Trotskyism and Anarchism in the Spanish Civil War

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 828, 11 June 2004 and 829, 9 July 2004

The following is a slightly edited presentation by Spartacist speaker Adrian Ortega at a Spartacist League/ Spartacus Youth Club public educational in New York City on April 3.

Part One

Anarchism today has become fashionable among youth and left-liberal intellectual circles. Refracted in a myriad of ways, from "Green radicalism" to "Platformism," these youth seek to oppose a social reality dictated by an economic system based on the production of profits for the handful of capitalists. The emergence of anarchism as a prevalent ideology among radicalized youth today is a reflection of what we Marxists understand as a global retrogression in political consciousness following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991-92 and the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet degenerated workers state and the deformed workers states of East Europe.

As the title of this forum indicates, this presentation will center on the counterposition between two political worldviews, Marxism and its contemporary continuation, Trotskyism, and anarchism, which played a decisive role in the events of the Spanish Civil War.

The Civil War (which lasted from approximately 1936 to 1939) represented the last opportunity for the proletariat to overthrow capitalism and open the road to socialism in Spain before the rise of the Francoist military dictatorship that would last more than 30 years and kill hundreds of thousands. In the key industrial center of Spain, Catalonia, armed workers organized militias and factory committees that shook the foundations of the capitalist order, private property and the state. But the most radical mass leaders of this movement (the anarchist FAI and the National Confederation of Labor [CNT] it controlled, and the centrist Workers Party of Marxist Unification [POUM]) along with the rest of the left (the Socialist Workers Party [PSOE] and the Stalinist Communist Party [PCE]) showed their political incapacity to lead the working class toward emancipation. It was only small groups (like the Friends of Durruti anarchists and the Trotskyist Bolshevik-Leninists) who sought during the barricades fighting in May 1937 to bring revolutionary leadership to the proletariat. But these groups were not able to overcome their own limitations—centrally the Trotskyists' lack of authority among the proletariat and the Friends of Durruti's incapacity to break with an anarchist worldview—and lead the workers to power. Had there been a successful revolution in Spain, this would have drastically changed the shape of the world in which we live now.

This talk aims to explain why the strategic "mistakes" made by the anarchist leadership in the Spanish Civil War were not only "mistakes" but the logical conclusion of a program that inherently rests on class collaboration—i.e., a political alliance between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, which constrains and subordinates the workers and their struggles to the framework of capitalism. I would like to give a few initial considerations regarding the political foundations of both currents.

Anarchists claim to fight for a classless society, and some of them understand the centrality of the proletariat in such a task, just as we Marxists do. However, they reject any form of "authority" and consequently oppose the existence of any state (meaning the use of organized violence to protect the interests of the class in power). They also renounce concepts like leadership and centralization and counterpose to them "autonomy" or "spontaneity." On the contrary, Marxists explain that "Authority and autonomy are relative things whose spheres vary with the various phases of the development of society" (Friedrich Engels, "On Authority" [1872]). In other words, we don't blindly condemn authority as an abstract concept divorced from a certain social and economic reality. Most of the world today is based on the authority of a property-owning class, the bourgeoisie, exercised over the working masses through the instrumentality of a state, the capitalist state. We oppose and work to destroy that authority and the state that helps preserve it. But we welcome the authority of mass organizations of workers and other oppressed sectors in society, like workers councils (soviets), which would coordinate and centralize the proletariat's efforts to create a society based on workers democracy and prevent the destruction of the gains resulting from a social revolution—a workers state. Through eliminating the irrationality of capitalist production, economic planning under a workers state would allow the free development of productive forces and eliminate the material basis for social inequality. This would have to be a joint enterprise of the world proletariat and is the only way to eliminate the state and create a society based on "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

The anarchist abstract condemnation of "authority" has concrete ramifications on the organizational level. Anarchist organizations are decentralized entities that claim to exercise no authority over their members. This in itself is a complete fallacy, which the events in the Civil War completely prove. Marxists, on the contrary, explain the necessity of a centralized, democratic organization of the working class that groups together the proletariat's most conscious elements, works to raise the consciousness of the working class as a whole and exercises leadership, including leading the decisive struggles for workers power; a vanguard party that embraces the highest levels of democracy in its internal life and intervenes in struggle as a unified, conscious political force.

