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The Spanish Anarchists: An Exchange

In response to:

Remembering Madrid from the November 6, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

In Bernard Knox’s affecting review of Burnett Bolloten’s The Spanish Revolution: The Left and the Struggle for Power During the Civil War [NYR, November 6], he, like so many before him, asserts his agreement with Bolloten’s factual presentation of the Communist destruction of the social revolution, but quickly—too quickly—counters that the Communists were correct, however, in their policy of first the war, then the revolution and the primary need to build a “disciplined” army to fight the “kind of war Franco was waging against them.” As if it is incontrovertible that one must fight the sort of war your enemy wants you to fight.

The social revolution,” Knox says, “may have been (for some people) Paradise Now, but it was a fool’s paradise….” Yet three paragraphs later, he also says, “The Communist Party’s policy (which was of course that of its Russian ‘advisers’) turned out to be based on an illusion.” The alternative to a “fool’s paradise” was, it seems, “an illusion.”

Since the Communist destruction of the social revolution was completed by May-June 1937, not quite a year after Franco’s revolt began, we will never know what sort of fool’s paradise it would have brought to Spain. We do know, however, that without the Anarchist-led social revolution a Franco victory would have been achieved in a few weeks. We also know that when the Communists gained control of Republican Spain, they lost the war. The operation was successful, but the patient died.

Mr. Knox further writes, “Anarchist columns…had shown almost superhuman courage in the fight against the military revolt in Barcelona but facing experienced troops [now what in the world did they face and defeat in Barcelona and the Aragon?] in the field they were soon out-maneuvered and outflanked, whereupon they ran like rabbits….” I do not propose—because I do not know—that anarchist troops never “ran like rabbits,” but I do propose that running like rabbits, like heroism, is not a monopoly of one group. There isn’t fighting force on earth—whether Communist, Anarchist, fascist, or what have you—that has not at one point or another run like rabbits.

As for Mr. Knox’s statement that it was Durruti’s troops which gave way and left a gap in the line perilously close to Madrid, more than 300 Anarchists died on November 17, the day Mr. Knox cites, and there was no mass flight, and the last ditch defense against nationalist tanks in the Plaza de la Moncloa was the work of the Anarchist 26th Brigade. It must also be remembered that the Anarchist troops, poorly armed and poorly fed, had been fighting for months in the Aragon and then Madrid, and the International Brigades, better armed and better fed, but for eight days. Again, it must be said, it was the Anarchists who more than any helped organize the popular resistance in Madrid, and it was the Anarchists who insisted, demanded, begged that the “undisciplined” populace be given arms by a government on the run. (See R.W. Kern’s Red Years/Black Years, ISHI, 1978, pp. 199-205.)

Yet, what if there, had been a mass flight by these Anarchist troops? Does that prove the policy of the social revolution was wrong, or that all Anarchist troops couldn’t fight or became cowardly in the face of a disciplined army? I don’t see any point in denigrating the fighting role of the Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War simply because one doesn’t agree with the policies they espoused. Of even the fighting prowess of an enemy like the nationalists and the fascists. (While I was training with the incipient Lincoln battalion in January 1937, we were told in pep takes given by visiting dignitaries from Albacete, IB base, that when the “fascists” were faced by courageous troops and cold steel they turned tail and ran. I have a bullet in my spine which informs me daily that that was a lie.)

Mr. Knox, as so many before him, refers to the POUM as Trotskyite. The POUM was an anti-Stalinist Marxist-Leninist party whose ideological sympathies lay with Bukharin, if any of the old Bolsheviks. It believed in a pluralist socialist society and was condemned by Trotsky in typical Bolshevik style: “Despite its intentions, the POUM proved to be…the chief obstacle on the road to the creation of a revolutionary party.” Then calling it centrist, he went on, “Revolution does not tolerate centrism. Revolution exposes and crushes centrism….” (The Lesson of Spain. The Last Warning! Spark Syndicate, Bombay, 1937.)

For Mr. Knox’s information, the IB was formed after resolution by Maurice Thorez, General Secretary of the French CP, and approval by Stalin, at a meeting of the Western Section of the Comintern in August-September 1936. Not all Interbrigaders were Communists—many were, many were not. The CI was not, however, an eleemosynary organization. What it organized, it controlled.

Other than the above, I enjoyed Bernard Knox’s review very much, and especially the recounting of his personal experience as a combatant in early civil war Spain.

