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Mieczyslaw Bortenstein (M. Casanova)

Spain Betrayed

How the Popular Front Opened the Gates to Franco

18. The Anarchists of the Left and the ‘God-Seekers’ in the Light of the Spanish Experience

The policy of the leadership of the Anarcho-Syndicalist CNT (National Federation of Labour) and of the FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation) has not been analysed in detail in this work. However, the reader can form a general idea of the policy of Anarchism in Spain by looking at the facts described in the chapter And the CNT, as well as other facts quoted in other chapters.

For the first time in history Anarchists had the possibility of applying their theories on a grand scale. They enjoyed an unparalleled authority in Catalonia, the decisive and most industrialised region in Spain, and had the unconditional support of the overwhelming majority of the proletariat. The truth of a theory, like the efficacy of a remedy, is verified according to experience. What remains of the theories of Bakunin, Kropotkin and Malatesta [131] after the Spanish experience? For decades we Marxists have demonstrated the limited and petit-bourgeois character of Anarchist concepts. Our masters, Marx, Engels, Lenin and Plekhanov [132] to cite but a few, refuted the Anarchist conceptions in their theoretical works from a doctrinal point of view, as well as making use of the living experience of the class struggle. Nonetheless, the Spanish Civil War, which for Anarchism was an ideological test, supplies us with a fresh opportunity to explain its ideological inconsistency.

The fundamental thesis of Anarchism, which separates it from Bolshevism, is the thesis on the possibility of passing to Anarchy without the transitional period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is to say, the immediate suppression of the state and its apparatus of oppression.

What remains of this conception after 31 months of civil war in Spain? For the first time we were shown the sharp and unexpected experience of ministerial Anarchism. This is as if someone had said an honest scoundrel, or a wicked fool. The anti-statists were transformed into ministers, the bomb-throwers into police prefects, the terrorists into prison governors, and in the course of this transformation the García Olivers and Frederica Montsenys had the opportunity to reveal the profoundly reformist nature of the leadership of the CNT, which held back the masses as much as any Austro-Marxists. [133]

How did the leadership of the CNT justify its evolution? Approximately in the same way as the other leaders of the Popular Front. These gentlemen are for Anarchy in principle, but in the meantime they were for saving the bourgeois state, just as Thorez is for the class struggle in principle, but in the meantime propagates the union of the French nation, in other words the union of the French bourgeoisie and the working class. In principle they are strong supporters of anti-alcoholism, but in the meanwhile they have been dead drunk these 30 tragic months.

Nonetheless, the Anarchist ideologues affirmed that their principles were always unscathed and in the best of health, since a ‘new’ and unforeseen factor had intervened: the war and foreign intervention. As if it is possible on this earth to liberate the proletariat, in no matter what country, without a war and foreign intervention!

But let us leave aside the Anarchist would-be ministers, who have not understood how ridiculous their position is. However summarily, their account has been settled in the course of this work.

There exist, however, in Spain and in the whole world, groups of oppositional Anarchists, who condemn the policy of the leadership of the CNT and the FAI and judge the betrayals of García Oliver and the other Anarchist would-be ministers in severe terms. They stigmatise, often in ardent and violent language, the reformism and softness, but they see the source of misfortune in the non-application of the true Anarchist doctrine, and in the fact that the CNT and FAI have begun to go in for ‘politics’, just as the Marxists have done for so long.

According to them the CNT and FAI remained revolutionary until 19 July. As long as they remained on the terrain of direct action and of economic struggle, all went well. But misfortune began when the leaders of the CNT began to make compromises with the other political parties. From compromise to compromise, the Anarchist leaders were pushed towards reformism. For example, according to some of the passionate leaders of the Libertarian Youth, already the first mistake was the creation of state organisations, like the Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias. That was already a commitment, it was already the state in control. Isn’t this a punishment for making a revolution whose precise aim is to suppress the state if on the first day of the revolution a new state apparatus begins to be built? And the Defence Committees in which the Anarchists had to collaborate and where consequently they had to make compromises with the other ‘politicos’, were they not the beginning of the slide by the CNT and FAI towards the same ‘political rottenness’?

