José Peirats and the Spanish Revolution

The CNT in the Spanish Revolution

Edited and introduced by Chris Ealham. Translation by Paul Sharkey

In July 19, 1936, Spanish workers halted the advance of fascism in Spain by initiating one of the most profoundly revolutionary processes of the twentieth century. While Madrid’s Popular Front government stalled in the face of a military rebellion that had started in Spain’s African colonies two days earlier, workers armed themselves and flooded into the streets of many of Spain’s urban centers to stop the military takeover. This would only be the beginning of the process. Over the next days, weeks, and months, workers and peasants proceeded to collectivize factories and fields, organize militias to liberate areas that had not defeated the fascist military, build a war industry virtually from scratch in Catalonia, organize production and distribution of food, and supply their militias on a front that would extend for hundreds of kilometers. Nobody would disagree that the backbone of this revolution was the anarchist militants of the CNT (National Confederation of Workers). 

Each victory of the revolution in those first months was met by attempts—organized by the Republican government in Madrid and the Catalan regionalist government in Barcelona (the Generalitat)—to limit or roll back the revolution. The challenge for the republicans would be to halt the revolution even though much of the Spanish army had joined the fascist uprising. Since the republicans were unable to use the military to stop the CNT and their revolutionary allies, their fight took the form of an incremental process that lasted throughout the war. And their opposition was only successful because of the rise of the Spanish and Catalan Communist parties (the PCE and the PSUC, respectively), which grew spectacularly in the first year of the war for two reasons: their attractiveness to the antirevolutionary sentiments of many of Spain’s middle class and republican politicians, and the fact that the Soviet Union was the only country willing to ignore the non-intervention pact, an international arms embargo placed on the Republic.1 

Among pro-Republican writers and most academic historians, it is popular to denounce the revolutionaries as an obstacle to victory over Franco and the fascists in that the revolution was divisive, pitting antifascist revolutionaries against antifascist republicans and allowing Franco to fight an internally weakened enemy. No wonder, then, that apologists of the Popular Front republicans often portray the anarchists as mere utopian fanatics who refused to be reasonable in the face of fascist rebellion. For the Popular Frontists, then and now, the strategy for defeating the fascists was through “unity.” But “unity” was not just a political and military strategy that benefitted from its commonsense appeal, it was a catchword that in social terms meant sacrificing the revolution to satisfy the demands of Spanish and international capitalism. 

By imposing unity from above, the republicans managed a methodical defeat of the revolution and, ultimately, paved the way for fascist victory over the Popular Front government itself. It is no stretch to say that Popular Front ideology still dominates discussion of 1930s Spain among antifascist writers. While the momentum behind publishing books, monographs and articles on the Spanish Civil War remains strong, the profound social revolution unleashed by the fascist uprising and led by the rank-and-file land and urban workers, especially by the anarchists of the CNT, is consistently downplayed or even obfuscated. The complex history of the revolution is often reduced to simple portrayals of the conflict as one merely between fascism and democracy—this in spite of the fact that probably the most well-known book on the war, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (published in 1938), offers a substantially different and more politically sophisticated picture.2 

After Orwell, one of the first and most important attempts to challenge such distortions, not to mention the propaganda of Franco’s military regime in Spain itself, came from José Peirats’s classic three-volume history published in the 1950s, La CNT en la revolución española. These volumes contain a wealth of information for anyone interested in the Spanish Civil War and revolution. Peirats’s commentary on the events is accompanied by hundreds of historical documents (often cited at great length) addressing many of the important events that defined the role of the CNT before and during the revolution and the war. Although an abridged edition of Peirats’s work, the single-volume Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, appeared in English in 1974, it was not until 2006 that all three volumes of Peirats’s original were translated. This monumental task was undertaken by Chris Ealham and Paul Sharkey, and activists and scholars owe them a great debt for making this valuable resource available to readers of English. Peirats addresses so many issues and cites so many documents—while at the same time ignoring certain established customs of academic history writing—that reading the history is a little like reading through a militant’s file cabinet, filled with uncropped newspaper clippings, speeches, governmental decrees, conference minutes, organizational declarations, and various and sundry documents addressing all the important issues of the civil war. The content is fascinating but the format challenging, and Ealham’s superb introduction and notes for each volume are extremely helpful, contextualizing the information and clarifying numerous points for the reader. 

In 1922, a young José Peirats joined the CNT after moving from the small village of Vall d’Uxo in Valencia to the anarchist hotbed of Barcelona. Like so many who became militants and leaders in the CNT, Peirats was a true working-class intellectual, schooled in a milieu of anarchists who saw political and cultural education as central to their project of winning libertarian communism. Peirats was also an important leader of the anarchist affinity group the FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation) during the civil war. After the war, while in exile, Peirats served as the general secretary of the MLE (Spanish Libertarian Movement), an amalgamation of the FAI, the CNT, and the anarchist youth federation, the FIJL. 

