Anarchists played a pivotal role in the early phase of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, particularly in Catalonia. They led the resistance to Franco’s forces, their organizations and unions structured social life during the tumult, and they alone had a strong vision of what type of society they wanted to create.
To some militants in the CNT and FAI, it seemed that the time to declare libertarian communism had arrived: they could finally begin building the new world that they had been dreaming of during their nearly seventy years of organizing. They were on the threshold, they believed, of a truly anarchist society.
Others disagreed. The fact that the majority of anti-fascists—not to mention the majority of Spaniards—were hostile to the anarchists meant that they would need to rule against their opponents if they attempted to institute their utopian ideals. They would, in parlance of the day, have to impose an “anarchist dictatorship” if they tried to “go for everything.” Many found this possibility intolerably frightening and contradictory.
But there was another option: they could cooperate with the other anti-fascist forces—some of whom were bitterly anti-anarchist—and try to garner enough support to later realize their maximal program on a more consensual basis. This way they could avoid the obvious dilemmas of an “anarchist dictatorship,” although it would mean pushing their revolutionary aspirations into the (potentially very distant) future.
They decided to collaborate, as is well known, and by doing so set the parameters of their intervention for the remainder of the civil conflict.
The following article offers insight why they made this fateful choice, describes their decisive first encounter with the President of Catalonia, and details the activity of the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias, the institutional framework for their cooperation with the other anti-fascists tendencies. It is one of few accounts of anarchist activity during the early period of the war written by a direct participant.
The essay (“Los Organismos Revolucionarios: El Comité Central de las Milicias Antifascistas de Cataluña,” in Spanish) was first printed in Solidaridad Obrera and later republished as a chapter in a book titled De julio a Julio: un año de lucha (Barcelona: Tierra y Libertad, 1937). It appears in English here for the first time.
– Chuck Morse
* * *
J. García Oliver:
The Revolutionary Institutions: The Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias
In addition to the other articles in this volume, which first appeared in the special issue of Fragua Social on July 19, we felt it appropriate to include the following piece from Solidaridad Obrera, which was printed on the same date. It offers a general overview of the revolution in Catalonia through a description of the activity of its particular institution: the Central Committee of Anti-fascist Militias.
– – –
The leader of the Mozos de Escuadra [autonomous Catalan police] met us at the Generalidad entrance. We were armed to the teeth—rifles, machine-guns, and pistols—and ragged and dirty from all the dust and smoke.
“We’re the CNT and FAI representatives that Companys called,” we told him. “The people with us are our guard.”
He greeted us warmly and led us into the Orange Tree Courtyard. There was confusion and disorder in the Generalidad Palace, but joy was also visible in the faces of all those old and young Catalanists, Mozos, Guards, police, and youth from the Esquerra and Estat Catalá. They were delighted by a glory dreamed of for centuries and yet not experienced until that very day, during which some CNT and FAI men were brought to meet the President, determined and making an impressive racket with their weapons. Catalonia, always mistreated and oppressed by the central government, trampled by Spain’s military caste, had just defeated the fascist monster. And how easy it was! In thirty hours of heavy fighting, the men from the CNT and the FAI, whose way of doing battle reminds one so much of the Almogavars, distinguished themselves above all others in the bloody and victorious struggle for freedom. This is why their representatives were welcomed with such affection and esteem, despite the fact that they carried an abundance of arms which, in anarchist hands, would previously have been regarded as murder weapons but were now justly seen as instruments of freedom.
We left our guard in the Orange Tree Courtyard, which became an encampment.
Companys stood to receive us. He was visibly excited. He extended his hand and would have hugged us if his pride—clearly impacted by what he intended to say—had not stopped him.
The introductions were brief. We sat down with our rifles between our knees. Companys stated the following:
“First of all, I must acknowledge that the CNT and FAI have never been treated in the way that they deserve, given their real importance. You have always been harshly persecuted. Even I, who had been your ally, was forced by political realties to resist and persecute you, much as it pained me to do so. Today you are masters of the city and Catalonia. It was you who defeated the fascists, although I hope you will not take offense if I point out that you had some help from Guards, Mozos, and men loyal to my party.”