The initiative of the people must be given a free run, and the splendid spontaneity of 19 July must not be broken. On that day in Barcelona did not an unarmed people smash the military uprising within 24 hours? Did it not throw itself bare-chested against machine gun fire? And it triumphed. It must be continued thus. Do not lose confidence in the people. As soon as you dip a finger into politics, you are lost! (Just as Jews or Moslems become impure if they eat pork, Anarchists become impure after having touched politics.) Is not the fatal evolution of Anarchist fighters into sensible ministers an illustration of what happens to anybody when he begins to practice ‘politics’? Politics is the art of deceiving others. We always said so. Do we need any fresh proof that Anarchy is right?

We find this reasoning in several Anarchist magazines and leaflets on the level of ‘ideas’, which preach a return to the pure doctrine of Anarchism. It reflects the state of mind of the young Anarchists as well as some older ones who criticise the attitude of the reformist leaders of the CNT. For one example among others we could cite the criticism made by Schapiro, the American Anarchist. [134]

In order to illustrate this reasoning of the Anarchists better, I will quote what I was told by a cultivated and devoted Anarchist lady in Barcelona. When the Anarchist committees in the Generalitat approved the decrees on the reorganisation of internal order in the bourgeois sense in April 1937 [135] my sympathetic Anarchist lady was disgusted; she was astonished at the softness of the Regional Committee, which had not made the most of its power in the course of the ministerial crises of the Generalitat and which did not want to impose a CNTist president on the Council of the Generalitat. As far as she was concerned, the CNT must have more portfolios. It is true that she was not very ‘left’ when she said this. But a quarter of an hour later her ‘leftism’ and her ‘purity’ got the better of her desire to see all the chancelleries occupied by the Anarchists. She said: “I am now more Anarchist than ever. When you begin to go in for politics and to occupy public offices, you are really finished. We must be intransigent!”

Eighteen months later I discussed with the same Anarchist lady in Barcelona. Her left Anarchist oppositional tendency had grown. Moreover, this sincere revolutionary had just got out of a private prison of the ‘Cheka’ [136] where she had been accused of espionage. In response to my arguments she replied:

You Trotskyists dare to talk about the failure of Anarchism on account of the ministerial experience of García Oliver and Frederica Montseny. You could with as much reason talk about the failure of Marxism on account of the experiences of Blum, Negrín, Stalin, or José Díaz! You say that in the course of the Spanish Revolution true Marxism has not been applied; well, no more was true Anarchism applied.

This is all very well and very touching when you hear it among young and devoted Anarchists, and at first sight the arguments appear to hold up, but in reality it is only a house of cards, as it is enough to touch it with a finger and it falls down. The reasoning of the Left Anarchists lacks one small detail: practicality.

When we consistent Marxists, in other words supporters of the Fourth International, make a critique of the reformist policy of the Stalinists and the Anarchists (and in essence it is the same policy, that of the Popular Front), we do not confine ourselves to refuting it, we show the way to proceed. We show the revolutionary methods that can lead the proletariat to victory.

We did not invent these methods ourselves and we can only transmit the experiences of the class struggle of the international proletariat. We point to the example of the victorious October Revolution of 1917 and we point to this gigantic step forward for humanity, the greatest so far known to history, even if it was followed by a temporary Stalinist reaction. We say to the workers: “Do not follow the policy of the Popular Front as that will lead you to the abyss, but follow the way of Lenin and Trotsky on a world scale, and it will give you victory worldwide.” Or, in other words, the liberation of humanity from capitalism.

And we are not satisfied with explaining this general idea, for in each concrete situation we show the working class the tactics of the way forward. We said that when García Oliver made his speech “Alto el Fuego” (cease firing!) on 4 May 1937, a speech modelled on that of Thorez, “We must know when to end strikes”, he betrayed the workers of Barcelona, but at the same time we added: the duty of the revolutionary leadership in the May Days was to reply to the Stalino-bourgeois provocation by the seizure of power by the proletariat, for it alone is capable of conducting the war against Fascism successfully after having established its dictatorship. In every sphere, whether it be military, economic, or any other problem, to the methods of the Popular Front we propose revolutionary methods whose effectiveness has been verified by experience.

