Anti-fascism: the road to the betrayal of the CNT

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In the previous articles in this series[1] we have shown how the FAI tried to stop the definitive integration of the CNT into the structures of capitalism. This effort failed. The FAI's insurrectional policy (1932-33) which tried to correct the CNT's serious opportunist deviations, as well as those of the FAI itself, which were expressed through their active support for the creation of the Republic in 1931[2]. led to a terrible haemorrhaging of the forces of the Spanish proletariat, by squandering them in dispersed and desperate struggles.

In 1934 however there was a fundamental change: the PSOE made a spectacular about face and, led by Largo Caballero, along with its companion union , the UGT, raised the flag of the "revolutionary struggle" pushing the workers of Asturias into the dreadful trap of the October insurrection. The Republican state used a new orgy of death, torture and prison deportations, which matched the savage repression meted out in previous years, to liquidate this movement.

This change should not be seen through the prism of events in Spain. It needs to be clearly placed in the evolution of the world situation. Following Hitler's rise to power in 1933, the massacres of workers became more widespread. In Austria the Social Democrats -the left hand of Austrian capital- pushed the workers into a premature insurrection; a defeat that allowed the right hand - the supporters of Nazism- to perpetuate a pitiless massacre. 1934 was also the year in which the USSR signed accords with France integrating it with full honours into imperialist "high society" something that was formally recognised by its admission into the League of Nations (the predecessor of the UN). In this year the Communist Party also made a radical change: the "extremist" policy of the "Third Period", a crude parody of "class against class", was replaced overnight by the "moderate" policy of helping the Socialists to form the inter-classist Popular Fronts that subordinated the proletariat to the "democratic" bourgeois fractions in order to achieve the "ultimate" aim of "stopping the rise of fascism".

Workers Alliances, tool of the anti-fascist front

This international atmosphere provided a context within which the CNT, as well as the FAI, was driven towards full integration into the capitalist state by its adoption of anti-fascism along with the other "democratic" forces.

Anti-fascist ideology was turned into a whirlwind that smashed the last reserves of proletarian consciousness and sucked up proletarian organisations whilst leaving those who managed to maintain a class position in terrible isolation. This ideology in the conditions of the period - the defeat of the proletariat, development of strong regimes as a way of installing State capitalism - best served the "democratic" bourgeoisie preparations for the march towards the generalised war the broke out out in 1939; for which the Spanish struggle from 1936 was the prelude.

We are not going to analyse this ideology here,[3] rather we are going to investigate how its adoption effected the CNT and FAI and sucked them into betraying the proletariat in 1936. The way was opened by the Workers Alliances. These Alliances were presented as the means for advancing workers unity through agreements and cartels between different organisations.[4] The lure of "workers' unity" led to the trap of "anti-fascist" unity which lined up the proletariat behind the defence of bourgeois democracy in order, supposedly, "to stop the rise" of rampant fascism. The Madrid Workers' Alliance (1934) openly proclaimed: "first and foremost, the struggle against fascism in all its forms and the preparation of the working class for the implantation of federal socialist peace in Spain, is the most pressing need".[5]

The opposition unions of the CNT[6] tried to present themselves as unions pure and simple, leaving behind "the anarchist nonsense" as they said, by actively participating in the Workers Alliances, hand in hand with the Stalinist PC, the organisations of the Left Opposition, and from 1934, the UGT-PSOE. Within the CNT and FAI on the other hand there were strong hesitations which undoubtedly expressed a proletarian instinct.

These hesitations however were progressively dissipated due to widespread poisonous atmosphere generated by anti-fascism, as well as by the spade work carried out by wide sections of the CNT itself and the Socialist Party's efforts at seduction.

