Murray Bookchin

The Spanish Civil War, 1936


Published: in New Politics no 1 (Summer 1986).
HTML-markup: Jonas Holmgren

Between myth and reality there lies a precarious zone of transition that occasionally captures the truth of each. Spain, caught in a world-historic revolution fifty years ago, was exactly such an occasion—a rare moment when the most generous, almost mythic dreams of freedom seemed suddenly to become real for millions of Spanish workers, peasants, and intellectuals. For this brief period of time, this shimmering moment, as it were, the world stood breathlessly still, while the red banners of revolutionary socialism and the red-and-black banners of revolutionary anarchosyndicalism floated over most of Spain's major cities and thousands of her villages.

Taken together with the massive, spontaneous collectivization of factories, fields, even hotels and restaurants, the oppressed classes of Spain reclaimed history with a force and passion of an unprecedented scope and gave a stunning reality in many areas of the peninsula to the ageless dream of a free society. The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 was, at its inception, the last of the classical European workers' and peasants' revolutions—not, let me make it clear, a short-lived "uprising," a cadre-controlled "guerrilla war," or a simple civil conflict between regions for national supremacy. And like so many life-forms that appear for the last time, before fading away forever, it was the most far-reaching and challenging of all such popular movements of the great revolutionary era that encompasses Cromwellian England of the late 1640s and the working-class uprisings of Vienna and Asturias of the early 1930s.

It is not a myth but a sheer lie—the cretinous perversion of history by its makers in the academy—to depict the Spanish Civil War as a mere prelude to World War II, an alleged conflict between "democracy and fascism." Not even World War II deserves the honor of this ideological characterization. Spain was seized by more than a civil war: it was in the throes of a profound social revolution. Nor was this revolution, like so many self-styled ones of recent years, simply the product of Spain's struggle for modernization. If anything, Spain was one of those very rare countries where problems of modernization helped inspire a real social revolution rather than a reaction or adaptation to Western and Eastern Europe's economic and social development. This seemingly "Third World" feature of the Spanish Civil War and, above all, the extraordinary alternatives it posed to capitalism and authoritarian forms of socialism make the revolution hauntingly relevant to liberation movements today. In modernizing the country, the Spanish working class and peasantry literally took over much of its economy and managed it directly in the form of collectives, cooperatives, and union-networked syndicalist structures. Democratically-run militias, free of all ranking distinctions and organized around a joint decision-making process that involved the soldiers as well as their elected "commanders," moved rapidly to the military fronts.

To have stopped Franco's "Army of Africa," composed of foreign legionnaires and Moorish mercenaries—perhaps the blood-thirstiest and certainly one of the most professionalized troops at the disposal of any European nation at the time—and its well-trained Civil Guards and police auxiliaries, would have been nothing less than miraculous once it established a strong base on the Spanish mainland. That hastily formed, untrained, and virtually unequipped militiamen and women slowed up Franco's army's advance on Madrid for four months and essentially stopped it on the outskirts of the capital is a feat for which they have rarely earned the proper tribute from writers on the civil war of the past half century.

Behind the "Republican" lines, power lay essentially in the hands of the trade unions and their political organizations: the million-member General Confederation of Workers (UGT), the labor federation of the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), and the equally large General Confederation of Labor (CNT), strongly influenced by the semi-clandestine Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI). Additionally, another leftist organization, the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), whose more radical members and leaders had been rooted in a Trotskyist tradition in earlier years, followed up the more influential socialists and anarchists. In Catalonia, the POUM outnumbered by far the Communist and Socialist Parties which united to form the predominantly Communist-controlled Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC). The Communist Party (PCE) at the inception of the revolution was inconsequential in numbers and influence, lagging far behind the three major left-wing organizations and their unions.

The wave of collectivizations that swept over Spain in the summer and autumn of 1936 has been described in a recent BBC-Granada documentary as "the greatest experiment in workers' self-management Western Europe has ever seen," a revolution more far-reaching than any which occurred in Russia during 1917-21 and the years before and after it.[1] In anarchist industrial areas like Catalonia, an estimated three-quarters of the economy was placed under workers' control, as it was in anarchist rural areas like Aragon. The figure tapers downward where the UGT shared power with the CNT or else predominated: 50 percent in anarchist and socialist Valencia, and 30 percent in socialist and liberal Madrid. In the more thoroughly anarchist areas, particularly among the agrarian collectives, money was eliminated and the material means of life were allocated strictly according to need rather than work, following the traditional precepts of a libertarian communist society. As the BBC-Granada television documentary puts it: "The ancient dream of a collective society without profit or property was made reality in the villages of Aragon. ... All forms of production were owned by the community, run by their workers."

The administrative apparatus of "Republican" Spain belonged almost entirely to the unions and their political organizations. Police in many cities were replaced by armed workers' patrols. Militia units were formed everywhere—in factories, on farms, and in socialist and anarchist community centers and union halls, initially including women as well as men. A vast network of local revolutionary committees coordinated the feeding of the cities, the operations of the economy, and the meting out of justice, indeed, almost every facet of Spanish life from production to culture, bringing the whole of Spanish society in the "Republican" zone into a well-organized and coherent whole. This historically unprecedented appropriation of society by its most oppressed sectors—including women, who were liberated from all the constraints of a highly traditional Catholic country, be it the prohibition of abortion and divorce or a degraded status in the economy—was the work of the Spanish proletariat and peasantry. It was a movement from below that overwhelmed even the revolutionary organizations of the oppressed, including the CNT-FAI. "Significantly, no left organization issued calls for revolutionary takeovers of factories, workplaces or the land," observes Ronald Fraser in one of the most up-to-date accounts of the popular movement. "Indeed, the CNT leadership in Barcelona, epicenter of urban anarchosyndicalism, went further: rejecting the offer of power presented to it by President Companys [the head of the Catalan government], it decided that the libertarian revolution must stand aside for collaboration with the Popular Front forces to defeat the common enemy. The revolution that transformed Barcelona in a matter of days into a city virtually run by the working class sprang initially from individual CNT unions, impelled by their most advanced militants; and as their example spread it was not only large enterprises but small workshops and businesses that were being taken over.[2]

