By Albert Weisbord

One of the things that makes it so difficult for a people to solve the burning problems that periodically beset them is the fact that there is no exact repetition in history, that truths most painfully learned by one nation become arrant falsehoods when applied by another. The individuality of truth in nature is an extremely costly lesson that must be assimilated repeatedly whenever one country believes that all it has to do is to follow in the footsteps of another.

Certain political observers, trained in the Russian school, for example, have tried to make popular the belief that revolutions all over the world must follow the Russian pattern of 1917. This belief is then brought over to Spain and mechanically applied. Memory is substituted for concrete living analysis. Glib phrases are trotted out, uttered by Russians in the past, which are made to pass for eternal verities to which all people must give obeisance or face annihilation.

In a sense the Spanish Revolution is quite like the Russian. Both countries had an absolute monarchy which was overthrown by workers and peasants headed by intellectuals stifled by the old regime. Both countries are agrarian with, none the less, a proletariat that has been engaged in struggles for freedom for some time. But from there on the similarity begins to taper away. If the Russian proletariat was influenced by Marxism, the Spaniards have been swayed by Anarchism. In the cities of Spain the factories are generally not large and state controlled but small and wholly impregnated with the spirit of nineteenth century competitive capitalism. Such regions as Catalonia, indeed, had been some of the first regions in Europe to demonstrate a flourishing capitalist regime and, in the thirteenth century or so, had dominated the Western Mediterranean as the rival of Genoa and Venice.

On the countryside, too, the situation is quite different. In Russia the vast majority of agrarians were small peasants whose chief cry was for more land for extensive cultivation. In Spain, the greatest part of the land, especially in the interior and Southern and Western parts of the country, was in the shape of huge latifundias owned by grandees who had turned the population into agricultural laborers working for them. Only in restricted areas of the country, in Catalonia, for instance, were most of the farms in the hands of small independent farmers who, moreover, unlike the Russians, had not been recently released from serfdom and the communist institution of the Mir or were holding their lands as tenants, but were rather petty entrepreneurs well versed in a capitalist system and selling their wines and other products in a large market.

In Russia, therefore, the Bolsheviks could take over the Social-Revolutionary program of more or less equal partition of the land. But in Spain the agricultural laborers have joined the trade unions and have different ideals; wanting to run the latifundias as the urban workers run the factories, collectively, but not wanting to divide the large estates. On the other hand, the small proprietor in such places as Catalonia does not favor overly much the collectivization of all resources in the same manner as do those working on the large scale farms.

The Russian revolution came as a result of war. The masses were armed. The foreign powers were tied up in mutual hostilities that prevented them from decisive interference in Russian affairs. The Russian people could, therefore, settle matters with their own rulers. After the war was over, all of Europe was in great ferment. Hungary and Bavaria and even Slovakia had their temporary Soviets. Italian factories were being seized, the French navy was mutinying, Germany and Austria were on the verge of proletarian revolutions. The Russians were able to ride on top of this world revolutionary wave and beat off their opponents. Just the reverse, however, is true in Spain. The Spaniards have been attempting their revolution at a time when throughout the world not the proletariat but Fascism has the upper hand.

The situation is so utterly different that some of the Communists, those adhering to the Stalinist school, have swung to the other extreme and said that since conditions are not the same as in Russia, a proletarian revolution is impossible in Spain. Thus, using the same old Russian model as infallible, these politicians believe that unless the factors that existed in Russia are repeated, no revolution should be permitted and those attempting it are to be shot as fascist agents of reaction. If, under Lenin, the Russians were eagerly looking for similarities with the Russian pattern to prove that revolutions could be successful elsewhere, under Stalin they are just as eagerly proving that conditions are so unlike those extant in their own country that revolution is impossible. Concrete international problems are blurred over by a national myopia.

The Spanish revolution, as it has unfolded, has revealed such contrasts with the Russian that it has made the Iberian militants all the more firm in their belief that the social revolution is possible only when Spain breaks from Russian nationalism and understands its own concrete problems. Incidentally, this helps to account for the fact that the revolutionary elements in Spain, the Anarcho-Syndicalists and the Marxists of the Workers Party (P.O.U.M) variety, hate and detest the various political commissars that Stalin has sent to Spain to tell the people there what to do, just as, in the old days of 1926-1927, he sent Borodin to China to become the Messiah of the East.

All during the course of the revolution in Spain, since 1931, no Soviets have been organized by the people. Instead, all of the workers, and with them large sections of the agrarian toilers, have joined the syndicates or unions. This presents a problem entirely unique in modern history and one of great complexity and difficulty.