The Spanish Revolution

On 17 July 1936, General Francisco Franco assumed command of the Moors and Legionnaires of Morocco under the banner of the Spanish monarchy and the Catholic church. With the support of the most reactionary forces in Spain, Franco launched a military coup to overthrow the Republican government of president Manuel Azaña, which was a liberal bourgeois government, to replace it with a military dictatorship. This was to enforce through blood the interests of the propertied classes over the workers and peasants, and to put an end to decades of highly militant labor struggles in Spain. Azaña hid the advancement of Franco's army from the working class and made frantic and unsuccessful attempts to contact the military leaders and to come to an agreement with them. The Spanish proletariat, which had just gone through two years of harsh state repression under a right-wing government, distrusted the Azaña government and took matters into their own hands. They independently mobilized to gather weapons and build barricades to fight the bourgeois pro-monarchist reaction.

Some of the most epic battles between the Francoist forces and the armed proletariat started almost concurrently in major cities like Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona. I would like to read excerpts from Abel Paz's book, Durruti: The People Armed (1976), in his chapter "Barcelona in Flames":

"On July 19, 1936, at 5 A.M. a new page in the revolution was beginning to the sound of gunfire, the crackling of machine guns which were mixed with the deafening sound of factory sirens, informing the people that the decisive hour had arrived. The seventh artillery regiment had left San Andres Park, divided, and was trying to reach the center of the capital by two different routes. But at the crossing of the ‘Diagonal' the first detachment ran into a group of workers armed with grenades and pistols, which blocked its advance....

"One part of the Montesa regiment followed by important military units of engineers, managed to slip into Marques del Duero Avenue (Paralelo) but was checked by a strong barricade put up by the workers of the Woodworkers' Union....

"At the same time, near the Plaza de Palacio, the dockworkers of the Barceloneta district had routed the Montana artillery regiment....

"Towards noon after four hours of fighting the uprising appeared to be defeated. One by one, all the areas of resistance fell into the hands of the people....

"From then on the morale of the workers who were fighting, increased. In addition an important collection of weapons (guns and machine guns) fell into their hands. Barcelona began to have a new look."

This period is known as the "July events" in the Spanish Civil War. Heroic actions sprang from the workers' barricades to become class-struggle history. Within a few days, all Catalonia was in the hands of the proletariat. Madrid had seen the Francoist forces defeated by workers armed with scant stores of arms—with cobblestones and kitchen knives in Valencia—in the face of the embargo on arms by the government. Most of these workers were members of the CNT or the POUM.

Asturian miners outfitted a column of 5,000 dynamiters for a march on Madrid, which arrived one day later to guard the streets. Armed workers committees displaced the customs officers at the borders, and a joint committee of the General Workers Union (UGT—affiliated to the PSOE) and the CNT took charge of all transportation in Spain. A union book or membership card from a leftist party was the only requirement to enter the country. The police, the Civil and Assault Guards, which had sided against the workers in the battles, had been replaced by workers militias that patrolled the cities. But how did workers get to this point? Let me back up a few years and make some clarifications.

Anarchism was the predominant ideology among the Spanish proletariat in the 20th century, in great part thanks to the country's slow economic development during the previous three centuries. In the northern and eastern regions of Spain, like Catalonia and Aragon, the principal anarchist trade-union federation, the CNT, organized the most politically advanced workers in those provinces. The leaders of the CNT represented a trend inside anarchism called syndicalism. The syndicalists correctly recognized the industrial proletariat as the central agency for overthrowing capitalism. They believed, though, that trade unions would be the only instrument necessary to bring about a socialist revolution, and opposed, as all anarchists do, the idea of a vanguard party of the working class.

Given their relationship with the working class, anarcho-syndicalists sometimes had very good political impulses. During the First World War, when Spain's neutrality meant that its production increased, a staunch opposition to the war within the Spanish left was found among the anarcho-syndicalists of the CNT, who, in some cases, according to Gerald H. Meaker in his book The Revolutionary Left in Spain, 1914-1923, "went beyond mere pacifism and instinctively favored ending the war by a popular revolution." The revolutionary Marxist V.I. Lenin and the Bolshevik Party in Russia had forthrightly opposed the war from the first day and fought for the defeat of their own bourgeoisie through the seizure of power by the working class.

