Spain 1936/7: A Study in Workers’ Power

Submitted by Anon on 10 September, 2006 - 2:06 Author: Miriam Gould

In many respects there were very close parallels between the proletarian revolutions of [Russia] 1917 and [Spain] 1936. Spain and Russia were both gripped by profound economic crises rooted in their semi-feudal land systems. Both were agricultural economies based on a poverty-stricken peasantry. Capitalism had made little headway in Spain because of its inability to compete with the great industrial nations which had got into the field ahead of it; and because of the restricted internal market open to it Spanish industry struggled along by supplementing the economies of the major powers. The Basque country produced steel and iron, the Asturias coal, and Catalonia textiles (300,000 textile workers were concentrated in that one province). Catalonia also had some light metallurgical and consumption-goods industry.

Neither in Spain nor Russia had the capitalists been able to wrest control of the state from the hands of the feudal aristocracy, linked as it was with the banking interests (native and foreign) who financed the agricultural holdings and operations. Hence industry suffered a continual hamstringing of its activities: no tariff protection, heavy taxes, lack of facilities, such as roads, power, etc. All these difficulties only worsened the condition of the proletariat, already underpaid because of their capitalism's unfavorable position on the world market (fifteen dollars a week was the wage of a skilled auto worker in Barcelona in 1936).

In Russia the situation was brought to a climax by World War One; in Spain, by the 1929 depression. These weak, semi-feudal economies could not stand any additional stress. The starving, long-suffering peasants stirred into action and peasant revolts began, supported by strikes of the city workers. They led to the overthrow of the Tsar in February, 1917, and the abdication of King Alfonso in 1931. So began two social revolutions. Here the similarity stops.

The organisational history of the class struggle in these two countries was vastly different. In Russia there was a socialist vanguard party oriented toward the establishment of a workers’ state. After the initial anti-monarchist revolt that started the revolution, the Bolsheviks were able, thanks to the genius of Lenin, to take full advantage of subsequent political developments. They won the support of the masses of workers and peasants, and removed state power from the shaky hands of the liberals and capitalists. This the Communist Party did in the eight months between February and October, 1917. There was no such party in Spain, and events took an entirely different turn, the most obvious feature of which was a lapse of five years before proletarian revolution succeeded bourgeois revolution.

The indispensable missing factor

The great weakness of the Iberian proletariat was its lack of a true Marxist party, and its division into two mass union organisations (the reformist socialists and the anarchists), neither of which wanted to fight for workers’ power. The socialists controlled the UGT (General Workers Union and the anarchists the CNT (National Confederation of Workers). The UGT practiced business unionism, collaboration with all the governmental agencies, etc., while the CNT was anarcho-syndicalist, always calling general strikes (with no strike benefits), minor insurrections, putsches and the like in anticipation of the general strike that was to inaugurate The Revolution.

All of the proletariat was enrolled in one or the other of these organisations. Their numerical relation to one another (each had about one and a half million members) did not change appreciably between 1931 and 1936. Neither recruited from the other, nor did any third, Bolshevik, party appear to crystallise the discontent that existed within both of them. The long static period of labour politics is in strong contrast to the regroupings, splits, individual and mass defections from the reformist parties that Lenin fomented in the short interval between February and October 1917.

The split in the labour movement, plus the lack of a revolutionary party, was responsible for the five years of indecisive class conflicts between 1931 and 1936, years in which the working class saw demonstrated again and again the inability of its leaders to mobilise its strength and strike a definitive blow for freedom. The peasants became disillusioned in the republic in this interval because it failed completely to improve their miserable situation. It did not divide the big estates among the peasants, nor did it give them easy access to that much coveted land as renters.

Agrarian resentment found expression in the victory of the Catholic-led reactionaries, the CEDA, in the 1933 elections. A tremendous leftward movement of the working class in defence of its economic organisations met this right-wing political victory.

The strike wave of 1934 reached its climax in the Asturian revolt of October, when the miners of the North created active united front groups, seized all the power in their region, and commenced an attack on Oviedo, the capital of the province. Their Commune held out for fifteen days, and then was subdued by Moroccan troops and foreign legionaires: neither the CNT nor the UGT came to its support. The UGT came out on a “peaceful general strike”, but that was insufficient to keep the police and military detachments out of the Asturias. Indeed, only a well planned armed insurrection could have saved the first Spanish Commune. The CNT boycotted even the mild efforts of the socialists to support the Asturians.

The most important feature about the Asturian Commune was this, that once the masses overcame their division, they made an immediate bid for power, and simultaneously commenced a socialist economic transformation. October was a dress rehearsal for July. In the interval between the fall of 1934 and the summer of 1936 there were still no significant shifts of influence within the labour movement, although there was a certain disgust among the Catalan vanguard toward the CNT for its ignominious role in the 1934 events. The few so-cal led Trotskyists on the scene were unable to make their ideas felt. (Most of the Fourth Internationalists, Nin, Andra de, Molins, entered the Maurin-led POUM, or Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity, which waged ineffective politics against the anarchist-controlled CNT. Another handful went into the SP and was not heard from again.)

However, despite their traditional organisational weakness, the revolutionary Iberian people continued to press for an improvement of their economic conditions. The fierce economic struggles forced the landowners and bankers into action, and the fascist revolt of Generals Franco, Sanjuro et al was prepared.

It cannot be too strongly emphasised that this counter-revolutionary offensive of the owning class was possible only because of the complete lack of revolutionary political leadership in the proletarian camp, a failure which kept the powerful movements of the masses limited to purely economic actions which had no future unless they were generalised into political action. In this case it was only too clear that Spanish politics was concentrated economics.

