The CNT and the IWA, part 1: The CNT since Franco

The decision that the CNT took at its eleventh congress (December 2015) to re-found the International Workers Association is the latest act in the process of updating anarcho-syndicalism which began with the resurrection of the CNT in 1977, and which still isn’t finished.

Originally written in Spanish by RABIOSO. Translated by Lifelong Wobbly.

After the death of Franco in 1975, Spanish elites initiated a series of measures that would modernize the state apparatus and integrate it into Europe; thanks to this, in 1977 the CNT was able to become legal once again, ending four decades of persecution and illegality. After the initial relief, it didn’t take long for problems to surface. It goes without saying that in the forty years that had passed since the defeat of the 1936 Revolution, the world had changed. During this period, the left had experienced (and survived) Stalinism, WW2, decolonization, the welfare state, the cold war, and the disintegration of the Marxist state in its various forms, to give just a few examples. The world in which anarcho-syndicalism had once flourished had disappeared, and the anarcho-syndicalist movement had ceased to exist, while the CNT turned into a working-class  Sleeping Beauty, maintaining its appearance despite the passage of time.

Dorian Gray or the weight of glory

At least, that’s how it seemed. Everyone who participated enthusiastically in the re-launching of the CNT soon learned that adapting to the enormous social changes which had taken place since 1939 was something like the Odyssey of Ulysses. It didn’t take long for an infernal dynamic of polarization to begin between those who wanted to find a way to adapt anarcho-syndicalism to the neoliberal world, and those who didn’t want to change anything for fear of ending up as reformists. Naturally, this is a black-and-white vision of the world and there were many more tendencies, but all of them had to face the question of how to adapt to the modern world.

We should recognize that behind this fear of the risks associated with modernization, there was a real danger. The Swedish SAC, the only anarcho-syndicalist union deserving of the name that managed to survive the bloodbath of fascism and WW2, is a perfect example. The SAC wasn’t “lucky” enough to have a glorious death fighting against fascism, like the CNT, and it had to face the realities of the post-war world. After initially trying to remain faithful to anarcho-syndicalist principles after the war, the possibility of total marginalization caused a 180 degree change in its strategy, and it ended up integrating itself into the social democratic state model which took root in Sweden.

We should also remember, at this point, that the SAC was able to face this dilemma about its future in a very different situation from the reborn CNT in 1977. Its structures were intact, and it had enough of a membership base that it could still function as a union and not a mere propaganda group. The CNT, on the other hand, was facing a very different situation: fascism had torn its structures up by the roots, creating a generational divide. What’s more, the underground situation which the dictatorship had made necessary also made day-to-day anarchist functioning impossible. Large-scale decision making through assemblies – needed to avoid the formation of power cliques – was as impossible as the development of a critical (and rational) mentality, a key task which had been carried out in the anarchist social centers [ateneos libertarios].

It didn’t take long for the new CNT to feel the results of what was missing. In Marxism, the emphasis on rationalism/scientism gave place to parliamentarism and bureaucratization at first, and later to a complete dehumanization which saw human beings as mere numbers, clearing the path for the assorted savageries which were carried out under the hammer and sickle during the 20th century. In anarchism, on the other hand, even though rationalism plays a fundamental role, the basic component is a fundamental and staunch defense of the individual against the rest of the abstractions which the human mind generates in its struggle for life. This strongly emotional component, based in the personal perception of justice, is positive in that it makes it impossible to create a repressive apparatus which would impose anarchism or cold-blooded, systematic murder of those who simply think differently. But it can also be negative – from a dogmatic perspective, anarchism can become the best argument for remaining in a ghetto, praising anarchism without trying to use it as a tool for social change, even fighting against those who do try.

May 6, 1977: Legalization of the CNT. On the right is Gómez Casas, general secretary and author of important books on the history of the CNT.
May 6, 1977: Legalization of the CNT. On the right is Gómez Casas, general secretary and author of important books on the history of the CNT.

Shortly after the CNT was revived it became clear that it was not the Sleeping Beauty of revolutionary mythology, but something closer to Dorian Grey’s cursed reflection. On the one hand, during the long period of exile the CNT had become a shadow of its former self, suffering a large number of internal conflicts and splits; on the other hand, thanks to the 1936 Revolution, the CNT became the only alternative to authoritarianism and the bureaucratization of Marxism with real revolutionary experience. This contradiction between myth and reality was a poisoned legacy which quickly led to disastrous effects in the new CNT that had blossomed during the Transition.[i] Also, most of the new members were young militants, who had recently come to anarcho-syndicalism, attracted by its heroic history and its anti-authoritarian ideology. Unfortunately, they lacked even a basic experience of workplace struggle, and had very little background in anarchist ideas.

