Lessons of the Spanish Revolution

The Spanish Civil War was not simply a war between “democracy” and “fascism,” – it was, above all, a class struggle. The working class rose to beat back Franco’s attempt to seize power, and in doing so they went further than simply defending the bourgeois Republic – they took over factories; neighborhood committees sprang up and took control of municipal administration; peasants seized land. In Spain in 1936, there was a situation of dual power, and workers could have taken power, there could have been a revolution. This situation did not arise overnight, nor did it come from nowhere.

Spain in the 1930s was a country where class tensions ran high. In 1931, the Monarchy had been overthrown, and a bourgeois republic established. But this republic was by no means united or homogenous. As Tony Cliff put it:

		The country remained a loose federation of mutually antagonistic small national entities. 

		The Castilian state bureaucracy was in alliance with an all-powerful church. The army, 

		manned chiefly by officers who came from middle class landlords’ families, was intertwined 

		with the state bureaucracy and the church. The bourgeoisie, closely linked to the big 

		feudal landlords, was incapable of carrying forward the bourgeois democratic revolution – 

		unable to break the agrarian, semi-feudal yoke, to solve the national question, or the 

		break the power of the clergy.{1}

Why was the bourgeoisie incapable of accomplishing these tasks? Because capitalist development in Spain lagged behind that of the Western European nations; and as a result, industrial development in Spain was highly uneven, with islands of industrial development surrounded by the more or less feudal ocean. The bourgeoisie of Spain was weak politically, and relied heavily on the semi-feudal state and the church to protect its wealth and power. Often the feudal aristocracy and the bourgeoisie were intertwined, though intermarriage, or through cross-ownership (factory owners buying land, for example).

The lack of a centralized ruling class or a strong state machine, as well as the increasing militance of the working class and the discontent among the peasantry, meant that the Republic of Spain could not satisfy the demands of any of the classes in a satisfactory way. It promised land to the peasants, but never delivered; it granted autonomy to the Catalans, but not to the Basques, whose nationalist and separatist tendencies were far stronger; it promised higher wages and better working conditions, but it could nothing about the mounting unemployment caused by the world recession.

In 1934, the class tensions exploded in a series of strikes, followed by government repression. 20,000 miners in Asturia rose and took control of the area, in spite of the military opposition led by Franco. Isolated, the miners surrendered, only to have 3,000 of their comrades murdered in cold blood. 40,000 leftists, anarchists, socialists, communists, and radical working class militants were rounded up and jailed in the crackdown that followed.{2}

Far from undermining workers’ confidence, this gave them a new sense of solidarity and unity. This was shown in the massive one-day general strike of May 1935, and in the victory of the Popular Front slate in the elections of February 1936.

The Popular Front was an electoral alliance of middle class Republicans and workers’ parties. On the Republican side, there was the Republican Left led by Manuel Azana, the Republican Union, the two main Catalan nationalist parties and Basque National Action; on the workers’ side, there was the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), the left parties which fused into the United Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC) – which in reality was the Catalan Communist Party, and the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM).

The narrow victory of the Popular Front was possible only because the anarchist-led National Confederation of Workers (CNT) union dropped its policy of abstaining from all elections. Yet the Popular Front’s program was far from being radical or revolutionary. As E.H. Carr put it, “Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the program was the absence of any serious social and economic demands. … evidently [it was] designed to rally a wide coalition of divergent interests…”{3}

Fortunately, most workers did not see it this way, and did not wait passively for the Popular Front government to hand down crumbs from above. The election victory sparked a massive strike wave by workers and land occupations by peasants. Workers stormed the prisons in Valencia, Oviedo, and other cities, freeing their comrades who had been imprisoned during the upheaval of 1934. As one Madrid socialist put it:

		They wanted to go forward, they weren’t satisfied simply with the release of political 

		prisoners and the return to their jobs of all those who had been sacked as a result of 

		the revolutionary insurrection of October 1934. Instinctively, they were pressing 

		forward, not necessarily to take power, not to create soviets, but to push forward 

		the revolution begun with the Republic’s proclamation.{4}

Spanish society was extremely polarized: in the five months after the elections, 113 general strikes and 228 partial strikes took place; middle class officers flooded into the Falange, an openly fascist party, and engaged in street fighting against the parties of the left; 190,000 peasant families took over and settled on 600,000 hectares of land. Compare this to the republic’s land reform in the early 1930s: only 45,000 hectares changed hands to the benefit of roughly 7,000 peasants!{5}

The bourgeoisie, landowners, and the Church lost confidence in the Popular Front’s ability to deal with the crisis. Everything they stood for, private property, sanctity of the state, national unity, the church, the family, was being challenged by a mass revolt from below – and they looked to the army to crush it.

This was the background to Franco’s fascist rising, on July 17th, which marked the beginning of open civil war. Starting in Morocco, the rising spread to all of Spain as almost 50 garrisons declared themselves to be in the fascist camp. What was the Popular Front’s reaction to this?

First of all, President Azana knew of the coup in advance, as did some of his ministers. But they kept quiet, hoping to preserve “national unity.” Secondly, during the rising the government denied it was even happening! A radio broadcast on the first day of the rising declared, “The Government speaks again in order to confirm the absolute tranquillity of the peninsula."{6}

In the early months of the revolt, Franco relied heavily on Moroccan troops. In 1920, there was a massive rebellion in Morocco, led by Abd-el-Krim, which had taken years to suppress. Had the Republic granted Morocco independence, Franco’s troops may have at least wavered, disorganizing the fascists’ rear and buying the Republic valuable time. Abd-el-Krim was being held prisoner in France, then governed by the Popular Front’s counter part, the People’s Front; he appealed to the socialist ministers of Spain to plead with their French “comrades” to free him so he could return to Morocco and organize a fight against Franco.

But as Duncan Hallas put it:

		It was out of the question. Independence for Spanish Morocco would inevitably bring 

		renewed rebellion in French Morocco. But the whole purpose of the People’s Front 

		was to cement a deal between the French and British Empires and the USSR. So the 

		Moorish troops, offered nothing, stayed with Franco.{7}

Even from a purely military standpoint, the Popular Front government could not wage a serious fight against Franco. Most of the navy mutinied against their officers and joined the forces of the republic. Yet instead of sending the navy to crush Franco’s forces, the republic kept the navy at port because to deploy would disrupt British and French trade.

Thankfully the workers did not sit around and wait for the fascists to crush them – the triumph of the Nazis had shown the bankruptcy of that strategy – so they acted. Starting in Barceona on July 19th, workers stormed barracks, army depots, and police stations all over Spain, arming themselves to kill the fascist menace. If it hadn’t been for the spontaneous working class rising, against the will of its own parties and the government itself, Franco would’ve marched on Madrid in a matter of weeks.

The republic was split: either the garrisons had gone over to the fascists, or they had joined the newly formed workers’ militias. Effective administration was taken over by the workers:

		As soon as you cross the frontier, you are halted by armed men. Who are these men? 

		Workers. They are militamen – that is, workers with their normal clothes – but armed 

		with rifles or revolvers and with signs on their arms indicating their functions or 

		the power they represent … They are the ones who … will decide … not to let you in 

		or to refer it to the “committee”. … It is the committee who formed the militia, armed 

		it, and supplied it with food and lodging from the funds raised by a levy imposed on 

		all the local inhabitants. They are the ones who give you permission to enter or leave 

		the town, who closed down the local fascist shops and carried out essential requisitions.{8}

When George Orwell arrived in Spain, he saw workers’ power first-hand:

		It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. 

		Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with 

		red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the 

		hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church 

		had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically 

		demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had 

		been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes were painted 

		red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. 

		Servile and ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. … There were no private 

		motor cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the 

		other transport were painted red and black. … In outward appearance it was a town where the 

		wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. … Practically everyone wore working-class 

		clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of the militia uniform.

		Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly 

		emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human 

		beings and not as cogs in a capitalist machine.{9}

A situation of dual power existed, similar to the situation in Russia in March of 1917. But unlike the Kerensky and the Provisional Government, Azana and the republic were cut off from their social base and lacked mass support. Leon Trotsky described them as the “shadow bourgeoisie” because the class they represented, had, by and large, gone over to Franco. Azana and the republic’s survival depended on the political support of the communists, socialists, and anarchists.

The PSOE was a reformist organization that had backed the First World War in the collapse of the Second International; it had betrayed the working class and made peace with the bourgeoisie long ago. Its unwillingness to lead the working class to seize power was to be expected.

Yet the PCE also did not want a workers’ revolution, even though it was clearly on the agenda in Spain. To understand why, its evolution and its Popular Front strategy must be examined thoroughly.

The strategy took shape after Hitler’s victory in Germany, which was due to the Communist Party of Germany’s (KPD) obedience to the “Third Period” line (the first period being that of revolutionary upheaval from 1918 to 1924, the second being capitalist stabilization from 1924 to 1928), as advanced by the Comintern. In the “Third Period,” the capitalist system was said to be in its final, terminal crisis. The new line was launched just as Stalin began the first Five Year Plan, in which the workers and peasants of Russia would face massive exploitation in order to “catch up” with the West. The notion that workers’ revolution was just around the corner provided political cover for the rise of a new ruling class within the USSR. Similarly, Comintern policy was no longer motivated by the desire for world revolution, but by foreign policy calculations.

The “Third Period” line led to disaster in Germany. Because revolution was on the order of the day, any party that opposed armed insurrection was counter-revolutionary. That’s why the KPD refused to unite with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to fight the Nazis. Instead, it denounced the SPD as “social fascists” and declared that a Nazi victory would be short-lived. As Remmele, a KPD leader put it in a speech to the Reichstag: “…once they (the Nazis) are in power, the united front of the proletariat will emerge and make a clean sweep of everything… We are not afraid of the fascists. They will shoot their bolt quicker than any other government.”{10} Thus Hitler came to power without any serious opposition, smashed all working class organizations, and thousands of working class militants (communist and socialist) were carted off to death camps and murdered.

Once the Nazis took power, they rehabilitated German imperialism, renouncing the Versailles treaty and re-arming its war machine. This new threat alarmed Stalin, and he sought to forge a military alliance with the French and British ruling classes against Nazi Germany. In order to maintain this unity, Comintern policy had to be limited to what didn’t threaten their interests. Hence the Popular Front government’s unwillingness to use the navy against Franco, or grant Moroccan independence, or to summon the workers and peasants to arms.

In sharp contrast with the practices of the “Third Period”, communists were now to unite in broad, all-class alliances, instead of attacking everyone (except the fascists) as “social fascists.” They were to refrain from criticizing the politics of the middle class or the “progressive” bourgeoisie. This strategy came to be known as the Popular Front, or the People’s Front.

The Communist Party, in line with its Popular Front strategy, vigorously opposed the formation soviets, insisting in its newspaper that it was “…motivated exclusively by the desire to defend the democratic Republic.”{11} Stalin argued that it was essential to defend Azana and the bourgeois republic “so as to prevent the enemies of Spain from considering her a Communist republic.”{12} For the PCE, workers’ revolution was simply not on the agenda in Spain – not only that, revolution was to be avoided in order to accommodate the international bourgeoisie. But the PCE couldn’t declare that openly, and claimed that only after the fascists were defeated could there be talk of revolution.

The Anarchists had no alternative to the bourgeois republic or the Popular Front. For the first (and last?) time they played a significant role in the development of a workers’ revolution. It was a grand test – and they failed miserably. Anarchists reject all forms of state power as a matter of principle; they see no difference between a bourgeois and a workers’ state. After the republic all but collapsed in the first few weeks of the rising, a situation of dual power emerged, and the anarchists were forced to pick a side. The logic of the situation forced them to accept positions in the republican government. As one of their leaders put it:

		The entry of the CNT into the central government is one of the most important events in 

		the history of our country. The CNT has always been, by principle and conviction, anti-state 

		and the enemy of every form of government… But circumstances… have changed the nature of the 

		Spanish government and state… The government has ceased to be a force of oppression against 

		the working class, just as the state is no longer the entity that divides society into classes. 