A Spontaneous Revolution*

The fascist counter-revolution was the blow that fused the divided Spanish proletariat into one revolutionary anti-fascist mass, which rose spontaneously in insurrection to prevent the success of the military coup. The Iberian proletariat showed, as has been shown before in other countries, that it was capable of basic, decisive political action without the leadership of a vanguard party. The workers’ reaction to the open fascist attack had two important characteristics. First, their action was universal throughout the peninsula, and was everywhere identical in form: in all the principal cities, two days before the revolt was scheduled: to come off, a general strike was declared, the workers took to the streets and armed themselves. This happened in Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, Oviedo, Seville, Lerida, Gerona, Cartagena, as well as in hundreds of smaller towns and villages. Secondly, and equally important, in so doing the masses acted independently of, and in most cases against the will of their official leadership.

Both the UGT and CNT leaders opposed the masses coming into the streets to demonstrate — much less to rise in insurrection. In spite of the open secret of the rebellion scheduled for Sunday 19 July, the Madrid UGT — far from taking the logical step of calling a political general strike — tried to stop even the legitimate economic strike of the construction workers because of the troubled situation! Claridad (the official UGT daily paper) urged them not to respect the CNT picket lines, and to be sure to report for work on Monday, the 20th. On Saturday night, when the fascists had already seized power in Spanish Morocco, the Social-Democratic and Communist Parties called on the workers to strike only where the fascists were already in power! Where they had not yet succeeded, the people were to leave all to the government — the same which had let the fascists arm and rise! What a monumental betrayal of their role as leaders of the proletariat! The strategy of the social-democratic leaders was a sure guarantee of defeat.

The July events had proved conclusively that there was a only one virile class in Spain that could organise the anti-fascist war: the proletariat. And their method was that of uprooting fascism completely by overthrowing the system that breeds it. This the Spanish social-democrats could not tolerate for an instant, and fought relentlessly until the final victory of Franco.

The anarchists were not much better. In Barcelona, the workers started to arm on Friday. Saturday the left republican government of Catalonia** called out the Civil Guards (national strike-breaking police) to disarm the unionists and raid their headquarters for arms. The top anarchist leaders including Durruti, Garcia Oliver, Ascaso, de Santillan, urged their members to surrender their arms peaceably to the police, since they considered a successful anti-fascist action impossible without the support of the bourgeois state, and the latter still denied the existence of the revolt. The thousands of CNT workers gathered outside their union hall refused to give up their precious guns and only a few hours later were using them in desperate battle against the fascist troops which had occupied the main buildings of the town.

Since the treachery and incompetence of the leaders of the mass labour organisations prevented an organised defense against the fascists, what was the nature of the popular action that stopped them? And who led it?

The very nature of the fascist plans (which were broadcast through working-class neighborhoods by the telegraph and telephone workers) determined the first steps the people took. In every province the military governor was to march on the main cities, occupy the telephone exchanges, railway stations, public buildings and other strategic spots. When this news leaked out Friday, a general strike was declared by the local industrial, or peasant, unions. In the small towns and villages of Catalonia, Levant, Asturias, the centre and the south, anti-fascist committees were organised by the local unions and party branches. In many respects the small-scale actions in the rural areas were better organised than the mass action in the capitals, although the latter was in every sense of the word decisive. The local Revolutionary Committee (sometimes called the Popular Committee, or the Militia Committee, the Executive Committee, or just el comité) planned how to surround the town barracks and persuade the soldiers to come over to its side, it planned the blowing up of local bridges and highways if necessary; it arrested local fascists and occupied the strategic buildings in the vicinity. This pattern was universal in the smaller towns, where the Sunday revolt just failed to come off.

Proletarian initiative

In the cities the apparatus of the big labour organisations concentrated there prevented such complete and c entralised preparations for meeting the rebellion. Here the initiative was taken by local industrial unions, factory committees, socialist or POUM party branches, and the FAI*** district defence committees of the proletarian neighbourhoods. Decisive battles were fought in Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, Seville, Toledo and a few other cities. In Valencia and some other Southern towns, the fascists held back, waiting to see the outcome elsewhere. Barcelona, in whose vicinity was concentrated forty per cent of Spain’s proletariat, was the Petrograd of the Iberian revolution. Madrid, the capital of the country, was the other decisive city.

This article is not an account of the development of the Spanish civil war; here we want only to examine the nature and actions of the proletarian organs that launched the war by means of a social revolution. Suffice it to say that the spontaneous rank and file actions of the first weeks cleared two thirds of the peninsula of fascists, and brought three-quarters of the population into the scope of their activities.

The Russian dual power of February-October, 1917, was also launched by the appearance of popular democratic organs, the soviets, whose historic role was identical with that of the Spanish committees. Both were the organs of power of the rising proletarian revolution. And, naturally, the fundamental differences in the character of the organised class struggle of the two countries found expression in these most democratic of all political forms.

The existence in Russia of a party consciously oriented toward a working-class seizure of power forced on the soviets continued discussion of basic political problems. It sharpened and clarified the positions of all the participating labour groups. The political agitation of the Bolsheviks, both in and out of the soviets, against their anti-working class majority, made the masses conscious of the role the new power could and should play; and kept continually before the people the problem of state power. The Bolsheviks were always pushing the soviets to the left.

(Some of the concrete actions that Lenin urged on the soviets are listed here as a yardstick for comparison with the accomplishments of the Spanish committees: workers’ control of industry to stop the economic sabotage of the capitalists; unification and either state control or nationalisation of the banks, abolition of commercial secrets; distribution of land to the peasants; regulation of consumption to equalise the war burden, by means of revolutionary democratic methods, such as compulsory organisation into consumers’ societies, labour duty for the rich, equal distribution of all consumption goods, popular supply committees of the poor to control the consumption of the rich, etc. These measures were not carried out in Russia until after the Bolshevik-controlled soviets seized state power.)

In Spain, where there was no such vanguard party, the development of the workers’ committee, after they inaugurated dual power, was altogether different. Instead of becoming national policy-making and administrative bodies, they remained local united fronts of action. After September, they were not recognised by any of the working class parties. The very fact of their continued existence, after the numerous orders for their dissolution issued by their official leaders, was an accomplishment. The committees lived on because they were the only organisations on the scene with an intention of carrying out the extremely revolutionary will of the Spanish anti-fascists.

