Chris Harman


The Spanish Civil War

(November 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.64, Mid-November 1973, pp.25-28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain
by Pierre Broué and Elime Temine
Faber and Faber £6

The Spanish Revolution 1931-9
by Leon Trotsky
Pathfinder £1.65

THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR ended 34 years ago. But the issues raised by it remain of central relevance to socialists today. The references made to Spain in many recent utterances about Chile underline the point.

Fascist regimes triumphed in Italy and Germany with scarcely a shot being fired against them. They reduced massive socialist and trade union movements to nothing in the space of months with few difficulties.

But the attempt, in July 1936, of Spain’s generals and right wing parties to emulate them led to two and a half years of bitter fighting. A coup that expected to be successful in a matter of hours developed into a full-blooded civil war in which fascist success was by no means certain at all times.

The question that confronted the left – in Spain and internationally – was how to fight back against the fascist threat. The view which came to predominate was that put forward by the right wing socialists in Spain, led by Prieto, and by the Communist Parties in every country.

They argued as they argue about Chile or Greece today that the struggle was between fascism and democracy. On the fascist side stood Spanish feudalism allied with the most reactionary sections of capitalism. On the side of democracy stood the popular front, made up of the working class movement, but also of progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. In order to defeat the fascist forces, everything possible had to be done to cement the ties which bound these progressive elements to the popular front, and no action should be taken that might frighten them away.

‘The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Spain requests us to inform the public,’ wrote L’Humanité, the French Communist daily, ‘that the Spanish people are not striving for the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but know only one aim: the defence of the republican order, while respecting property.’

Nor was this a line meant for propaganda purposes only. In a private letter to Cabellero, the left socialist leader and prime minister, Stalin insisted that he ‘attract the middle and lower bourgeoisie ... [by] protecting them against confiscations.’

According to this view of the Spanish civil war, the ultimate victory of Franco’s forces was due to their superior weaponry and to the massive aid given them by Hitler and Mussolini. The main weaknesses of the republican side were its lack of traditional military discipline and the tendency of ‘ultra-left’ and ‘anarchist’ elements to disrupt the unified military command, frightening off the middle classes by attempting to carry through revolutionary social measures while the war still raged.

Trotsky strongly challenged this standpoint. Not that he regarded the struggle between fascism and democracy as irrelevant to the working class movement. Far from it. In the years before 1934, when Stalin’s followers everywhere were insisting that fascism and social democracy were merely two equivalent forms of bourgeois rule, equally repugnant to the interests of workers, Trotsky had insisted on the importance of their specific differences.

‘Even in the imperialist epoch, democracy continues to be preferable to fascism ... In all cases where clashes take place between them, the revolutionary proletariat is obliged to support democracy against fascism.’

But the all important difference between his conception of the ‘defence of democracy’ and that of the popular front was that

‘we can and will defend bourgeois democracy, not by bourgeois democratic means but by the methods of class struggle, which in turn pave the way for the replacement of bourgeois democracy by the dictatorship of the proletariat. This means in particular that in the process of defending bourgeois democracy, even with arms in hand, the party of the proletariat takes no responsibility for bourgeois democracy, does not enter the government, but maintains full freedom of criticism and of action in relation to all parties of the popular front, thus preparing the overthrow of bourgeois democracy at the next stage.’

Far from it being the case that the fight of the working class for social revolution weakened the anti-fascist struggle, Trotsky insisted that it was essential for the success of that struggle.

‘A civil war is waged, as everybody knows, not only with military but also with political weapons. From a purely military point of view, the Spanish revolution is weaker than its enemies. Its strength lies in its ability to rouse the great masses to action. It can even take the army away from the reactionary officers. To accomplish this it is only necessary to proclaim the programme of socialist revolution...

‘It is necessary to proclaim that from now on the land, factories and shops will pass from the hands of the capitalists into the hands of the people. The fascist army could not resist the influence of such a programme for 24 hours; the soldiers would tie their officers hand and foot and turn them over to the nearest headquarters of the workers’ militia. But the bourgeois ministers cannot accept such a programme. Curbing the social revolution they compel the workers and peasants to spill ten times as much of their own blood in the civil war.

