Workers Power & the Spanish Revolution


This unpublished manuscript was written in 1987 as part of a debate with the Revolutionary Socialist League which had been carried on over a period of years. The article here is an expanded and extensively revised version of an article that appeared in ideas & action #7 (Fall, 1986). The article was in reply to a letter by Wayne Price, which was printed in that same issue.

The initial exchange took place at a forum in New York City in May of 1984. Mike Harris spoke for the Libertarian Workers Group and Wayne Price spoke for the Revolutionary Socialist League. (The Workers Solidarity Alliance, a national anarcho-syndicalist organization, was formed later that year, in November, and the LWG became the New York Area Group of the WSA.) That dialogue was reprinted in the September 20th and November 15th, 1984, issues of Torch/La Antorcha, and in issue #5 (Winter/Spring, 1985) of ideas & action. The second exchange -- on the subject of "national liberation" -- was prompted by a Torch/ La Antorcha cover story headlined "Defend Libya!" That debate appeared in the April 15th and November 15th, 1986, issues of Torch/La Antorcha.


The Great Depression of the '30s only deepened a social crisis that had been brewing in Spanish society for decades.

Spain's growers couldn't find markets for their citrus fruits, olives and other commodities. Lands were left unused. With no livelihood, farm laborers were destitute. The Republican politicians talked of "land reform" but did little.

The farm workers began to seize land -- thousands and thousands of acres of land. And they began farming the land themselves. This movement was organized in the farmworker unions, such as the Land Workers Federation of the UGT (General Union of Workers), which swelled to 500,000 members. This dynamic farm labor movement, which now made up 40% of the UGT, was moving in a more radical direction than had characterized the social-democratic UGT.(1)

Meanwhile, revolutionary unionism had also grown as a force among industrial workers as well. Catalonia -- the Catalan-speaking region around Barcelona -- had been a center of trade in the Mediterranean basin for several centuries and had developed a fairly dense growth of manufacturing and commercial enterprises, contributing 70% of Spain's industrial capacity.* It was the industrial workforce in this region that provided the main stronghold of Spain's libertarian union movement -- the Confederacion Nacional de Trabajo (National Confederation of Labor -- CNT), which was the driving force behind the revolution in Spain in the '30s. Nation-wide membership in the CNT grew from 500,000 in 1931 to 1.7 million as of May, 1936.

In the months immediately following the election of the liberal Popular Front government in February of 1936, no less than 34 towns and cities in Spain were shaken by general strikes.

The growers and industrialists had zero confidence in the ability of the liberal politicians to deal "effectively" with the revolutionary labor movement. The business class was about to play its last card: naked military violence. When the troops moved out of their barracks in the early morning hours of July 19th, 1936, the fascist solution was set in play.

The response of the working class was more intense than the fascist military officers had expected. The unions armed their members and fought back. In Barcelona the army was beaten and the CNT workers defense committee was in control. The sailors in the Spanish Navy mutinied and shot or arrested their fascist officers. The workers on the railroads took over and told the management they were no longer needed.

But, as Ronald Fraser points out:
"Power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Even more so in the crucible of a civil war which is the politics of class struggle raised to the extreme of armed conflict. The means of production [in Catalonia] were largely in the hands of the Catalan working class, but political power was atomized in myriad committees...Such dual (if not multiple) power, normal to an incomplete revolution, could not remain static."(2)

Taking over individual workplaces and setting up local committees could only go so far in advancing workers power in society. To consolidate the revolution and unify the fight against Franco, the working class needed a program for uniting the rank-and-file of the various unions independent of the capitalist State.

What was the CNT's program?

In the previous issue of ideas & action [#6], I began my description of the CNT's program with these words:
"The CNT held that workers unity in the revolutionary situation had to be built by the workers themselves independently of the State. Rejecting the "Popular Front" as a top-down unity of leaders over the working class, the CNT's slogan was, "Unity, yes, but by the rank-and-file." The CNT...called for...a Defense Council and Economics Council at both the national and regional levels. These would be...elected by the labor organizations."

[In his letter in issue #6, Wayne] Price [of the Revolutionary Socialist League] then jumps to the following conclusion:
"It soon becomes clear that the CNT program T.W. is describing is not at all a program of democratic workers' councils, elected by workers at the factory floor...The existing union leaderships, as they were, would get together and appoint committees, dividing up the posts in proportion to their unions' strengths."

Price is of course correct to zero in on the relationship between the Councils and the rank-and-file. But, to begin with, Price ignores the next paragraph in my description of the CNT's program:
"The councils were not intended to be executive authorities that could do anything they wanted to, but would be coordinating bodies restricted to implementing mandates worked out at grassroots labor congresses. The congresses would work out a program for workers management of the economy and defense of the revolution based on ideas brought to the congress from local worker assemblies. This system of worker congresses, and mandated councils to coordinate defense and the economy, was intended to replace the existing government and be the basis of proletarian power."

An influential formulation of this program of councils and congresses is to be found in the book El Organismo Economico de la Revolucion,(3) by Abad Diego de Santillan. Discussing the role of the national economic council, de Santillan says:
"It receives its directives from below, it makes adjustments according to regional and national congresses." Just as the CNT Congresses were the supreme policy-making body in the CNT itself, they envisioned a similar body emanating from the rank-and-file assemblies to make the guiding decisions for a socialized economy.

Between the meetings of the congresses there would obviously need to be some ongoing coordinating body. Hence the Councils. But the anarcho-syndicalist program called for council delegates to be elected by the rank-and-file and rotated out of office after a limited term. The libertarian militants would have been opposed to the councils making important decisions or changing policy without a mandate from the rank-and-file.

Joan Ferrer, a bookkeeper who was the secretary of the CNT commercial workers union in Barcelona, described the Economics Council this way:
"It was our idea in the CNT that everything should start from the worker, not -- as with the Communists -- that everything should be run by the state. To this end we wanted to set up industrial federations -- textiles, metal-working, department stores, etc. -- which would be represented on an overall Economics Council which would direct the economy. Everything, including economic planning, would thus remain in the hands of the workers."(4)

Anti-Bureaucratic Measures

In addition to measures like rotation from office, there are two important limitations on the power of the Councils that would have made it difficult for them to become a "bureaucratic dictatorship."

First, they would not have a top-down management power over any economic activity. The various industries would be run by self-governing "industrial federations." If we remember that industry was to be socially-owned and economic planning carried out through the regional and national congresses, this means the workers in each industry do not "own" that industry but run it as a kind of "subcontract" on behalf of all workers.

Second, the Councils would not have any top-down, professional armed bodies at their disposal. There would be no anarchist Cheka,(5) for example.

The only armed force for the defense of the revolutionary order would be the militia bodies organized by the unions. The militia would be unified and the National Defense Council would provide the coordination. In times of peace the militia members would be living and working among the rest of the populace, and, thus, they would tend to have the same outlook and interests as their fellow workers.

The militia bodies that were actually formed by the CNT in the revolution were internally self-governing, not hierarchical. Each militia column was administered by its own "war committee," made up of elected delegates. Yet, these columns were not an independent power, like a guerrilla army, but were responsible to the union organization that had organized them, through the CNT's Confederal Defense Committee. This was essential if the working class is to control the revolutionary armed force.

Unity, yes, but how?

Faced with a fight to the death, a strategy for achieving unity of the working class was essential. For the working class to unify to fight Franco and consolidate their power in the Spanish revolution, it was necessary to build organizations to bring together workers from the various unions. The CNT could not ignore the 1.4 million workers in the UGT unions. That's why the CNT had called for a "revolutionary alliance" with the UGT at its Saragossa Congress in May of 1936. The UGT also had revolutionary impulses, as indicated by role of the UGT miners' union in the revolution in Asturias in 1934. The UGT union movement cannot be simply dismissed as "reformist," as Price tends to do. The UGT Land Workers Federation, in particular, was, in effect, a mass revolutionary movement.

Land seizures and farm collectivization characterized the Spanish revolution in the countryside not only because of the libertarian political influences in the country but because it was a practical solution to the poverty and unemployment afflicting Spain's agricultural laborers. Thus, it should not surprise us that the practices and programs of the UGT and CNT farm worker unions were quite similar.

The Socialist and Communist parties were calling for the populace to rally behind the liberal "Popular Front" government. If the CNT had no program for achieving unity, they would have no alternative to the Popular Front. But the CNT did have a strategy for achieving working class unity. The CNT's program of Councils of Defense to coordinate the militias and Congresses to make plans for the economy and the war effort provided the necessary means for achieving unity independent of the Republican state. To the extent that other unions had support within the working class, their voices would be heard in the assemblies of the Industrial Federations, Congresses and Councils.

The FAI Myth

Price, however, says that "this program would have been a version of the revolutionary party-state dictatorship, made up of a bloc of parties, not just one." He says this because he apparently believes that all the unions in Spain at the time were mere appendages of political parties, and he sees the relationship of the CNT to the FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation) as identical to that of the relationship between the UGT and the Socialist Party. Mass democratic movements thus disappear; only the "leadership" is significant.