They concentrated on resolving local economic and political problems and left untouched the ultimately decisive national problems of getting a coordinated state power, a unified army and carrying through a general planned economic and financial reorganisation, beginning with the banks.

The local factory and neighborhood committees carried out on their own initiative economic and political reforms more drastic than those Lenin advocated in Russia. But because their revolution lacked just that planned approach to the basic problems that the Bolsheviks had supplied, the committees proved unable to consolidate their superior gains by the creation of a powerful workers’ state to protect them. With this all-important weakness in mind, let us examine some of the things the committees did accomplish to see how far along the road to workers’ power the spontaneous acts of a mid-twentieth century proletariat could take them.

Economic power

A few days after 19 July the local unions, municipal committees and factory committees began confiscating public services, hotels, apartments and office buildings, the transportation system, and all the principal industries. (Immediately prior to the rebellion they had begun seizing cars, food, guns, etc.) On July 30 the Barcelona Local Committee of the CNT had issued its famous order: “All denunciations from workers whose capitalists refuse to open their factories or other places of production should be presented to this federation, so that it can proceed to confiscation with precise legal formalities.” Of course the legality of the confiscations actually depended on who won the dual power struggle, i.e., who got control of the state power. But that supremely important political question was universally ignored at the time. The expropriations continued in increasing numbers until September. By that time all of anti-fascist Spain’s industry, commerce and agriculture had passed into the hands of committees of some variety. (Except for the Basque regions, where a powerful workers’ control existed, a few small businesses and private land-holdings in Catalonia and Levant.)

In Russia the course of the economic revolution was vastly different. The private capitalists retained a large measure of control over their plants during the February-October period. They were able to lock out workers, disrupt the economy and exert political pressure by many other tricks. Only after the Bolsheviks seized state power and ended the dual power were heavy industry, transportation and the banking system nationalised.

Most of Spain’s small capitalist class fled to France on the eve of the rising, as did the fascist land-owners. The petty industrialists who remained either assumed managerial posts in the confiscated industries or lost all contact with them and lived off their personal bank accounts, which, along with the banking system as a whole, were left untouched. Needless to say, the lack of a central plan for expropriating and reorganising the economy led to a great variety of forms of “workers’ ownership,” which was what the workers confidently thought they were insuring. There was a sad lack of that “flood of decrees” with which Lenin was accused of deluging Russia in 1917: those same decrees would have instantly taken on a concrete socialist reality had they been promulgated from Barcelona or Madrid that summer of 1936.

The Spanish revolutionists were spared some of the trials that harassed the Russians. At least they had no struggle against individual capitalist and technical sabotage after the July revolt. The capitalists were gone, and the workers’ control, reinforced by the proletariat in arms, was too powerful for the technicians to trifle with. But the Spanish workers’ power met sabotage from the state apparatus in Madrid: a sabotage that was exercised in the realm of national and international finance and trade. The workers had the individual factories, and even industries, firmly under control: their problems were posed at the initial stages of the dual power, on a more advanced historical level than in Russia. Their main enemy, in the absence of the individual capitalists, was the state itself; nor did this make the struggle any easier — a point to be borne in mind by those who point to the “abdication” of the French capitalists as facilitating the coming European revolution.

The universal and spontaneous expropriation of Spain’s social wealth by the very bottom strata of society was not limited to Catalonia, as is commonly and mistakenly supposed. All the major industries, including those dominated by the reformist UGT, were collectivised and put under workers’ control. Outside of Catalonia, the railroads, metallurgical industry, construction, public services, maritime transport, mines and, most important of all, the land — all were expropriated by the toilers. Whether this property remained expropriated was a political question, but the masses had done all that could be asked of them.

Here again, in the question of the land, the basic economic problems were posed more sharply than in Russia: the further decay of capitalism in the nineteen years since 1917 had advanced popular consciousness of what is necessary to insure adequate production for all. It is significant that collective farming was the common form of organisation of the expropriated land in Spain especially when we remember the long struggle of the Russian bolsheviks against the ever-present problem of the kulaks and the tragedy of the forced collectivisation finally put through by Stalin. One reason for the immediate collectivisation of the land in Spain was the experience of the landless share-croppers and agricultural day labourers as members of the UGT and CNT peasant unions. Another was the long Spanish tradition of village and communal cooperation. Still another was the improvement in transportation which enabled the proletarian revolutionists from the cities to penetrate all the agricultural regions with propaganda for collectivisation.

Along with the mass expropriation of the means of production came the growth of a system of supply committees, which organized distribution on an equalitarian basis. The strong desire of the people to impose a labour duty on the rich became one of the main points of contention between the rank and file committees and the top labour leaders, who managed to prevent it. As was the case with all the other popular organisms cast up by the people, the supply and distribution committees were a spontaneous growth, and a surprise to the “official” labor leaders.

Political power

Inevitably, since the masses who carried out this social revolution were members of already existing labour organisations, the leaders of these organisations intervened in the revolution with disastrous results. That story we leave for another time. Here we limit ourselves to a brief record of what the workers were able to accomplish in spite of their misleaders. We will only sketch the main line of socialist and anarchist official policy because it is indispensable for an understanding of the subsequent political activities of the committees.

After their members disobeyed their orders by conducting a general strike, an armed insurrection, and finally a completely unauthorised expropriation of the expropriators, the labour leaders caught their breath and tried to regain control of the situation under the guise of centralising and coordinating nationally what the masses had done on a regional and local scale. Once again it was a case of elemental mass action, that left the self-styled “revolutionary leaders” far behind. Even the most radical party in Spain, the POUM, did not keep up with the proletariat. It was calling for economic concessions from the generality while the workers were confiscating the factories and establishing dual power. It should have been raising slogans of “All Power to the Committees.”

For the aroused masses, arms in hand, had not stopped with the factory seizures: they took political steps to consolidate their control by erecting a powerful dual-power apparatus throughout the length and breadth of the land. They acted without knowing it on Lenin’s dictum: Without workers’ power there can be no workers’ control. The revolutionary anti-fascist committees assumed full power in Catalonia and some degree of power in all the rest of anti-fascist Spain’s towns and villages.