Companys paused for a moment and then continued slowly:
“But the truth is that you—harshly oppressed until two days ago—defeated the fascist soldiers. And, knowing who and what you are, of course I will speak to you in the most heartfelt terms. You’ve won. Everything is in your hands. If you do not want or need me as President of Catalonia, tell me now, so that I can become another soldier in the war against fascism.
“However, if you think that in this office—which I would have left only if the fascists killed me—I, my party, my name, and my prestige can be useful in the struggle—which has ended in Barcelona, but rages on in the rest of Spain—then you can count on me and my loyalty as a man and politician. I am convinced that a shameful past has died today and genuinely want Catalonia to march in forefront of the most socially advanced nations.”
Companys was speaking with obvious candor. He was a malleable, realistic man, who experienced the tragedy of his people very deeply. They had been saved from secular slavery by the anarchists and he, using the language demanded by the circumstances, took the lead in a uniquely dignified way, something so uncommon among Spanish politicians. Without letting himself be frightened by the revolution, and understanding that it would redefine the boundaries of the possible, he intended to play a central role, as a Catalan who knew that the hour of his country had rung and as a man with extremely advanced ideas who did not fear the most audacious social interventions, which are always expressed in lived reality.
We had gone to listen and could not commit ourselves to anything. It was our organizations that had to make the decisions. We explained this to Companys.
The importance of this historic encounter between Companys and our organizations will never be fully grasped: indeed, Spain’s fate was decided in Catalonia, between libertarian communism, which would have meant anarchist dictatorship, and democracy, which meant collaboration.
Companys told us that representatives from all the anti-fascist groups in Catalonia were waiting in another room. If we agreed to participate in the meeting that he, the President of the Generalidad, wanted to call, then he would propose the formation of a body that could continue the revolutionary struggle in Catalonia until victory.
We agreed to attend the meeting, in our capacity as intermediaries and emissaries. It took place in another room where, as Companys had said, representatives from the Esquerra Republicana, the Rabassaires, the Republican Union, the POUM, and the Socialist Party were waiting. I don’t remember the names well, either because of the rush, exhaustion, or because I was never told them. Nin, Comorera, etc., etc. Companys explained why a militias committee should be created. It would reorganize life in Catalonia, which the fascist uprising had disrupted acutely, and build a military force that would fight the rebels wherever they might be. Indeed, the balance of the adversarial forces was still unclear in those moments of national confusion.
For democratic collaboration and against revolutionary dictatorship
The CNT and FAI’s reply to President Companys’s proposal was extremely significant. We responded to him, the President of a region saved from servitude by non-governmental forces, in a way that reflected the unanticipated revolutionary maturity and constructive potential of forces that had never had their capacity to rule tested, even though they were a majority in the country.
The CNT and FAI decided to accept collaboration and democracy, and thus renounce the revolutionary totalitarianism that would strangle the revolution with an anarchist, confederal dictatorship. Trusting the word and person of a Catalan democrat, we permitted Companys to carry on as President; we agreed to the formation of the militias committee and a distribution of forces within it that was not just–the UGT and the Socialist Party, minorities in Catalonia, received the same number of seats as the triumphant anarchists and CNTistas–but a sacrifice designed to lead the authoritarian parties down the path of faithful collaboration and away from suicidal competitions.
The Central Committee of Anti-fascist Militias, the real revolutionary government of Catalonia
The Central Committee of Anti-fascist Militias (CCAM) was constituted by a decree from the Generalidad. It was composed of popular, anti-fascist forces. For our sake, accepting Companys’s proposition, we did not object to the inclusion of any anti-fascist group. We were the largest force, and it was upon us that the challenge of creating real democracy fell, although we did not imitate the bigwigs who relentlessly harass their so-called “junior partners.” Without respect for the real strength of the groups in question, the CCAM was made up by the CNT, the FAI, the Esquerra, the Rabassaires, the Republican Union, the POUM, the Socialist Party, and the UGT. The Generalidad sent a representative named Prunés and a military leader by the name of Pérez Farrás, both of whom were appointed by Companys.
