On 3 March the right-wing Popular Party won general election in Spain. The media unanimously celebrated this event, which, in their view, corrected an anomaly - the fact that Spain had been continuously governed by a Socialist-led government for two decades. Although they failed to mention the fact that this so-called socialist government had imposed the same drastic austerity on the working class as governments everywhere else in Europe have.
More importantly, what the media chose not to mention is the fact that the last time the right wing came to government in Spain, it was on the strength of a military coup. This was 60 years ago in 1936, when the army rose against a proletarian revolution which had begun from Spain's biggest industrial centres.
The Spanish civil war which followed has been the occasion of one of the most formidable cover-ups in history. It was described as a struggle between fascism (in the person of Franco) and democracy (as represented by the Republican camp). But the reality was entirely different. These two sides may have had different policies, but both served the same fundamental interests - those of the capitalist class.
Using different methods, the Republican government and Franco's military both moved to crush this proletarian revolution. If they succeeded in the end, after more than three years of full-blown war, to eradicate the last spark of the revolutionary wave, it was primarily due to the unashamed betrayal of the leadership of the main workers' organisations. Many of those leaders paid for this betrayal with their lives, but this does not make them any less responsible. A unique opportunity for the proletariat was wasted - not just in Spain but in the whole of Europe, since what was at stake at that point was the ability of the European working class to oppose the reactionary drive towards a second world war.
What remains, however, of the Spanish revolution is the courage and the inventiveness of an oppressed class which, having broken its chains, stood up and asserted its ability to shape a new world.
Preparing for power
Spanish society in the 1930s was dominated by a class of very wealthy landlords who came straight out of the days of the 16th century when Spain was still the richest colonial power in Europe. 50,000 of these landed aristocratic families owned over half of the land. Their wealth, however, went far beyond, deep into the banking system and what was left of Spain's colonial ventures. Their social domination was protected by a highly centralised semi-monarchic state. But the real backbone of their political power was the army. The officer caste - there was one officer for every six soldiers - and its 400 generals were the guarantors of Spain's political and social stability. There was a long-standing tradition whereby the army intervened forcibly on the political scene through "pronunciamentos" as they were called. Thus, the officer caste resorted to a military coup - or sometimes just threatened to do so - in order to lay down the law to governments and politicians who were considered too liberal by the agrarian aristocracy and the monarchy.
Unlike in the rest of Western Europe, the urban bourgeoisie had therefore never managed to shake off the stranglehold of the landed privileged. Industrial development was recent and mostly confined to the north - to Catalonia, the Basque country and the Asturias. The social contrast between these regions and the rest of the country was such that they seemed to be a century apart. The resulting economic imbalance meant that a large part of the profits generated by these industrial areas were absorbed by the parasitism of the landed aristocracy and the endless needs of the heavy state machinery, controlled by Madrid, for funds. For decades, this situation had fuelled a deep resentment among the northern middle-class layers and provided the various regionalist and nationalist currents with a significant base of support.
At the other end of the social ladder was the vast mass of peasantry. Next to the two million farmer-owners whose land was barely enough for them to make a living, there were another five million split evenly between tenant-farmers and sharecroppers on the one hand and landless labourers on the other. The conditions of these labourers, in particular, had no equivalent in the rest of Western Europe. The "peons", as they were called, gathered every morning outside their village church to be hand-picked for a day's work by the landlord's foreman. On average they were hired for between 90 and 150 days a year and having no land of their own, not even a tiny plot to grow a few potatoes, they often starved the rest of the time. Spain had a long history of desperate rebellions by the peons, ranging from the looting of storehouses to regional guerilla warfare.
The working class was somewhat better off by comparison. It was small, numbering at most 2.5 million, but it was very concentrated, mostly in the industrial north, with nearly half in Catalonia alone. It was a young and dynamic class, barely four decades old. In the 1930s, the majority of industrial workers were still former peons or sharecroppers who had fled the semi-slavery of the rural areas over the previous two decades. The flood of immigrant labour had turned the northern regions into a melting pot of people from all over the country and the need to confront capitalist exploitation with collective resistance had considerably weakened the old provincial and regional divisions in this part of Spain.
The dynamism of the workers' movement
In terms of numbers, the largest political current in the Spanish proletariat was that of the anarchists. Its central core, the clandestine Anarchist Iberian Federation (FAI), had a membership of 20,000 at most. But its main body, the National Confederation of Labour (CNT), claimed over one million members. When the CNT was set up as a semi-legal organisation, in 1911, its initiators described it as a "revolutionary union". In most of Spain, it had remained just that - a small union whose membership was mostly confined to anarchist sympathizers. The one exception, however, was Catalonia, where the CNT had grown to become by far the largest union in the province. There, the CNT organised vast layers of workers who saw themselves more as "cenetistas" (i.e. CNT member) than as anarchists. Ironically, considering the hostility of the anarchist leaders towards the concept of a centralised political party, the FAI was exactly that - a centralised organisation of activists who kept a tight control over the running of the CNT. And being controlled by anarchists did not make the CNT more democratic, as was shown by the numerous expulsions of activists who happened to disagree with the leadership.
Apart from the fact that it was mostly concentrated in Catalonia, the main weakness of the anarchist movement was in fact its anarchism. The CNT-FAI brand of anarchism was a confused combination of contradictory ideas. On the one hand they argued, as the anarchist movement had always done, that to overthrow the power of the privileged, all that was needed was a handful of determined, well-organised and disciplined activists who knew how to handle weapons. On the other hand, the very success of the CNT had fed the development of a syndicalist trend which saw the general strike as the ultimate weapon against the capitalist system. Both trends, however, agreed on one point: once the political power of the rich collapsed, either as a result of an anarchist putsch, of a general strike, or a combination of both, the days of exploitation would be over for good leaving society wide open to a spontaneous reconstruction by the "people". Just as the anarchists saw the oppression of the state as the main enemy in today's society, they believed that its overthrow would resolve every problem. But in doing so, they disregarded the powerful social forces on which the power of the state is based. In fact, they simply dismissed the decisive role of social classes in society. "Overthrow the power of the state and social divisions will disappear", they said - but of course they did not!
The anarchists' rather woolly ideas had practical consequences which were dramatic when implemented in the real world. For instance their disregard for classes meant that, despite its name, the CNT organised all sorts of layers, including small traders and craftsmen who were hostile to collective action, except as an ultimate weapon to overthrow the system of course, and suspicious of the "ignorance" of waged labourers whom they often accused of being "irresponsible" with their endless strikes for economic demands. And these layers undoubtedly had a significant weight in the anarchist organisations and a conservative influence. On the other hand, the insistence of the anarchist leadership on keeping out of any kind of election, on the grounds that this would be compromising with the state, sounded very radical. Except that it prevented the anarchist movement from leading the working class through the trappings of bourgeois democracy. Instead of saying to workers "since you have illusions in this rubbish we'll go through the experience with you and help you to keep your eyes open", they turned their backs on these illusions contemptuously, thereby leaving the ground entirely free to the bourgeois politicians - which was not all that radical after all!
