Confusion about political power

May 28, 2015

THANKS TO Brian Kelly ("Syndicalism and taking power") for asking me to address the issue of political power in the Spanish Revolution. In a review of Los anarquistas y el poder--a book on this question by a participant in the CNT (Cesar Lorenzo), Spanish Marxist Fernando Claudin points to the key role of preparation.

As he says, the CNT militants at the local level moved to seize thousands of workplaces and urban buildings and millions of acres of farmland because members of the unions had debated and discussed this for decades. But he also points out that there had not been a corresponding consensus in the CNT movement on how to move to coordinate overall social power by the working class. Claudin is a Marxist, so he puts this by saying they didn't discuss the need to create a "proletarian state."

There were revolutionary syndicalist militants in the CNT who advocated for the unions taking power, through the creation of a system of revolutionary committees and worker delegate congresses. This included radicals like Buenaventura Durruti and Juan Garcia Oliver, and radical CNT journalists like Jaime Balius and Eduardo de Guzman.

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But this is a case where the lack of clarity in anarchist writing about political power tended to trip up the militants in the CNT. In reality, the CNT unions did take power locally and in some regions, through union-created revolutionary committees that controlled whole cities like Hospitalet and Lleida, and the worker congress and Defense Committee in eastern Aragon--a working-class government of the CNT and UGT unions in that area.

This lack of clarity and consensus...and thus lack of preparation on this key point...led to hesitation that played into the hands of the advocates of the government collaboration being pushed by the Socialist and Communist Parties.

The problem here is not in revolutionary syndicalism, which, as the radical minority in the CNT said, implies the need for coordinated consolidation of working class power over the whole society.

In regard to the specific case of the gold reserves: If the gold reserves had been located in a CNT majority area, I believe that they would have been seized. But the CNT was a minority in Madrid, where the gold was located. The Socialist and Communist Parties, and their UGT union, were the dominant force there (not only in numbers but in arms). Anarchist militants in the CNT did actually develop a detailed plan to seize a "CNT share" of the gold (leaving a share for the UGT union).

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Durruti was to lead an anarchist militia column to seize the gold in the night. The CNT railway union militants would have a train waiting to take the gold back to Barcelona. But the ever-wavering Diego Abad de Santillan got cold feet at the last minute and called it off. De Santillan was also one of the "anti-power" confusionists I referred to above.

The confusion about political power was one of the central themes in the attack on the government collaborationists in the CNT by the Friends of Durruti Group in 1937-38. The Friends of Durruti were an anarcho-syndicalist organization of about 5,000 CNT militants in Catalonia.

They advocated the taking of power by the unions through complete socialization of the economy by the unions (creating a society-wide coordination of social production), the building of the "free municipalities" (neighborhood assembly based district organizations proposed by the CNT program) and replacement of the government by a revolutionary committee (to coordinate social self-defense such as militia), elected by the worker assemblies, and accountable to worker congresses.

What we see here then is that there were different interpretations of the politics of revolutionary syndicalism in the CNT.

My own view is that political power—society-wide coordinated control--is something that has to be created by the mass organizations of the working class, and accountable directly through the assemblies in the workplaces and neighborhoods, and through systems of rank-and-file delegates directly accountable to the base. Creating a state bureaucratic structure that has management power over a state-owned economy will not give the working-class power, but will empower a bureaucratic class.
Tom Wetzel, Hayward, California

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