The 'Herodotus of the CNT': Jose Peirats and La CNT en la revolucion espanola.

Author:Ealham, Chris
Position:Report
 
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I am a modest writer who emerged from the fired clay of an oven. Jose Peirats Jose Peirats's La CNT en la revolucion espanola (The CNT in the Spanish Revolution) is the history of one of the most original and audacious, and arguably also the most far-reaching, of all the twentieth-century revolutions. It is the history of the giddy years of political change and hope in the 1930s, when the so-called 'Generation of '36', Peirats's own generation, the generation of workers and landless labourers who found it impossible to live under the old order, who yearned for a better Spain, rebelled against the inequitable and repressive structures of 'old Spain'. It is also the history of a revolution that failed, and which was followed by years of despair, defeat and Diaspora, as Franco's dictatorship set about cleansing society of the 'Generation of '36'. During the long winter of Franco's obscurantist reaction, the insurgent 'Generation of '36' paid the price for daring to challenge the traditionalist and elitist verities of the agrarian and industrial oligarchies in front of firing squads, in mass, unmarked graves, in German concentration camps, in Franco's prisons or in exile.

This book emerged from the huge population movement provoked by Franco's attempt to rid Spanish society of revolutionaries and 'silence' the 'Generation of '36'. (1) The origins of this book are to be found in France, at the second congress of the Movimiento Libertario Espanol-Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (MLE-CNT), which was held in Toulouse, in October 1947, some eight years after the conclusion of the civil war. (2) In one of the less publicised moments of the congress, Benito Milla and his friend, Peirats, a 39 year-old anarchist exile and secretary-general elect of the MLE-CNT, proposed the publication of a historical study of the revolution. Not only was this project firmly in keeping with the traditional concern of the anarchist movement for history and culture, (3) but many exiled anarchists were acutely aware of the need to offer an alternative to the one-sided, distorting and self-justifying official history being produced by the academic apologists of the dictatorship, whose incessant propaganda offensive denied the place of the anarchists and the entire left in Spain's history. (4) In this context, to write a history connoted a readiness to stake a claim to the past, the present and the future of Spain. Initially, it seemed, the proposal made by Milla and Peirats went unheeded. This is best explained by the exigencies of exile, for, while many of those at the congress undoubtedly grasped the desirability of producing such a history, this project was pushed onto a secondary plane by the burden of everyday life: the imperatives of organising the fight against Franco, and the daily struggle for survival in exile in a country then undergoing post-war reconstruction.

Yet, such was the enduring cultural and educational commitment of those who had developed intellectually within libertarian circles, Milla and Peirats had already sown the seeds of what would, in just a few years, germinate into the most comprehensive survey of the CNT's revolutionary activities during the 1930s. A large part of the responsibility for this rests with the indefatigable work of Martin Vilarrupla, the self-proclaimed 'Minister' for Culture and Propaganda on the CNT secretariat. For Martin Vilarrupla, the history project became an abiding concern: first, he convinced a few comrades of the importance of recording the revolutionary experience of the 1930s; more importantly, he acquired several small offers of material support; and finally, he set about finding the best possible author for the history. Following lengthy consultation with the anarchist movement's 'intellectuals' (5), Martin Vilarrupla was convinced by the arguments of Antonio Garcia Birl'n (a.k.a. 'Dionysios'), one of the most sagacious of the exiles, who insisted that Peirats was the most capable figure to undertake this work of history. And so, in the first of many ironies and twists of fortune that accompanied the creation of La CNT en la revolucion espanola, Martin Vilarrupla resolved to enlist the authorial services of one of the individuals who had originally planted the idea for a history of the revolution so firmly in his own mind.

Typical of many other CNT 'intellectuals', Peirats was an autodidact, a self-educated proletarian: he commenced his life as a worker at the age of eight and later stole hours from his sleep in order to continue his education. A brick maker by profession, like many of his generation, the CNT was Peirats's school, while prison served as his university. Despite the cultural deficit imposed upon Peirats from birth, in his twenties he emerged as one of the leading lights in the vast constellation of newspapers that surrounded the CNT and the anarchist movement. In stark contrast to many of his contemporaries in Spain, both inside and outside of the anarchist movement, Peirats's journalism revealed a keen eye for synthesis and an aversion to an excessive reliance on adjectives, making for a direct, concise and clear prose style, based on short, clipped sentences. These features were allied to a powerful and emotive narrative style, characterised by vast reservoirs of humanity and a mordant irony. (These features would become hallmarks of his writing and, indeed, of La CNT en la revolucion espanola.)