That being said, the influence and prestige of the CNT-FAI was considerable. In particular their unbowing resistance in the repressive conditions of the 1920s, as well as the many activists who had been shot by the police during this period, had won them a lot of credit among workers. If the idea of revolution was embodied by one current in the eyes of most Spanish workers in the early 1930s, it was certainly by the CNT.
Compared to the CNT, the Socialist Party (PSOE - Workers' Socialist Party of Spain) seemed much more moderate and respectful of the system. Its history went back to the 1880s when, under Friedrich Engels' direct supervision, the French socialist leader Paul Lafargue had undertaken the tricky task of bringing together the many rival groups set up by Marxist supporters in Spain. Like the anarchists, the Socialist Party drew much of its influence from the union confederation it had set up - the General Workers' Union (UGT). Like the CNT, the UGT had achieved credit and fame for its network of workingmens' clubs which usually included a cafe (often barred to women though), a library, a choir and a socialist sunday school (as an alternative to that provided by the Church). Unlike the FAI-CNT, however, the PSOE-UGT although smaller in numbers, had a membership which was almost evenly spread out across Spain, providing them with a national stature that the anarchists lacked.
The Socialist leadership had followed more or less the same reformist path as their counterparts in the rest of Europe, particularly during and after the First World War, when the first democratic openings had been made by the monarchy. It had rejected joining the Third International set up by the Bolsheviks, but only by a narrow majority and later than most European socialist parties. Significantly, the Socialist Party's best known politician in the inter-war period, Indalecio Prieto, was a wealthy businessman from Bilbao who never concealed his determination to help his fellow industrialists in the Basque country in their effort to build profitable industries. Under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, after 1923, the Socialist Party leadership compromised unashamedly with the regime. While Rivera's gunmen were hunting down CNT organisers, the general secretary of the UGT, Largo Caballero, joined the government as minister of Labour to enforce compulsory arbitration procedures which had been agreed with the dictatorship. In exchange, the UGT was legalised, while the Socialist Party was tolerated.
Far behind the anarchist and socialist currents, in terms of membership and influence, came the Communist Party. According to a statement made later by one of its leaders, Dolores Ibarruri, the CP had only 800 members in 1931. Its relative weakness had less to do with Primo de Rivera's repression than with Stalin's policies. The expulsion of Trotsky's supporters, following the victory of Stalin in the USSR, had deprived the CP of a number of key activists, including some leading trade-union figures in the Asturias, Catalonia and the Basque country. Subsequently, not being a large organisation like its French counterpart for instance, every one of the Third International U-turns initiated by Stalin had resulted in significant sections of its membership choosing to resign from the organisation rather than keeping their heads down. This is to say that in 1931, apart from the prestige of the Russian Revolution, still only 14 years old, the CP had very few cards in hand compared to the anarchists or the socialists.
In fact, the CP was even smaller than another Catalonia-based organisation, the BOC (or Workers' and Peasants' Bloc). Politically the BOC could be compared to today's Left in Britain. The core of its membership came out of the CP, in the late 20s, when the whole Catalonian organisation of the CP broke away. The grounds on which this split had taken place said something about the BOC: their main criticisms against the CP were on the one hand its under-estimation of Catalonian nationalism (which the BOC leadership supported wholeheartedly), and on the other the CP's support for the recent U-turn of the Third International in favour of a more radical course (though they had no criticisms for Stalin's previous right-wing course which had led, among other things to the defeat of the Chinese revolution).
To fit the spirit of the time, undoubtedly, these right-wing criticisms of the Third International were dressed up by the BOC in a radical-sounding anti-Stalinist phraseology which made frequent references to the Russian revolution - though they would immediately add that conditions in Spain were different! Unquestionably, the BOC did organise a number of activists who were genuinely attracted by a revolutionary perspective. But its leadership had certainly nothing to do with such a perspective. Later on, in 1935, the radical image of the BOC was further reinforced when it merged with the majority of Trotsky's supporters in Spain, led by Andrès Nin, to form the POUM (or Unified Marxist Workers' Party) - a merger which was fiercely criticised by Trotsky who condemned it as a "capitulation to opportunism".
Bourgeois democracy at work
The last year of Primo Rivera's dictatorship, 1930, saw a sudden rise of militancy in the working class. Under the growing pressure of the world crisis, other social layers which had kept their heads down so far or had relied on the dictatorship to improve their situation, particularly among the Catalonian middle-class, joined the protest. Primo de Rivera resigned, followed by the king who went into exile.
The declaration of a republic in the wake of elections in April 1931 was greeted with enthusiasm. The victory of Republican and Socialist parties in national elections in June brought together a coalition which declared a social truce in order to modernise the country. However the proletariat soon found out that it had been deceived.
While workers had illusions that reform was on the way, at the same time many were not prepared to sit around and wait for the politicians to legislate. Strikes and land occupations began. And they were immediately confronted by the same police and military who had been repressing them under the dictatorship. Soon the government, with the Socialist Party's participation, was reintroducing censorship against revolutionary litterature, while its minister of Labour, the UGT leader Largo Caballero, once again reintroduced the old compulsory arbitration rules to curb strikes. In July 1931, when the telephone employees went on strike for better working conditions, the strike was declared illegal and 2000 people were thrown in gaol. A general strike the same month in Seville ended with the Civil Guard invading the CNT's buildings and killing 20 workers. In Barcelona, a number of construction workers who were striking in solidarity with those in gaol were murdered by the police after they had agreed to return to work.
And so it continued for another 18 months, with workers constantly under attack and being imprisoned under the writ of the Socialist Party leaders in government. Meanwhile the confidence of the right which had hit rock bottom when the monarchy collapsed, recovered rapidly. In August 1932, General Sanjurjo staged a coup in Seville to restore the monarchy. The coup was put down, partly thanks to the spontaneous mobilisation of the Seville proletariat.
In November 1933 new national elections were held. The result was a resounding victory for the right and the monarchists. In part, this was certainly due to the CNT's call for abstention. But why had this call been more widely supported in 1933 than in 1931, if not because of the broken promises of the previous two-and-a-half years?
1934 - A general rehearsal
In the reaction that followed, the right were able to put to good use the legal framework set up by the republican-socialist coalition. Workers were imprisoned by the thousand, newspapers were banned, workers meeting halls were closed down. The Socialist Party itself became the target of the legislative measures it had enacted. Its leadership was confronted with a crucial choice: either they stuck to their old law-abiding reformist line and risked losing their credibility among the masses, thereby also losing any chance to be accepted again by the bourgeoisie in government; or they took a sharp radical turn, at least in words if not in deeds, in order to regain the credit they had lost while in government. Under the pressure of Largo Caballero - but primarily in response to the radicalisation that was increasingly visible across the country - the Socialist Party leadership chose the second option. Revolutionary slogans began to appear all over the Socialist Party press.