Price ignores the differences in how the UGT and CNT were run, and the differences in the relations to political organizations. For one thing, the UGT had a permanent bureaucracy at the top; Largo Caballero was the top paid official of the UGT for years. The UGT had a top-down structure which permitted much control by top officials, who were often political party leaders.

In the CNT, on the other hand, the sindicato unicos (local industry-wide unions) at the base of the federation were self-governing, and there was not a permanently constituted bureaucracy at the top. The National Secretary of the CNT -- one of the few paid officials in the federation -- was rotated out of office every year. And the national and regional committees could not set policy, only congresses and conferences of union delegates could set the direction for the organization.

Price describes the FAI as "the leadership" of the CNT and he takes for granted the nature of this relationship. But maybe we should look more closely at it. To begin with, the FAI was a loose network of anarchist caucuses within the CNT unions, it was not a centralized or monolithic organization. Moreover, as Juan Gomez Casas points out in his history of the FAI, FAI militants frequently had a prior loyalty to the CNT. The FAI could not have had the sort of dominance over the CNT that is often attributed to it, Gomez Casas argues.

At union congresses, where policies and program for the movement were argued out,

"delegates, whether or not they were members of the FAI, were presenting resolutions adopted by their unions at open membership meetings. Actions taken at the congress had to be reported back to their unions at open meetings, and given the degree of union education among the members, it was impossible for delegates to support personal, nonrepresentative positions."(6)

The union committees were typically rotated out of office frequently and committeemen continued to work as wage-earners. In a movement so closely based on the shopfloor, the FAI could not maintain influence for long if they ignored the concerns and opinions of co-workers.

Gomez Casas argues that there were essentially three different anarcho-syndicalist tendencies within the CNT in the '30s: the FAI, the Treintistas and independent anarchists such as the Revista Blanca publishing group and the Los Solidarios group.(7) Only a minority of the anarcho-syndicalist activists in the CNT belonged to the FAI.

The Treintistas were so-called after a group of thirty influential CNT activists who published a manifesto in 1931 criticizing the CNT radical wing, accusing the FAI of exercizing a "dictatorship" over the CNT. For their part, the FAI accused the treintista leaders of abusing their official positions in the CNT and not allowing other viewpoints access to the union publications.

The conflict between the treintistas and the CNT radical wing finally led to a split in 1932. Angel Pestana, the treintista national secretary, was forced to resign, and Juan Peiro, a treintista glassworker who was head of the big daily paper Solidaridad Obrera, was also kicked out of office. The treintista sympathizers then set up their own union organization, the Federacion Obrera Libertaria (FOL -- Libertarian Workers Federation), which took out about 35,000 members from the CNT.(8)

The series of violent, insurrectionary attempts led by the CNT radical wing in the early '30s were exactly what the treintistas wanted to avoid. "In the January [1933] uprising," writes Jerome Mintz(9), "the treintistas...saw their worst fears realized: the national confederation and the regionals had been manipulated by a small group of militants who had committed the entire membership to precipitous and dangerous action. The membership had been badly mauled in street fighting, the leaders arrested and beaten, and the [unions] closed." The infamous massacre in the Andalucian village of Casas Viejas was part of the state's repression of this failed insurrection.

Mintz argues that the local defense committees of the CNT, though nominally responsible to the rank-and-file of the unions, were in fact stacked with FAIstas and other radical anarchists, who used their control of the defense committees to manipulate the CNT into violent insurrectionary adventures. He points to the report by Alexander Shapiro, a Russian anarchist who was visiting Spain for the International Workers Association (to which the CNT was affiliated). Shapiro criticizes the FAI activists for vanguardism and disregarding the interests of the CNT as a whole. In a letter to the CNT national committee, Shapiro "urged the CNT to make clear that it alone had the duty and right to organize the revolution and to choose the most propitious moment to initiate it. A coup by a very small group would inevitably lead to a concentration of power."(10)

Buenaventura Durruti, however, defended the CNT radical wing:
"We never thought that the revolution would be a seizure of power by a minority that would impose its will on the people... We want a revolution made by and for the people... Otherwise, it would be only a seizure of the state... We who come from the factory, the mine, and the farm, want a revolution that changes society. We want nothing to do with Blanquism(11) or Trotskyism."(12)

The distinction between the FAI and the CNT was sometimes seen as a division of responsibilities, as the FAI occasionally took on activities outside the CNT. Such as the publication of Soldado del Pueblo ("Soldier of the People"), directed at rank-and-file members of the military

By 1935 it was clear that the treintistas and the CNT radical wing were moving towards some sort of reconciliation, and the FOL was re-admitted to the CNT at the Saragossa Congress of May, 1936. Both the CNT radical wing and their treintista critics advocated the libertarian ideal of a movement democratically self-managed by the rank-and-file. Though the efforts to realize this ideal in the real world were not without conflicts and problems, I believe the CNT did come close to approximating this libertarian ideal in practice. Price's picture of the CNT as a mere "transmission belt" of the FAI ignores the CNT's character as a multi-tendencied, non-hierarchical, democratic mass movement. It was not the FAI but the CNT that was "the anarcho-syndicalist organization ...[that] led about half the Spanish workers and a large part of the peasants" in the revolution.

The CNT accepts collaboration

I've argued that the CNT's program of Councils of Defense to coordinate the labor militia and workers congresses to make plans for the economy and war effort provided the necessary means for building working class unity independent of the Republican State. The potential for building an alternative workers power to replace the government was particularly good in Catalonia where most of the workers belonged to the CNT. In July of '36 the CNT defense organization had de facto armed control. This bolstered the confidence of rank-and-file militants, and thus workers were taking over industry after industry.

In July of '36, as armed workers were defeating the Spanish army in the streets of Barcelona, Luis Companys, a liberal lawyer who was president of the Generalitat (regional government of Catalonia), sent a message to the CNT, proposing that they join a "Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias," sponsored by his government. This offer was made on July 20th, just as the CNT local federation of Barcelona was holding a plenary assembly of local unions to decide what to do. This meeting, and the regional conference of CNT unions of Catalonia, held the following day, effectively decided the CNT's course in the revolution, in my opinion.

Buenaventura Durruti, a machinist and a member of the radical Nosotros group, proposed that the CNT overthrow the government of Companys and organize a Regional Defense Council, which would be made up solely of delegates elected by members of the various unions. Juan Garcia Oliver -- another Nosotros member -- argued that a revolutionary situation was "all or nothing," and that they ought to move immediately towards carrying out their libertarian communist program.(13)

This proposal was opposed by others, who advised caution. Abad Diego de Santillan -- a physician who had previously written a book advocating the workers Council system,(14) now proposed that the CNT accept Companys' offer, but merely as a temporary expedient. He talked about the gold stocks in Madrid (fourth largest gold reserves in the world) and how the Popular Front government might be persuaded to provide aid to the CNT militias if they were operating under the auspices of the "legitimate" government.

The Republican government in Madrid, however, was perfectly aware that the goal of the CNT was a workers revolution that would sweep away the privileges and power of the Spanish business class. The government leaders feared the working class at least as much as they feared the fascist army. They would never give gold or arms to the CNT.

The union activists in Catalonia were apparently weighed down by a sense of isolation. If they overthrew the government and moved to put their revolutionary program into effect, "there was a serious risk they would not be followed by the rest of Spain," some delegates thought. Though the CNT was predominant in the industrial northeast, it was a minority in Madrid and central Spain. Saragossa (a major CNT stronghold) was in the hands of the army. The outcome in the south, in Andalucia, was in doubt. The large libertarian union movements in other countries, such as the FORA in Argentina, had already been suppressed by military or fascist regimes. The weakness of anarchism outside Spain meant that little help could be counted on from that source. Such were the considerations that apparently weakened the resolve of the Catalan militants.

The majority at the July 20-21 conferences went along with de Santillan's proposal, though only on condition that the CNT be given the majority on the Anti-Fascist Militia Committee. A sizeable minority of delegates were apparently disgusted by this decision. The delegation from Bajo Llobregat County (an industrial area south of Barcelona) walked out saying they'd never go along with government collaboration.

Once the CNT had decided not to build a grassroots workers power to unite the working class independently of the State, the pressures for some form of unity made collaboration with the Popular Front virtually unavoidable. If the CNT was not able to overthrow the government and carry out its program of building a unified workers power in Catalonia, where the CNT was strongest, how could CNTers in other areas have confidence in the CNT program? "From the moment the Catalan anarchists accepted collaboration with the Popular Front forces in Barcelona," Ronald Fraser writes, "Lorenzo Inigo [Libertarian Youth representative on the Madrid Defense Junta] had not believed it would be possible to make the libertarian revolution..."(15)

"Isolation" may explain the Catalan militants' fears but it doesn't justify their decision. If the CNT of Catalonia had given Companys the boot and set up a workers power in Catalonia, uniting the rank-and-file of the other unions with the CNT, this would have strengthened the resolve of workers in other parts of Spain, and it might have also inspired workers in nearby countries to move in a similar direction.

The CNT could have persuaded many UGT workers to join with them in building a united workers power to replace the bosses' state. The Regional Workers Council of Asturias and the Popular Committee of Valencia were both set up as joint UGT/CNT regional powers.