I quote Fraser to emphasize the remarkable power of education and discussion, and the critical examination of experience in the development of many segments of the Spanish working class and peasantry. For Communists like Eric Hobsbawn to designate these segments, largely influenced by anarchist ideas, as "primitive rebels" is worse than prejudice; it represents ideology mechanically imposed on the flux of history, organizing it into "stages" of development in flat contradiction to real life and freezing it into categories that exist solely in the mind of the historian. Since Spain, as we are told, was a predominately agrarian country, in fact, "feudal" in its social structure, its proletariat must have been "undeveloped" and its peasantry caught in a fever of "millennarian" expectations. These "primitive" features of Spain's development somehow account, so the story goes, for the more than one million members of the anarchosyndicalist CNT out of a population of twenty-four million. Spain's bourgeoisie, it is further argued, was the cowed stepchild of the country's territorial grandees, its clerics, and its bloated officer corps; Spain needed a "bourgeois-democratic" revolution, akin to the French and American, as a "historical precondition" for a "socialist" one. This "stages theory," with its salad of "preconditions," was invoked with considerable effectiveness by the Communist International in the 1930s against the reality of an authentic workers' and peasants' revolution. Where it could not be completely concealed from the outside world, the revolution was denounced by the Communists as "premature" in a "balance of history" that was determined somewhere in the foreign commissariat of Stalinist Russia and resolutely assaulted by the PCE on a scale that brought "Republican" Spain to the edge of a civil war within the civil war.

Recent accounts of Spain and the revolution of 1936 give us a very different picture of the country's society from its portrayal by the Communists, their liberal allies, and even by such well-intentioned observers as Gerald Brenan and Franz Borkenau. Despite its outward trappings, Spain was not the overwhelmingly agrarian and "feudal" country we were taught it was two generations ago. From the turn of the century to the coming of the Second Republic in 1931, Spain had undergone enormous economic growth with major changes in the relative weight of the agricultural and nonagricultural sectors. From 1910 to 1930 the peasantry had declined from 66 percent to 45.5 percent of the working population, while industrial workers had soared from 15.8 percent to 26.5 percent and those in services from 18.1 percent to 27.9 percent. Indeed, the peasantry now formed a minority of the population, not its traditional majority, and a substantial portion of the "peasantry" owned land, particularly in areas that adhered to the highly conservative "National Front" as against the liberal-socialist-communist coalition under the rubric of the "Popular Front." Indeed, omitting the Center parties the "Popular Front"—whose election in February 1936 precipitated the military plots that led to the Francoist rebellion six months later—received only 54 percent of the vote in a voting procedure and under circumstances that favored them. Moreover, as Edward Malefakis has shown in his thoroughly researched study of agrarian unrest in the period leading up to the civil war, the CNT had its greatest strength among the industrial working class of Catalonia, not among the "millennarian" agricultural day-workers of the South. Many of these braceros joined socialist unions in the 1930s, pushing the reformist Socialist party in an increasingly revolutionary direction.[3]

Spain's rapid rate of industrialization and the shift of the country from "feudal" to essentially capitalist forms of agriculture occurred well in advance of the "Popular Front" victory. The decade of the 1920s under the fairly indulgent, Mussolini-type dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (a Spanish parody of Italian fascism in which leading Socialists like Largo Caballero actually held official positions as did other UGT chieftains), saw an economic modernization of the country that almost equaled and in some cases exceeded the boom years under Franco between 1960 and 1973. Illiteracy was substantially decreased, and economic expansion was accelerated; hence the very sizable middle class or service workers with middle-class values that could be played against the militant working class of Spain.

The greatest single reservoir of economic unrest was in the south: Andalusia's plantation or latifundia society, structured around the cultivation of olives, cereals, grapes—and the large workforce of desperately poor, half-starved landless day-laborers. Caught in the trammels of Spain's quasifeudal grandees, hundreds of thousands of braceros lived in bitter desperation, a way of life that contrasted with the opulence and cold arrogance of the royalist upper class of nobles and bourgeois who were to form the cutting edge of Franco's rebellion and were the principal beneficiaries of his victory.

Periodic uprisings of the braceros had culminated in an agrarian war in 1918-20 and were put down mercilessly, leaving a legacy of savage class hatred that expressed itself in the burning of crops, farm buildings, and rural mansions (many of which were turned into virtual fortresses during times of social unrest), and assassinations on both sides of the class barrier. Long before the 1930s, Andalusia became, for all practical purposes, an occupied territory where Civil Guards patrolled the countryside and, together with armed thugs hired by landowners, fired wantonly at striking braceros and created the endemic violence that claimed an appalling toll during the first weeks of the civil war. Yet here too, agriculture was largely capitalistic in its orientation toward the marketplace. Andalusia's produce was cultivated largely for international trade. Noble titles often concealed bourgeois avarice in its most unfeeling form, and upper-class references to the "tradition" of Spain barely camouflaged pernicious greed and privilege.

What cannot be ignored after presenting this tableau is the extent to which the crisis that led to the 1936 revolution was cultural as well as economic. Spain was a land of several nations: Basques and Catalans who sought autonomy for their respective cultures and viewed Spanish lifeways with a measure of disdain; Castilians who appeared as the collective oppressors of the peninsula, despite their own internal divisions; an arrogant nobility that fed on images of Spain's "golden era" and lived in almost parochial isolation from the real Spain that surrounded them; an incestuous officer caste that belonged to one of the country's lingering "orders" and for whom "national regeneration" had devolved from the values of liberalism and "modernity" to those of sheer reaction; finally, a virtually medieval Church that was excessively propertied, rigidly hierarchical, and often bitterly hated because of the contrast between its pious rhetoric of human "brotherhood" and its patent partisanship with the upper classes.