With the support of important sectors of the Russian proletariat and the oppressed, Lenin had called for a workers revolution in Russia to end the war, collectivize industry, nationalize the land and expropriate the bourgeoisie and the banks. In October 1917 (under the old Russian calendar), the Bolsheviks leading the soviets, organs of proletarian power, led a proletarian insurrection that established the first workers state in history. Workers democracy found its concrete expression in congresses of soviets and councils of workers, peasants and soldiers, which had begun to run the economy of the biggest country in the world.

I.P. Goldenberg, a member of the Mensheviks (a reformist party in Russia) had denounced Lenin as "a candidate for one European throne that has been vacant for thirty years—the throne of Bakunin!" for fighting for workers revolution. However, the truth is that anarcho-syndicalists in Russia and elsewhere, including Spain, like Joaquin Maurín and Andrés Nin (future leaders of the POUM), realized from the experience of the Russian workers the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Gerald Meaker speaks of one anarchist militant who wrote in the anarchist paper Tierra y Libertad (Land and Freedom):

"The Russian revolution, according to this militant, was not yet an Anarchist society, but it offered the ‘direct means' by which to achieve one. All the Anarchists of the world would have to do as the Russian ‘maximalists' had done: they would have to ‘destroy authoritatively...the present edifice based upon privilege and injustice in order to begin constructing the great city of happiness, Anarchy'." [emphasis added]

The best of this generation of anarchists and syndicalists—like Victor Serge, the Marxist historian and Trotsky biographer; Alfred Rosmer, a leading anarcho-syndicalist in France who later became Trotsky's close collaborator; and James P. Cannon, an anarcho-syndicalist in the American Industrial Workers of the World who became the founder of Trotskyism in the U.S.—were won to revolutionary Marxism by the living example of Lenin and Trotsky's Bolshevik Revolution. Anarchism can't lead to a successful socialist revolution, as the events in Spain show.

The Betrayal of the Popular Front

The 1933 Nazi victory in Germany propelled mass unrest throughout Spain, including a general strike led by the CNT and UGT in October 1934. That same month, miners and other sectors of the proletariat in the northern region of Asturias rose up in arms against the recently formed government of Alejandro Lerroux. The anarchists abstained in the elections won by Lerroux; but not on the basis of any principles (as we will see later). Their main reason was their "apoliticism," an absurd rejection of participation in elections or parliament. But if you are serious about fighting for socialist revolution, would you waste any opportunity to let significant numbers of people know what you stand for? Imagine the effect that a speech in Congress by a Trotskyist denouncing the colonial occupation in Iraq would have on both the American working class and the soldiers in Iraq. To Marxists, the question of whether or not to participate in elections is a tactical question based on concrete circumstances. At the same time, Marxists renounce in principle the taking of any executive ministerial post in any capitalist government because it could not mean anything other than the direct administration of the capitalist state.

Lerroux governed in coalition with the CEDA (Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rightists) of José Maria Gil Robles, and, given the victory of Hitlerite fascism in Germany, Lerroux's regime was feared as representing the rise of reactionary, right-wing forces in Spain. The bloody defeat of the Asturian uprising at the hands of Franco-led forces (5,000 people killed and 30,000 arrested) paved the way for two years of increased repression against the labor movement.

In January 1936 (six months before Franco's attempted coup) the popular-front coalition led by the Republican Left, the party of the liberal bourgeoisie, had come up with a program for the February elections which basically allowed a nominal restoration of regional autonomy for the Catalan region and offered to free political prisoners imprisoned during the prior two years. The program called also to guarantee respect for private property rights in the countryside and the cities, rejected any nationalization of the land and called to maintain capitalist control over industry and the banks.

The Republicans led an electoral bloc with Manuel Azaña at its head. The coalition included the UGT, the PSOE, the PCE and the POUM. And it was supported by the anarchists. This was a popular-front coalition, where the interests of the proletariat were subordinated to those of the capitalist class.