The Committee immediately set up shop in a large, modern building in the Palace Plaza, which had previously been occupied the Seamen’s School. It quickly organized the first expeditions of militiamen to the Aragon front. Three of its members–Durruti, Pérez Farrás, and Del Barrio–took control of two sectors of struggle in this first departure of forces. In later expeditions, the Committee sent me, Rovira, and Durán y Rosell to the front. The cataclysm had shattered the social, political, legal, and economic foundations of the life in Catalonia. The CCAM, a dynamic, popular body and authentic representation of the proletarian masses, had to respond to the war, hurrying to create, through the tireless efforts of some of its men, everything that it demanded. The organization of armies, military training, health, supply, transportation, arms production, directing operations, etc, etc.
As a whole, it was the CNT and FAI men on the CCAM who were best prepared and offered the most to the magnificent work of consolidating Catalonia’s freedom and independence. They were indefatigable; true slaves to work. After them, it was those from the Esquerra, the Rabassaires, the Republcan Union, the POUM, and finally, last among all in terms of their contribution, militants from the Workers’ General Union (UGT) and the Unified Socialist Party.
Durruti, Aurelio Fernández, Asens, Santillán, Marcos Alcón, and I represented the CNT-FAI on the CCAM; Miratvilles, Aiguader, Solá, and Tarradellas were there on behalf of the Esquerra; Torrents spoke for the Rabassaires; Fábregas for the Republican Union; Gorkín, Rovira, Gironella for the POUM; Del Barrio, Vidiella, Miret, García, Durán y Rosell (etc) represented the UGT and Socialists.
There were three very important and completely loyal military men on the CCAM; the Guarner brothers and Colonel Giménez de la Verasa. The first two were well-qualified to organize and lead the armed forces being created; the latter specialized in artillery and arms production. The CCAM began making weapons under the guidance of CNT men like Vallejo and Martín, who have done a tremendous job at rapidly transforming our metal and chemical industries into centers for making armaments, which today are vital to the war and the revolution and will be vital to the future of Catalan industry once the conflict ends.
The CCAM mandated the construction of a network of fortifications throughout Catalonia, which safeguard our freedoms and the security of our fronts. Thus far, the enemy has not attacked them, preferring instead to assault areas inadvertently left defenseless.
The CCAM also organized the internal security forces that permitted the speedy construction of a new revolutionary order. Aurelio Fernández and Asens from the CNT-FAI; Fábregas from the Republican Union, and González from the UGT worked tirelessly on this. Miratvilles put together the Propaganda Section with unrivaled skill.
Tarradellas applied his formidable will to arms production. Torrents, from the Rabassaires, patiently procured military supplies. Durán y Rosell and Marcos Alcón coordinated transportation. Santillán, Severino Campos, and Sanz organized militias that took off for the front. I was General Secretary of the War Department, the nerve center of this entire splendid enterprise.
Meanwhile, under the direction of the CCAM, Ortiz, Durruti, Jover, Del Bario, and Rovira re-took villages and lands in Aragón that had been subjected to fascist slavery, never losing a kilometer, always advancing the war for liberation and thus, in this way, placing our fields, factories, and homes beyond the reach of devastation and death.
Catalonia had a tremendous institution in the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias and through it achieved unanticipated prominence. It affirmed, in a way that has never been done before, that Catalonia truly deserves liberty.
The Dissolution of the CCAM
The prolongation of the war and its international repercussions; a committee that became the real government as it eclipsed and even annulled the Generalidad; these things compelled a very significant change in Catalan political and social life: the incorporation of the CNT into the government of the Generalidad. Objective? To continue the great work of the CCAM from within the government.
We can consider the impact of the CCAM’s dissolution on Catalonia when we have won the war that we are waging against international fascism. Today I would simply like to recall—and it is unfortunate that a record of it was not made—the short speech that I gave at the CCAM meeting at which we decided to terminate the body. Those who were present know that there was a bitter note running throughout my comments, which was inspired by a concern for the future, one that was already threatening to be defined by discord within the anti-fascist family and, should it continue, will likely prevent us from being victorious in our battle against fascism and will ensure that a great Catalonia and a Spain admired throughout the world will never be created.
[Translated to English by Chuck Morse]