Above all, Spain was a land in which cultures were in dramatic transition between town and country, feudalism and capitalism—a nostalgic world that looked back to a past of aristocratic supremacy and forward to a future of plebeian egalitarianism that found its most radical form in a huge anarchosyndicalist movement. What made the Spanish working class so uniquely revolutionary, in my view, was its well-rooted ancestry in the countryside—in a relatively slow-paced, organic agrarian world that clashed sharply with the highly rationalized, mechanized industrial world of the cities. In the force-field of these two cultures, Spanish workers in the Mediterranean coastal cities retained an obduracy, a sense of moral tension, a feeling for preindustrial lifeways, and a commitment to community that cannot be conveyed to a generation immured in the received wisdom and prepackaged lifeways of a highly commodified, market-oriented era.

The intensity of this force-field was heightened by a Spanish heritage of strong sociability: urban barrios were actually intimate villages within the city, knitted together by cafes, community centers and union halls and energized by a vital outdoor public life that stood at sharp variance with the aristocratic mythos of the Spanish past and the hated Church which had abdicated all claims to public service. The elite classes of the country, so completely divorced from those who worked for them, were highly protective of the privileges conferred upon them by pedigree, status, and landed wealth, which often produced fissures as bourgeois parvenus began to enter a social terrain guarded for centuries by tradition and history.

Accordingly, one always "belonged" in a deeply social, cultural, regional, class, and economic sense—whether it was to a part of Spain, to a hierarchy, a caste, a clan, an institution (be it the army or a union), and finally, to a neighborhood, village, town, city, and province, precisely in that order of loyalty. In this cultural sense affiliations and antagonisms often overrode economic considerations to an extent that is now barely comprehensible To cite only one example, the workers of Saragossa, even more anarchist in their ideology than their syndicalistic comrades in Barcelona, disdained strikes for "paltry" economic demands; they normally put down their tools in behalf of their brothers and sisters in prisons or over issues of politics, human rights, and class solidarity. In one truly incredible instance, these "pure" anarchists declared a twenty-four-hour general-strike because the German Communist leader, Ernst Thälmann, had been arrested by Hitler.

Behind this vibrantly radical culture was a rich tradition of direct action, self-management, and confederal association. Spain had barely become a nation-state under Ferdinand and Isabella—the "Catholic monarchs" who conquered the last Moorish strongholds on the peninsula—when the monarchy was faced with a historic crisis. Under the Comuneros (translated literally, the Communards), Castile's major cities rose up in revolt to demand what was virtually a form of nationhood structured primarily around a confederation of municipalities. In this remarkable moment when a confederal political system hovered as an alternative to a centralized nation-state, Castilian cities created short-lived ward democracies and neighborhood assemblies and enfranchised people in the lowest ranks of the community on a scale that would have sent a shudder of fear through Europe's ruling elites, possibly comparable to the impact of the Paris Commune of 1871.[4] Such confederal movements percolated through Spanish history for generations . They took real-life form in the extraordinary power of local society over centralized state institutions, exploding in movements like the Federalists of Pi y Margall of the early 1870s and the anarchists schooled in the writings of Bakunin. But Spanish localism and confederalism were not strictly an anarchist phenomenon: they were Spanish to the core and infused the most traditional socialists, even the Basque nationalists, who advanced municipalist notions of political control against the centralized state's authority well into the 1930s.

Spanish radicalism, in effect, raised questions and provided answers that have a unique relevance to the problems of our day: local autonomy, confederalism, collectivism, self-management, and base democracy in opposition to state centralism, nationalization, managerial control, and bureaucracy. The world did not know this in 1936, nor does it understood the scope of these issues adequately today. Indeed, Spanish radicalism also raised ideological images that history rendered obsolete in Europe: images of a classical proletarian insurrection, barricades, a syndicalist triumph of revolutionary trade unions, and inchoate notions of emancipation cloaked in a Bolshevik mantle claimed by Stalin rather than in Spain's own popular traditions. It was this swirling vortex of social dislocations that the Spanish army tried to still, a vortex of institutional relics, an agrarian crisis where large-scale agribusiness dressed in aristocratic vestments was pitted against a ragged, land-hungry, labor force of day-workers, and an arrogant nobility, an avaricious bourgeoisie, an inordinately materialistic Church, and a servile middle class against the most volatile proletariat and peasantry Europe had seen in a century of revolutionary anarchism and socialism.

The events leading to the outbreak of civil war can be dealt with summarily. In Spain, history seems to repeat itself first as farce and only later as tragedy. The social dislocations that followed World War I seem almost a comic anticipation of the developments that preceded Franco's uprising. A wave of revolutionary unrest gave way in 1923 to the military dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera, a pleasure-loving, rather dissolute Andalusian aristocrat who easily came to terms with the UGT and the Socialists at the expense of their anarchosyndicalist rivals and who essentially ignored the Spanish Communist Party because of its sheer insignificance. The boom years of the 1920s were followed by a rapid decline in Primo's authoritarian government, which pulled the props out from underneath the monarchy itself. In April 1931 Spain returned after some two generations to a republican political system, seemingly with almost universal enthusiasm—but the system's authority waned quickly when a liberal-Socialist coalition tried to address the crucial agrarian problems that had beleaguered all Spanish governments for generations. Hammered on the right by the attempted military coup of General Sanjurjo (August 1932) and by anarchosyndicalist insurrectionism on the left which culminated in the Casas Viejas massacre of Andalusian peasants (January 1933), the coalition lay in the debris of its own ill-starred reforms.

In the summer of 1933, Spain's multitude of parties and organizations began to regroup and polarize. In November of that year, a coalition of the right, the Spanish Confederation of Right Groups (CEDA) replaced the liberal-Socialist coalition headed by Manuel Azaña. The forces that consigned the first "Republican" government in some sixty years to the historic garbage heap now formed the impetus for a radical shift to the two extremes. Disenchanted with liberal ineptitude and subjected to increasing internal pressure by the influx of Andalusian braceros, the Socialist Party veered sharply from reformism to revolutionism in little more than a year. Just as the CEDA found the newly formed fascistic Falange on its far right, so Largo Cabellero (now styled the "Lenin of Spain") found the recent POUM, a melding of two independent revolutionary Marxist groups, on his far left and the anarchosyndicalists in a state of chronic revolution still further off on their own.