What was the POUM? The POUM was what we call a centrist party, i.e., a party that is revolutionary in words but reformist in deeds. It had emerged from the fusion between the Trotskyist Spanish Communist Left of Andrés Nin, and the BOC (Workers and Peasants Bloc) of Joaquin Maurín, which was a more right-wing centrist party that adapted to Catalan nationalism. Trotsky strenuously denounced the signing of the electoral pact by the POUM as a "betrayal of the proletariat for the sake of an alliance with the bourgeoisie" and broke political relations with them.

Azaña took office as president in May 1936 in the midst of a great wave of strikes. From June 10 to the first days of July, the number of workers striking against the deepening economic crisis had grown from half a million to over a million. Bourgeois democracy was starting to crumble.

Around the same time as Franco's attempted coup and the workers uprising during the "July events" in 1936, big chunks of the bourgeoisie in Catalonia (the region that comprised 70 percent of the industry in Spain) had fled the country, leaving their factories, lands and properties behind. Once the reaction had been defeated, CNT workers began to seize the abandoned factories and create workers committees that organized production on a local level. A similar phenomenon occurred in the countryside. These workers committees, and the workers militias formed to fight against Franco's army, became the basis for what we call a dual power situation, i.e., a temporary state of affairs in which both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie directly contest for power. It is necessary to study these workers cooperatives and militias, since they represent the embodiment of the anarchist economic and military program.

On July 20, with workers celebrating the defeat of Franco, Luis Companys, who was the president of the bourgeois Generalitat government in Catalonia, met with the leadership of the CNT-FAI—with García Oliver as the main anarchist spokesman. Companys was an astute bourgeois politician who had been at some point a lawyer for the CNT. Here is what he proposed to García Oliver and the rest of those in attendance:

"You have won and the power is in your hands. If you don't need me and if you don't want me as President of Catalonia, tell me now and I will be only one more soldier in the struggle against fascism. But if on the contrary you believe that in this job, where I would have been killed if there had been a fascist victory, I and my men, my name and my prestige can be useful in the struggle which has ended in Barcelona today, but whose outcome is still unknown in the rest of Spain, you can count on me. You can count on my loyalty as a man and a party leader who believes that a shameful past came to an end today, and I sincerely hope that Catalonia will be in the vanguard of the countries who are the most progressive in social matters."

—quoted in Abel Paz, Durruti: The People Armed

And the anarchists went for it. García Oliver reports the results of the discussions in the CNT and the FAI as follows: "On July 21, 1936, a Regional Plenum of the Local Federations...took place in Barcelona. The situation was analyzed and it was decided not to speak about Libertarian Communism as long as part of Spain was in the hands of the fascists. The Plenum decided for collaboration opposed by only one delegation from ‘Bajo Llobregat'.... Any extreme position inspired by adventurism or inflexibility could have been a disaster because the revolution would have been exhausted..." [emphasis added]. With this, the anarchist workers were subordinated through their leadership to the will of the Generalitat government. Nine months later, Companys was on the phone calling for an air strike against the CNT-FAI headquarters.

The essence of this pathetic episode and the anarchist betrayal is perfectly described by Felix Morrow in the following quotation from his book, Revolution and Counterrevolution in Spain (1938):

"Class collaboration, indeed, lies concealed in the heart of anarchist philosophy. It is hidden, during periods of reaction, by anarchist hatred of capitalist oppression. But, in a revolutionary period of dual power, it must come to the surface. For then the capitalist smilingly offers to share in building the new world. And the anarchist, being opposed to ‘all dictatorships,' including dictatorship of the proletariat, will require of the capitalist merely that he throw off the capitalist outlook, to which he agrees, naturally, the better to prepare the crushing of the workers."

Even one of the most radical anarchists, Buenaventura Durruti, a prominent military leader, expressed his desire "to accept the agreements only provisionally, that is to say until the freeing of Saragossa." When the plenum ended, the anarchists proposed that Companys create a Central Committee of Militias, which included representatives from the CNT and UGT trade-union federations, the PSOE and the POUM. However, it also included representatives from bourgeois parties like the Catalan Esquerra (Companys' party) and the Republican Union.

