Review of Durruti in the Spanish Revolution

February 13, 2011

From the journal Working USA, Volume 12, Number 3, published in 2009.

Durruti in the Spanish Revolution
Paz, Abel (author) and Chuck Morse (translator).
AK Press, 2006

It is difficult to find a nonpartisan history of the Spanish Civil War. The 1930s was an ideological battleground in Spain in which fascists, communists, socialists, anarchists, and republicans struggled viciously for influence; each group tends to blame the outcome and atrocities of the war on the others. Most accounts of those turbulent years describe an embattled Republic under siege from right-wing fascists on one side and reckless anarcho-syndicalists on the other. In Durruti in the Spanish Revolution, Abel Paz tells the contentious story of the war from an often-marginalized perspective: that of the anarchists themselves.

Durruti in the Spanish Revolution is both a definitive biography of lifelong militant anarchist Buenaventura Durruti and an exhaustive history of Spanish anarchism during the years leading up to the war. Through letters, speeches, newspaper articles, and memoirs of participants on all sides of the conflict, Paz gives a blow-by-blow account of the intense and often bloody struggle to establish libertarian communism in Spain that is both personal and analytical. In order to further contextualize these events, he also outlines the complicated development of the major organizations, political parties, and figures as Spain moved from a monarchy to a liberal republic to an embattled state in total crisis.

Paz’s history is not non-partisan either. At the start of the war he was a young member of the anarcho-syndicalist Confederacíon Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), the largest and most militant union in Spain at the time. After the war ended, he fought against fascist Generalísimo Francisco Franco’s regime and spent many years in prison and in exile. Paz was clearly influenced by the powerful commit- ment to revolution that Durruti’s life exemplified; his adoration of his subject is palpable. The book blends the perspectives of the two men, which are at times indistinguishable.

Paz grew up in Barcelona, a stronghold of the CNT and the Spanish labor movement. When the revolution erupted on July 19, 1936, workers there erected barricades in the streets, put down the military rebellion, and effectively took control of the city of more than a million. The CNT and the closely related Federacíon Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) were the most powerful forces left standing.

In the wake of the bloody battles, new forms of social organization emerged in Barcelona and the surrounding areas. Workers took over their factories and formed assemblies to coordinate the production and distribution of essential goods. Popular kitchens gave away free food. Streetcars and buses were collectivized. In the countryside, peasants established collectives and expropriated land from the aristocracy.

In short, everything the militants had fought so long for was finally coming to fruition: a society without classes or private property. Durruti was emphatic about the necessity of not only fighting Franco’s army but of creating new, libratory social and economic systems. “We carry a new world here, in our hearts,” he famously told a reporter before leading his column of militiamen into battle after Barcelona was secured. “That world is growing in this minute” (478).

Durruti spent his entire life agitating for the liberation of the working class. In a letter to his family in 1931, he named the source of his tireless obsession with revolution:

From my earliest years, the first thing that I saw was suffering. . . . How many times did I see mother cry because she couldn’t give us the bread that we asked for! And yet our father worked without resting for a minute. Why couldn’t we eat the bread that we needed if our father worked so hard? That was the first questions whose answer I found in social injustice. And, since that same injustice exists today, thirty years later, I don’t see why, now that I’m conscious of this, that I should stop fighting to abolish it. (256)

Durruti’s fierce convictions and “revolutionary intransigence” (8) earned him a reputation as a fiery radical at a young age. He joined the Metalworkers’ Union and participated in his first strikes as a teenager, where he won the respect of older miners and militants for his bravery and commitment to worker solidarity. A strong sense of youthful urgency often put him at odds with union leadership, who saw him as impetuous; Durruti, for his part, rejected what he understood to be their claims that the actions of the working class should be constrained by bourgeois politics.

In laying out Durruti’s evolution from an eager young rebel to a revolutionary military strategist, Paz also depicts the blossoming of the workers’ movement in Spain in general. During his life, the CNT went through successive cycles of tremendous expansion and then savage repression that drove it underground and stifled its growth. As it struggled to establish itself as a revolutionary workers’ organization, the CNT participated in frequent general strikes that at times bordered on—or included—armed insurrections. In retaliation, threatened industrialists hired pistoleros who shot down many union leaders in the streets. Assassinations of church and government officials followed. Durruti and his friends began robbing banks to fund the purchase of arms in the 1920s.

In some regards, Durruti never changed. He held tightly to his anarchist ideals and, according to Paz, he “had an almost religious faith in the revolution” (360). He also developed a sensitivity to the shifting power structures in Spain during those tumultuous years that Paz describes. This meticulous reconstruction of the militant’s life allows us to witness the theoretical and strategic growth that followed. In the months leading up to the outbreak of war, he sensed what was coming and recognized the need to be organized and prepared. “Times have changed, due to the ascendant march of the CNT and FAI,” he said.

There’s no longer any place for individual actions. The only ones that matter are collective, mass actions. And tactics overcome by history must be left in the past, because now they’re counter-productive and outdated. Anyone who intends to remain outside the times must also place himself outside of our ranks and accept responsibility for the lifestyle he has chosen. (370)

Durruti’s unwavering confidence in his vision of liberation was not without its consequences. “I’m hardly concerned with what some comrades imprisoned with you [in Barcelona] think of me,” he wrote to a friend from prison. “I’m consistent with myself and follow the same path I set for myself many years ago” (381). He was far more determined to foment revolution than please other militants—or even his parents, wife, and young daughter, whom he often neglected. The intensity of his convictions led him to periodically alienate himself from even the CNT and FAI leadership, where he recognized a growing reformist tendency. Paz uncritically sides with Durruti, presenting him as a visionary whose ideas were often simply too advanced for those around him.

Unlike many of his close anarchist allies, however, Durruti never strayed far from his fellow workers. Very early in his life, he challenged the position that the anarchists should be the vanguard of the revolution. He believed that “what anarchists had to do was understand the natural process of rebellion and not separate themselves from the working class under the pretext of serving it better. That would only be a prelude to betrayal and bureaucratization, to a new form of domination” (32). All his life he was a card-carrying member of the CNT who valued hard work, sacrifice, and a strong sense of responsibility to his comrades. During the war, he ate, slept, and fought alongside the men in his column.

Paz paints a vibrant portrait of this complicated and fierce leader who never seemed to doubt the wisdom and power of the working class to create a better world for themselves. Yet this book is not just about Durruti. In the “Afterward,” historian José Luis Gutierréz Molina reminds us that this “biography is the biography of countless revolutionary Spaniards who gave everything to the struggle for a more just society. By remembering Durruti, we recall all the others who are no less significant, even if unknown. This anarchist from León is not important because he was exceptional, but because he was one among many” (710).

When he died on November 20, 1936, part of the spirit of the Spanish Revolution died with him. Three days later, half a million people marched with his body in Barcelona, helping lay to rest one of the most epic figures of that heroic and tragic struggle of the Spanish working class. Abel Paz has made clear Durruti’s unflinching commitment to the workers of Spain and his dedication to total revolution, which he saw as the only solution to the injustices he had witnessed in his life. “He had renounced everything except victory,” wrote a comrade after his death. “But for him victory was a matter of one’s daily conduct. That is the luminous wake that he left behind, the memory of a lifetime of daily struggle” (605).


One Response to “Review of Durruti in the Spanish Revolution

  1. kvennarad said

    Thank you for this review. I shall look out for this book.

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