A tour of the CNT positions during the Civil War

We share below an important text on the changing positions of the anarchist CNT labour union during the Spanish Civil War/Revolution, published at Alasbarricadas (11/12/2021) and published in English at Anarkismo.net (20/12/2021). [We have made only minor revisions to the text as it appears at Anarkismo.net]. The significance of the piece is that it takes us away from any simple reading of the Revolution, at least as it touched the anarchists, a reading that tends to treat the events as simply either tragedy (the CNT and the anarchists were crushed from without) or betrayal (the CNT forsook the Revolution for the war against Franco, thereby sealing their defeat). Both interpretations are in the end complementary and what they leave out is the complexity of the political-economic situation on the ground during the war, both within and outside the CNT. And this is a blindness that perpetuates an illusory notion of revolution, of revolution as an all or nothing affair, when it never was, whether in Spain or elsewhere.

The publication of the article at Alasbarricadas invited a response from Octavio Alberola (15/12/2021) which we share by way of closing our own introduction.

Indeed, as the comrades at Alasbaricads say in the introduction to this article, understanding the complexity of that period is not an easy task. But without looking for those responsible for the strategic changes of the CNT and the MLE during that period, what is verified is that from the attempt to implant libertarian communism, they went on to try to implant a kind of “corporate socialism”, as the author of the article says, with a clear tendency to centralisation and bureaucratisation. A practice that continued to predominate in the exiled CNT, despite “denying” those turns and “returning” to the “libertarian communist” line.

Now, although this drift was largely forced by the historical context of that moment (the war against fascism) and it cannot be known if it would not have occurred in another historical context, it seems to me that it shows -as a teaching for the present and future – the limitations and contradictions of conceiving the revolution as an act of force and not as a change of mentality.

From Alasbarricadas – We echo this historical review on the various positions that the CNT-FAI took along the Spanish Revolution. It is not usually easy to understand the complexity of a historical moment in which so many things were happening at the same time. We consider basic to understand the tactical ups and downs of any revolutionary movement in a historical moment in order to be able to learn something for our future struggles.

The article is not an academic one, but it sheds light on some little-known facts about how the CNT navigated 1938, in terms of tactics and strategy. This period has usually been completely erased, automatically branded as obscure, shameful, claudicating or bureaucratic without any attempt to understand what the libertarian organisations were actually doing. It is assumed that the drift of the war and, as the article says, the pessimism that surrounded the organisation from mid-1937 onwards, resulted in a shift in the strategic line of the libertarian movement to approaches as different from libertarian communism as could be the “trade union state” or corporate socialism.

We know that this article is the tip of the iceberg of a world that cannot be explained in a struggle of the good guys against the bad guys. Everything is full of nuances. We miss an explanation on the opposition to this shift. But to have treated that opposition as it deserves would have diverted the article from conveniently (and at a manageable length) presenting us the official line of the Movimiento Libertario Español (MLE) of ’37 and ’38.

And by the way, even if this history presents us with an unclear evolution towards bureaucratism and centralism, we are still amazed at with the enormous capacity of those people who built up our organisations and managed the daily lives of millions of people. Because, it must be said, when there was supposedly no social revolution any more, there were still hundreds of thousands of people living in collectivisations and a large part of industry was still under workers’ control.

In order to give you an insight into the debates and to be able to elaborate further in-depth studies, https://mega.nz/folder/FwRXkQBS#xk2IN6lpYZmEJYP-IaTW3g.

From libertarian communism to corporate socialism

Miguel G. Gómez (@BlackSpartak)

The aim of this article is to shed light on the political-economic project followed by the National Confederation of Labour (CNT) during the Spanish Civil War. We will avoid giving a reading by refering to fetish words such as “betrayal of principles” or “opportunism”, that do not explain the reality of the internal processes and even less the strategic turns of a mass organisation.

When the CNT came out of the Zaragoza Congress in May 1936 it seemed that the internal debates on how to apply ideology to the specifity of Spanish reality had been definitively settled. At this congress the most important thing, on a theoretical level, was the Declaración del Concepto Confederal del Comunismo Libertario. In this document an outline was made of what a society governed by anarchist principles should be like.