The Committee became, then, a tool for class collaboration and ultimate control by the Catalan government over the militias. A Marxist revolutionary party would have fought to expel the bourgeois representatives from the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias and for the centralization of the militias under the command of workers and soldiers committees. Durruti and his anarchist collective "Nosotros," inside the CNT-FAI, were aware of the dangers of class collaboration inside the Anti-Fascist Committee. However, they decided to follow its orders and, as promptly as July 24, a militia column, with Durruti at the head of it, was dispatched to the city of Saragossa to fight against the right-wing forces headed by Franco. In that way, Companys and the CNT bureaucracy got rid of the anarchist elements that could have caused problems for their alliance in Catalonia.

But what about the workers collectives? In Barcelona, workers collectives were created in thousands of enterprises, from key industries like shipping, mines, electric power, transportation, gas and water to others like perfumeries, breweries and small workshops. These workers collectives achieved outstanding economic goals, particularly in the industries that supplied munitions for the militias. But how did these cooperatives work? Gaston Leval, a prominent CNT militant and French anarchist, notes in Collectives in the Spanish Revolution (1975):

"Too often in Barcelona and Valencia workers in each undertaking took over the factory, the works, or the workshop, the machines, raw materials, and taking advantage of the continuation of the money system and normal capitalist commercial relations, organized production on their own account, selling for their own benefit the produce of their labour....

"There was not, therefore, true socialisation, but a workers' neo-capitalism, a self-managment straddling capitalism and socialism, which we maintain would not have occurred had the Revolution been able to extend itself fully under the direction of our Syndicates."

quoted in "Leninism and Workers Control," WV No. 162, 17 June 1977

In other words, these autonomous committees functioned under the premise of competition for markets and suppliers. Those factories that had inherited advanced technology and abundant raw materials had better opportunities to compete in the market than did others which didn't have those conveniences. Such economic relations ultimately tended to recreate the conditions of a primitive form of market capitalism.

These collectives were also centralized organs on a local level. In each workplace, an assembly of workers elected a committee, which would elect a manager to oversee the day-to-day running of the workplace. Within each industry there was an Industrial Council which had representatives of the two main unions (CNT and UGT) and representatives from the local committees, where the CNT and UGT were also prominent. However, bourgeois representatives from parties like the Esquerra and the Republican Left were part of these councils also. It is important to understand that in the absence of a planned, socialized economy, run by mass workers organizations (i.e., soviets), where left political parties could have full representation, what the CNT and UGT were doing was at best administering the workers collectives on behalf of the bourgeois popular front. Meanwhile, the government got ready to take the factories away from the anarchists and social democrats at the next opportunity.

Moreover, some of these committees depended heavily upon credits from banks and government subsidies. Nonetheless, the anarchists didn't have any plan to take control of the banks and they didn't do it, which meant condemning those collectives dependent on bank credits to their ultimate disappearance. At the beginning of 1937, the government and the banks practically strangled these collectives, resorting to economic sabotage. The supply of raw materials was denied which ultimately stopped production in these factories.

As I said before, the CNT and FAI didn't see the phenomenon of workers management in the factories as a temporary condition, but as the realization of the anarchist economic ideal, autonomous productive units. In contrast, true revolutionaries would have resolutely defended workers management as a kernel of dual power. But they would have also called to oust the bourgeois representatives from the management of the collectives, while explaining that true socialization was only possible through a centralized, planned economy. A small group of Trotskyists called the Bolshevik-Leninist Section of Spain, affiliated to Trotsky's Movement for the Fourth International, issued a leaflet in January 1937 titled "Hail the Workers, Peasants and Combatants' Committees!" in the midst of the economic boycott against the committees. The leaflet read:

"The bourgeois offensive against the committees must be responded to by strengthening them, forming them where they don't exist, extending their influence and coordinating between them in assemblies or congresses that study and resolve, independent of the bourgeois political power, those problems...posed by the necessities of the war and revolution.

"It is fundamentally necessary that the committees resolve the problems of nationalization and centralization of the private banks, unified command and military discipline....

"The committees…will take over leadership of the country, annulling the organs of the capitalist state...and establishing in their place the proletarian state based on the committees and on socialized property; establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie."

