Karl Korsch 1938

Economics and Politics in Revolutionary Spain

First published: in Living Marxism, Volume 4, Number 3, May 1938
Source: Class Against Class;
Transcribed: by Zdravko Saveski, for marxists.org 2009;

In order to work out a realistic approach to the constructive work of the revolutionary proletariat in Catalonia and other parts of Spain, we must not confront its achievements either with some abstract ideal or with results attained under entirely different historical conditions. There is no doubt that the actual outcome of "collectivization," even in those industries of Barcelona and the smaller towns and villages of Catalonia where it can be studied at its best, lags far behind the ideal constructions of the orthodox socialist and communist theories, and even more so behind the lofty dreams of generations of revolutionary syndicalist and anarchist workers in Spain since the days of Bakunin.

As to historical analogies, the achievements of the Spanish revolution during the period which began with the rapid counter-action of the revolutionary workers against the invasion of Franco and his fascist, National-Socialist, and bourgeois-democratic supporters, and which now rapidly approaches its final phase, should not be compared with anything which happened in Russia after October, 1917, nor with the phase of the so-called war communism 1918-20, nor with the ensuing phase of the NEP. During the whole process of revolutionary movement beginning with the overthrow of the monarchy in 1931, there has not been one single moment when the workers, or any party or organization speaking in the name of the revolutionary vanguard of the workers, have been in possession of the political power. This is true, not only on a national, but also on a regional scale; it applies even to the conditions prevailing in the syndicalist stronghold of Catalonia during the first months after July, 1936, when the power of the government had become temporarily invisible, and yet the new and still undefined authority exercised by the syndicates did not assume a distinct political character. Still the situation arising from these conditions is not adequately described as that of a "dual power." It represented rather a temporary eclipse of all state power resulting from the split between its (economic) substance which had shifted to the workers and its (political) shell, from the various internal conflicts between the forces of Franco and the forces of the "Loyalists," Madrid and Barcelona, and, finally, from the decisive fact that the main function of the bureaucratic and military machinery of any capitalistic state, the suppression of the workers, could not operate in any event against workers in arms.

There is no use arguing (as many people have done) that during the many phases of the revolutionary development of the last seven years there has evolved more than once-in October, 1934, and, again, in July, 1936, and in May, 1937-an "objective situation" in which the united revolutionary workers of Spain might have seized the power of the state but did not do so either on account of theoretical scruples or by reason of an internal weakness of their revolutionary attitude. This may be true in regard to the July-Days of 1936 when the syndicalist and anarchist workers and militias of Barcelona had stormed the arms depots of the government and further equipped themselves with the weapons seized from the defeated fascist revolt, just as it may be true in regard to the July-Days of 1917, when the revolutionary workers and soldiers in Petrograd demonstrated under the Bolshevik slogans "all power to the Soviets" and "down with the capitalist ministers," and when during the night from the seventeenth to the eighteenth a reluctant Central Committee of the Bolshevik party was finally compelled to reverse its earlier refusal to participate in a "premature" revolutionary attempt and unanimously to call upon the soldiers and the people to take arms and join what they still described as a "peaceful demonstration."

As against those people who today, twenty years after the event, extol the revolutionary consistency of the Bolshevik leadership of 1917, to the detriment of the "chaotic irresolution" displayed by the dissensions and waverings of the Spanish syndicalists and anarchists of 1936-38, it is quite appropriate here to recall the fact that in those black days of July, 1917, three months before the victory of the Red October in Soviet Russia, Lenin and his Bolshevik party also were unable to prevent or to turn into victory a situation which was described at the time in the following manner by the late S. B. Krassin who had been a Bolshevik and was later to accept high office in the Soviet government, but at this time was the manager of an industrialist establishment: "The so-called masses, principally soldiers and a number of hooligans, loafed aimlessly about the streets for two days, firing at each other, often out of sheer fright, melting away at the slightest alarm or fresh rumour, and without the slightest idea of what it was all about."[1]

Even a considerable time later when the process of glorification of victorious Bolshevism had already set in, but a mild "self-criticism" was still possible among the higher ranks of the ruling party, the Bolshevist people's commissar, Lunacharsky, recalled the situation of July, 1917, by the following words: "We are bound to admit that the party knew no way out of the difficulty. It was compelled to demand of the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionists, through a demonstration, something they were organically unable to decide upon, and, meeting with the refusal the party had expected, it did not know how to proceed further; it left the demonstrators around the Taurida Palace without a plan and gave the opposition time to organize its forces, while ours were breaking up, and consequently we went down to a temporary defeat with eyes quite open."

