A Critical Review of Anarchism & the City

Note from author: This review was orphaned from another anarchist magazine. I had sent Dr. Ealham a draft to give him a chance to respond to the criticisms I made and rectify any misrepresentations. Rather than responding in a spirit of criticism, he took grave offense to my notation of his academic connections and the government funding of his research, threatened legal action, and threatened to contact the magazine to prevent the article’s publication. Subsequently, the magazine in question stopped responding to any questions regarding the review.

If you would like to contact the good Dr. to let him know what you think about threatening to talk to cops, suppressing the publication of criticism, or being an academic who poses as a comrade and lives off the struggle, you can contact him through his university home page.

Chris Ealham
Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937

Chris Ealham’s Anarchism and the City is a fascinating book that builds on the tradition of urban history, most notably realized in Mike Davis’ innovative work on Los Angeles, City of Quartz. But Ealham’s method is distinct; as he maps out the development of his topical city—Barcelona between 1898 and 1937—he builds a tension, chapter by chapter, by lucidly alternating between describing the strategies and countermeasures of the diverse elite centered in an array of political parties, business and paramilitary formations, and those of the proletarian inhabitants centered in the CNT and numerous affinity groups or criminal gangs, as they fought for the city, from above and from below. In this way, Ealham not only brings the struggle alive, he also frames it strategically and tactically rather than deterministically. He draws on a voluminous base of primary and secondary sources in Catalan and Spanish to portray a nuanced and detailed history.

While history has historically been biased in favor of ruling class needs and perspectives, not only do Ealham’s sympathies lie with the baser sort, his telling emphasizes proletarian illegality and counterviolence as an important libertarian force in the battle for the city, that flows directly from the impossibility of living under the hyperexploitation the Catalan bourgeoisie inflicted on the largely immigrant population, crowded into slums, obliged to work in their factories or to wait and rot as part of the pool of surplus and precarious labor. Simultaneously, he presents the alternating bourgeois strategies of law and order, and what should most accurately be called socialism (socialized or at least state subsidized housing, medicine, education, and welfare, on top of a class-antagonism-ameliorating engineering of the social landscape) as attempts to extend social control while underwriting capitalist exploitation, and always backed by a measure of brutality and violence. As a result, the reader takes pride and joy in the accomplishments of the robbers and assassins who stick it to their oppressors, while wincing at every new attempt of the cops, bosses, and politicians to steal the city and crush the new communes that have sprung up, at least as latent ideals, in the very bosom of urban oppression.

We are treated, thus, to a Barcelona in which impoverished workers and tramps flaunt bourgeois norms in the bars and cabarets, subvert the limitations of their meager housing by converting the streets into their living rooms, and win their bread by robbing the payrolls or sacking the shops, while politicians of right and left connive and bicker, trying to establish the best balance of fidelity to or autonomy from Madrid, that will allow them to stem the tide of revolution while also monopolizing the exploitation of the local workers, swinging back and forth between Spanish military dictatorship and Catalan autonomy.

Only in this context can the CNT be understood in depth, and Ealham does a great job of portraying the Confederación as a heterogeneous labor organization laid atop and integrated into neighborhood and criminal networks that propagated it and sheltered it when the going got tough. At least in certain years, it would be fair to suggest that the CNT was not primarily a labor union, and that at the very least a great part of its strength flowed from largely informal neighborhood networks. This theoretical conjecture makes me wish for a similar study of the IWW, because it seems to me that at its strongest, the wobblies were a network of tramps and direct actionists, and the organization was recuperated commensurate to the instilling of union discipline (think, for example, the central body’s decision to renounce sabotage in response to government pressure).

Another good feature of this book, a concept not invented by Ealham but one he uses effectively, is the analysis of “moral panics” (regarding sanitation, crime, lower class violence, lack of labor discipline, street culture, and other phenomena) communicated by the media as a tool to unite conservative and progressive elites and demand their common recognition of a perceived threat to social control. From this analytical device, one can infer how competing factions of the elite can encode a public discussion of mutual interests and establish a common basis for differing strategies of public order, while also training the non-elite and the aspiring elite to view society in these terms (which would not be possible in a conspiratorial or secret conversation that explicitly discusses exclusive elite interests); furthermore, one sees how the media, well… mediate, building consensus or at least solidarity between competing elite factions.

