully cognizant of their local power, although they lacked appreciation of the need to coordinate their power across the country. For its part, during those first weeks, the bourgeois Government lacked the capacity and will to combat the nascent workers' power. There can be no talk of duality until later, when the Popular Front government came to, realized that it had survived, marshaled around itself whatever armed forces it could muster and set about contesting power with the committees of the proletariat and peasants." (G. Munis "Significado histórico del 19 de julio" in Contra la corriente No. 6, Mexico, August 1943.)

    We shall not here enter into analysis of the dual power thesis advanced by Munis for the period following July 19, 1936, which is to say, for the period between early October 1936 and May 1937. The difference between the position of the Italian Fraction and Munis's position resides in the fact that the Bordiguists reckoned that, in the absence of utter destruction of the capitalist State, there can be no talk of revolution, whereas Munis took the line that the bourgeois State had been momentarily eclipsed. We simply point out the discrepancy and shall delve no further into the issue. What we are concerned to indicate here is the role played by the CAMC as a class collaborationist agency.

  • 4. This has been explicitly stated by, among others, figures as prominent and simultaneously so politically divergent as Garcia Oliver, Nin, Tarradellas, Azaña and Balius himself. See especially Nin's article "El problema de los órganos de poder en la revolución espanola," published in French in Juillet. Rvue internationale du POUM No. 1, Barcelona-Paris, June 1937.
  • 5. See Juan Garcia Oliver El movimiento libertario en España (2) Colección de Historia Oral. Fundación Salvador Segui, Madrid, undated.
  • 6. See the detailed description offered by Abel Paz: Viaje al pasado (1936-1939) (Ed. del Autor, Barcelona, 1995, pp. 63-64):

    The Defense Committees which, with the army coup attempt, had turned into Revolutionary Committees, once the Central Antifascist Militias Committee of Catalonia had been launched, had ignored the latter's authority and their activities had led to a local orchestration, based in the Casa CNT-FAI itself, making these committees a power within the power of the CNT-FAI higher committees; but they were a real power, greater even than the power of the higher committees. Each district committee had its own defense groups at its disposal. Groups comprised an indeterminate membership that could oscillate between six and ten. Every one of these comrades had a rifle and even a pistol kept permanently in his care. The Clot district, where I operated, boasted 15 defense groups, which, at a conservative estimate, meant around a hundred rifles. But to this strength must be added the factory groups, with their roots in the Clot district; these too had their own defense groups with their own weapons, up to and including machine-guns. Finally, the Libertarian Youth groups and anarchist groups also had to be included. This motley assortment was the material with which our district's Defense Committee had to work.

  • 7. See, for instance, Garcia Oliver's threatening and contemptuous snubbing of Companys when the latter called at the CACM headquarters on July 25th to register a protest at the civil disorder and the activities of uncontrollables, in Juan Garcia Oliver El Eco de los Pasos op. cit. pp. 193-194.
  • 8. As spelled out in the thesis on the nature of the revolution and the Spanish civil war set out in Chapter 2 of this edition (No. 3) of Balance. See also No. 1 of Balance, which examines the theses of the Italian Fraction (Bordiguists) on the Spanish civil war.
  • 9. See the defamatory remarks about the Catalan anarchist movement and the allegations made against Jaime Balius or Antonio Martin, who are depicted as savage ogres by H. Raguer, J.M. Solé and J. Villarroya, who espouse a "neutrality" which is bourgeois, sanctimonious and Catalanist. See, for instance, the utterly extravagant accusations, dissevered from the context of a revolutionary situation proper, leveled at Balius on pages 256-258 of the book by the Benedictine friar H. Raguer Divendres de passió . Vida i mort de Carrasco i Formiguera (Pub. Abadia Montserrat, Barcelona, 1984) and on pages 67 and 68 of La repressió a la reraguarda de Catalunya (1936-1939) (Pub. Abadia Montserrat, Barcelona, 1989) by J.M. Solé Sabate and J. Villarroya Font. Also worth mentioning is a little volume offering a Catalanist version of the anarchist government of Cerdañia, which involved complete anarchist control of the border with France, and of the bloody incidents in Belver, (a direct precedent of the May Events in Barcelona), following which the Generalidad government managed to capture absolute control in that border region. See J. Pons i Porta and J.M. Solé i Sabate Anarquia i Republica a la Cerdanya (1936-1939) El "Cojo de Málaga" i els fets de Bellver (Pub. Abadia Montserrat, Barcelona, 1991). It has to be stressed that all of these books have been published by the publishing house of the Montserrat Monastery, which of course suggests plain ideological servility, which we refuse to accept as valid in any "objective" evaluation of Jaime Balius and Antonio Martin, much less their constant delirium, defamation and prejudices with regard to the libertarian movement.

    See too the nonsense and outrageous remarks about Balius, and the derogatory remarks about the libertarian movement, uttered from a pedantic, academic perspective, incapable of comprehending the meaning in the 1930s of an action group, a trade union, a workers' athenaeum or a general strike, in the article "Grupos de afinidad, disciplina belica y periodismo libertario, 1936-1938" by Susana Tavera and Enric Ucelay da Cal, in História Contemporánea No. 9, (Servicio Ed. Universidad del Pais Vasco, 1993)

    By contrast, well worth reading are Josep Eduard Adsuar's interesting and illuminating articles on the libertarian movement. See, for example, "El Comitè Central de Milicies Antifeixistes" in L'Avenç No. 14 (March 1979), "La fascinación del poder: Diego Abad de Santillán en el ojo del huracán" in Anthropos No. 138 (November 1992). Very interesting too are articles by Anna Monjo and Carme Vega in the review Historia Oral No. 3, (1990): "Clase obrera y guerra civil" and "Socialización y Hechos de Mayo," and, of course, Els treballadors i la guerre civil. Historia d'una indústria catalana colectivitzada by Anna Monjo and Carme Vega ((Empuries, Barcelona, 1986)