Separated by an ‘ideological chasm’: The Spanish National Labour Confederation and Bolshevik internationalism (1917-1922)

By Jason Garner

From its creation in 1910 until the end of the Civil War the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) represented the revolutionary wing of the Spanish labour movement. As such it warmly welcomed the October revolution of 1917 and the pages of its press were soon full of accounts detailing the heroic deeds of the Russian revolutionaries. However, less than five years later at a National Conference, the CNT voted overwhelmingly in favour of breaking all ties with Bolshevik Russia. This rejection has typically been seen as a straightforward manichean struggle for control of the CNT between communists and anarchists.

Yet to reduce the debates about membership of the Communist International to a battle for political domination of the union is superficial. Paying far greater attention to the polices emanating from Moscow rather than to the reality in Spain, the Spanish communists tried to foist on the Spanish working-class a model of revolution which did not take into account the complex political and cultural idiosyncracies of the country. They failed to take account of the deep-seated mistrust that a large sector of the Spanish working-class felt towards not simply the state but all aspects of the political system, politicial parties included, even those that claimed to represent the workers. This rejection of party politics was enshrined in the revolutionary syndicalist doctrine of the CNT. Within the CNT a small group of militants sympathetic to Moscow supported close collaboration between communist party and the unions as stipulated in the Statutes of the Comintern to which the CNT provisionally affiliated in 1919, when it was still unaware of the political direction the new International would take.

These militants, largely due to the fact that they were mostly unknown within the CNT and as such were initially less persecuted by the police, were able to reach positions of importance within the CNT. From these positions they advocated the affiliation of the CNT to the union section of the Comintern, the Profintern or Red Trade Union International, whose statutes included the adoption of an organic link between national communist parties and the unions. This led various sections of the CNT to threaten to abandon the union arguing that this position was tantamount to accepting the subjugation of the unions to the communist party. The disagreements over membership of the Profintern, and more specifically acceptance of its policy in relation to Communist party-union links, may well have led to a split within the CNT had not a change in government led to the reintroduction of constitutional guarantees with the subsequent release of detained CNT militants and the reappearance of its press. At a quickly organised National Conference in Zaragoza in June 1922, the CNT voted overwhelmingly in favour of breaking all ties with Moscow.


Leave a Reply