Friends of Durruti - a balance sheet



To the activist who strives to contribute to the birth of an authentic memory of the anti-authoritarian current of the workers' movement, the question is posed thus: what is the contribution of the historic episode that was the acts and ideas of the Friends of Durruti? Therefore to complete this study, we must draw up a balance-sheet, to assess in some way their achievements and failures.


If one refers to the ensemble of the history of the international anarchist movement, the contribution of the Friends of Durruti must be likened to that of the Russian anarchists of the platform, the analyses of the Italian activists after the adventure of the workers' councils, the theories of the council communists in the European countries, especially Germany after 1920, and for this last country, the achievements of the entire anarcho-syndicalist and councilist left, the efforts of the Bulgarian anarchists to construct an organisation inspired by the platform, the experiences in France which created the Revolutionary Anarchist Communist Union of 1927, then in 1934 the first Libertarian Communist Federation. However the Friends of Durruti never alluded to this past which was still recent in 1936. Did they not know of it? This is, at least for many of them, very likely.

They were activists of a movement, the Spanish libertarian movement, which had very particular characteristics. It must be stated once again that Spanish anarchism existed in the context of an acute class struggle driven by a powerful mass movement with a union structure. But on the level of theory, it remained a loose collection of very general anti-authoritarian declarations, sometimes quasi-individualist, sprinkled with a conspiratorial and sometimes very violent practice, with a 'specific' organisation which makes one think sometimes of the Carbonarism of the preceding century. This is the reason that a non-negligible part of the CNT kept its distance from the FAI and even leaned towards 'trentism'.

The Spanish libertarian movement, faithful to certain aspects of Bakuninism, was infiltrated by moral and cultural notions which were closer to petit-bourgeois humanism than to revolutionary rigour. It didn't completely ignore what happened beyond the Pyrenees and its persecuted activists knew their French and Belgian comrades very well but, fixed on its traditional anarchist hymn-book, it hardly paid attention to what came from outside.

Drowned in this confusionism and complexity, plunged from the first day in the cauldron of battle, the Friends of Durruti were too little, too late, at a time when the bureaucratisation of the movement was already irreversible and when ministerialism was accepted, albeit resignedly, by a large number of activists. They only emerged in response to the counter-revolutionary schemes which developed in 1937, they didn't constitute an opposition grounded on a solid analysis which might have saved the revolution in July 1936.

Caught up in the violence of the battles of May 1937, they believed without doubt in a possible victory. They quickly understood their struggle could only constitute a practical contribution if it could extend to all the territory not yet conquered by Franco. Their texts quickly took on the appearance of a message to the revolutionaries of the world, not as the expression of a possibility to redress the situation.

They left late and they never arrived: the bureaucracy of ministerialism did everything to extinguish their voices, holding the reins of the organisation firmly in hand. They were themselves carried along by events, dispersed on various fronts, pinned down by militarisation, they dissappeared very quickly.

It is certainly true that it isn't easy to create a constructive and critical force in the middle of civil war, coming from a completely insufficient doctrinal basis. They knew practically nothing of the theoretical efforts carried out in the course of the previous decade in the international movement, efforts which nobody else had capitalised on in a coherent whole at that time, and which still haven't gone beyond the level of ambiguity.[*16]

The insufficiencies of the contribution of the Friends of Durruti are therefore easily explained. We will rapidly sum them up.

The Friends of Durruti didn't know how to break with a revolutionary romanticism sometimes tinged with a hint of hero worship. These failings, apparently minor, have without doubt contributed to obscuring their analyses and forbade them from attaining a view which remains clear today.

To this romanticism is sometimes added a pronounced taste for simplification: the pure and simple suppression, with the stroke of a pen one might say, of the petit-bourgeois.

As for their conception of syndicalism as a basis for the construction of libertarian communism, it remained, as we have seen, simplistic and repetitive. Even regarding the structure of the specific organisation, they were content to be the faithful guardians of a debatable tradition: they were for the maintenance, pure and simple, of the conspiratorial and romantic old-style anarchism of the FAI from 1927 and if they did reject the new structures of the FAI (put forward in July 1937), it was with a great poverty of arguments. Their anti-platformism was a hindrance[*17]. It is necessary to distinguish the bureaucratic turns the new structure could have favoured in the context of a major dearth of theoretical analysis, from the basic soundness of the calling into question of the small affinity groups.

On the problem of workers' unity like on that of the formation of a revolutionary junta, we have certainly perceived an evolution, going from the calls for commitees representing the organisation, to demands for bodies chosen by rank and file structures. An indisputably positive evolution but one which, despite all, leaves the taste of ambiguity in the mouth.


However, we can't remain indifferent to the difficult battle which the Friends of Durruti fought. And we don't feel that they simply ammounted to a rediscovery of the debates that were going on in the international libertarian movement. It is because their experience is comparable to no other, because they rose in the full flight of revolution and had the insight to react, on the field, to a series of events which they were cruelly living.

Their merit is essentially to have known how to define themselves, however clumsily or imperfectly, in the middle of battle despite the weight of insufficiencies and the confusionism of the complex Spanish libertarian movement.

And then beside the shadows there are many lights.

Fundamentally they were willing to call taboos into question and it is known that these weighed heavy in the traditional anarchist movement. The Friends of Durruti took up the defence of the POUM, without hesitating, while the leaders of the CNT hesitated and vacillated. They refused to vilify the "marxists" but fought those who were marxist in name only (and such a distinction was truly heretical in the context of the Spanish anarchist movement). They stigmatised the cowardice of the officers who gave themselves up to arithmetic democracy - to justify their abdication - which gave an unjustified weight to the petit-bourgeois groups. They debunked the pitiable argument which equated libertarian communism with 'anarchist dictatorship'. They denounced the counter-revolutionary schemes which continued to grow.

But what will remain their fundamental contribution is the resolution of the war-revolution dillema, their adoption of an authentically revolutionary position, the affirmation of the need for a workers' power as against ministerial collaboration, the pre-eminence of class-based analysis, the deenunciation of theoretical flux and improvisation. The need for a revolutionary junta was refined little by little, this junta being conceived as emenating from rank and file bodies and not from among the officers of the various organisations.

The difficult question of the arming of the proletariat and especially the need for an armed struggle in the conditions of a modern war was broached in the midst of a battle situation and the most precise propositions, the most thought out, were tested in action in the confederal units. The necassary military organisation was laid out by specifying measures which would guarantee democracy in the units and render the old military formalism useless.

Finally, the Friends of Durruti rediscovered the achievements of that what can be called the libertarian communist pole, insofar as it concerns the need for a specific revolutionary organisation, which works out a theory and considers a programme indispensable. But if one contests the idea of a 'tutelage' to be exercised during the first period of the revolutionary processus, which the Friends of Durruti put forward, they must be credited for having posed this serious problem.

The balance sheet is largely positive. The history of the Friends of Durruti, tragic and brief, will remain an important episode in the construction of libertarian communism.