Peirats’s history was the result of a proposal, brought to the MLE in the 1940s, to write an account of the war that would defend the anarchists’ legacy, which was being “written out” by the official historians of the Franco regime. Peirats had written articles for numerous local and regional anarchist publications before and during the war and had been the editor for Solidaridad Obrera, one of the CNT’s most important publications, and so he was an obvious candidate for the project. In a massive collective effort, Peirats’s comrades gathered and catalogued a huge amount of documentary evidence for the history, making it available even in the context of censorship, exile, and poverty. As Ealham points out in his introduction to the first volume, Peirats was both the MLE general secretary and a well-known, trusted comrade, and thus was uniquely placed for soliciting the anarchist diaspora for their stories and records of the revolutionary process. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for anyone else to succeed in collecting these stories from militants living in exile across Europe and Latin America, or in Spain under Franco’s fierce repression. Testament to the success of the CNT militants is that Peirats’s original three volumes became and still are a central source for all historians researching and writing about the Spanish Civil War, whether they are sympathetic to the anarchists or not. 

The scope of Peirats’s volumes is enormous: Volume one includes history and documentation of the CNT from its creation in 1910 through the first months of the war, concentrating on the years of the Republic and early months of the revolution (1931-1937); Volume two covers the first year of the war; and Volume three chronicles the loss of revolutionary power vis à vis the Spanish state and the Republic’s final defeat in the first months of 1939. Among other developments, the first volume describes the birth of the Spanish Second Republic in 1931, the massacre of anarchist rebels by the Republican police at the town of Casas Viejas in 1932, the 1934 revolution in Asturias, and the beginning of the revolution, starting with the rank-and-file response to the 1936 military rebellion. The volume concludes with an invaluable series of reports on what collectivization looked like in various villages across Catalonia and Aragon. 

Volume two includes accounts of the international non-intervention pact and the rise of the Soviet-aligned PCE (Spanish Communist Party) and PSUC (Communist Party of Catalonia). As Peirats shows, these parties succeeded thanks to their counterrevolutionary politics and to Soviet military aid (actually purchased using Spanish gold reserves). Peirats describes how both the success of the revolution and the fight against fascism were sabotaged when the PCE took over the UGT (General Union of Workers), effectively preventing the CNT’s collaboration with the union. The second volume takes us through the August 1937 dissolution of the anarchist-led Council of Aragon and its aftermath. 

The third volume then chronicles the revolutionary organizations’ gradual loss of power to the Spanish state and the Stalinists, and Peirats details the Stalinist terror in the rearguard, which targeted anarchists as well as the independent (anti-Stalinist) communists of the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification). Peirats pays special attention to the anarchist leadership’s role in the cabinet of the Popular Front government and its efforts to squelch criticism of the counterrevolution in the CNT. This final volume concludes with the crushing military defeat for the Republic at the Battle of the Ebro and Franco’s final victory in the first months of 1939. 

Readers of this journal will be particularly interested in how Peirats treats the decision by CNT leaders to collaborate with the republicans of Catalonia and Spain—or, to put it in sharper terms, the decision to enter into an alliance (and ultimately to accept cabinet positions) in the very state identified by anarchists as an authoritarian institution of repression. Peirats was among those who opposed the CNT’s entrance into the Republican governments of Catalonia and Spain, and he was critical of the bureaucratization of the anarchist organization itself during the war. The history’s primary resources reveal the dimensions and dynamics of the debate at the time—or, as Peirats makes evident, the dearth of such a debate.

On July 20, 1936, during the exhilarating hours following the CNT’s victory over Franco’s fascist-military uprising in Catalonia, Lluís Companys, the president of the Generalitat, spoke to CNT representatives and declared that power in Catalonia was theirs for the taking. The representatives famously chose not to take power. As CNT leader Joan García Oliver later explained, many anarchists understood the dilemma as a choice between either “anarchist dictatorship”—anathema to the antiauthoritarian and antistatist principles of libertarian communism—and “democracy, which spells collaboration.” Opting to maintain the “unity” of all the forces of antifascism, then, the CNT chose collaboration. At first, they did so in the newly formed Central Committee of Antifascist Militias of Catalonia (CCAM), a committee dominated by the CNT but comprising representatives of all of the principal antifascist organizations as well the Generalitat itself. CNT (and FAI) representatives later agreed to hold cabinet positions in the Generalitat (but only after agreeing to dissolve the CCAM) and then they entered the Spanish Republican “Popular Front” government. In the end, the CNT’s refusal to declare libertarian communism when they had power did not protect the revolution from “authoritarian” or “statist” power grabs (even of their own), but rather provided an anarchist cover for shoring up a counterrevolutionary republican state—a “dictatorship” of those defending Spanish and Catalan capitalism over revolutionary Spanish workers and peasants. In the fight against fascist aggression, “unity” became the catchword disguising the real aims of a Catalan and Spanish counterrevolution.

