Originally appeared in Ideas and Action
Publication of the Workers Solidarity Alliance
This unpublished manuscript was written in 1987 as part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
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
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
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
of the CNT's program with these words:
"The CNT held that workers unity in the revolutionary
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
An influential formulation of this program of councils and congresses
is to be found in the book El Organismo Economico de la
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
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
"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)
In addition to measures like rotation from office, there are two
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
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)
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
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
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
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
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
At union congresses, where policies and program for the movement were
"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,
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  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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
of the workers, after giving reports and answering
The delegates on the committee could be removed by an assembly at
The highest coordinating body of the Railway Federation was the
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  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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Replacing the government certainly would have encountered strong
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
Go to part II