The CNT's Asturian Region was at the forefront of the struggle to defeat this resistance. The October 1934 Asturian insurrection was prepared before hand by a pact between the regional CNT and UGT-PSOE.[7] The PSOE hardly took part in the arming of the strikers and marginalised the CNT, the Asturian region nevertheless stubbornly preserved the Workers Alliance. At the decisive Zaragoza Congress,[8] this region's delegate recalled that: "a comrade wrote an article in "CNT"[9] recognising the necessity for the Alliance with the Socialists in order to carry out the revolution. A month later another plenum was held and this called for sanctions to be applied in relation to the article. At the time we said we were in favour of the criteria used in this article. And we affirm our point of view about the advisability of drawing the socialists from power in order to make them take the revolutionary road. We sent them communications against the anti-socialist position taken by the National committee in a manifesto".[10]

For his part Largo Caballero[11] in a speech in Madrid put out feelers towards the CNT and FAI "[I say] to those workers nuclei that we were wrong to struggle against them. Their purpose, like ours, is a regime of social equality. They accuse us of nurturing the idea that the state is above the working class. We do not think they have really studied our ideas. We want the disappearance of the state as a means of oppression. We want to turn it into a merely administrative entity" (quoted in Olaya, op cit. Page 866).

As we can see this seduction was pretty crude. He appears to be talking about the "disappearance of the State" but what was being said in reality is that the state can be reduced to a "merely administrative entity". An illusion also used by democrats, who tell us that the democratic state is not "a means of oppression" but rather an "administration". According to this myth only dictatorial states are "organs of oppression".

This flattery, despite coming from such an unattractive individual as Largo Caballero[12] increasingly bedazzled the CNT and FAI. In 1934 a Plenum was held on fascism which according to the report began by clearly denouncing the PSOE and the UGT but ended up leaving the door open to an understanding with them: " This is not to say, of course, that if these organisations (the UGT and PSOE) were pushed by circumstances to carry out an insurrectional action we would be passive by-standers, nothing of the sort (...) at such a moment we would be able to give the anti-fascist movement the stamp of our principles, our libertarian principles".[13]

Anarchism -along with marxism- has always defended the principle that all states, whether democratic or totalitarian, are authoritarian organs of oppression. This principle was spectacularly thrown into the dustbin with the idea of the possibility of "stamping" the anti-fascist movement with the same principle, a movement whose very foundation is to choose, to defend, the democratic form of state, that is, the most devious and cynical variant of this authoritarian organ of oppression!

This progressive abandoning of principles caused by trying to combine antagonistic positions spread increasing confusion, undermined convictions and with increasing force opened the workers' movement up to "anti-fascist unity". The opposition unions added to this from 1935 by beginning a campaign aimed at drawing closer to the CNT through the idea of re-unification based upon anti-fascist unity with the UGT.

This pressure became increasingly powerful. Peirats shows that "the Asturian drama had been nurturing the Alliancists programme within the CNT. Alliancism began to be propagated in Catalyuna one of the confederal regions most addicted to abstentionism".[14] The PSOE and Largo Caballero turned up their siren songs, Peirats records how "for the first time in many years Spanish Socialism publicly invoked the name of the CNT and brotherhood in the proletarian revolution" (idem). Reticence about any policy of alliance remained, however the position of agreement with the UGT was increasingly becoming the majority one within the CNT. It was seen as a means of avoiding the "principle of apoliticism". The UGT thus became the Trojan Horse for enrolling the CNT in an anti-fascist alliance with all the "democratic" fractions of capital. The CNT's and FAI's leaders were able to save face because they maintained the "principle" of refusing all pacts with the political parties. Anti-fascism did not enter by the front door of political agreements -so loudly rejected- but sneaked in through the back door of union unity.

The February 1936 elections

These elections, which are presented as being "decisive" in the struggle against fascism, ended up by eradicating all the resistance that remained in the CNT and FAI.

On the 9th January the secretary of the CNT's Catalunya regional Committee sent a circular to the unions calling a regional Conference in the Meridiana cinema, Barcelona, on the 25th "in order to discuss two concrete questions: 1st What should the CNT's position be on the question of the alliance with institutions that have a workerist complexion, without joining them" and 2nd What concrete and definitive attitude must the CNT adopt faced with the elections" (Peirats,op cit. page 106). Peirats says that, the majority of delegates , "saw the CNT's criteria of the anti-electoral position more as a question of tactics than as a principle" and that "The discussion revealed a state of ideological vacillation" (idem).

The positions favourable to abandoning the CNT's abstentionist tradition became increasingly stronger. Miguel Abós from the Zaragoza region declared in a meeting that "to fall into the torpor created by an abstentionist campaign would be the same as fermenting the Rights victory. And we all know the bitter experience of two years of persecution carried out by the Right. If the Right wins, I assure you that the furious repression unleashed in Asturias will be spread throughout Spain" (quoted in The Zaragoza Congress, a book previously cited about the Congress, page 171).