The general atmosphere in the spring of 1936 was one of strong social contestation at all levels and spirits were certainly very high. The possibility of revolution was by no means a chimera. Anarchist theorists such as Christian CornelissenIsaac PuenteValeriano Orobón Fernández or Diego Abad de Santillán had been sketching out models of a libertarian communist society for years, but they did not quite agree among themselves. In Saragossa, a model of libertarian communism based more on the ideas of Isaac Puente than on those of the others was advocated.

The general characteristics of the model were the abolition of private property and the establishment of communes as fundamental elements of the new society. At the industrial level, each production centre would have a technical-administrative council appointed in assembly by the company’s staff. They would coordinate with other centres through the federations of industry – which in 1936 were very little developed. In their description they do not make clear the role of the trade unions from this point onwards, and it is understood that they would be dissolved given the achievement of libertarian communism.

Some sectors such as education, transport, construction, among others, would escape general industrial planning and would be more linked to local or communal spheres.

The basic point, as has been said, was the commune, which would have to confederate territorially in an Iberian Confederation of Libertarian Autonomous Communes. This would be the body that would replace the state at the administrative level. The communes would be in charge of governing the problems affecting life in a democratic way, from the bottom up, always taking into account the interests of those affected.

As for distribution, the Saragossa Congress did not accept the Kropotkinian concept of “the seizure of the heap”. Instead, it opted for a charter of the producer and the consumer which would have to be managed by the communes by means of purchasing vouchers. It is worth noting that they did not mention the figure of the cooperative.

For the time being, Treintism had been silenced. It accepted this decision of the libertarian trade union movement. They also supported the proposal of the CNT to initiate a rapprochement with the UGT to form a trade union alliance of a revolutionary character. For the Opposition trade unionists (treintistas), the important thing of the Congress was to reintegrate into the anarcho-syndicalist trade union centre.

All this was the theoretical basis for the Spanish Revolution of 1936. At the beginning of June there was the great wave of factory occupations in France. It was thought that the social revolution was going to break out in that country. But in the end it took place in Spain when the Fascist military uprising was defeated in much of the country.

The great dilemma facing the Cenetistas in the early days of the war was whether to seize power, as Joan García Oliver proposed in his “go for everything”, or whether to establish an anti-fascist pact, as Federica Montseny or Mariano Vázquez proposed. However, the proposal that received most support was that of Manuel Escorza, which assumed the anti-fascist pact in the public and formal spheres, while the economy and the militias would remain under workers’ control. In other words, it was decided to carry out the social revolution while collaborating in the defeat of fascism with others.

This decision was taken because of the difficulty of foreseeing what was going to happen in other Spanish territories. If in Catalonia the CNT was hegemonic and had the upper hand, in other areas of the Peninsula (since the islands and north Africa had come under the control of the fascist rebels) the CNT did not see itself capable of imposing the libertarian revolution. We say impose, precisely because that was what García Oliver was proposing, and although they could do it in Catalonia, it was quite another thing to try to do it in Madrid or Valencia. Let us also understand that at that time military victory was taken for granted. It was worth waiting.

So it was the libertarian movement that proposed to the rest of the anti-fascist forces the creation of a new body called the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias, which gradually took on other powers beyond the purely military question, for example, the War Industries Commission. But this body was not a dual power, it duplicated the existing power, the Generalitat (the Catalan government), without questioning or threatening it. Moreover, the anarcho-syndicalist movement collaborated with the Generalitat to manage whole areas of society, such as the economy and education. Thus, in August, both the Consell d’Economia de Catalunya and the Consell de l’Escola Nova Unificada were created, both led by personalities from the libertarian movement. In addition, let’s note that the CNT did not formally participate in the Government of the Generalitat until the Regional Plenum of Trade Unions on 24 September. In other words, anarcho-syndicalism was participating in (and directing) ministries of the Generalitat before it formally belonged to the Consell de la Generalitat.