In Russia the Soviets had been creations of the people themselves and both in 1905 and 1917 had arisen entirely spontaneously. Once created, they soon became immense instruments for the unification and organization of the masses. Without distinction, soldiers, workers, peasants, middle class elements, all flocked into the Soviets and laid their problems before these bodies. Faced with this outstanding development, none of the existing organizations could dare to ignore or neglect it. In fact, all of the political and economic groups claiming to represent the interests of the people at once entered into the Soviets and turned them from purely amorphous bodies into a united front in which the various factions fought each other for domination. Under the influence of the Bolsheviks these united front centers soon became organs of power of an entirely new kind of State never before seen in the history of revolutions.

Concurrently with the formation of soviets in Russia there went on an unprecedented growth in the trade union movement. Overnight there sprang up trade unions embracing hundreds of thousands and even millions of members. What is most important to note is that no one dreamed of forming two sets of unions, one fighting the other. But just as spontaneously as the Soviets had arisen, all the workers got together in shop meetings, formed their locals, and affiliated themselves to the union of their trade and industry with absolutely no effort being made on the part of any one to split the organization or to divide the ranks.

Thus the Russians had two advantages in their struggle against the old order as compared to the Spaniards. First, they had Soviets which united all factions and which had the germs of State power in them. Inside the Soviets were soldiers, workers and peasants in one grand lump moved in a common direction at first by the Social-Revolutionaries and by the Mensheviks, and then by the Bolsheviks. Second, they had a unified trade union movement taking in all the workers and organizing them tightly within one framework. Within both organizations the various parties fought out their policies to the end.

In Spain, however, an entirely different situation exists. Not only are there no Soviets, but apparently there is no desire to form Soviets. Can this be accounted for by the fact that Spain is a Western country? Certainly, in Asia all people are jumbled together into one toiling mass far more than in Europe where the distinctions between proletariat and peasantry have existed in one form or another for centuries. In Russia the great cities had not been built naturally on the basis of commerce and trade as in western Europe, but had been created quite artificially and were founded on the needs of the Czarist State. The village was the basic unit and in the village all distinctions between proletariat and plebeian tended to be blurred.

Thus, while the working class occupied a conscious position in the large centers, still throughout the country, wherever the peasants expressed themselves in the village with its ancient democratic institution of the Mir it was natural that the Society would dominate and the unions play a secondary role. This was a sign that, at bottom, it would not be the workers in Russia but the peasants that would have the final say, unless the conscious proletariat of Western Europe would go to the aid of Russia.

On the other hand, in Spain the working class allied with the urban intellectuals had traditionally staged the rebellions against absolutism and for a republic. Catalonia, most industrialized section of all, had always been in the lead in this struggle ever since the first Cortes of Cadiz in 1812 and the uprising in Carthegena in 1873 and the second Republic of that period. In Spain, therefore, in spite of the fact that the country, like Russia, is predominantly agrarian, the workers have not been entirely swamped by the mass of peasants but rather have brought the countryside in the wake of the cities. It is not that the peasants are not organized; it is rather that most of them are taken into special divisions of the trade union centers so that, in fact, the agrarian element must articulate its needs through the instrument set up and dominated by industrial laborers. The peasant is here, in a sense, the prisoner of the worker and follows his lead.

This process has been greatly accelerated by the fact that a vast part of the land was in great estates worked by wage laborers. Naturally, then, in Spain, it was the union that would dominate the field rather than the Soviets or general councils of toilers mixed indiscriminately together. For the benefit of those Russians who like to make God in their own image and believe that Tashkent camel drivers and Georgian cobblers can lead the world to a new social order, it might be well to add that most likely the Spanish situation will be far more typical of the Western world than the Russian and perhaps may afford a clue to elements in the agrarian countries of Europe that want to revolt against the old order.

The question whether Soviets or unions should play the leading part was for a long time in doubt even in Russia. For a while, when the Soviets seemed to be entirely controlled by his reformist enemies, Lenin was in favor of using purely proletarian instruments like the shop committees of the unions, to move forward the revolution and permit the working class to take power. Fortunately for him, however, after the failure of the June offensive of the Kerensky Government at the front and the collapse of the Kornilov counter-revolution, the Bolsheviks were able to win the majority within the Soviets and so this problem never became acute. Lenin believed Soviets were better than unions as weapons for the establishment of a new State because they cemented the concord between the workers and the peasants whereas, if the unions had taken power by themselves, the peasants would have tended to become antagonized and broken the alliance. The last word has not yet been said on this strategy, however, for with the breakdown of the European social revolution, the Soviets in Russia gradually became filled not with revolutionists but with nationalist elements that have now changed even the constitution of the country to suit their new aims.

