Karl Korsch 1931

The Spanish Revolution

First Published: in Die Neue Rundschau, September 1931
Translated by Karl-Heinz Otto, Andrew Giles-Peters, and Heinz Schutte
Source: Class Against Class;
Transcribed: by Zdravko Saveski, for marxists.org 2009;


The last foreign minister of the fallen Spanish monarchy, Count Romanones, reports that the overpowering victory of the republican parties (who in the municipal elections of April 12, 1931, obtained the overwhelming majority of votes in almost all - 47 out of 51! - provincial capitals) and the fall of the Bourbon monarchy which resulted in a few hours "was a surprise for all." And Leon Rollin, correspondent of "New Europe," who is familiar with the most intimate secrets of the Spanish opposition, has explicitly confirmed it. It was a surprise for the king, who had wanted these elections "sincerismis" (most sincerely) (and had at the same time providently transferred the greatest part of his fortune across the border); it was a surprise for the European press which still a few weeks ago had celebrated the last Spanish autocrat during his short visit to Paris and London as the "first politician of Spain." And it was a surprise also for the victorious oppositionalists themselves who had only counted on victory in the big cities and already had prepared for new revolutionary action.

Instead of this, in one blow the whole old order collapsed without any attempt at resistance. The hitherto most reliable pillars of the monarchy, the army and the church, abandoned the king almost immediately and put themselves at the disposal of the persecuted émigrés, the sentenced traitors of yesterday who formed the revolutionary government of today. They offered the new government the same traditional loyalty and fidelity with which already in 1808, after the abdication of Ferdinand VII enforced by a Napoleon, a deputation of the grandees of Spain addressed the new King Joseph put on the throne by Napoleon: "Sire, the grandees of Spain have at all times been famous for their loyalty to their sovereign, and your majesty will also find in them the same fidelity and devotion." The infamous chief of the monarchist Civil Guard, General Sanjurjo, did the same. This general, who had changed over to the republic from the monarchy immediately after its fall and was received with open arms by the new republican power holders, is the same person who later at the time of the Cartes elections suppressed, in the name of the republican-conservative Interior Minister Maura, the alleged conspiracy of the popular revolutionary hero Ramon Franco, and a month after that the real general strike and insurrection of the urban and rural workers in Seville and Andalusia. General Sanjurjo used such brutal measures that the conservative English "Daily Mail" congratulated the revolutionary Spanish government for its strength of character proven on this occasion.

But all of this was still in the future in the beautiful spring days of April. This revolution of April, 1931, was later gloriously characterized by its leaders and eyewitnesses as more a fiesta than a fight. This was indeed for the Spain of today the "beautiful revolution," following the description by Karl Marx of the French Revolution of 1848, which was followed even in the same year by the social catastrophe of the June defeat of the Paris proletariat and on December 2, 1851, by the coup d'etat of the third Napoleon. In Marx's well-known characterization, written in the middle of the previous century for revolutionary France, it was "the beautiful revolution, the revolution of universal sympathy, because the conflicts which erupted in the revolution against the monarch were underdeveloped and slumbered side by side, because the social war, which formed its background, had only developed in a lofty existence, the existence of the phrase, of words."[1]

Indeed it is striking how little, in these first months between the municipal elections of April and the meeting of the constituent assembly (Cortes) in July, the newly formed provisional government, so aptly designated by the "Economist" as "republican-conservative and moderate socialist," was concerned with the social and class demands of the proletariat which required acute, practical immediate fulfilment. There is a striking difference between the two last European revolutions, which were unleashed in Russia in 1917 through the crisis of the world war, and in Spain through the new "peaceful" world economic crisis which has overtaken the world since the autumn of 1929. This difference is partly explained by the basically changed general European situation of today compared with the one of 1917-1920. It depends, on the other hand, on the thoroughly peculiar character of the Spanish workers' movement, which is not new but has already developed for the past sixty years.