‘The political alliance of the working class leaders with the bourgeoisie is disguised as the defence of the ‘republic’... The word ‘republican’ like the word ‘democrat’ is deliberate charlatanism that serves to cover up class contradictions. The bourgeoisie is republican so long as the republic protects private property. And the workers utilise the republic to overthrow private property. The republic, in other words, loses all value to the bourgeoisie the moment it assumes value to the workers ...’

To the argument that such a revolutionary policy would isolate the Spanish republic while its enemies continued to receive German and Italian arms, Trotsky replied:

‘Revolutions have been victorious up to this time not at all thanks to high and mighty foreign patrons who supplied them with arms. Must we recall the experience of the intervention of French, English, American, Japanese and other armies against the Soviets? The proletariat of Russia conquered domestic reaction and foreign interventionists without military support from the outside. Revolutions succeed in the first place thanks to the help of a bold social programme, which gives the masses the possibility of seizing weapons that are on their territory and disorganising the army of the enemy.’

The history of the civil war by Broué and Temime (or at least the first half of it, written by Broué) provides a striking vindication of Trotsky’s arguments. It shows how insistence by the established working class leaders on keeping the struggle within the limits of bourgeois democracy first of all laid the ground for the fascist coup and then ensured defeat for the republic in the civil war.

The coup was not some aberrant action by a few ‘most reactionary’ sections of the Spanish ruling class, but was the response of the officer corps, the land owners and most industrialists to the rising strength and combativity of working class organisations. In February 1936 a moderate liberal government had been elected to power with the help of socialist, communist and anarchist votes. It tried to restrain the movement of workers and peasants that followed but was unable to. Prisons were torn open to release socialists and anarchists jailed under the previous right wing government; massive strike followed massive strike as workers demanded higher living standards; peasants began to seize land for themselves.

The ruling class, and the officer corps in particular, saw only one way of turning back this movement – to establish a government that would destroy the working class movement from top to bottom. While Franco and his friends more or less openly prepared to put this plan into effect, the liberals in the government did nothing, except make token gestures of displeasure. Even after the army generals in almost every city in Spain had mutinied in July, the government continued to insist that all was well. Had things depended on the ‘moderate’ bourgeois republicans, Franco would have enjoyed overnight success. What thwarted him was the reaction of the workers. In most of the main cities and towns of mainland Spain the officers mutiny was immediately followed by more or less spontaneous uprisings of workers to seize the barracks, and disarm the army.

But ‘in the places where the uprising [of the fascists] had been crushed, it was not alone in suffering defeat. The state, caught between its insurgent army and the armed masses of the people, had shattered to pieces.’ Although the official government still existed in Madrid, real authority in the localities was held by a multitude of revolutionary committees.

Nor was it only the bourgeois state that suffered. Workers who held a monopoly of power in an area used it to forward their own class interests. Factories were automatically taken over and collectivised; the peasants began to divide up the land in earnest, knowing that the workers militia would protect them. With the disintegration of the army, the bourgeoisie throughout most of the republican areas seemed finished.

The main exception was the Basque area, where the capitalists did not immediately throw in their lot with Franco, because they feared that he would do away with the relative autonomy of their own Basque government.

But throughout most of Spain the immediate aftermath of the attempted coup was a situation where effective power lay with the workers’ organisations.

The moderate liberal governments in Madrid just could not cope. One government led by Quiroga resigned; another led by Barrio tried to negotiate with the rebel generals and was forced out of office within hours by workers’ demonstrations in Madrid; a third, led by Giral, agreed to arm the workers and lasted much longer. But it was forced out of office at the beginning of September by the popular discontent that followed the fall of the town of Badojoz to the fascists.

