|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Revolution and civil war
This month sees the seventieth anniversary of the start of the Spanish civil war, preceded by the election victory of the Popular Front in February 1936. PER-ÅKE WESTERLUND, of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden), recounts the tumultuous events and draws out the lessons of Spain.
THE SPANISH CIVIL war began in the summer of 1936. The victory of the Popular Front in elections in February had raised the expectations of workers and the oppressed around the world. Could Spain offer an answer to the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis three years earlier? Could it offer a way out from worldwide economic depression?
After the victory of the Russian workers in the revolution in 1917, the working class internationally had experienced a number of serious defeats. Revolutions in Germany, China and other countries had been defeated. Fascist dictatorships had been established in Germany and Italy.
From Spain, however, came an appeal in the opposite direction. Workers expropriated factories and peasants occupied land. This was also realised by the capitalist classes, both in Spain and internationally. In Moscow, Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship was worried that events in Spain could threaten the alliance it was aiming for with Britain and France, and in the long run its own power.
On 17 July 1936 the Spanish capitalist class replied. General Franco ordered the first shots of the civil war. Workers in Spain and internationally responded immediately: from Sweden alone, 500 took up arms against Franco, despite the Swedish government declaring it illegal to go to Spain and fight. Despite its enormous support, however, the war in Spain was lost. By 1939 Franco was victorious. How was reaction able to win?
An important difference between 1936 and 2006 is the role of Stalinism. In 1936 it was still possible for Stalin to use the authority of the Russian revolution for his own purposes, of which his own power and that of the bureaucratic caste that he represented were the most important. When the revolution of the Spanish working class deepened, Stalinism was in the front line to crush it. Such an armed counter-revolutionary force, acting in the name of the working class and ‘socialism’, does not exist today.
On the other hand, there was a strong socialist consciousness within the labour movement. The idea of the need to abolish capitalism and replace it with socialism was widespread in the 1930s. The Spanish party of the social democratic Socialist International, the Party of Socialist Workers (PSOE), had an outspoken socialist programme.
Capitalist reaction today is not able to intervene in the way it did in Spain. An open military invasion against a workers’ revolution would meet mass resistance – just look at the global movement against the war in Iraq, despite Saddam’s dictatorship. This, however, does not mean that the capitalist class is not fundamentally the same as in the 1930s. Its analysis of the Spanish civil war, which will no doubt be discussed once again during this anniversary year, will confirm its class position.
The Popular Front government
IN THE FIRST period following the victory in the February 1936 elections, the Popular Front was met by enormous enthusiasm from the masses, who hoped for a real change in their lives. With time passing, however, workers increasingly realised the conservative role of the government and the need for themselves to act independently.
In the elections, the Popular Front had won 34.3% of the vote, defeating the National Front’s 33.2%. The centre party only got 5.4%. As the British historian, Hugh Thomas, explained: "that the centre party was placed in the shadows was a true reflection of the lack of support for such artificial neutrality in the country". The capitalist parties won a majority in the Popular Front because of its internal arrangements, despite PSOE being its largest component. PSOE got 88 deputies and the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) 14. Of the three bourgeois parties in the front, the Republican Left gained 79 deputies. In the National Front bloc, the right-wing CEDA party had 106 deputies, while the openly fascist Falange party did not get any.
The election result spurred the monarchists to call on CEDA leader Gil Robles to organise a coup d’état. Not even Robles dared challenge the movement of the masses. Many capitalists fled – for example, mine owners in Asturias.
The first Popular Front government, with Manuel Azaña as prime minister, had only bourgeois ministers. The rightwing of PSOE was blocked by the leftwing from entering the government. The position of Largo Caballero, leader of the PSOE-linked UGT trade union federation, was that the cooperation of the 1931-33 coalition government should not be repeated (see chronology). The first programme of the government was also very modest. It contained only general talk of land reform, and that those who had lost their jobs after the defeated general strike of 1934 should get them back.
The election victory, however, led to a rapid radicalisation of the masses. Without waiting, the workers released 30,000 political prisoners from ‘the black years’, the reactionary dictatorship that had followed the defeat in 1934. Between February and July, there were 113 general strikes and 228 other big strikes. Poor peasants started occupying land.
But the masses moved spontaneously, without leadership, independently of one another. Trotsky, in an article written in April 1936, warned of the threat from reaction if the masses did not have a leadership and programme for revolution. For the bourgeoisie the workers’ struggle, supported by the actions of the peasantry, was a warning that capitalism was in danger – in Spain and internationally. It understood that democratic methods would not be enough to stop the workers and peasants. But even after Franco’s coup, the capitalists would still need their politicians from yesterday left in the government, as a paralysing and confusing force – also able to attack the masses.
