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Review of Living Anarchism – José Peirats and the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist Movement

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Living AnarchismJosé Peirats and the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist Movement by Chris Ealham [AK Press] Available here.

This review first published in Ideas and Action (Oct 2017).

547398_10150758746726023_1766635136_nOn the cover of Living Anarchism, the publishers, AK Press, point out that the anarchist movement in Spain in the lead up to the revolution in 1936-37 was the ‘the largest anti-authoritarian movement’ ever created in the world. It numbered in the hundreds of thousands and resulted from a conscious and deliberate intervention by anarchists in the everyday world of work and community. Anarchists sought to build a new world in the shell of the old and they were surprisingly successful in significant ways. Living Anarchism is testimony to this. Not a history of Spanish anarchism as such, it is nonetheless a window into the life of that movement seen through the life of one its key activist, José Peirats.

So who was José Peirats? The son of labourers from Valencia province, he moved to Barcelona at a young age with his family in search of work and a future. Suffering illness and numerous privations, Peirats eventually found a home in one of the city’s vibrant rationalist schools. However his education was short-lived and at a young age he entered the workforce proper as a brick-maker. Gravitating to the anarcho-syndicalist union, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), he became a key activist in the L’Hospitalet area of Barcelona. Peirats lived through it all: at the young age of 28 he was in Barcelona as the Spanish Revolution got underway. He witnessed the enormous achievements and hope that the revolution generated and he witnessed, in time, its demise and defeat. In exile at the age of 31 he spent a great deal of the remainder of life documenting the rise of Spain’s anarchist movement, going on the produce The CNT in the Spanish Revolution – an extensive, three volume history of the largest workers’ union in Spain at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In the last period of his life he said,

“I’ve done almost everything in the CNT: I’ve organised strikes, organised workers, spoken in assemblies, meetings, and given conferences, written articles, attended congresses, used pistols, and, some- times, explosives; I’ve been in jail and collected lawsuits, mainly for libelous press articles. I know what it means to be naked and take a beating in a police station. I was the only secretary of the CNT in exile to enter Spain clandestinely when they were still shooting people!”

9781849352383_72Living Anarchism is broken into ten sections (if one includes the excellent summation) which can broadly be divided into two parts – the period leading up to the revolution and period after the revolution’s defeat. If the first section of the book is then a celebration of what anarchism was capable of building when its activists put their minds to it, then the second section is, in contrast, the tragedy of defeat at the hands of fascism and what that came to mean.

Exile

Exiled to South America and later France, Peirats struggled like many of his comrades to make sense of the defeat that had befallen the anarchist movement in Spain. Defeat is never easy and the tragedy was compounded by exile and isolation. A movement of Spanish anarchists abroad came into being but it was riven with division and acrimony. Peirats, more than most, understood the dilemma: the past could not be ignored and yet the movement, if it was to survive and rebuild, needed to move on too. It was a delicate and difficult line to walk along.

Peirats was clearly a product of the university of the class struggle and his early years and reputation as a resolute union activist in the cauldron of Barcelona was something that he never departed from. However, another side to the activist was his strong interest in the practice and spirit of anti-authoritarianism. A significant part of his life – perhaps deriving from his own early exposure to the rationalist/ free school movement in Barcelona – involved a commitment to the ‘athenaeum’: essentially self-organised community centres envisaged as ‘a focal point of social ferment’ for the locality around it. These centres hosted a library, debates, music recitals, evening classes and threatre productions. Before and during the revolution, as well as afterwards in exile, it was this activity surrounding the ‘athenaeum’ that Peirats returned to and was involved with again and again.

Although the person who emerges from his book appears exceptional in many respects, Peirats would have been the first to dispute this, it seems. Describing himself at one point as a ‘worker ant’ he believed himself to be very much a part and a product of the CNT. Clearly he was a talented activist, writer and organiser, but there emerges from this biography a man whose dedication to revolutionary change was absolute. By no means without faults – and this is explored in Living Anarchism – Peirats nevertheless had an abiding grasp of the importance and value of anarchist ideas. Given that he had witnessed the highest point of achievement and an avalanche of low points in its aftermath, he remained largely upbeat, understating near the end, ‘I did what I could despite many obstacles’.