There were also, naturally, some elements of Ealham’s book that I dislike. Before discussing these, it’s necessary to make a disclaimer. It should be assumed academics will usually play a role of recuperation in social struggles. If it was the priests who were put up against the wall in Barcelona, 1936, a violence Ealham rightly justifies, it will be the academics who would have cause to fear a similar fate should a revolution occur nowadays. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise that I found so little in Ealham’s book that warrants strong criticism.

The first concerns a topic that only constitutes a detail in his work: sexism in the CNT and the proletarian culture. Fairly enough, he criticizes the CNT and the grupistas (those who acted in affinity groups, sometimes under the aegis of the Confederación, sometimes independently) of sexism. However, perhaps forgetting that the proletarian neighborhoods and the CNT were also made up of women, and these women were not passive victims of circumstance, he fails to explore the other side of this sexism. Mujeres Libres barely warrant a mention, and this only incidentally to their participation in the demolition of a Barcelona jail in 1936. Their newspaper, their propaganda efforts, their debates with the male CNT leadership, the literacy classes, childcare, and combat training they provided, are not mentioned.

In mentioning that the affinity groups that carried out expropriations, bombings, revenge killings, attacks on the police, and other actions, consisted almost entirely of men, Ealham evidences an erroneous view of patriarchy as a static, strictly conservative structure that can be overcome through the equalization of participation in the traditionally masculine sphere; in other words, liberal feminism. But just as patriarchy persists in a world that includes women in government and the workplace, women’s struggles are alive in traditional, gender conservative societies. Ealham himself points out how necessary women were in supporting these struggles, though he seriously undervalues that role: “their involvement was almost exclusively of an auxiliary nature.”

The clandestine and offensive activity of the anarchists would have been impossible without the people, generally women, passing messages; hiding, tending, and feeding fighters; gathering and carrying intelligence; storing supplies; mobilizing community opinion; stonewalling the police, and much more; just as it would have been impossible without the people, generally men, pulling the triggers or driving the getaway cars. As such, it is inaccurate to say that these affinity groups consisted exclusively of men. To do so is to take the sexist-inflected stories of those men, who also considered support activity to be an auxiliary rather than primary function, and inscribe it as objective history. But community support is in fact the sine qua non of guerrilla struggle.

Ealham also displays what in my mind is not a sufficiently anarchist feminism when he indicts the anarchists for not closing down the brothels once they had taken over the city, as though sex workers were passive victims waiting to be rescued by the syndicalists. An investigation of who owned and managed the brothels and how this changed in 1936 would have been much more interesting. What I happen to know from my own historical explorations of this city is that in the neighborhood of Raval, many sex workers were powerful social actors. In the “Tragic Week” insurrection of 1909, it was a respected neighborhood sex worker who led the charge against the Raval police commissary, liberating the comrades arrested the day before.

My biggest complaint against this book is its affinity towards democratic and institutional forms. Ealham consciously enters into a strategic debate regarding the use of insurrectionary and illegalist strategies, making a number of open criticisms. While his text is by no means the undertheorized and dishonest hatchet job so frequently produced by the critics of insurrectionary anarchism (e.g. Black Flame) he does commit a number of errors and contradictions.

For example, he fairly debunks the critique that the FAI, at its outset, constituted a vanguard (in reality they sprang from the grassroots to prevent syndicalist politicians from taking over the CNT and leading it to reformism). Just as fairly he opines that before 1936, the Nosotros affinity group within the FAI had come to exercise disproportionate power. Yet even at this stage, the evidence does not bear out the assertion that they constituted a vanguard. They failed, in fact, to steer the assembly that made perhaps the most crucial decision in the CNT’s history: to form the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias along with the political parties, or, put another way, to form a government. Garcia Oliver vehemently opposed the decision, and Buenaventura Durruti sat on the fence, but the assembly overwhelming sided with Diego Abad de Santillan, the anarchist economist who was eager to mobilize state power to impose an anarchist economic model. Ealham repeats the contemporary allegation that Oliver wanted to create an anarchist dictatorship but doesn’t mention that it was Abad who succeeded, partially, in creating an anarchist dictatorship. Oliver, oddly enough, was astute in his arguments, though his megalomania soon overcame his principles and he subsequently accepted a post in the government.

Ealham is dead wrong when he states that the CNT “simply ignored” the Catalan government at this historical juncture. The Catalan President Companys’ personal notes confirm the reality on the streets: if the anarchists had only ignored the government, it would have disappeared, for it had become powerless after workers’ militias defeated the fascist coup attempt. It was the CNT that resurrected the government, by accepting dialogue with Companys and then by joining the Central Committee (which would have been powerless without CNT-FAI participation) alongside the UGT and Catalan leftists, who had already proven themselves as lackeys and cops during their previous stints in power, and the POUM, a tiny cult following the teachings of the Butcher of Kronstadt (and an organization that Ealham repeatedly praises, oddly enough).

