Barcelona 1936-37: social revolution or republican state?

9 03 2013

Barry Biddulph argues that the workers revolution in Barcelona in 1936 was contained within republican state structures, then destroyed, as a war in defence of a reconstituted republican state replaced social revolution. It is well-known that the Stalinists, above all others, finished off the revolution. But within the revolution there was a failure to push forward towards a post capitalist libertarian society.


On the 18th of July 1936, President Luis Companys, leader of the Generalitat, the state in Catalonia, refused to hand over arms to workers organisations in Barcelona, when it became known that Franco was about to stage a military coup. Like other Republican politicians, he feared popular power more than the Fascists. The next day his greatest nightmare became a reality. The working class of Barcelona had rallied to protect working class interests and communities. They built barricades, formed committees, fought street battles to defeat the army units loyal to Franco and successfully stormed the army barracks. The answer to fascism was revolution. The workers organisations, controlled the entire city with over 90,000 captured rifles. The state had no army, the police, assault guards and civil guards had either gone over to the people or were unreliable.

Companys met with the armed leaders of the insurrection, including Durruti and Garcia Oliver, on the 20th July. What could Company do, he was powerless. Furthermore, he had a record in government of repressing anarchists and the revolutionary left. But he had a phantom of power, in the sense that he had a history of state authority. He stated the all too obvious facts: you are now in control of the city of Barcelona because you alone routed the Fascists.  He then played a crafty Republican card. He invited them to take all the power, but added that if he as a symbol of the Republic could assist the anti-fascist cause, above all anti-fascist unity in the war against Fascism, he would. This tactic of let’s co-operate (class collaboration) and concentrate on winning the war was a tactic to deflect social revolution.

Companys suggested setting up  a revolutionary sounding, Central Anti-Fascists Militia’s Committee. His intention was to preserve the empty shell of the bourgeois state. The CNT-FIA had the vast majority of revolutionary workers on the streets, but only a minority of seats on the committee. The middle class republican organisations had more representatives than the CNT-FIA and had the back up of the Stalinists. More importantly, the republican politicians had control over the banks, the financial system and the gold reserves.  The leaders of the CNT began to accept the logic of a minority position in the war against Fascism, which would take priority over revolution. Meanwhile, Companys was biding his time and planning to build up Republican political strength so that the Committee could be dissolved and the full authority of the Generalitat restored.

Felix Morrow, takes a slightly different point of view. The Central Anti Fascist Militia’s Committee was “unlike a coalition government which in actuality rests on the old state machine, the CAFMC dominated by the anarchists rested on workers organisations and Militia’s” (1). In fact, CAFMC was a top down structure  from the republican and anarchist leadership. It was not a direct delegate body from the grass root militia’s which would have made it a revolutionary council or an alternative to the republican state: it still had one foot in the capitalist state. In effect, it was a sub committee of the Generalitat. David Freund, a Trotskyist activist in the revolution, had a more accurate assessment from experience: “the CAFMC in Barcelona was the expression, on the one hand of the victory of the anti-fascist insurrection and on the other of the continued existence of the structure of the bourgeois state”(2).

Andre Nin, the leader of the POUM, described the situation as “the government does not exist. We collaborate with them, but they can do more than sanction what is done by the masses”(3). If the masses were calling the shots why collaborate with the republican government? Why give them authority when they had none? Why not focus on how the workers could articulate their power against the state? This political ambiguity on the state as if the destruction of the state could be placed on one side, fitted into the first win the war ideology which won out against the position of completing the revolution. The latter was described by the anarchist leader, Federico Montseny, as an unrealistic demand of anarchist dictatorship. It was considered more realistic to have confidence in politicians and parties who had a history of persecuting anarchists and revolutionaries of all kinds.

According to Agustin Guillamon,”on the 23rd a full-blown plenum held in secret of the superior committees of the CNT-FIA closed ranks with regard to their decision to collaborate” (4). Later a regional plenum on the 26th confirmed the decision, but the debate was framed in a false choice between anarchist dictatorship or collaboration and democracy. The leaders decision to meet with Luis Companys before convening a representative gathering of their members seemed  to indicate a predisposition towards a compromise with middle class politicians and the state. Garcia Oliver was deferential towards Luis Companys, “we had confidence in the word and in the person of a Catalan democrat” (5). As the counter-revolutionary actions of the Republican ‘left’ and their Stalinist supporters unfolded, it became obvious that Garcia Oliver should have had more confidence and respect for the mass of workers engaged in revolution.

Already on the 24th, Durruti and thousands of anarchist’s and socialists, with the rifles liberated from  Barcelona’s barracks, marched through Aragon, facilitating collectivisation of the land, to take up positions against the fascists. But here they became bogged down in a war of position with the fascists without the heavy weaponry to make a dramatic breakthrough to take Saragossa. The advantages of flexible and mobile guerilla units acting behind enemy lines or hit and run tactics were forgotten. There seemed to be a naive faith that Spain’s gold reserves, held by Republicans, would be used to provide the necessary fire power to take Saragossa, or revolutionary enthusiasm would be enough. Luis Companys’ Catalan left had no intention of using Spain’s gold reserves to provide sufficient equipment for a revolutionary militia. The enemy was not just the fascists. What Durruti and his comrades should have left behind in Barcelona was a structure “out of the fragmented local powers, a revolutionary power which would overthrow the remains of the bourgeois state-instead of driving past it as if it was already a corpse” (6).