Durruti

In terms of Spanish anarchism we hear a great deal about people like Durruti but activists like Jose Peirats, it seems to me, were a lot closer to the soul of Spanish anarchism. For Peirats anarchism was about democracy, education and the class struggle. In contrast Durruti was far more liable to be off taking a pot shot at some bishop or other – a headline grabbing activity but not necessarily as productive as it sounds or looks.

In 2010, the historian Chris Ealham produced what is undoubtedly one of the best social and political histories of anarchism, namely Anarchism and the City – the story of the rise of anarchism in the Catalonia port city of Barcelona. Now with this account of Peirat’s life he had done us a further service. He admits at the outset that ‘there are many aspects of Peirats life that he finds admirable’ and while this must certainly colour this work, it does not distract from what is a clear and concise account of an anarchist activist’s lived life in revolution and defeat.

Matters have moved on hugely since the revolution in Spain in 1936-37 and Peirats as much as anyone saw this in full measure by the time his life came to an end in 1989. However there is a great deal to learn from this book. The Spanish anarchists combined a practice of militant class struggle with a broad visionary belief in human desire and emancipation. Whatever about claims, dreams and aspirations, in the end it takes people to make politics happen: Peirats was clearly one of those who excelled at this task.

A book to read and treasure.

 

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Let our memories run through our veins …

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Lorca 1The grave of Federico García Lorca has never been found but it is believed that his remains lie in the hills to the north of Granada, Andalusia close to the town of Viznar. He was probably executed on August 19th, 1936 – 71 years ago.

Lorca is regarded as one of Spain’s must important modern poets and dramatist and while his reputation was well established at the time of his death, it was not sufficient to save him from his fate at the hands of Franco’s henchmen. Although Lorca was left-leaning , he was also a gay man: these facts alone condemned him to an early death. He was one of ten of thousands who were murdered in Spain during and after Spain’s Civil War (1936-39) for no other reason than being deemed undesirable to Franco’s fascist regime. Today there’s a memorial at the site where it is believed that Lorca was killed..

Location

The easiest way to get to the site is to travel to Viznar itself, about six miles from Granada and then take the road going to Alfacar. About 3 km along, the road take a sharp reverse turn and makes its ways along a hillside; to the south there are views back to Viznar. A short distance from the turn, on your right (looking uphill or to the north), there is a layby (clearly sign-posted) where you can leave your car or bike. The general area is known as the Sendero Barranco de Viznar  (Viznar Ravine Trail) and is popular with walkers and trekkers. Close by is a second signpost indicating that this area is important for other reasons too: Lugar de Memoria Historica de Andalucia [Place of historical memory]. 

Lorca

Lorca 3A path leaves the layby and winds uphill through an open pine forest offering shade. There are undulations and gullies on a both sides of the path. After about five minutes you will come an area of flatter terrain marked by a number of log fence boundaries. A flat low-lying slab of stone bears the inscription of a line from Lorca’s poem, Prelude – Love :

 

El viento esta amortajado
a lo largo bajo el cielo
[The shrouded wind lies full length beneath the sky ]

A short distance on there are a number of larger flat slabs which bear an array of memorial plaques. Some are dedicated to individuals such as that to Delores Rozalez Vinez – They Silenced Your Voice But Not Our Memory. Others are dedicated to lists of people executed in the quiet secluded area – Executed in Viznar Ravine on 23 October 1936 is followed by a list of thirty names. Further along there is a large gully. A square upright monolith stand at one end. Flowers have been left in a number of places and the monolith bears the inscription:

Lorca Eran Todos
18-8-2002
[Lorca was all]

There is stone terracing for sitting on. When we visited Viznar it was quiet and there was no one else around. Since the trees provide welcome shade from the sun, it is by no means an unpleasant place to stop at and rest for a bit. However,  under the ground, lie the remains of many hundreds of people. Some have been identified but many remain unidentified. It is difficult today to imagine the summary violence that would regularly taken place at the site over many years following Franco’s victory.