Political acts by workers

The anti-fascist committees set up sub-committees of investigation and control, i.e., workers’ police. Reliable militants from all groups worked together in these police corps, which resembled the Bolshevik Red Guard. Again with this difference: their control from the beginning of the dual power was more complete and unchallenged than in Russia. There were no instances of bourgeois or middle class crowds jeering or even assembling against the will of the Spanish workers’ police. Just the opposite: these respectable elements in Spain tried to pass themselves off as anarchists, to buy or steal union cards off their domestic servants. They quit wearing ties, hats and their good suits in frantic efforts to pass through the vigilant street and building patrols of the proletariat.

Other political acts of the workers’ power organs included seizure of the government buildings, barracks, railroad stations, post offices, customs, etc. They met no opposition, once the “so-called militarists” (as they contemptuously termed the fascists) were overcome. And who would dare oppose the victorious anti-fascists, who alone had put down the rebellion in most of Spain? In this respect they got off to a better psychological start in their relations with the middle class than did the Bolsheviks, who seized power after a relatively peaceful internal political struggle, marked only by the weak counter-revolutionary attempt of Kornilov.

The revolutionary rank and file authors of the fascist defeat followed their victory by an immediate clean-up of all military and reactionary circles. Popular tribunals of trade union militants administered swift justice to all known fascist and anti-labour elements. This revolutionary terror of the first weeks was not controlled — or desired — by the labour leadership.

The main function of these armed dual-power organs was to protect the economic conquests of the workers. But once the fascists were gone and the revolution greeted enthusiastically by all, the armed workers were not at all sure whom they had to protect it against. A Lenin or a Trotsky could have told them: against the state, that final repository of capitalist power, and against their own treacherous leadership. How incessantly Lenin put before the Russian masses the questions, “Where is the power?” and “Where is the counterrevolution?” Later on in the course of the dual power’s development, the local committees began to realise where the counter-revolution lay, even though every political party on the scene tried to keep the knowledge from them.

From this brief description we can summarise the spontaneous revolution of July, 1936, thus: led by united fronts of local segments of the union and political organisations, following a period of mounting class tension and struggle, the Spanish proletariat rose in armed insurrection, against the orders of their top leadership, to meet the counter-revolutionary fascist blow. These united fronts organised themselves as anti-fascist or revolutionary committees, and in the act of putting down the revolt began the long-thwarted social revolution the people so ardently desire. During and immediately after the anti-fascist insurrection they expropriated all Spain’s industry, and in the subsequent months (August, September, October) by intensifying and consolidating their economic and political power, the dispersed committees laid the groundwork for a democratic mass-administered workers’ state power throughout Spain.

Here was a classic example of how far the proletarian can go toward achieving its own emancipation. The trends implicit in other unsuccessful proletarian revolution were given their fullest expression in Spain, and the result was a series of necessary but not sufficient steps toward securing workers’ power. The masses showed that they had grasped the general historic truths of their epoch and of their national situation. They understood the inability of Spain’s bankrupt economy to support them; they realised that the dangerous and definitive nature of Franco’s counter-revolution was not to be trifled with (as their leaders were doing); and they saw the urgent necessity of united revolutionary action. But they could not achieve, untaught, the creation of a Bolshevik party.

Not only does this example of an unled spontaneous and unsuccessful social revolution show us the limits of what may be expected from spontaneous efforts of the workers: it also defines for us once again the role of the Marxian vanguard party. As the dual power developed in Spain the tasks of the party stood out clearly. The local factory and revolutionary committees lacked that overall grasp of the internal and international political situation that only Marxist theory could supply. And they were completely disoriented about the role of their own leadership — although eventually, even without a party, they caught on to this. What was needed was a nationwide organisation to bring together all their local political and economic initiatives according to a central plan for waging the civil war and developing the revolutionary economy. This very plan would have been the best agitational weapon available against the anarchist, social-democratic and Stalinist misleaders.

The other point I would like to consider in terms of the Spanish Revolution is the vitality of the workers’ dual power organs, which ultimately, of course, is synonymous with the vitality of the oppressed classes that create them.

In Russia, from May, 1917, to October, the attacks against the incipient workers’ power from the open and concealed counter-revolutionists met clear and forceful opposition from the Bolsheviks. This party called everything by its name, and used its entire apparatus to keep the workers informed as to who was for and who against them. By his skilful and truthful agitation, Lenin won to his party the support of a majority of the delegates to the principal soviets. His main tactic was to urge the soviets to the offensive against the counter-revolution being prepared in the government offices and foreign embassies. He succeeded, and thus the inherent vitality and recuperativeness of these basic democratic institutions were fused with a conscious leadership guiding them according to the workers’ historic interests. Spain presents an enlightening case of mass democratic bodies, the committees, acting politically in a revolutionary situation, without any consc ious Marxian leadership, and even without official recognition from any labour group on the scene. Counter-revolutionary attacks, such as the Russian soviets were able to weaken, abort or beat off, gathered their full force against the unauthorised Spanish committees, and beset them from every side.

Even so, the committees held out for months and were only subdued then by armed violence. More than that, as the betrayal of the reformist socialist, Stalinist and anarchist groups became clear, many of the committees, led by rank and file revolutionists, began to give battle to the official parties, and call belatedly for a return to the revolutionary road — with a sharpness that fully equalled that of Lenin. A brief survey of the development of the dual power in Spain will show how the proletariat intervened again and again through its new political bodies to impose its revolutionary will and defend the workers’ power it had established.

Developments of the dual power

The anti-fascist committees in the villages proceeded, as I have said, to organise the “new revolutionary order” in both the economic and political spheres and to put into the field an army that could defeat Franco. It was natural that these provincial initiatives should begin earlier and emerge more completely than the revolutions in the big centres. This has been true of other major social revolutions, such as the Russian and the French*.