In this first period, the “brief summer of anarchy”, there was a multitude of voluntary expropriations of companies. Many bosses had left the country, because of their sympathy for the fascists coup plotters and their fear of being arrested and executed by the masses of workers. When their companies were left without management, many were simply confiscated. In the Official Gazette, the DOGC, the Generalitat itself accepted these collectivisations and even accepted the occupation of land owned by the people who had disappeared from their villages. This was the practical origin of a multitude of land collectivisations in Catalonia. Even the ERC-controlled town councils accepted this situation without major problems [ERC was the governing political party in Catalonia].

At the same time, other areas of the peninsula caught the contagion of the social revolution (until september it had been largely political, in the form of a democratic rupture). While in many Valencian industrial towns and cities things happened in a similar way to Catalonia, in other places the revolution was driven from outside (Aragon), or was driven both by a minoritarian CNT and by a majoritarian UGT radicalised by its ranks (Asturias, Andalusia, Castile, Extremadura, or Murcia). In any case, the revolution was such an indisputable fact that almost all the republican organisations supported it verbally. They differed in the model of revolution. The revolution was not the same for Esquerra Republicana (ERC) than for the Marxists of the POUM or even for the Soviet communists (who also used the term of National Revolution). But the majority model was the one promoted by the CNT. In many places where collectivisation was carried out in the name of both CNT and UGT the accepted formula was the one of the first organisation.

This plurality of initiatives had to be systematised in some way. The CNT itself recognised this and held union plenary meetings very frequently to establish criteria for functioning, clarify misunderstandings and resolve the resulting conflicts of interest. The flood of affiliation was such that many people came from new affiliations without knowing either the CNT principles or the previous agreements.

A major step in bringing order to this revolutionary process was the Decreto de Colectivizaciones y Control Obrero of 24 October [DOGC 28 Octubre 1936]. It was drafted by Joan P. Fábregas and is a model for establishing a transition to trade union-based socialism. First of all, it regulates collectivised companies, which will have a Works Council. If they are not collectivised, and ownership remains private, a Workers’ Control Committee would be set up. All those enterprises whose owners had been declared fascists, all those employing more than a hundred workers and those between 50 and 100 workers if three quarters of their workers so decided in a general assembly, would be collectivised. The rest would only be collectivised if accepted by the owner.

The trade unions would be represented on the Works Council according to their location and would assume responsibility for the management of the company. General Councils of Industry would exist in all branches of industry in order to plan production. In order to facilitate the organisation of these General Councils, the figure of the Grouping of Industries (Agrupación) was accepted. Similar industries could be united under the same legal formula.

The acceptance of an auditor from the Generalitat in all the collectivised companies could be seen as a controversial point. We’ll go there now. Another factor of state interventionism could be seen in the Industry Councils themselves, which would have to have 4 delegates from the councils of the companies in that branch, 8 from the trade unions (according to their affiliation) and 4 from the Generalitat appointed by the Economy Council, which would preside over this Industry Council.

We said that this was a controversial point, since while the Consell d’Economia was directed by Joan P. Fábregas there was a clear direction towards socialisation. Therefore, the representatives of the Generalitat also came with this task, breaking any isolationism and corporatism or overcoming workers fears and reluctancy to manage companies.

But everything changed on 17 December 1936, when Fábregas was dismissed by the new President of the Generalitat, Tarradellas. The new Consell de la Generalitat replaced Fábregas with Diego Abad de Santillán, who did not share his same vision and did not have the same technical skills for the job. In addition, a few weeks later Tarradellas launched the battery of 58 decretos de S’Agaró, substantially modifying Catalonia’s financial and fiscal character. The collectivisations would be subject to a kind of syndical capitalism controlled by the Generalitat, without going as far as socialisation, which was what the CNT wanted. In a report in the autumn of 1938, the cenetistas said that the Generalitat had only legalised about a hundred of the 500 or so grouping of industries that existed in Catalonia. The government boycott of the revolution was manifest.