Following its collaboration with the new antifascist government, the CNT-FAI instituted a pseudo-anarchist dictatorship in Barcelona, which Ealham accurately depicts without a hint of the romanticism most of us usually fall prey to. While documenting many of the anarchist accomplishments in Barcelona starting in July 1936—some of them organized by the Confederación, most of them arising spontaneously—he also points out that the CNT-FAI used its power in the new government to introduce compulsory unionization, and argues (more radically than many non-academic anarchists) that “the acceptance by the CNT-FAI leadership of a productivist ideology aimed at maximising war production seriously undermined these initiatives and resulted in continuing workplace alienation.” Neither does he omit the story of Josep Gardenyes, one of several illegalist anarchists who continued to fight capitalism after the July revolution, and who was detained and executed by CNT-approved patrullas.

While not withholding the dirty details, Ealham does not offer any theoretical explanations for why the institutional forms created by the anarchists lent themselves so easily to alienation and repression, except for a meager complaint that CNT delegates were not immediately recallable and the organization was not “genuinely democratic”. In fact, given the frequency that Ealham accuses the illegalist anarchists of “elitism,” and his claim that Nosotros and the other affinity groups dominated the union, all but the most careful readers might blame nascent CNT authoritarianism on the presence of illegalist elements. But the political trajectory of Nosotros and the FAI, even though both of these groups were moderately or completely illegalist in their origins, cannot be competently used as evidence of the consequences of illegalist or insurrectionary strategies. As Carles Sanz put it in his history, La CNT en Pie, which came out subsequent to Ealham’s work and thus was unavailable as a source:

This simplistic analysis is the one that has characterized the majority of historians, converting the history of the CNT into a history of good ones and bad ones, depending on the stance of the analyst. It’s certain that different currents existed, as they always have, but this labelling doesn’t always work. Thus, we see the sectors considered to be moderate defending very anarchist principles depending on the circumstances, repression, conflicts and clashes with the bosses, and, on the other hand, extremist anarchists assuming organizationalist and syndicalist postures [my translation].

It is Ealham’s evident preference for democracy and institutionalization that prevents him from offering any coherent explanations for the CNT’s self-defeat. Democracy always ends up with leaders and popular withdrawal. That can’t be covered up with faults in personal biographies or structural trifles such as the lack of a mechanism for immediate recall of delegates. Democracy ALWAYS subverts its own mechanisms. This is in the nature of democracy. For example, Federica Montseny (one of the pro-government camp) was arbitrarily put in a position of leadership in a way that subverted democratic mechanisms already in place in the CNT. If the CNT constitution enabled the immediate recall of delegates, would that really have made a difference if, in the circumstances of July, the delegates were independently appointing new delegates, or deciding to collaborate with political parties, in contravention of their constitution, in an assembly not called through the appropriate channels?

It is fair to point out that informal, decentralized rebellions nearly always lack the initiative to go further and act strategically, but what this problematic requires is a solution far more original than Ealham’s desire for a “revolutionary institution” “capable of channeling the revolutionary energies against the state.” The CNT was this institution, and it was the linchpin in the obstruction of the revolution. It was the grassroots that expropriated, that took over factories, that made barricades, that made the revolution, and the CNT, which had once cultivated such activity, that blocked it as soon as it had won access to power, and he’s bemoaning the lack of revolutionary institutions?

A fair critique of the anarchist failure should certainly have an organizational component, but greater organizational democracy is an unrealistic proposal. At multiple points in the book, Ealham expresses a latent critique of democracy. What his book is missing, more than anything, is the maturation of this critique in a theoretical realization that democracy in government and “genuine” democracy in social organizations have the tendency and the ability to interface, creating a link or a mutual understanding that opens the door to recuperation.

Ealham’s strategic critiques, however, are reserved mostly for the insurrectionary or illegalist anarchists. While Nosotros, as a group, deserves a great deal of criticism, and while the Catalan anarchists generally deserve Ealham’s criticism regarding their failure to show solidarity with the Asturias uprising of 1934, his other criticisms, and his constant attempts to belittle their frequent rebellions, are unfair. On multiple occasions he uses the state repression that followed attacks and attempted insurrections as evidence for the weakness of those strategies. But everyone knows that stronger repression is the inevitable companion of stronger struggles, and to signal repression as evidence of failure is poorly disguised defeatism or pacifism (one in the same, after all). The illegalists, the affinity groups, the CNT, and the anarchists generally all survived the multiple waves of repression. In fact, by July 1936, they were so strong Companys acknowledged them as the only power in the city. Evidently, the existence of repression is an incoherent counterargument, especially in this case, since the anarchists from margin to center survived this repression and came out winning.