But Barcelona is the Petrograd of Spain, and there the dual power was not declared and “legalised” by the armed proletarians as it was in the provinces. True, the central Anti-Fascist Militia Committee was formed there on 21 July; but under circumstances entirely different from those surrounding the constitution of the revolutionary municipal committees. First, the Central Militia Committee (CMC) was formed only after the anarchist proletariat had subdued the fascists by three days of hard fighting, not before, to organise that fight, as was the case elsewhere. Then, it was formed by the reformist leadership, not the revolutionary workers. And lastly, its announced purpose was not to make the social revolution, but merely to continue military operations against the fascists.

Once the masses had shown their profound anti-fascist feeling by coming out into the streets in thousands, the CNT-FAI leaders stopped their futile wait for the Generality to take the initiative, and gave what leadership it could. Durruti led the mass attack on the Telefonica, Ascaso was killed in storming the Ataranzas Barracks. On Monday, when the entire city was in the hands of the men of the FAI, in a scene strikingly similar to the formation of the Central Executive of the Russian Soviets, the anarchist and bourgeois-democratic leaders set up the Central Anti-Fascist Militia Committee. Companys, the Catalan nationalist president of the Generality, told the CNT-FAI top men, “Catalonia is in your power. You can set up libertarian communism, or do whatever you want. What are you going to do?” The anarchists, like the Mensheviks, emphatically refused to accept state power, and told Companys and the Republicans to remain at the head of the state. At the President’s suggestion, the Central Committee of the Anti-Fascist Militias of Catalonia was set up to compensate for Catalonia’s lack of an army. Presumably, had the central republican government allowed Catalonia a standing army, the CNT, like the UGT, would have attempted to enlist the revolutionary proletariat into that army.

No sooner was this Central Committee set up (the CNT allowed other anti-fascist parties what it considered a proportionate representation), than all the isolated committees from villages, factories, city districts, small and large industries, began to pour their problems into its lap. The Central Committee soon became the real executive organ of the workers’ dual economic and political power at the insistence of the bottom committees. Despite the full intention of its anarchist founders not to undermine the state, the CC of the militias, was the sole power in Catalonia within two weeks after the revolution, and remained such until the anarchists dissolved it at the end of September.

Role of the Anarchists

The leadership the CNT-FAI gave to the committee consisted mainly in coordination and centralisation of a technical, administrative and bureaucratic nature. They had no solutions for the basic economic and political problems of the committee-led revolution that they tolerated for almost three, months. On the points that Lenin emphasised again and again as fundamental, they did nothing. They did not tackle the problem of the banks, the key to the economic situation They did not smash the old state, which hung on tenacious for its life in Madrid. They did not formulate a programme for the revolutionary conduct of the war, using the great lever for arousing the Spanish and Moroccan peoples that the social revolution offered them (i.e., propaganda for the agrarian revolution and for colonial independence).

The bankruptcy of the anarchist theoreticians in face of the serious and pressing problems of the civil war soon led to a degeneration of the military and economic situation that was marked by the slowing-up of production, and by the victories of the well organized fascist offensive. Terrified by these reverses, the CNT-FAI in September deserted the committee structure for a return to the well worn paths of class collaboration within the state. Ten weeks after its inception, the workers’ dual power structure found itself disowned and leaderless.

But even the short-lived existence of the CMC had convinced the Catalan workers of its superiority over the old order, and sowed ideas in the minds of all the Spaniards that remain ineradicable to this day. The activities of the CMC were prodigious. It helped carry out many varied mass initiatives of military, economic and political character. Militias were organised and sent to the front. Conversion to war production got under way. Revolutionary order in the rear was perfected and maintained. Equal division of food supplies housing facilities, etc., was arranged. Aid was sent to the revolutionary militias in all parts of Spain.

Naturally the great strides made in Catalonia toward social equality and a democratic mass administration of the economy put fear into the hearts of the bourgeois democrats everywhere, and especially those of the government bureaucracy in Madrid. That city became the centre of the opposition to the dual power in the north. The remains of the “Spanish Republic of All Classes” were the bitterest enemy of the anti-fascist committees. And at that, Madrid itself was sharply divided by a regime of two powers, although the proletarian power never reached the strength it did elsewhere. The political situation in Madrid was extremely complex. The proletariat, UCT and CNT alike, had instituted workers’ control of all industry and proclaimed the revolution. Armed socialist and anarchist militia controlled the streets while their brothers were off to fight the fascists at Toledo and in the mountains west and north of the city. In this situation every bullet or truck from worker-controlled Catalonia was potent propaganda for the dual power there, as the government well knew.

Left-wing UGT leader Caballero half-way supported the revolutionary masses in order to establish himself as the only one able to control them, and thus force his entry into the government of the republic as premier. After six weeks of manoeuvering, the republican circles shoved his rival, Prieto into second place. Caballero formed his own ministry and the Socialist Party assumed leadership of the bourgeois state The new premier tried immediately to incorporate the socialist armed bodies into the old state apparatus. The militias resisted and, not trusting them to carry out the open war against the committees that he knew was inevitable, Caballero began reinforcing and augmenting the regular political bodies.

The Madrid government from the first refused to cooperate in any way with the Catalan Central Committee in the military prosecution of the war against Franco, or in the organisation of a worker-controlled war economy. Caballero continued this policy. This is not the place to go into the disastrous military results of this treacherous brand of “anti-fascism” which prevented the rapid and successful culmination of the bloody civil war. To make a long story short, the official representatives of the workers’ power in Catalonia, the CMC, lacking a revolutionary perspective, capitulated completely to Madrid’s blackmailing refusal to give the gold for their war industry or arms for their troops. The anarchist chiefs dissolved the central dual power body and decided to restore all authority to the Generality, which they thought they could control, in hopes of getting aid from the “anti-fascist” cabinet in Madrid.