		Both will stop oppressing the people all the more with the inclusion of the CNT among their 


Trotsky explained the contradiction facing the Anarchists:

		To renounced the conquest of power is voluntarily to leave the power to those who wield it, 

		the exploiters. The essence of every revolution consisted and consists of putting a new class 

		in power, thus enabling it to realize its own program in life. It is impossible to wage war 

		and reject victory. It is impossible to lead the masses towards insurrection without preparing 

		for the conquest of power.{14}

The POUM also offered no alternative. They joined the Popular Front “with reservations,” but those reservations never accumulated to the point where they would put forward an independent, revolutionary socialist program and fight for it. One of their key leaders, Andres Nin, became Minister of Justice on September 26th. Even though this victory was short lived (the POUM was expelled from the government on December 17th), it gave the POUM a false sense of hope that indeed the republic was different from any bourgeois state before it, that it could somehow serve the interests of the workers. It also gave them a false sense of their strength. Their paper, La Batalla, appeared not long after Nin’s appointment with the proud headline: “It is not possible to rule without the POUM, still less against the POUM.” Events were to prove how wrong they were.

The class-collaborationist politics of the Popular Front and the PCE were a fatal straightjacket on the working class and the struggle against fascism. The fight against fascism and for socialism were inseparable because the Popular Front government could not wage a serious war on fascism without rousing the workers and peasants, without taking radical measures, without stepping on the toes of the international bourgeoisie. As Trotsky, who lived through the Russian revolution, explained:

		Civil war, in which the force of naked coercion is hardly effective, demands of its participants 

		self-abnegation. The workers and peasants can assure victory only if they wage a struggle for their 

		own emancipation. Under these conditions, to subordinate the proletariat to the leadership of the 

		bourgeoisie beforehand means to assure defeat in the civil war.{15}

And although the Anarchist CNT and the POUM claimed to be revolutionary, in practice neither of them were. Their failure to create an alternative to class-collaborationism, the Popular Front, and the bourgeois state allowed the PCE to play an increasingly dominant role in the government. The Anarchists and the POUM, instead of being a poles of attraction opposed to the Stalinists and the Popular Front, allowed themselves to be co-opted; their influence within the working class served to reinforce the lie that in order to win the war, the revolution had to be held back at all costs. It disarmed them politically, and the workers and peasants they sought to lead.

On October 9th, the government decided to dissolve the local committees which sprang up spontaneously to fight the fascist uprising. On October 27th, another step was taken to restore the capitalist order; the republic ordered that the workers be disarmed, and a regular police and standing army would replace them.

Orwell described the effects of these decrees when he visited Barcelona in April of 1937:

		Now things were returning to normal. The smart restaurants and hotels were full of rich people 

		wolfing down expensive meals, while for the working-class population food prices had jumped 

		enormously without any corresponding rise in wages. Apart from the expensiveness of everything, 

		there were recurrent shortages of this or that, which, of course, hit the poor rather than the 

		rich. The restaurants and hotels seemed to have little difficulty in getting whatever they wanted, 

		but in the working-class quarters the queues for bread, olive oil, and other necessaries were 

		hundreds of yards long. Previously in Barcelona I had been struck by the absence of beggars; now 

		there were quantities of them. Outside the delicatessen shops at the top of the Ramblas gangs of

 		barefooted children were always waiting to swarm round anyone who came out and clamour for scraps 

		of food. … The waiters were back in their boiled shirts and the shop-walkers were cringing in the 

		familiar manner. … In a furtive indirect way the practice of tipping was coming back. The workers’ 

		patrols had been ordered to dissolve and the pre-war police forces were back on the streets. One 

		result of this was that the cabaret show and high-class brothels, many of which had been closed 

		by the workers’ patrols, had promptly re-opened.{16}

The rolling back of the revolution was due to nature of the Popular Front government as an all-class alliance. The gains of the working class in 1936 had to be rolled back to appease the capitalists and the middle class if the alliance was to hold together. This process was accelerated because none of the other workers’ parties fought this process. The CNT and the POUM simply printed the government decrees dissolving the committees and workers’ militias without comment.