On the ground, however, the activists took the turn seriously. Local branches started to pile up whatever weapons they could lay their hands on. Some even went as far as stocking food, just in case... In this new militant climate, the Socialist Party Youth serialised Trotsky's "History of the Russian Revolution" in their weekly paper, which showed how much the idea of a proletarian revolution was in the air.
Class tensions were growing. In response to this militant tide, the Catholic-right leader, Gil Robles, thought the time had come to follow the example set by Mussolini in Italy and build a mass fascist movement with the open objective of destroying all working class resistance. His attempts to broaden his support beyond the middle-class by appealing to the unemployed - with phoney promises about benefits and land division - fell on largely deaf ears. When he tried to show the strength of his movement by staging large gatherings in three different towns in 1934, he made a laughing-stock of himself. The massive flow of middle-class fascist supporters that he had boasted of, never materialised. Instead, calls for a general strike issued by all workers' organisations were massively supported, barricades went up and the would-be fascist "masses" remained quietly at home for lack of public transport.
Events moved to a new crisis in September 1934 when three of Robles's supporters were invited to join the government. The Socialist Party leadership was once again pressured by the workers' mobilisation into being seen doing something. They called a national general strike on October 4. But there was a delay of several hours before the workers militias organised by the UGT were mobilised. This enabled the army chiefs to move in and arrest dissident troops. Furthermore, the division between the Socialist Party and the CNT had the fatal consequence that the CNT rail union refused to back the strike, allowing the military and their equipment to be transported to the main points of resistance.
Despite the lack of resolve of its leaders, the general strike shook the country in a way never seen before. Everywhere there were street battles between the strikers and the police. But in one region, the Asturias, the strike took on the form of an insurrection with the strikers setting up their own "red army", first in order to defend themselves against the regular army and then to defend what had already become the embryo of workers' power.
In the Asturias, the relatively weak Asturian CNT was dominated by activists who were opposed to the current sectarian line of the CNT leadership and joined the call for a general strike issued by the UGT. For months already Workers' Alliance committees bringing together all workers' organisations had been operating in every village of the coal fields. And unlike similar structures which existed elsewhere, they were more than just diplomatic talking shops set up to put up a show of unity. For instance, the preparations for a revolutionary upsurge which had been taking place spontaneously across the country, had been systematically organised by these committees in the Asturias.
The Asturian insurrection lasted for 15 days. The insurgents, among whom the miners made the largest and best organised contingent, first secured the coalfields. This was not easy as the mines were protected by armed Civil Guards. Ninety-two miners and 38 guards were killed in one pit village alone. Then three columns of armed miners advanced on the regional capital, Oviedo. They were facing nearly two thousand troops and police. After 4 days the miners and workers of Oviedo controlled most of the city. They also captured factories producing cannon, explosives and small arms.
Elsewhere a factory and two foundries were converted to producing bomb throwers, armoured trucks and even two armoured "red trains". Three-shift working around the clock was organised to maximise production. A pool of about a thousand vehicles was mobilised to transport up to 12,000 volunteers whose most effective weapon was the notorious dynamite stick used by miners in their job.
A local radio station was run by the insurgents. Vouchers replaced money except for the bourgeoisie who were forced to pay cash. The hospitals treated the wounded of both sides and in the jails prisoners were generally well treated. This contrasted sharply with the white terror being unleashed in those parts where the army had regained control. Even the slaughter of 3,000 Asturian workers, mainly after they had surrendered to the military, was a setback but not a defeat. They had also shown the real meaning of the uprising's slogan - U.H.P., Unite, Proletarian Brothers! - that of a clear revolutionary threat.
In the months that followed working class action centred around forcing the government to free political prisoners and commute death sentences of those condemned for their activities during the October uprising. Thereafter people mobilised to demand new elections. Protests of 100,000 demonstrators and more became commonplace. When the government finally caved in to pressure and brought the elections forward to February 1936, it resulted in a landslide victory for the Popular Front, the electoral alliance between the Republican, Socialist and Communist Parties.
The revolution breaks out
What exactly was this Popular Front? To all intents and purposes, it was no more than a refurbished version of the 1931 government alliance between the Socialist Party and the Republican bourgeois parties. Except that this time round, it had been joined by the Communist Party, the POUM and a number of regionalist groupings from Catalonia and the Basque country, and had won the tacit support of the CNT. More importantly, whereas in 1931 the proletariat was expecting the proclamation of the republic to bring about reforms, this time the proletariat was mobilised and had already shown that it was prepared to resort to an armed uprising if sweeping changes were not introduced quickly in society.
And what was the Popular Front saying to these mobilised workers who were demanding social change? That the new coalition would deliver the goods to them, but only using legal means; that there was therefore no reason for the proletariat themselves to implement the changes they wanted. The Popular Front was nothing but a 25th-hour attempt at preventing the working class from taking its fate into its own hands by getting all workers' organisations together to underwrite bourgeois democracy and to revamp the image of the discredited Republican bourgeois parties.
While the Popular Front coalition won 60% of the seats, the electoral agreement worked to the advantage of the bourgeois partners allowing them to form a government led by the so-called Republican "left" leader Azana, who had already occupied that position in 1932-33. His recipe was a continuation if not a rerun of the same policies. In an interview he said: «We want no dangerous innovations. We want peace and order. We are moderates.» Nothing had changed.
This time round, however, workers were determined to pursue their own agenda whatever the vacillation of the politicians. Pre-empting the Popular Front's promise to release political prisoners from gaol, crowds gathered to force open the gates of the prisons. Where workers had been dismissed following the strikes of the previous October, their workmates took them along to the employers and threatened "Either, or!" to have them reinstated - the employers usually caved in.
The landowners were more obstinate. Despite the law of 27 February 1936 which ordered automatic rehiring, many landlords would not budge. The response of the rural workers was to begin occupying the land. As much of it was uncultivated, they were only doing what seemed quite natural to them anyway. At Cenicientos, near Madrid, villagers occupied an enormous estate. The document they delivered to the minister of Agriculture explained: «Since there was no more work for us and our teams of horses, and our children were famished, the only thing we could do was seize the land. And we seized it. Thanks to our work, it will produce what it never produced before. This will put an end to our misery and increase the national wealth. We don't think we have harmed anyone and we ask only that the situation be legalised and in addition that we receive the necessary loans to carry out our work in peace.»
Two weeks later 80 villages in the Salamanca region did the same thing, while on 25 March 80,000 workers and peasants in Estremadura made a dawn takeover of land which they immediately began to cultivate. Such was the scale of the occupation that the government did not dare to initiate punitive action. Instead it sent along engineers from the Institute of Agricultural Reform to give the appearance of legality to the land occupations! At the same time, villagers began to settle scores with the priests. Churches were burnt to the ground and particularly hated clerics were told to quit the village under sentence of death if they returned. In the province of Valencia, for example, there was scarcely a functioning church by June!