The Dual Power Versus the
Central Government

Dissolution of the new workers’ power bodies was easier to talk about than to accomplish. The FAI chiefs were confronted with the refusal of the uninvited base committees to dissolve. Instead, these groups continued their struggle for power against the republican state and added the Generality to their list of enemies. In this the ranks showed a political insight and wisdom far superior to that of their cowardly leaders. The common people knew from their own experience that the spineless bourgeois democrats were incapable of fighting fascism. And they knew that there was only one social force with sufficient vitality to do the job — the revolutionary committees. They knew, from the events of the last months that the democrats would compromise the war rather than tolerate the power of the committees over the war industry of the militias. Later events proved these calculations correct

Since the workers, especially in Catalonia, firmly resisted the demands of their leaders to surrender power back to the state, the top anarchist committees could only surrender to Madrid those organisations that they had set up as the culmination of the basic committee structure. The CMC was dissolved the last of September. The anarchists could not dissolve the thousands of local committees because they belonged to the people. So the dual power was only ended on paper: in reality the revolutionary masses held the upper hand until May, 1937, because they still had hegemony of armed power and of the economy.

The CNT-FAI gave up to the state the CMC and the control over Catalonia’s army. Until the end of the war it never got the promised arms or economic support. Catalonia’s production fell steadily until the end of the war. When the anti-fascist army did attack briefly in Aragon in the summer of 1937, it was the Stalinist troops who got the glory. All that the never-ending concessions of the CNT-FAI leadership accomplished was the strengthening of the Stalinist-Prieto reaction which was only waiting Britain’s choice of the proper moment for a compromise with Franco. The state sabotage of Catalan industry became ever more effective in proportion to the amount of power the anarchist chieftains restored to its feeble body. The dismal fruits of anarchist collaboration with the state demonstrated once again the irrefutable logic of the rank and file: If they aren’t with us, they’re against us.

The very essence of a dual power situation is its transitory and unstable character. Regulation of the numerous concrete economic and political activities of a class-divided nation cannot remain bi-partisan, dual or neutral: control must be exercised in the interest of one class or another. Hence both classes strive to end rapidly the intolerable division of power. The situation cannot stand still. It either moves forward to complete workers’ power, or backward to capitalist power exercised by the bourgeois state. Until the dissolution of the central dual power organ by the CNT-FAI, the power in Spain was increasingly exercised by the revolutionists. That act reversed the trend. From October on, the counter-revolution advanced step by step and the workers lost ground. Their defeats were not decisive, because they were still armed, but the tide of the battle went against them. The very re-constitution of anti-revolutionary groups (the old police corps, the non-revolutionary Popular Army), which was impossible at first, indicated which way the power was flowing.

Disarming the People

The first victories of the counter-revolution were minor because the proletariat retained hegemony over the decisive element of state power, armed force. Before it could consider itself sovereign in anti-fascist Spain, the reformist-led state had to disarm the people. And it set this as its main task, hiding its true purpose under such phrases as “the need for restoring public order” and “eliminating the fifth columnists in the rear guard.”

From September on, the committees and the state were locked in struggle. The consequent disorganisation resulted in an uninterrupted fascist advance on Madrid, after the early period of proletarian victories. The “Loyalist Government” refused absolutely to improvise militarily or economically on the basis of the social revolution already effected, and it accomplished nothing. The proletarian militias ran out of arms; the worker-controlled economy needed credits, machinery and raw materials before it could supply the militias. The state controlled the Bank of Spain and the gold reserves, and refused the revolutionists everything. Result: the fascists advanced. Caballero tried to recruit the workers’ militia into the regular army with no success: they had their own army and didn’t want another. He bought a few planes and arms from Russia. After two months of doing nothing in Madrid, the government deserted that capital for Valencia. In this sanctuary, removed from the pressing threat of the fascist advance’ the state concentrated on rebuilding its bureaucracy, recruiting police and regaining enough strength to attack the committee structure. The state’s undivided attention to this matter was rewarded by a constant increase in its power to the detriment of the leaderless and disorganised committees, and by a steady series of military defeats for the anti-fascists at the hands of the rebels.

Madrid was saved by the revolutionary anti-fascists, not by the Popular Front government, which gave it up for lost on 6 November. In the crucial months of November and December the anti-fascist committees bent every effort to support Madrid. Some 10,000 militias (excluding the 2,000 International Brigaders) were rushed to the city from Aragon, Catalonia, Levant and other provinces. Convoys of food and clothing were sent from the committees of many different regions. Some day the tremendous gestures of the village communes and factory committees to aid Madrid will be fittingly recorded.

Meanwhile, the control committees of the Catalan industries became more and more impatient with the central government’s sabotage of production, and the counsels of tolerance for the counter-revolution that they heard from their union chiefs. In November, anti-Stalinist feeling ran high as the proletarian revolutionists realised the criminal role of these traitors to the socialist movement. Unrest within the CNT (into which were organised the decisive sections of the Spanish proletariat) mounted steadily. Many militants turned against the reformist leadership, but they were without a programme of their own.

Assaults on Peasant Committees

The power of the “Loyalist Government” increased. In December it felt itself strong enough, thanks to the anarchist and socialist participation, to launch a series of armed assaults against the weakest of the peasant committees, those of Levant and Castille. Newly recruited police broke up the headquarters of the anarchist unions of poor peasants, killing or disarming and jailing the militants. The Communist Party was in the vanguard of this counter-revolutionary attack. The committees fought back, and in some places declared armed mobilisations against the police. This internal warfare lasted until March, 1937, but always outside of Catalonia, where the workers’ power was still too strong and the state too weak for an open attack.

The CNT-FAI leaders completely disowned the committees, and joined the state in declaring the mobilisations illegal, undisciplined, and all the rest of it. The revolutionary peasants fought their battle against the police alone, with no help from the increasingly dissatisfied city workers. The leading CNT committees censored all news of the events from their press, while the socialists said the state was putting down “concealed fifth columnists”. The result was that the revolutionary vanguard of poor peasants was disarmed, jailed or murdered, and their claims to communal ownership of the land declared invalid. But collective exploitation of the land continued in anti-fascist Spain until the end of the war in 1937. It even survived the criminal burning and destruction of the collectives by the Stalinist Lister Brigade and the remains of the International Brigade in 1937. In actual fact, the agrarian revolution in Spain was accomplished, and no disarming or killing of a few peasant leaders could change that. But, the proletarian revolution was the only guarantee of the peasant revolution. When the city workers failed to organize a workers’ state to consolidate their power, the peasant collectives were doomed.