Meanwhile, the Socialist and Communist parties were calling for the populace to rally behind the Republican state. The Popular Front strategy was a fake "unity" that would only subordinate the working class to capitalist legality and allow the rebuilding of the bourgeois army and police forces. A political strategy that defends capitalist authority must inevitably clash with the workers' efforts at revolutionary change.

However, in failing to take the initiative to unite the working class independently of the Republican state at the crucial moment, in July of '36, the CNT of Catalonia was in effect abandoning the only feasible alternative to the Popular Front strategy.

While the Catalan CNT was joining the Anti-Fascist Militia Committee, the national CNT was trying to gain UGT agreement for a program for replacing the Republican state with a National Defense Council of CNT and UGT union delegates. However, Marcel Rosenberg, the Soviet ambassador, warned the UGT leaders that overthrowing the Republic would deprive the anti-fascist cause of its "legitimacy."

At the end of August, 1936, Largo Caballero became head of the national government and the UGT leader asked the CNT to participate. The CNT held a national conference in early September to figure out a response. The UGT leadership had objected to the CNT's proposal for a National Defense Council on the grounds that it would exclude the Republican petty bourgeoisie (lawyers, shopkeepers, farm owners, etc.), whose aid they wanted for fighting Franco.

Thus, the CNT national conference proposed a compromise. The National Defense Council would be made up of 14 delegates -- five from the CNT, five from the UGT, and four from the Republican Party (representing the middle class).

The CNT proposed to replace the Republican army with a unified labor militia; military officers would become merely "military technicians." The CNT proposal also included socialization of the economy under union management, and a seizure of the banks. The CNT proposed to undermine Franco's position in Spanish Morocco by declaring Morocco to be independent and by giving arms to the Moroccan rebels, who had been fighting the Spanish army for decades.

However, the CNT's initiative to form a central workers power to replace the national Republican government was hindered, according to Eduardo de Guzman, a CNT journalist in Madrid, by the failure of the unions to take power in Catalonia. Said de Guzman:
"To make a revolution, power must be seized. If the CNT had done so in Catalonia, it would have helped, not hindered, our minority position in Madrid. But they believed it was sufficient to have taken the streets, to have seized arms. They completely overlooked the importance of the state apparatus which, with or without arms, retains a very great weight...The petty bourgeoisie was inevitably opposed to the proletariat. The Communists were recruiting this class, and in alliance with the petty bourgeois Republicans, were bound to gain strength if the Generalitat and the central government were reconstituted."(16)

In failing to set up a union governing power in the first couple of months after the beginning of the military revolt in July of '36, when there was no effective government at all, a revolutionary moment of great promise had been lost, de Guzman thought.

After the UGT leadership rejected the CNT's "compromise" proposal, the CNT held another national conference on September 28th, 1936. Horacio Prieto, a treintista* who was CNT National Secretary, favored CNT participation in the government. Despite the opposition of the delegation from Catalonia, the conference voted to join the government. This was done, according to the CNT National Committee, to "take an active role in the direction of the war...[and] to stop the continual sabotaging of our organization, collectives and military columns."

By September de Santillan had finally realized that his scheme for getting a share of the government's gold reserves for the CNT militias was unrealistic. He and other FAI militants then came up with a scheme to expropriate the gold. Anarchists had made contact with international arms merchants willing to sell heavy weapons. An anarchist militia column, stationed in Madrid, would seize the gold in the middle of the night and the CNT railway union agreed to have a train waiting in the Madrid freight yards.

Unfortunately, de Santillan got cold feet at the last minute and told Horatio Prieto what was going on. That torpedoed the plan. In October a deal was concluded between the Popular Front government and the Stalin regime: Russia would get the gold and Spain would get Russian weapons. But Stalin imposed a condition on this business deal: No weapons for the anarchist militia!

The Popular Front disaster

The Popular Front strategy pursued by the Socialists and Communists was based on the false assumption that the conflict was "democracy versus fascism." They hoped that the "Western democracies" would give aid to the "legitimate, elected government." But fascism was a response to the spread of revolutionary aspirations among Spanish workers and the development of a mass workers movement that fought aggressively for change. The main anti-fascist forces were revolutionary unions with the avowed intent of creating self-managed socialism. In that situation, no capitalist government, irrespective of its "democratic" pretensions, could be counted on to give real support for the struggle against Franco.

The Popular Front strategy meant that the CNT's proposal for helping the Moroccan rebels had to be shelved. As George Orwell observed:
"The palpable truth is that no attempt was made to foment a rising in Morocco...The first necessity...would have been to proclaim Morocco liberated."(17)

But any weapons given to the Moroccan rebels would have also been used against the French colonial regime in French Morocco.

"And we can imagine how pleased the French would have been by that! The best strategic opportunity of the war was flung away in the vain hope of placating French and British capitalism."(18)

The potential for international worker solidarity was also undermined by accepting the Popular Front as the means of fighting the struggle:
"Once the war had been narrowed down to a "war for democracy" it became impossible to make any large-scale appeal for working class aid abroad...The way in which the working class in the democratic countries could really have helped her Spanish comrades was by industrial action -- strikes and boycotts. No such thing ever began to happen."(19)

The Popular Front's monopoly on arms also undermined the war effort:
"There is very little doubt that the arms were deliberately withheld lest too many of them should fall into the hands of the anarchists, who would afterwards use them for a revolutionary purpose; consequently the big Aragon offensive which would have made Franco draw back from Bilbao...never happened."(20)

The only pre-Civil War cartridge factory in Spain was located in Toledo. When Toledo was being besieged by Franco's Army of Africa, Catalonia sent a representative to ask the Popular Front government to move the plant to Catalonia. The government refused, as they feared the plant might eventually fall into the hands of the anarchists. Instead, it was captured by the fascists.

It's possible that the Spanish revolution would have been defeated by superior armed force even if the CNT had not capitulated to the Popular Front. But I think the CNT's capitulation certainly contributed to the disaster.

"Anarchist Dictatorship"?

What is the explanation for this capitulation? Price believes the explanation lies in the program and strategy of the anarchists. Says Wayne Price:
"The anarchist leaders saw only two alternatives: either the FAI...should take power where it could (in Catalonia), or it should collaborate with the capitalist parties and the capitalist state. The first choice, while "revolutionary," would betray the anarchist program by setting up a dictatorial party-state (considering that even many revolutionary workers followed other parties). The choice of collaboration also betrayed their program, but at least it seemed to keep capitalist democracy instead of fascism..."

This is an incorrect description of the anarcho-syndicalist program. To begin with, the Spanish anarchists had never advocated the taking of power by the FAI. The mass organizations of workers -- the unions, not political organizations -- were the means to working class self-emancipation, in their view. I have already argued that Price was mistaken in viewing the CNT as a mere "transmission belt" of the FAI; the CNT was in fact a mass libertarian movement in its own right.

Nor had the CNT ever considered a "strategy" of collaboration with the Popular Front prior to July of '36. In the months leading up to the July explosion, the CNT had consistently criticized the Popular Front strategy as a fake unity of leaders over the workers, a strategy that would subordinate the working class to capitalist legality. Even in July of '36, the CNT conferences in Catalonia had not seen clearly that their "temporary" participation in the Anti-Fascist Militia Committee would drag them inexorably into a practice of collaboration with the Popular Front.

Nor was it the case that the only strategy for workers power advocated by the anarchists was the CNT "taking power alone." The concept of a "revolutionary alliance" between the CNT and UGT workers had been discussed within the CNT for a number of years. The need for such an alliance was the lesson that many CNT militants drew from the failure of the CNT-initiated insurrection of January 1933. This concept of an alliance with the CNT was approved at CNT conferences in 1934 and overtures were made to the UGT at that time.

The potential for such an alliance was demonstrated during the abortive revolution in Asturias in 1934, as the CNT and UGT united into a Workers Council that briefly controlled the region before being crushed by the army. The concept of a "revolutionary alliance" with the workers of the UGT was re-affirmed again at the CNT's Saragossa Congress of May, 1936. The regional and national councils and congresses, which the CNT proposed as the organization of workers power, would not have representatives of political organizations, but would have delegates elected by the local union bodies of both the CNT and UGT.(21)

Unity in the Management of Industries

This desire for unifying the working class was demonstrated in the efforts at building new organs of workers management in such industries as maritime shipping, railways and public utilities.

For example, the Railway Federation was set up to manage the railway lines in northeastern Spain (Catalonia, Aragon, Valencia) that had been taken over by the workers in July of '36. The base of the federation was the local assemblies:
"All the workers of each locality would meet twice a week to examine all that pertained to the work to be done... The local general assembly named a committee to manage the general activity in each station and its annexes. At [these] meetings, the decisions (direccion) of this committee, whose members continued to work [at their previous jobs], would be subjected to the approval or disapproval of the workers, after giving reports and answering questions."(22)

The delegates on the committee could be removed by an assembly at any time.

The highest coordinating body of the Railway Federation was the "Revolutionary Committee," whose members were elected by union assemblies in the various divisions. Since the UGT and CNT rail unions had about equal support among the workers, each union elected an equal number of delegates. The control over the rail lines, according to Gaston Leval, "did not operate from above downwards, as in a statist and centralized system. The Revolutionary Committee had no such powers...The members of the...committee being content to supervise the general activity and to coordinate that of the different routes that made up the network."

