Spanish Revolution 75th anniversary – Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory

This week is the 75th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War, on 18 July. We mark this hugely important event in world history with an article first published on in 2009.

This week is the 75th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War, on 18 July. We mark this hugely important event in world history with an article first published on in 2009.

The Spanish civil war (1936-39) was the bloodiest stage in the ten year-long Spanish revolution that began in 1931. Spain was a further confirmation of Leon Trotsky’s theory of ’permanent revolution’, which was earlier borne out in the Russian workers’ socialist revolution of 1917.

But unlike Russia in 1917, where the revolutionary leadership under Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks was decisive, in Spain the workers’ leaders vacillated between reform and revolution, thereby allowing the capitalists to reassert control and the triumph of Franco. In this, the Spanish capitalists were aided by the Stalinist Communist Party.

On 1 April 1939, General Franco declared victory after three years of civil war, which followed an attempted coup by army officers against Spain’s democratically elected Republican government.

Franco’s victory, backed to the hilt by the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany, marked the opening bars of the bloodiest war in human history – the second world war – which began exactly five months later. In Spain Franco’s dictatorship continued until his death in 1975.

During the civil war the ’white terror’ of Franco’s nationalist armies cost 200,000 lives, according to historian Anthony Beevor. Franco’s regime went on to consolidate its power with the blood of Spanish workers – with up to 200,000 killed in the aftermath of the war. It was only last year that the Spanish government officially recognised the suffering that took place under the dictatorship, when it accepted that those who had suffered repression or had lost family were ’victims’.

The net result of this bloody war was an appalling defeat for the working class. Yet there is another side to it: the incredible heroism and self-sacrifice of the Spanish working class in its struggle against fascism and for social and economic liberation. Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary, said, “One can neither expect nor ask for a movement of greater scope, greater endurance, greater heroism on the part of the workers than we were able to observe in Spain.”

Even those capitalist historians who have studied Spain seriously, have felt compelled to reflect the courage and determination of the Spanish working class. Beevor, for example, describes how the working class in Barcelona responded to the fascist uprising with “a desperate selfless bravery”. He vividly pictures how the unarmed working class of Barcelona prepared to prevent the nationalist army seizing control of their city:

“Isolated armouries were seized and weapons were taken from four ships in the harbour. Even the rusting hulk of the prison ship Uruguay was stormed, so as to take the warders’ weapons. The UGT dockers’ union knew of a shipment of dynamite in the port, and once that was seized, home-made grenades were manufactured all through the night. Every gun shop in the city was stripped bare. Cars and lorries were requisitioned and metal workers fixed crude armour plating while sandbags were piled behind truck cabs.”

Beevor goes on to describe the key moment the next day when the battle turned in favour of the workers:

“At one moment during the fighting, a small group of workers and an assault guard rushed across to an insurgent artillery detachment with two 75mm guns. They held their rifles above their head to show that they were not attacking as they rushed up to the astonished soldiers. Out of breath, they poured forth passionate arguments why the soldiers should not fire on their brothers, telling them that they had been tricked by their officers. The guns were turned around and brought to bear on the rebel forces. From then on more and more soldiers joined the workers and assault guards.”

Fear of revolution

In addition to boundless heroism and sound class instincts on how best to conduct the war, the Spanish working class and poor peasantry had enormous international support. This did not come from the capitalist democracies, which under the guise of ’neutrality’ refused to aid the Spanish Republic. The reason for this – mortal fear of the revolution – was explained clearly by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia, based on his own experiences in Spain:

“Foreign capital was heavily invested in Spain. The Barcelona Traction Company, for instance, represented ten millions of British Capital; and meanwhile the trade unions had seized all the transport in Catalonia. If the revolution went forward there would be no compensation, or very little.”

However, the international working class, along with many young intellectuals, were enthralled by the Spanish revolution. Worldwide, workers followed the conflict with baited breath.

Around 40,000 people from 53 different countries went to Spain to join the war against Franco. They included writers such as Orwell, Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, and, more decisively, thousands of young workers – more than 2,300 of whom came from the factories and mines of Britain and Ireland. And yet, despite this tremendous international class solidarity, the workers in Spain were defeated.

Stages theory

Seventy years on, the reasons for the defeat in Spain are not just of historical interest. Some factors, particularly the role of Stalinism, are not present in the same way today. As Orwell commented, “in reality it was the Communists above all others who prevented revolution in Spain.”

