AK Press (2006)
Reviewed by Chris Ealham, Saint Louis University, Madrid
This is the definitive version of Diego Camacho’s (a.k.a. Abel Paz) monumental biography of Buenaventura Durruti, the celebrated activist who most embodied the heroism, resistance and spirit of sacrifice of the Spanish anarchist movement. But it is more than a simple biography: it is a history of a mass movement, of its fight to establish a space for itself in society, and of its role in the revolution of 1936 and its evolution during the civil war. As such, it is an important study of the Spanish anarchist movement refracted through the life of one its most famous sons.
The book itself has a long history: it first appeared in French in 1962, only appearing in Spanish in 1978, three years after the death of Franco and his censorship. (Earlier editions have been translated into Italian, German, Portuguese, English and Japanese.) This tome supersedes the first English edition (1977) in two key respects: unlike its predecessor, it benefits from an elegant and erudite translation by Chuck Morse; and most crucially, it was only in 1996, some 34 years after the appearance of the first edition, that Camacho concluded his research on Durruti, publishing the fully-revised and complete Spanish version of the biography. Almost 800 pages long, the current volume is the fruit of decades of research in archives and libraries, not to mention extensive interviews with Durruti’s former comrades and family members. Camacho, who like his subject, emigrated to Barcelona from a poor background, is an ideal biographer: now in his 90s, his entire life has been interwoven with the libertarian movement – he was educated in rationalist schools, graduated to militancy in the CNT, enjoyed the heady days of revolution in 1936, before going on to finishing school in exile and French concentration camps.
Durruti’s odyssey, concentrated into 40 intense years of life, is breathtaking and picturesque. Born on July 14th, 1896 in the relatively conservative city of León, his early life was very similar to that of thousands of other working-class children. He was the second eldest of 8 brothers, and was exposed to poverty, injustice and repression from an early age: when just 7 years old, Durruti’s father, a tanner, was detained after participating in a strike movement. The young Buenaventura was ineluctably drawn into union activity. Given that León was a socialist stronghold, his first activism was in the reformist UGT, from which, most tellingly, he was expelled for employing direct action during a strike in 1917. This resulted in his first period of exile in France, where he entered into contact with Spanish anarchist émigrés.
Upon his return to Spain, in 1919, he joined the CNT. These were the boom years of Spanish revolutionary syndicalism, a time of violent class struggle, as the bourgeoisie, haunted by the spectre of the Russian Revolution, sought to hold onto its position of authority in the factories with a broad gamut of union-busting tactics, including lock-outs, state-organised death squads, internment without trial and blacklisting of militants, and so on. With the CNT effectively placed outside the law, anarcho-syndicalist and anarchist militants responded with expropriations to fund the unions and the growing cost of supporting prisoners and their families, and by assassinating politicians and employers most clearly associated with the repression. In this context, Durruti and his comrades gained notoriety in Spain as ‘men of action’ and urban guerrillas avant la lettre, initiating a series of high profile attentats and expropriations, such as that in Gijón, in September 1923, at the time the most lucrative bank raid in Spanish history. When General Primo de Rivera launched a coup d’état that same month, Durruti and his closest associates found it prudent to go into exile, leaving for the Americas and the Caribbean, where they blazed a trail across much of the region during 1924-26, launching attentats and expropriations, including the first bank robbery in Chile’s history. While certainly some money was used to cover their own living and legal expenses, most of the proceeds of these expropriations went to bolster the anarchist and union movements in Europe and the Americas. Durruti and his allies worked when possible, being employed, for instance, on the Havana docks during their time in Cuba. Pursued by the authorities in several south American countries, and with a death sentence hanging over him in Argentine, Durruti returned to Europe in 1926, finding work in a Renault factory in Paris, where he met Nestor Makhno. That same year Durruti was implicated in a foiled assassination attempt on King Alfonso XIII during a state visit to the French capital, a move he calculated would shake the foundations of Spain’s monarchist dictatorship. Once arrested, only a broad mobilisation in France stymied extradition attempts by several foreign governments, including those of Spain, Argentina and Cuba.
With the birth of the Republic in 1931 Durruti was able to return to Spain, whereupon he was identified with the most radical positions within the anarchist movement, and resisted attempts to incorporate the unions within the new democracy. During these years he acquired mythical status, inspiring fear and admiration in equal measure among his enemies and supporters alike, and was heavily involved in the cycle of armed insurrections against the Republic. In a movement that was marked by a far from insignificant degree of machismo, Durruti periodically rebuked the sexism of his comrades. Blacklisted, it often fell to his partner to find paid work, while he occupied himself with domestic work, cleaning and cooking, and looking after the children. He played a very active role in the street fighting that put down the 1936 coup that prefaced the revolution at the start of the civil war. This was a victory tinged with a tremendous personal tragedy for Durruti, who witnessed the death of Francisco Ascaso, his longstanding comrade in arms, in the course of the armed assault on the Atarazanas army barracks in downtown Barcelona.
With the revolution in full flow in the rearguard, Durruti led a militia column, the celebrated Durruti Column, which initially consisted of around 2,500 men and women, to the Aragón front. Yet the revolution was quickly eclipsed by the war. And with the war going badly and with fascist troops entering Madrid, anarchist leaders and their anti-fascist political allies clamoured for Durruti and his militia to bolster the defence in the University area of the city. And this was where Durruti would die, on 19th November 1936, receiving a bullet to the chest as he rallied his militia to continue their resistance after days of fighting without respite. Like most of his life, his death was shrouded in controversy and speculation. Some have claimed that the fatal bullet originated from within the ranks of his militia by those hostile to alleged plans to militarise the Column; others have suggested his death was part of a Stalinist provocation. The controversy surrounding Durruti’s death is treated rigorously over some 70 pages in the final section of the book. What we can be sure of is that Durruti’s funeral prompted an outpouring of collective grief in Barcelona, as around half a million people thronged the streets in what was the largest ever attendance at a funeral in the city’s history.
In death, Durruti’s legacy was appropriated by the hierarchy of the anarchist movement; he was converted into a symbol of the war effort to justify their possibilism, their prioritisation of anti-fascist struggle over the revolution, and their participation in republican state institutions. This was encapsulated in the much-quoted expression attributed falsely to Durruti: “We renounce everything except victory”. But a figure like Durruti was not easily shorn of his revolutionary content. While the anarchist leaders performed pirouettes in government, up until the point that they were of no further use to their erstwhile cabinet ‘allies’, it was no coincidence that the most strident and vocal opponents to libertarian reformism should call themselves ‘The Friends of Durruti’ in the spring of 1937. And, indeed, the example of Durruti has continued to inspire future generations across the globe, something that can only be enhanced by the appearance of this new study.