Price criticizes "union management" of the economy on the grounds that it would "require the agreement of all the major union bureaucracies." Yet the maritime, utility and railway federations were constructed despite the opposition of the top UGT bureaucrats. The organization of these industrial federations, in which workers belonging to both the UGT and CNT unions had an equal say, are an indication of the CNT's committment to sharing power in a socialized economy with workers belonging to the other unions. They had no intention of imposing a CNT "dictatorship" over industries and communities where other unions were entrenched among the workforce.

It is true that the UGT leaders were capable of obstruction. In southern and central Spain, where the UGT was the larger union among rail workers, the railways were initially placed under the control of an "Operating Committee" made up of three delegates of the CNT rail union, three people chosen by the UGT rail union members, and three government representatives. The UGT and CNT rail workers cooperated closely and the government reps were generally ignored. However, to thwart the "union socialization" that was being built by the workers independent of -- and against -- the government, the UGT tops replaced the UGT worker delegates with people of their own choice. And they did this without consulting the UGT rank-and-file.

"Workers Councils": No Panacea

But it's hard to see how Price's slogan of "democratic councils independent of the unions"(23) would have made much difference. If the UGT rail workers could have been persuaded to join an "independent council," why couldn't they have been persuaded to extend the Railway Federation to the other areas? If the reformist Socialist Party (PSOE) leaders could use their control of the UGT apparatus to sabotage workers management, why wouldn't they have been able to also use that same influence to sabotage or control "independent councils"?

The workers councils formed in Germany in 1918, after the collapse of the Kaiser regime, are an illustration of this problem. The German Social-Democrats had dominated the German labor movement for years, and, thus, they were able to control the German workers councils. As a result, those councils capitulated to the employing class and helped to set up a new capitalist State, the Weimar Republic.

The example of the Russian "soviets" of 1917 show how "workers councils independent of the unions" can also have their problems of top-down control. ("Soviet" is Russian for "council.") One of the most important soviets in the Russian revolution was in the city of Petrograd (now called Leningrad). "This organization," writes Pete Rachleff,(24) "was formed from the top down by a group of liberal and radical intellectuals who got together on February 27 [1917] and constituted themselves as the `Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet'." The body of workers' and soldiers' delegates who met in the soviet did not really control the decision-making. The real power had been concentrated in the hands of the Executive Committee. Few decisions of the Executive Committee were submitted for ratification to the soviet assembly, which was considered a mere rubber stamp anyway.

Workers revolution as an historical process

Advocates of "independent workers councils" usually conceive of the latter as bodies that would arise in the immediate situation of social crisis and revolution. Sometimes there is a scenario of councils forming as a "spontaneous" reaction to a capitalist crisis, such as a major depression or war.(25)

But I do not believe that a libertarian revolution can be merely a spontaneous reaction to crisis. A number of revolutions in the 20th century have led to authoritarian, statist regimes, as in Cuba and China, and this should remind us that the overthrow of a discredited regime in crisis does not guarantee that the outcome will be a libertarian society, directly managed by working people. In order for a revolution to have a libertarian outcome, I believe that a mass movement based upon direct control by rank-and-file workers must have already emerged and become a key factor in the crisis.

The "materialist conception of history" provided marxists with their theory of why revolutions occur. Marx sees a revolution against capitalism occurring when the technological capacity ("productive forces") that has been rapidly built up under capitalism cannot be fully used to provide people with what they need. As in a major depression when factories and farms are idle while people are deprived of the things that could be produced. This "contradiction between the productive forces and capitalist social relations" then produces a working class rebellion, in Marx's scenario.

Often marxists (in the Bolshevik tradition) believe that the role of the "vanguard party" is necessary to direct this rebellion but capitalist failure is seen as the cause of motion towards revolution. Though the "contradiction" between the potential benefit from industry and the austerity imposed by a capitalism in crisis certainly may be an important factor in the movement of society towards revolution, libertarians have argued that a libertarian re-organization of society by the working class is not generated merely by the internal failings of the capitalist economy.

The working class must have developed its own democratic, self-managed movement to have the power to transform society in the direction of workers power. The development of a practice of democratic decision-making and mass participation is necessary if workers selfmanagement is to overcome all of the forces tending to re-impose the hierarchical practices fostered by class society.

The development of workers self-activity also shapes working class consciousness. The ideas that workers tend to act on at a given time depend upon the level of solidarity and action they see among fellow workers. When solidarity is not very widespread, as in the present-day USA, people will tend not to count on it, and will try to get the best deal they can within the system as individuals. Ideas of democratic, libertarian re-organization of society, which will seem "utopian" to most people during quieter times, will be seen as more relevant and practical in a period of major mass actions which give workers more of a sense of their power to change society.

The importance of the strategy of developing unions democratically self-managed by the rank-and-file is that it provides a means of building up a workers movement in a period when workers are only beginning to challenge the bosses for power and develops the practice of democratic decision-making and direct participation that is essential to the democratic transformation of society. A movement controlled democratically by the mass of workers is the only way of guaranteeing that workers will end up in control of society. "Workers revolution" thus refers to the historical period in which such a movement develops and begins to pose a direct challenge to boss power.

The libertarian emphasis upon the democratic organization and direct activity of workers is not incompatible with a "materialist" concept of social change. The working class is itself the main "productive force" in society since nothing could be produced without our skills, knowledge and work efforts. As workers develop their solidarity and self-managed movement, this is a "development of the productive forces" that is crucial for the creation of libertarian socialism.

Power, Yes -- State, No

The process of workers revolution in Spain in the '30s developed through a mass union movement. Given that historical context, the CNT's program of "workers councils" formed jointly by the unions would have made more sense than Price's slogan of "councils independent of the unions."

But if the CNT had replaced the government of Catalonia in July of '36 with workers councils, as the Nototros proposed, these councils would have been dominated by the CNT even if the other unions were represented. Would this have been an "anarchist dictatorship"? "Yes," say the CNT activists who supported the collaboration with the Popular Front. And Price seems to agree. But I think they were wrong.

The Nosotros were calling for the CNT to carry out its program. This would have meant replacing the Generalitat with a Defense Council in which only union assemblies (not political parties) were represented. The CNT would have had to call a Regional Congress of unions and invite the UGT and independent unions(26) to send delegates. Workers management of industry would have been consolidated through planning and unification. Though the CNT would have dominated this structure, I do not believe that this could be fairly termed an "anarchist dictatorship."

The CNT program did not call for suppressing other viewpoints. The various viewpoints that existed among the workforce would be represented in the deliberations and debates of the Regional Congress and on the coordinating Councils.(27) The various political groups would be free to organize and publish their periodicals. The CNT would be dominant because it had overwhelming support among the workers of Catalonia. Majority rule does not constitute a "dictatorship."

Replacing the government certainly would have encountered strong opposition from the small business and managerial classes -- the social classes represented by Companys' political party (Partit Esquerra Republicana Catalana -- Left Republican Catalan Party). But how could there possibly be a libertarian revolution that did not encounter opposition from bosses and politicians?

There were a number of industries in Catalonia where the CNT did "take power alone" -- such as plate glass-manufacturing, furniture-making, the movie industry, hospitals, and hair-cutting. But in these areas the CNT was the only union and had the participation of the majority of workers.

I think Price does not realize the extent to which the CNT was a mass organization. For example, 93% of the 7,000 workers on the Barcelona streetcar and subway system belonged to the CNT sindicato unico of transport workers in Barcelona. Libertarian ideas were certainly present in the life of the union, and the majority of delegates at the CNT congresses in 1931 and 1936 were anarchists, but the CNT was not an anarchist political group. Workers joined it because they saw the necessity of solidarity, and wanted to fight the employing class. Anarchism had widespread support because workers felt that it best suited their aspirations and interests.

The RSL puts heavy emphasis on "building the revolutionary party." Presumably Price and the RSL would want their "revolutionary party" to gain influence for its ideas in mass organizations, such as Price's councils. But if they were successful in gaining acceptance for their ideas, would that mean that democratic council power would be an "RSL party dictatorship"? If not, then Price is inconsistent when he says that the influence of the FAI in the CNT would make CNT union power into a "party-state dictatorship."

Price is right to insist that democratic workers organizations must allow for the plurality of viewpoints that exist within the working class. In Spain in the '30s this pluralism was expressed in the division into different unions as well as in the different viewpoints within the unions. Since the anarcho-syndicalist program called for rank-and-file assemblies to elect and instruct delegates, and participation of all the unions in the councils and congresses, it's hard to see how this pluralism is not respected.

Marxists have often argued that it would be necessary to build a "workers state" in a revolution in order to organize effective armed force against the defenders of capitalist power. As Price says, "coercion -- repression -- power -- authority" would be needed. But libertarians reply, Why can't the workers build and coordinate a militia of their own and control the defense of their revolution directly and democratically, through their own organizations (unions, councils of delegates elected from the shopfloor)? This is what the CNT's program called for.