William Herrick

Old Chatham, New York

Bernard Knox replies:

The idea that the Western democracies would eventually rally to the Republican side in a firm stand against Axis aggression in Europe did indeed turn out to be an illusion by the time of Munich, if not before, but in 1936-1937 it seemed a reasonable prospect and in any case it was the Republic’s only hope. The immediate problem was to stop the Franco offensive and for this a disciplined army was essential. Of course one doesn’t always have to “fight the sort of war your enemy wants you to fight”; the North Vietnamese successfully resisted all our invitations to fight the kind of war we could win. But they had plenty of space to trade for time; they had terrain which was ideal for their purposes and frustrating for ours; they had major allies who were not only sources of uninterrupted supply but who also constituted a threat which inhibited offensive operations against their home base.

The Republic had none of these advantages and if Madrid had fallen on November the 7th, London, followed by Paris, would have recognized the Junta as Spain’s legitimate government and the Republic would have found itself blockaded, while Franco’s professionals, backed up by the Italian army corps of General Roatta and the Nazi Condor Legion, continued their swift advance, leaving a quiescent Catalonia to be dealt with last of all. “The operation was successful but the patient died.” True, but that is not a valid argument against operating when the alternative is a swift and certain death.

Mr. Herrick is quite right about running like rabbits; anybody who has lived through a war or two has done so more than once—sometimes it is the right thing to do. But only discipline, organization, and a proper chain of command will enable troops who have run like rabbits to reform and consolidate later; the anarchists had none of these things, in fact, they despised them. I did not of course see Durutti’s troops give way on November 17; we were pulled in afterward to try to regain the lost buildings. But a Russian artillery officer who was present described their retreat as a rout: “Los anarquistas retrocedieron a la desbandada…” (Voronof, quoted by Martinez Bande, La Marcha sobre Madrid, 1968, p. 142, n. 133). The men of Durutti’s column I saw just after their arrival on the Madrid front were as well armed as we were and seemed to have plenty of food. They were also certainly not battle-weary, exhausted veterans of the Aragon front. For that was a front on which practically nothing happened. Bolloten (no friend of the Communists) quotes detailed, eyewitness accounts of the chaotic indiscipline and utter ineffectiveness of the anarchist formations there.

It was in fact a major misfortune for the Republic that the manpower and resources of Catalonia were not mobilized for significant military action against Franco until much later. If the Catalan militias of 1936 had not been “so completely uncoordinated and so divorced from the norms of military technique that their movements resembled the arbitrary. efforts of disintegrated hordes” (Bolloten, p. 254, quoting a Franco officer), Huesca certainly could have been taken and, quite possibly, Zaragoza, too; in any case the threat would have prevented Mola from sending troops south against Madrid. But in fact the siege of Huesca dragged on for months; the besieging army (according to that same Franco officer) “lacked the most essential psychological and technical elements for war.”

I did not of course mean to imply that the anarchists lacked courage; they had that in abundance. But courage alone will not suffice for the long haul; as Cipriano Mera, an anarchist commander, realized in the unrelenting struggle on the Madrid front. “I understood that if we were not to be definitely defeated we had to construct…a disciplined and capable army” (Bolloten, p. 307). I did not mean to imply, either, that the Franco forces were lacking in courage. Nobody from Albacete tried to feed us stupid propaganda of that type; our fear and hatred of the enemy were tempered by a reluctant admiration for their dogged persistence in the face of heavy losses.

Mr. Herrick is of course quite right about the POUM; I slipped into the loose practice (common at the time) of categorizing all revolutionary socialist groups which were anti-Stalinist as “Trotskyist.” And he is no doubt correct about the timing of the Comintern decision to form the Brigades. But all I meant to say was that the men who went to Madrid later as the XIth and XIIth Brigades were most of them already in or on their way to Spain when Stalin approved Thorez’s resolution and they would have fought for the Republic even if he hadn’t. When our small group left England with Cornford, for example, we had never heard of the Brigades; our idea was to head to Catalonia where John had already been in action with, devoted Communist though he was, a POUM column.

One last word about the anarchists. Once they realized, like Cipriano Mera, that military effectiveness demanded organization and discipline they became first-class soldiers and fought magnificently. They fought not only in the armies of the Republic but in the Second World War, too—some in the French resistance forces and others as regulars in the Division. Le Clerc. Some of them are still refugees, unable or unwilling to go back to Spain after all these years; the old and infirm among them are looked after by an organization called Spanish Refugee Aid. I am sure that one thing Mr. Herrick and I can agree on fully is an appeal to readers of the Review to support them in their old age; contributions (tax-exempt) can be sent to Spanish Refugee Aid Inc. at 80 E. 11 St., NY, NY 10003.

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