In the critical writings of the Left Anarchists we search in vain for something positive, in other words, what those in opposition suggest should have been done. We will not find it for the simple reason that it cannot be found on the basis of Anarchist concepts.

The spontaneity of 19 July was truly beautiful – the initiative of the people and its unequalled heroism. It was a great and unforgettable day for the proletariat, but it was a day, it lasted for 24 hours. When these 24 hours had passed the proletariat had to continue to struggle because it is impossible to overthrow the capitalist system in a day, or even a week. The working class must not only continue to struggle, but it must organise its struggle. And when you pass over to organisation, and when you get down to it, you get dirty very quickly. You begin to act and take on responsibilities, particularly in a revolutionary period, because you can no longer be satisfied with making criticisms of the capitalist system: you begin to practice politics. That is inevitable. Only, you must practice revolutionary politics.

When the great victorious revolutionary day is over, the barricades are removed; but the next day the barricade fighters who have escaped the bullets are back on the streets, and then in the factory. To preserve their victories they must set up defensive organisations, juntas and committees. Of necessity not only the advanced workers must enter these committees, but also the backward ones, imbued with a petit-bourgeois outlook. In these committees the revolutionaries will have to be in contact with reformists and opportunists, particularly where the latter influence the proletariat. They have to make compromises. Only they must make revolutionary compromises, in other words compromises that favour the struggle of the proletariat, and not rotten compromises that favour its enemies, such as those agreed to by the anti-statists García Oliver and Frederica Montseny. The Left Anarchists would do well to read again Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder. [137] They would do well to assimilate the lessons of this Marxist work in particular. It would allow them to avoid meandering about and enable them to learn revolutionary realism.

Revolution is the struggle for power. This struggle takes a sharp and bloody form. Power passes from the hands of one faction into the hands of another, more revolutionary or more moderate, in a very different manner to the transfer of power from Conservative to Labour in the English constitutional and parliamentary system.

Everything rests on a knife edge. Yesterday’s masters become transformed into prisoners, and vice versa. Lenin said that in a period of revolution prisons are the ministerial antechamber, and from that he deduced the necessity for the red terror!

When the Mozos de Escuadra [138] set me free after the May events, they told me: “Hasta la vistas, au revoir”, and they added: “Soon, perhaps, we will change places.” In a revolutionary period the problem is always posed: us or you.

The problem of power was posed for the CNT and FAI during the July Days, and in an even sharper fashion during the May Days. Take the power or leave it to others: in other words, to the left bourgeoisie and the Stalinists. There was no escape from that. The leadership of the CNT obstinately closed its eyes during the first months following 19 July in order not to see reality. The truth was that in Catalonia it dominated the entire life of the country, possessed weapons, and could have brought about the seizure of power practically without a blow. But the leaders of the CNT said: “We are only concerned with the economy, the trade unions and the factories. Power can only interest ‘politicians’.” Thus it let the first most propitious occasion slip by.

In September in Catalonia, and in November in Madrid, those Anarchists who repeated the idea that power for the workers’ committees was too ‘étatist’, began to work to rebuild the bourgeois state. The question of power was posed yet again for the CNT in May 1937, but now in an even sharper fashion than in July. It was the Stalinists who went over to the offensive in order to disarm the CNT. The latter could have taken the power or resigned. It chose the second course.

What, according to the Left Anarchists, should the CNT have done? The majority of the Left Anarchists remained silent and made no response to this key question. Some of those who were in opposition arrived at the idea of a dictatorship of the CNT. But this idea was expressed by them in an imprecise fashion. But by so expressing it, they obviously came close to our point of view. But what remained of Anarchism then?

The only oppositional group inside the CNT which expressed clear ideas, particularly during the May Days, was the Friends of Durruti. They came out in favour of a revolutionary Junta taking power, based on the committees and the trade unions. Unfortunately, the Friends of Durruti halted halfway in their critique. We hope that in future they will know how to draw the lessons from this tragic experience.

If we have dwelt on the ideas of the Left Anarchists, it is because their ideas reflect the state of feeling of the rank and file of the CNT. For the future of the Spanish workers’ movement to a large extent depends upon the evolution of the revolutionary rank and file of the CNT and FAI towards revolutionary positions, in other words, towards the positions of the Fourth International.