Exercizing authority over a territory, having the dominance in armed force -- these are the usual criteria of a "state" in bourgeois liberal political theory. But on that definition, a society without a state would be impossible. The liberal definition of the State is inadequate because it ignores the division of society into classes with conflicting interests. Keeping the bosses in power is an essential function of the State.

Anarchists have sometimes pointed out that a number of the functions performed by the State are useful to society (street lighting, sewage disposal, investigating murders, etc.) and would still exist in a libertarian society, though organized quite differently. This would not make a libertarian social order "a type of state."

What is essential to a state is that its authority and armed power be top-down, insulated from direct control by the workforce. Otherwise it could not function to protect the power of a boss class. When the workforce in society directly and democratically controls the dominant armed force and the management of the economy, this is not a "state" in the historical sense.

Marxists have usually argued that workers power built in a revolution must be consolidated in a "state" since the workers' armed fight against the defenders of capitalism means "repression" of "another class." As Engels said:
"A revolution is the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets, and cannon -- authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries."(28)

But Engels is here playing with words. When the power of the bosses is broken, and workers take over control of the society, this is an act of liberation. To say that the armed defense of the workers freedom is "authoritarian" is like saying that I am engaging in "theft" if I take back from a thief the jacket that he previously stole from me.

The "repression" directed against the capitalist class consists in forcibly removing their power to exploit the working class. But the former bosses do not thus become a new exploited class; they simply lose their former position as order-givers and owners. As the economy is re-organized under workers management, ex-bosses are forced to accept equality, to become workers like everybody else.

But they would enjoy the same rights as everyone else -- including the right to criticize existing arrangements. Of course, if they go beyond mere grousing and actually make an armed attempt to re-impose their rule, the community has the right to use armed force to defend its freedom. But the community's collective, democratic control of the dominant armed force is not a "state" because there is no longer a separate, privileged class in possession of political and economic power.

Origin of the "Collectives"

Though the regional union conferences in Catalonia had put off overthrowing the government in July of '36, workers began taking over the management of industries as soon as the street-fighting had died down. The initiative for this did not come from the higher bodies -- the regional and national committees -- but from the rank-and-file activists in the local unions. In some cases this happened because the top management of the enterprise had fled, and it was necessary for the workers to take over if production was to continue. But in many cases the local union militants decided to take advantage of the situation to push a revolutionary solution.

But the seizure of these workplaces very quickly led to a problem of coordination.

The CNT had never proposed that factories or other facilities would be owned by the people who happened to work there. The CNT's program called for the construction of "libertarian communism." This would mean that the economy as a whole would be socialized, it would not consist of producers operating independently of each other on the basis of market exchange. Instead, workers would manage the industry they work in as a kind of "subcontract" from the whole community.

Since the society's entire workforce would "own" the means of production, all would have a right to share in the output. This would mean that the economy would no longer be regulated by the market, but by social needs, articulated in the regional and national workers Congresses and coordinated through the Economics Councils. Thus, workers would have free access to the output of other workplaces, relations between people in society would no longer be regulated on the basis of buying and selling. If buying and selling is no longer the principle of distribution, then money becomes unnecessary. However, some Spanish libertarians argued that there would be an initial transitional stage in which wages would be equalized as a prelude to doing away with wages altogether.

Andreu Capdevila, an CNT textile union activist, describes these ideas:
"We libertarians have a maxim which is binding: Each shall produce according to his abilities, each shall consume according to his needs. Production is like a clock -- each part is interdependent, if one part fails the clock will no longer show the hour. It's very difficult to determine which of the workers fulfilling so many different tasks is the most important. The miner digging out the coal, the worker transporting it to the factory, the stoker shoveling it into the factory furnace? Without any of them, the process would stop. All should be paid the same..."(29)

However, in order to do away with market exchange, it was necessary to establish a federative unity of the entire workforce, and a means of making collective decisions for the entire economy. This required the setting up of the workers congresses and economic coordinating councils, to replace the government and establish a unified control of the society.

Since the consolidation of the revolution had been put off "until after Franco is beaten," the unions that had seized workplaces were confronted with a dilemma. They had control of their individual workplaces, but the original libertarian plan for economic coordination was precluded by the continued existence of the State.

This dilemma was debated at a CNT union plenary in September of 1936. The idea of converting the worker-managed workplaces into cooperatives, operating in a market economy, had never been advocated by the Spanish anarchists before the Civil War, but was now seen by some as a temporary stop-gap that would solve the immediate question of what to do with the workplaces that had been seized by the workers. It was at this meeting that the term "collective" was first adopted to describe this solution. This concept of "collectivization" was suggested by Joan Fabregas, a Catalan nationalist of middle class origin who had joined the CNT after July of '36.

"Up to that moment, I had never heard of collectivization as a solution for industry(30) -- the department stores were being run by the union," says Joan Ferrer, the Commercial Union secretary. "What the new system meant was that each collectivized firm would retain its individual character, but with the ultimate objective of federating all enterprises within the same industry..."(30)

However, a number of unions went beyond "collectivization" and took over all the facilities in their industries, eliminating competition between separate firms. The many small barber and beauty shops in Barcelona were shut down and replaced with large neighborhood haircutting centers, run through the assemblies of the CNT barbers' union. The CNT bakers union did something similar. The CNT Wood Industry Union shut down the many mom-and-pop cabinet-making shops, where conditions were often dangerous and unhealthy. They were replaced with two large factories, which included new facilities for the benefit of the workforce, such as a large swimming pool.

The union ran the entire industry, from the felling of timber in the Val d'Aran to the furniture showrooms in Barcelona. The railway, maritime shipping and water, gas and electric industry unions also pursued this strategy of industrial unification, as did the textile union in the industrial town of Badalona, outside Barcelona. This was considered to be a step in the direction of eventual socialization.

At the Catalan union plenary of September, 1936, "the bigger, more powerful unions, like the woodworkers, the transport workers, the public entertainment union, all of which had already socialized [i.e. unified their industries under union management], wanted to extend their solution to the rest of industry. The smaller, weaker unions wanted to form cooperatives..."(31)

The Communists and the petty bourgeois Republican leaders in Catalonia were opposed to any moves in the direction of carrying out the CNT's original socialization program. This was expressed in the conflict over the content and implementation of the decree "legalizing" the worker-takeovers, which was eventually passed in October of '36. The Communists and Republicans wanted to minimize the scope of these takeovers and especially opposed moves in the direction of economic unification and overall economic regulation from below through "union management."

The collectivization decree was a compromise that called for conversion of all workplaces with more than 100 workers into "collectives," that is, worker-managed businesses operating in a market economy. Half of the profits of the collectives would go into an industrial and commercial credit fund to finance all of Catalonia's industry; 20% was to go into a reserve and depreciation fund; 15% for the collective's social needs; and 15% into a discretionary fund that could be used in any way the general assembly of workers decided. This set-up is generally considered to be the historical precedent for the system of "market socialism" enacted in Yugoslavia in the '50s.

This system of market self-management had both problems and triumphs. The collectives did tend to prevent layoffs, even when Civil War and international boycott led to a severe drop in the market for their product. The workers simply shared the available work and continued to pay wages to the whole workforce of the collective. Moreover, the collectives represented an attempt by the working class to hold onto control of production; and it clearly demonstrated that workers can manage industry.

However, some collectives had inherited better equipment or resources than others. The separation into autonomous units led to competition as each collective attempted to market its own product. "The collectivism we are living in Spain is not anarchist collectivism," complained Horacio Prieto in 1938, "it is the creation of a new capitalism ...Rich collectives refuse to recognize any responsibilities, duties or solidarity towards poor collectives..."(32)

Josep Costa, secretary of the CNT textile union in Badalona, was critical of the collectivization of the textile industry in nearby Barcelona:
"We didn't see the Barcelona textile collectives as models for our experience. Individual collectivized mills acted there from the beginning as though they were completely autonomous units, marketing their own products as they could and paying little heed to the general situation. It caused a horrific problem. It was a sort of popular capitalism..."(33)

Smaller, weaker collectives were in a position where they had trouble paying their workers while larger plants with more modern equipment were in no such danger. Finally, in February, 1937, a joint UGT/CNT textile union congress was held in Catalonia to establish a Textile Industry Council that could coordinate the industry and end competition between workplaces. The congress agreed that collectivization of individual plants had been mistaken and that it was necessary to proceed rapidly towards complete socialization of the industry.

The formation of the worker-managed enterprises in the Spanish Civil War has sometimes led people (including some anarchists) to misconceptions about the anarcho-syndicalist program. This passage is typical:
"At the time of the Civil War, a popular idea among the Spanish working class and peasants was that each factory, area of land, etc., should be owned collectively by its workers, and that these "collectives" should be linked with each other ...without any superior central authority. This basic idea had been propagated by anarchists in Spain for more than 50 years."(34)

However, the "collectives" instituted during the Civil War were seen by the CNT as merely a temporary stop-gap. They had not been advocated in the CNT's pre-Civil War program, but came into existence precisely because the CNT was unable to carry out its libertarian communist program, which would have required setting up workers congresses and coordinating councils to establish coordination and planning for the economy as a whole.