On the streets of Barcelona the workers in their committees were well and truly in charge. There was a revolutionary committee for every working class issue. There were patrol and  defence committees  to protect working class communities and carry out redistribution from non working class area’s. There were committees for food storing and supplies, soup kitchens, the running of hospitals, railways, taxi cabs, electric and gas companies, bakeries, barber shops, pubs, breweries and many more. Car assembly plants and other factories were converted with great innovation into arms manufacturing concerns. The Tramway Company was expropriated by armed workers and run to provide a better service with better working conditions,with all the trams carrying the CNT initials and colours. Hundreds of enterprises were collectivized under workers control. In George Orwell’s words, “Above all else, there was the belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom” (7).

This popular power was unable to develop and consolidate itself while the leadership of the workers parties were in unity with bourgeois Republicans and their Stalinist supporters, who would defend the remnants of the state apparatus and then act to undermine and then crush the Revolution. What was consolidated instead was class collaboration, when the Central Anti-Fascists Militias Committee was dissolved in October 1936, popular front unity was directly expressed in the reconstituted Generalitat. Revolution and the bourgeois state could not co-exist for any length of time, one would have to triumph over the other: the revolution was unfinished. When George Orwell arrived in Barcelona it appeared as if the workers were in complete control, but he later reflected that he had “not realised that great numbers of the well to do bourgeois were simply lying low”(8). Orwell sarcastically described the counter-revolutionary process: “it appeared that the thing demanded by military necessity was the surrender of something the workers had won for themselves in 1936″ (9).

The vanguard of counter-revolution were the Stalinist’s. The ‘Communist’ Party had little influence in the Barcelona working class at the start of the revolution. They merged with moderate socialists to form a unified party, the PSCU. They stood for the defence of bourgeois democracy. This was justified by a caricature of the Mensheviks two stage theory in Russia in 1917. First the bourgeois revolution, then at a later stage, the socialist revolution. The politics of the Stalinists attracted the middle class of Catalonia, the shop keeper, the small business owner, the lawyer. The PSCU developed a well deserved reputation as the party which would save Catalonia from Communism. But their policy was “dictated by the question of how it would affect the current needs of Russian foreign policy” (10). The party was run by Stalin’s agents in Spain. Stalin wanted an alliance with Britain and France. A workers revolution in Barcelona did not meet his requirements for the defence of his dictatorship over the Russian working class.

Eric Hobsbawn writes that “it is safe to say that for most republican sympathisers abroad, what counted above all, was the defeat of Franco,rather than the nature of the Spanish Republic which might follow” (11). It would be safer to say, from the perspective of Stalinist propaganda, that there was no revolution in Spain, only anarchist indiscipline and Trotskyist fascism, influential in the international workers movement and among the middle class fellow travellers at the time. Another Historian who was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain was Victor Kiernan. He blames the victims. Branding revolutionaries as reactionaries in disguise was allegedly itself a reaction to anarchist lack of discipline! He goes on to cynically compare the liquidation of the revolution in Barcelona with Cromwell’s crushing of the Levellers (12). But it’s his analogy which is out of time, not the workers revolution in industrialised Spain, when socialism was on the agenda. A better historical analogy would be the Social Democrat leader, Noske, who was ultimately responsible for the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and the bloody suppression of the German Revolution in 1918.

On December 17 1936, Stalin’s Pravda gave a clear warning about what the Stalinists in Spain were preparing for the Barcelona working class. “As for Catalonia, the purging of Trotskyists and the Anarcho-Syndicalists has begun; it will be conducted with the same energy with which it is conducted in the USSR” (13). Shortly before the attack on Barcelona in May 1936, directed by the Stalinists, a report from Spain passed on from George Dimitrov, head of the Comintern, to Red Army Chief  Marshall Voroshilov stated : “the duty of the party involves not waiting passively for a natural unleashing of the hidden government crisis,but to hasten it and if necessary provoke it” (14). Stalin wanted to show the western bourgeois democracies that there was no need for fascism in Spain. The revolution would be tamed by the Spanish ‘communists’ with the help of the Russian Secret Police.

On May 3rd 1937, the Barcelona chief of police and  Stalinist, Rodriguez Salas, and three lorry loads of well armed assault guards attempted to seize the Telephonica building, the symbol of the revolution in July 1936. They were making good the Stalinist boast that they would take Barcelona before Saragossa. The resistance was rather more than they anticipated (15). Thousands of armed workers rushed into the streets to put up barricades. The revolution was back. The CNT controlled telephone exchange had cost the workers blood in 1936; they were defending their gains. But the CNT leadership did not want a fight with the Stalinists. In the next few days the CNT called for the workers to go back to work on the basis of worthless assurances there would be no reprisals. The main anarchist leaders, who were now in the  national government, Garcia Oliver, and Federica Montseny, appealed over the radio to the workers to leave the barricades. Then later, the leaders of the POUM also instructed their members to leave the barricades. The appeals of the leaders and the confusion and division this caused, plus shortage of food, had the desired effect. The armed people left the streets: the revolution was defeated. The costs were high: 500 workers were killed and over 1,000 injured.

The Republican government had not hesitated to send five thousand assault guards to Barcelona to help restore order (16). The Spanish State was in hock to the USSR since they handed 70% of their gold reserves to Stalin in September 1936, in fear that the Anarchist might attempt to ‘liberate’ the gold. The Republic did not receive value for money. Most of the new weapons went to the Republics reconstituted security forces inside Republican lines. As Orwell put it, “a government which sends boys of 15 to the front with rifles 40 years old and keeps its biggest men and newest weapons in the rear is manifestly more afraid of revolution than fascism” (17). The Stalinists, including hundreds of NKVD officers,        with secret prisons, had been building up the Republics internal security forces, ready for a showdown. Certainly the PSCU put killing the revolution and revolutionaries the priority over fighting fascism. Stalinist terror, which was fed and was feeding the terror in the USSR, was unleashed on the revolutionary left in Barcelona.