After having surveyed the ideas of the Left Anarchists we wish to turn our attention to all those who have broken with Stalinism on an international level, but who nonetheless fight against Bolshevik methods. We have analysed the policy of the POUM, and we have demonstrated how it differs from ours. Obviously, we are not going to discuss with the different ‘Trotskyist’ and ‘anti-Trotskyist’ groupings of the Oehler type [139], etc. These groups generally have no ideas to oppose to ours, only personal grudges: nobody has appreciated their value as leaders of the working class movement as they ought to have done, they have been underestimated... and in addition it appears that Trotsky does not know how to handle people. They criticise our ‘methods of organisation’. Nevertheless, instead of criticising our methods, they would do better to come and work with us in order to improve them. We are ready to learn, but we have no time to lose ...

However, on the international level a tendency of ‘God Seekers’ has been taking shape for 10 years. Thus we label all those who have condemned Stalinism but think that the source of Stalinism already existed inside Bolshevism. They condemn not only Stalinist methods, but their opposite, Leninist methods. They say that our analysis of the errors of Stalinism is superficial. We have not, so it seems, gone to the origin of the evil and we have only dwelt on its logical conclusions.

According to these new anti-Bolsheviks it was Lenin himself who began the counter-revolution in Russia and prepared the way for Stalin. Bolshevik methods of organisation, which lacked democracy and failed to understand liberty, opened the way to Stalin. Not only Stalinism, but Bolshevism as well must be revised. We must look at everything again. Some go further, and say that the roots of the evil are already to be found within the Marxist conception itself. Among the ideologists of this ‘Stalinism equals Bolshevism’ concept we might cite Boris Souvarine, who, it might be said in passing, has ended up with Figaro. But not everybody has taken the road of the old newspaper of the great French perfume manufacturer. [140]

In the entire world there are several thousand honest revolutionaries who find themselves in unprecedented disarray. But having rejected Stalinism, they begin to doubt everything in Bolshevism and Marxism. For 10 years they have been searching for new revolutionary methods that are superior to Bolshevism and even to Marxism. Some among them want to draw arguments from Rosa Luxemburg against Bolshevism and Lenin. They rely upon the divergences between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg over questions of organisation, and also upon the criticisms of Bolshevik methods made by Luxemburg in her pamphlet The Russian Revolution.

These ideas are put out in France by the Spartacus group which produces the magazine Masses [141] and by similar groups in other countries. These anti-Bolsheviks wish to draw arguments from Rosa Luxemburg against the idea of a centralised organisation in the Leninist manner. Consequently, they fight against the Fourth International, which relies on Leninist concepts. Rejecting Bolshevism, they look for new revolutionary methods, and even for new methods of thought, discovering, for example, that the Marxist dialectic lends itself to arbitrary interpretations. Not knowing to which saint to dedicate themselves, they are looking for a new god.

When we use the term for them that Lenin used against empirio-criticism and against Lunacharsky [142], we are not employing it in a pejorative sense, or for the requirements of polemic. ‘God seekers’ are always in existence during the periods of ideological disarray that follow catastrophes. And isn’t the ideological fall of the Comintern a catastrophe? In addition, it is very intelligent and noble to criticise, to want to go deeper into things, to push the analysis as far as possible, and above all to search. But it is much more difficult to find.

We have no intention of replying here to all the objections of the ‘god seekers’ and the revisionists, who moreover could be correct in some of their criticisms. We do not here presume to remove the problem of Bolshevism’s original sins, or even to examine them thoroughly. We only wish to demonstrate, in the light of tragic experience, that the ‘god seekers’ and the revisionists want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, they mix grain with chaff, they have not found any new and better methods of revolutionary strategy, nor any new methods of thought, and that in the course of the Spanish Revolution it is precisely those ideas of Bolshevism that they criticise as unfortunate that have received fresh confirmation. Let us outline these ideas:

1. The Bolshevik idea of the necessity for a centralised revolutionary party, a party of the proletarian vanguard, has been confirmed once more in the Spanish Revolution. As we have shown here, the objective conditions for proletarian revolution existed in Spain. However, we went from one disaster to another. The illusions of certain revisionists as well as of the old Syndicalists that broad organisations, like trade unions, containing the whole proletariat, would be enough and could replace the party, have to be rejected after the experience of 1936-39. The trade unions played an important rôle in the Spanish Revolution. Moreover, all Spanish workers were in trade unions after July. But they did not know how to organise everything nor to resolve the question of power.