—Agustín Guillamón, Documentación histórica del trosquismo español (1936-1948) (Ediciones de La Torre, 1996)

The Bolshevik-Leninists propagandized for a perspective to transform the workers committees into mass organs of workers power at a national level, as incipient organs of workers rule—i.e., soviets—where political debate would be open to all left tendencies. The situation of dual power couldn't last indefinitely; it had to be solved on the side of the workers or against them. The Bolshevik-Leninists had the program to solve it on the side of the proletariat. However, in January 1937 they were brand new and by May had only 30 people, without enough authority among the working class as a political tendency, although most of their leaders had fought in the POUM militias.

Part Two

With the armed proletariat in the militias and the workers committees growing at a great rate, the capitalists were afraid of a new workers radicalization like that of July. In September 1936, in order to appease the workers, Azaña appointed a new cabinet in his government with the PSOE [Socialist Workers Party] and UGT [General Workers Union—affiliated to the Socialists], the PCE [the Stalinist Communist Party] and the bourgeoisie. In Catalonia, the anarchists for the first time joined the government; and two months later, they entered the national government. In Catalonia, the popular-front government also included the POUM [the centrist Workers Party of Marxist Reunification] for four months. That is, the Spanish left groups with significant influence in the working class sealed their alliance with the bourgeoisie.

What was the internal functioning of the CNT [the anarchist National Confederation of Labor] and the FAI [the political arm of the CNT] at the time? Miguel Amorós explains in his book La revolución traicionada: La verdadera historia de Balius y Los Amigos de Durruti:

"The plenums didn't take into account the assemblies of the unions and ignored the opinion of the militias. Against every norm of the confederation, it was the committees who called on them and elaborated the agenda, which was not always communicated to the delegates. The delegates attended without a mandate and without knowing what they were going to discuss or the relevance of decisions to be adopted."

The CNT and FAI bureaucracies, sharing power with the bourgeoisie, started going after those anarchists who criticized the corrupt methods of the leadership. Such anarchists included the writer Jaime Balius, a future leader of the Friends of Durruti group who was ousted from Solidaridad Obrera (Workers Solidarity—the CNT's main paper) in December of 1936 along with other members of the editorial staff. How about that for "anti-authoritarian organizations"?

Now I'll read another quote:

"As soon as they were faced with a serious revolutionary situation, the Bakuninists had to throw the whole of their old programme overboard. First they sacrificed their doctrine of absolute abstention from political, and especially electoral, activities. Then anarchy, the abolition of the State, shared the same fate.... They then dropped the principle that the workers must not take part in any revolution that did not have as its aim the immediate and complete emancipation of the proletariat, and they themselves took part in a movement that was notoriously bourgeois. Finally they...sat quite comfortably in the juntas of the various towns, and moreover almost everywhere as an impotent minority outvoted and politically exploited by the bourgeoisie."

Is this Leon Trotsky on 1936? No, it is Friedrich Engels polemicizing against the Spanish anarchists in 1873! Anarchism was, is and will always be class collaborationist at its core.

But not all the anarchists in Spain in 1936-37 shared the class collaborationism of the CNT-FAI bureaucracy. The Friends of Durruti group organized in opposition to that treachery. The CNT-FAI, in an attempt to better consolidate the forces against Franco's right-wing reactionaries, began to acquiesce to, and carry out, the "militarization" of the proletarian militias in September of 1937. This meant putting the militias under the orders of a centralized bourgeois army. The Republicans ordered the militarization of the militias, and the Socialist and anarchist ministers in the popular front voted for it. The majority of the members of the Friends of Durruti came from the thousands of anarchist militants who refused to submit to the militarization. Pablo Ruiz, who had fought with Buenaventura Durruti himself on the front, represented one wing of the group, and the prominent writer Jaime Balius represented another.