The POUM leader, Andre Nin, like many others, was rounded up, tortured and shot. The POUM Leadership was imprisoned. Thousands of revolutionaries, faced prison, torture or later concentration camps in France and Germany. Some were simply shot out of hand. The organised revolutionary left was decimated. When the Fascists marched on Barcelona there were no organised force to defend it. Fascism could not be separated from capitalism: the workers would not shed their blood  simply for a bourgeois republic. Anthony Beever’s conclusion is that, “faced with the barrage of ‘Communist’ lies (about May 1937) any question of Republican unity was now dead” (18). But unity with Republicans and Stalinists is what destroyed the revolution. Beever writes within a popular front framework with little understanding about social revolution. The monstrous Stalinist lies about the Spanish Revolution have been discredited, but a popular front mythology still lives on in the historical narratives of the events. But the essential point is that the revolution could only be made against the state, not with the state (19).

1 Felix Morrow, 1974, Revolution and Counter Revolution in Spain,page 326, Pathfinder Press.

2 David Freund,1992, Dual power in the Spanish Revolution, the Spanish Civil War,page 326 ,Revolutionary History,vol 4 number 1,Socialist Platform.  This was the comrade who wrote the leaflet Now or never in defence of the Spanish revolution which he distributed on the barricades in Barcelona in 1937. He was photographed ,presumably by a Stalinist, and later disappeared never to be seen again. ( almost certainly the work of the Russian secret police active in Spain)

3 Anthony Beever, 2006, The battle for Spain, page 89, Phoenix.

4 Augustin Guillamon, lib com, The CNT Defence Committees in Barcelona 1933-38.

5 Vernon Richards,1995,Lessons of the Spanish Revolution,page 34  Freedom Press, London.

6 Ronald Fraser 1981 The spanish Civil War, New Left Review 129, page

7 George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, page 33

8 George Orwell,Homage to Catalonia page 33

9 George Orwell,Homage to Catalonia page 54

10 Hugh Thomas,(2003) The Spanish Civil war, page 325, Penguin Books.

11 Eric Hobsbawn, 2012, How to Change the world, page 307,   Abacus.

12 Victor kiernan, 1980, Blood of Spain ,  New left Review, page 120.

13 Felix Morrow  Revolution and Counter Revolution in Spain page 129 Pathfinder Press.

14 Christopher Hitchens,2001, Introduction, Orwell in Spain , Penguin.

15 As above.

16 Hugh Thomas,2003, The Spanish Civil War,page 639,Penguin.

18 Anthony Beever, 2006 ,  Battle for Spain,page 300, Phoenix

19 This was the conclusion of the Friends of Durrutti in their famous leaflet distributed on the Barricades in May 1937.

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14 responses

9 03 2013

Nice historical analysis. Just one little correction: it is PSUC (Partit Socialist Unificat de Catalunya, now part PCE and the broader coalition United Left), not PSCU.

11 03 2013

On the face book page, Richard wrote that the point was having seized State power, the workers should not have handed it back. This is a misunderstanding.Seizing state power was and is not an aim of Anarchists or Marxists. The aim is establishing an alternative to Capitalism and the State. This is what Marx described as the Commune state. Which was not a state as such. The Anarchist and POUM leaders fell into the trap of supporting the Republican state not out of principle, but pragmatism and “realism” as if the revolution could be left until tomorrow. For them the priority today was an anti Fascist unity . But underneath the slogan of unity there was disunity and war against revolution.

To capture or seize state power was the perspective of kautsky and German Social Democracy. kautsky’s lesson from the Paris Commune was that Revolution from below led to defeat. High politics was the answer. Seizing state power was the solution. The parliamentary road to Socialism. Although Lenin went with the Russian masses in 1917 and wrote about smashing state power, he went on to fuse the party with the state or rebuilt the state around the party,which led to a dictatorship over workers. Parliament played no role in the revolutionary events in Barcelona.

Another comment on the Commune’s face book page is from Johnny. He questions if the armed police were unreliable or had gone over to the people. He raises this question: if the armed police were loyal to the republic then the state still existed. But in Barcelona in July 1936 the Republican State did not have the monopoly of armed force and violence. The armed people were enforcing the domination of the working class. Without an army the Republican leaders,without the help of the workers leaders, would not have been able to enforce their will, even if all the armed police were loyal. But the police were influenced by the politics and determination of the people on the day of the revolution in Barcelona. Eye witnesses do confirm police did hand over their rifles or joined the people.

In the Paris Commune,the main bank was left in the hands of the bankers who then doled out money to the armed people as long as the revolution was in full swing. In Barcelona in 1936 , the same mistake was made, the banks were not expropriated. The financiers and republican politicians had no choice but to grant credit to the collectives until they could manipulate the situation, in which they controlled the purse strings, preventing a more developed workers self management. Durrutti was compelled to go cap in hand,in September, to ask for some of the gold reserves to be used for the workers and militias in Catalonia. The response of the Republicans and State Socialists was to hand 70% of the Gold over to Stalin. In the first few weeks of the revolution what was to stop them seizing the gold and the banks? Ony one thing :anti Fascist unity with the republican state.

11 03 2013

“Seizing state power was and is not an aim of Anarchists or Marxists”.

It depends on which Marxists, obviously. Anyhow if not seizing the state, then destroying it and replacing it by the grassroots communist democracy, something the Anarchists impelled to a great extent at local and factory levels.

