Towards July 19

In the elections of February 16, 1936, which the Popular Front won by a narrow margin, the anarchists mounted only token propaganda on behalf of their abstentionist principles and watchwords. According to their revolutionary analysis of the situation, the anarcho-syndicalist leadership took the view that confrontation with the military and with the fascists was inevitable, no matter how the elections might turn out1. So they set about making serious preparations for an imminent revolutionary insurrection.

The "Nosotros" group, made up of Francisco Ascaso, Buenaventura Durruti, Juan Garcia Oliver, Aurelio Fernandez, Ricardo Sanz, Gregorio Jover, Antonio Ortiz and Antonio Martinez "Valencia," set itself up as a Central Revolutionary Defense Committee. Members of the "Nosotros" group were men of action, who wielded undeniable working class sway over the CNT masses. In the early morning of July 19, 1936, these men climbed into lorries full of armed militants and slowly toured the working class Pueblo Nuevo district en route to the city center. They put into effect the libertarian practice of teaching by example. The factory sirens issued a summons to workers' insurrection. What few weapons were available to them had been obtained in October 1934, gathered up from the streets where they had been dumped by the Catalanists, or amassed in the weeks leading up to July 19th in raids on armories, police, military depots, ships' arsenals, etc. There were a lot more militants than weapons, and for every combatant downed there was another three to squabble over his rifle or handgun. But the bulk of the weaponry had been captured in the course of street-fighting. The revolt of the soldiery and the fascists became an insurrectionary uprising when the people, following the storming of the San Andres barracks, seized some 35,000 rifles. The workers had successfully armed themselves. It was this that lay behind the resignation of Escofet, the Generalidad Commissar for Public Order. It was important for the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and for the Generalidad government that the army revolt be crushed: but this arming of the people was an augury of a horrible disaster, more to be feared than a fascist victory2.

Thanks to its militants' class instinct, the CNT not only managed to defeat the army revolt but ensured the success of a proletarian uprising. But when something more than class instinct was required, when implementation of revolutionary theory was required, everything went to pot. No Revolutionary Theory, No Revolution. And the very protagonists of the success of the workers' uprising were startled to find the revolution slipping from their grasp.

We are not about to rehearse the deeds, nor the tactical acumen which made the success of the popular uprising in Barcelona feasible. Here all that concerns us is to emphasize that the "Nosotros" group (abetted by other FAI affinity groups) acted as a revolutionary vanguard astute enough to steer the confederal masses towards a victorious uprising. We are also concerned to underline the inability of that group, and of all the labor leaders and organizations, anarchist or otherwise, to consolidate the revolution, when power was within their grasp and was there for the taking, because one may be armed with a rifle but disarmed in political terms. How are we to account for, how are we to understand the undisputed leaders of the CNT trotting along to a rendezvous with Companys in the Generalidad Palace? How could they have heeded a man who in the early morning of July 19th refused the CNT weapons, and who had so often harassed and incarcerated them? How come there was still a government in the Generalidad? Why did they not march up to the Generalidad and do away with the bourgeoisie's government? How come they did not proclaim libertarian communism?3

The unaccustomed speed of events, the rapidly shifting situations, features of any revolutionary era, took but a few months to turn rebels into ministers, revolutionaries into advocates of "softly, softly," Stalinists into butchers, Catalanists into supplicants before the central government, anarchists into loyal allies and staunch bulwarks of the State, POUMists into victims of a brutal and hitherto inconceivable political repression, socialists into hostages to Stalinism and the Friends of Durruti into mavericks and provocateurs.

Again we stress that we have no intention of rehearsing events here, because there are already books available from a number of writers and a variety of political outlooks, and to these we would refer anyone who is keen to learn, explore or review the concrete historical facts4. Our concern here is with discovering, explaining and unveiling the mechanism by which anarchists were turned into ministers, anti-militarists into soldiery, enemies of the State into collaborators with the State and genuine revolutionaries tried and tested in a thousand battles into unwitting stalwarts of counterrevolution.