Nor were the immediate consequences of what may be called here, in answer to the oft-repeated indictment of the lack of revolutionary leadership manifested by the Spanish syndicalists, a "failure" of the revolutionary Bolshevik party to seize the political power in an objectively revolutionary situation, any better for the Russian Bolsheviks of 1917 than they have been in 1934 and '36 and '37 for the Spanish syndicalists and anarchists. On the eighteenth of July, 1917, the mischievous accusation was raised against Lenin that all his actions since his arrival in Russia, and particularly the armed demonstrations of the preceding two days, were secretly directed by the German General Staff. The Bolshevik headquarters were raided. Their newspaper offices were closed. Kamenev and Trotsky and numerous other Bolshevik leaders were arrested. Lenin and Sinovjev went into hiding, and Lenin was still in hiding when, almost two months later, he warned his comrades against jeopardizing their revolutionary independence by an unreserved support of the people's front government of Kerensky against the counter-revolutionary rebellion of the commander-in-chief of the Russian Armies, General Kornilov.

Thus, it cannot be said in fairness that the Spanish workers and their revolutionary syndicalist and anarchist leadership neglected to seize the political power on a national or even on a regional Catalonian scale under conditions when this would have been done by a really revolutionary party such as the Russian Bolsheviks, It makes no sense to accept the tactics of the Russian Bolsheviks in July, 1917, as a "cautious and realistic revolutionary policy" and denounce the same policy as a "lack of revolutionary foresight and decision" when it is repeated, under exactly analogous conditions, by the syndicalists in Spain. One might then as well subscribe to the paradoxical statement made by Pascal two-hundred years ago that "what is true on this side of the Pyrenees is a lie on the other."

This is not to say that the revolutionary actions of the Catalonian workers have not been fettered by their traditional attitude of non-concernedness in all matters political and not strictly economic and social. Even their most radical steps in the field of economic reconstruction, taken at a time when they appeared and held themselves to be unrestricted masters of the situation, were suffering from a certain lack of that single-mindedness and consistency of purpose by which the economic and political measures of the Bolshevik dictatorship in Russia both infuriated and terribly frightened their enemies at home and in every bourgeois country all over the world. There is, in the bourgeois reports on conditions in revolutionary Spain, very little of the uneasiness with which foreign spectators looked at the assumed "atrocities" of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia at the time of the "sanitary cordon." (Even the formerly revolutionary Marxist, Karl Kautsky, in those days repeated and, as I think, seriously believed in the news that the Bolshevik dictatorship in Russia had crowned their expropriatory measures by a "socialization of the wives of the bourgeoisie.") There is, as compared with those exuberances, even a touch of humor and a certain jovial reliance on what the reporter calls the persisting "individualism" of the Spanish people, in the story of the Spanish "collectivizations" given by a special correspondent of the (London) Times at the hour of the arrival of the Negrin government at Barcelona:

The arrival of the central government brought new life to Barcelona. The huge city was beginning to droop under the burden of collectivization. Happiness cannot be collectivized in Spain, where the individual persists in remaining his own master. An hotel proprietor who could not endure to be a waiter in his own establishment is a waiter elsewhere. Of a well known Catalan actor it is told that, wearying of playing the principal part on the scene and a humble one on the payroll, he proposed exchange with a scene shifter, saying: "We earn the same, let me pull the ropes while you go and pull the faces." It has become quite a joke, though a poor one, among audiences at cinemas to point out professors of the Conservatoire playing second fiddle in the band.

Even the more elaborate and much more hostile report given one month later by the Barcelona correspondent of the New York Times was supplemented by some quite attractive pictures which illustrated the life and work in "Collectivized Shops in Spain," and which were made even more attractive to the state-worshipping and bond-speculating readers of the Times by the cheerful remark that "Because loyalists prefer state control to workers' control and wish to protect foreign interests in Spain, collectivization-as in the clothing plants pictured here-is being limited." In the same vein "Spain's Strong Man" (the now-debunked defence minister of the loyalist government, Indalecio Prieto) was shown in a photograph and described to the petty bourgeois readers of the Evening Standard of March 7, 1938, as a "comfortably fat newspaper owner, with a chin or two to spare" and with a "fondness for eels as his only gastronomic luxury," a man by the way whose "worth" is "even recognized by General Franco" and who is personally well acquainted with "the financier of Franco's movement," the illustrious Juan March.