Stalinist policy was not motivated by the interests of the working class, but rather by fear of upsetting the USSR’s diplomatic relations with the major capitalist powers, and terror that the revolutionary upsurge of the working class in Spain would infect the working class of the Soviet Union, by now crushed under Stalin’s monstrous bureaucratic machine. Even the Stalinist secret police agents, sent to Spain to crush the revolution in blood, were themselves mostly killed once they returned to Russia for fear that they had been infected with the heady aroma of a genuine revolutionary upsurge by the masses.

The Stalinist regimes are no more. However, the Stalinist justification for their policy in Spain – the stages theory – that is that it was necessary to first win the war against fascism and to have a period of capitalist democracy, only worrying about the question of socialism at some future date – has already come up in a different form today. It will do so on a broader scale in the future, particularly in the neo-colonial world, where many of the conditions that existed in Spain in the 1930s still apply today.

Even now the left government in Bolivia, to give one example, which has been elected on a wave of popular support, and has introduced some reforms to assist the working class and the poor. At the same time, socialism is something for the future, and, today, the government emphasises the need to compromise and negotiate with the brutal, capitalist right-wing opposition which has kept the Bolivian masses in dire poverty for generations. Giving this need for compromise as the reason, government troops have forcibly evicted land occupations of the poor peasants.

Today we do not yet live in a global era of revolution and counter-revolution such as existed in the 1930s. Nonetheless, the profound economic crisis that is developing worldwide will, over the coming years, lead to revolutionary struggles, which, if they are to be successful, will need to learn the lessons of Spain.

Weakness of capitalism

Just as it is the weakest economies of Europe – largely in Eastern Europe, but also Spain where unemployment has leapt to 14% – that are suffering worst in the current economic crisis, Spain was devastated by the 1930s depression. As in Russia in 1917, capitalism broke at its weakest link in Spain. Spain, once the most powerful country in Europe, had suffered what Karl Marx called a ’slow, inglorious decay’ over centuries. In this respect a certain comparison can be drawn with Britain today. The Spanish elite – the monarchy, church, the army and hangers on – had amassed enormous wealth as a result of the plunder of South America. This, however, became their downfall, as the backward feudal regime crushed the nascent capitalist class under piles of gold and silver. Capitalism, as it belatedly developed, was weak and intertwined with both the old feudal regime and the world imperialist powers. In the 1930s what very limited industry had developed was largely foreign owned. Spain was responsible for only 1.1% of world trade.

In 1931 of the eleven million that made up Spain’s economically active population eight million were poor, their work provided no more than subsistence, and often less. The monarchy and the Catholic Church, which were closely intertwined, were hated by the majority of the working class and poor. In April 1931, the revolution began when, under phenomenal mass pressure including a series of general strikes, the king abdicated and a republic was declared led by the capitalist republican, Manuel Azaña. The popular hopes that this would mean a better life for the majority were, however, soon deflated as the republic acted in the interests of the same ruling elite. Not for nothing did one moderate describe Azaña’s government as one of ’mud, blood and tears’.

The republican government was incapable of carrying out the basic tasks of the capitalist democratic revolution. For example, around 70% of the population still worked on the land. The division of land was the worst in Europe, with the poor peasantry owning only one third of the most infertile land. The only solution to this would have been the nationalisation of the two thirds of the land held by the big landowners. But Spain’s financial and industrial capitalism had completely merged with the big landowners. No capitalist government was therefore prepared to challenge their power. One of the biggest, if not the biggest, landowner was the Catholic Church. While the population began to take measures into its own hands, including the widespread burning of churches, the government moved at a snail’s pace – proposing measures that did no more than trim the fingernails of the church.

At the same time peasants’ revolts and workers’ strikes, and particularly the anarchist trade union – the CNT, were met with increasingly brutal repression. In one particularly vicious example in early 1933, peasants in a village called Casas Viejas, who after two years of patiently waiting for land reform, had independently begun to till the local aristocrats’ land, were gunned down by the Civil Guard, with twenty of them being killed.

No wonder that, in the elections that followed in 1933, the government parties lost. As a result the forces of outright reaction came to power. The new government, however, had a very limited social base. In 1934 it was replaced by a reactionary dictatorship. This was met with an enormous uprising of opposition by the working class and poor peasantry. This culminated in the Asturian Commune which the dictatorship called in Franco to crush – 5,000 were killed mostly after surrendering.