The problem whether Soviets or unions should have the hegemony renewed its importance in 1921, at the end of the interventionary period. At that time there arose the so-called Workers Opposition inside the ranks of the Bolsheviks that raised the question who should control and operate the factories, the Soviets or the unions. The Workers Opposition argued that if the unions were not given the constructive task of building up economy, they would lose all vital function and degenerate into mere propaganda clubs. The Bolshevik Party under Lenin believed, on the contrary, that the program of the Workers Opposition would tend to separate the proletariat too much from the peasantry. Furthermore, that such a change was not timely for Russia was then in desperate need of increased production, outside aid was not forthcoming, and there was danger in further experimentation outside of the tested remedies of the iron hand of the dictatorship.

In Spain, the fact that the mass of workers and toilers generally have joined the unions, coupled with the complete absence of Soviets, makes it quite probable that the Syndicalist view that the unions must be the vehicle for the revolution and the instrument for the construction of a new social order, will prevail for a long time to come. The Syndicalist position, however, goes much farther than that. It denies that any State, even a Workers’ State has the right to exist and it demands the liquidation of all political parties as injurious to the needs of the people. None the less, in the course of the struggle, the Syndicalists have been forced to recognize that the State is useful at least in the conduct of a war, but they talk as though war is some transitory phase that will soon pass away and that therefore there is no need to make a determined effort to capture the Spanish State.

In their whole conception the syndicalists are advocating an entirely unwarranted experiment that can prove fatal to the entire popular movement. One cannot support the State in war and not in peace, when “peace” is but a temporary truce among nations. One cannot turn over the army to the government and keep from that government the necessary arms and equipment to allow that government to win the war. One cannot admit that the union is incompetent to lead an army and yet maintain that the union can conduct an armed insurrection against a powerful oppressive State.

So the Syndicalists have been called to task by the revolutionary Marxists of the P.O.U.M. This Party wants the establishment of a Workers’ State but instead of calling for all power to the Soviets, as Lenin did, it calls for the immediate establishment of a Trade Union Government. This is a remarkably keen slogan since it attempts to solve at one stroke many of the most important problems facing Spain today.

For one thing, such a view tends to terminate the situation where two distinct sets of unions exist in Spain, one controlled by the Socialists, called the General Labor Union (U.G.T.), and the other regulated by the Anarcho-Syndicalists, called the National Confederation of Labor (C.N.T.). Both are about evenly matched, the Syndicalists dominating Catalonia, the Socialists leading in Asturias and other industrial regions. Should both unions fuse into one, it would mean that the union shop local would really be equivalent, in the extent of its strength, to the Soviets that were established in the factories of Russia. Should these combined unions then take over the machinery of the State, the trade union regime would become analogous to the Soviet dictatorship.

For if trade unions were to seize the government it would automatically involve the taking over of the direction of the war and the control over foreign trade and relations. This would entrain, in turn, a host of most important political questions both internal and international. The trade union would then become transformed from a traditionally defensive economic body interested solely in wages and hours and better working conditions for its members, to a vast political organism engaged in a life and death struggle and civil war.

Under a trade union government there would come to an end the disturbing question whether the unions or the State should control the factories and run them. Once the union is the State, there can be no difference between, on the one hand, nationalization or municipalization of industries, where the enterprises are owned and operated by the State, and, on the other, collectivization or syndicalization, where the concerns are managed entirely by the unions for the benefit of the people as a whole.

The formation of a trade union government in Spain would be the utilization of concrete Spanish methods and habits to accomplish the same results that the Russians were able to do with Soviets. Should the People’s Front Government in Valencia fail to win the war against fascism, should the difficulties of the people increase as the mountain of dead piles up, there is no doubt that this solution will more and more appeal to the Spanish people.

Once decided on, just how much influence the agrarian element would have in the new government would become a secondary difficulty. Most of the agricultural toilers are now in associations connected with the unions and would have a direct say. Where they function in separate organizations, as in Catalonia where they have formed the Union of Rabasaires, there the government can include the representatives of such organizations directly into the State apparatus and treat them as though they were union delegates.

It must be admitted, however, that before such a general solution could be arrived at, almost insuperable difficulties would have to be overcome. First there are the officials of the various parliamentary parties who think in terms of democracy and parliament and who would never tolerate for one moment these institutions being dissolved in favor of industrial union control. Then there are those Socialists and Communists who want the political party to dominate the State and to reduce the union to a secondary organism. Third, there are those Syndicalist and Anarchist officials in the unions who do not want anything to do with the State and are opposed to nationalization and centralization of any sort. Finally, there are those trade union functionaries who fear that the creation of a solid working class regime would enormously stimulate the shop locals from below and give a death blow to the old trade union machine in which they are so firmly entrenched.

Regardless of the outcome of the present struggle in Spain, it can be said without equivocation that unless the Spanish people use the concrete methods at hand to solve their unique problems, they will never be able to solve them at all.