At one point, Ealham suggests that the aggressive strategies of the anarchists were a throwback to insurrectionary ideas, which he brackets as a 19th century phenomenon, and dismisses as incapable of withstanding the new repressive capacities of the State. Yet it was the union form that proved itself outdated on the level of repression, and the affinity groups that were most resilient (a fact that Ealham elsewhere acknowledges, and that the historical record bears out). For example, the police were unable to infiltrate the grupistas, given their tight security practice and massive neighborhood support. Whereas the affinity groups operated clandestinely during democracy or dictatorship, and thus continuously developed their security practice, the CNT often suffered breakdowns in their decision-making procedures when they had to transition to clandestinity, as multiple anarchist historians have pointed out.

When the CNT had to go underground, it was the affinity groups that kept it alive, funded, and combative. Ealham claims that other, unnamed revolutionary groups funded themselves during periods of repression without recourse to robberies, thus the expropriations were not necessary, but the fact is, in Catalunya at least, there were no other organizations as large as the CNT that provided as much support to workers and prisoners as the CNT did. The only other organization that could hold a candle to the CNT was the socialist UGT. Are they the anonymous “revolutionary organization” that survived the military dictatorship without carrying out bank jobs? Well, they got donations from the petit-bourgeoisie, and this funding is reflected in their politics and their practice.

Ealham contradicts himself when he portrays the illegalists as “elitists” and claims that “the insurrectionary tactic had only really triumphed among a small section of the middle and upper leadership of the unions”, or when he describes mass village uprisings supported by insurrectionaries in Barcelona as “putsches.” This is Ealham at his most dishonest. Fortunately, he’s also a good historian, so he himself sets the record straight (although in coded terms, so that only a careful reader can notice the contradiction), by describing the massive popular support the affinity groups had in the neighborhoods, the generalization of illegal tactics beyond self-described illegalists, the setting up of barricades—in July 1936, May 1937, and many occasions before that—as a grassroots or spontaneous activity, and the multiple mass uprisings, such as the one in Hospitalet, that were the antithesis of elitism.

It is the democratic bias that alleges direct action to be elitist and assemblies to be egalitarian, and I long for a day when anarchists will leave this tired old lie for the authoritarians rather than repeating it themselves. Any but the most superficial analysis of what constitutes an elite would require that for an affinity group using direct action to be elitist, they would have to use fame or martial capacities acquired through their exploits to take over a preexisting hierarchical structure. Direct action tactics and affinity groups on their own are incapable of generating such hierarchies. Democratic institutions, on the other hand, are imminently capable of generating hierarchy. If it as exaggeration to say that assemblies tend towards manipulation, at the very least they are highly susceptible towards it. Revolutionary experiments and anarchic societies that have been most successful at preventing the development of authority tend to be those which have overlapping and redundant rather than centralized and unified decision-making spaces. It was the CNT which provided this very unity, that during most of its existence served to bring together the Barcelona working class, foster a sense of common identity, and potentiate solidarity, but once the organization had amassed the power to force the State into dialogue, that effectively harnessed and smothered the revolution.

Ealham frequently tries to minimize the accomplishments of the insurrectionary strategy, while simultaneously providing the information that disproves him. When syndical methods (mass protests and strikes) won an intermediate victory in February, 1936, he trumpets that “mass syndical pressure succeeded where the grupistas had failed, the rejuvenated CNT unions securing the return of many of the workers victimised after the ‘revolutionary gymnastics’ to their former workplaces.” But this episode comes after a whole list of victories won by the affinity groups. Furthermore, it’s a strawman: the affinity groups evolved, as Ealham himself documents, to deploy a set of tactics that would complement, not replace, other tactics such as strikes and protests.

