Lessons of Spain

Ralph Lee and Ted Grant

Lessons of Spain


Written: May-June 1938
Source: Foreword to Leon Trotsky, The Lesson of Spain – The Last Warning!, original pamphlet
Transcription/Markup: Emil 1998, Francesco 2013
Proofread: Emil 1998, Francesco 2013

Under the transparent disguise of the “peace alliance” agitation, the popular front(1) of Britain now makes its first steps towards entering the political arena. The Liberals cock their ears attentively, the Labour Party heads strenuously oppose the project and the Communist Party, the initiator of the agitation, is utilising every resource it possesses to bring the popular front into being. It now becomes urgently necessary for British workers to draw conclusions from the events in Spain, to examine the experience of popular frontism as it appears in practice in the civil war in order to face up to the problems of tomorrow.

Leon Trotsky, in a series of articles and pamphlets on the Spanish situation, has consistently pointed the road which the Spanish masses must travel if fascism is to be conquered, [and] has called insistently for the only guide along that road, the revolutionary workers’ party, to take up its position at the head of the awakening Spanish masses. Trotsky concludes his pamphlet The Revolution in Spain, written in 1931, with these words: “For a successful solution of all these tasks, three conditions are required: a party; once more a party; again a party.”

The conditions for a workers’ victory over reaction, thus epigrammatically summed up, are still unfulfilled: this is the lesson that must be brought to the consciousness of the working class in Britain as in Spain.

While the Spanish fascists openly prepared, with aid from abroad, to strike their blow, the popular front government conspicuously failed to make that counter preparation which would have destroyed the enemy swiftly and easily. The army was left undisturbed in the hands of the reactionaries; under the noses of the popular front government they consolidated a powerful basis among the Moors(2) who, finding the chains of the new government no less galling than those of the monarchy, fell an easy prey to Franco’s specious promises. On the other hand, the workers were prevented by their reformist leaders from taking those measures which would have frustrated the fascist plans – the setting up of workers’ militia and factory committees. When, in spite of the entreaties of their leaders who begged them not to “provoke” the reaction, not to “antagonise” their republican-capitalist partners in the popular front, the workers struck and the peasants seized land, the government answered by arresting strikers, breaking up workers’ meetings, censoring workers’ papers, shooting down peasants. Such is the story related by the press dispatches and the official communications in the months of popular front power leading up to the civil war. In this way the popular front in the months preceding Franco’s uprising gagged and tied the masses and drove numbers into the opposite camp to join the Moors in opposing a “democratic” government that perpetuated their misery and oppression.

Neither the popular front nor any other capitalist government could solve the basic problems of modern Spain. Five million peasant families with insufficient land, three million of them with no land at all, were squeezed by taxation and were starving. Only the expropriation of the big landowners and the redivision of the land among the poor peasants could relieve their famine. But this solution was impossible under capitalism, because the whole structure of Spanish banking rests on the land mortgages, so that the ruin of the big landowners would mean the ruin of the capitalists and bankers. Only a Spanish “October”(3) could, by dealing a death blow at the capitalist and landowning classes alike, relieve the hunger of the perishing masses of the countryside.

The conditions of the workers in the cities likewise presented a problem insoluble under capitalism. Spanish industry, born too late to compete with the cheap goods which a well-developed foreign industry is able to pour into jealously guarded markets, is unable to find even a home market because of the impoverished peasant population. Marx and Lenin taught that there is no way out for the workers from their prison of meagre wages and growing unemployment except by smashing down the barriers of capitalism and placing the control of industry into the hands of the working class.

In the first months of the civil war the workers of Spain spontaneously sought this way out as an essential part of their struggle against reaction, for it is not by military method alone that Franco can be defeated. Measures necessary to rouse the masses, by giving them something to fight for, were put into operation: factory, village and shop councils, and workers’ tribunals were set up; a workers’ police force and militia were initiated. The beginnings of a workers’ state thus came into being to conduct a revolutionary war against the fascists, and existed side by side with the popular front, challenging its authority and wresting away its functions.

The Communist and Socialist parties came to the rescue of the capitalist government thus threatened with extinction. They entered the popular front government and Caballero(4), hailed as “the Spanish Lenin”, became the prime minister. Step by step the conquests of the workers were filched back in the name of the “defence of democracy”. The workers’ militia was dissolved into the republican army, workers’ courts were eliminated, workers’ police corps disbanded.

The same process went on in Catalonia where the POUM entered the coalition government, proclaiming it the workers’ government. But the POUM also proclaimed that the civil war was fundamentally a question of socialism versus capitalism, a truth which undermines the very foundations of the popular front. Republicans and Stalinists united in a vile campaign of calumny against the POUM accusing it of being in the pay of Franco, driving it from government, suppressing its propaganda and journals, arresting and imprisoning its leaders.

At the beginning of May 1937, the government launched its provocative attack on the workers to regain possession of the factories and buildings which were under workers’ control. The resistance of the workers was overcome and full control was regained by the bourgeoisie in the economic as in the political and military fields.

The alternatives that confront the Spanish masses today are on the one hand the victory of Franco initiating a totalitarian regime or on the other hand the now problematic victory of a “democratic” capitalist regime which in a spent and devastated Spain can only rule by a scarcely veiled dictatorship. In either case the chains will be more securely riveted on the limbs of the workers, peasants and the colonial people, exhausted and cheated.