Throughout this period the government tried to stop the rising tide. In Albacete province, labourers had seized a big estate. On May 28 Civil Guards were ordered in, killing 23 peasants and wounding 30 others. Afterwards the minister of the Interior thanked the guards for this bloodbath by sending a telegram of congratulations... Subsequently the socialist and communist MPs absolved the government from all responsibility.
A similar mobilisation was growing in the working class. In Madrid 80,000 construction workers struck for a reduction of the working week to 36 hours. The government intervened and ordered the workers to submit to arbitration. But when the hours were only reduced to 40, CNT workers refused to return to work and were supported by UGT workers even though their union leaders had agreed the return. The CP newspaper urged an end to the strike, saying, «prolongation involves a grave danger for all workers». But strikes over wages and hours got more and more powerful to the point where by June strikes involving a million and more were common.
The despairing mood of the middle class at this stage was captured by Arturo Barea, an engineer working in the Madrid patent office who was also a socialist supporter. Realising that the elections had not settled anything, he concluded gloomily. «All the signs were that everything was going to crumble and crash. The country was drifting towards a catastrophe. Though the Right had lost seats in the parliament, it had gained in the sense that all its supporters were now prepared to wage war on the Republic in every possible field. And they were in good positions to do so. The Right could count upon a great part of the army officers, the clergy, home-grown and foreign capital, and the bare-faced support of Germany.»
Apart from his gloomy pessimism, Barea was right on one thing: the privileged classes were becoming increasingly exasperated. They had tried the parliamentary solution and it had failed to calm things down. They decided to take a more radical course. On July 16 the army rose in Morocco under the leadership of general Francisco Franco - the civil war was about to begin.
Since rumours were circulating of an imminent military coup, workers demanded arms. But the government rebuffed all requests for weapons and instead issued a statement assuring workers that «the best aid that can be given is to guarantee the normality of daily life». A day later the military was on the offensive all over Spain!
The generals had taken the initiative. But though this gave them an advantage, it gave workers no alternative other than to spread the revolution to every corner of the country. While the government attempted unsuccessfully to cobble up a deal with the military, in Madrid the Socialist Youth militia distributed its limited supply of arms and built barricades on key streets and surrounding the Montaña barracks. At midnight they carried out the first attack on the barracks. In Barcelona workers stormed government arms depots and had surrounded the garrison before it could act. Later they seized the regular arsenals. In Malaga workers, unarmed, had surrounded the garrison with a wall of gasoline-fired houses and barracks. And in Valencia workers prepared to take on troops with barricades, knives and stones until the soldiers shot their officers and handed over their weapons.
By 19 July the attempts of the prime minister to reach a deal with the generals, which included offers of posts in government, had ended without result. The generals were determined to carry through their coup. The government reluctantly agreed to hand over some weapons to the workers. Now Spain faced a civil war with no prospect of an early conclusion. By July 21 the lines between the rebels and the government had more or less stabilised. The south-west including Seville and Cadiz was held by the army; also about a third of the country extending from the coast above Portugal through to the Pyrennees. But this did not include the Asturias. Meanwhile the military coup had been defeated in the centre and east of the country, including Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.
The proletariat takes over
With the defeat of the army in Barcelona, tens of thousands of workers controlled the city with their rifles. A communist railwayman, Narciso Julian, in Barcelona at the time, recalled his feelings years later: «It was incredible, the proof in practice of what one knows in theory: the power and strength of the masses when they take to the streets. All one's doubts are suddenly stripped away. Suddenly you feel the masses creative power; you can't imagine how rapidly they are capable of organising themselves. The forms they invent go far beyond anything you've ever dreamt of, read in books.»
Franz Borkenau, a former German organiser of the Third International who had become hostile to communism by then, arrived in the city about a fortnight later. He described his first entry into the Ramblas, the main artery of the city: «It was as if we had landed on a continent different from anything I had seen before. The first impression: armed workers, rifles on their shoulders, but wearing civilian clothes. Perhaps 30% of the males on the Ramblas were carrying rifles, though there were no police and no regular military in uniforms..... The fact that all these armed men walked about, marched, and drove in their ordinary clothes made the thing only more impressive as a display of the factory workers.» The scale of the expropriation and requisitioning by the workers' organisations seemed incredible to him. And yet compared with the lurid newspaper accounts he had read abroad, life was much less disturbed than he expected. Trams, buses, water and electricity all functioned as normal.
As soon as the army uprising began in Barcelona, CNT activists had taken over all transportation, public utilities and big industrial plants. Factory committees were elected to control production, including in workplaces where the private owners remained.
Borkenau later visited a collectivised factory - the workshops of the general bus company. It was being run by CNT members and the visitor noted how things seemed to run smoothly. Buses were being overhauled and a new bus had been constructed in 5 days instead of the 7 days it took under the old management. He concluded: «It bears brilliant witness to the general standard of efficiency of the Catalan worker and the organising capacities of the Barcelona trade unions. For one must not forget that this firm has lost its whole managing staff.... president, the directors, the chief engineer and the second engineer had all "disappeared".»
District committees were set up to cater for the local population's needs. They opened the pawn shops and distributed the contents back to their owners. A socialist youth explained how this was done: «The working class women were streaming in. We stamped their tickets and they went out to get back their goods - sewing machines mainly. It was a great moment in my life. We were overthrowing bourgeois capitalist values.» Contents of other stores were confiscated for the use of needy citizens. Clothes, shoes and blankets were distributed.
Outside Barcelona the farm workers' unions began to collectivise the land. They set up communal stores to feed the city. A system of barter was introduced: food supplies from the villages in exchange for manufactured goods from the city. As Catalonia was not self-sufficient in wheat and meat, the supplies committee set up with overall responsibility for feeding Barcelona had to look further afield to Aragon and even to villages in Andalusia.
With Barcelona secure, workers naturally focussed on Saragossa, 150 miles to the west, which had fallen to the military. Uncaptured it posed a threat; in republican hands it could open the road to the Asturias and the Basque lands, the other main industrial areas. An appeal for volunteers was made in Barcelona and produced a tremendous response. Within 3 days a workers militia, known as the Durrutti column after the popular anarchist leader, was on the march. It was joined a little later by two more columns, one of which was made up of volunteers recruited and led by the POUM.
The achievement of these militias was not just that they forced the military to retreat and evacuate much of Aragon. It was also that the advancing columns brought with them the revolution from Barcelona, inviting every liberated village to set up elected committees and seize the land. Large estates and their equipment were handed over to the committees. Property deeds and mortgages were consigned to the bonfire. When the column resumed its advance, it was secure in the knowledge that behind it were villagers who would fight to the death to preserve the land which now was theirs. The economic results were also spectacular. Agricultural production increased by 30-50% over the previous year as a result of collective labour on an increased cultivated surface. Large surpluses were voluntarily handed over to the government, free of charge, for use at the front.