The very fact that the CNT and FAI themselves were finally compelled to reverse their traditional policy of non-interference in politics under the pressure of increasingly bitter experiences, demonstrated for all but some hopelessly sectarian and illusionary groups of foreign anarchists (who even now refuse to besmirch their anti- political purity by wholehearted support of the desperate strife of their Spanish comrades!), the vital connection between the economic and political action in every sense and, most of all, in the immediately revolutionary phase of the proletarian class struggle.

This, then, is the first and foremost lesson of that concluding phase of the whole revolutionary history of post-war Europe which is the Spanish revolution. It becomes even more important and particularly impressive if we consider the wide difference of the character of the Spanish working' class movements from all other types of proletarian class struggles in Europe and the USA as established by well-nigh three quarters of a century.

The validity of this lesson is not weakened by the relatively moderate contents of the political demands raised by the CNT at the present juncture. There is no doubt that the proposal of a "new constitutional period which would sympathize with popular aspirations within the socialist republic, which would be democratical and federal" does not demand anything which the people's front government could not, in principle, decide upon without a revolutionary change of its hitherto professed bourgeois policy. Nor could the proposed creation of a "National Economic Council on a political and trade unionist base, with an equal representation of both the Social Democratic UGT and the syndicalist CNT," transform the hitherto bourgeois- reformist bias of the government into a revolutionary-proletarian tendency. But here again appears a close analogy between the tactics followed by the syndicalists in present-day Spain and the attitude observed by the Russian Bolshevik party up to and even after the collapse of the Kornilov rebellion. If this analogy is true, if we can show that even a revolutionary party so predominantly political and politically experienced as the party which made the Russian October did not rise to its ultimate perfection before the advent of an altogether different historical situation, how then could we expect such super-human and supra-historical excellence from a hitherto unpolitically-minded and politically almost inexperienced group of proletarian revolutionaries under the undeveloped conditions of present-day Spain, where the counterrevolutionary rebellion of the Iberian Kornilov has not collapsed but has spread victoriously over the whole country and is now attacking the very heart of industrial Spain, the last stronghold of the anti-fascist and anti-capitalist forces, the proletarian province of Barcelona?

There is indeed from the standpoint of a sober historical research ample proof that the revolutionary Bolshevik leadership of 1917 was in no way exempt from those human waverings and want of foresight which are inherent in any revolutionary action. Even after the victorious conclusion of that masterpiece of political strategy which the Bolsheviks, led and inspired by Lenin, performed in the days of the Kornilov-affair in August and September, 1917, when, in accordance with Lenin's most subtle instruction, they endeavoured "to fight against Kornilov, even as Kerensky's troops do," but did not support Kerensky but, on the contrary exposed his weakness," Lenin still acted on the assumption that the Provisional Government had become so manifestly weak after the defeat of Kornilov, that it offered an opportunity for a peaceful development of the revolution on the basis of the replacement of Kerensky by a government of socialist-revolutionists and Mensheviks responsible to the Soviets. In such a government the Bolsheviks would not participate, but they would "refrain from immediately advancing the demand for the passing of power to the proletariat and the poorest peasants, and from "evolutionary methods of struggle for the realization of this demand." Of course, in suggesting this line of action in his famous article "On Compromises" in September, 1917, Lenin did not boast of such flawless revolutionary righteousness as does for instance Stalin in present-day Russia or those state-denying anarchists in present-day ultra-capitalist Holland. Yet this small piece of real history shows how little the minor followers of Lenin are entitled to criticize the deficiencies of the syndicalist achievements in revolutionary Catalonia, let alone the well-known ambiguity of the "help" given to the revolutionary workers of Spain during the first and later stages of their strife by the Communists and the Russian state both in Spain and in the Non-Intervention Committee.[2]