A key issue here, not well explained neither in the article nor the reply above, is that Catalonia was not a sovereign state but an autonomous region, even if it largely worked, as the Basque autonomous region, as de-facto state during the war. Seizing or destroying the Catalan semi-autonomous institutions without doing the same elsewhere in Spain, where the Anarchists, never mind the much smaller POUM, were weaker, would have probably caused a civil war of some sort in the Republican side, weakening the obvious priority of stopping the fascists. In this sense the Anarchist stand was not much different of that of, say, Mao and the CCP in the context of the war against Japan. It is questionable but there are powerful complex reasons of short-term pragmatism behind it.

Through the Spanish State, in the Republican side, joint militias were created between the main worker forces, most importantly CNT (anarchist union, with 3 million members) and UGT (socialdemocrat union), in what was known as UHP (“unite proletarian brothers”). Of course the stand of the UGT, the PSOE and the PCE was ambiguous or rather negative towards the Anarchist-led revolution, but the priority of stopping fascism first of all was clear, at least in theory, for all.

Another issue that helped defeat the Anarchist revolution was the lack of weapons. France (ruled by a Peoples’ Front) had been coerced by the UK into strict neutrality while the Nazis and Italian Fascists sent everything they wanted, including many key troops. Only the USSR stood side by side with the Republic but their made very clear that they did not want their weapons reaching the Anarchist militias.

The fascists had clear domain of the air space, partly thanks to the Nazi Condor Legion, and while the sailors had taken over most of the Navy, they seemed unable to get it to operate without officers (it was idle most of the war).

Add to that some disorganization. There was nothing like the Red Army ever: militias were important but not elite units at all. The quasi-mythical Durruti march against Zaragoza was easily disorganized by a few air attacks for example.

Even if the revolution would have reached further, it is probable that the fascists would have won the war anyhow. Of course the failure of the revolution was demoralizing for many but it is unlikely it would have succeeded even in the best case.

11 03 2013

Maju-you write that it depends on which Marxists. Well in the history of the Spanish Revolution it also depends on which Anarchists. I would argue that Authentic Anarchism and Marxism or Communism do not aim to capture the State. So in that sense the actions of State Socialists and Garcia Oliver and others do not discredit Communism or Anarchism.

Stopping fascism was not a priority for everyone. It was not a priority for the Republicans and the Stalinists or the USSR. One reason for the lack of weapons among the revolutionaries militias was the refusal of the Generalitat or the Government in Madrid to use gold reserves and other resources to arm the people, in their militias. Militias or the armed people have always been the programme of revolutionary Anarchism and revolutionary Marxism. Another reason was the priority of the USSR to rebuild the republican state,by arming the internal security forces. The Soviet union did not stand side to side with the Revolution or the Republic. It armed the republic to crush the revolution. It pursued its national interest at the expense of the Spanish Working Class.

Stalin’s foreign policy was at the time completely unrealistic. It wanted unity with Britain against Fascist Germany. But the British Government during this period did not want unity with the USSR or rather Stalin’s Russia.( Socialism did not exit in Russia) What the British political elite wanted was to avoid war with Germany and fascism. And they did not want the revolutionary contagion to spread,from Spain, something they shared with Stalin. In killing the revolution Stalin was demonstrating his common interests and usefulness to the British Bourgeoisie. Later Stalin made a pact with the Nazi regime. But all this had no connection with internationalism, or workers solidarity, but what he perceived was the national interests of Russia and its ruling elite .

In other words, there was already a civil war on the “Republican side” From the beginning. Spreading the revolution from its industrial and political strong hold in Barcelona would not have created a civil war,that’s a popular front perspective. So is the view that the spanish working class could not have defeated fascism without the Republican parties, who were prepared to compromise with fascism from the outset. Had it not been for the revolutionary actions of the workers, the fascists would have taken over Spain in weeks if not days. The Republicans and their Stalinist backers with their state and conventional army went from defeat to defeat once the revolution was crushed.

As for your reference to Mao and the CCP. Mao’s de-classed peasant army was a nationalist army. The revolutionary working class involvement in the Chinese Communist party was destroyed in 1926 due to massacres and defeats of worker communists created by Stalin’s version of the Menshevik two stage policy of first the bourgeois revolution and then the Socialist revolution. The Kuomintang was not revolutionary nationalist as envisaged by the Stalinist Comintern. So after the workers revolution was crushed in 1926/7 Mao substituted his army for the National bourgeoisie.

11 03 2013

I’m not in disagreement with what you say, Commie46, except details maybe.

“Spreading the revolution from its industrial and political strong hold in Barcelona would not have created a civil war,that’s a popular front perspective”.

Some anarchists via the “Sindicalistas” (i.e. “labor unionists”) ad-hoc party were members of the People’s Front, and even if the general attitude of CNT was (and is) to call for abstention in all bourgeois elections, probably many of their millions affiliates supported this list with their votes anyhow. I understand that the CNT (which was and is not the same as the much smaller and compact party-like Iberian Anarchist Federation, FAI) was too plural and, while very strong, not strong enough, to implement a revolutionary reality in all the Spanish territory unoccupied by the fascists. Fighting against fascism was also a priority for them and “pragmatism” eventually dominated (debatable if this pragmatism was correct or wrong – I can’t say: I wasn’t there). For example I recall (from a conference of an old leader of CNT in the Basque Country) that they had a meeting with CIA agents at Bayonne after WWII and when asked which was their main demand, they replied that removing Franco from power was their main priority (so they did consider a return to bourgeois democracy an advance above fascism, logically). He wondered if this admission actually helped to keep fascism in power for longer, as the desires of the USA were probably more interested in extirpating revolutionary struggles, notably the CNT, than in restoring formal democracy. Years later Eisenhower formally recognized the fascist regime and signed agreements with it.