It was not until 1948 that Martin Vilarrupla tracked down his chosen historian. At this time Peirats's term as secretary-general of the CNT-MLE was over. Despite being re-elected by an overwhelming majority, Peirats refused to continue as secretary-general on principle, believing that it was wrong for any one individual to occupy such an important position for two consecutive terms, particularly since this was one of the few positions within the anarchist movement that was remunerated. (6) Peirats was also a reluctant historian; in his memoirs he made no mention of having given any further consideration to the history project that he and Milla had proposed a year earlier. Indeed, despite Peirats's longstanding cultural activities, his immediate perspectives were dominated by the everyday struggle for material survival in the adverse circumstances of exile: at roughly the same time that Martin Vilarrupla approached Peirats to write the history, he was about to establish a logging co-operative with a group of fellow exiles. (7) Unsurprisingly, therefore, Peirats flatly rebuffed Martin Vilarrupla's suggestion that he become a historian.

But Martin Vilarrupla remained undeterred: he was as stubborn as he was tireless, and he remained convinced that Peirats was the ideal choice of historian. And so, a year later, in 1949, Martin Vilarrupla repeated his offer to Peirats, leading to a heated yet fraternal discussion:

'You're the one who will write this book', Martin Vilarrupla informed a protesting Peirats, whose protests he quashed: 'Quiet, let me speak! I know your game. You'll say that they are many better candidates than you--Alaiz, "Dionysios", Gaston Leval, Garcia Pradas ...' 'I agree with you. They are better ...', retorted Peirats. 'I said, "Be quiet"! They may be "better" ... But you're going to do it. You will write this book because you're resolute and you have self-respect." (8) Peirats's resistance evaporated in the face of Martin Vilarrupla's arguments, and shortly afterwards he started work on a book with the working title Historia de la revolucion espanola. Always modest, and never prone to flights of arrogance, Peirats's humility instilled in him a critical self-doubt that would guide his hand as he wrote his history: 'Would I be capable of repaying the confidence that my comrades have invested in me?' (9) This unflinching desire to serve those who had shared the path of revolution and exile with him would temper his resolve in the years to come.

The first task confronting Peirats was the same task that confronts every historian: the need to locate the primary bibliographical material that constitutes the empirical infrastructure of historical writing. The vicissitudes of revolution, repression and exile in 1930s Spain made this far from simple. As the Francoist army extended its grip on republican territory, the Confederation lacked the resources to transport its supporters and wounded out of Spain and much of the CNT-FAI archive and the documentation produced by the revolutionary collectives and communes was destroyed. In Barcelona, the epicentre of the revolution, vast clouds of smoke rose above the city as documents were destroyed in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of the forces of repression. As Peirats later noted:

Hundreds of thousands of bonfires issued grey columns into the sky, a myriad gaseous molecules which moments before had been precious material: books, journals, collections of newspapers, bulletins, minutes, reports and archives of correspondence. (10) This valuable source material was tragically but unavoidably lost to the historian forever. Such a precaution was, nevertheless, justified by the painstaking efforts of the Francoists to seize and piece together any remaining trade union records and membership documentation, materials which were later used by the authorities to prosecute those guilty of committing the 'red crimes' of revolution and resisting fascism. Following the partial relaxation of repression, and the achievement of the bloody objectives of the counter-revolution, this material formed the basis of the state archive in Salamanca and provided the documentary basis for the highly tendentious, pro-regime 'history' writing of Eduardo Comin Colomer. (11) For Peirats, the archival materials in the Salamanca archive were as far beyond his reach as those that had been destroyed in Barcelona in 1939.

Peirats was therefore forced to rely on whatever documentary material he could find outside Spain. Although this material...

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