As a direct result of the Loyalist Government’s prior concern with breaking workers’ power behind the lines, Malaga fell to the fascists on 10 February. Behind this tragedy lay a sorry tale of government refusal to supply munitions to the revolutionary Andalusian militias, of treason by the Popular Army officials and Stalinist political commissars at Malaga. The workers were willing to fight to the end: the People’s Front government to which their leaders had entrusted the conduct of the war made this impossible.

The loss of Malaga confirmed the worst fears of the independent committees and aroused them to renewed action. Lacking a Bolshevik Party to show them the exact steps for ridding themselves of their misleaders, the committees raised all kinds of varied and impossible slogans against the government. Meanwhile, their officia l leaders continued to assume responsibility for its acts. The CNT ministers chose this juncture to enter into close and intimate collaboration with Caballero. Local groups everywhere, and especially in Catalonia, demanded a general mobilisation of manpower and economic resources for an all-out offensive against the fascists. This was a fantastic request to address to the Caballero government, for above all things it feared a renewal of the mass action such a mobilisation would inevitably entail. And that was just what the ranks wanted: a revival of the widespread and highly effective direct action of July. They understood that only by drawing on the still unexhausted reserves of popular heroism, sacrifice and courage would fascism be stopped.

Caballero was sold completely on the idea of a non-revolutionary anti-fascist war; and he knew that he could never carry out this dream if he allowed the extremely revolutionary anti-fascist masses any direct participation. Hence the People’s Front state answered the rising tide of mass demands for action by asserting that it alone was capable of organising the war, by calling for All power to the government and, more important still, All arms to the front. The democratic defenders of the capitalist regime knew well enough that the best defense is an offense, and renewed their slanderous attacks against the “uncontrollable” committees.

At this point, after five months of a losing war, there was an important change in the orientation of the revolutionary committees. They began to address themselves directly to the people instead of pleading further with their reformist anarchist leaders. The rank and file not only laid the firm foundations of a workers’ state, and forced the CMC to execute its will for a time, but it also proved able to recognise its reformist leaders as betrayers of the revolution, and turned against them.

Th. Dual Power Struggle in Catalonia

This realisation of the role of their leaders, which was confirmed conclusively by the military defeats, had first risen because of internal Catalan developments. On 11 October, after having dissolved the CMC, the Generality ordered the dissolution of “all the other organs born from the Revolution,” and their replacement by municipal coalition councils in its own image. This measure restored courage to bourgeois politicians and non-labour elements who tried to stage a comeback in mid-October. The revolutionary municipalities soon stopped that and set up city councils that they could control. This experience started the turn against the CNT’s policy of collaboration.

In Barcelona itself the main repository of workers’ power was not the city government, but the workers’ police. These “patrols of control,” as they were called, obeyed only the orders and slogans of the factory committees, the unions, food supply committees, etc. Even after the CNT entered the Generality government, the patrols would not follow its orders if they conflicted with those of the revolutionary organisations, as those coming from the Stalinist departments invariably did. For this reason the state concentrated its attack in the capital against the workers’ police. The Stalinists and Catalan nationalists inside the coalition cabinet began agitating for a “restoration of order” and a dissolution of the patrols in November. The CNT, backed by the POUM, resisted. In December the Stalinists forced the expulsion of the POUM from the government as the price of continued Russian aid; and in January the CNT-FAI capitulated to the reaction and agreed to reorganize public order. Still the government police did not dare show themselves on the streets. The uninterrupted series of capitulations by the anarchist leaders, resulting in the surrender of many strategic positions of the dual power organs, did not prevent them from retaining control of these same committees up through February.

The mere existence of soviets was no guarantee of victory for the workers’ cause. Without democracy for the soviets to exist, without democracy within them, and without a resolute Bolshevik Party bent on exercising this democracy, it was impossible for the workers to advance along the road to power. For seven months, until the proletarian ranks themselves became disillusioned with the anarchist slogans of defeat, the committees blindly followed the FAI. True there were other political groups within the committees, but their democratic rights were not secure (due to notorious CNT strong-arm methods) and they did not have the firm revolutionary line necessary to win the ranks away from the syndicalists. There were POUMists and UGTists (i.e., Stalinists) in most of the municipal committees, factory committees, and workers’ patrols of Catalonia, but the majority was usually anarchist. The Stalinists soon withdrew, leaving the POUM as the main opposition group. But the POUM would not oppose the CNT-FAI top committees publicly: if it could not convince them peaceably it gave up and went along with FAI policy of cooperation with the state.

Hence the committees were limited to a purely negative, defensive role in a situation that could only go forward, or back, and could in no case stand still. Since the committees did not act, the counter-revolution advanced, and when they finally reacted spontaneously, it was too late. After February, groups everywhere began to call the Loyalist government counter-revolutionary, but they had no positive program of workers’ power to oppose to it.

The Workers’ Patrols

In Barcelona events took a slightly different turn. Between January and May the top anarchist bureaucrats agreed half a dozen times to dissolve the workers’ patrols. Even Dionisio Eroles, the FAI militant, who had created them and called them “the best guarantee of the brutal defeat of the bourgeois dogs,” urged his men to surrender their guns to the old police. In the patrols was a strong group of POUMists who, after their party had been severely kicked around by the CNT and the Stalinists, finally came out with a strong and open position a gainst the official anarchist line. They issued a manifesto in February urging the men of the FAI to refuse to disband it. The idea had an enthusiastic reception because it exactly expressed the sentiments of the anarchist patrol members. The patrols refused to dissolve, forced the Generality into a six-week crisis over “public order” and so brought the issue of armed superiority into the streets in the last weeks of April. Thus, the first approximation of the Bolshevik tactics of struggle within the workers’ organs to strengthen them, and dominate them, brought immediate success to the POUM and led to an intensification and deepening of the dual-power struggle in Catalonia. But the POUM did not know what to do with its success, since it was not oriented toward a proletarian seizure of power. When the issue came to a head in May, Nin etc urged the workers to stay home and not to try to seize and hold the power.

