Issues in the 1936-37 Spanish Revolution

Submitted by Matthew on 8 January, 2010 - 2:20 Author: John McNair

Let us examine the real points at issue between the Communist International and the revolutionary workers of Spain, including the POUM. There are five points:

1. The attitude towards collectivisation.

2. The “Popular Army”.

3. The May Days in Barcelona.

4. The fight for a democratic republic or the fight for workers’ power.

5. The separation of the war from the revolution.

1. One of the stock arguments of the Communist International is that the POUM and the revolutionary workers forced collectivisation on the peasants. This is a plain mis-statement of what actually occurred. When the fascist revolt had been beaten by workers and peasants in August 1936. and cities as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao and Malaga saved from the fascist dictatorship, the workers and peasants continued their pressure on the retreating fascists, who were forced back to the mountains around Madrid, the hills of Navarre and the plains of Aragon. It was obviously immediately necessary at this moment to commence the re-organisation of the agricultural and industrial life of Spain.

The property holders both of land and capital had almost without exception gone with the fascists and therefore the workers and peasants simply took over the workshops, factories and land. These measures of collectivisation were not foisted on the unwilling peasants by the POUM, but were simply the inevitable result of the economic situation. It is to be borne in mind that workers’ control was not an empty phrase during the first month of the revolution but an actual state of things. Its effect was to ensure the functioning of the economic machine in Spain and to allow the workers to continue the fight against fascism. All this is well known: and the outstanding fact is that in spite of the withdrawal from industry and agriculture of a large number of workers and peasants between the ages of 18 and 45 and the lack of raw material from abroad, production was actually greater under workers’ control than it had been under capitalism prior to the fascist revolt.

The vast majority of the peasants and all the landless labourers, had not only welcomed collectivisation but were beginning to take pride in it, as was demonstrated in the whole of Catalonia and even in the Valencia districts.

Jose Diez, General Secretary of the Party, on 4 February, 1937: “It is absolutely essential that all our democratic victories should be consolidated on the basis of respect for the small proprietor”.

This is not a British Conservative speaking but a Spanish Communist. In these circumstances numbers of the small proprietors turned to the Communist Party in the hope that its efforts would result in the restoration of private property. Because the POUM opposed all this, they were naturally “fascist spies.” The counter-reactionary role of the Communist Party in Spain is clearly shown, and it is only necessary to quote one or two instances:

GANDESA: “A punitive expedition arrived in this town and arrested the most prominent members of the peasant collective and of the union. This expedition then requisitioned the buildings of the union. To complete its work of “pacification” it returned the collectivised land, which had been worked by the peasants to its former owners.”

VINEBRE: “The peasant collective and the peasant union had been flourishing in the locality since August 1936. The town was invaded by forces of the Carabineros who, with the aid of the PSUC, sacked the headquarters and homes of the peasants and dissolved their collective. The right wing elements were naturally re-animated and proceeded to calumniate the revolutionary workers. The work of the counter-revolution continued and was completed by the forced dissolution of the Town Council and the collective. The reactionary bourgeoisie are congratulating themselves in this town.”

2. The constitution of the workers’ military forces in Spain was the subject of endless controversy. The point of view of the Communist Party was to liquidate the armed workers’ “rabble” and to replace it with an organised Popular Army with a single command. The plausibility of this argument obscures its inherent falsity. Neither the POUM, nor any of the revolutionary workers desired a “rabble”. They did however realise the historic truth, that, in moments of crisis, unless the workers control the army the army will control the workers. At the beginning of the insurrection this so-called “rabble” was able to repulse Spanish fascism and would have saved Spain for the workers had not Italy, Germany and Portugal supplied men, munitions, aeroplanes, tanks, etc, to Franco. It was the workers’ militia, together with the International Brigade (which was also in those days a workers’ militia), which saved Madrid, which held off the fascist forces in the Basque provinces, and which defended Malaga (which was subsequently lost, but not by the Workers’ Militia). Both the POUM and all the revolutionary workers in Spain realised the necessity of strengthening and organising the workers’ military forces, and instituting a single command: the vital difference was that the POUM desired that the military forces should remain under the control of the organised workers and that the differences of pay and of class should not be re–instituted.