In any war there has to be some central direction, enabling the forces in different localities to co-ordinate their actions as part of an overall strategy. The local committees that were running the armed struggle in the different parts of republican Spain quite rightly did not trust the central direction of a government of bourgeois liberals in Madrid. But lack of coordination made further defeats inevitable. The question posed by the fall of Badajoz was: how was the necessary central co-ordination to be achieved?

For the bourgeois republicans, there was only one conceivable answer: through bringing into the government working class leaders who would then be able to persuade their followers to accept the government’s dictates.

This too was the proposal pressed by the Russian ambassador, Marcel Rosenberg. Such a policy, he told the union leaders, would provide a strong government. And the presence in it of bourgeois republicans would ensure its legitimacy in the eyes of great powers such as France and England.

Eventually such a government was formed, under the left socialist union leader Cabellorro, and shortly afterwards, the leaders of the anarchist union, the CNT, also joined it. But the working class movement had to pay a price for its alliance with the moderate republicans, who insisted on central direction not only over the military policy of the committees, but over their other activities as well.

And the right wing socialists and the Communist Party demanded ever more strongly that the wishes of the moderate republicans be heeded.

What the moderate republicans wanted most of all was respect for private property and maintenance intact, without any revolutionary tampering, of those odd sections of the state machine that had remained on the side of the republic. They saw that the destruction of the old officer corps would entail the removal of their last protection against social revolution.

However, in Spain in the autumn of 1936, ‘respect for private property’ and ‘maintenance of the old state machine’ did not mean merely restraining workers from struggle. It meant somehow, by persuasion or by force, making them concede ground they had already gained. ‘Defending private property’ meant forcing workers to abandon control of the factories they had taken over in July. ‘Maintaining the state machine’ meant taking arms away from workers who had stormed the barracks in July and handing them back to officers who had sat on the fence.

The Communist functionaries and the right wing socialists argued that any attempts by the workers to make social revolution would mean a second civil war with the republican side. But in fact their own efforts to force the workers to abandon social conquests created precisely the elements of such a civil war.

It was they, not the anarchists or the extreme left party, the POUM, that withdrew soldiers and arms from the front for ‘internal’ use. It was they that provoked fighting when workers refused to leave collectivised property or obey the orders of the bourgeois state. It was they that initiated armed clashes behind republican lines in which hundreds of militiamen lost their lives. There was no other way in which a militant working class could be forced to abandon its revolution and wait for the ‘end of the war’.

Yet the sacrifices imposed on the working class did not win the war. Nor could they – every concession made to the bourgeois parties in republican Spain actually played into Franco’s hands.

A typical pattern developed when the republican towns were hard pressed. The workers, who had everything to lose by Franco’s taking of the towns prepared to fight bitterly to the end. But the middle class interests, if they did not positively welcome a fascist victory, believed they could arrange a compromise for themselves. Thus when the Basque bourgeoisie abandoned San Sebastian, it ensured that militants belonging to the anarchist union, the CNT, would not continue the struggle. It waged a civil war within a civil war, shooting ‘looters’ and ‘incendiaries’, to protect property and leaving 50 armed guards patrolling the streets to ensure that the city was handed over fully intact to Franco. The same pattern was repeated in Bilbao, at Santander and at Gijon.

In Madrid itself, similar betrayal took place in the last days of the republic. Two thousand people died as a result of a struggle between the ‘Casado junta’ of republican generals, who wanted to discuss a ‘peaceful’ surrender to Franco, and the Communists who belatedly, opposed them.

The concession to bourgeois respectability took their toll in other ways as well. Almost the whole of the Spanish fleet had imprisoned its officers and opposed the fascist uprising in July 1936. For Franco, attempting to move the bulk of his army from Morroco to mainland Spain, this was a difficult obstacle to overcome. But the chasing after the will-of-the-wisp of Anglo-French support, the governments of Giral and Caballero ordered the fleet away from Tangiers and an end to interference with Franco’s lines of communication.

