Report on the Public Forum in London on Spain 1936/7

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Printer-friendly versionSend by email In early July we held the London public forum on the war in Spain 70 years ago. We started with a short presentation of the ICC’s position. Spain in the 1930s had a militant working class and a backward economy, so much so that some saw the departure of the king and proclamation of the republic in 1931 as a belated bourgeois revolution. The republic became well known for its brutal repression of the working class, for example in Asturias in 1934. In response to Franco’s coup on 19 July 1936 the working class fought on its own terrain, but it took place in very difficult conditions. This was the period in which, as Bilan (the publication of the Italian Left) showed, the revolutionary wave that began with the Russian revolution in 1917, had been defeated. Following July workers were not crushed directly but derailed into fighting on the military front between Franco and the Popular Front government, where the workers were slaughtered. The anarchist CNT was integrated into the state at all levels in the Popular Front government; it was supported by left-wing groups such as the POUM.

Much of the discussion centred on questions raised by J, one of the contributors to the libcom internet discussion forum. On the role of the CNT, he thought it was unfair to regard them as the ‘kingmakers’ of the republic when they never actually called for a vote. However, the CNT-FAI did more than neglect to put out their habitual call to abstain from voting, as Garcia Oliver explained in no uncertain terms: “Naturally, Spain’s working class, which has for many years been advised by the CNT not to vote, place upon our propaganda the construction we wanted, which is to say, that it should vote, in that it would be easier to stand up to the fascist right, if the latter revolted, once they were defeated and out of government” (quoted in Agustin Guillamon, The Friends of Durruti Group:1937-39, AK Press). This is similar to leftists today, who claim they don’t support the Labour Party in elections, but call on workers to keep the Tories out, or to vote Labour ‘with no illusions’ etc.

J pointed out that there was a lot of criticism inside the CNT for participating in the government at ministerial level, and not just from the Friends of Durruti group, but also their youth organisation. However, the participation in the state was not limited to a few leaders in the government - the organisation as a whole was involved at all levels. This was the end of a process of betrayal in which a working class organisation had gone over to the bourgeoisie, so it is natural there should be a proletarian reaction against it. Once an organisation has betrayed it is lost to the working class for ever, the CNT cannot come back any more than the Labour Party or the social democratic or Stalinist parties can.

The same is not true of individuals. The Friends of Durruti were all CNT members, which was a condition of being in the group. “For this reason the CNT and the bourgeoisie in general, try to present this group as an example of the revolutionary flame that still burnt in the CNT, even during the worst moments of 1936-37. However this idea is completely false. What marked the revolutionary approach of the Friends of Durruti was precisely its struggle against the positions of the CNT and its reliance on the strength of the proletariat, of which it was a leading part” (‘The Friends of Durruti: lessons of an incomplete break with anarchism’ IR 102). It expressed a healthy proletarian reaction against the CNT’s integration into the bourgeois state. Their membership of it did not stop them, very accurately, accusing the CNT of “treason” in the manifesto distributed at the time of the barricades in May 1937, even if they did withdraw this later.

The Friends of Durruti group was a political expression of the class movement of 19 July 1936, when workers struck and came out on the streets massively, and of the movement in Barcelona in 1937. Although coming from anarchism, this pushed them to converge with the positions of the Bolshevik Leninists around Munis, and to understand that revolution is an authoritarian act, “to replace the theory of libertarian communism with that of the ‘revolutionary junta’ (soviet) as the embodiment of proletarian power” (Munis, quoted by Guillamon). They were even accused of being marxist. But the force of the movement was not sufficient to push them to make a complete break with anarchism, and so they remained confused and fell back into anarchism when no longer sustained by the strength of the class struggle.

The problem of anarcho-syndicalism, according to J, is that it is an attempt at a mass organisation of workers, who are not necessarily revolutionary, that is also trying to be a revolutionary organisation aiming for the end to capitalism. This creates problems in that it will not necessarily elect a revolutionary leadership. In fact, as the ICC pointed out, in Spain the rank and file of the CNT was more radical than the leadership, who integrated themselves into the bourgeois state and “held that Companys should stay on as head of the Generalitat…” (Garcia Oliver, quoted by Guillamon). The problem for the working class in this period is that it cannot have mass organisations outside of revolution or temporarily during important class movements. In a period of retreat or defeat of the class struggle, like the 1930s, proletarian organisations are necessarily very small or tiny, as was the case for the Friends of Durruti and the Bolshevik Leninists.

