In anticipation of a fresh year of revolutionary and anti-fascist battles, and as a reminder of the struggles, sacrifices, and betrayals that come before us, we’ve decided to reprint a new bilingual version of the Spanish Civil War classic, “A Day Mournful and Overcast.” Written by an anonymous member of the Iron Column, a militia of former prisoners labeled “uncontrollables” by the Stalinists who ultimately disbanded them, the text is an emotional eyewitness account representing the hopes and frustrations of the most disregarded men and women who fought not just against fascism but for social revolution in 1930’s Spain. It is as much as an inspiration as a warning, against the dangers of the Popular Front, the betrayals of institutionalization, and the arrogance of Leftists in power. (For more background, see the introduction below).
The zine can be downloaded here.
We print this as part of our ongoing writing and archival project now known as Burnt Ends Press, formerly (and affectionately) known as the North Carolina Piece Corps. If you’re interested in radical southern history, critical reflections on whiteness and race treason, the intersections of anarchist, anti-state communist, and afro-pessimist thought, ongoing primitive accumulation and the gendered reproduction of labor, or analyses of contemporary insurrectionary happenings in the southeastern “United States,” please get in touch!
From the Introduction
I first heard about the Iron Column from this very text over a decade ago, and it remains, alongside Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, my favorite piece of writing about the tumultuous time period known as the Spanish Civil War. That version, printed sometime in the 1990’s and distributed by an Australian collective, had a perfect summary of the historical context of the column, worth reprinting in full:
The Iron Column was one of many volunteer militia groups that fought the fascists in Spain during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War of the 1930’s. Unlike the other militias, however, the Iron Column found its members not in revolutionary trade unions or in radical political groups, but among the ranks of ex-prisoners. The outbreak of revolution in 1936 led to the liberation of thousands of social and political prisoners, and the near-total abolition of prisons in those parts of Spain under anarchist control. So many of these newly released prisoners (“escaped convicts” as the author puts it) immediately joined the struggle for social revolution and against fascism that they were incorporated into a militia together, totaling some 6,000 men and women.
This text was written by an anonymous member of the Iron Column, in response to the impending “militarization” of the militias by more conservative elements in the Republican (“anti-fascist”) side of the Spanish Civil War. This meant that the volunteer Columns would be reorganized into Battalions to conform to traditional military models of rank, hierarchy, and externally enforced discipline, all of which had been rejected by the militias at their inception. Militarization was a key step in the transformation of the Civil War: what had been a struggle for social revolution and a free society became limited solely to the fight against fascism. Officially this implied that various political tendencies such as the anarchists, marxists, Stalinists, and Republicans would fight side by side without arguing about their politics. In fact, the result was the consolidation of power and ideological control by the Stalinists, whose training was more regimented with rank and hierarchy and who also had control over the arms sent to Spain from the Soviet Union. In 1939, the Civil War was lost to the fascists, but long before that the Revolution was lost to the Stalinists. The Iron Column was disbanded in 1937.
A Day Mournful and Overcast is an honest and deeply personal account that cuts through the dogmatic and propagandistic BS so common in those (and our) times. This is no For Whom the Bell Tolls, informed only by Stalinist-controlled newspapers and written by a comfortable author in a comfortable hotel three hundred miles from the front; this is no detached rationalization by CNT “ministers” to justify their (disastrous) decision to join the government. This is a first person account of what it felt like to be freed from prison by your comrades, only to have your sisters and brothers disarmed and torn from you by politicians and rich officers claiming to be on your side.
It can be hard to find this ‘zine in print nowadays, which is why we chose to reprint it here in bilingual form. That’s too bad, because the story of the Iron Column is now more important than ever—not because it concerns the “classical anarchist history” of some far-off Europeans, but because it deals directly with both how a revolutionary movement orients itself to prisons and prisoners, as well the inevitable betrayals of the Popular Front and its institutions.
In the midst of the rise of prison abolitionism among increasingly mainstream and reformist circles, its worth pointing out the simple fact that the only way prisons and bondage have ever been meaningfully destroyed is through social revolution. While the gradualist and political approach inevitably aids State and Capital in evolving new forms of bondage, social control, and in particular in North America, anti-blackness, the approach of the Spanish anarchists was by contrast refreshingly simple: prison struggles were led by the revolt of prisoners themselves, who were then brought into communication with and offered solidarity from the outside. As soon as possible, prisoners were released en masse through armed attacks and well-supported escapes, and invited into the ranks of revolutionary unions, community organizations, agricultural collectives, and militias. In many cases prisoners chose to go their own way, but in thousands of others, they chose to join ranks with those who helped them win their freedom.
Speaking of our own age, the prison strike of September 2016, the recent prison revolts from Kansas to Delaware to South Carolina, and the myriad regional publications and communication strategies initiated by individuals on both sides of the wall all represent a practical alternative to the policy machinations of prison reform groups. In the future, there will be more Iron Columns. Anarchists and other revolutionaries have again been in the thick of these developments, while reformists have mostly “led” from behind, using the existence of these revolts to argue their own policy aims, but doing little to actively aid the rebellions themselves.
We’re also living in a time when the far-right has reemerged as a major threat in the US and Canada, and the prospect of broad coalitions with Leftists, now more often dominated by non-profit types than old-school Stalinists, is once again at the fore. Some of these coalitions form organically in the streets through shared experiences of danger, and exist primarily as personal relationships built on a real trust that crosses ideological borders. Others form through political calculation and cynically expedient double-dealing. Liberal, white ally groups like the Catalyst Project, who as recently as 2010 sought to physically constrained looters and condemned anarchists as outside agitators or white adventurists, now write kind words from the sidelines praising us—the convenience of the political moment for them, I suppose. Anarchists, antifa, and other autonomous groupings are once again on the frontlines of physically confronting a fascist threat, and once again, we risk being the pawns of media parasites and “legitimate institutions” sitting in wait at the rear.
Finally, I think the author’s stance against militarization, owing not just to the power-grab of counter-revolutionary Stalinists, but to the very spirit of the barracks and the officer, is worth consideration. We live in a time when war feels imminent. Talk of a civil war in the US would have felt nonsensical ten years ago, mere hyperbole offered as a hack metaphor by Francophile intellectuals. But the last year of street-fighting and armed standoffs makes it feel sudden and present; in this environment I think it’s all the more important to remind ourselves as anti-authoritarians what it means to use violence in ways that do not undermine our own dreams of freedom or the ethical sensibility of how we want to live with and for each other. The aesthetic groupthink of the uniformed militant can become dangerously trendy in times like these. We may be militants in a certain sense of the word, but taking up arms does not—it cannot—mean adopting a militarized posture or structure. We do not reject the arms, but we do reject the culture of the barracks just as we reject the bars of a prison.
A note on the origins of this text seems worthwhile, if only to honor and thank the many whose earlier efforts rescued these words from oblivion. The account first appeared in the Iron Column’s own newspaper Nosotros. It did not appear again in full until 1979, in a bilingual (French/Spanish) edition by Champ Libre. The English version printed here exists thanks to a translation done by London Anarchist Black Cross in 1993. While both the Spanish and English texts here use the masculine gender to refer to fellow guerillas, et al, as did the original, it should be understood that there were absolutely women soldiers in the Iron Column. A full English version can also be found in chapter 18 of Abel Paz’s excellent book The Story of the Iron Column, on AK Press.