Catalonian conflicts

Issue: 117

Andy Durgan

Angel Smith, Anarchism, Revolution and Reaction: Catalan Labour and the Crisis of the Spanish State, 18981923 (Berghahn, 2007), £42.68

Following the publication of Chris Ealham’s Class, Culture and Conflict in Barcelona (reviewed in International Socialism 106), Angel Smith’s equally outstanding study enriches further our understanding of Catalan anarchism and syndicalism.

While Ealham centred on the relationship between working class community, anarchism and the struggle for the control of urban space, Smith’s approach is set within the parameters of more orthodox labour history. He traces the development of the Catalan workers’ movement from the end of the 19th century, the emergence of anarcho-syndicalism and the foundation of the CNT union federation, through to the culminating years of mass struggle and defeat following the First World War.

Smith details the specific economic and social conditions that gave rise to one of the most militant working class milieux in early 20th century Europe. Rather than describing it as a millennarian movement of essentially rural origin, as has often been claimed, the author demonstrates the industrial proletarian roots of anarchist-syndicalism (preferring this term to “anarcho-syndicalism”).

Likewise, he disproves the widely accepted view that the influx of politically inexperienced and radicalised peasant migrants into Barcelona in these years provided the human material for the subsequent radicalisation of labour relations. Yet while centring on the organised working class at the point of production, Smith does not lose sight of the rich tapestry that made up the anarchist and syndicalist movement in its broadest sense: its presence outside the workplace, the pivotal role of education and culture in the formation of its activists and the influence of rationalism and anticlericalism.

The emergence of an anarchist-syndicalist labour movement, Smith shows, was due to a combination of employer intransigence, a corrupt political system, state repression and the specific conditions produced by rapid economic growth. “Apoliticism” provided the ideological backdrop to this movement. Hostility to “politics”, or at least to its institutional form, had been one of the defining features of the Catalan labour movement since its beginnings in the first half of the 19th century. This was reinforced by the nature of the Restoration system (1876-1923) which followed the brief federal and libertarian experiment of the First Republic. Under the corrupt bi-party system, participation in quasi-democratic institutions was blocked for working class representatives. Thus the reformist gradualism and legalism of the Spanish Socialist movement contributed to undermining its attempts to influence Catalonia’s increasingly combative labour movement.

A strategy that emphasised direct action and mass mobilisation, as advocated by the different strands of anarchism and revolutionary syndicalism, fitted most workers’ experience far better. From the 1890s on, through to the great metal workers’ strike of 1902 and the insurrection of 1909 (the so-called Tragic Week), the Catalan working class repeatedly pitched itself against a deeply reactionary ruling class, backed by a state that more often than not was prepared to use outright repression, and was loath to make even the most limited concessions. The victories of the workers’ movement were generally shortlived, followed by the sacking or imprisonment, or even murder, of activists and union members.

What would really change the fortunes of the CNT, which was founded in 1910, was the boom in the Catalan economy during the First World War. As a result of Spain’s neutrality, Catalan industry could supply both sides with uniforms and other equipment. Thus an expanding working class suddenly found itself in a far stronger position than previously. By 1918 the CNT, which had now developed into a state-wide organisation, was on the verge of conquering Catalonia’s industrial working class.

Its peculiar organisational structure—the Sindicat Unic (One Union)—which united workers in any particular trade in each locality, gave it a great advantage over the craft based socialist and “professional” unions. The lack of any bureaucratic structure also contributed to sustaining the CNT’s radicalism. Disputes in one factory could swiftly lead to stoppages in others. The CNT’s control of transport would prove particularly damaging for the employers.

With the end of the First World War, and a contracting market, the Russian Revolution would provide the backdrop to the new upsurge in class conflict in Catalonia, as elsewhere. In Spain it was the anarchist-syndicalists, rather than the socialists, who would initially be most inspired by the Bolshevik example. The CNT even joined the new Communist International. By late 1919 the CNT claimed more than 700,000 members, half of them in Catalonia.

The wave of struggle reached its high point with the general strike in support of the workers of the hydroelectrical company, La Canadeca. This would prove a turning point not only for union organisation, but also for the hopes of many workers for social revolution.

Victory was turned into defeat, both as a result of a new strike in defence of victimised workers that seriously over-stretched the union’s organisational capacity and what would become an ongoing offensive by the bosses against the workers’ movement, which culminated in the dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera in 1923. Smith argues that the chances of this movement challenging the state were undermined by the fact that, unlike in Russia, the army was not divided. However, this does not take into account the effect of workers’ radicalism on the conscripts who made up the army’s ranks. As would be seen in 1936, military authority disintegrated when the rank and file refused to fight an insurgent mass.

By 1919 two apparently contradictory tendencies had emerged in Catalan anarchist-syndicalism: reformist pragmatism and violent direct action. As Smith shows, the dividing line between the two was never clear. Both strategies, in fact, meant a turn away from mass mobilisation and would be a recurring characteristic of the CNT’s politics, or lack of them, throughout its traumatic history.

Collaboration with “political” forces and even with state institutions, rather than representing the antithesis of direct action, also sprang from anarchist apoliticism. Of course, for militant trade unionism, collaboration with “political” forces can prove essential to achieving working class unity. However, the anarchist-syndicalists’ sectarianism towards their socialist and Marxist rivals, added to the common ground they often shared with liberal individualists, led them more often than not to collaborate with petty bourgeois reformism.

This tendency towards collaboration had reached a climax with the aborted civil-military movement of mid-1917, aimed at overthrowing the Restoration regime. Had this movement been successful, Smith argues, a more pragmatic trade unionism could have taken hold in the Catalan workers’ movement. But fear of the unions, which had been provoked into a premature general strike on the eve of the planned uprising (depicted in Victor Serge’s classic The Birth of Our Power), led both the military opposition and middle class politicians to back away from their erstwhile anarchist-syndicalist allies. After 1917 even the vague possibility of some form of democratic transition evaporated.

With the decline of the mass movement after 1919, and in response to growing repression, the more radical elements of the CNT stepped up armed attacks on employers and scabs. By 1920 there was a veritable war on the streets of Barcelona. As Smith shows, the anarchist action groups, despite initial success, were condemned to failure in this unequal struggle with the state. The advocates of direct action were equally unable to transform the revolutionary potential of the Catalan and Spanish working class into a sustained assault on the system. Caught in a spiral of revenge and the need to counter state and employer terror, the anarchist action groups provided the perfect justification for ever increasing repression and the physical elimination of worker activists.

The employers, aligned with the upper echelons of the military, financed death squads to eliminate union leaders and activists, and eventually forced the government to establish, effectively, a local military dictatorship in Catalonia. This was combined with lockouts and mass sackings. An exhausted workers’ movement found itself undermined organisationally and isolated from an increasingly disorientated and demoralised working class when the military took over completely in September 1923.

Although outside the scope of Smith’s study, the CNT’s counterposing of pragmatic political collaboration to minority violence would return to undermine Catalan and Spanish anarchist-syndicalism in the 1930s. Sectarian armed actions led the CNT, under the influence of the radical anarchist action groups, to launch three separate armed insurrections during the run-up to the civil war years, with disastrous consequences. The apparently opposing tendency of collaboration would, in 1936, mean the CNT helping to rebuild the very state machine it so resolutely opposed in theory. As a result, not only was the revolution defeated, but the anarchist and syndicalist movement in Spain would never recover.