Carrying the war into Africa? Anarchism, Morocco, and the Spanish Civil War

This is Part Two of the text Freedom published last week.

‘Much has been written about the Moors in various sections of the Left-Wing Press in this and other countries. They have been called the “scum of the earth,” “black riff-raff,” “mercenaries,” and other such names […] It is not the politically backward Moors who should be blamed for being used by the forces of reaction against the Spanish workers and peasants, but the leaders of the Popular Front, who, in attempting to continue the policy of Spanish Imperialism, made it possible for Franco to exploit the natives in the service of Fascism.’
George Padmore, ‘Why Moors Help Franco’, 1938

In part one of this article, I provided a summary of García Oliver’s reception of Moroccan nationalists in Barcelona and his attempts to establish an agreement that would see a rising in Franco’s rearguard in exchange for a declaration of independence for Spanish-held Morocco. During these weeks at the end of August and the beginning of September 1936, the CNT’s newspaper in Catalonia, Solidaridad Obrera, carried reassurances of the organisation’s good faith. On 28 August, the paper’s back page drew attention to the ‘reign of terror’ that the fascists had implanted in Morocco, and in an article on ‘the right of peoples to rule themselves’, called ‘for the independence of the Riff.’ This was followed on 30 August by the optimistic headline: ‘The rifeños, understanding the liberatory movement in Spain and its true significance for the self-determination of peoples, are preparing an armed insurrection to finish off the fascists in Morocco.’ On 1 September the paper carried a verbatim record of a speech given in Paris by Pierre Besnard in which he urged the French working class ‘not to allow the workers of the Rif to be forced to kill their Spanish worker brothers. It is important that you know that the workers of the Rif are mistreated, exploited and persecuted on a daily basis by their executioners at Franco’s orders.’

Not everyone had got the message, however. In a speech broadcast on Radio Madrid and published in Solidaridad Obrera, Federica Montseny, speaking in the name of both the CNT’s Regional Committee and the FAI’s Peninsular Committee, drew attention to the ‘lack of Spanish sentiment’ on the part of the military rising: ‘if they were Spaniards, if they were patriots, they would not have unleashed the… Moors on Spain, imposing on Spain their fascistic civilisation, not as a Christian civilisation but a Moorish civilisation’. Montseny was part of a tendency among some educated anarchists whose glorification of ‘science’ entailed an acceptance of racism. Her parents had once argued that doubting the existence of superior races based on ‘the shape of the brain’ was tantamount to denying Darwinian selection. Montseny’s reading of the civil war in civilisational terms would become dominant over the course of the conflict, and the othering of Moroccan troops fighting for the Nationalists – referred to as ‘Moors’ – was common (see Martin Baxmeyer’s chapter in Reassessing the Transnational Turn: Scales of Analysis in Anarchist and Syndicalist Studies, ed. by Constance Bantman and Bert Altena [PM Press]).

Nor should such instances of racism be written off as mere rhetorical excesses inevitable in wartime. Recent research by Ali Al Tuma indicates that the racism propounded in the rearguard translated into discriminatory violence at the front when Moroccan soldiers were captured. This, in turn, was a disincentive to Moroccans either crossing the lines or surrendering. I have found only one instance of protest against the othering of Moroccan troops in Republican propaganda (which is not to say that there are not more examples). In response to recruitment posters in the Republican zone urging men in Madrid to enlist to prevent ‘their’ women from being ‘despoiled by the Moors’, the anarchist women’s group Mujeres Libres put out the following appeal: ‘Comrade, brother: do not join the struggle out of fear of the Moorish “razzias,” the bane of Christian women… you do not need the encouragement of opportunists who, to win a victory – almost always for their party – resort to the lowest of incitements… You are struggling for yourself; out of your deepest conviction and not because of the ridiculous threats, of greater or lesser accuracy and terror, of humiliation to your wife who, what is more, shares your ideal and knows how to defend it and herself.’

By the end of 1936, when this statement was published, such principled positions were unlikely to be echoed in the official newspapers of the CNT. Prior to the organisation entering the central Republican government in November, with Montseny and García Oliver taking on ministerial roles, the editorial board of Solidaridad Obrera had been cleared out. One member of the replacement team was Salvador Cánovas Cervantes, a dubious character who considered anarchism to be a ‘racial’, indigenously Spanish movement. Another was Jacinto Toryho, who in January 1937 introduced a speech by the veteran geographer Gonzalo de Reparaz, which was subsequently published by the propaganda department of the CNT-FAI with the title ‘What Spain could have done in Morocco, and what it has done.’ This curious pamphlet lamented the missed opportunity of Spanish colonialism, which, had it been more enlightened in Morocco, might have turned the protectorate into ‘the cradle of a new Spanish empire.’

It is worth considering whether the extension of such civilisational thinking in the anarchist movement, and particularly among some of those in positions of influence, may have been an obstacle to a more coherent approach to Morocco during the war. But even if we disregard such examples as regrettable anomalies, the alternative conceptualisation of Moroccans as allies which briefly flourished when championed by García Oliver, was also limited. For one thing, it glibly assumed a commonality of interests and purpose among self-appointed representatives of the Moroccan nation in the Moroccan Action Committee and the tribespeople of the Rif who had fiercely resisted incursions into their territory in the previous two decades. This was not the case, as the historian Maria Rosa de Madariaga has made clear. García Oliver, remembering his meeting with the urbane and multi-lingual Moroccan Action Committee, was disappointed that they were not the kind of rabid and fanatical nationalists he had hoped to encounter. He later reflected in a letter to Abel Paz that the failure of the entire episode had less to do with the anarchists or the Republic than with the fact that ‘the Arabs and Moroccans were still in the midst of a secular dream, from which they would only be awakened by the Jews with the creation of the state of Israel.’ We can read this as one more facet of the exoticisation of Moroccans that had served other sectors of the CNT as justification for paternalist colonialism and racist propaganda, or a comforting counter-narrative designed to shift responsibility for defeat; quite likely it was both.

The role of Morocco in the Spanish civil war is one element in the longstanding tendency to look back at the war and pose counter-factual arguments that result in a comforting parallel universe in which fascism lost. Collaboration with the Republican state is another. The latter limited the autonomy of Spanish anarchism and prevented the movement as a whole from acting in accordance with its principles. A declaration of independence for Spanish Morocco and its unpredictable consequences is one imagined scenario that may have resulted from an alternative path. This is possible but closer examination of the history provides no comforting assurances. Collaboration encouraged and made hegemonic tendencies that were already present in the movement: the most relevant to this article being an understanding of civilisation that carried with it nationalist and racist baggage. The fact that the biggest and most successful anarchist movement in history was unable to completely overcome these obstacles to libertarian communism is perhaps unsurprising given the movement’s international isolation and the predominance of racist ‘common sense’ in the period. While the ease with which anarchists were able to draw on their own tradition to justify nationalist positions is unsettling, the internationalism promoted in the pages of Solidaridad Obrera in the summer of 1936 and articulated alongside an interconnected anti-sexism and anti-racism by Mujeres Libres provide resources that may help guard against complacency on these issues today.

Danny Evans