First of all, there was never and does not exist in Spain until this day practically any Communist party. Neither are there signs that such a party might emerge in the near future. There was a time when the agricultural workers, vegetating in indescribable poverty in Andalusia and Estremadura, and the permanently overworked peasants of Galicia and Asturias, gaining from their tiny parcels of land a miserable support and the hated rent ("fuero") for an unknown landowner, listened attentively when they heard about the dividing up of the agricultural soil in the Soviet Union. But all this today is long gone. What appears today under the name of "communism" in the revolutionary movement in Spain is, as the Cartes elections of June 28 should have proven even to the foreign doubters, still only the shadow of a shadow. There are but three weak Communist sects, which are fighting more amongst themselves, and with the real revolutionary organizations of the Spanish proletariat, than with the bourgeois class enemy. Of these, one follows the orders of Stalin, the second those of Trotsky, while the third group alone, the Catalonian Federalist Communists led by the Spaniard Maurin, can be looked upon as a relatively home-grown product of the Spanish labor movement. None of these three directions exerts an effective practical influence within the Spanish labor movement. None of them is represented in the Cortes even by one single deputy.

However, the two branches of the workers' movement to be found in Spain which are also strong social forces have not in these first months dimmed the happy spring morning of the young Spanish revolution through an all too radical mounting of their particular class demands. It is not surprising that one of these two directions, the Social Democratic reformist party and union movement, has refused to raise these radical demands in the light of its whole statesmanlike and state-maintaining tradition, formed already during the pre-war period. But it must appear strange and surprising, to the highest degree for the other direction, the syndicalist revolutionary movement, not to have raised radical demands, in the light of the whole historical character of this movement. "If one looks at the workers' movement south of the Pyrenees only from the viewpoint of threats it contains to social peace, then the danger does not appear to come so much from socialism as from anarchism; of course less under the ideological form which it still had a few years ago, and in the platonic theories to which some survivors of the International may still commit themselves, and not even in the individual deeds of a number of fanatics, but rather from the new point of view of revolutionary syndicalism through which it can reorganize itself."

This historical prognosis, which was put forward by the bourgeois social politician Angel Marvaud in 1910, has been confirmed by the real development to a surprising degree. Today, after twenty years of further development of Spanish social democracy, which from its beginning represented a tendency of state preservation, and after the success accelerated by the war of the same state maintaining tendency in all other European social democratic parties also, the Spanish social democratic party stands, in spite of its extremely small number of members, with its 130 mandates as the strongest party in the constituent national assembly (Cartes). With its three ministers it is directly participating in the new bourgeois-republican governmental power, and even within this governing coalition, it is only still formally on the left wing, while in actual fact, however, it is much more on the right. It stands to the right of the radical bourgeois-revolutionary tendency which is represented in the present cabinet by the foreign minister Lerroux. And it stands far to the right of the federalist republican parties in Catalonia, Andalusia, and Galicia, in particular to the right of the popular-federalist party of the Catalonian state president Macia, who still to this day opposes in his area all demagogical instructions of the Madrid guardians of order with a stiff-necked and successful resistance.

The most glaring illustration of this character of today's Spanish governing socialists is provided by the fact that its leader, Largo Caballero, the present republican labor minister and at the same time chairman of the Social Democratic National Trade Union (UGT), possesses the dubious fame that he had already under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera participated in the government as a state councillor. At a time when the whole radical bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, and the revolutionary part of the working class fought with all means the unconstitutional regime of the dictatorship, and even the liberal and conservative ex-minister from the pre-dictatorship period boycotted the dictator and all his undertakings, there was a Spanish party loyal to the government, and that was the Spanish Social Democrats. They supported even the so-called joint committees (a kind of arbitration committee) which had been introduced by the dictator in imitation of Mussolini's labor-charter, and used the thus created indirect governmental organization for the coerced formation of a factual monopoly benefiting these hitherto relatively weak trade unions in their fight to eliminate the syndicalist trade unions prohibited and prosecuted by the dictatorship.