The barricades that the Viennese Socialist workers raised early in 1934 in the face of a reactionary assault on their very existence had their bloody Spanish counterpart eight months later in the "October Revolution" of 1934, when Asturian miners, raising red and red-and-black flags over the mountain towns and cities of northern Spain, became the epicenter of a general uprising throughout the country. It was then that the increasingly well-known commander of the "Army of Africa," one Francisco Franco, brought Moorish troops as well as foreign legionnaires onto Spanish soil for the first time in five hundred years to defend "Christian Civilization" from "red barbarism." In a taste of the fierce counterrevolutionary retribution that was yet to come, two thousand miners were executed in the aftermath of the Asturias uprising and tens of thousands of Socialists, anarchosyndicalists, in smaller numbers Communists, and even some liberals found themselves in Spanish jails while the rest of the country smoldered in a savage class and regional hatred that found its full satisfaction two years later.

Under an ostensibly shared eagerness to free the October prisoners and in fear of growing rightist provocation of the kind that had finally brought the Viennese Socialists into insurrection, a "Popular Front" was slapped together from such widely disparate political groups as the Republican left, the Socialists, the Esquerra (Luis Companys's Catalan nationalists), the Communist Party, the Syndicalist Party (a political arm of the dissident anarchosyndicalist, Angel Pestaña), and the POUM (in Catalonia). The term "Popular Front" apparently originated in the French Communist Party and the Soviet-French Treaty of Mutual Assistance (May 1935) in which both countries vowed to aid each other if either was "threatened or in danger of aggression." With the Popular Front, all Western Communist Parties and all their front organizations made a sharp volte face from a previous totally insane policy of revolutionary adventurism, in which even the CNT was dubbed "reformist," to a queasy "line" of total accommodation to the "forces of democracy" and an abject surrender of all radical principles to reformism. That the new gospel of leftists joining with liberals was nothing less than Stalin's wholesale prostitution of the world's Communist Parties for "non-aggression" and preferably "mutual assistance" pacts between Russia and any power that was prepared to enter the Stalinist brothel became clear by 1936.

It is difficult today, when radical theory has retreated to the couloirs of the academy and radical practice to the smoke-filled rooms of liberal politicians, to recognize the crisis of conscience that "Popular Frontism" created in the Communist movement. Contrary to recent myths that the "Popular Front" was a welcome change of line, a waning generation from the era can still recall how American left-wing socialists taunted Communist Party members for the rapid desertion of their revolutionary ideals. In Spain, this took the form of the particularly cutting remark: "Vote Communist and Save Capitalism." The numbers who left "the Party" in bitterness were probably immense throughout the world. Yet neither "anti-fascism" nor a passion for "bourgeois democracy" can explain what kept thousands of revolutionary Communists in the Stalinist movement. That Communist parties were able to acquire more members in unprecedented numbers, many of whom were very tentative in their commitments, attests to the fact that even in the "red thirties," Western Europe and America contained more liberals than radicals. It also attests to the uncritical, often mindless loyalty of Communists to the Soviet Union as the "first Socialist country" in the world and to the legacy of the October Revolution—even as its leaders were being slaughtered en masse by Stalin's NKVD.

Equally fundamentally the "Popular Front" introduced a doctrinal crisis into the corpus of revolutionary Marxism. The very raison d'être for a Communist Party anywhere in the world had been Social Democracy's legacy of "betrayals," creating the need for a new revolutionary movement. "Betrayal," in the language of the day, meant the abandonment of Marx's basic, indeed unswerving strategy of revolutionary independence for all authentic "workers' parties." This precept, forcefully voiced by Marx and Engels in their famous "Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League" (March 1850), warned that "everywhere workers' candidates are put up alongside of the bourgeois-democratic candidates ... to preserve their independence." As if in anticipation of "popular frontism" a century later both men forbade Communists from allowing "themselves to be seduced by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and making it possible for the reactionaries to win."[5]

To abandon these precepts was to assail the authenticity of Communism as such, indeed, to discard the most fundamental principles of Bolshevism as a truly Marxist politics. It had been on the strength of these strategic ideas that the Bolshevik Party had come to power in 1917 and defined itself as a revolutionary movement. For Stalin in the Popular Front to adopt exactly what Marx Engels, and Lenin had regarded as the most "treacherous" features of "bourgeois democracy" and Social Democracy reduced world Communist movements to mere guardians of the Soviet Union and an extension of Stalinist foreign policy. If anything could justify so abject a role for Communists, it was their belief—held consciously or not—that Russia was the main force for the achievement of world socialism. This doctrinal mystification essentially replaced the power of the oppressed to change society and thereby change themselves in a supreme act of self-empowerment, with the power of a "workers' state" to instrumentally redesign society.

The logic of this mentality had disastrous ramifications, ones that exist today even as they did fifty years ago. This Popular Front mystification was to turn socialism from a social movement into a largely diplomatic one. World Communist Parties which had been spawned in a period of authentic revolution were to be denatured by the mythos of a socialism achieved by international power politics into mere tools for preserving or abetting the interests of a nation-state. The Popular Front, in effect, not only planted socialism in a geographical area and divested it of its ethical calling to redeem humanity; it rendered the "ideal," with all its visionary and critical meanings over the course of history, territorial and invested it with the fixity of the "real," notably as a mere instrument of national policy.*

The argument between the compromised Communist movement of the Popular Front and its leftist critics unfolded on a multitude of levels over the three tortured years that preceded the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939. Left Socialists generally called it "class collaboration," with blunt clarity; the forfeiture of the very sense of revolutionary purpose that alone could defeat fascism, much less achieve socialism; the proclivity of liberals to deliver democratic liberties to fascists rather than yield power to an insurgent working class. Remote as the Popular Front era seems today, it is striking that leftist challenges to it have been supported by reality to an uncanny extent.

