Confederación Sindical Solidaridad Obrera (2007)
Reveiwed by Chris Ealham, Lancaster University
Reprinted with Permission from Anarchist Studies Journal
Marking the centenary of Solidaridad Obrera (‘Workers’ Solidarity’), Spain’s most important anarcho-syndicalist newspaper, this extensive graphic history of the Spanish libertarian tradition is one of the most recent books published by the Confederación Sindical Solidaridad Obrera. In keeping with their previous publications, this volume is reasonably priced; as a pictorial history, it is lavishly illustrated, consisting of some 1,200 images, essentially photos, engravings, paintings, drawings, trade union stamps, magazine covers, newspaper headings, through which over 150 years of working-class struggle are narrated. It concludes with an appraisal of the anarcho-syndicalist movement in Spain today. Inevitably, the text generally plays a secondary role, largely introducing and contextualizing images; further context is provided by a useful introductory chronology preceding each chapter and section.
The story begins with the struggle to organise in Spain in 1835 and the intense repression that followed. The unrelenting readiness of the state and its lackeys to use all possible means to repress any challenge from below – whether real, potential or imagined – is a constant feature of this history. It is striking that the garrotte vil, the agonisingly protracted method of strangulation first used to execute a trade unionist in 1856, was still being used in the mid-1970s, when the young Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich was executed. Equal attention is given to repeated attempts at criminalizing the libertarian movement, from the Mano Negra frame-up, which resulted in 300 jailings and 8 executions in the 1880s, up to the Scala Affair of the late 1970s, when a police agent provocateur organised a petrol bombing – which tragically resulted in the deaths of 4 CNT activists – in an attempt to discredit the anarchist movement. The sight of troops on the streets during strikes is a recurring one, a reminder of how the army was frequently deployed as a tool of internal repression within a militarised system of industrial relations.
Yet official attempts to raise the cost of protest proved futile, essentially due to the sacrifices of thousands of anonymous, largely unknown activists who sustained the movement through their sacrifices, often giving up their freedom, even their lives; inevitably, only a fraction of these militants are seen here. From the images that provide a glimpse of social and working conditions, it is easy to see how the CNT became so deeply rooted within Spanish working-class society and resistant to state repression. Even before anarchist culture flourished in Spain, we see evidence here of popular traditions of direct action street protest and armed uprisings, rebellious acts that provided fertile ground for anti-state, anti-authoritarian ideology. The CNT’s resistance dovetailed with these traditions, and while driven underground soon after its birth, it surfaced during World War One on a wave of militancy, becoming the lodestar of the dispossessed, with a membership of over 700,000. By the 1930s, the union had come to organise over a million workers.
Inevitably, the approach here is essentially chronological, covering all the key moments and periods, while giving special attention to the Second Republic and the revolution, which saw the highest and lowest points in the history of the CNT and anarcho-syndicalism, the legendary short summer of liberation, the crisis opened up by wartime governmental collaboration, and then the long winter of Francoism. Considerable attention is given to what has been dubbed the ‘constructive work’ of the Spanish revolution – the achievements of collectivisation on the land and in factories – in what was western Europe’s most far-reaching and extensive exercise in workers’ self-management. We then see how members of the movement entered government: “with that abandonment of anarchist principles and of the lessons of more than 75 years of working class struggles the grave of the revolution was prepared”, initiating a process from which the Spanish anarchist movement would never fully recover (p. 236).
Chronological chapters are interspersed with themed sections in which the movements’ multi-faceted identifying marks are explored. Among the myriad cultural practices covered are radical education, vegetarianism, organised hikes, nudism, feminism, free love and sexual liberation, the promotion of Esperanto, all of which gave rise to a new sociability and way of being and fighting. What emerges is a clear sense of the deep moral and ethical thrust that made this movement so unique within the corrupt society in which it was formed. Several other observations can be made about the movement from this history. There is a discernible absence of great theoreticians: not a single Spaniard ranked among the intellectual elite of the international anarchist movement. It is similarly remarkable to see the monster rallies organised by the CNT immediately after the demise of the Franco dictatorship. Another outstanding attribute was the profound solidarity underpinning strikes, perhaps most vividly reflected in the way strikers’ children were periodically taken in by trade unionists from other areas during protracted industrial disputes.
At a time when growing numbers of people in Spain are concerned with historical memory, this book is a timely and extensive contribution to the recuperation of anarchist memory. It is also a reminder of the contemporary struggles relating to the past. While the current socialist administration in Spain pays lip service to righting the accumulated injustices from the Franco dictatorship, its approach is highly selective and partial, much the same as that of its conservative and centre-right predecessors. The CNT, which possessed a vast network of buildings and printing presses in the 1930s, has never been compensated for the assets that were seized during the Spanish civil war and subsequent dictatorship. The same is also true of Barcelona’s Ateneu Enciclopèdic Popular (AEP), a people’s athenaeum that served as a form of popular University for many workers and left-wingers prior to the civil war. Some of the AEP’s property is currently in the possession of the Generalitat, the Catalan autonomous government. Publicly, the Generalitat is keen to emphasise the repression of Catalan rights during the Francoist years and honour the victims of state terror. Nevertheless, the democratic authorities – whether Catalan or Spanish – are very selective and myopic when it comes to redressing Francoist piracy directed at the institutions of the popular classes of Catalonia.
This review originally appeared in Anarchist Studies Vol 16, 1