It is usually called the “Spanish civil war”, the thirty month struggle that began in July 1936, when the Spanish military, led by three generals, Franco, Mola and Sanjurgo — of whom one, Franco, would emerge as dictator — revolted against the Popular Front government which had been elected five months earlier. It was a civil war, a tremendous civil war in which German and Italian “volunteers”, British and Irish (Blue Shirt) fascists and many others fought for the Francoite, and “anti-facists”, British, American, French, German, Italian, and Irish (Republican) volunteers fought for the Spanish Republic against Spanish and international fascism. Even so, to describe what happened in Spain after July 1936 as a civil war is to diminish it.
It was a working-class revolution. After October 1917 in Russia it was the most important working-class revolution of the 20th century. And, therefore, it was a great laboratory of working-class politics. That revolution is not only something which we should glory in and keep fresh in the memory of the international labour movement, but an experience with tremendous lessons for us and all future socialists.
When the generals issued their “pronunciamento” and started to move the Spanish colonial army from Morocco, where it had been inflicting savage repression on the Moroccans, the mildly leftist Popular Front government in Madrid was inclined to bow down peacefully before the military might of the armed bourgeoisie. If they had had their way, “Spain 1936” would in history have been an earlier version of Chile in 1973, when an armed forces revolt against a mildly leftist government quickly put General Pinochet in a position to organise the mass murder of working-class militants and leftists.
In fact, the workers of Madrid, led, essentially, by anarchists, rose in revolt, built barricades against the fascist armies and armed themselves by opening the arsenals of the state. They raised a battle cry, adapted from the cry of the French armies which resisted the German invasion in 1914 — “No passaran”, they should not pass. This working class revolt is what that determined that it was to be a civil war and not an abject surrender to the fascist generals.
Everywhere in Spain there was social polarisation. Everywhere the bourgeoisie and large parts of the petty bourgeoise rallied to the fascists. There were very few bourgeois on the side of the Spanish bourgeois republic that now fought for its life against the fascists. In that government and behind it, were the parties of the petty bourgeois “left” and the Stalinists. They gave it its bourgeois character by keeping everything the government did or licensed within the limits of respect for bourgeois property.
As Trotsky put it, they allied with “the shadow of the bourgeoisie”.
They substituted in the Republican areas for the bourgeoisie who had fled to Franco. They thereby tied their own hands in the fight with the Francoites. Radical land reform in the Republic endorsed and proclaimed by the government, would have allowed the Republicans to appeal to the peasant soldiers of the fascist army over the heads of their officers.
If the Madrid government had proclaimed the Spanish colonies, Morocco for instance, liberated, they could have appealed to the Moorish soldiers of Franco's army to rise against the generals, or desert to the Republic. They did none of that. Their self-imposed “bourgeois” limitations ruled out everything of that sort. Above all, in the Republican areas they stood against a socialist revolution.
For the workers who rose against the Madrid government to defend the Republic from fascism did not stop with arming themselves, building barricades, fighting the fascists and rounding up fascists sympathisers and suspected sympathisers. They began to carry through the socialist transformation of Spanish society.
This working-class socialist revolution — which is portrayed in detail by Miriam Gould's article in this Workers’ Liberty — reached its highest point in Catalonia, the most industrially developed part of Spain, and its capital Barcelona.
There for ten months after July 1936, the working class held power. They took over the factories and the running of the whole of society. They organised workers’ committees in enterprises and streets. They believed that they had power and fought to defend and extend it.
Two forces on the Republican side destroyed this Spanish workers’ revolution and thus prepared the way for the victory of fascism — anarchism and Stalinism.
The major trade union in Spain, the CNT, was anarchist-led. Anarchism was a mass movement, the biggest proclaimedly revolutionary force in Spain.
Anarchists played a tremendously positive role in July 1936 in helping the workers see the wretched surrender of the Madrid Popular Front government for the treason that it was, and in spearheading the working class’ rejection of it. Anarchists like Buenaventura Durrutti organised the defence of Madrid. They encouraged and led the working-class revolution in Catalonia.
But as anarchists they were in principle against all states. They were against the working class organising its own, working-class, semi-state.
In practice in Catalonia this meant that they were against the working class consolidating the power it already had. That was to prove fatal in the face of the Stalinist onsalught against working-class Barcelona in May 1937.