Franco and the counter-revolution
IT WAS THE military, where the small minority of republicans had been purged, which became the leadership of the counter-revolution. When its armed uprising started on 17 July 1936, Franco’s forces were supported by a majority of the bourgeoisie, even if some capitalists kept a low profile until 1938-39. Left in the government was ‘the shadow of the bourgeoisie’, acting as a brake on the workers’ parties and an excuse for their policies. The government of the ‘republic’ immediately broke down. Its position was capitulation, aiming for a compromise and negotiations with the coup leader, Franco. The leaderships of the workers’ organisations also wavered. PSOE, PCE and the anarchist trade union federation, the CNT, raised no criticism against the indecisiveness of the government. Those answering Franco’s uprising were not the government or Cortes (parliament) – it was the working class, but also the peasants. The government had shared out only 2.5% of the land since February. Now occupations became the weapon of the peasants. In Catalonia and Aragon all land was seized.
The working class responded immediately to the counter-revolution. On 18 July, hundreds of thousands of workers demonstrated in Madrid, demanding arms from the government. Slogans accused the government of betrayal. In a few hours, two prime ministers, Quiroga and Barrio, resigned. Only the third, Giral, distributed arms to the workers. His government lasted until September and was supported by PSOE, PCE, as well as by the CNT.
The military counter-revolution had all the advantages, which were later summarised by Fernando Claudin, then a PCE member. It could pick the time; it followed a plan prepared over a long time; it had a general staff and stronger armed forces.
Yet they were thrown back – the revolutionary defence of the workers forced the republic’s decision on armed resistance. The workers were the only armed forces in republican areas. They now, in practice, became its political rulers and those controlling the productive means. The war became a fact through the resistance of the workers – no warnings against the civil war could stop them – above all in Catalonia. Dual power was established. Which of the two powers won the struggle, the working class or the government would, in turn, decide the outcome of the war against Franco.
Where reaction succeeded it was with indirect support from the leaders of the labour movement. In Seville, Granada and Córdoba workers were sent home by their leaders on 17 July – and were murdered or arrested the following night. Before Franco’s coup, the national leaderships of PSOE and PCE had appealed to the government instead of mobilising their own membership.
Only the revolutionary action of the masses inflicted defeats on Franco’s troops. The workers organised their own committees and militias. They showed that the defence of bourgeois democracy could not be done with bourgeois methods. Franco was not aiming for negotiations – his troops had the same goal as Hitler and Mussolini, to establish a dictatorship through smashing all workers’ organisations.
Franco’s forces quickly became conscious that they were fighting a workers’ revolution. Felix Morrow in his book, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain 1931-37, written as events unfolded, tells the story of the central committee of the anti-fascist militia in Catalonia, which was dominated by revolutionary anarchists. The committee, based on workers’ organisations, conquered the Aragon region in five days from 19 July. "They conquered Aragon as a social liberation army. They formed anti-fascist village committees, which expropriated land, harvests, cattle, tools, etc, from the landlords and the reactionaries. Then the village committee organised production on its new foundation, usually in the shape of a collective, and created a village militia to implement the socialisation and fight reaction".
George Orwell described the mood on the Aragon front in the winter of 1936-37: "Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of socialism".
Caballero: ‘the Spanish Lenin’?
WHAT THE WORKERS achieved was soon given away by their leaders to what remained of the republican bourgeoisie, Azaña and others. Events, however, would force through a more ‘radical’ government. Caballero became prime minister in September, after his demand for ministers from the communist and socialist parties was agreed. Nonetheless, ‘the Spanish Lenin’, Caballero’s nickname, disappointed those who put their hope in him. His government’s first statements promised improvements – but not until the war had been won. Neither was there any change of course when four anarchists from the CNT became ministers on 4 November.
From autumn 1936 to spring 1937, the revolution was forced onto bourgeois tracks, and defeat came closer. This was a reaction led by the ‘communists’ in Moscow and executed by the ‘communists’ in Spain.
