Sunday, 8 August 2010


YESTERDAY, two events took place in Manchester: one organised by the Solidarity Federation at the Town Hall Tavern was addressed by a young man from the Spanish CNT in Tarragona, Diego Delgado, and the other organised by the International Brigade Memorial Trust at the Peoples' History Museum entitled Antifascistas was presented by the historian, Richard Baxell. The Cenitista meeting was in a the upstairs room of the pub and had over 30 people present. Diego spoke for over an hour outlining the history of the emergence of the CNT in Spain from the early pre-runners such as federalism to about the beginning of the Second Republic in 1931. It was a detailed, in depth, talk dealing with predecessor trade unions and federations particularly strong in Andalucia and Catalonia, up to the founding of the CNT itself in 1910. The CNT called the National Confederation of Labour was set up following the Barcelona events of the Semana Tragica (Tragic Week) in 1909. After the persecutions that followed, it was thought necessary to have a national organisation to protect workers rather than loose regional federations and it marked a shift towards syndicalism, and the general strike in the style of the French CGT.

Despite this, the reaction of the Catalan workers in Barcelona during the Semana Tragica showed the distinctive nature of the Spanish movement as opposed to the syndicalism of France, England and northern Europe. The Catalans did not succumb when the Government in Madrid called up the reserves to fight in Morocco in 1909 to war-mania like British and French workers did in 1914. The people of Barcelona were anti-war then, perhaps because of their experience of what had happened to their young men in the war in Cuba when they returned starving and suffering from malaria. The British, German and French workers in 1914, despite the advance of their respective industrial revolutions, the development of class consciousness and disciplined trade unions, flocked to fight each other when their Governments made its appeal and they did so without conscription.

Why was this the case? Well the difference of Spanish history and national characteristics must have something to do with it, but the strong establishment of an anarchist culture with its capacity to educate workers, create initiatives and build solidarity must also have been a big factor. The northerners were well disciplined and possibly better educated, in the German case profoundly so, but they lacked the Spanish and Catalan spirit of anarchism.

It was noticed that Diego finished his talk in 1931, and thus missed out the developments of the CNT under the Second Republic and in the Civil War. This might have presented some difficulties because these periods involved problems for the Spanish CNT and later a compromise of principle during the Civil War; though it must be said we left the meeting at 2pm to go to the Antifascistas event and these matters may have been raised during question time.

The Antifascistas event was bigger possible 200 strong. Richard Baxell who wrote an history of the involvement of the British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War in 2005 was now promoting the booklet 'Antifascistas' published jointly by the International Brigade Memorial Trust & Lawrence & Wishart. His talk, I suspect, was more valuable to people with some knowledge of the Spanish War than the book which looks like the Spanish Civil War for beginners. He broke with the usual nostalgic narrative of these events to present a series of ethnographic accounts by participants and volunteers in the war. This was at once more colourful and realistic with the kind of brutal trench talk and banter on powerpoint that marks so much of everyday life as it was lived on the front during that war. We discussed afterwards the need to get away from the old romantic presentations of this war and give more lifelike accounts by people who took part using. There has been far too much historical glossing by people like Paul Preston, who will next year no doubt be bringing out further editions of their old histories of the Spanish Civil War to co-inside with the 75th anniversary of the start of that war.

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