Jim Higgins

The Asturian Uprising
and the Warsaw Commune


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2, 2002.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Manuel Grossi
The Asturian Uprising: Fifteen Days of Socialist Revolution
Socialist Platform, London, 2000, pp140, £5.00
Zygmunt Zaremba
The Warsaw Commune: Betrayed by Stalin, Massacred by Hitler
Socialist Platform, London, 1997, pp45, £3.00

TO have been a socialist through a large chunk of the twentieth century was not all unalloyed pleasure. Of course, there were high spots, although I was not around during the “ten days that shook the world” or the nine days of the General Strike, they were certainly times to stir men’s souls. Harry Wicks, who was alive during both of these seminal events, could recreate in words the events of those few golden days that would give renewed enthusiasm to the most jaded of socialists. In particular, Harry’s stories of the General Strike, in which he was a committed and enthusiastic participant, gave an intimation of the power and excitement when virtually an entire class is on the move. In their different styles, Manuel Grossi and Zygmunt Zaremba give equally graphic accounts by people who were there in the thick of it.

Unfortunately, with all the inevitability of a sweep hand, nine days becomes ten and the high hopes of day one give way to regrets that last for years. The Asturian uprising was another of those episodes which testify to the courage, daring and inventiveness of the working class when it operates collectively in its own fundamental interest. Alas it is another of those events measured in days, just 15, brief maybe, but a fortnight to cherish. The working class of Asturias in 1933 was acknowledged to be the best organised in Spain. The close communities of the miners, who made up nearly half of the Asturian working class, gave a powerful boost to social, industrial and political solidarity. The main union organisation, the Sindicato de obreros mineres de Asturias (SMA), was closely linked to the Socialist Federation, highly bureaucratised in the social democratic manner, and despite its name recruited workers whether miners or not. In a rather inspired piece of opportunism in 1928, the SMA acquired a coal mine and, because the state guaranteed to buy the output, a useful source of income. In 1934, the money came in handy to purchase arms from Portuguese revolutionaries. This is a novel deviation from the social democratic norms as we know them in Britain, where it is usually the individual who starts out radical and ends up rich.

Early in 1933, the Workers and Peasants Bloc of Joaquín Maurín, convened a meeting in Barcelona to set up a Workers Alliance against the growing menace of fascism both abroad and in Spain. At first, there were few takers, the Communist Left (Trotskyists) and some left anarchists, but when the Nazis took power in Germany the need for the Workers Alliance became much clearer to many others. All workers’ organisations, political and trade union, were entitled to join and to place a representative on the committee. For Maurín, this was, despite certain differences, the Spanish expression of the soviet, a pure example of a class organisation. The Catalan Socialist Union was forced to withdraw from the Alliance because of its support for the bourgeois Catalan Generalitat. This wise exclusion policy was one that Maurín would have done well to remember when a few short years later he joined the bourgeois parties in a Popular Front government during the Civil War. The immediate cause of the uprising was the inclusion of three members of the extreme right in the national government. This was seen as a first significant opening to fascism. On 4 October 1934, the Asturian Committee of the Workers Alliance took the decision for the uprising. Despite the cache of Portuguese weaponry, the workers were not well armed. Hunting guns, and farm implements were freely available, but the miners’ weapon of choice was sticks of dynamite. It was readily available in the mines, and the miners were highly skilled in its use. In the battle for Oviedo, the dynamiters induced panic in the defenders, and were decisive in winning the day.

In Catalonia, the Generalitat presided over by Luis Companys, a Catalan nationalist, declared a Catalan state within the Spanish Federal Republic. The workers confidently expected that Companys would open the armouries and distribute the weapons them. Their confidence was misplaced, and the Generalitat put up no resistance to a force of 50 men and a general. Catalonia, the birthplace of the Workers Alliance, played no further part in the struggle.

Despite its isolation, the uprising enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the Asturian workers. Throughout the 15 days, the shortage of arms was a continuing problem. If they possessed the artillery, the shells had no fuses. They set about manufacturing what they could. Their home-made hand grenades were apparently of such high quality that not one failed to explode. They produced a device for lobbing their grenades into enemy trenches that proved wonderfully effective on several occasions. They developed a method of armour-plating trains, wagons and vehicles.