The fall of the dictatorship and the monarchy did likewise change this condition very little and not at all to the advantage of the revolutionary section of workers. The "joint-committees" of the dictator are still retained by the republic unchanged today, as are the direct measures of repression which the present "revolutionary" government applies to striking syndicalist workers through the Sanjurjos and Pistoleros they inherited from the dictatorship. But they serve much less the general purpose of a "defense of the state" than the much more palpable task of strengthening the reformist trade unions of the republican minister of labor Largo Caballero, who is also a reformist trade union secretary, through the renewed suppression of the syndicalist trade unions of the National Federation of Labor (CNT).

The aversion of the present Spanish social democratic party to energetically pursue any revolutionary proletarian class demands goes so far that the party considered their victory in the Cortes elections as being most inopportune. In accordance with a secret plan of the coalition parties, the Social Democrats were meant to be the opposition in the constituting National Assembly-now this role will perhaps be taken on by the right wing after some time. The socialists would have rather not been further participants in a bourgeois coalition government for a considerable period since by nature the freshly turned-over revolutionary ground calls for a new positioning of societal forces at great speed. Now, however, after their surprisingly large electoral victory, they had to be satisfied with announcing their categorical rejection of participating in a bourgeois government while simultaneously directing the three socialist ministers to remain on their posts until the final promulgation of the new constitution. In fact they can count themselves lucky in not having gained the absolute majority in the elections, for the discrepancy between their socialist talk and bourgeois deeds would have been much more embarrassing. And the pressure of the masses to part company with the bourgeois politicians and follow the course of the social revolution of the proletarian class would have assailed them with much greater force.

The tactics employed by the other line of the Spanish workers' movement were far more noteworthy than this "moderate" bearing of the Social Democrats during the initial developmental phase of the Spanish revolution now already coming, or so it seems, to an end. Anyone who in these weeks spent some time among the revolutionary workers of Spain and observed not only their theoretical programmes, but more so their practical activities and actual stance toward the new situation brought about by the April revolution, could not help considering the following impressions: perhaps there was a newly founded consciousness of power, or as I would rather suppose, the newly won freedom of movement was naively seen as a new era that would continue undisturbed after so many years of oppression. In any case, this whole great mass of workers, after sixty years of revolutionary propaganda and direct action, and a recent eight-year period of immensely accelerated powerful oppression from which they arose to a new life, was, nonetheless, still fanatically bound to their old revolutionary goals even today. Although they were still independent, active, and prepared for any sacrifice, at this one historical moment they never thought to wage from the beginning the "open warfare" against this new republican state that they theoretically declared against every form of state, with their traditional vigor or with still increased severity at the end. The bourgeois republic corresponded in no way to their programmatical demands; it only provided the momentary release from an immense pressure and compliance with some small but humanly practical and important wishes such as the freeing of their prisoners, a pause for breath in the never-ending persecution and a partial recognition of their organizations. Thus the revolutionary workers did not immediately oppose the new republic in a hostile manner, but were first and foremost concerned with consolidating their revolutionary mass organization, the syndicalist CNT, which had, after almost complete destruction, in less than two months gained a strength of 600,000 members and was still rapidly increasing its members, as well as looking after all other possible centers, so as to fashion a really free and autonomous worker's life in accord with their concept. When in mid-June they gathered in Madrid 432 delegates from all parts of Spain, representing industrial and rural workers, for their first national congress, they affirmed their traditional principles and expressly stated that this congress of the CNT "regards and will relate to the constituting Cortes as it would to every oppressing power." At the same time, however, they put forward a plan of minimum demands which they directed to this same Cortes, concerning those areas of social life they considered at this time as most important, namely: education and the school system ("as long as the state exists, one has to demand that the evil of analphabetism be eliminated!"), the freedom of the individual, freedom of speech and the press, the right of coalition and strike, the elimination of unemployment in city and country, and the breaking of the narrow bourgeois property concepts where they hinder the fulfilment of these productive demands.