The disaster: Valladolid as an example

The combination of militancy and a lack of background in anarchist ideas soon brought disastrous results. In Valladolid, where the extreme right was especially active and acted with complete impunity, the local anarchist youth focused on confrontation, which led the fascists to respond by putting a bomb outside the CNT hall.[ii] But while nobody can deny its commitment to confronting fascist violence, the CNT also had to focus on adapting its methods of struggle to a consumer society. This group did not accept attempts at modernization, and the situation escalated rapidly. According to Luis Pasquau, who was in the CNT’s Education Union in Valladolid at that time, the “anarchists” came to the union assemblies when they knew that union strategy would be discussed, and to prevent discussion they put the same pistols that they used to fight fascists on the table. The logical consequence of this situation was the mass exit of education workers from the CNT, which then became a councillist group.[iii]

Finally, as you might guess, the defenders of doctrinal purism took a 180-degree turn, and ended up defending participation in the union elections.[iv] The consequences of this about-face were disastrous, as the membership numbers show. From 120,000 in September 1977 (Joan Zambrana, La alternative libertaria en Cataluña) to 250,000 in the fall of 1978 (according to Juan Gómez Casas), membership fell to 30,000 in 1979 with the V Congress, during which the first split from the CNT took place. The police provocations (Caso Scala) and the anti-anarchist propaganda campaign which the State and the media carried out only increased the pressure to crush the CNT for refusing to collaborate in the Transition.[v]

Entrance to the CNT's V Congress in 1979.
Entrance to the CNT’s V Congress in 1979.

Since the issue of union elections threatened to provoke a new rupture in the CNT, the majority which opposed elections agreed at the VI Congress (1983) to put the question off to an extraordinary congress devoted to that issue. This was a mistake that only gave more time to Jose Bondía, the secretary of the CNT at the time, to prepare the CNT’s integration into the system. At this point the Socialist Party was struggling in the union field against the CCOO, a union close to the Communist Party, and the deputy prime minister, Alfonso Guerra, was toying with the idea of favoring the CNT and marginalizing the CCOO. In exchange for participating in the union elections, he offered aid from the state for the CNT to recover its enormous historical assets.[vi] We have to remember that, thanks to the crisis in which the organization was laboring, the majority of unions forced the reelection of Bondía as general secretary even though it was against the statutes, a disastrous decision that would cost the organization dearly. (Despite his failure, Bondía was “rewarded” with a post organizing the celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the conquest of the Americas. Who says Rome doesn’t pay traitors?)[vii]

Since there was no agreement about union elections in the V Congress, the defenders of elections took advantage of the time before the extraordinary Congress to participate in union elections in some areas. This happened in Valladolid, where the opponents were a minority, and, to avoid a new rupture and hemorrhaging of members, they agreed to participate as the CNT in the elections at the enormous FASA-Renault factory (the biggest in the world outside of France, which is why the city is sometimes called Fasadolid). This could only serve to support the arguments of the defenders of electoral participation, thanks to the good results which were obtained. However, despite this, the majority of the extraordinary Congress voted against electoral participation. The pro-electoral minority announced that they were splitting, they organized a Congress in Valencia where they fused with the remains of the earlier splits, and they refused to stop calling themselves CNT, which made it impossible to access the enormous historical assets of the CNT for a long time. The defenders of the split didn’t shy away from violence, predictably leading to shameful incidents, such as an early-morning ambush of some members on their way to work (in Palencia, near Valladolid), or the violent attempts in Madrid by the opponents of the split. These confrontations, occasionally violent, marked one of the most shameful moments in the history of the anarchist movement.

In Valladolid, the immense majority went with the split, justifying this in a manifesto which was distributed widely, and the CNT became a mere shadow of what it had been. When, during the collapse of “really existing socialism”, this writer decided to leave the CGT (then still calling itself the CNT) and approach the CNT-AIT, it had ceased to exist de facto. It had no workplace activity, but it still had a union hall thanks to the stubbornness of three people from my father’s generation (of which one was a Marxist with enormous respect for the CNT, another had been forced to flee to France due to an anti-anarchist raid under Franco, and the third had participated in the struggles at FASA during the Transition). There were also a handful of sympathizers, but it would still take time for the wounds of the split to heal.