These interventions systematically distorted reality. The barbaric repression carried out by the capitalist left between 1931-33 was forgotten and only the Rights repression of 34 remembered. The repressive nature of the capitalist state whatever fraction was governing was carefully veiled over, avoiding the minimum of analysis, whilst the monopoly of repression was exclusively attributed to the fascist branch of capital. The CNT swept away by anti-fascism, which poses an analysis as irrational and aberrant as that of fascism, clearly decided to support the bourgeois state by voting for the Popular Front whose programme Solidaridad Obrera had denounced as a "a profoundly conservative document" that clashes with the "revolution spirit that oozes from the Spanish skin".[15] This crucial step was expressed in the Manifesto issued by the National Committee 2 days before the election where we can read:

"We, who do not defend the Republic, but who give no quarter in the struggle against fascism, will contribute all the forces that we dispose of to defeating the historical executioners of the Spanish proletariat (...). The uprising [of the military] is subordinated to the outcome of the elections. The theoretical and preventative plan will be able to be put into practice if the left wins the elections. Furthermore, without a doubt we can say that, faced with the armed insurrection of the legions of tyranny, there will be an unstinting agreement with the anti-fascist forces, energetically working for the defensive action of the masses to be directed towards a true social revolution, under the auspices of Libertarian Communism".[16]

The declaration had enormous repercussions since it was made at a very opportune moment, only two days before the election: it clearly influenced the vote of many workers. The CNT's complicity in the enormous electoral swindle perpetuated against the Spanish proletariat allowed the triumph of the Popular Front, and at the same time, meant its unconditional adherence to the anti-fascist movement.

The FAI clearly shared the CNT's attitude, Gómez Cases in his history of the FAI (page 179 English Edition) says that: "The position ‘On the Elections' also merits some comments. The F.A.I. reaffirmed its traditional anti-parliamentary and anti-electoral position in its relation at the F.A.I. national plenum. However, its campaign was very different from that of 1933 and there was practically no abstention from voting. Referring to the coincidence that C.N.T. and F.A.I. militants would take no risk with an anti-electoral strategy, Santillan himself told us that "the initiative for this change came from the F.A.I. Peninsular Committee, which was in a secure underground and could have for the riskiest offensive action".

If in 1931 the juggling act of the the syndicalist section of the CNT., aimed at securing participation in the elections met strong opposition (form other sectors and the FAI), now the whole CNT -supposedly freed from the syndicalist sector that had gone along with the Opposition unions- and the FAI without much fuss went much further in their support for the Popular Front. A new government that did all it could to delay the amnesty for more than 30000 political prisoners (many of them militants of the CNT[17]), continued the repression of striking workers with the same ferocity as the previous right-wing government and, stopped the re-employment of those workers who had been thrown out of work.[18] The government that the CNT had supported as supposedly leading the struggle against the advance of fascism retained all of the generals with ambitions to carry out a coup -amongst them the astute Franco - who later became the great dictator.

The CNT and FAI stabbed the proletariat in the back. We said in the last article of this series that the CNT had prepared to consummate its marriage with the bourgeois state at its 1931 Madrid Congress but that his had been delayed. They consummated it now! Proof of this, and one which the leaders of the CNT and FAI were very aware of- was given by Buenaventura Durruti on the 6th March -less than a month after the February electoral massacre concerning the new government's repression of the strikes by transport and water workers in Barcelona. In this Durruti -seen as one of the most radical militants of the CNT- launched the typically complicit reproaches often made by the syndicalists and opposition parties: "We say to the men of the Left that we were the ones who brought about your triumph and that we are the ones carrying out two conflicts that ought to be solved immediately". In order to leave no doubt he recalled the services rendered to the new government: "The CNT, the Anarchists, following the recent electoral victory, are in the street -the gentlemen of the Esquerra know it- in order to stop the functionaries who do not want to accept the popular will. Whilst they occupy the ministries and positions of command, the CNT has to be in the street in order to stop the victory of a regime that we all repudiate".[19]

These comments were quoted by the Puerto de Sagunto delegation which was one of the few at the Zaragoza Congress to dare to show any critical reflection "After listening to these words, How can anyone still doubt the torturous, preposterous and calloborationist conduct of, if not all, a large part of the Confederal Organisation? Durruti's words appear to show that the Cataluyna Organsation in a matter of days has been turned into the honorary guard of the Catalan Esquerra".