We can understand the sneers of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express about a workers’ militia, but it is a strange tragedy when these are echoed by numbers of the Communist workers themselves.

What are the real differences between the Popular Army and the workers’ militia? The workers’ militia is based on equal pay for all fighters. The naming of the officers from among the workers on the basis of technical and military proficiency. The final control of the organised workers and the driving force of the army itself to be revolutionary discipline with the definite object of winning Spain for the workers. The Popular Army had abolished equal pay. The rates of pay are on the same scale as the French Republican army. The officer class is drawn largely from the middle classes. So-called “military” discipline replaces revolutionary discipline. The control of the army is now in the hands of the middle classes, the old military caste, and the Government. This is not the place to compare the military effectiveness of the two types of forces, but a careful examination of what has occurred in Spain since the outbreak of insurrection will prove that even on applying the acid test of military effectiveness the workers’ militia were to say the of it, not behind the Popular Army.

3. The May days in Barcelona. The street fighting was caused by the unprovoked aggression of the Government Assault Guards against the Telephone building in Barcelona which had been held by the workers since they defeated the fascists on 19 July 1936. This provocation followed a whole series of attempts to destroy collectivisation and workers’ control of the factories. The attack on the Telephone building was the last straw and the revolutionary workers of Barcelona resisted. This resistance took the form of a cessation of work on Monday evening, 3 May. This strike was not called either by the CNT or the UGT but was spontaneous on the part of the workers, of all the workers in Barcelona. Work ceased almost everywhere. Barricades were built in the centre of the city and all the political and trade union buildings were placed in a state of defence.

The workers instinctively took the streets to defend their revolutionary conquests. On one side of the barricades were the members of the CNT, many members of the UGT and the POUM; and on the other the Civil Guards, the Assault Guards, sections of the Esqerra (left Republicans), and the Communists. The crime of the POUM was therefore to be seen on the workers’ side of the barricades. “The workers were on the streets and our party had to be on the side of the workers. It is the obligation of each of us to fulfil his duty and his responsibility as he conceives them. We understand our duty and responsibility thus: We are a class party of the working class, and our place is by its side.” This is from the official statement of the POUM published on 11 May after the Barcelona events.

4. The fight for a democratic republic or workers’ power. It has been said by the Communist International that the struggle in Spain is for democracy and the bourgeois republic against international fascism. This is a complete misreading of history. The Spanish workers who successfully resisted the fascist rebellion were actuated, not by any desire to merely defend “democracy”, but to overthrow Spanish landlordism and capitalism. This is why they took the land and set up collectives all over anti–fascist Spain. During the time I was in Spain I asked the question many times, of both workers and soldiers. The invariable reply was: “We are fighting for bread, for land, and for the control of industry by workers’ power.” If I had told them they were fighting for “democracy” they would have simply smiled and put it down to my foreign ignorance.

5. The separation of the war from the revolution. The Spanish Communist Party said: “Let us beat fascism first and talk about the revolution afterwards.” The POUM said: “The way to beat fascism is to fight it by an efficient workers’ army at the front on the basis of workers’ power and control in the rear.” The mere statement of the POUM. position is sufficient to demonstrate its worth and logic.

We believe in workers’ power because we know that society is based on labour, and the greater the strain, as in the case of an anti–fascist struggle such as is occurring in Spain, the greater the possibility of victory if the broad, sound, economic and practical method of socialist production is adopted.

The carrying on of the war and the revolution does not dissipate the workers’ energies. It strengthens and co–ordinates them. It gives them the organised material basis on which to fight and inspires them with the revolutionary will for victory, because they know they are fighting for their ultimate economic emancipation.

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