From August to September 1936, the Soviet Union had not sent any arms to Spain. Stalin’s foreign policy at the time was orientated towards reaching an alliance with the British and French governments. Winston Churchill, later British prime minister, was among those capitalist leaders in the West who recognised the revolutionary character of the resistance in Spain and therefore advocated ‘neutrality’. This position suited Stalin, who in Spain aimed for the impossible: victory for neither Franco nor the armed workers. A workers’ victory would have risked inspiring the working class in Russia to rise against Stalinism. Consequently, a hypocritical ‘non-intervention committee’ was formed by Britain, France and the Soviet Union, plus the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy. But this agreement meant nothing in Berlin or Rome, which grew closer to each other on the issue of assisting Franco. The bureaucracy in Moscow, to keep up the illusions of workers in Europe and Russia, was then forced to send arms.
Catalonia and Aragon, where the struggle was most advanced socially and militarily, received fewer arms – Caballero was pressurised by the PCE to accept this. The Italian communist leader, Palmiro Togliatti – one of Stalin’s handpicked men in the Comintern leadership – admitted that the Comintern had met "a number of difficulties" because of "a striving to jump over the schedule of the bourgeois-democratic revolution". In other words, the workers did not accept the dictate from Moscow to limit the struggle to ‘bourgeois democracy’, and to hand back occupied factories and land to the capitalists and landlords. The Popular Front thereby undermined the popular support for itself in the civil war.
The Stalinists’ arguments were summarised in the beginning of August 1936, in the French communist daily, L’Humanité: "The Central Committee of the Spanish Communist Party asks us for an answer to fantastic and tendentious reports published in certain papers, to inform the public that the people of Spain are not fighting to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, but have only one purpose: the defence of the republican order through respect for property".
An important step for the betrayers of the revolution was to disarm the workers’ militias. In October 1936, the government decreed that there was to be only one republican army. The reason given was the need to coordinate military activity, but this new force was a totally bourgeois army. The Red Army, built up to defend the soviet regime in Russia against invading and White armies, had political commissars and elected officers, which did not exist in Spain. The centralisation of the army led to the PCE controlling two-thirds of the army by the beginning of spring 1937, according to Claudin.
In May 1937, came the big showdown in the republican camp. The Stalinists led a provocation against the most important workers’ centre, Barcelona. They attacked the telephone exchange, which since the summer of 1936 had been occupied and managed by anarchist workers. The workers fought to retake it, and were successful.
Both the CNT, which dominated among the workers in Catalonia, and the POUM (the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification – see glossary), which had grown from 1,000 to 30,000 members in six weeks in 1936, were taken unawares by the fighting in Barcelona. The workers built barricades around the city, but no leadership was given. After four days of workers’ rule, they were told to go back to work by the CNT and the POUM. The workers’ rule had been possible partly because even the Stalinist-controlled International Brigades refused to intervene against the workers.
For the Stalinists, the uprising in Barcelona became an important part of their propaganda. They claimed that "Trotskyists, supported by the Gestapo, led an uprising to weaken and split the republicans". This became the prologue of a campaign in the style of the Moscow show trials against the ex-Trotskyists of POUM and also, of course, the small group of Spanish Trotskyists. In the Moscow trials, which had started in 1936, the former Bolshevik leaders Zinoviev and Kamenev were accused of being fascists. They were executed in cold blood, in parallel with the arrest and persecution of millions of workers.
The POUM & the CNT
WITH THE ARMY under Stalinist control, the shadow of the bourgeoisie in the government, and the PCE, moved to kick out Caballero. Thomas writes: "The government of Largo Caballero… had with success restrained the revolution within the borders drawn by the state". When Caballero refused to take part in the repression of POUM, he resigned on 1 May 1937 and was replaced by Juan Negrin, from the PSOE right. The Negrin government was called the ‘victory government’ by the PCE, but it achieved no military successes to justify its political course – disarming the workers and oppressing the left. In reality, its troops became more and more powerless against Franco’s attacks, exactly what the Trotskyists had warned of.
For the working class and peasants it was precisely the absence of a general staff, a democratic and revolutionary workers’ party, which led to defeat. For Trotsky, who followed the Spanish revolution from exile in Turkey, France, Norway and then Mexico, the question of leadership was the key. He judged the situation as extremely acute after July 1936. In February 1937, he warned that while Hitler had come to power in Germany 15 years after the defeat of the revolution in 1918, in Spain it could take Franco only 15 months, thereby adding fuel towards a new war in Europe.