By November 1936, Franco’s forces were nearing Spain’s capital, Madrid. It was to be a decisive battle; if it fell, the fascists would be the legitimate government of Spain. The government, the leaders of the Popular Front parties, and the trade union leaders showed their true colors – when they fled to Valencia. This threw the city into a panic lasting several days. The PCE took the initiative, forming a defense junta (council), arming Madrid’s workers, and digging trenches around the city. In addition, the first shipment of arms from the USSR arrived, as did the volunteers from the International Brigades. This international aid was extremely significant because the West refused to send arms (lest they fall into the hands of the workers!), while Franco was backed to the hilt financially and militarily by Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.

After a month of fighting, the fascists withdrew from the areas of Madrid they had captured. This was the first significant victory for the republic, and it lifted morale tremendously. The PCE, strengthened politically by the USSR’s arms shipments and the arrival of the International Brigades, cynically used its newfound influence to gain more positions in the government assault the revolution openly.

In May of 1937, the Stalinists, in alliance with the Republicans, banned the May Day demonstrations in Catalonia – a huge slap in the face for one of the most militant and politically advanced sections of the working class in Spain. Battles erupted between rank-and-file CNT members and the police; two days later, the police occupied the telephone exchange, which had been in the hands of the workers since the beginning of the revolution.

Within hours, barricades sprang up all over the city, manned by armed workers. By nightfall, the police controlled the center of the city, and the workers controlled the areas surrounding it. Now the question of dual power was posed point blank: who was to be the master of the Spanish house, the workers or the bourgeoisie?

Dual power can survive for an extended amount of time, if neither class has the confidence nor the initiative to take on the other; but it can’t survive indefinitely, and it can’t survive the decisive test of arms. The workers of Catalonia could either go forward – leading the workers of all of Spain to smash the bourgeois state, disarm the police and army, and getting rid of them for good – or they could be defeated, and have their organizations smashed. Revolution or counter-revolution; that was the question.

The CNT leadership appealed for the barricades to come down; when no one listened to their appeal, the CNT’s government ministers flew in from Valencia and began negotiating with the government forces. Their national newspaper made no mention of the events in Madrid.

The POUM argued with the CNT’s leadership that either the revolution was now, or it would be never, and that they should jointly call and direct a workers’ rising through all of Spain. When the CNT leaders declined, the POUM went along with the CNT leadership's decision, instead of appealing to the CNT rank-and-file, who would’ve been far more receptive to their ideas. Both parties ordered their members off the barricades, allowing the PCE and the government to gain the upper hand.

Betrayed by their leaders, isolated from the rest of Spain, the Catalan workers fought heroically for five days against the police but were defeated. 5,000 fully armed assault guards swept in from Valencia like a conquering army. The POUM was outlawed, its press destroyed, its leaders kidnapped, and some of them shot (Andres Nin was executed by the Stalinists in secret). CNT leaders and POUM rank-and-file militants were hunted and jailed, or shot. Anyone who criticized the republic or the PCE was labeled a “Trotsky-fascist,” put before a kangaroo court, and killed. The PCE was firmly in control without political competitors on the left.

The defeat of the working class and the triumph of the fascists is best explained by the words of St. Just: “Those who half-make a revolution dig their own graves.” The committees which took over workplaces, neighborhoods, and municipal functions never grew beyond this stage; while power was in the hands of the workers and peasants at a local level, there was no effort to challenge capitalist rule as a whole. Soviets, or workers’ councils, which coordinated efforts between different workplaces, were never established. There was never a nationwide meeting of such councils, like the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Thus, the embryos of workers’ power never grew to their full potential.

Workers’ councils failed to develop beyond its embryonic stage not because the working class itself rejected them; time and again, the working class showed it was ready to make tremendous sacrifices to defend the revolution and that it was willing to fight for power. Nor was it excluded because the working class was too passive – committees had already sprung up to take over workplaces and neighborhoods; all that was needed was an argument as to why these should be linked together and coordinated. None of the parties of the working class were willing to make this argument.