One notices at first sight that among these demands there is not one which could not have been managed by a radical bourgeois and democratic revolution that was true to its own principles. In fact, there was not one demand that has not been recognized even by the liberal monarchists of the pre-revolutionary regime as theoretically justifiable. But nevertheless, at this hour not a single one of these demands has been fulfilled in revolutionary Spain, nor is their fulfillment being seriously considered. The provisional government, aghast at a definite and immediate break with the old powers, already during its first hour was concerned to again fetter, in concert with these old powers, as quickly as possible, this freedom-movement of the revolutionary forces created unavoidably in the movement of violent overthrow. It took advantage of the strike of telephone workers, beginning on July 6th in Barcelona as, at first, a mere trade union matter, later followed by strikes of solidarity in the remaining parts of the country, to provoke the uprising in Seville and the whole of Andalusia. It then put down this movement with brutal force and on July 24, 1931, ultimately prohibited by decree the syndicalist organizations in all of Spain, and thereby put the syndicalist movement "outside the law." With this complete return to the methods of the old militarist-reactionary system of suppression, the provisional government of the new Spanish state has, as it wished and intended, prevented the ongoing tendencies of a proletariat dissatisfied with the bourgeois revolution. Thereby and at the same time, it also impeded immensely the progress toward those immediate tasks recognized by itself, and which are regarded today, by the overwhelming majority of all classes of the Spanish people, as not postponable.


The immediate tasks of the present bourgeois revolution in Spain are above all the following: (1) creation of a new form of state which will at once maintain a large uniform economic area commensurate with the development of modern production and will satisfy the stormy and relentless demand of Catalonians, Galicians, and Basques for autonomous government of their own affairs in the fields of education, culture, public works, transport, law and police. (2) The immediate and complete separation of church and state, church and school, together with a return (without compensation) of those mobile and immobile goods of the people that are today possessed by the church: several thousand monasteries, and other institutions of the dead hand. Finally (3) the chief and central task - on the solution to which in all great revolutions of the last centuries the whole development, victory or defeat of the revolutionary principle decisively depended, from the great French Revolution of 1789 to the great Russian Revolution of 1917-the core task is and was in all cases the implementation of the agrarian revolution. The unsuccessful solution to this task already caused the last Spanish revolution of 1868 to fail and the Spanish republic of 1873 likewise to expire.

Of all the questions, as they stand today and fill the agenda of the Spanish revolution, the relatively easiest one to answer is that of so-called federalism. When viewed superficially from outside, it appears as a catastrophic danger to the new republican statehood when the Madrid central government (where there are also some followers of federalist Catalonia In. the parliament!) now permits the constituting Cortes not only to submit a unitarian, but an extremely centralist constitutional concept, and when at the same time the Catalonian "State-President" Macia arranged in his area a formal plebiscite which determined with an overwhelming majority, almost unanimous, a quite different concept of the constitution for the united Catalonian provinces, namely the so-called Catalonian Statute. But already the British "Economist" points to, and rightfully so, the extraordinary watering down of privileges which had actually been demanded in this statute "for the independent Catalonian State within the Spanish Republic," and which would not even measure up to what in the unwritten constitution of the British Empire is called "dominion status." And another prosaic Englishman calls what is presently formed under the name of "Generalidad de Catalunya" (as a cross between a state and a mere utilitarian association of provinces), in a highly disrespectful manner, "a kind of glorified county-council."

Be that as it may, one sees that the former extreme separatist Macia and his followers have already dampened their original demands for independence to a high degree. The stick lies with the dog. It is not accidental that the Catalonian state leaves to the central Spanish state authorities such matters as foreign relations, declarations of war, and post, as well as "indirect taxes and custom's duty." The Catalonian bourgeoisie is well aware that just because Catalonia is industrially the most developed region of Spain, it will also in the future be dependent on the total Spanish market for the sale of their products which today are secured by high tariffs, Already several decades ago the well-known revolutionary ideologist Miguel de Unamuno accused the Catalonian bourgeoisie in a similar situation, that during their negotiations for Catalonian autonomy, "they had exchanged their soul for a custom tariff."