In Spain, the victory of the Popular Front in February 1936 virtually unleashed a revolution by itself. The organizations that orchestrated its electoral success allowed a government of liberal mice, marked by timidity and a fear of the working class and peasantry, to preside over their destiny. The incongruity between the bumbling Azaña regime in Madrid and the wave of strikes, rural land seizures, and gun-battles that swept over Spain between February and July, when Franco finally "pronounced" against the "Republic," is so stark and the logic of events that left only two choices by the summer of 1936—either libertarian revolution or bloody authoritarian reaction—is so compelling that Franco's easy success in transporting the "Army of Africa" from Spanish Morocco to the mainland was an act of governmental betrayal in its own right.

The CNT placed all its militants on alert and blanketed Barcelona with workers patrols, but the other leftist parties which had formed the "Popular Front" were essentially quiescent. Even after Franco rose and the government attempted to strike a deal with the military, causing people to fill the streets demanding arms, the Communist and Socialist Parties jointly declared: "It is a difficult, not a desperate time. The government is sure it has adequate means to crush this criminal move. Should its means prove inadequate, the Republic has the Popular Front's solemn promise. It is ready to intervene in the struggle if it is asked to help. The government commands and the Popular Front obeys."[6]

It is not the case that no one knew early on that the army garrisons would rise—or, for that matter, when and where. Owing to its excellent intelligence service, which had penetrated the military, police, and security forces generally, the CNT had warned months in advance that the army was planning a coup in the summer of 1936 and that its base would be Spanish Morocco. Even more compelling, Colonel Escofet, the Republican police chief of Barcelona, had learned from informers and wiretaps that the rising would occur on July 19 at 5 A.M., exactly as the conspirators had originally planned, and he gave this information to the Catalan and Madrid governments. They met his information with disbelief—not because they regarded a coup as incredible but because they could not act upon the information without arming the people. That alternative was simply excluded. Indeed, as Escofet later frankly admitted, he blandly lied to CNT leaders who came to him demanding arms by "saying they could go home since the rising had been postponed."[7]

The very opposite, in fact, had happened: the rising was pushed forward by two days. As early as the morning of July 17, when Franco's aides broadcast news of the army rebellion, the naval station near Madrid intercepted the report and brought it to the Ministry of the Navy. The only decisive action the government took was to conceal it from the people—indeed, like Escofet, to lie by announcing the utterly false story that the uprising in Seville had been crushed. The lie was all the more horrendous because thousands of workers in the city were being systematically executed by the military after army rebels had vanquished them. It was only from popular initiative—first in Barcelona, where the army was defeated after two days of fighting by the combined action of the workers and sympathetic Civil Guards, and later in Madrid, Valencia, Málaga, and virtually all the major cities in central Spain—that coordinated resistance emerged from the political centers of the country.

There were no sensational victories by the army and no decisive failures by the people. Apart from the Andalusian cities which Franco and his generals quickly captured, as often by ruse as by arms, the pronunciamiento was essentially a military failure, and the conflict dragged on to its bloody conclusion for the greater part of three years. That Franco was able to establish himself on the mainland was due to the hesitation of the "Popular Front" regime which misled the people; partly because the leftist parties, fearful of challenging the government's authority, seemed to be sleepwalking through the opening days of the rebellion, and partly because this very government was negotiating with the military rather than arming the people. As a result, radical urban centers like Seville, Granada, and to the surprise of the army itself, Oviedo in Asturias and Saragossa in Aragon, fell to local military commanders by sheer ruse because the workers had been kept in ignorance of what was happening elsewhere in Spain. The slaughter that occurred in all these cities when the army took over initiated a terrible hemorrhaging of the Spanish working class and peasantry, a bloodletting that turned Spain into a cemetery for more than thirty-five years. As Pierre Broué and Emile Témime conclude in their excellent account of the revolution and civil war, "In effect, each time that the workers' organizations allowed themselves to be paralyzed by their anxiety to respect Republican legality and each time their leaders were satisfied with what was said by the officers, the latter prevailed. On the other hand, the Movimiento of the generals was repulsed where the workers had time to arm and whenever they set about the destruction of the Army as such, independently of their leaders' position or the attitude of 'legitimate' public authorities."[8]

There is nothing in this account that a revolutionary socialist or anarchist could not have predicted from the day the "Popular Front" came to power. The liberals played out their classical role with almost textbook exactness. The Socialist Party, divided between a cynical right and an irresolute left, was eaten away by indecision and a failure of nerve that brought its own conservative chieftains to the point of treachery. Finally, the anarchosyndicalist leaders, far less decisive than their rank-and-file militants, refused to take power in their Catalan stronghold as a matter of principle in the opening weeks of the revolution—only to compromise their most basic antistatist doctrines later by humbly entering the central government as ministerial fixtures. Harried by Communist and liberal assaults on the militia system and the collectivization, and by an increasingly deadly Stalinist terror, the CNT-FAI leadership withdrew into a posture of plaintive clients of the "Popular Front," whining rather than fighting against the rollback of the revolution that had been the result of a popular movement more than of their own efforts.

But what no one seems to have expected was the resoluteness with which the Spanish Communist Party played out its counterrevolutionary role, abetted by Soviet weapons, "Comintern" agents, NKVD experts, and in no small part, individual members of the "International Brigades," who provided the PCE with some of its best assassins. The initial response of the Communists to Franco's pronunciamiento was designed to bolster the reputation of the liberal government which was trying to come to terms with the insurgent generals. More than any organization that professed to be "leftist," the PCE opened its doors to the most conservative elements that found themselves behind the "Republican" lines, becoming the rallying point for domestic reaction, and steadily ate away at the revolution in the name of "antifascism." Not only did it try to arrest collectivization, it tried to reverse it , restoring hierarchy in the institutions that formed the infrastructure of Spanish life and speaking openly for the bourgeois interest in Spanish society. The files of Mundo Obrero, the PCE's principal organ, are filled with journalistic declamations, manifestos, and editorials that denounce the militias in favor of a fully officered "Popular Army," lend support to the liberals and right-wing Socialists against criticism by the Socialist left and the anarchists, and denounce any exercise of power by the unions and revolutionary committees with the cry, "The slogan today is all power and authority to the People's Front government" (Daily Worker, September 11, 1936).