These three people played a fundamental role in resurrecting the CNT in Valladolid. They had successfully maintained an infrastructure (the union hall was shared with a Flamenco group, as these were the only ones found who paid the rent on time), and even a minimal presence, through spreading propaganda like posters and leaflets. More important than this was their role in transmitting their ideas to a new generation, through many debates on all sorts of topics. In the early 90’s, when a fellow worker in construction asked for the union’s help during a conflict at their company, the CNT could begin to resurrect itself as a union. It had come full circle.

A decade after the split, most of the members of the still-tiny union in Valladolid had little or no union experience, and we had to begin from square one. Maybe it wasn’t quite that bad, thanks to the help and experience of the elders. And our situation wasn’t very different from the rest of the CNT, which had lost the immense majority of the generation that had participated in reorganizing after the Transition, and which had to make it through a very difficult period of “wandering in the desert.” In Valladolid, the elders were opposed to anything that threatened to reopen the wounds the split, and they trusted the youth (I had keys to the union hall even while I was still a member of the split). This allowed for a slow and gradual growth, which also helped to revive other parts of the region (Palencia, Zamora). Today, the Valladolid CNT is a union with real workplace presense and various industrial branches (metal, construction…), with more than 100 members, and its own union hall. It has been able to host the Regional Committee, the CNT newspaper, and even the National Committee (which, it should be said, ended when a corruption scandal resulted in the immediate expulsion of the erstwhile general secretary from Valladolid).

Getting up to date after the split

Overcoming the catastrophic period of the Transition took many forms: some areas, like Puerto Real, were able to avoid disaster, while others such as Valladolid had a real implosion and had to begin from zero, but each area had its own variations. Catalonia, the region most affected by the split, wasn’t able to overcome it, and after several crises it was finally de-federated and ended up with almost no members. As in Valladolid, this allowed for a generational change and starting from a clean slate, marked by a slow but constant expansion, as well as overcoming conflicts which stretched back decades.

Another problem that was important to overcome was the delegate voting structure, which had come down from the beginning of the 20th century. The V Congress had attempted to update it by assigning votes to branches as follows:

From 1-50 dues-paying members …. 1 vote

From 51-100 “” ………………………… 2 votes

From 101-300 “”……………………….. 3 votes

… and so on, up to the limit of 8 votes for branches with more than 2,500 dues-paying members [cotizantes].[viii] This voting structure was a mistake, as it led to a distortion of reality inside the union: all you needed was 5 dues payers to be recognized as a union with a vote, which was pretty easy to achieve – especially for retirees. This led to “phantom” branches, some of which even had their own hall – a legacy of times past – but not even a hint of workplace activity, and which ended up as the fiefdoms of a few people at most, sometimes even just one.

At the same time, the real union branches practiced – and still practice – the opposite policy, declaring fewer dues payers than they really have in order to have more money for their local organizing; for example, it’s not rare for a local group with 5 or more members to stay as a pre-branch group [nucleo confederal], to avoid the burden of per-capita payments and use their money locally.[ix] This situation was possible because of the implosion of the 80’s, in which the local groups were focused on mere survival, and relations with the rest of the organization were basically secondary.

A map of the unions which participated in the V Congress in 1979. Those who split are marked in purple.
A map of the unions which participated in the V Congress in 1979. Those who split are marked in purple.

The results were a disproportionate presence for the pseudo-unions when it came to voting, while the real unions were under-represented. Ironically, the lack of any workplace activity from the pseudo-unions enabled their radicalism, turning them into a bloc that was opposed to the real unions, which were trying to adapt themselves to the realities of workplace organizing. It had nothing to do with participating in the union elections, whose defenders have always been a negligible minority. Rather, it was about giving ourselves the tools we needed to support workplace organizing – such as lawyers – or ensuring that the historic archive was well cared for and functioning. On these and many other topics, the discussion was blocked due to fear of creating a caste of professional staff [liberados].[x]

The CNT’s growth ended up resolving this situation. The X Congress (Cordoba, 2010) finally put an end to this distortion of reality. At this Congress we modified the voting structure, which until then had allowed three branches with 5 members each to carry the same weight as one branch with 200 members. The new system is as follows:

