Government in Catalonia

James Donald asks "Whatever happened to anarchy?" in Catalonia during the revolution. This is an important question and one that anarchists have discussed many times since July 19th, 1936. However, the answer to this question is a little bit different than the one Donald suggests.

To get an understanding of why this is the case we have to point out something Donald does not mention in his web pages. Namely, that the revolution in Spain occurred as a result of popular resistance to a Fascist Coup. On July 17th, 1936, the military tried to carry out a coup to overthrow the recently elected Popular Front government. The government refused to arm the population, and it was left to the unions (the CNT and UGT) to get arms and distribute them to the population. This they did, and the resulting street fighting saw the military defeated in two-thirds of Spain.

Therefore, "immediately after the revolution" the CNT faced the situation of a pro-fascist army trying to take over the country. It says a lot about James Donald's biases that he does not mention this fact anywhere in his diatribe on the Spanish Anarchists.

Donald acknowledges that "immediately after the revolution, there was no state, no government, no one monopoly of force" and that it was in this context that workers and peasants took over their workplaces and land. The period between July and September 1936 can be characterised as one of spontaneous, widespread, but unconsummated social revolution. It should be noted here that this account totally contradicts Donald's argument that the CNT created "centrally organised killing fields," as presented in his discussion of terror in Catalonia. There he argued that the CNT leadership organised "terror" on a vast scale, but now he states that there was no such monopoly of force. Thus he refutes his own argument.

Moving on, James Donald claims that during the early days of the revolution there were "a multitude of local committees that exercised absolute power, sometimes benevolently, sometimes in a terrifying and brutal fashion." However, as can be seen from an examination of both the rural and industrial collectives, as well as whatever CNT committees existed, these committees did not exercise "absolute power" but were in fact (in the main) democratically elected bodies with little or no power. As discussed elsewhere, what terror occurred in Spain was the result of power being "on the streets" and not in the hands of any committees.

Donald then goes on to claim that "often one such committee had desires that conflicted with another such committee. Such matters were resolved by higher committees, which led to the rapid consolidation of power in fewer and fewer committees, with greater and greater power", but he provides no evidence to back this claim up. As Bolloten points out, the local committees that did exist in each community were supported by the CNT, which opposed attempts to get rid of them in favour of state bodies. As he notes, "it was a far cry from the promulgation of the decrees to their actual implementation, and in a large number of localities, where the Anarchosyndicalists were in undisputed ascendency, and even in some where the less radical UGT was dominant, the committees subsisted in the teeth of government opposition." [The Civil War in Spain, p. 215] This non-CNT attack on the committees took place once the CNT had joined the government as a minority, and so can hardly be blamed on the CNT.

Following up on this piece of wishful thinking, James Donald claims that "Modern collectivist anarchists propose exactly that solution to the use of force, that force be used as 'the people' direct, despite the disastrous outcome of this procedure in Catalonia." Unfortunately for James Donald, this is only what he thinks. Modern anarchists, like not-so-modern anarchists, support decentralisation of power into the hands of local communities and workplaces and oppose random acts of violence. They oppose what Donald claims they support, which is hardly surprising given Donald's grasp of reality. For a detailed introduction to the ideas of anarchism, we recommend The Anarchist FAQ where Donald's nonsense can be seen for what it is.

Donald goes on to claim that "Modern individualist anarchists propose a very different solution to this problem" which is "Anarcho Capitalism." It should be noted that not-so-modern and modern individualist anarchists oppose capitalism, and that "anarcho"-capitalism has little to do with their ideas. In addition, "anarcho" capitalism is not anarchist, because it entails the creation of private states whose major function is to defend capitalist wealth and power. The authoritarian implications of "anarcho" capitalism is discussed in more detail here.

Donald next discusses what happened in Catalonia. First he states that the anarchists created "the militia committee, a popular front organization that imposed a monopoly of force in Barcelona, though not a monopoly outside Barcelona." This means that for Donald, "anarchy" existed in Barcelona for all of one day! However, it's pretty clear that for a considerable time after July 19th, power "lay in the streets." But we will ignore this and note that Donald does not explain why this body was created.

The suggestion of creating the Militia Committee did not arise in the CNT. Companys (president of Catalonia) suggested it to the delegates of the CNT who visited him after the fighting was over. These delegates returned to a CNT plenum, which discussed what the CNT should do at that point. Many in the CNT plenum argued that the CNT should proclaim libertarian communism and totally overthrow the state and capitalism. However, the majority thought the best response to the problem of the Fascist coup was to collaborate with the other anti-fascist parties and unions. They argued that not to do this would lead to a civil war within in a civil war in Catalonia. They therefore accepted Companys suggestion.