Anarchists

Viz 6It is believed that Lorca was executed along with two well-known militants of the CNT, the anarcho-syndicalist union which was a leading force in the Spanish Revolution. The remains of these men – Joaquín Arcollas Cabezas and Francisco Baladí Melgar – have also not been identified. A plaque placed at the Viznar site by the CNT reads:

“Let our memories run through our veins. We remember everyone who lies in this gully. To the anarchists who are scattered under this earth. To our deceased we do not cry, we try to emulate them in the fight for a social revolution and against the fascism that they faced”

Lorca 2Various other memorial plaques are testimony to the broad range of people who were killed outside Viznar. Trade-unionists, left-wing activists, feminists, cultural activists and many, many others all fell victim to Franco’s knife. The context for the extermination was succinctly put by General Emilio Mola who stated at the outset of the Civil War what the point of the military uprising was:

“It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of mastery eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do. There can be no cowardice. If we hesitate one moment and fail to proceed with the greatest determination, we will not win.”

Although Lorca’s reputation is the main reason for the memorial at Viznar, many of the other plaques present at the site are as moving. Each and everyone tells a story of resistance and remembering. This one to Miguel Gomez Poyatos is a perfect example.

MIGUEL GOMEZ POYATOSViz 7w
Murdered in this place on Sept 5th 1936.
We have never forgotten you
We will never forget you.

 

They may be able to kill the rooster
that announces the dawn
but they cannot stop that dawn arriving
 (your grandson Emilio)

 

Interview with Chomsky: Anarchism, Marxism and Hope …

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LiftNoam Chomsky is widely known for his critique of U.S foreign policy, and for his work as a linguist. Less well known is his ongoing support for libertarian socialist objectives. In a special interview done for Red and Black Revolution [May 1995] Chomsky talks to Kevin Doyle about anarchism, marxism and the hope for the future.

Link to full interview here and here. PDF of Red and Black Revolution 2 Also available from AK Press in ‘Chomsky On Anarchism’

Written by Kevin Doyle

March 31, 2016 at 3:11 pm

Obama: Change You Can’t Believe In.

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ObamaThe election of Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 was one of the most celebrated electoral victories of recent times. Not since Nelson Mandela’s win in South Africa, following the collapse of the Apartheid regime, was the supposed power of the ballot box so publicly celebrated and displayed.

Obama’s victory was hailed as a triumph for the ‘democratic process’ and was widely touted as a fine example of how people power and electioneering can trump entrenched bigotry and money.

Full version here. Published in the Irish Anarchist Reivew [Issue 3]  May 2011.

Written by Kevin Doyle

March 31, 2016 at 3:06 pm

Pamphlet: Parliament Or Democracy?

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9734394770_8603656202_nThe French Revolution of 1789 put an end to the idea that some people were born to rule. In only a short number of years one of the oldest and most powerful monarchies in Europe was swept away. In its place came the idea of legal equality and individual rights as set out in the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.’

The basis of these new rights, established on foot of a great social upheaval, was the real hallmark of the French Revolution since it was accepted, from that point on, that laws and how they were made were the expression of the ‘general will’. As such these laws could be made and unmade as that ‘general will’ was discerned. This was the real break with the past.

At the time of the French Revolution the idea of the ‘general will’ was still new in politics. Even so the implications for the future were not difficult to make out. Sixty years earlier, in England, during the Civil War the very same issues had come to the fore. If the monarchy was to be dispensed with, what type of society should replace it? What exactly constituted the ‘general will’? And, as importantly, in whose service was its rule to be applied?

Read the full version on line here.  Or download the pdf here.   First published by Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland) 1993.  Second edition (Expanded) 1995.

The Revolution In Spain in ’36

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SpainThey fought for radical improvements and for liberty (against great odds, it should be said). In the case of the Spanish Revolution they achieved an enormous amount. But perhaps most of all, as I see it anyway, they’ve left us with something that is tremendously important in this day and age – a model of what an alternative society might look like, as well as concrete evidence that such a model can work.

Text of talk given to Socialist Society in February, 1997, to mark the anniversary of the Spanish Revolution..  Full version here.

Biographical: Captain Jack White (1879-1946)

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JWI saw red; and when I see red I have got to get into the fight. I offered to speak for the strikers in Beresford Place, the open space outside the Transport Union Headquarters, Liberty Hall, and my offer was welcomed. The sands of my gentility had run out. (Debut in Dublin, Misfit, 1930)

Full version here.  First published (July 2001)

Note: A biographical sketch of Captain Jack White.  Picture shows the gravestone of the White family in Broughshane, Co Antrim. Jack White was the son of Sir George Stuart White, the Hero of Ladysmith.  Unlike his father, Jack White was a revolutionary and was a founder member of the Irish Citizen Army along with James Connolly.

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