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Book Review: ‘Salvador Puig Antich’

category iberia | history of anarchism | review author Sunday March 28, 2021 12:25author by LAMA - AWSM Report this post to the editors

A book review of an anthology of writings about the Catalan Anarchist Salvador Puig Antich.

Salvador Puig Antich
Collected Writings on Repression and Resistance in Franco’s Spain
Ricard de Vargas Golarons (Editor); Peter Gelderloos (Translator/Contributor)

Publisher: AK Press
Format: Book
Binding: pb
Pages: 180
Released: January 19, 2021
ISBN-13: 9781849354011

Who was Salvador Puig Antich? If your only language is English, you probably don’t know the answer. On the Iberian peninsula, he is a symbolic figure from the time when Spain was due to transition from a decrepit dictatorship to the current system. He was an anarchist who participated in armed actions in opposition to the Franco regime, was imprisoned, and then garroted for it.

AK Press has published a collection of translated writings about his life and society of the time. It is a varied assortment, both in terms of its contributors, their respective areas of focus, and sometimes conflicting perspectives. This complexity seems to fit the subject matter. It was a time where on the surface things appeared stuck in a reactionary time-warp. Franco’s regime had existed for decades, with few developments in large parts of life, for example, education was under the control of a backward-looking Catholic Church. Yet under this veneer, oppositional movements engaged in a spectrum of actions, based on a range of theories and ideologies. There is an important reminder in this to those not living under formal political dictatorships. That is, we should try to escape unconsciously slipping into accepting the self-description of the regime as immutable and fully in control of things. Totalitarianism is an aspiration of many dictators but is rarely achieved.

The collection has an extremely valuable contribution near the start from translator Peter Gelderloos. He provides the big picture context for what happened from the revolution of May 1936 to 1977 when the first election in over 40 years took place. Arguably it’s just about possible to provide a neutral chronological narrative of these events. Though even then, the choice of relevant incidents has its own implicit significance. However, Gelderloos quite rightly avoids pretending to be dispassionate. Instead, his preference is for a subjective look at events and personnel. This is evident in explicit judgments on the actions of the main agents in the episodes he outlines. For example, in regards to the collaboration of members of the Anarcho-Syndicalist union the CNT with the state in ‘36 he says: “The CNT, after destroying the government, would have had to abolish itself…this was the key mistake: the CNT did not have to take over all of society, it simply had to destroy the government and step aside, getting out of the way of collectivizations and the new forms of organisation that were already being created spontaneously by the lower classes” (pp.11-12). This brutally honest analysis is a welcome aspect of the chapter.

Gelderloos goes on to describe the often tenuous level and heterogeneous nature of resistance to Franco. By the late 50s’ “The rupture in the continuity of struggle was almost complete” (p.20) yet as he notes “…anarchism springs eternal” (p.21) so that “Throughout the 1960s, workplace and neighbourhood struggles grew in Spain…” (ibid). This ranged from the distribution of illegal leaflets to wildcat strikes. The latter were sometimes through formal workers’ organisations, others informal, with many involving tens of thousands of working people. Gelderloos notes that Left historiography often drifts into favouring the most famous formal groups. Instead, he calls on us to note the actions of the millions of ordinary people and revolutionaries who “…demand not just crumbs but the whole fucking bakery” (p.26). Salvador Puig Antich was one of the latter.

Gelderloos ends the chapter by referring the reader to a Glossary at the end of the anthology. This is a wise suggestion. Adequately appreciating the complexity of the period Salvador operated in would be hard to navigate for many without some explanation of the plethora of organisational acronyms that crop up (CCOO, ETA, FAC, GAC, GOA, MIL, OLLA, etc.). Likewise, some words of Catalan (passeig, placa) are left untranslated in the body of the text but can be found in the Glossary. In addition, about a third of the way through are two chapters offering chronologies. One chronicles Salvador’s fleeting, meteoric life of action. The other sketches the uprisings by workers during the last decade and a half of the dictatorship. There are also photos and copies of leaflets. Their inclusion adds a definite flavour of the period and location.

A comrade of Salvador’s named Jean-Marc provides a chapter that describes the activities of his friend from first-hand experience. It is broken into short, numbered episodes and stylistically veers between straight-forward descriptions “We were traveling at 100 kilometers an hour on a highway” (p.35) to more poetic flourishes “Miserable colonies where proletarians scraped by. Behind walls leprous and mute” (ibid). One contribution Jean-Marc makes is an explanation of Salvador’s nom de guerre ‘The Doctor’. It wasn’t based on an arrogant self-image. It was suggested by comrades due to his rudimentary medical experience while doing military service. Another close comrade Felipe shares his personal experiences of working together. An important element of his contribution is to defend their actions, since “The Catalan bourgeoisie, the clandestine parties of Marxist obedience, the Franco regime, they all came to an agreement and declared us the gangsters of Barcelona” (p.55).