If we wish to avoid fresh catastrophes in future, we must have a revolutionary party with its internal democracy as well as its centralisation and its discipline. The Spanish Communist Party was a disciplined party but its discipline was in the service of counter-revolutionary policies. However, it can in no way be deduced from this that a disciplined and centralised party is useless. Precisely the opposite: without a disciplined party there is no victorious revolution.

2. Mass spontaneity is not enough. It existed in Spain. Thanks to it we witnessed the heroic 19 July and the May Days. But it was not enough to be able to organise the revolution – for that we must have a party. By stating this we are not arguing with the one whom Lenin styled “The Eagle of the Revolution” [143] but with those who wish to draw arguments from her conceptions in order to put a spoke in our wheel and to prevent the construction of the Fourth International.

The spontaneity of the masses leads to centralisation. We must centralise their combativity by the creation of the Control Patrols and the militias within the structure of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Spontaneous collectivisation also posed the necessity for centralisation and an economic plan for the whole country. To survive, the collectivisations had to be incorporated within the structure of a socialised economy, in other words an economy of the transitional period.

3. The use of violence is inevitable in a revolution, not only against Fascists and avowed enemies of the proletariat, but also, at a certain stage of revolutionary development, against reformist and conciliatory currents within the working class. The whole question is in what direction will it be employed? Whose political aims will it serve? The Stalinists also used violence, but in the service of a counter-revolutionary policy that was slanted towards the democratic bourgeoisie, Chamberlain and the Pope. But if there had been, not charlatan Anarcho-Ministers, but proletarian Jacobins instead of the CNT leadership, they would have used revolutionary violence in May 1937 to smash the Stalinist provocation and the reactionary tendencies of Comorera, which represented the influence of the bourgeoisie, and which put a brake on the revolution.

Did the Bolsheviks go too far in the direction of revolutionary violence against the Mensheviks? That is possible, but it was caused by their difficulties. Their mistakes in this area can be discussed. The Leninist period of the Russian Revolution, 1917-23, was no Age of Gold. We accept many of the criticisms and we will accept still more. But what is certain is that revolutionaries will be forced to learn more than they reject from Lenin and Trotsky in the sphere of revolutionary violence. Democracy has its limits, even among the proletariat. These limits must be determined by the revolutionary struggle.

4. The materialist and dialectical method, in other words the Marxist method of investigation, is the only way that allows us to find our bearings in the light of the Spanish experience. Without it we are blindfolded. The Stalinists pretend to use the dialectic to prove that black is white and that the Pope is a friend of the proletariat. But this does not prove that the dialectical method does not correspond to reality: it has nothing to do with Stalinist juggling, and allows us to understand the conflict of interests that lie behind all the ideological struggles. It allows us to analyse the reasons and the false use that the Stalinist jugglers make of it. Behind the ‘Stalinist dialectics’, juggling that wavers between idealistic mysticism and unscrupulous swindling, lie the interests of a bureaucratic caste.

To turn from science to alchemy, and from Marxism to the blind idealism of the Anarchists, for example, is impossible for the proletariat.

5. But does not your dictatorship and your method inevitably lead to Thermidor? [144] After Lenin, Stalin. Doesn’t the example of Russia discourage you? To reject the dictatorship of the proletariat and all its consequences, meaning the centralised party, the red terror, and violence against reformism, means to reject the revolution. That is Libertarian Communism ... in heaven, but in reality it is the Popular Front and the maintenance of bourgeois democracy, which leads to Fascism. The proletariat is a class that has to accomplish its historic mission and free humanity from the chains of capitalism.

Thermidor is the result of neither terror nor dictatorship. The particular way in which it develops is due to dictatorship; but Thermidor itself rises to the surface when the objective conditions do not allow the revolution to advance. The Russian Thermidor is the result of the terrible defeats of the international proletariat and of the isolation of the Russian Revolution. The victorious Spanish Revolution could perhaps have been a mortal blow delivered at the Russian Thermidor, in other words at the regime of Stalin. The next Socialist revolution in the capitalist countries will impel the Russian workers to end the Stalinist nightmare.