The same illusory reasoning prevented any attempt to ferment rebellion behind Franco’s lines in Morocco by giving a guarantee of self-determination for the colony. There had been a long and bitter struggle against Spanish rule in Morocco only 10 years before and the chances of some sort of anti-Franco uprising would seem to have been high. Instead, the popular front government preferred to seek Anglo-French favour by offering these powers concessions in a Spanish-ruled Morocco.

Yet, like the internal search for respectability, the attempts to placate the great powers achieved precisely nothing. Britain and France refused to supply the republic with arms, even though the Germans and the Italians were more or less openly backing Franco.

It was not genuine expedience which forced the Spanish Communists to follow the anti-revolutionary line. It was rather that Stalin did not want a Spanish revolution. Its defeat saved him the embarrassment of facing a real workers’ state, based upon mass involvement and genuine workers’ democracy, alongside his own caricature of a workers’ state.

Trotsky, however, was adamant that Stalin was not the only culprit. The mass organisations of the Spanish working class – the socialist UGT and the anarchist GNT – had been to the left of the Communist Party in 1936. It was not good enough for them to blame the CP, (as they did when they saw they were losing the war) they themselves had accepted in practice the policies proposed by Stalin. Their leaders had joined in the coalition with the bourgeois parties in September 1936 at a time when there were no forces in republican Spain capable of resisting the formation of a workers’ government.

‘It was not enough for Moscow to set conditions; Valencia (the republican government) had to concede to them ... Neither the socialists nor the anarchists seriously opposed the Stalinist programme. They feared to break with the bourgeoisie. They were deadly afraid of every onslaught of the workers.’

According to Trotsky’s analysis even the POUM, although it was small (with a membership of only about 8000 at the time of the fascist coup), could have transformed the situation. For, despite the support given to the central government by all the main workers’ parties and unions, the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses was immense. And in Catalonia where half the working class was based, the POUM’s influence was considerable, particularly in the important industrial town of Lerida. It was represented on the central committee of the Catalan militias – the effective ruling body in the province in the revolutionary weeks immediately after the coup. And when the central committee was replaced by an official coalition government with the bourgeoisie, the generalidad, the POUM was considered important enough to be offered a ministerial seat.

Certainly, the proclamations of the POUM seemed revolutionary enough. It wanted a social revolution in the present, not at some distant point in the future. It insisted that an armed working class was the precondition for military success. It demanded that the popular front government convene a conference of working class;councils, to form the basis of a genuine workers’ state.

Yet words alone were not enough. They had to be translated into the sorts of actions that could gather behind the POUM the mass support of the CNT rank and file to be effective. But it was precisely here that the POUM fell down.

While calling for a workers’ government, the POUM leader, Andres Nin agreed to join the Catalonia generalidad, a coalition with the local bourgeois nationalists, the Esquerra. Even worse, he used his influence to persuade the POUM dominated revolutionary committee in Lerida to dissolve itself into a municipal authority run by moderate republicans in which revolutionaries were in a minority.

Trotsky warned the POUM leaders:

‘The situation in Spain can be saved only by an energetic, radical and heroic comeback by the left wing of the proletariat ... It is necessary to open up an implacable campaign against the bloc with the bourgeoisie and for a socialist programme. It is necessary to denounce the Stalinist, socialist and anarchist leaders precisely because of their bloc with the bourgeoisie. It is not a question of articles more or less confined to the columns of La Batalla (the POUM paper). No. It is a question of marshalling the masses against the leaders, who are leading the revolution to complete defeat.

‘The policy of the POUM leadership is a policy of adaptation, expectation, hesitation, that is to say, the most dangerous of all policies during civil war, which is uncompromising ... The present policy of the POUM is that of Martov, not of Lenin ...’

He later amplified this:

‘In his criticism of the Kerensky-Tseritelli-Dan regime, Martov came very close to the policies of the Bolsheviks ... But in the depths of his consciousness he always hoped to convince his adversaries and not oppose the proletariat to the class enemy. That is why at the moment when the workers passed over into action, Martov, frightened of the harshness of the struggle, jumped aside to play the role not of a leader of the revolutionary action, but of attorney for the defeated masses.’