Just as García Oliver posited the choice for anarchists as between “dictatorship” or “collaboration,” argues Peirats, so “the bulk of the militants reached a similar interpretation of the realities of the moment. Discordant voices among their number were like voices crying in the wilderness; the silence of others was truly enigmatic.” When Peirats goes on to analyze the CNT’s response to Companys’s offer, his disappointment is evident: 

Was this awful dilemma thrashed out thoroughly by the anarchist militants and CNT militants? Were any stones left unturned when the implications of the moment were analysed? Were all the pros and cons weighed up coolly and calmly? Were the experience and history of previous revolutions taken into account?

The dark storm clouds looming on the horizon, in the Sierra de Guadarrama, in Aragón, Levante and Andalusia, precluded any clinical analysis of the issues. The macabre spectre of war—regrettably a real threat—prevented many from thinking clearly during the 33 months of the war, and supplied more than a few with a counterrevolutionary fillip. 

Peirats adds, “The fact is that the collaborationist thesis won out over the theses of ‘go for broke’ (ir a por todo) or ‘anarchist dictatorship’, which in fact would not necessarily have proved fatal.” (reviewer’s emphasis)

The formal decision was made and collaboration became official policy for the CNT for the remainder of the war, but informally and unofficially, the rank and file continued the revolutionary process through antifascist militias, committees of all kinds in Catalonia and beyond, security patrols, and collectivization of many sectors of the economy. In fact, much of Peirats’ work reads like a tug of war. On the one hand, there are inspirational revolutionary victories, won by workers and peasants taking matters into their own hands and struggling to meet the challenges presented by reorganizing the social order from below even as they were fighting fascism. On the other hand, there is the squeeze placed on the revolution by an international embargo (the non-intervention pact), by the political and material embargo of the revolution and the militias from the PCE-dominated government in Madrid (and later Valencia and Barcelona), and by the persistent march of counterrevolution from within. 

Peirats also shows how, even at the national level, the anarchist leadership played an important role in helping to settle the temporary balance of “dual power” in favor of the Republican counterrevolution. When the CNT leaders proposed in September 1936 the formation of a National Defense Council to be led by the left-wing Spanish prime minister, Francisco Largo Caballero, they were sending Caballero both a clear message of their willingness to collaborate, as well as preparing their own membership for a move that would directly contradict their movement’s “historic principles.” When Peirats assesses the importance of Largo Caballero’s government for the counterrevolution, the treachery of the CNT leaders is underscored: 

If the government, and the precept of government, were to be salvaged, it had to be invested with prestige by slogans and a personality. The watchword could be improvised and, once the danger had passed and their role completed, the personality might be forgotten and withdrawn from circulation. The important thing was to come up with something that would enable the rebuilding of the state apparatus and allow the reins of power to be placed in the hands of a government, any government, capable of achieving the aims of disarming the people and reducing them to obedience. In short, any government that might place the revolution in a strait-jacket. In this role, Largo Caballero was a godsend. …Largo Caballero’s extremist stance inside his party, the personal prestige he enjoyed among the UGT masses and the regard in which he was held in CNT and anarchist circles marked him as the man for the job. 

With the anarchists joining Largo Caballero’s cabinet in November, the counterrevolution scored a victory.

During that first year, however, when both republican governments and revolutionary institutions exercised political and economic control in a precarious balance, merely legislating the counterrevolution was not enough. Not even the participation of the anarchist cabinet members could ensure that legislation and decrees would be followed by the revolutionary masses. The Stalinist-led Republican police or Popular Army troop columns were almost always needed to make those decrees effective, and they often succeeded only many months after legislation had been passed. 

The May Events of 1937 are the most well-known example of the republicans’ use of force to regain control over revolutionary elements. Throughout the winter and spring of 1936–37, a mounting series of legislative measures and decrees undermined the anarchists’ revolutionary victories. Yet the CNT still held on to some important gains, including control of the telephone exchange building just off the main square in Barcelona. CNT control of the building was particularly irritating to the republicans; not only did the building’s location make it a clearly visible reminder of the revolution at its strongest, but the anarchists were also suspected of listening in on conversations between representatives of the Generalitat and the Spanish government. The attack on the telephone exchange by a Communist-led police squad, along with the several days of street fighting that followed, is often understood as the event that defines the counterrevolution, and it should also be seen as the culmination of the republicans’ efforts throughout the first year of the war. 