To explain why any self-professed radicals remained in the PCE is almost impossible without analyzing the organization's sense of priorities: the wishful identification of "socialism" on the part of its more committed members with a nation-state, even at the expense of a popular movement that was actively emancipatory elsewhere. In this very real sense, the Spanish Communist Party was no more Spanish than its Soviet counterpart and as a result of its identification of "communism" with Stalin's national policies, no more communist than the Catholic Basque movements that opposed Franco.

The "leftist" government formed by Largo Cabellero in September 1936 was aimed at mobilizing Socialist, anarchosyndicalist, and Communist leaders not only against the army but against the revolution initiated by their own rank-and-file. As Largo Caballero attested after he had been removed from office, Soviet intervention in Spanish affairs was brutally overt and demanding. The revolution was blemishing the Soviet Union's image as a respectable nation-state in the pursuit of diplomatic alliances. It had to be stopped. Caballero was anything but a revolutionary, but he had a real base in the Spanish Socialist Party which gave him enough freedom to act according to his own judgment, a fatal flaw in the eyes of the Communists.

Nevertheless it was under this regime that the revolution expired. On September 30, the "Popular Army" was proclaimed, to the delight of the liberals, Communists, and right-wing Socialists; indeed, nearly all parties and organizations on the left abetted the transformation of the militias into a conventional army. The distribution of weapons, equipment, and resources among different sectors of the front and to different regions of the country was scandalously governed by political considerations. They were even abandoned to Franco if the Communists and their allies suspected they would become available to the anarchosyndicalists. To cite one of many examples, Spain's only prewar cartridge factory in the "Republican" zone, at Toledo, was permitted to fall into the hands of Francoist forces rather than remove it to Barcelona which would have strengthened the revolutionary movement—this, despite pleas by José Tarradellas, the deputy of the Catalan premier Luis Companys, who personally visited Madrid to present his request for its removal. [9]

Reinforced by Soviet arms and the huge membership that it acquired largely from the middle classes, the PCE launched an outright assault on the collectives and the revolutionary committees, even purging the anarchosyndicalists, which Pravda, the organ of the Soviet Communist Party, declared "will be conducted with the same energy with which it was conducted in the U.S.S.R" (December 17, 1936). "Chekist organizations recently discovered in Madrid," warned the anarchosyndicalist newspaper Solidaridad Obrera on April 25, 1937, referring to NKVD-type secret prisons and police forces "... are directly linked with similar centers under a unified leadership and a preconceived plan of national scope." We do not have to go to George Orwell, a victim of these "Chekists" (the term applied to the Bolshevik secret police during the Russian Revolution), for personal verification of the charge. Pravda had already projected the formation of this network, and after the war, numerous anarchosyndicalists and POUMists gave detailed accounts of their own experiences at the hands of this Communist-controlled system of internal repression.

The decisive point in destroying the popular movement and reducing its militants to passivity came in early May 1937, when Catalan security forces under the personal command of the Communist commissioner of public safety, Salas, tried to seize the CNT-controlled telephone building in Barcelona. The attack triggered off a virtual insurrection by the Catalan working class, which had been nursing months of grievances against the Communists and liberals. Within hours, barricades were raised all over the city, and the "Lenin Barracks," the Communist military stronghold, was completely surrounded by armed workers. The insurrection spread beyond Barcelona to Lérida, where the Civil Guards surrendered their arms to the workers, to Tarragona, Gerona, and to militiamen on the Aragon front, who prepared to send detachments to the CNT urban centers. The dramatic five days between May 3 and 8, when CNT workers could have reclaimed their dwindling revolutionary conquests, were days not of defeat but of treachery—no less by the clique that led the CNT than the Communists, who were prepared to create a civil war within the civil war, irrespective of its toll on the struggle against the Francoists. Lacking even a modicum of this resoluteness, the "anarchist ministers," Montseny and García Oliver induced the CNT workers to lay down their arms and return to their homes. This self-inflicted defeat turned into an outright rout when superbly armed "Republican" assault guards entered Barcelona in force to contain its restive population. Barcelona had been turned from the center of the revolution into the cowed occupied zone of outright counterrevolution—at a cost in life, it may be noted, comparable to the losses the city had suffered in the army's uprising a year earlier.

The failure of the insurrection—the famous "May Days"—opened wide the gates of the Communist-led counterrevolution. Largo Caballero was forced to resign, replaced by Juan Negrín, who leaned heavily on PCE support up to the very end of the war. Two months later, the POUM was officially outlawed, and Andres Nín, its most gifted leader, murdered by Soviet agents in collusion with Thälmann Battalion members of the International Brigades. The anarchosyndicalists, too, suffered heavily, especially with the assassination of Carlo Bernieri, the authentic voice of Italian anarchism and a sharp critic of the CNT leadership. There is also compelling evidence that members of the Garibaldi Battalion of the International Brigades were implicated in his murder during the May Days. By August, the notorious Military Investigation Service (SIM) was formed under Negrín's premiership to intensify the Stalinist terror inflicted on militant anarchosyndicalists and POUM-ists. In the same month, the Moscow-trained thug Enrique Líster, led his Communist 11th Division into the last rural strongholds of anarchism, where he disbanded the Council of Aragon and an indeterminable number of collectives and cowed the revolutionary movement, under orders, by his own admission, to "shoot all the anarchists I had to."[10] The "Republican" government aimed the Belchite campaign, one of the bloodiest in the civil war," as much at demolishing the Council of Aragon, that anarchist state-within-the-state, as at achieving any significant results against the Nationalists," observes David Mitchell in his oral-history accounts of the civil war.[11]

Thereafter, the "Spanish war," as it was nonchalantly called by a bored world in the late 1930s, became nothing but a war—and a nightmare for the Spanish people. Army and people alike were now completely demoralized and "utterly pessimistic," observes Josep Costa, a CNT union leader who fought on the Aragon front. "The men were like lambs going to a slaughter. There was no longer an army, no longer anything. All the dynamic had been destroyed by the treachery of the Communist party in the May events. We went through the motions of fighting because there was an enemy in front of us. The trouble was that we had an enemy behind us too. I saw a comrade lying dead with a wound in the back of the neck that couldn't have been inflicted by the Nationalists. We were constantly urged to join the Communist party. If you didn't you were in trouble. Some men deserted to escape the bullying." That Communist execution squads were wandering over battlefields after the troops had pushed forward and were killing wounded anarchosyndicalists with their characteristic black-and-red insignia has also been told to me by CNT men who participated in the Battle of the Ebro, the last of the major "Republican" offensives in the civil war.