The Zaragoza Congress: the triumph of syndicalism

Held in May 1936 this congress has been presented as the triumph of the most extreme revolutionary positions because of the adoption of the famous Resolution on libertarian communism.

We will analyse this resolution more fully in another article but here we are going to look at the development of the congress, analysing the atmosphere that dominated it and considering the resolutions and results. From this point of view, the congress marked the unarguable victory of syndicalism and the sealing of the CNT's integration into bourgeois politics through anti-fascism (which we have dealt with above). The proletarian tendencies and positions that tried to express themselves were decisively silenced and weakened by phraseology about unity around the "social revolution" and the "implanting of libertarian communism", syndicalism, anti-fascism and unity with the UGT.

One of the few delegations that expressed the minimum of lucidity at the congress was that from Puerto de Sagunto, which we have already quoted, who warned - with hardly any backing from other delegations- that "The organisation, between October to now, has radically changed, the anarchist sap that runs through its arteries, if it has not totally disappeared has been greatly reduced. If there is not a healthy reaction, the CNT will take giant steps towards the most castrated and annoying reformism. Today the CNT is not the same as that of 1932 and 1933, neither in revolutionary essence or vitality. The morbid agents of this policy have made their mark on the organisation. It has been obsessed about gaining increasing numbers of members without stopping to examine the problems that many of these individuals have caused. Ideological development has been completely forgotten and all that matters is numerical growth, despite the first being more essential the second".[20]

The CNT of Zaragoza had nothing to do with that of 1932-33 (which had already been weakened as a proletarian organisation, as we demonstrated in a previous article in this series) but, above all, it had nothing in common with the CNT of 1910-23 when it was a living organism, dedicated to the everyday struggles and reflection of the working class, along with the struggle for an authentic proletarian revolution. Now it was simply a union totally polarised by anti-fascism.

At the Congress the delegation of the CNT's railway union could tranquilly say without meeting the least opposition that "as railway workers we will solve our problems just as other workers have done, through asking for improvements, but we should never take this for the beginning of a revolutionary movement" (Minutes page 152).

This declaration was made in relation to the balance sheet of the insurrectional movements of December 1933 (which had been deprived of the strengthening that a railway strike could have given it because the union called it off at the last moment), demonstrates that syndicalism: imprisons each section of workers in "their problem" trapping them in the structures of capitalist production and thus undermining class solidarity and unity. The union slogan " that each sector deals with its own problems first" represents the "workerist" way of entangling workers in solidarity with capital and thus breaking all class solidarity as a class.

The Gijón delegation flagrantly denied the most elemental solidarity with the exiled CNT victims of the repression of the 1934 Asturias insurrection (see page 132 of the minutes, op cit). The National Committee made no comment upon this serious lack of solidarity, something that would have been unthinkable only a few years before. Clearly embarrassed by this the Fabril de Barcelona delegation tried to silence this question through a diplomatic proposition:

"We have sufficiently strong reasons for closing this debate in a completely satifactory way. The Asturian region has drawn a line under this incident since the ex-exiles are present at this congress as delegates. Moreover if there is a letter of the National Committee where support and aid are not advised there is another later one that goes back on this position.[21] The delegates who pose this problem want us to recognise them as comrades and to give them our entire confidence. The congress satisfies this request and the question is resolved."

This abandoning of the most elemental workers' solidarity expressed such a really incredible attitude that the Segunto delegation denounced it : "We protest about the paragraph refering to the management of the National Committee about the government and we say that the Vagos and Maleantes law[22] should not be applied to the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo. However what we have to ask for is the abrogation of this law. It is not right to think that something that is bad for us is good enough for others" (Minutes page 106).

At the congress one could hear an intervention praising, advising, recommending that "in relation to strikes there has not been the necessary prudence that would have saved energies in order to channel them towards other struggles. This defect could be corrected by directing the workers to make demands of the bourgeoisie that have gone through the Sections and the Industrial Relations Committees in order to allow the situation to be studied and thus avoiding the disorderly calling of strikes" (Minutes, page 196, Hospitalet delegation). That is to say, the demand that had been the spearhead of the syndicalists struggle in 1919-23: the regulation of strikes through the "peer organs". This is the same idea of the mixed panels with which the Republican/Socialist government of 1931-33 had tried to straight jacket strikes and the CNT itself.