From 5-10 members ……… 1 vote

From 11-20 members …….. 2 votes

From 21-30 members …….. 3 votes

… and the same proportion up to 100: from 31-40 members, 4 votes, etc. To avoid an excessive accumulation of power by any one branch, after 100 members the number of additional votes slows down – so, a branch with 91-100 members receives 10 votes, but a branch with 101-150 receives 12 votes. For context, the majority of branches have between 25-75 members. This agreement led to several branches leaving the organization after losing their erstwhile privileged position. This coincided with the end of a period of scandals and de-federations that particularly affected the regions of Catalonia, Galicia, and Levante, in which growth had stalled since the 80’s. At the same time, there was a generational change, in which a generation linked to past conflicts disappeared for natural causes.

Two posters that are characteristic of the period: the two split groups speaking of unity and using a name which isn't theirs, and the CNT spreading die-hard slogans.
Two posters that are characteristic of the period: the two split groups speaking of unity and using a name which isn’t theirs, and the CNT spreading die-hard slogans.

The beneficiaries of these agreements made themselves visible at the XI Congress (Zaragoza, 2015), which had twice as many participants. This congress introduced a new modification, changing the minimum number of members needed to charter a branch from 5 to 15 for general membership branches [Sindicatos de Oficios Varios] and from 25 to 50 for industrial branches. At the same time, at this Congress we revisited our relation with the IWA, proposing its reorganization. But before we can understand the reasons, we have to briefly review the history of the anarcho-syndicalist international.

[To be continued…]


[i] “La transición” in Spain refers to the period from Franco’s death in 1975 until “democracy” stabilized in the early ‘80’s. Sometimes called “la traición” [the betrayal] as the Socialist and Communist parties agreed to preserve much of the fascist state structure and immunity for those who had run it. This and all other endnotes are from the translator

[ii] Valladolid is sometimes called “Facha-dolid”, referring to a strong tradition of fascists in the city.

[iii] “Councillist” groups were influenced by the German/Dutch Council Communist tradition. Since the ‘60’s these groups have held that formal unions are brakes on the struggle and that workers should only form temporary committees or strike councils. Needless to say, this is a distortion of the outlook of the original Council Communists.

[iv] Spanish labor law has proportional voting of representatives onto company councils, which are paid for by the company and state subsidies. This was part of the labor law imposed under Franco. The current CNT is almost unique among Spanish unions for refusing to participate in these elections or receive subsidies. The CNT’s opposition to this setup has many aspects and would require a lot more space to explore, but I’ll attempt to summarize their position: real unions are composed of workers acting together directly, they are not “representatives” which are separate from the workers; the union election setup turns unions into exactly that, creating a separate caste of full-time union functionaries through state and corporate subsidies who, like politicians, become unaccountable to the workers who vote for them every four years.

[v]Caso Scala” was a club where several CNT members worked, which was bombed. The official story at the time blamed it on internal struggles, but the modern consensus is that it was a police operation.

[vi] After Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, all of the property of Spain’s labor movements fell into the hands of the state. The Socialist Party, the socialist-affiliated UGT union, and the CNT were the main groups affected by this. The Communist Party had been tiny until the war, and the communist-affiliated union (CCOO) did not exist until the 1970s. Discussions over returning historical assets were part of the maneuvering between the Socialists and the Communists during the Transition. The procedure that was set up to return assets had to give equal treatment to all of the organizations which had existed prior to the Civil War.

[vii] Refers to a successful rebellion against the Roman empire that only ended when the leader, Viriatus, was assassinated by his lieutenants. When the assassins asked for their payment, they were told that “Rome doesn’t pay traitors.” This is a common phrase in Spain and Portugal.

[viii] Unlike the IWW, the CNT does not have central membership records – each branch keeps its own records, and remits payments for the number of dues stamps it sells. This may be a legacy of how often the organization has been declared illegal.

[ix] Because they have high expectations of branches, the CNT also have a formal status for pre-branch groups, called “confederal nuclei”, so that they can be mentored without rushing into administrative work. Apparently they don’t pay as much in per-caps.

[x] The union elections and subsidies for unions lead most Spanish unions to have a bureaucratic caste of full-time officials, called liberados because they are “liberated” from work.

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