Our real preoccupation is with explaining the phenomenon which plunged so many revolutionary militants into confusion and the paradox of believing that they were defending the revolution when in reality they were acing as the vanguard of counterrevolution. And to that end, we must first set out the theoretical points5 which afford us an insight into and which reveal the nature of the historical process initiated (in Catalonia especially) in July 1936:

1. Without destruction of the State, there is no revolution. The Central Anti-fascist Militias Committee of Catalonia (CAMC)6 was not an organ of dual power, but an agency for military mobilization of the workers, for sacred union with the bourgeoisie, in short, an agency of class collaboration.

2. Arming of the people is meaningless. The nature of military warfare is determined by the nature of the class directing it. An army fighting in defense of a bourgeois State, even should it be antifascist, is an army in the service of capitalism.

3. War between a fascist State and an antifascist State is not a revolutionary class war. The proletariat's intervention on one side is an indication that it has already been defeated. Insuperable technical and professional inferiority on the part of the popular or militia-based army was implicit in military struggle on a military front.

4. War on the military fronts implied abandonment of the class terrain. Abandonment of the class struggle signified defeat for the revolutionary process.

5. In the Spain of August 1936, revolution was no more and there was scope only for war: A nonrevolutionary military war.

6. The collectivizations and socializations in the economy count for nothing when State power is in the hands of the bourgeoisie.

Secondly, attention needs to be drawn to the Gordian knot which loomed as a dilemma in the week following July 19: either the capitalist State would be swept away, and the proletariat would step the class struggle up a gear with the introduction of libertarian communism and the launching of a revolutionary war, or the capitalist State would be allowed to rebuild its apparatus of rule.

Thirdly, there is room to ask why the revolutionary option was not exercised. And the answer is very simple: there was no revolutionary vanguard capable of steering the revolution.

In a logical, stringent, precise and telling way, these theses on the Spanish revolutionary and counterrevolutionary process account for and shed light upon many individual and collective performances, which otherwise strike us as absurd, inexplicable or stubbornly wrong-headed - for instance - the summoning of the CNT leaders to a meeting with Companys in the Generalidad Palace on July 21; a CNT-plenum's acceptance of collaboration with the Generalidad government; the formation and winding-up of the CAMC: the entry of CNT militants into the Generalidad government, the militarization of the militias: the entry into the Republican government of anarcho-syndicalist ministers: the immediate endorsement by these new "anarchist ministers" of the government's flight from Madrid: the cooperation of anarcho-syndicalist leaders in the putting down of the workers' uprising in May 1937: the CNT-UGT unity compact of 1938: collaboration with the Negrin government, etc.

  • 1. See Garcia Oliver's answers (which date from the first half of 1950) to a questionnaire from Burnett Bolloten [on deposit with the Hoover Institution]: "With regard to the February elections, the CNT-FAI adopted the following line, which was peddled throughout Spain at rallies as well as in writing. The forthcoming elections are going to be decisive for the Spanish people. If the working class votes for the left, the latter will take power, but we will have to confront an uprising by the military and the right aimed at seizing power. If the working class does not vote for the left, that would spell a lawful success for fascism. We for our part advise the working class to do as it pleases with regard to voting, but we say to it, that if it does not vote for the left, before six month will have elapsed from the later's victory, we shall have to resist the fascist right with weapons in hand. Naturally, Spain's working class, which had for many years been advised by the CNT not to vote, placed upon our propaganda the construction we wanted, which is to say, that it should vote, in that it would always be better to stand up to the fascist right, if they revolted, once defeated and out of government. The left won in the February 1936 elections. Companys became the government in Catalonia and the left became the government of Spain. We had honored our commitments, but they honored none of theirs, in that they issued not one weapon, nor did they take any preemptive action against the fascist military plot."
  • 2. See the exchange between Companys and Escofet in the wake of the crushing of the fascists' rebellion:

    "Mr President" - I said to him - "I bring you official word that the rebellion has been completely defeated [ . . . ]"

    "Good, Escofet, very good" - the President replied - "But the situation is chaotic. Uncontrolled armed riffraff have invaded the streets and are committing all sorts of outrages. And anyway, the CNT, heavily armed, is master of the city. What can we do against them?"