These were the typical expressions of the union mentality which tries to control and dominate workers' struggles through sabotaging them from within. When workers seek to defend their demands, the unions talk pessimistically about "unfavourable conditions" and craftily insists upon "not wasting energies". However, when the unions call for struggles this is done in order to dampen down workers combativity or to lead them to bitter defeat, and accompanied by exaggerated optimism about the possibility of success and reproach workers for their "meanness" if they do not join in.

One of the most of the most flagrant expressions of this trade union mentality was the resolution adopted by the congress on unemployment. It made more or less correct points about the causes of unemployment and correctly insisted that "the proletariats suffering will only be ended by the social revolution" (page 217). However, this remained a hollow phrase negated by the "minimum programme" that proposed "36 hour week", "the abolition of piece-work", "obligatory retirement at 60 for men and 40 for women of 70% of wages" (idem). Leaving to one side the stinginess of these proposals the problem is the thinking behind the minimum programme, is based on the illusion that there can be a dynamic towards regulated improvements within capitalism. Syndicalism could not escape from this illusion since this was the essence of its activity: to work within the relations of capitalist production in order to improve workers' conditions, something that was possible in the ascendant period of capitalism but impossible in its decadent epoch.

There was an even worse resolution however and one which did not give rise to any criticism at the Congress. In its preamble it tranquilly affirmed that:

"England has tried unemployment benefits but this was an absolute failure, since parallel with the poverty of the obliging masses with outrageous subsides, it lead to the economic ruin of the country since it had to parasitically maintain millions without work on sums which, though not fabulous, represented a significantly importance investment of the country's economic reserves on philanthropic works".[23]

The same congress that dedicated part of its work to defining the "social revolution" and "libertarian communism" also took up a preoccupation for safeguarding the national economy, which classified as parasitic the payment of unemployment benefits and lamented the waste of the nation's resources on " philanthropic works"!

How could an organisation that called itself "worker" call unemployment benefits "parasitic"? Could it not understand the basic ABC that unemployment benefits had already been paid for by many hours of work by them or their brothers and sisters still in work and in no way represents philanthropy? These laments have more to do with the politics of the Right and the bosses than unionists or the politics of the Left who distinguish themselves precisely from the Right by being more guarded and not usually saying what they think or expressing it in a deceitful way.

However this does not mean we are at all surprised that a union which was rhetorically preparing to "carry out the social revolution" adopts such things. Unions have no other playing field than the national economy and its aim -even more than that of its associate adversaries, the bosses- is the defence of the whole of its interests. Trade unionism only proposes to gain improvements within the relations of capitalist production. In the historic period of capitalism's expansion this allowed it to be a weapon of the class struggle. In the global context of strong contradictions workers conditions could be improved and the prosperity of the economy could develop in parallel. However, in the period of decadence this is no long possible: in a society marked by permanent crisis, moves towards war and war itself, the salvation of the national economy demands as its unavoidable condition the sacrifice of workers and a more or less permanent increase in their exploitation.

In 1931, the split of the unionist tendency organised in the Opposition Unions, lead the anarchists to believe that the danger of syndicalism had disappeared. They appeared to think: kill the dog put an end to rabies. But reality was very different: the blood that coursed through the CNT's veins was syndicalist and the syndicalist mentality far from being weakened was increasing reinforced. The activism of the 1932-33 insurrectional period was as dangerous mirage. From 1934 the reality was that: syndicalism and anti-fascism -mutually reinforcing each other- were inexorably imposed definitively trapping the CNT -and with it the FAI- in the cogs of the bourgeois state. The delegation of Various Officies of Igualada bitterly recognised this: "many of those who see themselves as staunch defenders of the CNT's positions have unconsciously and inadvertently turned us into mere sponsors of an increasingly bourgeois republican government" (Minutes page 71).