At the time, there were two apparently contradictory dynamics. On the one hand, there was strong pressure to unify the CNT and UGT unions into a single central. During November and December 1936 there were some local branch unions that were CNT-UGT, as if they were one and the same. However, this process came to a screeching halt in the winter, and the unions went their separate ways again. The other process was the spread of the collectivist revolution over large territories in Aragon, Valencia and Castile, places where anarchism at the local level had been marginal and where libertarian collectivities were now being formed non-stop.

At the end of February 1937 the CNT held a Regional Plenum of Trade Unions in Catalonia. On the one hand, it reorganised the structure of the Industry Unions and favoured the reappearance of the Industry Federations. On the other hand, it continued to hold out its hand to the UGT, which did not seem to take notice. The truth is that in Catalonia the UGT was dominated by the stalinist PSUC, so reaching out to that trade union centre was not going to work, not even by appealing to the rank and file. In any case, there was also a general commitment to socialise the economy as much as possible. This project could only be carried out at the local level in a few cities and at the general level it was quite advanced in the wood industry. And in half of Aragon, of course.

But the political situation did not help these economic reorganisation projects. The May Days 1937 brought all these revolutionary advances to a halt. The CNT even lost the ministry of Economy of the Generalitat, Santillán being replaced by the stalinist Joan Comorera. The CNT in Catalonia reacted by centralising and creating a Political Advisory Commission in July to manage day-to-day decisions of a political-strategic nature.

In September the momentous National Plenum of the Libertarian Movement took place in Valencia. The importance of this plenary session lays in the change in the Confederation’s strategic line. The context was the defeat in Barcelona in May Days, the attack on the collectives in Aragon in August, the presence of thousands of cenetistas in Republican prisons, and in short the pessimistic realisation that the CNT could only count on its own forces and that nobody would help it. And in this “nobody” they included both the IWA and the international libertarian movement, given its small size. They could not offer more help than they had done in 1936-37, and it was not enough. That is why they created a few months later the SIA, Solidarity International Antifascist, in order to broaden this international sympathising base a little more.

The Plenum accepted the reality that it was not possible to impose a single economic system in Spain and that various socio-economic projects (republican, liberal, marxist socialist or cooperativist) would have to coexist. It was proposed to create a Technical Advisory Council made up of representatives of workers’ organisations, the state and the municipalities. The idea was that some branches of the economy should be nationalised and others municipalised. The monopoly of foreign trade was also intended, in line with the project of Fábregas himself in the previous autumn. Another aspect was the acceptance of cooperativism as a necessary link between consumer and producer in order to avoid speculation.

This opinion, which came out of the Plenary, was in line with the report accepted at the National Plenary of the Regionals, also held in Valencia that same month. A war economy was imposed and a sort of merger with the State was accepted. These decisions were applauded by other political forces. The CNT was prepared to change its political line in order to win the war, something that any other organisation could say, however much they may have written against the CNT for making the revolution, which was its historical project.

In this sense, we see how this programme fits more with Joan Peiró‘s theory or proposal of the Iberian Federal Social Republic. This is a federalism not only on a territorial basis but also on an economic basis. Peiró accepted that there could be territories managed in the way the socialists or republicans wanted if in exchange there were others that could be managed in the way anarcho-syndicalism proposed.

This model was supported in the Manual del Militante de la CNT of October of 1937. They understood that the Federal Republic would be made up of a single republican party, a single authoritarian socialist party, a single libertarian party, and a single workers’ association for each locality. Each Municipal Council would be elected by suffrage. Half of the posts would be held by the parties and the other half by the workers’ association. The union and the municipality were the fundamental elements of this new society that the text itself came to call the “union state.” We could deduce that the libertarian party would be made up of the Syndicalist Party and the FAI and perhaps the other libertarian entities that there were.

The Valencia Plenary adds to these fundamental elements of society the figure of the cooperative, but we see that the spirit is also very similar to the Peiro model that included the proposals of the thirties. Let us remember that this current held a congress in June 1934, the debates of which were already going in this direction. Ángel Pestaña had broken away from Treintismo a few months earlier in order to create his Syndicalist Party in January 1934 and therefore remained on the sidelines of all these debates and eventually had no influence on the strategic line of the CNT, while Treintismo eventually did.