“What the British political elite wanted was to avoid war with Germany and fascism”.

That’s the official version but reality is more complex and ugly. In fact the UK more or less supported fascism in Europe, including initially Nazism. It was not a direct explicit support but from a historical perspective there can be no doubt. Not only the UK did but nearly all the continental bourgeois forces also.

The problem with Nazi Germany, as Heinz Dieterich explains well in some of his books, was that it had plans to conquer Eastern Europe, notably the USSR, in order to make it “the India of Germany” (i.e. the core of their colonial empire) and that would displace the UK as main European power (a similar Berlin-London supremacy conflict had previously led to WWI). For that reason the UK (and its “pet” France) guaranteed Poland’s integrity forcing Hitler to bring the war to the West and delaying the secret plan to invade Russia to at least the A-A line (Arkangelsk-Astrakhan). Actually Nazi conquests were so successful that they even challenged the US incipient World supremacy, forcing their think tanks to estimate that with the Americas and the British Empire alone they were second tier to Germany and that, to compensate for that, they needed China – so they pushed forth tensions with Japan culminating in Pearl Harbor (which Washington knew of in advance but did not impede in order to have a casus belli). They had not planned to intervene in Europe directly but Hitler was foolish enough to declare war to them (in the vane hope of Japan attacking Russia in solidarity reaction) so they took much of Europe also as result.

Ironically WWII (in Europe) was to defend the USSR, which may have been an undesirable class enemy but was less dangerous to the Anglosaxon imperial-bourgeois power than a free reign Nazi Germany controlling much of Russia.

“Mao’s de-classed peasant army was a nationalist army. The revolutionary working class involvement in the Chinese Communist party was destroyed in 1926″…

I only know on the matter enough to discuss but I have read very different versions from both Maoist and Trostkyist sources (I drink from many fountains). Whatever the case, the Chinese example is comparable in that the revolutionary struggle (let’s consider it that way for the sake of the example) could be continued after the Japanese fascist enemy was defeated to the success of the People’s Army. Similarly one can imagine an alternate history scenario in which the fascists were defeated in Spain and the anarchist revolution triumphant in the aftermath (I know it has issues but it’s something I bet many people among the anarchists imagined as possible in the late 30s).

11 03 2013

Erratum: “I only know on the matter enough to discuss”… (last paragraph) should read “I don’t know on the matter enough to discuss”… or “I only know so much on the matter to discuss”…

Also where it reads “The problem with Nazi Germany”… it means implicitly for the British bourgeois elites. Obviously there were many more problems with Nazi Germany.

12 03 2013

You might drink from many fountains. But one fountain you drink from more than most is the popular front/class collaboration fountain. The choice in 1936 was not Fascism and parliamentary democracy. It was fascism or Revolution.

Franco had contacts and support at the highest levels of British politics and society. Fascism and Capitalism are not separate as in a mistaken Stalinist dogma. MI6 and the British political elite did not see any fundamental reason why Capitalism and Franco could not co-exist. What they could see in conditions of capitalist crisis in the 1930’s was a feeble Republican regime which would be unable to resist Fascism or a form of Communism. This is clear in their reports and policy formation of the time. Beneath the political sham of non intervention they practically supported the defence of Capitalism by Franco and his military coup. The Communist Anarchist menace had to be stopped.

The revolutionary workers were aware it was a life and death issue for them and Capitalism. They did not rally around parliament and Parliamentarians. They seized the factories and Land. when the Anarchist and POUM militias marched into Aragon an area that was weaker in revolutionary traditions they revolutionised property relations. This period saw the biggest gains against Fascism and Capitalism.Franco was not a life or death question for Bourgeois and petty bourgeois republicans. They wanted a deal with Franco at the beginning and the end. In between they wanted to use any fight back as a bargaining chip.

Bourgeois Democracy or the republican state was impotent to resist the Fascists when the coup took place and was sidelined in Barcelona and elsewhere. And without Revolution failed to prevent the victory of Franco. The Spanish Stalinists substituted themselves for the Bourgeoisie to make a bourgeois revolution. But one of the Spanish leaders of the party- who resented Stalin agents taking over the party-admitted later that the Bourgeois revolution was already complete,so it was a bogus theory to justify implementing Stalin’s foreign policy. An anti Fascist stage in the struggle with Stalinists could only mean defeat for the revolution. All this dogma of Bourgeois or Republican Democracy first is a product of the rehashing of old Menshevik theory from Russia.

It was this dogma which led to destruction of the Chinese Communist Party as a revolutionary workers party in 1926/7. The Spanish Communist party was not a workers party either. The middle class republicans who found refuge from workers power as members of “the party” would probably have been fascists if they were not Catalan Nationalists or found themselves in a situation where there were no fascists around to join. A war to free china of foreign occupation is not an analogy with a workers revolution in Spain. The link is the dogma of the Stalinist Comintern.

12 03 2013

“But one fountain you drink from more than most is the popular front/class collaboration fountain”.

You are judging me, quite wrongly in my opinion. But in any case I am offended by that way of not debating the facts, historical in this case, but the people, and quite shallowly so.

All I say is that, regardless of what you or I may think, that was, I understand, the kind of attitudes one could find in that time and place. I don’t try to impose my vision of class war on history but instead try to learn how class war actually works from what has happened in the past.