From its very inception, the popular front disavowed in its programme not only socialist but even semi-socialist measures. It was openly and admittedly the guardian of capitalist property, dangling grandiose plans for future reforms before the eyes of the people to distract their attention from present miseries. The projected popular front in Britain is cut on the same pattern. “Any idea of real socialism would have to be put aside for the present,” declares Sir Stafford Cripps(5) in the Tribune (April 14, 1938) in pleading for a “democratic front” government. The Daily Worker supports the Liberal candidate in a by-election as against the Labour candidate, and sneered at Labour’s “astonishing ‘discovery’ that Liberals are not socialist, as if Liberals ever made this claim.” (May 11, 1938).

For Britain as for Spain, the struggle against fascism is the struggle for socialism. The arms plans and the food plans, the spy scares and the air raid precautions serve to warn the workers that the “peace” period draws rapidly to a close. The American recession in industry spreads to Britain; in the first three months of 1938 the decline of new capital issues, 33,000,000 as against 49,505,000 for the corresponding period last year, indicates the dimensions of the coming industrial slump. The increased employment in the armaments industry and the increased recruiting for the army serve for the time being to mask the growth of industrial unemployment, and the shifting centre of gravity in national economy is not visible in the general statistics of trade and industry because the artificial stimulus of war preparations helps to conceal the real process of economic breakdown. The disease that grips the vitals of capitalism in decay produces as its symptom a feverish activity in certain branches of industrial activity, accompanied by that false sense of well-being which must be recognised as pre-war “prosperity”, the delirium before the crisis.

As long as the pre-war boom continues and the British masses continue in a comparatively passive state, the right wing bureaucrats of the trade unions and the Labour Party oppose the popular front. When the masses start to move, as they did in Spain and France, towards a militant socialist solution of their difficulties, the Labour bureaucracy will not scruple to follow the example of its counterparts in Spain and France, to put a bridle on the mass movement and lead it into the safe bye-paths of popular frontism. If today they resist the popular front, it is not because it is the open, treacherous abandonment of even the pretence of socialism, but because they are quite satisfied with their own status in capitalist society, because they fear the inevitable exposure to which the taking of political power will subject them. Today they attack the Liberals as non-socialists, tomorrow they will justify and defend them, and work hand in hand with them in the “strike-breaking conspiracy” of the popular front, as their brother reformists of the Communist Party are already doing.

The Communist Party of Great Britain pleads for the popular front and supports the Liberals on a programme of “arms for Spain”, “defence of democratic liberties,” “economic and social advancement of the people.” The French popular front in power supplied no arms for Spain; the French colonial slaves of North Africa and Indo-China received as their share of “democratic liberties” – bullets and prison sentences; the French popular front(6) government nibbled at the concessions wrested from the ruling class by the direct strike action of the French workers and frustrated their wage gains by currency manipulation. The Liberals and “progressive” capitalists offer, in place of reforms, grandiloquent plans for reforms.

The past writings of the Communist Party leaders prove that they are well aware of the treacherous role of the Liberals. Today they are able to exploit the reputation for militancy which has been won by the work of party members in the trade union struggle, in order to lead militant workers along the political path mapped out by their paymasters in the Kremlin. Stalin and company are prepared to sacrifice the socialist aspirations of the British working class for the sake of a war alliance with the British bourgeoisie and to this end they have ordered a popular front in Britain. The Communist Party heads leap to obey; they flatly and brazenly contradict their arguments of a few months back, they consciously and deliberately manoeuvre the workers into supporting a coalition government with the class enemy, they blindfold the worker while the Liberals prepare the dagger which will be plunged into his back.

The Communist Party carries out its traitorous work with loud cries of “Unity! Unity!” But the British working class constitutes in itself two-thirds of the population, and would draw behind itself the majority of the lower middle class if it pressed forward with a bold programme of socialist demands. The workers have no need for an alliance with any section of the class foe, least of all with the decayed, long ago bankrupt Liberals. They instinctively know that unity is an all-powerful weapon in their struggle – unity of the working class. The popular front is a caricature of unity. The genuine united front on a class basis, binding together the workers, their organisations, their parties on a programme of common struggle is the crying need of today, the only means of defending those rights and privileges which the workers have won in generations of struggle and sacrifice. The successful defence of concessions already gained must lead inevitably to the campaign for full workers’ rights, to the struggle for workers’ power.

The experience of Spain is a warning and a lesson to the workers of the world, above all to the British workers. Yesterday’s drama in Spain is being rehearsed today in Britain. Tomorrow it will be enacted if the British workers have failed to realise the nature of the tasks which history has placed before them. And in preparing to tackle those tasks, the working class has need above all, of “a party, once more a party; again a party”.


(1) The popular front or people’s front was a name given to coalitions between workers’ parties and so-called liberal or radical capitalist parties. The Communist International adopted the people’s front policy in 1935, after the debacle of Hitler’s rise to power.

(2) The Arab population of North West Africa. They struggled for years in Morocco for autonomy from Spanish rule. Where the popular front government did nothing, Franco promised them independence.

(3) The Russian revolution took place in October 1917 on the old Russian calendar.

(4) Largo Caballero, leader of a left tendency in the Spanish Socialist Party in the 1930s. Prime Minister from September 1936 to May 1937.

(5) Stafford Cripps, Labour MP from 1931, expelled from the party for a period in 1939 for campaigning for a popular front. As Chancellor of the Exchequer 1947-50, he introduced an austere economic programme. Tribune was the paper of the reformist left in the party which Cripps helped to found in 1937.

(6) The alliance of the French Communist Party (PCF), the Socialist SFIO and the Radical and Socialist Party won the May 1936 legislative elections, leading to the formation of a government headed by SFIO leader Léon Blum. Léon Blum’s government lasted from June 1936 to June 1937 but eventually collapsed from the pressure of the bourgeois right wing within the front.