To mention one last example (of many), Ealham casts doubts, without any real content, on the effect the insurrectionary anarchists had in preparing workers to defeat the fascist putsch. While the affinity groups were not the only ones to procure weapons before July 1936 (CNT-organized committees also snatched a number of handguns from night watchmen), they were the principal ones to use these weapons, to develop the competence and the courage to go on the attack, and to spread heroic examples throughout the entire society that they could attack and win. It was Nosotros that led the assault on the crucial Atarazanas barracks, and the Woodworkers Union, one of the most radical and supportive of the grupistas, that held the barricade on Paral·lel, preventing a military column from reinforcing the soldiers at the port. With the storming of the Sant Andreu Arsenal, these constitute the three most important military engagements that defeated the fascist uprising in Barcelona. How the years of armed struggle that came before this, including the repressed and failed risings, didn’t play a decisive role, cannot be logically explained, because the proposition is totally incoherent. Ealham can only offer the hypothesis that the struggle was “greatly” expanded through the participation of the Trotskyist POUM (even though the POUM was a tiny organization which at that time was militarily insignificant); presumably this growth in popularity was won by a more pluralistic, mass, non-“elitist” democratic CNT.

In this context, it is not at all unfair to point out that Ealham received academic grants from the Catalan and Spanish governments for researching this book. Subsequently, it becomes necessary to ask what is the State interest in sponsoring a history of anarchist struggle in Barcelona (note that the book came out in Spanish and English). Spain is one of the few states in which anarchism can not be entirely removed from the official narrative, because Spanish and even moreso Catalan history would simply not make sense without the anarchist struggles. These struggles still survive today, intervening significantly in popular responses to the ongoing economic crisis. Some of the same strategic debates that were relevant one hundred years ago are still hotly contested, and it is in these that Ealham intervenes, weighing in on the side of institutionalization. It would be unfair and dishonest to suggest that anyone who sides with the syndicalists against the insurrectionaries is a State tool: particularly the brands of insurrectionary anarchism that have flourished in Barcelona deserve a great many criticisms, while the anarcho-leaning labor organizations deserve at least some credit for potentiating social conflict. But what is historically obvious is that democratic, mass organizations distancing themselves from illegality and waiting for the “right moment” have consistently been a vehicle for the recuperation of struggles by the State. By weighing in sometimes underhandedly on the only side of the debate that will ever receive government funding, and without developing even standards for a nonpartisan critique, Ealham neglects his responsibilities.

It’s necessary to point out that the dispensation of academic grants is a mundane and nearly automatic affair, but the role of academics in elaborating alibis for the State is also a commonplace, and grants are one of many mechanisms that continuously bind academics and their production to the longterm needs of State and Capital. It is not a question of unethical or opportunistic academics succumbing to employment pressures and incentives, but the exact opposite; given the banality of evil, only the most valient and rebellious can rise above their institutional position and subvert the role assigned to them, although this subversion is not black and white but a matter of degrees.

On the whole, Ealham has subverted his role and, through this book, challenged dominant histories and developed theoretical tools for an anarchist approach to history. But where he intervenes in the contrived debate between insurrectionist/illegalist and syndicalist/mass organizing, he has coincided with State interests in constraining the historical repertoire of acceptable and effective forms of struggle. This error is compounded by the factual errors or logical contradictions he commits in the advancement of his argument.

The recent success of May Day in Barcelona (2011) demonstrates the potential of complementary struggles along the anarcho-syndicalist and insurrectionary lines, as well as the great popularity of insurrectionary tactics. Histories that portray the latter as an outdated peculiarity prone towards elitism and incapable of withstanding repression not only parody themselves, they also polarize people into camps and make occurrences like this year’s combative and popular May Day protest less likely. Histories that promote democracy and institutionalization miss out on the great mistake that has haunted anarchists in the Spanish state, in 1936, and again in the period of 1976 to 1980, a mistake that repeats itself on a smaller scale even today, and one that is encouraged in the State’s own portrayals of the past.

Nonetheless, it was an easy mistake for Ealham to make. Crediting the failings of the Barcelona anarchists to the excesses of “revolutionary gymnastics” is common enough among historians, even if this view is unnuanced, contradictory, and prejudicial; the most famous of the revolutionary gymnasts were extremely flawed individuals who personally deserve the critiques that are generalized upon the strategic currents for which they serve as avatars; furthermore the prejudices of our culture conflate democracy with liberty and direct action with tyranny.

Despite this blemish, which really only concerns a minor part of the book, Anarchism and the City has a lot to offer, not only by giving English-speaking anarchists an important and exciting part of our collective history, but by showing better ways to think about history, how we arrived at the present moment, and the contest that will shape the contours of our world well into the future.

Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937, by Chris Ealham. 263 pages. Oakland: AK Press, 2010.