The end of the war on April 1, 1939, did not end the killings. Franco systematically slaughtered some 200,000 of his opponents between the time of his victory and the early 1940s in a carnage of genocidal proportions that was meant to physically uproot the living source of the revolution. No serious ideological efforts at conversion were made in the aftermath of the Francoist victory. Rather, it was a vindictive counterrevolution that had its only parallel, given the population and size of Spain, in Stalin's one-sided civil war against the Soviet people.

A revolutionary civil war of the kind that occurred in Spain is no longer possible, in my view, today—at least, not in the so-called "First World." Capitalism itself, as well as the classes that are said to oppose it, has changed significantly over the past fifty years. The Spanish workers were formed by a cultural clash in which a richly communal world, largely precapitalist, was brought into opposition to an industrial economy that had not yet pervaded the character structure of the Spanish people. Far from yielding a "backward" or "primitive" radical movement, these tensions between past and present created an enormously vital one in which the traditions of an older, more organic society heightened the critical perceptions and creative élan of a large worker-peasant population. The embourgeoisement of the present-day proletariat, not to speak of its loss of nerve in the face of a robotic and cybernetic technology, are merely evidence of the vastly changed social conditions and the overall commodification of society that has occurred since 1936.

Military technology, too, has changed. The weapons with which the Franco forces and the "Republicans" fought each other seem like toys today, when neutron bombs can be at the service of a completely ruthless ruling class. Force alone can no longer oppose force with any hope of revolutionary success. On this score, the greatest power lies with the rulers of society, not with the ruled. Only the hollowing out of the coercive institutions in the prevailing society, such as occurred in Portugal fairly recently and certainly in the Great French Revolution of two centuries ago—where the old society, divested of all support, collapsed at the first thrust—can yield radical social change. The barricade is a symbol, not a physical bulwark. To raise it denotes resolute intent at best—it is not a means to achieve change by insurrection. Perhaps the most lasting physical resistance the Spanish workers and peasants could have organized, even with Franco's military successes, would have been guerrilla warfare, a form of struggle whose very name and greatest traditions during modern times are Spanish. Yet none of the parties and organizations in the "Republican" zone seriously contemplated guerrilla warfare. Instead, conventional armies opposed conventional armies largely in trenches and as columns, until Franco's plodding strategy and overwhelming superiority of supplies swept his opponents from the field.

Could revolutionary warfare have defeated Franco? By this I mean a truly political war which sought to capture the hearts of the Spanish people, even that of the international working class, which exhibited a measure of class consciousness and solidarity that seems monumental by present-day standards. This presupposes the existence of working-class organizations that minimally would not have been a burden on the awakened people of Spain—and hopefully, would have contributed to the popular impetus. Given these conditions, my answer would be yes, as proved to be the case in Barcelona at the beginning, where Franco's army was defeated earlier than elsewhere. Franco's forces, which failed to gain victories in central Spain's major cities, could have been kept from taking such key radical centers as Seville, Córdoba, Oviedo, and Saragossa—the latter two of strategic importance, linking the most industrialized urban regions of Spain, the Basque country, and Catalonia. But the regime temporized with the aid of the "Popular Front" parties—particularly the Communists and right-wing Socialists—while confused workers in these key cities fell victim in almost every case to military ruses, not combat. With far greater determination than its enemies, the military drove a wedge between the Basques and Catalans that the "Popular Army" never overcame.

Even so, Franco's forces stalled significantly at various times in the war, such that Hitler expected his "crusade" to fail.[12] The death blow to popular resistance was delivered by the Communist Party, which was willing to risk the collapse of the entire war effort in its program to dissolve the largely libertarian revolution—one which had tried, faintheartedly enough, to come to a modus vivendi with its opponents on the "left." But no such understanding was possible: the PCE sought to make the "Spanish war" respectable primarily in the Soviet Union's interests and to cloak itself for all the democratic world to see in the trappings of bourgeois virtue. The revolution had tarnished this image and challenged the explicitly counterrevolutionary function which the entire Communist International had adopted in the service of Soviet diplomacy. Hence not only did the Spanish Revolution have to be exterminated, its exterminators had to be seen as such. The "Reds" had to be regarded as a safe bet by London, Paris, and Washington—and they gradually were as the conflict in Spain came to an end.

By the time the war was internationalized by unstinting German and Italian aid to Franco and the Soviet Union's highly conditional and limited assistance to the "Republicans"—in exchange, I may add, for Spain's sizable gold reserves—revolutionary victory was impossible. The May Days could have produced a "Catalan Commune," a sparkling legacy on which the Spanish people could have nourished their hopes for future struggles. It might even have become an inspiration for radical movements throughout the world. But the CNT, already partly bureaucratized in 1936, became appallingly so by 1937, with the acquisition of buildings, funds, presses, and other material goodies. This reinforced and rigidified the top-down hierarchical structure that is endemic to syndicalist organization. With the May Days, the union's ministerial elite completely arrested the revolution and acted as an outright obstacle to its advance in later moments of crisis.

The Communist Party of Spain won all its demands for an army, decollectivization, the extermination of its most dangerous opponents, the Stalinization of the internal security forces, and the conversion of the social revolution into a "war against fascism"—and it lost the war completely. Soviet aid, selective and unreliable at best, came to an end in November 1938, nearly a half-year before Franco's victory, while Italian and German aid continued up to the end. When Stalin moved toward a pact with Hitler, he found the "Spanish war" an embarrassment and simply denied it further support. The "Western democracies" did nothing for "Republican" Spain despite that regime's success in suppressing internal revolution and its Western-oriented policy in international affairs. Thus, it denied Spanish Morocco, a major reservoir of Franco's troops, the independence that might have turned it against the rebel army, despite promises by Moroccan nationalists of support.