This was the background to the elections in February 1936 which brought the Popular Front government to power. Azaña was again prime minister. PSOE, the mass social democratic party, won the largest number of seats of the parties that made up the Popular Front. All the government ministers, however, came from the capitalist parties. Having been burnt by their experience of taking part in the 1931-33 Azaña government, the left wing of PSOE prevented the right wing from joining the government. The programme of the government was exceedingly limited, even when compared to 1931-33.

Both the working class and poor and the representatives of capital had learnt lessons from the last five years. The workers and poor peasants did not wait for the new government to act. Around 30,000 political prisoners were liberated. Between February and July there were 113 general strikes and 228 other major strikes. Peasants started to occupy the land.

At the same time the capitalists drew the conclusion that they could not defend their system by democratic means – and began to prepare the ground for Franco’s coup.

When the coup came the working class responded, as has already been described, with enormous heroism. They were horribly hampered by a government which, as Beevor quotes one Seville carpenter as explaining, “were not prepared to give us [the workers] arms because they were more afraid of the working class than they were of the army.” Nonetheless, as Upton Sinclair witnessed, “these educated workers and their wives …charged machine guns with carving knives and pieces of board with nails sticking out.”

Where they successfully pushed back the fascists the workers held power in their hands. Felix Morrow, in his book, Revolution and Counter Revolution in Spain 1931-1937, explained how the anti-fascist militia in Catalonia, 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, 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 to fight reaction.”

In republican Spain the capitalist class did not exist, having fled with the fascists. Beevor describes how in Barcelona the anarchists installed their headquarters in the former premises of the Employers’ Federation. The Ritz was used as ’Gastronomic Unit No 1’, a public canteen for all those in need. He goes on to explain how: “In Barcelona worker committees took over all the services, the oil monopoly, the shipping companies, heavy engineering firms such as Vulcano, Ford motor company, chemical companies, the textile industry and a host of smaller enterprises.”

Class collaboration

However, the myth that was perpetuated, in essence, by the leadership of all the major workers parties, and above all by the Communist Party, was that in order to preserve ’unity’ with capitalist forces in the fight against fascism it was necessary to postpone the struggle for socialism to some later date. Beevor accurately states that “the most outspoken champions of private property were not the liberal republicans, as might have been expected, but the Communist Party.

At the same time the power of the working class was never organised via democratic workers’ committees, linked up locally, regionally and nationally in the way that took place twenty years earlier in the soviets of the Russian revolution.

The Communist Party did not bear sole responsibility. In Barcelona, for example, Garcia Oliver, the anarchist leader (the anarchists were the strongest force in Barcelona), explained how the anarchists could easily have taken power in July 1936 ’because all the forces were on our side’ but did not do so because, they did not ’believe in doing so’. This did not prevent the anarchist leaders, including Oliver, later joining the Popular Front government together with capitalist parties. In this way the role of the leaders of the workers’ parties allowed the capitalist class, initially no more than a shadow, gradually to regain substance before physically repressing the socialist revolution in May 1937.

Far from strengthening the fight against fascism, the policy of the workers’ leaders resulted in the defeat of that fight. Desperate to re-establish the rule of big capital, and to avoid upsetting the world imperialist powers, the heads of the workers’ organisations refused to adopt the policies that were necessary to win over ordinary soldiers fighting on the side of Franco.

Programme, party and leadership

The fascist coup was launched from Morocco, and many North African soldiers fought on the side of Franco. Yet the Republican government did not inscribe independence for Morocco on its banner. To do so would have quickly and dramatically fermented revolt in Franco’s army. Nor was the republican government prepared to call for expropriation of the big landowners, which would have been invaluable in winning those poor peasants who did not support the republic over.

There are obviously only very limited comparisons that can be drawn between the struggle to defeat Franco’s armies, backed to the hilt by the Spanish ruling class, and the campaigns socialists are involved in today against the far-right, racist British National Party. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learnt. The approach of the majority of Unite Against Fascism, which has widespread trade union support, is to limit its demand to the plea ’don’t vote BNP’. UAF’s organisers argue that to put forward anything else would alienate the Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat politicians who support the campaign. However, it is the anti-working class policies of the big three parties that have played the main role in driving a layer of workers to vote for the BNP. A genuine workers’ party, putting forward a clear class programme, is the only means by which the BNP can be undermined. It is for this reason that the decision of the railway and transport workers’ union, the RMT, to initiate a challenge in the European elections is so important.