Hierarchical Power Corrupts

In order to support his conception of the CNT's program, Wayne Price gives us a rather (in)famous quote from Juan Garcia Oliver, describing the crucial decision made in Catalonia in July of '36 to cooperate with Companys' government:
"The CNT and FAI decided on collaboration and democracy, renouncing revolutionary the anarchist and Confederal dictatorship."

In this statement Garcia Oliver describes the capitalist state as "democracy" and refers to the alternative of democratic CNT unions taking power as "totalitarianism" and "dictatorship." Price thinks this statement tells us something about the CNT's original program in the period leading up to the crisis of July 1936. But in fact this statement was made in December of 1937, many months after Garcia Oliver and other influential CNT activists had embarked upon collaboration in the government ministries and Republican army command. The quote is taken from a report by the CNT leadership, presented by Garcia Oliver and Mariano Vazquez (CNT National Secretary in 1937) at the congress of the International Workers Association (IWA). The CNT was aware that government participation was in violation of the principles of the IWA and the report was intended to provide a rationalization. That report is an indication of just how far Garcia Oliver and other influential CNT radicals had been corrupted by the experience of government collaboration.

Garcia Oliver's position in July of '36 had been entirely different. He had been one of the delegates to argue in favor of overthrowing the Companys government in Catalonia in the crucial union assemblies of July 20-21.(35)

As government collaboration progressed, leading CNT militants found themselves acting contrary to their anarchist ideals. It wasn't long before they began to modify those ideals. This is a common human phenomenon, called "cognitive dissonance reduction" by psychologists.

Collaboration meant taking military command positions in the re-constituted Republican army, which increasingly replaced the labor militia. It meant that libertarians staffed administrative posts in the national government, the government of Catalonia, and in the municipal governments that the Popular Front put in place of the village assemblies and urban worker committees that had been forged in the revolutionary upheaval of July-August 1936. As these activists became accustomed to exercising hierarchical power, it would be surprising if this had not tended to erode the libertarian politics and non-hierarchical practices of the CNT, which had been carefully and painstakingly nurtured over a period of decades.

Price's accusation of "multi-party dictatorship," though it is not a valid characterization of the program advocated by the CNT up to July of '36, does describe what the Popular Front was evolving towards if Franz Borkenau is to be believed:
"Officially, the Valencia Government fights for a "parliamentary democratic republic." Now this, at present, is...not a reality...Anarchists and Trotskyists are not represented in the there is no opposition [there], and the activities [of the Cortes] are limited to the holding of sessions with the maximum legal interval between them, sessions which adjourn after the unanimous passing of a few resolutions; lately by an emergency law the Cortes has even been relieved of the duty of sitting at regular intervals...The municipal reform [implemented by the Popular Front] does not [only] introduce restrictions [on popular democracy] as an emergency measure...It abolishes elections entirely...In practice it works out in such a way that the municipal council is formed after the local secretary of the UGT, the secretary of the Communists, the president of the local Republican group, and the representatives of the anarchists...have come to an agreement...For a correct interpretation one must remember that usually the Socialists, Communists and Republicans are not politically divided ...This municipal reform marks an important stage in the development towards the dictatorship of party bureaucracies...The only difference from the state of things in Russia is this: in Russia the ruling bureaucracy belongs to one party, whereas in Spain it is still divided between three or four..."(36)

Borkenau's description is perhaps a bit exaggerated -- there were leftwing UGT socialists who were not happy with the decay of workers power and the reconstruction of State authority, as championed by the Communists. The municipal reform was bitterly opposed by the libertarians but their failure to pursue an alternative strategy for working class unity in July of '36 weakened their position. Having abandoned consolidation of the revolution "until after the fascists have been defeated," they were pushed unavoidably along the road dictated by the requirements of Popular Front "unity."

The Friends of Durruti

As the CNT found itself pushed back and its position undermined, opposition began to surface in the union. The Friends of Durruti were a dissident group formed in early 1937.

Price perpetuates the myth that the Friends of Durruti Group had abandoned the original anarcho-syndicalism of the CNT in favor of a quasi-Trotskyist viewpoint. But in fact the Friends wanted a return to the CNT's original ideals.

The Friends of Durruti program called for the formation of a "National Council of Defense" which they described as follows:
"Members of the Revolutionary Council (Junta) will be elected by democratic vote in the union organizations. Account is to be taken of the number of companeros away at the front*; these companeros must have the right of representation. The Junta will steer clear of economic affairs, which are the exclusive preserve of the unions."(37)

The Defense Council would be responsible for the management of the war, "supervision of revolutionary order, international affairs, and revolutionary propaganda."

The second part of the Friends' program called for "all economic power to the unions." Industries would be run by self-governing Industrial Federations. For purposes of economic coordination, they advocated an Economics Council.

This is the same program of a "workers defense council" and "union management of the economy" that the CNT had advocated prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the same program that Price has denounced as leading to a "multi-party dictatorship."

Why did the CNT crap out?

The usual Trotskyist explanation for the defeat of the Spanish revolution is the absence of leaders with "the correct program." To Trotskyism, the ideas of "leaders" are the crucial factor in history. But, as we've seen, the CNT did have a program for workers power, a program for workers councils independent of the Republican state. Moreover, "leadership" for revolution was not lacking at the crucial meetings in Barcelona on July 20-21, 1936. Durruti and others were pushing for overthrow of the Companys government. They were proposing that the CNT carry out its program. But the assembled militants obviously had doubts.

"Yes, but the Nosotros and other radical groups didn't add up to a vanguard party," the Trotskyists may reply. But what would guarantee that a political organization, however "correct" its program, will not suffer the same divisions and weaknesses as the FAI did in 1936? In the years and months leading up to July of '36, the FAI and the CNT majority had consistently agitated and fought around a revolutionary program, a program of no collaboration with the State. I believe that the explanation for the CNT's capitulation to the Popular Front does not lie in programmatic weaknesses, as Price suggests, but elsewhere.

What was lacking in July of '36 was not the "correct program" but audacity. As the Friends of Durruti Group wrote in 1938:
"The CNT did not want to push ahead with the revolution with all its consequences ...Has any revolution ever been made without having to overcome countless difficulties? Is there any revolution, of the advanced type, that has been able to avert foreign intervention? Using fear as a springboard and letting oneself be swayed by timidity, one never succeeds...The timid have no right to lead the masses. When an organization's whole existence has been spent preaching revolution, it has an obligation to act whenever a favorable set of circumstances arises...In July [1936] the...CNT ought to have leapt into the driver's seat in the country, delivering a severe coup de grace to all that is outmoded and archaic."(38)

But why was audacity lacking in July of '36? I don't believe we can explain this simply as "misleadership." The decision to join the Anti-Fascist Militia Committee in July of '36 and to join the national Popular Front government in September were not simply imposed by a few "leaders." As I have pointed out, the decision to join the Anti-Fascist Miltia Committee was made by a series of local and regional union conferences in Barcelona on July 20-21. The decision to join the national government was made in September at a national CNT union conference, after a process of local and regional union meetings.

If the members and militants of the various CNT unions and local federations were opposed to government collaboration, that is the position their delegates would have defended. No matter how much Horacio Prieto wanted to see the CNT in the government, he didn't have the power to impose that decision. The base of the organization had to go along with that course of action or it wouldn't happen.

Jose Peirats was editor of Ruta, the paper of the Libertarian Youth of Catalonia, one of the "dissident anarchist groups" referred to by Price. With its thousands of members, this was the largest leftwing organization in Spain that consistently opposed collaboration with the Popular Front throughout the Civil War. Yet, says Peirats, the CNT-FAI errors and problems were not due to lack of foresight or of revolutionary ideas:
"Anarchist literature had explored all aspects of the major revolutions of modern times, especially the Russian revolution of 1917...Some [problems] were not satisfactorily resolved but...even the most heroic resistance will fail against a superior force. It is possible that the anarcho-syndicalist movement lacked the bravery, self-confidence and serenity necessary to reject the easiest solutions, but we repeat: all predictions, all hypothetical solutions...yield before the force of current events -- especially when our individual and collective existence is at stake...However, sometimes the actions taken in self-preservation are misguided."(39)

In a movement as closely based on the shopfloor and local community as the CNT, the FAI activists and other radical militants in the CNT could not help but be affected by the attitudes and thinking of the rank-and-file. The preoccupations and consciousness of the CNT affected the FAI and the radical groups as much as the anarchist groups affected the CNT. Peirats has described the relationship between the FAI and the CNT in these words:
"If the FAI influenced the CNT, the opposite was also true, it was not correct to speak of an anarchist dictatorship. Anarchism lost much of its special character when anarchists tried to lead the anarcho-syndicalist federation. In fact, the anarchists were run by the union. The CNT, an essentially revolutionary organization, made the anarchists into its own image, providing them with a sphere of action, masses and positions of leadership. The CNT provided the FAI with new militants, who brought their own unionist and revolutionary preoccupations."(40)

To the extent that the CNTers in Catalonia felt isolated, this could have weakened their self-confidence. "Revolutionary will" does not exist in a vacuum. As I said last issue:
"The working class of Catalonia, valiant though it may be, could not defeat the combined forces of Spanish militarism and international capital on its own."