What was lost in Spain was the most magnificent proletariat that radical movements had ever seen either before or after 1936-39—a classical working class in the finest socialist and anarchist sense of the term. It was a proletariat that was destroyed not by a growing material interest in bourgeois society but by physical extermination. This occurred largely amidst a conspiracy of silence by the international press in which the liberal establishment played no less a role than the Communist. It is appalling that Herbert M. Matthews, the New York Times's principal correspondent on the so-called "Loyalist" side of the war, could write as recently as 1973,"I would say that there was a revolution of sorts, but it should not be exaggerated. In one basic sense, there was no revolution at all, since the republican government functioned much as it did before the war."[13] Whether this is stupidity or collusion with the forces that ended the "revolution of sorts," I shall leave for the reader to judge. But it was correspondents of this political temper who fed news of the "Spanish war" to the American people in the 1930s.

The literature that deals with the conflict, generally more forthright than what was available for years after the war, has grown enormously, supported by oral historians of considerable ability. Has the American left learned from these accounts or from the Spanish collectives, industrial as well as agricultural, which offer dramatic alternative models of revolutionary modernization to the conventional ones based on nationalized economies and centralized, often totalitarian, control? My answer would have to be a depressing no. The decline of the "New Left" and the emergence of a more "orthodox" one threatens to create a new myth of the "Popular Front" as a golden era of radicalism. One would suppose that the new material on Spain, largely left-wing in orientation, has been read by no one. The "Spanish war" is no longer cloaked in silence, but the facts are being layered over with a sweet sentimentality for the aging survivors of the "Lincoln Battalion" and the Mom-Pop stereotypes in films like Seeing Red.

The truth, indeed, is out—but the ears to hear it and the minds to learn from it seem to have been atrophied by a cultivated ignorance and a nearly total loss of critical insight. "Partyness" has replaced politics, mindless "loyalty" has replaced theory, "balance" in weighing the facts has replaced commitment, and an ecumenical "radicalism" that embraces Stalinists and reformists under the shredded banner of "unity" and "coalition" has replaced the integrity of ideas and practice. That the banner of "unity" and "coalition" became Spain's shroud and was used with impunity to destroy its revolution and risk delivering the country to Franco is as remote from the collective wisdom of the left today as it was fifty years ago in the cauldron of a bloody civil war.

Ultimately, the integrity of the Spanish left could be preserved only if it articulated the most deep-seated traditions of the Spanish people: their strong sense of community, their traditions of confederalism and local autonomy, and their profound mistrust of the state. Whether the American left shares with the Spanish left the popular legacy that the latter cleansed and rescued from the right is a crucial problem that cannot be discussed here. But insofar as the anarchists gave these traditions coherence and a radical thrust, converting them into a political culture, not merely a contrived "program," they survived generations of incredible persecution and repression. Indeed, only when the Socialists resolved the problem of the relationship between a political movement and a popular one by establishing their famous "houses of the people" or casas del pueblo in Spain's villages, neighborhoods, and cities did they become a vital movement in Spanish life and politics.

The "Popular Front" ruptured this relationship by replacing a popular culture with the "politics" of backroom "coalitions." The utterly disparate parties that entered into "coalitions" were united solely by their shared fear of the popular movement and of Franco. The left's need to deal with its own relationship to popular traditions which have a latent radical content—to cleanse these traditions and bring out their emancipatory aspirations—remains a legacy of the Spanish Civil War that has not been earnestly confronted, either by anarchists or by socialists. Until the need to form a political culture is clearly defined and given the centrality it deserves, the Spanish Revolution will remain not only one of the most inexplicable chapters of radical history but the conscience of the radical movement as a whole.



[1] The Spanish Civil War (Part Five, "Inside the Revolution"), a six-part documentary produced by BBC-Granada, Ltd. This series is by far the best visual presentation of the Spanish Civil War I have seen and contains an enormous amount of original oral history. It is a primary source for material on the subject.

[2] Ronald Fraser, "The Popular Experience of War and Revolution" in Revolution and War in Spain, 1931-1939, Paul Preston, ed. (London and New York, 1983), pp. 226-27. This book is another valuable source.

[3] See Edward E. Malefakis, Agrarian Reform and Peasant Revolution in Spain: Origins of the Civil War (London and New Haven, 1970), pp. 284-92.

[4] For an evaluation of the alternative approaches that Europe faced in the sixteenth century, including the Comunero revolt, see my Urbanization Without Cities. Manuel Castells's The City and the Grassroots (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1983) contains a fascinating account of the revolt and its implications, in what I am inclined to believe is a departure from Castells's more traditional Marxist approach. For an English account of the Comunero revolt and a useful criticism of historical writing on the subject, see Stephan Haliczer's The Comuneros of Castile (Madison, 1981). For a general background on the relationship between Spanish anarchism and the popular culture of Spain, see my book The Spanish Anarchists (New York, 1976; AK Press, 1994).

[5] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers), p. 182.

[6] Quoted in Pierre Broué and Emile Témime, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain (Cambridge, 1972), pg. 100.

[7] Quoted in David Mitchell, The Spanish Civil War (London and New York, 1982) p. 31. This book is based on the BBC-Granada television series, but just as the series does not contain a good deal of material in the book, so the book does not contain a good deal of material in the series. The interested reader is therefore well advised to consult both.

[8] Broué and Témime, op. cit., p. 104.

[9] See the interview with Tarradellas in Part Five of the BBC-Granada Spanish Civil War documentary.

[10] Mitchell, op. cit., p. 156.

[11] Ibid, p. 158-59. Although the motives behind the Belchite campaign verge on the incredible, they were not uncommon. Other cases of major conflicts—and crises—in the Spanish Civil War were motivated by similar political considerations, with no concern for the lives lost and the damage inflicted on the "coalition" against Franco.

[12] Dénis Smyth, "Reflex Reaction: Germany and the Onset of the Spanish Civil War," in Preston, op. cit., p. 253.

[13] Quoted in Burnett Bolloten, The Spanish Revolution (Chapel Hill, 1979), p. 59.