The danger of degeneration obviously exists in an isolated country in the event of defeats on an international scale. But that is no reason for us to fold our arms. To abandon the idea of dictatorship, that is to say to abandon the revolution, because it can degenerate, is like abandoning joy because it can only be followed by sadness, and life by death.

But humanity goes forward, even if it is with delays that can last decades. The proletariat is a class that is capable of rising above all the Thermidors and all the temporary defeats, and of bursting the Stalinist abscess. It will free humanity.



131. Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin (1814-1876) was the chief theorist of anti-statism, Prince Peter Alekseevich Kropotkin (1842-1921) argued for mutual aid and free communal association, and Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) was the main propagandist of direct action. They are generally regarded as among Anarchism’s foremost thinkers.

132. Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov (1856-1918) was the founder of Russian Marxism. His main reply to Bakunin and Kropotkin is his Anarchism and Socialism, 1894, which was translated into English by Eleanor Marx.

133. Austro-Marxism is the term given to the ideology of the Austrian Socialist Party, which for a brief period helped to organise the International Union of Socialist Parties, or “Two and a Half International”, midway between the Communist and Socialist Internationals. Its main thinkers, Max Adler (1873-1937) and Otto Bauer (1881-1938), argued that Socialists should not take up arms in a revolution unless a minority attempted to overthrow the democratically expressed will of the majority by force.

134. Alexander Schapiro (  -1946) was a Russian Anarchist emigré in the USA. He was a close associate of Emma Goldman.

135. These decrees concerning public order were only able to be applied after May. It was necessary to disarm the Barcelona proletariat in order to apply them. [Author’s note]

136. The Cheka was originally the counter-terrorist state police force of the Bolshevik power, the precursor of the GPU. However, the Communist Party and the GPU within Spain had their own private torture chambers, and this name came to apply to these unofficial institutions, which were separate from the jurisdiction of the official SIM and were allowed to operate with impunity.

137. V.I. Lenin’s Left Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder was written in April 1920 for the education of raw recruits to the Communist movement in Germany, Holland and Britain.

138. Mozos de Escuadra was a special defence force of the Generalitat. See Bolleten, The Spanish Revolution, p.369.

139. Hugo Oehler (1903-1983) led a group that was expelled from the American Trotskyist organisation in October 1935 for its opposition to the tactic of entry into the Social Democratic parties. He set up the Revolutionary Workers League which had fraternal organisations in other countries. He and his comrade Negrete were present in Spain during the Barcelona May Days. They were allied with the oppositional group led by José Rebull inside the POUM. (See below, p.329)

140. Boris Souvarine (1893-1984) was one of the earliest supporters of the Left Opposition in France, but turned against the whole idea of Bolshevism during the 1930s. His classic biography of Stalin was translated into English by CLR James. Figaro remains one of the main right wing newspapers in France.

141. This group still exists in France, publishing the Cahiers Spartacus series of Marxist classics, among them M. Olivier and K. Landau, Espagne: les Fossoyers de la Révolution Sociale and H Chazé (Gaston Davouste), Chronique de la Révolution Espagnole dealing with the policy of the Stalinist counter-revolution in Spain.

142. Anatoli Vasilievich Lunacharsky (1875-1933) was a well-known Bolshevik scholar and Minister in Lenin’s government. Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism was written in 1908 against the trend of ‘God-seekers’, led by Lunacharsky, Bazarov, etc., which tried to reconcile religion with Socialism and found a sort of Socialist religion on a non-materialist basis. In their questioning of the fundamentals of Marxism during a period of defeat and reaction Bortenstein saw parallels in his own day with the French left.

143. A reference to Rosa Luxemburg. The French Spartacus group counterposed Luxemburg’s emphasis on the spontaneous activity of the working class to Lenin’s concept of a centralised revolutionary party.

144. Thermidor was the name of the month in the new French revolutionary calendar when the radical Jacobin dictatorship of Robespierre was overthrown (July 1794) and the rich and propertied classes took control of France. It is the term used by Marxists for the period of reaction that follows revolutions.

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