1936: the drive to war. 2006: the class struggle

For the ICC the events in Spain were an important preparation for World War 2, defining both the ideology and the Allied and Axis imperialist camps that would fight it out. J pointed out that France and Britain were essentially non-interventionist, so despite the intervention of Germany and Italy behind Franco and Russia behind the republic it was not quite the WW2 line-up. And, of course, the USA did not even begin to involve itself till much later. This did not stop the various powers from using the war in Spain to consolidate their imperialist alliances, nor from testing out weaponry that was to cause such slaughter and destruction a few years later.

Anti-fascism was one of the ideologies used in mobilising the working class for war in Spain that was also used in WW2. The ruling class needed to crush the last remaining undefeated section of the proletariat before launching another world war, something they had learned from the First World War, which ended with revolutions in Russia, Germany and Hungary and massive waves of struggle on every continent. By the mid 1930s the revolutionary wave had been defeated, most importantly with the proletariat in Germany crushed first by social democracy and then Nazism and the Russian proletariat crushed by Stalinism. At this time, there were still many very militant struggles, to the point that when Trotsky saw the strikes in France he thought they had the potential to develop into new revolutionary struggles. In fact the workers were diverted into support for the Popular Front, waving the tricolour and accepting the attacks on their working conditions necessary for the war economy. Similarly in the USA very large strikes were diverted into unionisation, developing the very institutions that played an essential part in recruiting workers for slaughter.

The working class in Spain remained undefeated in 1936 and was therefore able to react on its own terrain on 19 July. But it was diverted onto the military terrain and support for the democratic bourgeois state and slaughtered on the battlefield. Its defeat was therefore both ideological, persuading workers that defence of the capitalist state was necessary to their interests as a class, and physical, in the slaughter and in the repression meted out by both sides and particularly the Stalinists. The use of antifascism to mobilise workers behind the democratic state for imperialist war was generalised beyond the Iberian Peninsula with the call for workers to join the International Brigades and make collections to support the republic, instead of struggling on their own terrain for their own needs wherever their interests come in conflict with the bourgeoisie – which is the real way to show solidarity.

The contributors from libcom had to leave before the end of the meeting. Their presence had been an important first step in overcoming the widespread resistance in the ‘libertarian’ milieu to discussing directly with left communist organisations, and we hope it will be repeated in future forums. The discussion then moved on to the question of the relevance this discussion has for today. It is, of course, an important experience for the working class, and the issues are still very much alive.

Anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism have become particularly influential following the bourgeoisie’s campaigns about the ‘death of communism’ following the collapse of the Russian imperialist bloc and the USSR itself. There is growing interest in the CNT and IWW. Spain, and particularly the Spanish ‘civil war’, show anarchism having an important influence in the working class and in historic events.

The role of anti-fascism, which was essential to mobilising and disciplining the working class for war in Spain, remains an important ideological weapon today. For instance, it has been used in campaigns to persuade us to vote – for anybody – to keep out the BNP in Britain, or Le Pen in France.

The issue of how the working class shows solidarity to workers in other countries – not by collecting money for the ‘resistance’ in Iraq, or in going as a ‘human shield’ to Palestine, but in fighting the class struggle against our exploiters with the defence of our interests against theirs – remains just as vital today as it was at the time of the International Brigades.

Lastly, the force of the class struggle, which pushed the Friends of Durruti to start to question anarchist theories and develop the idea of the ‘revolutionary junta’, soviets, is also at work today. It can be seen in the efforts of tiny minorities of the working class to clarify, on discussion forums, in discussion circles, in groups like the EKS in Turkey (see WR 295). But today the proletariat is undefeated, and we have a new generation of workers entering the struggle, which gives much better conditions for that effort to bear fruit.

Lex 17/7/06.


Readers may also be interested in this article published in the July '06 issue of World Revolution: July ‘36: How the Popular Front turned civil war into imperialist war