On the other hand, through this intelligent moderation of the Catalonian demands, the Madrid central government is put in a position where it can hardly refuse its agreement to this quite acceptable proposal. When it hitherto has done so, when Madrid and Barcelona today oppose each other apparently on this question like two enemy camps, then it is in this case not merely a formal political controversy of principles. The concern here is not just a more general contrast between a backward servile and bureaucratic and courtly atmosphere of Madrid and the quite different atmosphere of Catalonia, which is not only industrially, but also socially much further developed (where incidentally the working class takes up a quite different position in public life than anywhere else in Spain since here it follows indivisibly the revolutionary syndicalist and anarchist line). The prohibition of syndicalist organizations decreed by the Madrid central government for the whole of Spain is in Catalonia to this day officially and actually being ignored.

Far more critical for the continuation of the Spanish revolution than the controversy between centralism and federalism is the unavoidable struggle between the old republican state and the real reactionary main force of the old monarchist Spain, the Catholic church. It is not as if the church were opposing the new republican state power with any kind of open enmity; quite to the contrary, the Catholic church (which has been until the fall of the dictator Primo de Rivera a loyal follower of the dictatorial regime and until the overthrow of Alphonse XIII, a true ally of the monarchy) put herself firmly behind the new republican state right from the day of the collapse of the monarchy. She did not even withdraw her fullest confidence from a government that had condoned the storming of monasteries in May, a government in which two loyal sons of the Catholic church served in the most important functions (the minister-president Aleala Zamora and the minister of the interior Miguel Maura). And when the reactionary Archbishop of Toledo, the infamous Cardinal Segura, had to flee Spanish soil due to a careless statement, it was the Bishop of Taranza who immediately referred Spanish Catholics by means of a pastoral letter to the young German republic, where Catholicism bloomed as peacefully as had never been the case under the Kaisers.

Yet just in this prudent conforming by the church to its defeat, suffered with the fall of the Catholic monarchist state order, there lies one of the greatest dangers for the future development of the Spanish revolution. Both as a national Spanish and international European power, the Catholic church very soon after the critical twelfth of April has begun a masterly battle of retreat, which at the same time already bore the seeds for a new attack. The Catholic party was the first and the only one of those old parties defeated in the April 12 elections who gathered together their followers and a large section of former monarchists (as well as their leading newspaper "El Debater" and their parliamentary group "Accion National") for the elections to the constituting Cartes on June 28. At the same time, it organized immediately on an international scale all leading Catholic newspapers of Europe in a unified defensive campaign against the alarming secularization of the new republican affairs of state in Catholic Spain: the "Vie Intellectuelle" of the French Dominicans, the "Correspondent" of the Catholic school "Montalernbert," the "Etudes" of the Jesuits, the "Vita e Pensiero" edited by scholars of the Milan Catholic University and the German "Hochland." The tendency represented today by all these modern Catholic newspapers is best expressed by "Vie Intellectuelle" which clearly and succinctly characterized on May 10 the emerging new situation: "It is said that the church has lost the battle. It is said too rashly. At worst she has lost a battle not of her own making, but rather that of her ally, the monarchy. Now there will be a battle to be fought, and this time in her own domain-and that is the battle of democracia cristiana. One must compare this with the declaration given by the present minister-president, Aleala Zamora, during the first days following the setting up of the new republic: "It is imperative that we have the cooperation of the elements of order, of capitalism, and the clergy, because without them the republic would be ephemeral and ultimately doomed, since her failure would infinitely protract the possibility of stabilizing this regime." Thus one can build up a sufficiently clear picture of one of the possible ways in which the republic can develop and will develop, when the radical break with the reactionary power, so far strenuously being avoided by the present republican powers, is not in the course of events violently enforced and accomplished by new and stronger societal forces.