The next milestone was the Pleno Nacional Ampliado of an economic character, celebrated in January of 1938, in Valencia. As far as the economy was concerned, the most important thing was the restructuring of the industrial federations and above all the creation – formally on 15 February – of the Confederal Economic Council, CEC. The CNT argued that there should be an National Economic Council at spanish state level like the one that existed in Catalonia, but since neither Negrín’s government nor the UGT had any intention of making a move in this direction, at least the Libertarian Movement would do it on its own. Thus, the CNT promoted Local and County Councils of Economy, which would be federated at the Regional level and then confederated in the CEC. We would add that at this time the CAP changed to the Executive Committee of the Libertarian Movement, which was part of this process of centralisation.

Proposed by Mariano Cardona Rosell, the CEC served to organise the large number of collectivised companies, collective workshops, socialised industries, gardens and fields, warehouses, cooperatives, agricultural unions and economic initiatives of all kinds controlled or promoted by the Libertarian Movement. By then the movement was an economic power. The most important matters dealt with by the CEC were legislation and arbitration; currency, credit and welfare; exploitation of industries and services; raw materials and substitutes; and distribution and foreign trade. Each of these subjects had a commission. Each Regional was to have its own CEC which would be coordinated at state level.

They held a large number of meetings and controlled a huge amount of resources. And their projects went beyond these remits. For example, there was the proposal for an Iberian Trade Union Bank (Banco Sindical Ibérico). This project apparently never materialised, but there were several papers in that direction. Many collectivist and cooperativist projects always suffered from great economic hardship and a monetary credit would have allowed the consolidation of important initiatives. A confederal mutual fund was also envisaged as a kind of “social security” for the Confederation’s membership.

The Banco Sindical had also been envisaged at the Iberian level, including the UGT. But as we have said, the UGT was never interested in unitary projects of a revolutionary character, so everything was left in the hands (and on the shoulders) of the CNT. The Bank was better posed in the National Plenum of Regionals in August 1938, a plenum which considered the total centralisation of the Confederal economy. Thus, for a local company to buy a product from another town which was not in its district, it had to go to the Regional Committee of Economy, which would be the mediator of the purchase. If a product needed to be purchased from abroad, then it would be the same CEC that would be in charge of dealing with it. We can see the bureaucratic danger in these practices. Returning to the issue of the Trade Union Bank, it should be said that the Central Region developed a Central Confederal Compensation Fund as a previous step to the creation of the Bank.

In August, steps were taken to create Technical-Industrial Schools to train professionals to be able to carry out this task, given that in many localities it was not possible to set up Local Economic Councils because there were no militants with the capacity to do so. And as an exceptional measure, the training of women was encouraged so that they could replace the increasing number of men on the Front in production. This last point was expressly approved by Mujeres Libres. Another opinion adopted at that time was the “intensification” of consumer cooperatives.

Other issues dealt with in these 1938 plenary sessions were family wages and even a definition of what was meant by the “economic concept of the family”. The aim was to delink production from the individual workers and pay they according to the nature of their work, disregarding their family and their needs. The family was extended to all persons living under the same roof without the need for kinship. A Technical-Administrative Commission was also formed, which came to have labour inspectors at the disposal of the CEC, to check the conditions of each workplace.

We can conclude by noting that the Libertarian Movement had created a new body, the CEC, with an economic-productive character, detached from the trade unions. In a way, the CNT trade union and the entire Libertarian Movement functioned under the logic of economic management, acting as a real syndicalist state within the Republic.

In short, the CNT of 1938 arrived at a kind of corporative socialism or “guildism” (not in the medieval sense but in the sense of trade union control) which advocated the control of the economy by a trade union corporation for each branch of production. Since the Spanish Republic was defeated in 1939, this development could not be tested to its full extent.

The CNT made a balance in the post-war period, which led it to completely reject the turn of 1937 and to return to its libertarian communist line of 1936, which it defended in exile. The praxis of 1938 fell into oblivion, was condemned as a deviation resulting from the context of the war and it has hardly ever been studied in libertarian circles. There is room for many more studies on this subject, since it was a first-class experiment in economic planning, managed by libertarians.

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