In the course of the civil war, some anarchist leaders, reconsidering their politics, became convinced that a state was after all necessary if the fascists were to be defeated and crushed. Their practical conclusion? They supported, and some joined, the Popular Front government!
The honest communist-anarchists failed to make the necessary alteration in their politics, failed to see the imperative necessity for building a democratic working-class state. This was the main single “subjective” factor, the political weakness in the revolutionary working-class movement itself, which helped destroy the Spanish revolution — thereby ensuring a fascist victory and the consolidation in all of Spain of the fascist regime which would rule Spain for the next four decades.
The other factor was international Stalinism. From the crazed ‘ultra-leftism’ that had led them to refuse a united front with the German Social Democrats against Hitler, they swung sharply to the right in 1934. From 1935 — the seventh and last ‘Communist International’ congress — they advocated a Popular Front movement, and Popular Front governments, consisting of “anti-fascists”. In Britain their notion of who they wanted in the Popular Front extended as far as Winston Churchill and the Tory party.
They supported the Popular Front in Spain.
The leader of the new Russian bureaucratic ruling class, Stalin, who controlled Russia and the “Communist International”, was concerned, by way of the Popular Fronts, to assure the bourgeoisie of Western Europe that they didn’t need to turn to fascism in order to “deal with” troublesome revolutionary workers: the Communist Parties would do that for them — so long as the ruling bourgeoisie kept up friendly relations with the USSR. The 1935 Franco-Russian mutal defence pact known as the Stalin-Laval pact ,was one of the most important turning points. The story circulated that Laval, himself a renegade socialist, said to Stalin, who had just committed himself to defend the French bourgeois republic: “And what if the French Communists won’t accept national defence?” The taciturn Stalin responded by slowly drawing his finger across his throat!
In Spain, Stalin set out to show just how useful he could be to the bourgeoisie. The Spanish ruling class had fled the Republican areas to rally behind Franco? Even so, the Spanish CP would ensure that, in their absence, the bourgeois order would be maintained. They faithfully did that.
A small force in July 1936, the Spanish Stalinist party over time became the main force on the Republican side.
Volunteers — honest people most of them, sincere anti-fascists — flocked to Spain, mainly organised by the Stalinist international. So did legions of Stalin’s political police.
As the most resolute and ruthless pro-bourgeois force on the Republican side, the Stalinists quickly recruited people who would never have joined the Communist Party when it was a revolutionary workers’ party. Stalin sent guns — for full payment in gold: the entire gold reserve of the Madrid government wound up in Moscow — to a republic on which the European bourgeois states, “democratic” as well as fascist, had imposed an arms embargo. The power and strength of of the Communist Party grew correspondingly — as the party of bourgeois “order”.
In Catalonia the Stalinists were seen for what they were by most workers, and loathed. But the Stalinists built up a Spanish state machine under their own control and in May 1937 provoked armed clashes with anarchists and quasi-Trotskyists (the POUM, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity) in Barcelona. The revolutionary workers’ movement was crushed.
May 1937 was to prove the culmination point of the Spanish workers’ revolution. The anarchists and POUMists were defeated. The workers’ revolution was suppressed.
After that, the Stalinists conducted a reign of terror in the Republican areas, converting the Republic to the best of their ability into a totalitarian state, in which the Russian police and their Spanish agents were all powerful. They murdered the POUM leader Andreas Nin — a founder of the Spanish Communist Party — and countless others.
They destroyed the revolution.
By the crushing the working class in the Republican areas they undermined and sapped the Republic’s power of resistance to the fascists — they crushed the vital forces of the people, and in the first place of the workingclass, those who had made July 1936 into “The Month of the Beginning of Civil War”, not the “Month of Abject Surrender” which it would have been if the Popular Front government had had its way.
The last resistance to the fascists collapsed in March 1939. The Francoites butchered many tens of thousands of workers and left-wingers (and Stalinists too), cauterising Spain politically for two generations.
In what follows Marxists, Stalinists, Anarchists, Fascists and Workers in the Spanish Revolution of 1936-37 Miriam Gould tells the story of the Spanish socialist revolution; and Leon Trotsky, watching events from afar explains why what happened happened as it did. Others, including George Orwell, tell of their experiences fighting in Spain
Trotsky puts the experience into the perspective of the tragic series of defeats for the working class and revolutionary socialism of which Spain in 1936-7, when the workers made a revolution but tragically could not consolidate it, was the most important.