THE RESISTANCE, & NOW. Thoughts after Sabate.

Black Flag No. 136, 15.7.’85, Supplement No 1
By Albert Meltzer


‘Everyone’ knows all about the Spanish civil war; – like the International Brigade was the greatest army that has existed since Connolly grouped 10,000 Irishmen in the Dublin Post Office and they all held out to the last and lived to tell the tale in every pub in the English-speaking world, or either the great military leader George Orwell said this, or else seven million priests were killed defending the faith against barbarous hordes… When one tries to say otherwise one is met not by any facts – nothing in this realm belongs to fasct – but by yawns, anyway, that was fifty years ago.

From the Anarchist point of view it is obviously of importance to know that prior to 1936 an important section of the Spanosh working class organised on anarcho-syndicalist lines, put free communism into practice in many areas, struggled against the State with almost impossible odds loaded against them, and also faced many problems such as we have today, not the least of which was a struggle within the Libertarian movement between activism and quietism, and between revolutionism and populism.

In 1936 all these conflicts came out, as well as the essential truths as to whether anarchism was possible, whether workers could really control their own factories, and also the conflict between workers who wanted revolution, and those who took advantage of the situation to slip into positions of power.

While scholars have dealt endlessly with the Spanish war, and occasionally even with the revolution, almost none have dealt with the resistance that came after.

Asked last year for books in English about post-war Resistance, I could only think of two Sabate: Guerrilla Extraordinary by Antonio Tellez, and Franco’s Prisoner by Miguel Garcia – both of which we had a hand in and both of which then were out of print! The trots with their grip on academia, have a total blank on the Resistance period, and the quietist libertarians follow them: V. Richards, author of Lessons of the Spanish Revolution reviewing Franco’s Prisoner in Freedom said: ‘Though it is quite clear that these activities would not bring down the regime, that there was some kind of resistance to Franco’s polise State must have been a source of encouragement to some of it’s enemies, though it is equally clear that very few were inspired to take to the mountains.’ The history of the Spanish revolutionary movement does in fact show that the kind of resistance presented to successive regimes was precisely what inspired the workers to have the courage to organise against genocidal repression which finally reached the point of of having to be restrained for fear of not leaving enough workers to carry on the country.

When Durruti was organising an incredible frontal attack on the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (and Largo Caballero entered the government so as to gain an advantage for the socialist UGT over the CNT), it was the CNT that got the support of the majority of the workers, not the UGT, and they were prepared to struggle for their union in a way no orthodox trade unionists ever did for the whole period of dominant European fascism. This comes out very clearly in the film, The Short Summer of Anarchy – a documentary on the life of Durruti, the English version of which should be available for showing soon.

The Sabate Brothers

There were four Sabate brother and a sister – the younger brother and the sister took no part in their activities; as they were children, indeed Manuel, who did take part, was only nine when the civil war began – Francisco (‘el Quico’) was the best known; but José was a good fighter too (a friend of Miguel Garcia by the way). Francisco succeeded in the title of Public Enemy No. 1 for the fascist regime.

Sabate, or Sabater (whether you prefer the Catalan or the Castillan version) became a legendary lone fighter; but there were a great deal more, some surviving until the last few years and some still around.

But also, during the civil war many libertarians were quietly abandoning the revolutionary struggle, while taking part in the war, and slipping gradually into the various echelons of government. For years a militant working class had prevented a bureaucracy growing up in the CNT, their own movement; but individual militants were gradually being incorporated into the government bureaucracy. The movement, which had grown up on indivual responsibility and frequent congresses, found itself faced with entry into the government by people not elected by them as delegates, entering by invitation of the defeated Generalitat of Catalonia in the first place, and gaaining acceptance only by a personality cult or ‘star system’, never seen before as a threat.

While this was taking place, people like Sabate, the Libertarian Youth in particular, were fighting back not only at the fascist enemy but the rising dictatorship within the anti-Fascist ranks. This represented the only last hope of the Spanish revolutionaries during the war, and so it did in the period of repression afterwards.

People like Sabate – the whole of the Resistance fighters, indeed – came into their own with the relentless struggle against the Franco conquest. Miguel Garcia tells how they flooded Spain with escaping prisoners and refugees, in order to compromise the regime no less than for its own sake. Sabate concentrated on the urban military struggle, which was the only way of getting the grip of the hangman off the workers’ collar (sometimes not metaphorically either), and Tellez, in telling the story, explains why it was that neither repression nor the conspiracy of silence could wipe out all memory of Anarchism.

But what helped to kill off the Resistance was the quietist conquest of the organisation, treasuring and invoking memories of the Revolution and the deeds of the civil war and of the former organisation. They determined not to enter into illegality afterwards, and try appealing to a non-existent internation cconscience to change the regime in Spain, as a reward for their carrying on an illegal resistance in France during the war when it was legal – by international Law, if more perilous – to do so! That was what was challenged by Sabate, Facerias and all the other fighters, and it was that which occasioned the real rift in the CNT to which all these adhered to their deaths.

Had the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist movement only considered the implications of both traditions at the time. Had it realised that the traditional revolutionary anarchism exemplified by groups like the International First of May was what built the pool in which the labour organisation could swim. There would never have been the present system, where the movement has been penetrated and up for grabs by people who would never have dared enter a CNT hall in the old days – whether nats, trots or Catholic Action.

The blame lies firmly in the ‘official’ organisation of the post-Franco Exile period, moulded as it was not by the fighting CNT of pre-war or the revolution but by the compromises made in the civil war and necessitated by the exile movement existence. When, under the nomenclature of the ‘Libertarian Movement’ it was neither fighting nor an industrial force, but a shaky compromise keeping together actvists and quietists and politicos. This was the real split in the Spanish movement and what prevented it getting off the mark in the post-Franco period with a working class which had faced the holocaust, but was ready to respond with activism – just as the French working class responded to acts of mass terror by the State after the fall of the Paris Commune with individual terrorism – as it was then called – which led to the great period of revolutionary syndicalism as confidence was restored.

The sad price paid by the Organisation for its compromises with the State, and the bows to the French police by attacking Sabate when he died, is the present condition of the Spanish movement, with divisions and splits amounting to separate CNTs but not offering a clear-cut division between revolutionary activism and quietism but enabling reformism and political infiltration to flourish; the ‘renewers’ having started by criticising the reformists and then becoming reformist themselves.

Albert Meltzer.

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