Once the revolution had been defeated, the outcome of the war hung on technical contingencies: who had more guns, more planes, more tanks. This guaranteed that Franco would win, since the West declared itself “neutral” while the Nazis and the Black-shirts had no qualms about weighing in on Franco’s side.

Trotsky explained the republic’s defeat and the revolution’s defeat this way:

		The Spanish revolution was socialist in essence: the workers attempted several times to 

		overthrow the bourgeoisie, to seize the factories; the peasants wanted to take the land. 

		The Popular Front led by the Stalinists strangled the socialist revolution in the name of 

		an outlived bourgeois democracy. Hence the disappointment, the hopelessness, the discouragement 

		of the Republican army, and as a result, the military collapse.{17}

Had the workers and peasants taken power, had Morocco been granted independence, Franco would’ve been defeated. Yet there wasn’t an organization willing and capable of arguing and fighting for this. There wasn’t a revolutionary socialist party.

The betrayal of the Spanish revolution and the triumph of Franco was, first and foremost, due to the treachery of the PCE and the delusions in the Popular Front they fostered. The CNT and the POUM got sucked into the class-collaborationism of the Popular Front, serving as the “loyal opposition” and leaving the workers leaderless. This “loyal opposition” also showed itself to be disposable; the PCE kept them around as a matter of convenience.

A revolutionary Marxist party would have to be totally independent of the Popular Front’s class-collaborationist politics; it would have to tell the workers the truth about the counter-revolutionary intentions of the republic, put forward a revolutionary strategy to defeat fascism, expose the betrayals of the PCE, and lay bare the bankruptcy of the POUM and the CNT. It would have to show in practice what opposition to the Popular Front meant, instead of making abstract objections or “reservations,” as the POUM did. The strategy and tactics put forth by such a party would have to take reality – the existence of workers’ committees, peasant committees, and a workers’ militia – as its starting point. It would have to do this, not in order to roll the revolution back, or simply say, “ok, we’ve had enough,” but to lead it forward to crush Franco and towards power.

Only a Marxist analysis would allow that party to understand the forces on the ground, as well as the other political currents. Without a Marxist analysis of the state, the Anarchists, for example, could not lead the revolution forward; they could only accept the existence of the bourgeois state, since they had nothing to replace it with. The PCE was Marxist in name only; a serious Marxist analysis of Spain would’ve shown that there was a situation of dual power, and that the workers should take power and establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The case of the POUM shows, however, that a Marxist analysis alone cannot suffice. Marxism is a guide to action - it is worth nothing if it sits on a bookshelf, collecting dust. A mass, working class revolutionary party has to translated the ideas of Marxism into concrete slogans, concrete demands, and most of all, concrete revolutionary action.

  1. Tony Cliff, Trotsky: the Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star; 1927-1940, Volume 4, (London: Cox and Wyman Ltd, Reading, 1993), 235.
  2. Charlie Hore, Spain 1936: Popular Front or Workers’ Power?, (London: East End Offset, 1986), 7.
  3. E.H. Carr, the Comintern and the Spanish Civil War, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 3.
  4. Ronald Fraser, Blood of Spain: an Oral History of the Spanish Civil War, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979), 44-45.
  5. Hugh Thomas, the Spanish Civil War, (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 127.
  6. Ibid, 88.
  7. Duncan Hallas, the Comintern, (London: Cox and Wyman Limited, 1989), 151.
  8. Pierre Broue and Emile Temime, the Revolution and the Civil War in Spain, (London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1972), 127.
  9. George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, (San Diego: Harvest/HBJ, 1980), 4-5.
  10. Quoted in Hallas, 131.
  11. Hore, 15.
  12. Quoted in E.H. Carr, 87.
  13. Broue and Timeme, 207-208.
  14. Trotsky, 316.
  15. Leon Trotsky, the Spanish Revolution (1931-1939), (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 309.
  16. Orwell, 114.
  17. Trotsky, 167. 1