The only form in which one can expect the unleashing of such new societal forces in today's condition of the Spanish revolution-which, however, is already clearly indicated by the recent revolutionary upheavals in Andalusia-is the confrontation with the agrarian question pending now by historical necessity-and it probably will take this form. One would have to write a separate essay if one were to sketch merely an approximate picture of the most miserable and suppressed position of the Spanish rural workers and the so-called independent small holders, whose hopeless misery indeed equals that of the landless workers. Or, of the monstrous contrast between the giant estates of the large property owners and the slavish life of the farm workers ("braceros"), spiced still with regularly occurring periods of endless unemployment, of their ever and again flaring and desperate revolts being crushed bloodily time and time again, of the waste and retarded growth of the agricultural production capacity thus conditioned. All parties representing the public consciousness of Spain have unanimously recognized these unbearable conditions for a very long time. But all well-meaning projects of reform have repeatedly come to nothing against the thousand secret and open obstructions whim were bound to arise in a country where the king, the officer-corps, the church and the leaders of the pseudo-parliamentary government parties of the ever-changing restoration period 1876-1923 were all rooted to their whole being, with all their power and privileges and emoluments in huge land estates.

All these forces, and their willing instruments, ruled society officially and unofficially: the ordinary countryside and the little and middle-sized towns were exploited by brutal profiteering for personal interest and the infamous "kaziks" who prepared the ground for election on behalf of the governing men in Madrid. All agrarian conditions in Spain have thus been resting for five hundred years now in one and the same disconsolate immutability, whim in recent times has become all the more pressing and inflammatory due to the manifold scientific and experiental evidence for the technical possibilities and economic productivity of a radical reform. Apart from this we must recognize the fact that a progressive industrial development has only taken place in a few provinces in the east and northeast, and that agricultural production in Spain therefore determines the whole economic and social life of the nation to a far different degree than in the industrially developed countries. The agrarian problem therefore is of immense significance to the fate of the present Spanish revolution. At the same time one could guess the fatal and ultimately insoluble problems a revolutionary government is confronted with when it meekly avoids any interference with dusty medieval privileges instead of solving this great problem with fortitude and disregard. And one can see, as the present "provisional government" has, that the first minute and insufficient projects toward social reform can only be won during and after an already progressing agrarian revolt which this government suppressed by bloody repression.

We cannot any better characterize the circumstances into which the provisional government of the Spanish republic is already today visibly deeper and deeper enmeshed than by recapitulating the description given by an open enemy of this government, who is at the same time one of Spain's largest landowners, Count Romanones, who wrote in the article in the "Revue des Deux Mondes" which we have already mentioned:

In the last instance it will not be the big cities which will force their guidelines on this new political order but rather the country. People in the country are less interested in the political regime than in the question of distribution of the land. And it is among the day workers in the fields where we find the greatest threat of the present hour.

The rural agitation, particularly in the Andalusian provinces, must not be neglected when one knows how to apprehend the lessons of history. What happened in the provinces between 1870-92, with "the Black Hand," a kind of Mafia of Camorra organization in the south of Spain, with the rising of rural workers in Jerez, with the convulsions of Cordoba, Espejo, Montjlla, etc; all these events will repeat themselves now with greater destructive force. The mentality of the Spanish rural populace is the same today as it was sixty years ago; the economic conditions of their life have not changed for the better and the means for containing them are weaker than yesterday. This rural populace is less isolated than half a century ago. It is in contact with its brothers in the cities, and is in some places organized in societies with most extreme convictions, and is far more inclined towards violent and tumultuous action than in 1873. Neither does this require any goading from Moscow; their souls have already experienced frightful storms before the winds of Russia blew over them; not only can the Soviet propaganda induce them to an uprising but it is rather their own tendency, developed through the social conditions under which they have lived for centuries.

As far as these well chosen words, fitting for more than one purpose, of Count Romanones are only a characterization of the present actually pertaining situation, we need not add anything. If, however, the unspoken purpose of his description is to frighten the hesitant and indecisive statesmen of the republic with these terrifying difficulties of fulfilling their task, then one must say that such a task as the radical solution to the agrarian problem in present-day Spain cannot be conjured away by little diplomatic tricks and playful magic - the more so when the task is clearly situated in the whole objective situation and is regarded with urgency by the overwhelming majority of all the people's classes. Whether those men who were called to the leadership of the first phase of the Spanish revolution through the election of April 12 and June 28 wish to further or hinder it, the starting point and content of the second phase of this revolution will nevertheless be the struggle over the agrarian revolution.


[1] Karl Marx, Class Struggles in France 1848-1850.