“The choice in 1936 was not Fascism and parliamentary democracy. It was fascism or Revolution”.

That’s of course how I see class war in general (revolution vs. the bourgeois regime no matter which variant) but, unlike you, I realize that there are many other viewpoints, even inside the revolutionary movement. This is not moral relativism: it is humility and self-criticism: I know I don’t dictate the terms of others’ thoughts, much less in the distant past.

As for the rest, I don’t generally disagree with you, just that I’m not certain at all that the Anarchist Revolution could have succeeded even if they stuck to the revolutionary maximalism you suggest, a bit arrogantly.

“All this dogma of Bourgeois or Republican Democracy first”…

That’s not what I said. What I said is that, after the wars, the CNT leadership in exile felt they could make advances easier within the context of relative freedom of a bourgeois parliamentary regime (pseudo-democracy). I probably agree with them (never before now thought about needing to take a stand on this issue) but it does not matter what I may think: what matters is what they did think and feel back then. After all we’re trying to make some historical analysis, right?

Anarchist and Marxist guerrillas in any case continued fighting with very limited impact against fascism (the various “maquis”, heir of the French Resistance, largely made up of Spaniard exiles, the MIL, ETA, GRAPO, FRAP, CC.AA., etc.) and in some cases (ETA-m, GRAPO, CC.AA.) even later, under the “democratic” neofascist regime. Even today you read now and then of arson attacks and home-made bombs, and IMO this tendency may resurface strongly as the capitalist crisis and the subsequent attack against the concessions to the working class increases dramatically, as is happening now.

But the harsh reality is probably that Spain, never mind Greece, is too small for any revolutionary struggle to succeed alone. We need continental, European-sized revolutions, as the 1917-21 revolution was (affecting most of Europe East of the Rhine). But even with more reason now because the interactions are much more intensified almost a century later. Russia was probably large enough for the external enemies of the revolution to have only limited impact but there’s no other country-state in Europe of even comparable size.

“A war to free china of foreign occupation is not an analogy with a workers revolution in Spain. The link is the dogma of the Stalinist Comintern”.

Not at all my background, which is somewhat Anarchist but rather Autonomist. And not at all what I meant. What I meant is just that one can easily draw a comparison on grounds of apparent pragmatism. That is regardless of what I may think of either case, which is probably not what you think I think.

I’m anything but Stalinist, I mean seriously.

13 03 2013

Maju-you have made valuable contributions to the discussions on our site over the years and hopefully you will continue to do so. My arguments were made from conviction. No offence intended; Sorry if any taken.

But on some of the points you make. On the CNT leaders. If you have a situation of workers power/democracy why would you go back to Bourgeois democracy? And in the situation of 1936, the Republican state was caught between the anvil of Fascism and the hammer of Revolution. Most of the CNT leaders chose to work with the remnants of a Republican state and its leaders, which had not only failed to oppose fascism initially, but still regarded the threat of revolution as a bigger priority throughout. In May 1937 the CNT leaders turned their back on the POUM and the Revolutionary militants. Again they lacked confidence in a Communist or Libertarian alternative,either because of the influence of the Stalinist two stage theory or the nature of Trade Unionism or a combination of the two factors.

Its not a question of imposing a revolutionary class war on the historical facts. The historical facts show there was a class war or revolution in Spain which was far deeper and wider than the Russian Revolution. But the CNT leaders did not go with the flow. President Companys had been the CNT legal spokesperson, so he knew the political weakness of the CNT leaders. That’s why he said to them, on the day the Barcelona workers triumphed over the Army,you have the power. This thought had the desired effect (fear), and he was able to add,but If I can help in any way. In other words, he was saying, you know you cannot rule alone without my great office of state and everything that goes with it.

If you say the workers Revolution was the maximum programme and the only realistic programme was the minimum programme, which was the argument of the Stalinists, then you are saying workers power was not possible despite the victory of the workers in 1936 against all the odds. The Republican State had rolled over as the Fascist reached out for State power;the workers were unarmed. The workers created an arms industry in Barcelona out of nothing,began to run other industries and the city and at the same time fought the fascists in their militias. The working class had left the minimum programme behind as the Russian workers did in 1917. The Bolsheviks had to put their minimum programme to one side to in 1917. Prior to 1917 Lenin, also had a two stage theory,but he learned from the masses.

13 03 2013

No offense intended, no offense taken, Commie46.

“If you have a situation of workers power/democracy why would you go back to Bourgeois democracy?”

IMO the key issue or at least a key issue is that there was not a workers power except in Catalonia and the liberated lands of Eastern Aragon. Catalonia is, by population, just ~14% of the whole Spanish State and the revolution did not spread to most other parts of Spain (it’d be interesting to analyze why) and the real power (with the debatable benefit of de jure recognition, which weighted in the loyalist Army/police and also internationally) in those areas was the Republic (under a People’s Front elect government).

I guess that the Anarchists could have chosen to fight against the demands from Madrid but they felt they did not have enough power yet, that defeating fascism was a priority, and that, if fascism was defeated they would be in excellent position to push forward for revolution (while fighting against the still powerful Republic would be self-defeating for both).

Notice that I don’t necessarily agree with this stand and, would I have been there, I had probably oppossed this “defeatist” attitude. But what my hypothetical personal stand matters little.

I also guess that the (quite probable) murder of such a charismatic and irreducibly revolutionary figure as was Buenaventura Durruti helped in this process of defeatism. As did the Stalinist stand against sending any weapons to the Catalan-Aragonese liberated areas.