With each bold success of the revolution, a methodical and persistent reaction was organized by the republican governments to take it back. Peirats details in these volumes the treachery committed against Spanish workers by all the forces of counterrevolution. After the heroic “no pasarán” defense of Madrid from Franco’s offensive in late 1936 (during which the Republican government fled to Valencia), the revolutionary defense patrols that saved the city were disarmed. While anarchist militias were fighting fascism on the front, Republican and Communist Party newspapers and their international “cryers” were building a campaign of rumors, accusations, and blasphemy against them. All the while, anarchist leaders, defending the republicans in the name of “unity,” offered them cover. 

Peirats cites at length the speeches of CNT cabinet members García Oliver and Federica Montseny when, on a speaking tour in Paris, they were confronted by French anarchists who challenged the CNT’s collaborationist policy. In response to their criticisms, and with obvious disdain, both Oliver and Montseny blamed the European workers for abandoning them. García Oliver painted a factually inaccurate chronology of the decision to enter into government and even claimed that the Popular Front was itself revolutionary. Montseny criticized the French anarchists for not making their own revolution and for not forcing the French government to break with the European non-intervention pact. In her closing remarks, she threatened the assembled anarchists, warning that their lack of effort would lead to their own destruction at the hands of European fascism. 

While his criticisms of CNT leadership and governmental collaboration are clear, Peirats’s biggest shortcoming is his refusal to intervene on the central question regarding that collaboration—that is, the question of state power. Peirats never challenges the CNT’s view that the state will somehow disappear in the context of revolution without the need to replace it with a workers’ state. When the anarchists refused to take power on July 20, 1936, they committed an error from which the revolution could not recover. Crucially, anarchism’s anti-statist and anti-authoritarian principles left them unprepared to carry out the most fundamental step for any revolution that hopes to be successful: creating organs of workers’ power that can defend the revolution from counterrevolution. This is not meant, of course, to diminish in any way the historical blame of the fascists, but to contribute to an honest assessment of the revolutionary Left. Many who sympathize organizationally with the Spanish anarchists are critical of the role the CNT played in the war, but like Peirats, they don’t see their criticisms as essentially breaking out of the bounds of a political philosophy that finds primary culpability in the state and yet eschews a politics that recognizes the need to replace it with some form of workers’ state. This is not a small matter of philosophical hair-splitting, but rather the central lesson made tragically clear with the failure of the Spanish revolution. Ultimately, the question of how the state needs to be smashed, and workers’ rule defended, leads to conclusions that anarchism does not address. Peirat’s own bewilderment over the “enigmatic silence” of those anarchists like himself, who could not mount an effective political alternative to collaboration, points to the tragic absence of a theory to address the challenges of consolidating workers power. 

Whatever shortcomings we may find in Peirats’ perspective or in anarchism, however, these three volumes are a rich source of information about revolution from below. There is much to be learned from the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s. Rather than portraying the anarchists as the utopian fanatics we see in many histories, Peirats’ history from below offers a much more intelligent and useful picture of why so many people drew the conclusion that the only solution for the problems they faced was social revolution. That is what Spanish workers and peasants learned before the uprising, and that is what many concluded when faced with the military rebellion. For anyone interested in fundamentally changing society today, it is essential to learn from the mistakes of the Spanish revolution, and to recognize the shapes and practices of counterrevolution. 

But just as important is to learn from the successes of the anarchists—from their ability to thoroughly weave themselves into the fabric of the lives of millions of Spanish urban and farm laborers. And their heroics can inspire us, not just their selfless willingness to throw themselves under the tread of advancing fascism, but also the heroics of creativity, their spontaneous brilliance in so many instances as they were forced to resolve the problems of war and revolution with little more than their enthusiasm, the broken scraps of an economy in the throes of profound crisis, and, most importantly, the willingness to put into practice their revolutionary dreams. Our challenge is to learn from their successes and failures. Because of the magnitude of Peirats’s work, any debates—not just those of anarchists but also those by Marxists and socialists—must take his history into account. 


  1. Of course, Germany and Italy flouted the embargo as well when they supplied, from the very beginning, aid to Franco. 
  2. For an opposing view to my reading of Orwell, see Jim Jump’s “Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia Revisited,” on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive (ALBA) website, Sept 2013. In Jump’s review we see the (patronizing) claim that Orwell was naïve and did not understand the complexities of the war he witnessed as a soldier in the militias. (http://www.albavolunteer.org/2013/09/differing-views-on-orwell-at-len-crome-memorial-event/)

Issue #101

Summer 2016

Socialism in the Air

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