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We, The Anarchists – An Interview with Stuart Christie

Posted on February 2nd, 2009 in AK Authors!

Anarchist participation in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 remains one of the most complicated, inspiring, and troubling moments in the history of anti-authoritarian activism. Even today, more than seven decades later, historians and militants continue to study and debate the events.

One such person is Stuart Christie, a longtime anarchist, whose recent book, We, The Anarchists! A Study of the Iberian Anarchist federation (FAI) 1927-1937, attempts to answer key questions about the fate of the anarchist movement, while also bringing alive some of the drama of the times.

I asked Christie to tell me a little about his book in January of this year. What follows is a transcript of our exchange.

* * *

Please describe your book and its main thesis.

We, The Anarchists is an attempt to set the record straight about the true nature of what become one of the most vilified anarchist organizations of all time—the Federación Anarquista Ibérica, better known by its initials—the FAI. I also try to show, by using the historical example of the anarcho-syndicalist labor union, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and the FAI, how anarchists and anarchist organizations are equally subject to the process of institutionalization and what the German sociologist Robert Michels described as “Iron law of oligarchy” as any other social groupings.

“It is organization,” Michels wrote, “that gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandatories over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy.”

We, The Anarchists outlines the evolution of the anarchist movement in Spain and its relationship to the wider labor movement, while providing insights into the main ideas which made the Spanish labor movement one of the most revolutionary of modern times. It also addresses, from an anarchist perspective, the problem of understanding and coping with change in the contemporary world: how can ideals survive the process of institutionalization?

In your view, why was it important to write the book?

The Iberian Anarchist Federation has been demonized both by the right and the authoritarian left, and in turn lionized by the anarchist movement. I thought it was time to set the record straight. There are also many important lessons to be learned from the history of the FAI and the CNT.

As I mentioned, anarchist groups and organizations are as subject as any other grouping to the process of oligarchization, whether or not they achieve their short or long term objectives, and this is precisely why the CNT’s ad hoc defense committees, made up of the core anarchist rank-and-file, consistently refused to accept any administrative position within the union. They understood only too well the corrupting nature of power, even on the highest-minded of comrades; their role, as they saw it, was to ensure that the union and its “notable leaders” remained firmly tied to the union’s founding anarchist principles and its revolutionary objective of establishing libertarian communism at the earliest possible opportunity.

Although tensions had existed since the birth of the union in 1911, the main thrust of the book is that as the Primo de Rivera dictatorship began to founder in 1927, the differences between the reformist strategies and compromises of the CNT’s “notable leaders” and the revolutionary objectives of the union’s anarchist base had become irreconcilable. The union “notables”—the members of its Regional and National Committees—were like all other union leaders: intermediaries between labor and capital, who were subverting and eroding the union’s stated revolutionary objectives by seeking to overturn the federally structured anti-capitalist and anti-statist constitution of the CNT. Their aim was to be able to compete on better terms with their union rivals, the Socialist Party-led Union General de Trabajadores (UGT), for hegemony over the Spanish working class. For the reformist “notables,” the workers’ cause could be advanced more effectively and efficiently when a clear majority of the organized working class belonged to their union—an objective that could only be achieved by operating within the legal parameters laid down by the state and capitalism.

For the “conscious minority” of anarchist workers in the defense groups, this transformed the CNT from a revolutionary weapon—forged specifically to eliminate the misery of everyday life under the barbarous capitalism and semi-feudal economy that was Spain at the time—into a reformist labor union which perpetuated and legitimized exploitation. The result was that the anarchist militants—who constituted the moral driving force of the CNT—responded by founding the Federación Anarquista Ibérica as an ad hoc, federally structured, association of anarchist militants whose role was to reaffirm the revolutionary nature of anarcho-syndicalism and provide a focal point for the defense of the CNT’s anti-political principles and its immediate Libertarian Communist objectives.

By 1932, the immediate reformist threat to the CNT had been eliminated — democratically! — and the working class anarchists who had rallied to the FAI (although many of these, like Garcia Oliver and Durruti, had never been affiliated to the FAI) reverted to everyday union activity at a Local Federation level or to conspiratorial revolutionary activity in the Confederal Defense Committee.

Instead of disbanding, however, or confining itself to acting as a corresponding society between autonomous agitational, propaganda, and educational groups, the administration of the FAI was taken over in 1933 by a group of bohemian intellectuals and economic planners dominated by Diego Abad de Santillán, a man for whom abstract theories took precedence over workers’ practical experiences.

With the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War two years later, the FAI abandoned all pretense of being a revolutionary organ. Like the institutionalized CNT leadership it had helped oust in 1930–1932, the FAI became, in turn, a vested interest structure applying the brakes to self-management, the anti-statist revolutionary activity of the rank and file, and repressing the new generation of revolutionary activists among the Libertarian Youth and the Friends of Durruti group. “Anti-fascist unity’”and state power were promoted at the expense of anarchist principles while the hegemony of the CNT–FAI’s “notable leaders” was imposed over the local revolutionary committees and the union general assemblies. The FAI’s principal aim was now to perpetuate itself, even at the expense of the anarchist principles which had inspired it: the instrumental means had become the organizational end.

While conducting your research, what finding surprised you most and why?

What most surprised me most—perhaps irritated is a better word—was the totally undemocratic, arbitrary, and uncontested way in which the “notables” of the Catalan CNT—Federica Montseny, Francisco Esgleas, and Diego Abad de Santillan (who had been co-opted by CNT regional Secretary Mariano R. Vazquez) renounced anarchist objectives in the name of political expediency on July 21, 1936—a decision which was never theirs to make in the first place. Up until July 21, 1936, power lay with the factory and CNT’s neighborhood committees, not its Regional or National Committees. Equally pernicious and arbitrary was the decision by the “higher committees of the CNT-FAI” to set up the Militias Committee—in my view, the first major misjudgment of the Spanish revolution which led to both organizations collaborating with the state, joining the government, and ultimately the collapse of revolutionary morale by rolling back the whole process of self-management begun on 19 July 19.

I hope the book will give today’s anarchist activists some insight into the FAI experience so that they can create that new world in their hearts—without, hopefully, making the same mistakes. I also hope the book makes clear that anarchism is much more than a movement of permanent protest.

From left to right: B (Stuart Christie’s daughter), Lucio Urtubia, and Stuart Christie in October, 2008.