But the unprincipled fusion of former supporters of Trotsky with Maurin in the POUM in 1935 had been a serious setback for Trotskyism in Spain. The POUM was not able to stand the pressure in early 1936 and supported the Popular Front in the elections – a position it continued to defend, while criticising the government itself. In September 1936, the POUM, together with the CNT, entered the Generalidad, the Catalan government. A POUM leader, Andres Nin, became minister of justice in a bourgeois government. This was defended by referring to ‘the need for unity’. But it is one thing to understand the need for a common military front against Franco, another to take responsibility for the political course of the PCE and the bourgeoisie. For the masses it meant that the POUM was responsible for the government’s actions. In December, the bourgeoisie viewed POUM as discredited enough and threw it out of government. Trotsky said that the POUM was satisfied with being "more radical than the other parties", but that comparisons should be made with was what needed, not the positions of the other parties.
For the Stalinists, the POUM was a thorn in their side that had to be removed. Repression was stepped up with a total ban. POUM activists and anarchists were hunted down. Nin and other leaders were murdered. The Stalinists led this purge. Claudin, who himself took part in PCE actions, describes this as "the darkest page in the history of the PCE".
Before 1936, the anarchists, who led the most militant workers, were regarded as revolutionaries. When the revolution arrived, however, they increasingly followed the Popular Front, unable to show a way forward. They built no organs for coordinating and unifying the workers’ struggle, no workers’ councils, despite the urgent need to coordinate the already ongoing struggle. In the most important article by Trotsky, Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning, he quotes anarchist leaders who proudly declared that they could have taken power in June 1936 and, again, in May 1937 but "we did not seize power, not because we were unable to but because we did not wish to, because we were against every kind of dictatorship"! Trotsky points out that no one could have stopped the anarchists from establishing whatever regime they wanted. Instead, they gave at least indirect support to those already in power, to what Trotsky labelled ‘the Stalin-Negrin government’. CNT ministers in the government were no different than other ministers. They also kept quiet about Stalin’s blackmail regarding sending arms. They were hostages, and brakes on the workers.
But if the POUM and the anarchists acted falsely, what should Marxists have done? There was also the danger of ultra-left policies, standing on the sidelines. Trotsky stressed that every revolutionary had to fight against Franco’s counter-revolutionary troops, as was the case in the struggle against Hitler and Mussolini. Workers globally had an interest in defeating Franco, as well as replacing the Stalin-Negrin government. But while the Marxists were too few to replace the Negrin government, open struggle had to be prepared politically. Trotsky compared the situation to revolutionaries working to win a majority in reformist trade unions and strike committees. He also drew on the experience of the Russian revolution, when the Bolsheviks fought General Kornilov’s attempted coup against Kerensky’s bourgeois government in August 1917.
Marxists & the Popular Front government
THEIR CRITICISM OF the Popular Front did not mean that the Marxists were neutral. Trotsky gives a number of concrete situations: workers must act to stop armaments to Franco, but not to Negrin, even if one in ten bullets was used against oppositional workers. The Negrin government is a hindrance towards socialism, but also a hindrance against fascism, even if unreliable. A victory for Franco would drastically change all conditions. Those involved must have a concrete estimate of the situation. Trotsky, for example, argued that a Marxist member of the Cortes could vote against the government war budget but, at the same time, demand more arms to the workers, for social spending, etc.
Trotsky also argued that the POUM and the CNT should not have been taken unawares by the uprising in Barcelona. A confrontation was inevitable between the workers and the republican government. But a centrist party, such as POUM, lacking perspectives, could propose neither struggle nor retreat. It just tail-ended events.
Not even Trotsky, though, understood how serious the defeat following the May 1937 uprising was, at least not in his preliminary analysis. There, he predicted a split in the POUM and was still expecting a development towards an equivalent of the October revolution in 1917. But only a month later, the POUM was declared illegal. Less than a year later, the republican areas were cut into two parts by Franco’s forces. Yet, the estimate of the possibilities posed by the objective strength of the working class was correct, as was the explanation of what was missing in Spain, a leadership and a policy for the working class.
In Lessons of Spain, Trotsky outlines twelve conditions that would be necessary for victory: (1) The fighters on the revolutionary front must know "they are fighting for their full social liberation and not for the re-establishment of the old (‘democratic’) forms of exploitation"; (2) Workers and peasants on both sides must know what the revolutionaries want to achieve; (3) The front on both sides must be reached by propaganda for social revolution – "the slogan, ‘First victory, then reforms’, is the slogan of all oppressors from the Biblical kings to Stalin"; (4) Workers’ councils, and councils for soldiers and peasants, can act as the beginning of a state apparatus of the revolutionary masses; (5) The social revolution must be implemented in the areas controlled by the republican camp; (6) Enemies of the revolution should be driven out of the army; (7) Political commissars should be at the head of each military unit; (8) A nucleus of workers should be placed in every military unit; (9) Officers should be tested, sifted, and educated from below; (10) Military strategy should be combined with the tasks of the social revolution; (11) The leadership must be convinced how it can win; (12) Foreign policy must be revolutionary, with propaganda to workers in other countries. None of these conditions existed in Spain.