The final chance for revolution in Spain – and of a policy that could have provided some chance of victory against fascism – came at the beginning of May 1937. For months the resentment of workers had been building up as they saw the revolutionary conquests of the previous July gradually eroded. The flashpoint occurred when three lorry loads of the government’s assault guards (a section of the bourgeois state forces that had half-heartedly come out in opposition to Franco) tried to seize the central telephone building in Barcelona from armed anarchist workers, who had captured the building from the fascists the previous July and held it since. The workers of Catalonia responded en masse to the provocation and the following morning insurgent workers ‘were in control of the Catalan capital’, according to Broue. Such was their power that Companys, the bourgeois head of the generalidad, felt compelled to repudiate the attempted seizure of the telephone building.

The official anarchist leaders hastened to call upon their members to end the defensive action, to return to work and abandon the barricades. The anarchist paper, Solidaridad Obrero later boasted ‘if we had wished to take power, we could have accomplished it in May with certainty.’ But the workers ignored the appeals of their leaders for two days further. They had seen the progress of counterrevolution in the months before and were not going to be fooled so easily.

If at this point the POUM had taken the initiative in demanding joint action of anarchists and marxists to disarm the assault guards and other armed groups backing the reconstitution of bourgeois power, it would have gained massive support from the anarchist rank and file who already effectively controlled Barcelonia and the main industrial centres of Catalonia. Trotsky argued, with justice, that

‘if the Catalan proletariat had seized power they would have found support throughout Spain. The bourgeois-Stalinist reaction would not even have found two regiments to crush the Catalan workers.’

The ‘insurrection’ would have been a small scale police action by the workers against the remnants of bourgeois power. And far from ‘disrupting’ the war against Franco, it would have increased its chances of success.

But the POUM did not seize the opportunity to carry through a socialist revolution at minimal cost. Instead, when the barricades had been up for three days it advised workers to take them down in return for promises of no reprisals from the government.

Bewildered and confused by this advice from what they had regarded as the most left wing of all the parties, the workers eventually complied.

The promises were not worth the paper they were written on. Troops loyal to the bourgeois government or the Stalinists were withdrawn from the front (’disrupting the war’) to occupy Catalonia. Workers were disarmed, anarchist and POUM newspapers censured, radio stations shut down, militants carted off to be murdered by the Russian secret police, the whole central committee of the POUM imprisoned.

The POUM, by refusing the opportunity of leading the working class to power, ensured its own destruction at the hands of the counter-revolution.

The Spanish working class too paid a heavy price. The left wing socialists, around Caballerro, were forced out of the government by the right socialist-Communist alliance, and then were removed from effective control over the socialist trade unions. Even before the final success of Franco on the battlefield, the working class unions and parties had lost a great deal of their power to defend the interests of their members. It was hardly surprising that the war against Franco was waged with less and less enthusiasm from this point on.

The book by Broué and Temime is a welcome addition to the literature on the Spanish civil war precisely because it spells out in detail the consequences of the failure of the workers’ parties in Spain to match up to the spontaneous revolutionary advances of the working class. However, at £6 the book is probably too expensive for most people. Felix Morrow’s book, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, still in print and much cheaper, covers much of the same ground and is better in some respects, although it does not have the same detail.

Trotsky’s writings deal above all with the question of the POUM. They begin with the overthrow of the dictator Primo de Rivera in 1930 and continue to the downfall of the republic in 1939.

They vary enormously in quality and importance. Some are concerned with long forgotten sectarian disputes, of the sort that plague even the best revolutionary organisations at times. Others are among the best things Trotsky ever wrote, dealing with important questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics. What emerges overall is an unsurpassed understanding of the dynamic of revolution and counter-revolution and of the way in which apparently ‘sectarian’ criticisms of parties and leaders can prove to be of massive importance when revolutionary events put them to the test.

Last updated on 16 November 2009