In the confused days following the generals' rising the functionaries of the state's repressive apparatus had been split four-ways. The two largest sections had either joined Franco's camp or had melted into the landscape fearing possible reprisals by the workers' militias, a smaller section had enrolled in the newly-formed workers' columns and an even smaller section had remained in their jobs to serve the legally elected government. To all intents and purposes the state machinery had collapsed.
On the one hand, therefore, there was a government which embodied the legality of bourgeois democracy without the means of enforcing its authority. On the other hand those who exercised the reality of power on the ground, the working class armed militias and committees, were not conscious of their potential authority and real legitimacy. There were two powers in society. One was issuing orders aimed at preserving the old corrupt social order of the propertied classes while having to rely for their implementation on the goodwill of a second power which expressed the emergence of a new social order based on the eradication of private property. This contradictory dual power situation could not go on forever. A similar situation in Russia, in 1917, had been resolved by the Bolsheviks in favour of the proletariat by preparing it to seize power consciously through what became the October revolution. Similar steps were needed in Catalonia.
An international revolutionary symbol
The events in Spain reverberated all over Europe, and far beyond. In France and in Northern America, workers were also on the march. After the bitter defeats the working class had sustained against fascism in Germany in 1933 and Austria in 1934, the tide seemed to be turning. A new generation was emerging which was not held back by the lost opportunities of the 1920s.
The Spanish revolution became the symbol of the promise of a new world that was really worth dying for. Politicised youth flocked to Spain from the summer of 1936 onwards. There were also some famous intellectuals - British like George Orwell, Americans like Ernest Hemingway and Upton Sinclair, French like André Malraux, Germans like Arthur Koestler, etc... When the German writer Gustav Regler, arrived in Madrid in September bringing a printing press, film projector and films, he was introduced to a militia-kitchen. Everyone stood up and sang when they heard he had come to join them. By the evening he was wearing overalls and working on strengthening the city's fortifications.
Volunteers came from all over the world, particularly from the ranks of political refugees who had fled the central european dictatorships. Large numbers came from the so-called "democracies" too, like the thousands who volunteered from the mining valleys of South Wales. Initially, the foreign volunteers were integrated quite naturally in the ranks of the workers' columns like any other volunteers. This changed however when, under the dubious pretext of protecting the republic from the potential danger of "foreign" influence, the CP ministers in government engineered the setting up of international brigades organised along national lines and placed under the direct authority of the government rather than under that of the workers' organisations. Although Stalin took the credit for this so-called "internationalism", his real aim turned out to be to weaken the workers' militias and to build the international brigades into an instrument for his own policies, which was certainly not what most of the foreign volunteers had anticipated.
A revolution without a leadership
The lack of military hardware on the revolution's side was a painful and permanent problem. From the first day, workers were confronted by a lack of weapons to use against the trained armies of Franco. This could not be compensated for by emptying the arsenals of Barcelona and Madrid. And though the engineering works of Barcelona converted to military production, their output was no match for the regulars' armoured vehicles. For a while people's hopes rested on supplies from France. But the French Socialist Party-led government had agreed to the implementation of Non-Intervention. In practice this meant starving the republicans of arms while turning a blind eye to the increasing amount of weapons being supplied by Germany and Italy to Franco's forces.
But then the civil war triggered by Franco's uprising had to be fought, like all civil wars, primarily with political weapons
While a large section of Franco's army was made up of peasants doing their two-years conscription, ther were relatively few desertions. Along the fronts, troops regularly shouted at each other across no man's land. But when the soldiers of the republic urged their opposite numbers to desert the "fascists", they had to answer the question, "What will the republic give us to eat?" To have been able to promise land instead of poverty and unemployment would have been to deliver a powerful social message. But this was precisely what the government had been avoiding ever since the victory of the Popular Front in February.
Likewise, a simple unilateral statement by the Popular Front government, declaring the Spanish-occupied part of Morocco independent, would have sown a powerful revolutionary ferment among Franco's elite troops made up mostly of professional Moroccan soldiers. But by doing so the Popular Front government would have broken the tacit links of solidarity between all colonial powers. Worse, it would probably have triggered a renewal of the nationalist movements across French-occupied North Africa. Neither the bourgeois-republican parties in the government, of course, nor their left-wing partners were prepared to rock the boat of the imperialist world order - not even to save their own necks!
The Popular Front was vindicating the repeated warnings issued by Trotsky and his supporters. It was proving to be nothing but a device which enabled the bourgeois parties to secure the support of the organised working class movement for the maintenance of bourgeois legality.
What then were the various working class organisations arguing to support or justify these policies?
In the case of the Socialist Party, a whole section of its leadership led by Prieto stood out unmistakably as a left version of bourgeois republicanism. But at least Prieto had always been perfectly open about his hostility to any form of social change. The danger for the working class came from elsewhere...
Those workers who had revolutionary expectations from the Socialist Party usually referred to Largo Caballero, the UGT leader. Hero of the rapidly growing socialist youth movement, he acquired the title of the "Spanish Lenin". He had refused to join the government in February. But he still gave it his support, albeit critically. His actions did not measure up to his inflammatory speeches. He might whip up the support of socialist recruits by saying «If legality hinders our advance, we shall bypass bourgeois democracy and proceed to the revolutionary conquest of power». But during the period between February and July, he incurred sharp criticism from the CNT and his own ranks for discouraging strikes.
His newspaper "Claridad" quoted Lenin's "State and Revolution" in criticising the proposals of the government and the CP to get rid of the militias by forming a new army. But that did not prevent him from drawing closer as the tensions created by the dual power situation increased. By ignoring the need for workers councils and proclaiming that the organ of proletarian dictatorship would be the Socialist Party, he roused the worst fears of the CNT activists and dismissed out of hand the «revolutionary conquest of power» he had advocated. In the end by taking over the prime ministership in order to boost the waning popularity of the government, he showed that he had not changed his colours, only his language, for a time.
Amongst the rank and file of the Spanish Communist Party there were no doubt some genuine revolutionaries, in particular among the 200 000 strong youth organisation which came out of a merger of the CP's youth organisation and that of the Socialist Party. But they allowed themselves to be used as pawns in Stalin's foreign policy. Thus they accepted uncritically Stalin's "stagist" strategy which claimed that Spain had to go through a whole period of bourgeois rule before the proletariat could consider bidding for power. In the short term this meant winning the civil war for the bourgeois democratic camp and postponing the revolution until later. The fact that the Russian Revolution had proven exactly the opposite was ignored. Anyone who raised this point was pilloried as a "Trotskyite renegade" or worse. What they could not have anticipated was that Stalin was even prepared to make way for Franco to preserve the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy.
After Hitler's crushing of the German working class which Stalin's policies had done so much to facilitate, Stalin sought to build alliances with Britain and France. It was hoped that this could ward off an attack on the Soviet Union. The Popular Front policies were designed to appeal to all "progressive" social layers in constructing an anti-fascist alliance, thereby revamping the credibility of the bourgeois democracy.