As in all such workers’ struggles, there was also an element of less than inspired decision-making. For example, they armoured an entire train with the exception of the engine, an oversight that proved fatal as soon as it came in range of enemy cannon. More importantly, having taken the radio station in Oviedo, they failed to broadcast any appeals for help and solidarity action to the Spanish or the world’s workers, on the spurious grounds that if they told the other Spanish workers of their struggle and successes, they would not send them help. This is just the sort of decision that a committee might well make in a demented moment of stress. In the end, of course, all the innovative weaponry and courage could not overcome the facts. Asturias was alone, they could not effectively arm themselves against the growing tide of the reactionary forces, in particular the air power of their adversaries. In Mieres the entire revolutionary committee decamped, with the exception of Manuel Grossi. Surprisingly, with the opposition advancing steadily, the workers’ spirit was not dampened, and at the end they could have had more men under arms if they only had the guns to give them.

The victory of the reaction was accompanied by indiscriminate slaughter and jailing of thousands; indeed, one of the demands that secured victory for the Popular Front in 1936 was for the release of the Asturian workers. Until the end, apart from some typical Stalinist sectarianism, the Workers’ Alliance worked well, it owed nothing, and made no concessions to any bourgeois liberal allies, for it had none. It was a serious and courageous attempt to pre-empt the fascist menace with socialism, a policy decision that the Comintern, the German Communist Party and German Social Democracy had been unable to make in 1933, a failure for which we all subsequently paid, and are still paying, the price.

In Poland, just a little less than 10 years after the Asturian uprising, in July 1944 things were not going well for the German army. The Russians were advancing on a broad front, and the Germans in Warsaw were frantically loading booty onto westward-moving transport, and building defences to face the oncoming Russians. By 29 July, the Russians were already on the left bank of the Vistula, just a few kilometres from Warsaw. Enthused by the closeness of the Russian forces, at about four o’clock in the afternoon of that day the Poles attacked the Germans. Surprise and the enthusiasm of the assault brought significant success, but as soon as they had overcome the initial shock, the Germans brought up men artillery and tanks to suppress the insurgency. Despite initial fears, the Poles developed a useful method for disabling Tiger tanks using petrol ignited by hand grenades. Interestingly enough, the Poles, like the Asturian workers before them, made their own hand grenades with explosive from captured shells. They also made a catapult device for firing their grenades at the Germans.

The similarity, unfortunately, does not end there. Throughout the struggle the Poles were always short of armaments. There is no greater tragedy than to have far more ready fighters than there are guns to go around. That they should have been short of weapons while the Russian army was 20 kilometres from Warsaw is a disgrace and another of the crimes to be laid at Stalin’s door. British, Canadian and Polish pilots flew a number arms runs to the insurgents, but the attrition rate was heavy, and they were refused landing facilities behind the Russian lines that would have eased the situation. All of this was well known to Stalin, who was lobbied by Churchill and Mikołajczyk, the Polish premier-in-exile, among several others. It was all to no avail, Stalin lied, evaded and finally put it about that these were irresponsible elements and reactionaries. For Stalin, a successful uprising by native Poles would have put in jeopardy the spoils that he expected to enjoy after the defeat of Hitler. At the time many were convinced by Stalin’s accusations because they could not believe that “Uncle Joe” would be so calculating as to consign thousands of anti-fascist fighters to death at the hands of the Germans. We, of course, who now know that this same “Uncle Joe” would, in his tireless pursuit of the interests of the world’s workers, give up entire Sundays to sit with his chum Molotov signing death sentences; if this is not actually the ultimate sacrifice, it certainly shows what he was made of.

After two months, the Warsaw commune surrendered. For two months it had held out despite the overwhelming force of the Germans and the treachery of Stalin. Its programme of nationalisation and workers’ control were as anathema to Stalin as they would be to any other counter-revolutionary.

Neither of the events detailed in these two excellent pamphlets lasted for long, although you might well say that given the difficulties it is a wonder they lasted as long as they did. It is always a tragedy when the good ones lose, as Albert Camus wrote somewhere: “Men learnt that one can be right and still be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward.” Nevertheless, to understand the difficulty is not to give up the desire for the same end that the Asturian miners and the Warsaw workers were struggling to achieve.

Last updated on 10.10.2011