The support for libertarian revolution was strongest among the workers of industrial Catalonia and weaker elsewhere. This uneven support for revolution within Spain,* the absence of revolutionary developments in other nearby countries, the weakness of the libertarian movement internationally at that point, and the fascist officers' success at maintaining control over the army, were factors that objectively weakened the chances for a successful revolution in Spain. The mass of CNTers in Catalonia, perceiving these difficulties, judged that it was more "expedient" in July of '36 to "temporarily" cooperate with the government.

Though I believe these material factors are the main explanation for the defeat of the workers revolution in Spain, this does not excuse the libertarian movement for its mistakes. On the contrary, in following the course of action advised by leaders like Horacio Prieto and Abad Diego de Santillan, the CNT only weakened the revolution and helped to discredit libertarian socialism.


What are some of the lessons that we can derive from the Spanish experience? I offer a few thoughts in this direction:

*Importance of unifying workers power -- Taking over individual workplaces, setting up local worker committees in various towns, and creating labor militias didn't go far enough. Opposition to a libertarian revolution is inevitable from those who would lose power, property, businesses, management positions, and so on. The Communists, Republicans and social-democrats were able to rally these people behind the State.

In order for the working class to unify and make decisions for the whole society, and solidify its power in opposition to the State, it was necessary to build democratic bodies that could provide an alternative to the State as the supreme decision-making power in society. The CNT program of regional and national worker congresses and coordinating councils for the militia and the economy would have provided a means of achieving unity among a workforce divided by ideological and organizational loyalties, and an alternative to the "unity" offered by the Popular Front, which only subordinated the workers movement to capitalist legality.

Anarchists are right when they stress the importance of self-management at all levels, and thus local control of workplaces and communities. But society is an interdependent totality. The re-organization of social unity on a libertarian basis -- at regional, national and international levels -- is as important as the building of self-management of local units. If there were anarchists in Spain who discounted the importance of organs of unified worker power at the regional and national level because "we've got the factories and militias," they were tragically mistaken. A revolution that remains half-completed, that is not consolidated, is doomed to failure.

*Importance of military personnel -- Competition between businesses is the impetus to the constant technological change that is characteristic of capitalist development. But the competition between nation-states for power on the global stage is also an impetus to technological change, that is, development of military technology. The control of the "forces of destruction" is as important to the success of a workers' revolution as is the control over the means of production.

Turn-of-the-century syndicalism, such as the American IWW, had a strategy for building a new society that was based exclusively on workers taking over the workplaces in an "on-the-job revolutionary general strike." However, the role of the police and military forces was not adequately dealt with.(41) The Spanish anarchists recognized the importance of gaining the support of the rank-and-file in the military. The FAI's work on Soldado del Pueblo was aimed at developing a sense of loyalty to the mass of the populace among the ranks of military personnel. Some soldiers did mutiny -- and the entire Navy went over to the anti-fascist side. But the fascist officers were able to maintain their hegemony over most of the army.

The most important material advantage that the Russian insurrection of 1917 had over the Spanish revolution of the '30s was the support of the overwhelming majority of rank-and-file army and navy personnel. The widespread disaffection and demoralization in the Czarist army at the end of World War I drove the soldiers and sailors into the arms of the soviets. Once the soviets had gained the loyalty of most rank-and-file military personnel, the bourgeois Kerensky government was powerless to defend itself against an armed insurrection backed by the soviets.

*Need for an international struggle -- The Spanish revolution reminds us of the importance of spreading the struggle beyond the boundaries of a single country. An isolated revolution, without active support by working people in other countries, will be undermined by capitalist boycotts and military aid to anti-revolutionary forces. As George Orwell pointed out, the Spanish revolution could have been aided by worker direct action in other countries (e.g., refusal to handle arms bound for Franco's forces), and by encouraging rebellions in nearby countries (such as Morocco and Portugal).

The anarchist-inspired revolt in Marinha Grande, Portugal, in 1934 and the mass sitdown strikes in France in 1936 indicated that the spread of revolution to these other countries was not impossible.

The world economy is an interdependent totality. To the extent that a revolution does not spread out to encompass at least a multi-national region with a mix of resources and skills, to that extent international capitalist economic forces and imperialist military power will tend to predominate.

*Consistency of means and ends -- The idea that the type of society that results from a process of change is a direct result of the means that were used to achieve it is perhaps the most basic anarchist principle. Thus, if our goal is a libertarian society -- a society that is not run top-down but through democratic decision-making by the mass of working people -- the strategy and tactics that are used to fight for social change must be consistent with that goal. For the result will be already determined by how change is fought for. It is unrealistic to imagine that hierarchical tactics -- such as joining a government -- could lead to anything but hierarchical results.

A social order that emerges from a rapid period of social change will necessarily be shaped by the movement and tactics that generates that social change. A movement that proceeds by building up a top-down political party can only create a society in which decision-making power is concentrated in the hands of a few. If the movement for social change concentrates on changes implemented through government action, the result can only be to increase government power. To create a libertarian society, the process of social change must be dominated by a movement that is run in a libertarian way, that is, through direct decision-making by the rank-and-file. The development of a mass workers movement that is directly run by the rank-and-file is, thus, crucial to the creation of a libertarian socialist society.

A section of Spanish libertarians erroneously assumed that they could still pursue libertarian objectives though participating in hierarchical government bodies. This was a tragic mistake. This only ended up strengthening top-down government power and corrupting the mass libertarian movement, as leading militants became accustomed to top-down decision-making, and rank-and-file control of the movement was eroded.

Those libertarians who defended government participation in Spain argued that a non-hierarchical re-organization of society in Catalonia in July of '36 could only have been imposed by force, against the opposition of the parties and sectors of society that have a vested interest in existing inequalities. They argued that this would have been a "dictatorship," no better than the alternative of government collaboration.

If this argument were valid, then it seems to me that anarchism itself would be impossible, for there will always be sectors of society -- bosses, judges, politicians, etc. -- who will oppose social reorganization on a libertarian basis.

What this means is that a non-hierarchical society must be imposed by the working class against the opposition of those who would lose power. But if this revolution is indeed being carried out by a democratically self-managed mass workers movement, such a revolution puts power into the hands of the workforce -- the majority, who are subordinated and denied effective power in capitalist society, even under "democratic" governments.

The lesson to be learned here is that the only tactics that are consistent with our goal of libertarian social change are those tactics and modes of organization that facilitate rank-and-file self-management of the movement, that is, modes of organization that are not top-down.

The CNT's program of workers congresses and coordinating councils provided them with a grassroots, independent method of developing unity among the workforce for social change and fighting Franco, a means consistent with their libertarian socialist goals. It's quite possible that the anarchists would have been defeated by superior armed force even if they had pursued this strategy.(42) But in abandoning this alternative, they were pushed unavoidably into a "unity" dominated by the Popular Front government. The libertarian movement's capitulation to the Popular Front only moved them further away from achieving their libertarian goals.

-- Tom Wetzel


(1)The UGT was controlled by the Socialist Party (PSOE) in most of Spain, and the Land Workers Federation was identified with the leftwing of the PSOE. In Catalonia, however, the UGT was more conservative and under the thumb of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC), a Stalinist party affiliated to the Moscow-controlled Communist International. However, the UGT was insignificant in Catalonia when the revolution broke out in Spain in July of '36.

*Spain in the '30s was not a "backward, peasant country," as is sometimes supposed. According to de Santillan's After the Revolution, 32% of the workforce in Spain in 1932 was employed in industry and 52% in agriculture. In Catalonia alone, 200,000 workers were employed in the textile industry and 70,000 in metal-working and machinery-manufacturing. This is very different than the situation in Russia at the end of World War I, where the urban working class made up only 10% of the population.

"Revolutionary upheavals in this century came not to primarily industrialized countries, but to primarily rural, underdeveloped countries," says Sam Dolgoff ("Spain's Revolution: A Look Back at 50," Libertarian Labor Review, Nov. 1986). Dolgoff refers here to the Chinese and Russian revolutions as examples. However, the bureaucratic, statist systems created by these revolutions certainly do not support Dolgoff's claim that a libertarian revolution can be based on the peasantry in "rural, underdeveloped" countries. The weakness of capitalist development meant that the working class was only a minority. The weakness of both the business and working classes led to the rise of a new class, the state-based bureaucratic class, which has been the agency of industrialization in these countries, the historic role played by capitalism elsewhere.

But in the Spain of the 1930s capitalist social relations had penetrated agriculture much more thoroughly than in "backward, underdeveloped" countries. In Russia at the end of World War I, for example, agriculture mostly consisted of small farms on which peasant families worked mainly for their own subsistence, bartering or selling their surplus. In Spain, however, agriculture was oriented to the world market. Spanish agribusiness also employed large numbers of laborers who did not own enough land to support themselves. The revolutionary labor movement in the Spanish countryside in the '30s was precisely based on this large population of rural wage-earners. Family farms existed in the citrus and wine industries, for example, but they were market-oriented. The peasant farm-owners often tended to be leery -- or outright opponents -- of the revolution.

(2)Blood of Spain, p. 180

(3)An English translation was published in the USA in 1935 under the title After the Revolution.

(4)From an interview in the early '70s; quoted in Blood of Spain, p. 220.

