BOOK REVIEW: Insurrection by Agustin Guillamón

Agustín Guillamóns latest translated work “Insurrection: The Bloody Events of May 1937 in Barcelona” is a brilliant political history of the Stalinist and collaborationist-anarchist counter-revolution in Spain, and the last gasp of the proletarian rank-and-file resistance to it. 

Originally published in Spanish in 2017, AK Press published the English translation in 2020. Insurrection is actually number three of four books detailing the Spanish revolution – plus supplementary texts on the Friends of Durruti and the Stalinists (“Ready for Revolution: The CNT Defense Committees in Barcelona” should be required reading for anyone serious about not only the Spanish Civil War, but anyone interested in working class revolution). 

In Guillamón’s typical style, Insurrection lets the protagonists tell the story themselves through a chronology established with the extensive use of minutes, letters and quotes. The author annotates the events with the occasional political reflection, though these are largely saved for the conclusions. By accessing sources rarely touched by other historians of the Spanish revolution, Guillamón makes space for unique reflections. For example, he quotes often from Jacob Prince’s letters home to the Argentine Federation of Anarchist Communists, illustrating the international dimensions of the debates within the anarchist camp. 

The book is also supplemented by a large amount of archival material and interviews. It includes an extensive interview with Jose Quesada Suarez of the Bolshevik-Leninist Section (the Fourth International Group in Spain). Such interviews provide unique insights into often ignored aspects of the struggle. They also help dismiss popular myths – there is a commonly repeated claim from some Trotskyists camps that Durruti himself, and then the Friends of Durruti were influenced by Trotsky and his followers. It’s blatantly obvious this is a purely invented myth.

It should be noted that Guillamón is not an anarchist – he is a Marxist – but he is not easily defined within the closed borders of the typical camps. In the introduction he states: “Workers striving to discover their own history is but one of the many battles being fought in the class war. It is not a matter of mere theory, nor is it abstract and banal, because it is part and parcel of class consciousness itself and can be classified as a theorization of the world proletariat’s experiences. In Spain, it must, necessarily, embrace, digest and take ownership of the anarcho-syndicalist movements.” To Guillamón, what matters is tracing the revolutionary element in the proletariat, analysing the circumstances and the choices that were made.

New heroes emerge from the history presented in Insurrection. We all know the beautiful quotes of our heroes like Durruti, of the martyrs like Ascaso and Berneri, or the betrayals of figures like Garcia Oliver and Federica Monsteny. Even the journalist Jamie Balius – the figurehead and intellectual of the Friends of Durruti – is a name relatively repeated. However, it is figures like Julian Merino, Pablo Ruiz and Josep Rebull who emerge as the unknown intransigent revolutionaries of Spain. Merino led the Barcelona FAI and Defense Committees to plan for the May Insurrection, to pass motions at a plenum damning the CNT-FAI national leadership. That same plenum, at Merinos insistence, established a secret revolutionary committee planning to overthrow the Generalidad in Barcelona with the POUM. 

Ruiz was from the “Renancer” affinity group alongside Balius. The history of these revolutionaries is often sidelined compared to the “Nostros” affinity group – but it shouldn’t be. Ruiz, alongside Balius, led the crystallisation of the anti-collaborationist elements inside the CNT. Josep Rebull is another forgotten name. He was from the left wing of the POUM and fought on the frontlines amongst the militias. Rebull argued for a position inside the POUM that wanted to establish “Workers Councils” (Soviets) with the CNT-FAI. He worked with the genuine anarchist revolutionaries in the CNT-FAI, and had a hand in the idea of the secret Revolutionary Committee.

Insurrection also brings to light many anecdotes of general proletarian resistance to collaboration. Some stuck with me; the first is a defense committee in the northern barrios of Barcelona threatening to shoot a collaborationist minister if he came into their territory. The second – during the insurrection, Italian anarchists stationed in the Spartacus barracks ignored orders to stay put and instead stole tanks, parked them outside of the Karl Marx barracks and shelled any Stalinists attempting to join in the street fighting. Even as the fighting wound up the Italians continued patrolling the streets in their commandeered tanks attempting to provoke the insurrection into revolution. The Italians seemingly had a much clearer understanding of what was at stake in Collaboration. 

Though the book doesn’t touch much on economics, there is a beautiful anecdote about the Woodworkers’ Union and how they re-organised their industry, attempting to overcome inefficient production and illustrating that they had an extremely clear understanding of the danger of “Trade Union Capitalism”. The Barcelona Woodworkers’ Union represented the highpoint of syndicalist revolution. Finally, I can’t shake the image of POUM activists forced to sell their papers while carrying rifles and wearing helmets for protection – even before the insurrection! The scapegoating of these Marxists was one of the most criminal acts in the Republican camp.

Guillamón also does well to highlight the depths of Stalinist betrayal; first and foremost the way their minister Commorea defended the free market and in fact used it to destroy the provisioning established by the CNT’s defense committees. By undermining the Barceloní proletariats’ access to secure, free foodstuffs, they were sent scrambling back to more everyday concerns – less time for politics means less time to fight counter-revolution. Guillamón has an entire book on the “Bread Wars”, dedicated to how insidious this PSUC strategy was. Add to this the murders, provocation, and even the deliberate aerial bombing of CNT militias on the frontline, and you are left with nothing but rage over the actions of these fake revolutionaries.

The only criticisms I would level at the book are that at times the minutiae and over-use of minutes can become a bit tedious, dragging on what is otherwise a rush of dramatic events. Secondly – though perhaps this would have made things more tedious – for a Marxist work Guillamón doesn’t look too deeply at political economy or international events in the book. While it might be hard to situate Barcelona in the global economy and political situation without risking being bogged down, more information may have gone some way to clarification.

Overall, Guillamón does an excellent job of rescuing the revolutionary elements of the CNT-FAI and the POUM, adding depth and nuance to debate about a revolutionary sequence that is often as weak as it is cliché. His conclusions will be uncomfortable for both anarchists and Bolsheviks – standard anarchist theory failed to help anarchists comprehend the revolution or what to do about it as it unfolded, and the Leninist model is inappropriate and would not have appealed to the Spanish proletariat anyway. Insurrection is an excellent book, and I would recommend Guillamóns works over those of almost all other historians of the Spanish revolution (it’s well past time to retire Felix Morrow). Insurrection opens with a quote – “historical memory is a theatre of the class struggle”. Certainly, Guillamón is one of its most consistent revolutionaries.