Several Catalunya Barcelona interview subjects discussed the storied history of the CNT.
My grandfather belonged to the CNT, but not to any libertarian Ateneu. Did he tell you anything about his CNT membership? Well, he was a CNT member but not renowned, not anyone especially well-known. He had his job, and everyone had to belong to a trade union, and in Barcelona CNT, anarchism, had great momentum, a lot of strength. So, it’s logical that he’d have been in the CNT. I’m happier he was with the CNT than with some other group. The greatest proponent of anarcho- syndicalism in Catalunya is the CNT. There’s a moment, prior to the Civil War, when it boasts 900,000 members. It’s the largest labor union. Many more than the UGT, which was founded, I believe, in 1888. But it never had the CNT’s strength, which, initially, was pacifist anarchism. Eventually it becomes more confrontational. The CNT, or National Confederation of Labor, or confederació nacional del trebal, was a labor union, the most prevalent in Catalunya. Before the civil war, it was the most important union. It brought the working class together. They were anarchs-syndicalist, with no interest in participating in the politic process. The labor movement in Catalunya was very unique. Maybe more anarchistic than in other places, but not much more. And it was useful because anarcho-Syndicalism, the CNT, later the FAI, wielded great influence when the Republic was on the horizon. As such, they played an important role, politically, during the war. At the start of the 20th Century, anarchists came to Barcelona. They imparted their way of thinking at Ateneus. They were many small labor groups spearheading socio-cultural initiatives, comparative analysis, etc… This yielded results, and the CNT was created in 1911, a very big labor union that, in many ways, controlled politics in Catalunya. Because the people in the workers movement, mainly the CNT, were ready to face the military uprising. In Plaça de Catalunya at Telefònica, on Les Rambles, at Drassanes, at a monastery on Diagonal where it intersects with Beilén. There was fighting throughout the city. The CNT held vigil all night. They’d gathered trucks to confiscate weapons, then armed people in front of Júpiter Stadium in Poblenou. When my father was 16, he volunteered and entered the war, affiliated with CNT. So you could suppose he had anarchist ideas or that in a way agreed with them. In this factory, there was a huge conflict between the UGT and the CNT. My father had to throw out the bombs that they were throwing at each other. Beginning in the 1910s, the workers movement in Catalunya was controlled completely by anarchists. Here, Marxism never took off. The common ideologic option for organized labor was libertarianism. This was in the form of the CNT, The National Confederation of Labor. The great libertarian union. Within the union, there were always two different currents: Anarchism, and syndicalism. The radical and the moderate. With the arrival of the 2nd republic, in 1931, internal tensions worsened. After fighting over control of some committees, the anarchist current heads the union. This sector doesn’t want the republican regime to have time to grow strong. Because now, there are some in power without any governing experience. They seek to leverage that insecurity, that weakness and take down the regime. The political regime. Capitalism. Private property. Everything. So, in early ’32, the CNT introduces an insurrectionary tactic, what the anarchists call “revolutionary gymnastics.” What does it mean? It means, “No.” “We know already that our first, second, and third attempt will not succeed.” It’s like training, needing to bulk up the organization and its workers. To train them, little by little, in the fight against the army and police. Look, that’s something I asked my father repeatedly, He was an idealist, and spoke to me as one. He defined the CNT and FAI as aggressive, totalitarian, incapable of dialogue and, at times, violent. But they were on the side of idealism, and were good people. That’s all he every told me. The first law legalizing abortion was made by CNT leader Federica Montseny. She was also Minister of Health for a while. If we remember that naturism, nudism, vegetarianism, environmentalism, etc., are born of anarchist ideology, we see it’s still with us today. However, as an organized social movement.. ..in 1978, there was the Scala Case, which made it impossible for the CNT to adapt to the late 20th and 21st century. The trade unions, because there were others –the old UGT, other smaller unions, and, of course, the anarchist trade union, CNT– were very important in these years. Have they told me anything? Not long ago, I found a membership card for the CNT from 1934-1935 that belonged to my grandmother. From 1934 or 1936, but before the war. She was very young, and she kept it all those years. The first thing she did when Franco died, was to update the CNT membership card. So in it, she appears as an old lady. And I believe they forgot their past. People from the CNT ended up police in the city. The same with the Falangists. This happened a lot in small towns. Better to be a local policeman than to pick chickpeas under the sun, right? It became clear that it was all a setup orchestrated by Spain’s secret service. They sought to discredit and keep the CNT from continuing on. That’s what happened in the Scala case, which was a police operation to repress the libertarian movement. Immediately, the CNT was accused, and not only accused, arrested on the same day. Everyone but the informant.