(5)The political police set up by the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1918, ancestor of the present-day KGB.

(6)Anarchist Organization: The History of the FAI, Black Rose Books, 1986, p. 121.

(7)The Los Solidarios group included a number of influential activists in the radical wing of the CNT, such as Buenaventura Durruti, Juan Garcia Oliver, Ricardo Sanz, Miguel Vivancos, and Gregorio Jover. This group's name was changed to Nosotros when it joined the FAI in 1935. Revista Blanca was an independent magazine, not affiliated with the CNT or FAI. It included Federica Montseny and Abad Diego de Santillan.

(8)At the same time, the CNT local federations in Lerida and Gerona, in Catalonia, which were under the control of the Workers and Peasants Bloc (a dissident leninist group that was a predecessor of the POUM), were expelled. The Treintistas disagreed with this expulsion. By the time it was re-admitted to the CNT in 1936, the FOL had grown to over 60,000 members.

(9)The Anarchists of Casas Viejas, p. 268. Mintz's book is a very thorough and sensitive investigation of the events surrounding the Casas Viejas massacre.

(10)Anarchists of Casas Viejas, p. 270.

(11)Blanquism was a 19th century State Socialist tendency which proposed a strategy of organizing an armed cadre organization to seize state power.

(12)Quoted in Anarchist Organization, p. 149.

(13)Garcia Oliver's views are reported in Anarchist Organization, p. 188. Neither Durruti nor Garcia Oliver were present at the plenaries as representatives of Nosotros, but as delegates of their local unions.

(14)El Organismo Economico de la Revolucion.

(15)Blood of Spain, p. 336.

(16)Blood of Spain, p. 186.

(17)Homage to Catalonia, p. 70.

(18)Homage to Catalonia, p. 70.

(19)Homage to Catalonia, p. 69.

(20)Homage to Catalonia, p. 68.

(21)Of course, Price has criticized this council program as a "multi-party dictatorship." You'll notice that this is inconsistent with his accusation that the CNT-FAI had a program of "anarchist dictatorship." He can't seem to make up his mind whether the anarchists did or did not want to share power with workers of other ideological persuasions.

(22)Gaston Leval, Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, p. 255.

(23)I think Price advocates workers councils because he sees them as the basis of a socialism in which rank-and-file workers would directly control the society. That idea of workers councils is indeed "libertarian," as Price says, but I do not believe that was Trotsky's idea of the role of workers councils.

I have read through the Pathfinder Press anthology of Trotsky's writings on the Spanish revolution, and it seems to me that he always discusses workers councils in terms of the strategy and program of the party, not the value that workers councils have as organs of direct workers control of society. I believe Trotsky advocated workers councils because he saw them as the best way for the vanguard party to rally workers around its leadership and organize the seizure of state power.

Certainly Trotsky's role in the Russian revolution tells us that the power of the party was more important to him than democratic control by workers through mass bodies. When the workers and sailors of the Kronstadt navy base rebelled in 1921, in solidarity with striking workers in Petrograd, they were demanding freedom of the press for socialist and anarchist groups and new elections to the soviets. But the reaction of the Bolshevik leadership was to crush the Kronstadt dissent in blood. Trotsky's attitude towards workers democracy was clearly expressed at the time:
"The party has an historic birthright to rule," he said, and this "takes precedence over the passing whims of the workers democracy."

(24")Soviets and Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution," Root and Branch: The Rise of the Workers Movements, p. 283.

(25)Such seems to be the position of the International Communist Current (ICC). I think that if workers councils were formed in a purely spontaneous uprising, without a history of workers self-managing their own movement, it would be more likely that parties, bureaucracies and statist tendencies would dominate the councils. The examples of the Russian and German workers councils at the end of World War I seem to indicate this.

The ICC has the rather odd position that no workers revolution occurred in Spain because the workers never consolidated power. However, this definition would have the strange result that we could never talk of a "workers revolution that failed" without contradicting ourselves. Indeed, it would follow that there have never been any workers revolutions. The ICC holds that the Russian revolution of 1917 was a genuine workers revolution, yet the working class in Russia never consolidated power. The local soviets that arose in the revolution sometimes suffered from a top-down structure, but it got worse in October of '17. The Bolshevik Party used the support they had in a number of major soviets as a springboard for setting up a national state apparatus that was insulated from rank-and-file worker control. It was the Bolshevik party leadership who consolidated power in Russia in October of 1917, not the mass of workers.

(26)The dominant union organization in Reus -- an industrial town outside Barcelona -- was the Federacion Obrera Local (Local Workers Federation), which was independent of the UGT and CNT.

(27)Since the POUM was the dominant influence in the local union federation in Lerida, their views probably would have had a presence in the Regional Council, even though the POUM would not have been represented as such.

(29)Quoted in Blood of Spain, p. 218.

(28"On Authority," in Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 103.

(30)Quoted in Blood of Spain, p. 212. The term "collective" had only been used by Spanish anarchists previously in a very different sense. It had been used to refer to the integration of agricultural and non-agricultural labor, production and distribution, in small rural communities, through an association of the whole community, which would be run through a kind of town-meeting democracy. "Collectivized communities," in this sense, were formed during the Spanish revolution in rural areas. Since this would eliminate the internal market within those communities, it was in contradiction to the meaning that Fabregas gave to "collectives" in Catalonia. The integration of production and distribution in large urban areas could not be accomplished through assembling all the residents together, and, thus, the term "collective" had never been applied previously to urban, industrial situations.

(31)Quoted in Blood of Spain, p. 212.

(32)Quoted in Blood of Spain, p. 209

(33)Quoted in Blood of Spain, p. 229

(34)"Spain '36: End of Anarchism?,"Wildcat No. 9.

(35)Says Juan Gomez Casas:
"The position supported by Juan Garcia Oliver [in July of '36] has been described as `anarchist dictatorship' Actually, though, Oliver was advocating application of the goals of the Saragossa Congress in Barcelona and Catalonia at a time in history when, in his opinion, libertarian communism was a real possibility. It would always signify dissolution of the old parties dedicated to the idea of [state] power, or at least make it impossible for them to pursue their politics aimed at seizure of power. There will always be pockets of opposition to new experiences and therefore resistance to joining `the spontaneity of the popular masses.' In addition, the masses would have complete freedom of expression in the unions and in the economic organizations of the revolution as well as in their political organizations" Anarchist Organization, p. 188

(36)The Spanish Cockpit, pp. 208-210.

(37)Towards a Fresh Revolution, p. 42.

(38)Towards a Fresh Revolution, pp. 23-24.

*The "uneven support for revolution within Spain" also includes the divisions on the left. This is a topic that I have only touched on in this article. Much of the blame for the revolution's defeat rests with the Communists.

The Stalin regime was primarily concerned with defending the interests of the Russian bureaucratic class. To do this Stalin proposed an alliance with the "Western democracies" as a possible protection against Nazi aggression. The Popular Front strategy pursued by the Communist parties, beginning in 1935, was an expression of this.

In Spain this meant that Stalin was not interested in furthering workers revolution since this would irritate the French, British and American governments, and a libertarian workers revolution in Spain would pose an alternative concept of revolution for workers around the world. In Spain the Communists, who had no base in the working class, pursued a strategy of organizing the middle classes -- landowners, farm proprietors, lawyers, store owners, government officials, etc. -- to oppose the revolutionary unions' drive for power. As a Leninist party, they appeared to the threatened middle classes as a "tougher, more effective" alternative to the traditional petty bourgeois political party in Spain, the Republicans. This, plus the weapons from Russia, were the basis of the Communists' rise from obscurity to importance during the Civil War.

They championed the re-construction of a top-down state and army in opposition to the workers committees and militias built by the CNT and the UGT. When it became obvious that the plants taken over by the workers would not be given back to the bosses, the Communists at least tried to limit the takeovers to large companies and force them to operate as businesses in the market economy, opposing the CNT efforts at overcoming competition through unification of industries under union control.

Though the Communists were obviously a factor in the defeat of the revolution, this cannot excuse the mistakes of the anarchists. Since the Communists defend authoritarian statism and bureaucratic class power, we should expect that they will play a counter-revolutionary role. By capitulating to the Popular Front, the CNT played into the Communists' hands, in my opinion. Thus, the question is, How could the Spanish libertarians have done a better job of defeating the Communists' game-plan?

*The Libertarian Youth of Catalonia, who opposed the CNT's collaboration with the government, criticized the national CNT conferences of September, 1936, which went along with the proposal to join the Popular Front government, on the grounds that no provision had been made for representation of the CNT's labor militia. Only the unions were represented. Since many of the most enthusiastic supporters of the revolution had volunteered to fight at the front, this meant that some of the most radical elements in the CNT had no direct voice in these conferences.

(39)Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, p. 179.

(40)Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, p. 239.

(41)Ralph Chaplin's pamphlet The General Strike for Industrial Freedom is perhaps the fullest exposition of the IWW concept of workers revolution. A peaceful general strike and factory occupation, backed by mass demonstrations of the unemployed, is the scenario painted by Chaplin. Nothing is said about the army or police.

(42)Peirats believes that the only alternative to government collaboration was an "heroic defeat."