For socialists today, it is important to underline that defeat was built into the Popular Front. It was not a series of ‘mistakes’ that led to catastrophe, it was class and caste interests. The first prime minister, Azaña, and Luis Companys, who led the Catalonian government, were not just a right-wing element within the Popular Front, they were the representatives of the ruling class in the government. They also became Stalin’s excuse to workers internationally why the struggle had to be limited, as well as Stalin’s means to prove Moscow’s harmlessness to the ruling classes of France and Britain.
Lessons of Spain
THE POPULAR FRONT was not just an addition of forces, but a "gigantic brake put up by traitors". It was not as simple as one plus one equalling two – that a front including ‘liberals’ made it stronger. Instead, two forces can counteract each other. The programme of the Popular Front could not solve any of the huge challenges it faced.
The situation in Spain demanded that workers’ control was immediately established in workplaces in republican regions, as well as confiscation of land and factories. It was not enough to replace a few reactionaries in the army – a popular militia of a totally different kind had to be built. Every social revolution has smashed the old military hierarchy. Social reforms based on the new system of production and the new state gives the basis for the revolution to move forward.
But the capitalist representatives in the government were republicans only as long as the Popular Front and the republic defended private property. This was the case in industry and on the land, as the feudal ruling class and the bourgeois industrial and commercial class had grown together. The fact is that the same Stalinists who slandered Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution for ‘neglecting the peasants’ were now in the same front as the landlords. Should the working class side with the capitalists and the landlords? Those defending the Popular Front claimed that the bourgeois republicans were with the workers against ‘feudal reaction’. But the progressive role of the bourgeoisie against feudalism had finished a long time ago. Franco’s reaction was not feudal, but bourgeois and capitalist.
The Popular Front also failed to use the positive side of the national struggle, in both Catalonia and Morocco. Trotsky regarded Catalan nationalism as progressive since it was directed against Great-Spanish chauvinism, against bourgeois imperialism and bureaucratic centralism. But national liberation was possible only through a social revolution led by the working class.
Morocco was conquered by Spanish troops in the early 1900s but it was not until 1912, after big military losses on the Spanish side, that King Alfonso could proclaim Morocco as a colony. Franco’s military build-up in Morocco could have been blocked through giving Morocco independence. But the Popular Front government did not dare to make such a move, partly in fear of the reaction from other colonial powers.
Spain in the 1930s was the scene of a conscious betrayal by Stalin’s regime in Moscow. Stalinism was not an ideology, a theory or a ‘wrong way’. It was a collection of measures in the interests of the bureaucracy in Moscow. In Spain, Stalin did not want a workers’ victory, which could have threatened his power. At the same time, he believed – because he never understood the lessons of the Russian revolution – that it was possible to find a middle road in Spain. Stalin wrote to Caballero, when the latter became prime minister: "It is very possible that the parliamentary road will show itself a more efficient method for the development of the revolution in Spain than in Russia"!
But Spain is far from just a monument to the betrayal of Stalinism. The most important lesson is its outstanding example of workers’ struggle and workers’ rule, particularly in Barcelona in the summer of 1936. The Spanish workers were, as Trotsky pointed out, the strongest revolutionary force of the 1930s. It was a force that could only be defeated by the most brutal means in a civil war. Two years of dictatorship, the ‘bieno negro’ of 1934-36, had not been enough. The capitalists had to prepare for an all-out war.
What was missing in Spain was a revolutionary party with mass support within the working class. That kind of support demands a confidence that has been built up over a period of struggle, with both victories and defeats. The Trotskyists were a very small group after the departure of Nin. The most experienced were full-time revolutionaries, of whom many died. POUM stayed trapped in centrism, without programme and perspectives, two decisive trademarks of Marxism. Trotsky drew comparisons with Germany 1918: a number of factors have to fit to make a victory possible. In Germany, as well as in Spain, the economy, productive forces and class contradictions were developed enough for the workers to take power. ‘Only’ one factor was missing: the mass revolutionary party.
Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counter-revolution in Spain, 1931-37.
Fernando Claudin, Crisis in the Communist Movement, Part One.
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia.
Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War.
Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution 1931-39.