    "For the time being, we have all been swept along, including the CNT leaders themselves. The only solution, Mr President, is to contain the situation politically, without letting any of our respective authorities go by the board. If you, for your part, can succeed in that, I undertake to take charge of Barcelona whenever you order me so to do or when circumstances permit." [Federico Escofet: De una derrota a una victoria : 6 de octubre de 1934-19 de julio de 1936 (Ed. Argos-Vergara, Barcelona, 1984, p. 352)]

  • 3. Garcia Oliver addresses many of these questions directly or indirectly in his account of the interview with Companys: "The military-fascist uprising had come just as we had predicted. Companys retreated into the Police Headquarters in Barcelona, where I saw him at, it must have been, seven in the morning on July 19, terrified of the consequences of what he could see coming, in that he anticipated that, once all of the troop regiments in Barcelona had revolted, they would easily sweep aside all resistance. However, almost single-handedly, the CNT-FAI forces held out for those two memorable days, and after an epic and bitter struggle [. . .] we defeated all the regiments [. . .] For all these reasons, Companys was bewildered and shocked to find the CNT-FAI's representatives before him. Bewildered because all he could think about was the heavy responsibility he had with regard to us and the Spanish people because of his failure to heed all our forecasts. [. . .] Shocked, because although they had not honored the commitments they had given us, the CNT-FAI in Barcelona and in Catalonia had beaten the rebels [. . .] So, when he sent for us, Companys told us: "I know that you have lots of grounds for complaint and annoyance where I am concerned. I have opposed you greatly and failed to appreciate you for what you are. However, it is never too late for an honest apology and mine, which I am now going to offer you, is tantamount to a confession: had I appreciated your worth, maybe the circumstances now would be different; but it is too late for that now, and you alone have defeated the rebel military and in all logic you ought to govern. If that is your view, I gladly surrender the Generalidad Presidency to you, and, if you think that I can be of any assistance elsewhere, you need only tell me the place I should take up. But if, since we do not yet know for sure who has had the victory elsewhere in Spain, you believe that I may still be of service in acting as Catalonia's lawful representative from the Generalidad presidency, say so, and from there, and always with your agreement, we shall carry on this fight until it becomes clear who are the winners." For our part, and this was the CNT-FAI's view, we held that Companys should stay on as head of the Generalidad, precisely because we had not taken to the streets to fight specifically for the social revolution, but rather to defend ourselves against the fascist mutiny." [From Garcia Oliver's 1950 answers to Bolloten's questionnaire, on deposit at the Hoover Institution.]

    Garcia Oliver's testimony deserves to be set alongside that of Federica Montseny: "In no one's wildest imaginings, not even those of Garcia Oliver, the most Bolshevik of us all, did the idea of taking revolutionary power arise. It was later, when the scale of the upheaval and the people's initiatives became plain, that there began to be debate about whether or not we should go for broke." [Abel Paz: Durruti: El proletariado en armas (Bruguera, Barcelona, 1978, pp. 381-382)]

  • 4. Among the most interesting of these are the anarchist Abel Paz (Durruti: El proletariado en armas), the Civil Guard Francisco Lacruz (El alzamiento, la revolución y el terror en Barcelona), the book, cited above, by Escofet, the Generalidad's commissar for public order, and the memoirs of Abad de Santillán and Garcia Oliver. As for standard texts, we simply cannot fail to mention Burnett Bolloten La Guerra civil española: Revolución y contrarrevolución (Alianza Editorial, Madrid, 1989) and Pierre Broue Staline et la revolution. Le cas espagnol (Fayard, Paris, 1993).
  • 5. And which are of course the expression of a given political viewpoint, which may or may not be shared, but which we set out plainly here for what it is, without pretending to or invoking any nonexistent, hackneyed academic objectivity.
  • 6. And the People's Executive Committee in Valencia or the Defense Committee in Madrid.