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.