There is a brief chapter relating the last few hours of Salvador’s life as told by visiting siblings. One insight here is that even in the bowels of a prison run by a dictatorship, there were brutal guards but also humane individuals. Again, no dictatorship can completely capture the minds of everyone, even among those conducting its worst roles. There is a similar piece where they describe their attempts to keep their brother’s memory alive. The details of the court case (an evident travesty of ‘law’) are outlined. Likewise the frustrations of dealing with the post-dictatorial legal system. There is a mix of bitterness, indignation, and ongoing defiance that comes through. Anything less would be a travesty itself.

Mid-way through is a lengthy offering by Ricard de Vargas Golarons. He was a member of the same group as Salvador, the MIL (Movimiento Iberico de Liberacion). He makes this section especially worthwhile by his discussion of its politics and activities from a participant’s perspective. It is one tempered by the passage of decades. He makes it clear that the ideological positions of the MIL “…were highly flexible and we distributed materials from very different tendencies, only requiring that they reinforced the practices of self-organisation, autogestion, and workers autonomy” (p.124).
He is impressively honest about the mistakes of the movement. In an example that many groups today would benefit from recognising, he notes “The vast majority [of people] could not even understand our pamphlets. When we distributed them, many copies ended up in the trash.” (pp. 137-138). In regards to Salvador Puig Antich, his old comrade goes to his defense against post-mortem hagiography. He notes that Salvador was a genuine revolutionary who would be indignant at poetry about him devoid of acknowledgment of his politics. He also attacks attempts to make Salvador into a Catalan nationalist. Rather, as an anarchist his goal “…was never to achieve an interclassist Catalan state” rather he and his associates were “…dedicated to the social struggle and the workers’ struggle” (p. 155).

Another segment that meshes well with the previously mentioned one is written by Sergi Roses Cordovilla. It fits in well because it frankly acknowledges theoretical and organisational muddles and personality clashes within the MIL. Salvador played a principal role in trying to forge a way out of these problems. As phrased here “…Puigh Antich was a far cry from the simple driver during the bank robberies or, worse yet, the “poor boy” he is often portrayed as.” (p. 182). Instead, he is better seen as “…a conscious revolutionary trying to act consistently with his political beliefs and with a full comprehension of the unity of revolutionary theory and practice.” (ibid).

Rounding off the anthology is a short chapter compiling personal correspondence by Salvador and another of his political writings. The letters are a combination of quotidian information and expressions of the writer’s emotional state of mind. He can make simple declarative statements which touch on his political actions such as “…I take full responsibility for everything they accuse me of, but I don’t feel guilty of anything” (p.208). In other passages, though writing prose he sounds passionately poetic “Beneath a clear blue sky, where a timid cloud, feeling alone, dissipates, the sun pumps through my veins. I feel strong, hot. Hungry lips caressing the sun, my love grows stronger…” (p.211). It is tempting to draw conclusions from these missives but it’s probably wiser not to. They are few in number, and it isn’t clear if they are a representative sample of his extant letters.

Salvador and the rest of the MIL read theoretical political books and were conversant with the distinctions between strands of thought such as Council Communism, Leninism, and Anarchism. However, they appear to have made no substantial or original contribution to theory. Since they were not academics at a university or a think tank, this is not surprising. They were activists engaged in armed agitation. Not only is this point not a fault, but it is also a defense of the MIL in a sense. It is enough to read Salvador’s output and the thought he injects into issues from a clearly politically informed standpoint, to put the lie to the idea he was merely a gangster or nationalist. It also disabuses anyone of the concept that he suffered from the kind of romanticism that sometimes attaches itself to revolutionary work when it goes beyond theory. It wasn’t nihilistic activism for its own sake. Salvador was an informed anarchist. His actions were guided by that fact and he wrestled with the realities of what theory meant in practice.

This book fills a historiographical and biographical gap in the knowledge of Anglophones about the political situation in a portion of the Iberian peninsula during the post-civil war period. That makes it a valuable tome in itself. However, its subject matter may not immediately appeal to all potential readers. If you aren’t interested specifically in that part of the world or the politics of the 60s’-70s’ you could avoid this work altogether. That would be a missed opportunity since the life and deeds of Salvador Puig Antich provide universal insights and lessons for today.

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