“If you say the workers Revolution was the maximum programme and the only realistic programme was the minimum programme, which was the argument of the Stalinists, then you are saying workers power was not possible despite the victory of the workers in 1936 against all the odds”.

The problem, as I see it, is that it was only a partial victory to begin with.

Also, you seem to assume that the CNT could (or even would) have wanted to segregate the areas under their control from Spain, but as we know well, they had no intention at all. They were all the time working at Spanish State level and they still do (in fact one of the reasons I quit CNT many years ago: as Basque I find that attitude Spanish Nationalist and self-destructive). An additional issue is if that could have suceeded at all, with the likely active opposition of both Spanish armies.

Taking the effective power at Catalan level was not the same as taking power overall. They had to navigate in those contradictions.

Rather than comparing with Russia in 1917, it compares quite better with the Paris Commune: their main failure was not to be able to confront the residual post-Bonapartist French Army, whose operations against the Commune were effectively backed/allowed by the occupant Prussian Army. I doubt that the political gesture of allowing the Generalitat to persist formally had any major relevance because the real power was in Madrid, not Barcelona.

15 03 2013

Your write “if fascism was defeated they would be in an excellent position to push forward for revolution(while fighting against the still powerful Republic would be self defeating) This is a wrong popular front rationalisation that goes against the historical facts and both revolutionary perspectives of Anarchists and Trotskyists and the right wing assessment of the Generals and the British State.

The Republican state collapsed in the face of workers revolution and Fascist Counter Revolution. In July 1936 Madrid the popular front government had no real forces or political will to resist the workers or the Generals. The Republican leaders resistance to Fascism in Madrid was an offer of a cabinet post rather than total control. Mola responded by pointing to the obvious fact,”you cannot keep order” In other words,The Popular Front government were not in a position to offer a slice of the power, because they had no power themselves. General Mola was scornful of their lack of political will and integrity. He was proud he was not betraying his followers.

For reasons of space and time Barry could not deal with the revolution in Madrid and elsewhere. But in Madrid the refusal of the Generals to make concessions and the demands of the workers for arms arms, arms, led to the desperate act of the Government handing out 65,000 rifles to the masses. But the Rifles had been disabled or did not have bolts. On hearing the revolutionary news from Barcelona the workers stormed the Montana barracks for the missing bolts. The workers were armed the state was disarmed.

The British Government and the political elite also regarded the Republican government as weak and incapable of controlling or crushing the revolution. that’s why (among other reasons) they leaned towards covert support for Franco as a check to the revolution.

The application of the popular Front framework always leads to a denial of revolution. But the history shows that Stalin and the Stalinists gave military assistance to the republican state to rebuild itself. This always entailed a war against the revolution and the workers which was self defeating. George Orwell clearly understood this in May 1937 when he found himself up against this counter revolution. He then found himself up against a barrage of political lies,misrepresentation which denied the revolution had taken place. A revolution he had participated in.

Barcelona was the proletarian Capital of Spain. It was at the heart of the revolution. Most of the industry was located there. Madrid has always been at the centre of the Popular Front/Stalinist account with the international brigades providing prestige for Stalin.

you assert that the real power rested with the Madrid Government. This only demonstrates the faulty logic of the popular front approach. Even after the revolution was crushed and the USSR provided military clout ,the Republic had no mass social base or will to fight the Fascists. Defeat was inevitable. The mass killings which followed the Fascist victory showed how correct the workers were to make a revolution.

The lesson of the Paris Commune for Marx was that the communards should have seized the banks gold, marched on Versailles and smashed the remnants of the state,before its army could regroup. Same for the Spanish Revolution.

15 03 2013

This analysis you make goes well beyond Catalonia, what is a must. In three cities: Madrid, Barcelona and San Sebastian, the worker militias (essentially Anarchists) defeated the coup. They could not in many other cities, including some quite large like Zaragoza and Seville, Valladolid, León, A Coruña, and a long etc. In Seville for example a bunch of extremely daring fascists took power with some uniforms and a radio (they swapped uniforms so they looked a lot more: nobody even tried to stop them among the confusion of the false information spread by the radio). The worker militias were also very strong in Asturias but unable to take over the fascist stronghold at the capital Oviedo or make any military gains in the mountain fronts.

In San Sebastian, abandoned to their own devices by everyone, including the new Basque Government, they were overwhelmed soon as well. In Cartagena the sailors took over most of the navy but were apparently unable to make any military use of it after most officers were executed or imprisoned.

Importantly the worker revolutionary stand was not before the fascist cup but the day after and as reaction to it. And as we can see it was very irregular an only in Catalonia and the nearby areas of Aragon it could be consolidated for long enough. Maybe we can add to those Madrid and Asturias but that was about it.

Also there was a sizable fraction of the Army that remained loyal to the Republic (and not to the Anarchists, obviously). We cannot ignore this power. In addition to that there were also Socialist and Communist and even some bourgeois republican militias (at the very least in Biscay), which would not have supported an Anarchist takeover. Instead of confronting them all, the Anarchists chose to work with them at least for the time being, maybe hoping to pull them, at least the basis that made up the militias, to their more revolutionary stand in due time. The so called UHP, already mentioned above, was formed but it was not an Anarchist organism but a collaboration with, essentially, the social-democrat UGT union.

Was this collaboration an error? Possibly, arguably… but I can understand that they made “wrong” choices considering the extreme pressure and their own limitations. My sincere opinion is that, considering the circumstances, they did not have that much choice and that attacking the Republic frontally would have been suicidal and only precipitated the fascist victory. After all in the first months of the war a priority was to defend Madrid, threatened by a major fascist offensive. Another daring attempt, and the only significant attack on the wider Republican side of the war, was the Durruti Column, which failed quite badly.