The four thousand members of the Friends of Durruti stood against the class collaborationism of the CNT-FAI and counterposed to it the call for revolution. They defended this by pointing out that "all revolutions are totalitarian." They raised the call for a "Revolutionary Junta!" According to Amorós, this was a variant of the concept advocated by the CNT of a "National Committee of Defense" in the face of the failure exhibited by the decentralization of the militias against Franco. The Friends of Durruti were CNT workers and militiamen who faced the prospect of being disarmed under the orders of their anarchist leadership. Their opposition to class collaboration was the empirical conclusion of their direct experience with the forceful "militarization" of the militias. However, this didn't contradict their affiliation to the CNT since the anarchist ideal of libertarian communism, a stateless society based on a decentralized economy run by local workers committees, was something that still looked feasible to them. However, the Friends of Durruti's political positions were in motion, like those of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists who witnessed and embraced the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Friends of Durruti learned from the negative example of the CNT; but they first had to break with their anarchist prejudices against the Leninist vanguard party and the dictatorship of the proletariat in order to fully embrace a revolutionary program. That opportunity presented itself in May 1937.

The Barcelona May Days

Almost a year had passed after the "July events" in Barcelona when on 3 May 1937 the government decided to take the Telefónica building out of the hands of the CNT workers who ran it. Assault Guards commanded by the Stalinist Rodriguez Salas arrived at the building and, on behalf of the popular front, ordered the workers to abandon it. Workers put up resistance and the exchange of fire began. The word of an attack on the Telefónica spread like wildfire. In four hours a general strike was declared and the city was engulfed in street fighting with barricades being formed, as during the "July events," by workers of the CNT-FAI, the left-POUM and, this time, the Friends of Durruti and the Trotskyist Bolshevik-Leninists.

The CNT-FAI tops and the popular-front government sent García Oliver and other CNT bureaucrats from Valencia to order the workers back to their homes. He urged the workers: "Hold your fire; embrace the Assault Guards!" The POUM defended their headquarters at the Hotel Falcon from the Assault Guards but refused to take any step forward. The local leaderships of the CNT and POUM met that night, but the anarchist bureaucracy insisted on no more than the dismissal of Salas and the formation of a new government in order to stop the confrontation. The workers had a different agenda though, pushed by their instinct of class self-defense.

On May 4, Barcelona was under the control of the workers, except for the center of the city, where the battles continued until dusk. One of the first workers detachments in the early hours of that night was 400 Friends of Durruti fighters who occupied the whole of Las Ramblas Avenue and patrolled the surrounding area. The same day, the Bolshevik-Leninists handed leaflets to the workers on the barricades that called for a "General strike in all the industries that don't work for the war" and for the "arming of the working class." Workers desperately needed a leadership!

The Friends of Durruti met with the Executive Committee of the POUM and apparently acquiesced to the POUM's position that the movement was lost given the CNT's capitulatory actions. Both agreed on seeking guarantees against retaliations before the workers began to abandon the barricades. However, the next day the Friends of Durruti issued a leaflet which caused a hue and cry among the CNT-FAI bureaucracy, calling for a revolutionary junta, the disarming of the armed bodies (meaning the Assault and Civil Guards) and the socialization of the economy. The leaflet was received with great enthusiasm on the barricades. Needless to say, the Friends of Durruti had used extremely "authoritarian" measures to get their leaflet printed in the middle of a general strike! Balius describes the scene as follows:

"We banged on the door until the owner [of the print shop] came out, who didn't want to know anything and refused categorically to open the print shop. He promptly backed up in the face of ‘armed violence'.... Just before midnight...we were able to take with us four to five thousand leaflets still wet."

Still on May 5, the local bureaucracy of the FAI in Barcelona, in another despicable act of betrayal of the working class, refused reinforcement by militias ready to leave the front. But even worse than that, the CNT workers committees started to abandon the barricades, obeying the call of the top bureaucracy.

On May 6, various anarchist groups, including the Friends of Durruti, met with the POUM. The POUM held a minority position, which was for the creation of a "revolutionary central committee." This was against the local representatives of the anarchist committees, who, following orders from their national leadership, advocated withdrawal from the barricades.

What was the response of the POUM? Let's have their leader Gorkin tell the story:

"But we couldn't impose our views. It was the representative of the Regional Committee [Nacional] who they [the workers] were listening to.... The Friends of Durruti advocated a CNT-FAI-POUM government. Due to tactical reasons we didn't attack the leadership of the CNT."

