1937 The CNT as I Saw It [Brockway]
The CNT as I Saw It
by Fenner Brockway
Before I visited Spain I appreciated highly the part played by the CNT (the Anarcho Syndicalist Trade Union Confederation) in the fight against Fascism and for the Social Revolution; but that appreciation has been enormously increased by actual contact with the organisation and first-hand knowledge of its work.
I went to Spain to do what I could to assist the POUM, following the arrest of its leaders and the attempted suppression of the organisation. I expected sympathy from the C.N.T., but I did not feel I had the right to expect more than a general assistance.
After all, the C.N.T. and the POUM have a difference of social philosophy which has been historically divisive. The CNT is anarchist. The POUM is Marxist. This has led to differences in policy and even to a certain rivalry in agitation and organisation. The POUM has frequently criticised anarchist tactics and leadership. It has not refrained from seeking to enrol members within the CNT.
Under such circumstances it would have been understandable if the CNT had not exerted itself overmuch in the defence of the POUM.
But I found no such reservations. To the CNT it was a matter of principle and in the presence of the principle other considerations were forgotten. The POUM had proved the genuineness of its devotion to the anti-Fascist struggle. It
had proved its sincerity in defence of the rights of the workers and in preparing the way for the social revolution. It was being unjustly persecuted. That was enough. The CNT did not hesitate for a moment in standing by its side and demanding justice for it.
There was a fineness about this attitude which commanded admiration. It was expressed not only in words but in deeds. The Barcelona regional committee at once placed Comrade Augustin Souchy, secretary of the International Department,
at my service as interpreter and adviser. It placed cars at my disposal and I travelled over 2,000 kilometres in them. The National Committee in Valencia was equally wholehearted in its support. It sent a courageous protest against the suppression of the POUM to the Government. Comrade Vasquez, the National Secretary, delivered an outspoken speech to a vast meeting at Valencia demanding justice for the POUM. The CNT instructed one of its leading members, Comrade Pabon, to act as defending lawyer for the POUM.
This was all done from a sense of proletarian duty to stand for just treatment of another working-class organisation. There were no heroics about this gesture. It was done as a matter of course, as a matter of principle. I could not be other than moved by this evidence of the moral integrity of the CNT.
But I learned to appreciate it more than that.
I was impressed by the strength of the CNT. It was unnecessary to tell me that it is the largest and most vital of the working-class organisations in Spain.
That was evident on all sides. The large industries were clearly, in the main, in the hands of the CNT – railways, road, engineering, textiles, electricity, building, agriculture. At Valencia the UGT had a greater share of control than
the CNT than in Barcelona; but generally speaking the mass of manual workers belonged to the CNT. The UGT membership was more of the type of ‘white collar’ worker.
I was impressed by the outward signs of the power of the CNT. At Barcelona it has taken over the premises of the largest capitalist concern of the pre-July days. It is a monumental building, comparable with the vast structure which is the headquarters of the London Passenger Transport Board at St. James’ Park.
At Valencia the CNT occupies the palace of a Marquis of the old regime. Both headquarters are hives of well-organised activities – secretarial, transport, defence, propaganda, organisation, publication, international departments, etc.
And these are only the co-ordinating headquarters. Scattered about both cities one saw large buildings occupied by the various Unions – building workers, electrical workers, transport workers, federated in the CNT.
I was impressed by the organisation of the CNT membership for full participation in the war against the Fascists – the appeal to its members to join the fighting forces, the response to the appeal to join the Column of Death to replace a regiment which had been wiped out, the literature and posters issued to
stimulate the workers to give their all in the struggle against Franco.
I was immensely impressed by the constructive revolutionary work which is being done by the CNT. Their achievement of workers’ control in industry is an inspiration. One could take the examples of the railways or engineering or textiles. There linger in my mind less spectacular examples, but equally
I think of the film institute in Barcelona. An Italian capitalist concern had decided to erect a technical centre for developing and copying films. July 19th came and the capitalists fled. The workers carried on. They completed the building and now it is working in perfect order. It is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever entered. The technique of its staff – all CNT comrades – is the equal of that to be found anywhere.
I think of a very different example. A small town. There were seventeen separate barber shops. They have united to form a CNT collective. They have taken over a Fascists club. I visited it on a Sunday morning. In a finely panelled hall sat workmen awaiting their turn. In a large club room the seventeen barbers worked, with an equipment as efficient as you would find in a West London or New York establishment. It was wonderful to see this example of co-operation.
Most of all I enjoyed my visit to the Agricultural Collective at Segorbe.
I must not delay to describe it in detail; but the spirit of the peasants, their enthusiasm, the way they had contributed their stock to the common effort, their pride in it – all was an inspiration.
There are still some Britishers and Americans who regard the anarchists of Spain as impossible. undisciplined uncontrollables. This is poles away from the truth. The anarchists of Spain, through the CNT, are doing one of the biggest constructive jobs ever done by the working class.
At the Front they are fighting Fascism. Behind the Front they are actually constructing the new Workers’ Society. They see that the war against Fascism and the carrying through of the Social Revolution are inseparable. Those who have seen and understood what they are doing must honour them and be grateful to them. They are resisting Fascism. They are at the same time creating the New Workers’ Order which is the only alternative to Fascism. This is surely the biggest thing now being done by the workers in any part of the world.
19th July 1937.