So, far from being the secret statists that Donald implies here, the CNT decided to collaborate with other anti-fascist groups in order to defeat fascism. However, most anarchists recognise that this was a fundamental error which led to the defeat of both the revolution and the war. This will be discussed later.

Donald then goes on to say that the Militia Committee "compelled people to do its will, most notably by taking control of food, but was not officially a state and did not officially compel people." Firstly, a few points. The Committee was initially powerless and the social revolution which took place in Catalonia (and elsewhere) was the result of local CNT and UGT members taking over their workplaces or land. Therefore, as far as compelling people "to do its will," the revolution occurred in spite of, not because, of the Committee.

This can be seen from the creation of militias which went to the front to fight Fascism which were based on volunteers. It can also be seen from the collectivisation movement, which occurred even though the CNT officially had decided to "put off" the revolution until the war had been won. As for "taking control of food", Donald is referring to the supplies committees created by the unions, which Joan Domench was appointed by the Committee to look after. The committees did requisition food and products, this is very true. Food was seized from shops and sent to hospitals, the militia and so on. Given that there was a total breakdown in normal life, it's not surprising that "property rights" were violated; and since anarchists do not respect private ownership of the means of production, it's not surprising that the CNT membership did take over retail outlets, workplaces and so on. Really, if we take James Donald's argument seriously and apply it to July 19th, then the CNT should not have "stolen" weapons and distributed them to the population, i.e. it should have let fascism win.

As for controlling the food supply, the supply committees did take responsibility for ensuring that the cities were fed. They did this by exchanging produce for food from elsewhere. This process worked pretty well, and most countries in a war situation introduce some form of control over food supplies. It should be noted that when the supply committees were abolished under the communist Joan Comorera (who introduced a "free market" in food), people started to go hungry and this had an adverse effect on morale.

Of course Donald is trying to imply a "centralised" control of food under the Militia Committee. This is false, as Borkenau states: "Comorera... did not substitute for the chaotic bread committees a centralised administation." [The Spanish Cockpit, p.184]. In other words the system, while not perfect, did work, did feed people and was not a centralised set-up.

James Donald then points out that the Committee "appointed a police force of seven hundred men (the famous, or infamous, worker's patrols)." This is true, but he does not mention the fact that the population was armed and so the workers' patrols (made up of people from all unions and parties) could not be said to have a monopoly of weapons. However, it's ironic that Donald is pointing this out because, as an "anarcho" capitalist, he has no problem with private police forces.

Moving on, James Donald presents one of his more outrageous statements. He states that "then later, their leaders decided in secret, in cheerful defiance of the democratic procedures described in the CNT constitution, to dissolve the militia committee, to officially recreate the state rather than unofficially. The Generalitad was officially and formally a state. This decision was abruptly imposed on the CNT from above by in cheerful defiance of the CNT's internal 'democratic procedures.'"

Before discussing the question of CNT democracy, we have to point out James Donald's obvious fallacy -- namely that the CNT "recreated the state." This should be classed as a lie as it completely misrepresents what actually happened. In September, 1936, the Central Committee was dissolved and the CNT did send people into the government. However, they did not "recreate" this government, they joined one that already existed. This is an important difference.

By saying that the CNT "recreated" the state, James Donald is implying the the CNT leadership wanted power and created a state body to enforce their rule. This is the opposite of what happened. The CNT did not destroy the state after July 19th, they ignored it. Power lay in the streets, and the state itself had no means of enforcing its laws or decisions. After the CNT agreed to join the Militia Committee, the anarchist revolution was put on hold politically and the state was ignored, not destroyed.

Taking this opportunity, the various political parties (who all had a long history of anti-CNT feeling) worked to ensure that the state became stronger and stronger. This soon led to a situation of "dual power" in Catalonia, as the original state stopped being just a "rubber stamp" for the Militia Committee and the Committee became more and more marginalised. As the Catalan state controled the banks and credit as well as whatever arms were sent from the Central Government, it is little wonder that the Militia Committee became irrelevent. As noted, the rank and file of the CNT got on with creating their revolution outside of the control of either body.

So, the problem quickly arose that the CNT was being marginalised by the political parties. This meant that the CNT found it harder and harder to get funds for the collectives and arms for its militia. Hence they placed winning the war against fascism above their own principles -- "The war made the decision inevitable; the CNT couldn't allow itself to betrampled on by the political parties, it had to join the government" [Blood of Spain, p.186]

The decision was reached at a CNT plenum in August and September 1936. James Donald is right in that the CNT made the decision to join the government in violation of its democratic principles, since the rank and file were not consulted. However, the fact that this decision was taken undemocratically is a far cry from there being "no democracy" in Catalonia, as Donald claims. This aspect of his diatribe is discussed here.

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