—Quoted in Amorós, La revolución traicionada

I want to emphasize some points here. During the May Days, the CNT carried out a contemptible and clear betrayal against the working class in Barcelona, as they had already chosen to collaborate with the bourgeoisie. The centrist POUM knew this, and instead of fighting against it, they buried their heads in the sand like ostriches and waited for the CNT to give the order to disband. The Friends of Durruti, in contrast, called for a local junta centered on the CNT and the POUM. Had there been an authoritative revolutionary leadership then, it would have taken up the Friends of Durruti's call for a junta and transformed it first into a military united front against the bourgeois forces and the Stalinists and then into the core of a workers government to fight the counterrevolution with an internationalist program. It would have called for independence for Morocco in order to undermine Franco's army and appealed to the workers on the other side of the Pyrenees to follow their example.

After the May 6 meeting, Balius proposed that CNT workers advance a column to the town of Tarragona and bring reinforcements to Barcelona. Predictably, the CNT bureaucracy boycotted this proposal. Amorós explains: "The Friends of Durruti couldn't understand why the CNT committees had stopped the fight, when victory was so close." The Friends of Durruti didn't have the understanding that flows from a revolutionary program—the understanding to realize the dead end of anarchism and to politically break with the CNT. That had to be the role of a Marxist vanguard party.

Unfortunately, the Bolshevik-Leninists didn't have the time to generate roots in the proletariat during the few months of their existence and they lacked authority among the working class. However, the power of their Trotskyist program is shown by the fact that despite their small numbers they were one of the first to be targeted by the Stalinists and the bourgeois reactionaries once the proletariat was defeated and the barricades were brought down. Before the May Days, the Friends of Durruti helped to distribute the Trotskyists' press on the streets and made their offices available to the Bolshevik-Leninists to organize their meetings. However, the Bolshevik-Leninists didn't achieve much in a meeting with the Friends of Durruti's leadership on May 5:

"Every time the word Authority was pronounced...Balius got mad. The interview or meeting ended without discussing the real problems at bottom.... As for Balius, Carlini and others—not everybody—to continue the fight only on the barricades was the just position, and that is how we split."

Under the orders of the CNT-FAI, and in the face of the POUM's prostration, the workers were ultimately demobilized and defeated. Five hundred died and over a thousand were wounded during the May events. Following the defeat, the state, with the aid of the Stalinists, launched its persecution, imprisonment and murder of the Trotskyists and POUMists (the latter on charges of "Trotskyism"). The anarchist bureaucracy proceeded to attempt the expulsion of the Friends of Durruti from the CNT ranks; meanwhile, the government censored the CNT's paper Solidaridad Obrera. The POUM's paper, La Batalla, was banned and its main leader, Andrés Nin, as well as anarchist leader Camilo Berneri, died at the hands of the Stalinists.

During the Franco dictatorship, 300,000 workers and peasants were assassinated and many others were locked up in concentration camps. All working-class leaders were exterminated or expelled, political and trade-union groups and associations were dissolved. The popular-front government paved the way for Franco's triumph in 1939. One of the greatest revolutionary opportunities for the international proletariat had been drowned in blood.

Anarchists proclaim that the Friends of Durruti never broke with the principles of anarchism. Unfortunately, they are right. They continued to believe, as their leaders in the CNT did, that a classless society could be created simply through force of will; that such a society could be created without first establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat, a centralized democratic workers state to suppress the forces of counterrevolution. Anarchist historian Vernon Richards, in his book, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution (1936-1939) [second enlarged edition, 1972], expresses the ultimate consequences of such an idealist perspective:

"We believe there is something more real, more positive and more revolutionary in resisting war than in participating in it; that it is more civilised and more revolutionary to defend the right of a fascist to live than to support the Tribunals which have the legal powers to shoot him; that it is more realistic to talk to the people from the gutter than from government benches; that in the long run it is more rewarding to influence minds by discussion than to mould them by coercion."

Marxists, on the other hand, reject the false arguments of anarchists that classless communism is simply the product of a psychological regeneration. We fight to overthrow the capitalist system in order to organize production so as to raise it to such a high level that scarcity will no longer exist. Only then can we lay the material basis for the emancipation of humanity from exploitation, war and poverty. We tell anarchist youth today, as Trotsky said to the international proletariat in Lessons of October (1924): "Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer." This is the main lesson of the Spanish Civil War.

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