In the months following the victory of the Popular Front in February 1936, the CP leadership regularly denounced the growing strikes and land occupations. They accused the CNT and the POUM of being in league with the fascists. After the civil war began their newspaper, Mundo Obrero, went further than even the bourgeois Republicans, by denying that the workers' movement wanted revolution even after a successful conclusion of the civil war. «We are motivated exclusively by a desire to defend the democratic republic», it said. Three CPers joined the cabinet of Companys at the end of July. But they had jumped the gun. The CNT raged that they were trying to undermine the Committee of the Militias and forced them to resign.
Realising that the danger of proletarian revolution came in the first instance from Catalonia, the CP devoted great efforts to rebuilding a base of support there. Having practically no organisation, they recruited conservative labour leaders and petit-bourgeois politicians. The Catalonian CP fused with the regional section of the Socialist Party and a host of more or less left-wing nationalists to form the "United Socialist Party of Catalonia" (PSUC). Their base of support came partly from a regional organisation of small farmer-owners opposed to land seizure. Thereafter as the chief and most vigorous defender of the bourgeoisie, the PSUC began to recruit heavily from Companys's own organisation!
Throughout August and September when the fascist regimes were pouring technicians and technology into Franco's units, the USSR observed the ban on shipments to the Spanish government decided by the other Western powers. If they eventually started delivering weapons in October - or rather agreed to sell weapons to the Republican government - it was primarily because this gave the government the means to rebuild a professional army, independent from the control of the workers' militias. At the same time, the Russian arms deliveries did a lot to boost the credit of the Spanish CP who control a large part of the weapons.
After the army had surrendered in Catalonia, the provincial president, Companys, met the CNT leaders. He remarked that they were now in control of the city and offered to resign. In the next breath he argued that as the outcome in the rest of Spain was undecided, he and his political supporters could play a role in the fight against fascism. The choice was posed: either the CNT took over entirely and tried to spread the revolution to the rest of the country or they fought the war first in coalition with the bourgeois parties in the Catalonian government. The CNT leaders opted for the latter giving as their reasons continuing conflicts in the rest of Spain and the CNT's lack of strength in Madrid in particular. The POUM joined the government as soon as the CNT had agreed. The Socialists who had few members in Barcelona anyway, had already joined.
The collapse of the civil power in Barcelona was total in July 1936. Yet when Companys proposed to set up a Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias, which was nothing but an attempt at removing control over the militias from the workers' committees, the leaders of the CNT agreed to play a leading role in it. The CNT leadership had obviously no intention of waging a fight against its partners in government to allow the working class to take control through the organs of proletarian democracy which had been set up.
For a while the passing of a whole series of social measures like the shortening of the working week and the reduction of rents gave the impression that the CNT was in control. However the necessity of organising the war economy brought the CNT into collaboration with the institutions of the bourgeoisie on a whole number of fronts. When the Central Committee of the Anti-Fascist Militias became a simple arm of the official Ministry of Defence of the Generalitat, the CNT bowed to the argument about reassuring Paris and London. Much use was made of the argument of "arms for the front" which was undoubtedly an overriding priority. But as the workers were disarmed, the numbers of armed regular police were rapidly increased. Clearly the state of the bourgeoisie was regaining strength!
At every one of these stages, the CNT leadership found themselves cornered into accepting the "fait accompli" of a new reinforcement of the Catalonian state apparatus or else... having to leave the government. At each stage they chose the former simply because choosing the latter would have meant relying on the muscle of the workers' committees - and the price for this would have been accountability, something that the CNT leadership was clearly not willing to accept.
As to the POUM, in words they sounded revolutionary, but in deeds they made one concession after another. Their chief preoccupation was not to fall out with the CNT leadership. They joined the Committee of Militias as soon as the CNT had made up their minds to. They also joined the coalition government with the bourgeois parties in September. Instead of challenging the CNT leadership from the left, they concentrated on building their own trade unions and militias, thus isolating themselves from the mass of militant workers.
Nor did they show more determination in their attitude towards the workers' committees. The POUM leadership did recognise the necessity for these committees to be systematically and properly elected everywhere and to be linked up through elected bodies at town, district and regional levels. They agreed that this was the only way for a proper proletarian power to consolidate itself and push aside the remnants of the bourgeois state.
However, said the POUM leaders, the CNT-influenced proletariat of Barcelona was not yet ready for such steps - which, to them, smacked too much of the Russian revolution. There was even an argument against mentioning any parallel between the workers' committees and the Russian soviets of 1917. To which Trotsky replied, in substance: fine, don't call them soviets, call them juntas or whatever you wish, but get on with the work of building them!
But in fact, even in those towns like Lerida or Gerona where the POUM dominated the workers' movement, they kept saying that there was no time for this. Rather than implementing a policy which would have really challenged the CNT leadership, the POUM leaders resorted to the same pretext as the Stalinists - the need to concentrate on the war efforts.
Shortly after the POUM had joined the government coalition in Catalonia, in September, the local militia and anti-fascist committees were dissolved into municipal administrations. These were to be composed in the same proportion as the cabinet, that is with a built-in majority for the bourgeois-CP coalition. Finally a few weeks later workers were told to hand over their weapons within 8 days or they would be considered fascists and suffer the consequences. The POUM published this as a notice in their paper without any comment. Some weeks later the POUM were kicked out of government.
The POUM were a small party. Even so they numbered about 8,000 in July and they were able to recruit tens of thousands of volunteers for their columns. In the circumstances of dual power which existed for some two months thereafter, they could have been in a position to influence the course of events and they were probably the only ones who could have done it. Instead, their leadership preferred the deceptive comfort of tail-ending the CNT leaders.
The counter-revolution in the "democratic" camp
It was the task of relevant ministers in the Popular Front government to reconstruct the forces of law and order as best they could. This was no easy task since they had largely ceased to exist and the reappearance of uniforms on the streets was bound to arouse the suspicion and hostility of armed workers. The most serious attempt was by the backdoor, so to speak.
The minister of Finance, Negrin, had under his command customs officers known as "carabineros". As the civil war and non-intervention precluded much trade with republican Spain, there was little enough for the carabineros to do officially. However under Negrin their numbers multiplied, to form an alternative police force. Meanwhile, the old Civil Guards were renamed the National Republican Guard and brought in the cities from the battle front. However, it was one thing to re-establish these state police forces and it was quite another to impose them to the workers in the streets. In this respect, the CP leadership played a decisive role.
In the six months up to the end of 1936, the CP claimed to have reached 250 000 members. But while many joined the CP because they were enthused by what they saw as an extraordinary gesture of solidarity by the "heirs" of the Russian Revolution, many others joined the CP because it advocated law and order as opposed to the somewhat chaotic and "disrespectful" operation of the workers' committees who did not have much time for legal niceties nor much respect for the private property of the middle-class. The CP thus came to be seen as the best option for many who were determined to put an end to the "disorder" caused by the fledgling revolution.