The case of the patrols was exceptional. Most of the anticollaboration sentiment in the proletarian ranks developed independently of the POUM, which was not really against collaboration in the first place. The POUM remained isolated from this development for two reasons:

(1) it avoided open mass agitation against the all-powerful CNT for fear of reprisals and

(2) it had no clear program of workers’ power to oppose to the anarchist program of class collaboration. This failure of the one self-proclaimed Marxist party to supply the leaders of the dual power organs with a clear picture of the road to power led different groups and localities to adopt a number of half-way and transitional demands aimed at stopping the counter-revolution. In the course of their struggle to put over these demands, ever larger segments of the CNT lost confidence in the possibility of reforming their leaders. In March the situation had reached a point where only the organization of a workers’ state to crush the old state could stop the counter-revolution.

Despite their lack of understanding of the way to resolve the crucial problem of state power, there was one elementary measure that the Catalan proletariat could and did take. Through their municipal organs, and in Barcelona through a network of more highly specialized committees, they refused to surrender the basic sources of their power — their arms and their factories. In the northern part of Catalonia, the local committees even banded together for defensive action against the counter-revolutionary state. It had taken this state ten months to regain enough strength to test its power against that of the social revolution in Catalonia; the renewed aggressiveness of the revolutionists, and their open attacks on the “counter-revolution in high places” hastened the showdown.

Why Dual Power Lasted

There were several factors responsible for the fact that the dual power in Catalonia (and to a lesser extent in other parts of Spain) was able to last for ten long months without either side winning decisive control of the situation. One factor was the absolute bankruptcy of the labour leadership, which could not control its membership well enough to stop the revolution, and could only sabotage it by refusing to organise it nationally. Another was the clever role played by Great Britain, which had learned from two decades of indecisive class struggles the internal weakness of proletarian movements which lack a convinced Bolshevik leadership. The bourgeoisie forgets nothing: Britain held back from open intervention against the workers’ power for a policy of boring from within the reformist organisations, i.e., buying off the leadership.

In the confusion of a two-power regime, given the absence of a determined Bolshevik Party, and given the tremendous power exercised over Spain’s internal economy by the policy of embargo and blockade, the Foreign Office counted on a gradual dissipation of workers’ power, and the concentration of all authority back in the hands of the old state. The presence of strong labour movements in Britain and France also helped to prevent direct military intervention against the workers’ power. A more determined proletarian revolution would have merited direct military intervention by the democracies, as was the case in Russia in 1917. Britain’s desperate pre-war manoeuvering to keep the balance of power on the continent added to her desire to avoid open conflict with the Nazis and Italians over Spain.

Thus the workers’ power in Spain, although never crystallised into a workers’ state, was able to last ten months because of a unique international situation, its own organisational weakness at the top, and because the social repolution to which it gave expression was so profound and so inevitable under Spanish conditions that it took the internal counter-revolutionists that long to demoralise it, and non-labour elements for a frontal assault on it.

Without the Stalinists, it is doubtful if the counter-revolution would have been well enough organised to defeat even the uncentralised, isolated workers’ power organ, and it is quite possible that Prieto would eventually have called for open British military support against the anarchist proletariat. Unfortunately, the Stalinists were there, and directed the seizure of position after position from the leaderless revolutionary proletariat. Their first victories were only on paper. Then came the day when they were prepared to contest for armed superiority with the Catalan workers, which struggle determined the fate of the more primitive dual power organs in the rest of anti-fascist Spain.

It is significant that when this showdown finally came, in May, 1937, the committee rose to meet the Stalinist provocation by asserting their complete mastery of Barcelona and most of Catalonia. The District Defence Committees of the FAI, the POUM locals, and armed unionists controlled Barcelona completely. The cannons of Montjuich fortress could have smashed to bits the main opposition focus, the Generality buildings, at a word from the CNT Regional Committee. But the armed superiority of the proletariat, and the final impressive demonstration of its power, availed absolutely nothing because they lacked a Bolsh evik Party to apply this power at the crucial point, the conquest of state power.

The CNT-FAI leaders refused rank and file requests to organise a fight against the state to seize power. They insisted that the workers leave the streets and go home. For four long days the bottom committees of the CNT and FAI refused to obey their leaders and insisted on fulfilling their original program of disarming the police. Only the lack of a functioning organisation to coordinate their activities prevented the district defence committees from assaulting the government buildings and seizing power. The organisation could have been small, but with a correct understanding of the situation only an indispensable minimum of facilities (autos, printing press, paper, guns and agitators) would have been required to turn the May Day armed insurrection into a successful proletarian revolution. But that organisation was lacking, and the counter-revolution triumphed. And, as the Fourth International predicted, proved itself absolutely incapable of bringing the anti-fascist war to a victorious end. Negrin paved the way for Franco.

Role of the Fourth International

Why were the Trotskyists unable to create a functioning revolutionary party in Spain? As I have shown, endless opportunities were opened up to them by the objective situation, especially by the continued struggle of the committees to retain their power after all the official parties had disowned them, and by the realisation of the vanguard “where the counter-revolution lay.” The answer to this question can be summed up: the Fourth Internationalists missed these opportunities because they were few, financially weak, foreigners, and at the front. Shortly before the May Days, and especially afterward, they began to grow in numbers. But it was too late for the success of the first Spanish revolution, because of the previous victory of the Stalinist counter-revolution, and — the liquidation of the civil war shortly after in 1939. The growth of the Spanish Trotskyists in those last bitter days of an illegal underground struggle is indicative of the future: only the Fourth Internationalists emerged from that tragic series of betrayals and defeats with an unsullied banner.

* This article was first published in the American Trotskyist journal The New International in April-May 1943.

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