I feel that the power of the revolutionary worker camp (essentially CNT), while clearly important, is being exaggerated. Without gouging it properly we cannot really analyze why what happened did happen.

“Most of the industry was located there” [in Barcelona].

Actually military industry is mostly not there (see here for a current distribution) being concentrated in Castilian towns, some rather small, like Madrid, Zaragoza, Albacete, Toledo, some smaller ports like Vigo and Gijón and the Basque Country, where small weapons industry has a lot of tradition). None of those areas were under Anarchist control, with the partial exception of Gipuzkoa and Gijón.

Catalonia has a dynamic industrial and financial economy but heavy industry in Spain tended to be concentrated in other areas, notably Bilbao, which was under bourgeois Basque Nationalist control essentially (they had their own large militia and flirted with the fascists). They also impeded that all the industry and the Catholic university was blown up as the worker militias wanted, when Bilbao fell to the fascists in 1937. Catalan industry was always more oriented to the consumer product: textiles especially, later also vehicles became important.

“you assert that the real power rested with the Madrid Government”.

Not the Madrid Government but the loyalties it managed to rally around, notably the loyal faction of the Army and police forces (very important too) and the Socialdemocrat UGT militias. Crushing the Republican Army and the loyalist worker militias (important in many regions) was certainly not viable (certainly not without at the same time helping the fascist advance, which was a no-no) and the Anarchist leadership surely knew it.

Instead they tried to strengthen their position by attacking the fascists in Aragon, hoping probably to reach to their comrades in Gipuzkoa and Asturias, as well as the many class-conscious areas of the largely rural Ebro Basin (which suffered dramatic ideological pogroms by the fascists), but failed.

I totally agree in any case that the hand of Stalin was very important in weakening and eventually defeating the Anarchist Revolution but the real question is: could the Anarchists and their allies take power in all the territory of the Republic? I think that the answer must be negative with some but not many doubts.

17 03 2013

The only chance of a victory over fascism was the strategy of revolution. There was no possibility of victory in a popular front with non working class petty bourgeois or bourgeois forces and the state. The independent action of the working class has been the lesson of many working class defeats. Most of the weaknesses you identify come from the popular front strategy.

George Orwell thought the turning point was the handing over of 70% of the Spanish State gold,a huge sum of money, to Stalin. This gave the Stalinists the best fighters for the Republican state,a dominant position in republican state structures. Spain became a pawn in Stalinist Russia’s national interest. Durruti rather late in the day began to see the importance of the gold to equip the revolution,sometime in October,and planned a raid on the bank, but an advocate of the popular anti fascist unity with non working class forces, talked him out of it.

If the banks and the gold had been seized credit and finance would not have been in the hands of the Republicans and Stalinists. Despite the restrictions of credit, money, and arms the workers of Barcelona and Madrid performed miracles of organisation. They organised production and food supply and at the same time organised militias to fight fascists and defend the working class from other enemies.

The state was so weak in the first months of the revolution that the Madrid government lost control over the customs,frontier guards, railways docks and internal security. The Government grabbed these back with the help of the popular Front. Political stealth and violence against revolutionary workers was a strategy which fatally undermined the fight against fascism..

You write that Considering the circumstances they did not have a choice and that by attacking the Republic frontally would have been suicidal and only precipitated the victory of Fascism. The revolution following Franco’s uprising did frontally challenge and face down the Republic. The Army barracks,the private properties seized,including houses, factories, hotels were not common property prior to the revolution. What did facilitate Fascist victory was the dynamic of the popular front which placed the Stalinists and republican politicians in the driving seat.

The Anarchist leaders knew the nature of the Regime in the Soviet Union from the time of Kronstadt in 1921. They also were only too aware of the repression in the past by republican politicians. The POUM leaders were well versed in the evils of Stalinism. Nin and other POUM leaders were also in principle against collaboration with the state, and it’s supporters. But they lacked confidence to chart an independent course. Anarchism and revolutionary communist or Socialist convictions among the leaders ultimately gave way to short term practical arrangements.

17 03 2013

I don’t know enough. You may have a point in the sense that there was a window of opportunity that the Anarchists (POUM was not an important force) were not able to handle properly.

I can still hardly imagine how, even if the Anarchists and allies could have been able to take over the power in all or most of the non-putchist areas (what was itself a great challenge), how they would have managed to fight off fascism with their military discipline and the support of Germany and Italy (and probably by then also of Britain itself). If we would have seen that the Navy was put to service, for example blocking the fascist troop flow from Africa into Andalusia, or that the Aragon offensive would have got any chance (it did not in face of the air superiority of the enemy), or that fascist enclaves like Oviedo or the Toledo Alcazar fell to their attacks (they did not), then I could think they had a chance. But the sad reality is that they failed in almost all military endeavors (the only brief conquest of the Republican side overall was the small mountain town of Teruel and at very high cost).

So my impression is that they were not prepared neither to take power nor much less to wage a full war. One thing is to have three million affiliates and another to have three million able soldiers (or even militiamen/women) to wage a full fledged war. A Trotsky (in the military sense of the term) or maybe a Vo Nguyen Giap (because guerrilla war might have worked) was missing in this opportunity. Maybe also a Lenin (in the political sense) – not necessarily just one of either kind but that kind of determination and clear view in general in the leadership. Durruti had some of both but he was murdered quite soon.

Whatever the case I don’t think that the Anarchist leaders had any illusions about Stalinism, just that they do seem to have felt the need to widen their alliances in that circumstance of polarization. An error? Maybe.


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