For months the CP had been arguing for a new people's army which would incorporate surviving units of the old regulars and the militias and be organised along conventional lines. In fact nothing much was achieved until soviet advisers and the international brigades arrived towards the end of 1936. The building of such "mixed brigades" in the international brigades was used as a justification for extending it to a new army. The argument constantly advanced was that of military efficiency - leaving out the issue of who was in control of this military machine, of course.
In the end, the aim of this policy could only be that of breaking the workers' committees, the militias and the power of both the CNT and the POUM. It was of course not until May 1937 and the unleashing of the CP's fullscale attack on the CNT and the POUM in Barcelona, that the extent of Stalin's plans were revealed. But they were being prepared months earlier.
The turning point - May 1937 in Barcelona
The events of May 1937 in Barcelona were preceded by growing dissatisfaction in the ranks of the CNT and the POUM. Members were increasingly angered at seeing their leaders passively agreeing to measures designed to limit their freedom of action and favouring the republican parties and the CP. In the CNT ranks, there was even the emergence of a small opposition group, called "the Friends of Durrutti", who blamed the CNT leadership for being accomplice to what they saw as a "deliberate sabotage of the revolution" by the government and came to the point of rediscovering the need for the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat in order the state machinery of the bourgeoisie once and for all.
Instead of trying to offer a perspective to this groundswell of discontent, the POUM leaders preferred to issue new appeals to the Catalonian government (out of which they had been kicked in December) calling for their reinstatement and the implementing of a more radical programme - without any success of course.
During the last fortnight in April the police, assisted by the CP, stepped up their activities against manifestations of workers' power all over Catalonia but particularly by disarming worker patrols in Barcelona. Not that the CNTers took this lying down. It was as a result of these confrontations that barricades began to appear in workers' suburbs on April 30 - more than 9 months after the initial ones had come down. But this time they were aiming to defend workers against people supposed to be on the same side. The days of the May Barricades were about to begin.
The dispatching of police to take over the telephone exchange on May 3 was the last straw. This CNT stronghold was a strategic point of control. The bourgeois politicians and the CP were determined to grab it. As the news spread round the city, there was immediate reaction amongst workers. They poured into their local CNT centres, paraded with arms and built barricades. Many police surrendered their weapons, so overwhelming was the superiority of the workers. The spirit of 19 July was rekindled.
Instead of coordinating resistance, the headquarters of the CNT forbad all actions and instructed their members to leave the barricades while talks continued. By broadcasting this message through loudspeakers and over the radio, the CNT leaders were not just carrying out the requests of President Companys - they were also giving the illusion that matters were in hand while government forces were fortifying buildings and strategic points. But still the workers refused to budge before conditions were met. This the government was happy to do as these conditions were in no way binding.
Meanwhile the POUM had been negotiating with the CNT behind closed doors. Whatever was proposed, it appears to have been rejected by the CNT. Instead of bringing this to the attention of CNT members publicly, the POUM leaders kept quiet and in fact fuelled the illusion that the government had backed down. They too urged workers back to work.
Then, as armed workers withdrew from the telephone exchange, police moved in and ordered the CNT telephone staff out. When they complained to the government, they were told it was too late to do anything. So rather than risk a new workers' mobilisation, the CNT just did not inform them of what had happened.
Over the following three days such tactics were followed in building after building, in and outside Barcelona. Wherever the workers cried foul, the CNT was happy to negotiate but without causing any change of government policy.
In the end more than 500 workers were killed by government forces and a further 1500 wounded. In the weeks that followed hundreds more were killed and wounded in "mopping up" operations. Many workers were sent to fight on the Aragon front where they died because they lacked adequate defence from artillery and air attacks.
The counter-revolution gathers pace
The defeat of the Barcelona workers in May was a decisive victory for the bourgeoisie over the revolution. Up until then the strength of the working class was such that the government had only felt confident of attack under cover of collaboration with CNT and socialist leaders. In Catalonia even the POUM leadership was enlisted between September and December. The workers having been defeated, the government could move onto the offensive against their organisations.
Only a week or so later one of the two CP ministers demanded that the POUM be banned and all its assets be confiscated. When the prime minister, Caballero refused on the basis that he would not preside over the repression of workers organisations, he looked to the rest of his cabinet for support. Failing to find it, not even from fellow Socialist ministers, he resigned. Such was the shift in the balance of forces as a result of the workers' defeat in May.
The changeover to a new prime minister, the socialist right-winger, Juan Negrin, who had been responsible for building the customs men into a police force, was a rapid and smooth affair. It lead to probably well-grounded suspicions of plans mapped out in advance by the CP and their bourgeois allies in government. Under Negrin the counter-revolution moved along much faster.
On June 16 the leader of the POUM, Andres Nin, was arrested in his office. Almost the whole of the organisation's executive was rounded up and the following day the POUM was outlawed. No protests came from the CNT leaders. Nin was never to be seen again. He was tortured and killed by Stalin's agents. The remaining POUM battalions at the front were either disbanded or merged with other units.
Having dealt with what were considered as their most dangerous political opponents, if only potentially, the counter-revolution embarked on a series of measures which had the effect of deeply demoralising the working class.
The new minister of Justice set about dismantling the popular tribunals which had been set up after July. Left-wing attorneys were removed and the old right-wingers who had previously refused to convict fascists were reinstalled! Special courts were set up to try "sedition". This included death sentences without notifying the cabinet and was defined so broadly that it amounted to declaring a state of emergency. The first to be tried under this law were POUM militants who were alleged to have committed the crimes before the laws had even been passed! Finally a decree was sponsored which made it an "irreparable crime worthy of penal punishment" to denounce someone as a fascist or a priest. The wheel had really turned full circle!
To stop criticism of the government new censorship laws were passed. Criticism of the USSR was banned as was the publication of white spaces after deletions by the censor. New material had to be substituted. On June 18 police closed down all radio stations owned by unions and political parties. Henceforth radio was a government monopoly....
The minister of the Interior began a purge of the police. Not those of dubious loyalty who had supported the military at the time of Franco's coup but those workers who had been drafted in after July.
The growing authoritarianism of the state apparatus went hand in hand with new moves to reverse the social gains of the revolution. On the land, collectives had special funds cut off and reactionaries staged a comeback. So, for instance, the secretary of Robles's old far-right party in Valencia regained his land and joined the CP! Hardly surprising that the CP minister of Agriculture, Uribe, was branded "public enemy number one" by the UGT peasants federation of Levante Province....
In the cities workers' control came under attack. The reason given was that it was inefficient. But improving it would have required better planning and a centralised apparatus. Instead the workers found the old bosses and businessmen waiting in the wings to regain their former positions.