The Zaragoza congress dedicated a good part of its sessions to re-uniting with the opposition unions. Despite the exchange of numerous mutual recriminations which were accompanied by the rhetorical change of "welcomes" and "hand shakes" the terrain that lead to this re-unification was that of syndicalism and anti-fascism. The Anarchists sector - in order to deceive themselves and others - highlighted the proclamations about the "social revolution" and adopted with hardly any discussion the famous resolution on libertarian communism . This repeated the same manoeuvre that they had criticised the Syndicalists for in 1919 and afterwards in 1931: wrapping up syndicalist politics and collaboration with capital in the attractive wrapping paper of the "rejection of politics" and "revolution".

The two parts were re-united on the terrain of capitalism. Therefore the delegate of the Valencia Opposition could challenge the report on reunification without meetings hardly any objections..

In way of conclusion

The spectacular events that took place from July 1936 in which the CNT was the main protagonist: demobilising and sabotaging the workers' struggles in Barcelona and other parts of Spain in response to the Fascist uprising, its unconditional support for the Catalan Generalitat and participation, at first indirectly and then openly in this government; the sending of ministers to the Republican government are well known.[24]

These facts clearly show the CNT's treason. But they are not a storm that suddenly appeared from a blue sky. Throughout this series we have tried to show why this terrible and tragic situation of the loss for the proletariat of an organisation born from its own efforts took place. It is not a question of destroying a great myth or revealing a grand lie but of examining with a global and historical method the processes that led to this betrayal. The series on revolutionary syndicalism and within that the series of articles on the CNT,[25] has tried to provide the materials for opening up a discussion that will allow us to draw lessons to arm ourselves with faced with the struggles to come. Confronted with the tragedy of the CNT we can -as the philosopher said- neither laugh or cry but only understand.

RR and C. Mir 12.3.08



[1] See the 5th article of this series in International Review n°132: "Anarchism fails to prevent the CNT's integration into the bourgeois state (1931-32)".

[2] See the 4th article of this series in International Review n°131: "The CNT's contribution to the constitution of the Spanish Republic (1921-31)".

[3] We have published different texts that can be consulted, some of these were written by the few revolutionary groups which resisted the "anti-fascist" tide during that period.

[4] It is necessary to underline that workers unity cannot be achieve through the agreement of political and union organisations. The experience of the 1905 Russian Revolution showed that workers unity is achieved in a direct way, through massive struggle and has its organisational source in the general assembles and when the revolutionary situation unfolds through the formation of workers' councils.

[5] From Olaya's Historia del movimiento obrero español (1900-1936), Vol 2 page 877. The references for these books are found in the second article on the CNT.

[6] A split that last from 1931 to 1936 lead by openly syndicalist elements in the CNT. See the fifth article in our series.

[7] This pact was hidden from the National Committee before it was put in place.

[8] Held in May 1936. See more above.

[9] The second newspaper besides the legendary Solidaridad Obrera.

[10] Page 163 of The Zaragoza Conferderal Congress, ZYX Edition, 1978.

[11] For many years he was the main leader of both the PSOE and the UGT.

[12] He had been Minister of Labour in the 1931-33 Republian-Socialist government, responsible for innumerable workers deaths and before that had been a state advisor to the dictator Primo de Rivera.

[13] Olaya op cit page 887.

[14] From The CNT in the Spanish revolution, vol 1 page 106. See bibliographical references in the first part of this series

[15] The articles appeared on the 17-1-1936 and 2-4-1936.

[16] Cited by Peirats op cit page 113.

[17] We should remember that this amnesty for the syndicalist prisoners was one of the most repeated motives given by the CNT and the FAI for its vigorous support for the Popular Front.

[18] We would add to this that the Agrarian Reform , a timed and stingy law , was not what was promised and between February and July the "Popular" government practically maintained a state of emergency and brutal press censorship which effected the CNT above all.

[19] Cited in the minutes of the Zaragoza Congress of the CNT, page 171.

[20] Minutes of the Zaragoza Congress, op cit, page 117.

[21] This according to the minutes of the congress caused uncertainty and confusion. During the debate, the National Committee affirmed "all we said was that we could not advise class solidarity".

[22] This odious and repugnant law which gave the government enormous repressive powers was adopted by the "very democratic" "workers'" Spanish Republic.

[23] Minutes page 215, op cit.

[24] We have analysed this in our book: Franco y La República masacran a los trabajadores.

[25] The first began with International Review n°118 whilst the second commenced in n°128.