The working class of Spain instinctively had the right approach to how they could win victory. Unfortunately, no party existed which was capable of, and willing to, put forward and campaign for a programme that expressed and codified the approach taken by the working class. Today, the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) is known internationally to a younger generation chiefly as a result of Ken Loach’s excellent film, ’Land and Freedom’. The POUM was an anti-Stalinist party that, once the revolution had been crushed, suffered horrific repression at the hands of the Stalinists, including the murder of its leader Andre Nin.

Despite being decried as ’Trotskyist’ by the Stalinists, the POUM was no such thing. If it had followed the programme put forward by Trotsky from afar, the outcome of the Spanish struggle would have been completely different. Under the impact of the revolution the POUM grew in membership very quickly – from 8,000 on the eve of the civil war it quadrupled its membership in a few months – and potentially could have grown far more. Tragically, however, rather than putting an independent class programme forward, it trailed behind the anarchist and social democratic parties – standing a little to the left – but not putting forward any clear alternative.

Trotsky, in his tremendous article, ’The Class, the Party, and the Leadership’, takes up those who argued that the working class in Spain did not take power because they were ’immature’.

“What does the ’immaturity’ of the proletariat signify in this case? Self-evidently only this, that despite the correct political line chosen by the masses they were unable to smash the coalition of Socialists, Stalinists, Anarchists, and the POUMists with the bourgeoisie.”

“The workers’ line of march at all times cut at a certain angle to the line of the leadership. And at the most critical moments this angle became 180 degrees. The leadership then helped directly or indirectly to subdue the workers by armed force.”

The twentieth century was littered with attempts by working-class people to overthrow capitalism and to carry out the socialist transformation of society. In a litany of tragic failures, none is more heart rending than the events in Spain, nor so rich in lessons of what might have been, had the working class had a leadership worthy of it. Today we are just beginning to witness the full brutality and bankruptcy of twenty-first century capitalism. There is no doubt that in the future we will see struggles to transform society which will dwarf even the greatest events of the twentieth century. If, this time, we are to succeed in building a new society that meets the needs of all, it is essential that the new generation of young people now looking to socialist ideas study the lessons of the great battles of the century, including the lessons of Spain, only a few of which are touched on here.

Spanish revolution timeline

April 1931 revolution establishes the second republic. King Alfonso goes into exile. Pro-worker reforms introduced.

July-August 1933. Strike wave. General strike in Seville crushed by Republican government artillery.

November 1933. Elections to Cortes (national parliament). Rightists and monarchists form government with Lerroux as prime minister (PM); begins to repeal reforms.

October-November 1934. General strike of socialists and anarchists defeated. Lerroux calls in Franco to crush uprising of Asturian miners.

August-September 1935. Communist International (Comintern) proclaims Popular Front policy. Founding of POUM.

February 1936. New elections brings Popular Front to power; Azana is PM; anarchists and POUM support Popular Front in the election

July 1936. Spanish Communist Party declares full support to government. Fascists rising begins in Morocco and spreads to Spain. Companys (leader of the Catalan regional government – the Generalitat) refuses to distribute arms. Workers seize arms.

September 1936. Largo Caballero (left wing leader of Socialist Party) becomes PM on condition that CP join government. CNT and POUM join Generalitat.

October 1936. Central government ends independence of militias. Siege of Madrid begins.

November 1936. Central government reorganised to include Anarchists. International Brigades arrive in Madrid.

December 1936. POUM expelled from government. Letter from Stalin to Caballero insists on protection of private property.

May 1937. Government attempt to seize Barcelona telephone exchange from Anarchists leads to new workers’ upsurge; Negrin (right wing leader of Socialist Party) replaces Caballero as PM.

June 1937. POUM outlawed by central government; leaders arrested.

April-June 1938. Franco’s forces reach coast, cutting Republican Spain in half.

November 1938. International Brigades withdraw from Spain.

January 1939. Barcelona surrenders to Franco.

February 1939. France and Britain recognise Franco while Republicans still hold a third of Spain.

March 1939. Madrid and Valencia surrender.

April 1939. US recognises Franco.

August 1939. Stalin-Hitler pact.


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