Towards Franco's victory
The Barcelona May days marked a turning point in the ongoing struggle of the bourgeoisie to regain control over the revolutionary masses. For the first time the newly-rebuilt state apparatus of the bourgeoisie had won a decisive victory. From that point onwards the strengthening of the republican state, that is the reconstituted bourgeois state, fed on the fast erosion of the power of the workers' committees.
Having twice ascended the barricades only to have victory plucked out of their grasp by their own leadership, the Barcelona working class were devastated and demoralised. Although the war in Catalonia was to continue for a further 21 months, there was an unbroken line stretching from the defeat on the barricades in May 1937 through to Franco's uncontested entry into Barcelona in January 1939. Having succeeded in the city, the counter-revolution spread to the surrounding countryside and further afield to Aragon as soon as the harvest had been brought in, in August 37.
The breaking up of the Aragon collectives caused anger and outrage, then demoralisation to CNT troops at the front. Many wanted to quit in order to settle accounts with the CP. But they hesitated because it would only play into the hands of the enemy. One anarchist said later: «Always expecting to be stabbed in the back, always knowing that if we created problems, only the enemy across the lines would gain. It was a tragedy for anarchists but also something much greater - the Spanish people. For it can never be forgotten that it was the working class and the peasantry which, by demonstrating their ability to run industry and agriculture collectively, allowed the republic to continue the struggle for 32 months. It was they who created a war industry, who kept agricultural production increasing, who formed the militias and later the army. Without their creative endeavour, the republic could not have fought the war.»
By the end of May 1937 the revolution had virtually been crushed. This signalled the beginning of Franco's drive to victory.
Certainly the new People's Army, with Russian tanks and aircraft, looked effective on paper. In August, having completed its counter-revolutionary tasks behind the lines, the government attacked along a 300-mile front in Aragon. But after initial quick gains, they encountered stiff resistance and the advance ground to a standstill. Morale was lowered by thousands of bourgeois youth deserting to Franco at the earliest opportunity, including many newly-trained officers, often with a CP membership card. This served further to lower morale.
Low morale and treachery dogged resistance in the Asturias, last outpost of the Republic in the north. Its coal and iron ore, not to speak of its armaments industries, were of enormous strategic importance. It had to be held at all costs. The 45,000 troops and 100,000 militiamen fought tenaciously over every foot of land. Not a village was abandoned before it had been razed by enemy artillery fire. Then something crumbled. Not in the battle zone where the militiamen were constantly regrouping and holding firm. But in the coastal region east of Gijon where the general staff were situated. The troops from Navarre were allowed to advance 28 miles in three days from the east and the important town of Gijon surrendered when the troops were still 15 miles away. What had happened? The general staff had had no stomach for a fight and had organised planes to take them and civilian functionaries to safety in France with the blessing of the central government.
The fall of Gijon broke the back of the Asturian resistance though some fought on as guerrillas in the mountains. To die in the heat of battle is one thing but to be butchered by the thousand in cold blood as happened in the days that followed was quite another. The catastrophe of the north was not just a nail in the coffin of the republic. It allowed Franco to deploy all his resources against the centre and Catalonia without fear of being attacked in the rear.
The government troops were able to slow down Franco's advance throughout 1938 thanks to the resilience of those foot soldiers who prefered to die for the republic than be delivered over to Franco. Even after the loss of Catalonia in January 1939, the republic still had an army of 500,000 men at its disposal. But what dominated the last weeks of the war were attempts by a section of the military high command, led by General Casado, to do a deal with Franco while turning their weapons against the troops that remained loyal to the Popular Front. This finally broke the resistance of Madrid which surrendered with no shot being fired in its defence. Straightaway the white terror commenced with denunciations and round-ups resulting in up to 200 executions a day in Madrid alone.
Most of the leading politicians and generals made their escape. Casado was picked up by a British naval vessel. The leading CPers had already gone. The commanders of the republican fleet had already deserted to France. Of the footsoldiers of the Republic, on the other hand, one million or so fled to France only to be rounded up at the border and locked up in concentration camps in terrible conditions which claimed many more victims from their ranks. By crushing the revolution the Popular Front coalition had finally offered Franco a complete victory.
From yesterday's defeat to tomorrow's battles
This year, for once, the Spanish Revolution has received attention, thanks to Ken Loach's film "Land and Freedom". To Loach's credit, his film is the only one for many years to have shown anything of the social content of the Spanish civil war, to have celebrated the revolutionary wave which lay behind it and, moreover, to have made an optimistic and inspiring statement about the need to carry on the fight for a revolutionary transformation of society. And we can only recommend that everyone should see his film.
But at the same time we can only regret that by blaming the betrayal of the Spanish exclusively on the Communist Party, Loach's film bows to a fashion and a political attitude which is dominant in the left these days.
Undoubtedly the Communist Party was instrumental in the defeat of the Spanish Revolution. But the CP's policies, while designed to fit Stalin's foreign policy needs, were only the implementation of a strategy aimed at protecting the social bourgeois order by rebuilding its state machinery to smash the revolution. The Socialist Party and indeed all the main partners in the Popular Front government shared the same aim and collaborated fully in pursuing it. The difference between the CP and the Socialist Party was that the latter had much more influence and therefore had the resources to generate many more illusions in the ranks of the working class. And the fiery speeches made by Largo Caballero, for all their revolutionary posturing, proved much more damaging in desorientating the working class than the "don't rock the boat" style language of the CP which, at least, stated clearly what its real line was.
As to the CNT and the POUM, their members fell victim to the revolution's betrayal. But so in the end did most rank and file working class activists, including members of the Communist and Socialist parties, for that matter. The leadership of the CNT, and on a different level that of the POUM, had their own share of the responsibility in the betrayal of the Spanish revolution - if only for not leading a determined fight against the counter-revolution when there was still time and for disarming the revolutionary workers politically through their ambiguous attitude to the Popular Front. History condemns those who waste opportunities through cowardice, opportunism or passivity as severely as the betrayers themselves.
If the Communist Party was able, in the end, to act as the policeman of the bourgeois order, it was primarily because the vast majority of revolutionary workers remained under the influence of the reformist leaders. What the Spanish working class lacked at the crucial moment was a party with the political will to expose clearly the deadly traps of the Popular Front; a party that was prepared to challenge openly the reformist leaderships of the Socialist Party and the CNT by building up the political power of the working class which was emerging in the workers' committees and militias, into a conscious dictatorship of the proletariat capable of fighting any attempt at rebuilding the state of the bourgeoisie. What the Spanish working class lacked was a revolutionary party.
Whatever way they are dressed up, and whatever the conditions, whether it is in Spain in the 30s or in Britain in the 90s, reformist leaders are «the agents of the bourgeoisie in the working class movement» to use Lenin's words. Until the working class has built its own revolutionary party and sidelined reformism from its own ranks, leaving no space for such agents, the threat of a betrayal from that side - large or small depending on the stake for the bourgeoisie - will remain. Learning this lesson today is the key to victory in tomorrow's battles.