There is thus a deep shadow thrown on the constructive work resulting from the heroic efforts and sacrifices of the revolutionary workers in all parts of Spain where the syndicalist and anarchist slogan of "collectivization" prevailed over the Social Democratic and Communist slogans of "nationalization" and "state interference." All this constructive work was done, as it were, preliminarily only. Its further advance and its very existence depended upon the progress of the revolutionary movement and, first of all, upon a decisive defeat of the counter-revolutionary attack of Franco and his powerful fascist and semi-fascist allies. Even at this late stage, when the defeat of the highly advertised now loyalist army has already so strongly manifested the intrinsic weakness of the Negrin government that the above-mentioned chief representative of the fascist and capitalist forces within the people's front government, Indalecio Prieto, had to be kicked out ingloriously, and a “reconstruction" of the government in a “leftist” direction became inevitable, a last hour victory of the revolutionary proletarian forces rallied in Barcelona - either with or without a rehearsal of the insurrection of the communardes in besieged Paris 1871-would immensely enhance the immediate historical and practical importance of the great experiment in a genuine proletarian collectivization of industry, which was initiated and carried through by the workers and their unions during the last two years.

Short of such a favorable turn, the story of the Catalonian collectivization which is told in the most impartial and impressive manner in a small book, published by the CNT-FAI and hitherto not translated into English,[3] and on which we propose to base our analysis and criticism of the Spanish experiences in the next issue, cannot claim any greater merit than what we know from Marx, Engels, Lissagarays, and other writers about the economic experiments of the revolutionary Commune of the Paris workers in 1871. They are a part of the historical past just as are today the attempts of the revolutionary Italian workers in 1920, which were later annihilated by the hordes of Mussolini subsidized by the frightened Italian landowners and capitalists, and as are the equally frustrated attempts made several times between 1918 and 1923 by the vanguards of the German and Hungarian workers. In the same way the more comprehensive and certainly much more illustrious temporary achievements attained by the revolutionary Russian workers in the period of a really communistic experimentation of 1918-20 did not retain any practical importance for the later development of the so-called socialist construction in Soviet Russia. They were soon afterwards denounced by the Bolsheviks themselves as a mere "negative form" of communism temporarily thrust upon a reluctant Bolshevik leadership by the emergencies of war and civil war. Thus the great historical experiment of the so-called War Communism, which in fact represented a far more positive move toward a Communist society than the measures of any NEP, NEO-NEP, or other variances of the no more socialist and proletarian policies which were later inaugurated by the various combinations of the post-Leninist and Stalinist bureaucracy, became a forgotten and abandoned episode of past history in the very country which even today claims to match in front of the international proletariat by the so-called construction of socialism in a single country.

Even before this new turn of the Bolshevik economic policy, on December 4, 1919, two years after the full seizure of the state power, Lenin in a speech delivered to the First Congress of Agricultural Communes and Agricultural Artels gave the following description of the results until then achieved by the Bolshevik struggle for communism: "Communism, when people work because they realize the necessity of working for the common good. We know that we cannot establish a socialist system now - God grant that it may be established in our children's time, or perhaps in our grandchildren's time."[4]

"To serve the history of the revolution" is the program which is invisibly written on the front page of the above cited faithful and comprehensive report on the positive results achieved in the economic field by the revolutionary workers of Barcelona and by the industrial and agricultural laborers in many a small Catalonian town or remote and forgotten village. "To serve history" means for the writer as well as for us, revolutionary workers of a dismal world laboring in the crisis and decay of all forms of the "old" socialist, communist, and anarchist labor movements, to learn from the deeds and from the mistakes of past history the lesson for the future, the ways and means for the realization of the goals of the revolutionary working class.


[1] This and the following quotations are taken from J. Bunyan's and H. H. Fisher's documentary history, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1918, Hoover War Library Publications, no. 3 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1934).

[2] We quote here for the benefit of those hitherto Stalin-worshipping Communists who have recently begun to learn the lesson of great "purges" in Russia, a sentence from Pravda testifying to what the Stalinist "friends" did and intended to do in a thoroughly "Bolshevized" Spain. Says Pravda from December 17, 1936: "The purging of Catalonia from all Trotskyist and anarcho-syndicalist elements has already begun; this task is pushed on with the same energy with which it has already been performed in USSR."

[3] Collectivization - L'oeuvre constructive de la Revolution Espagnole-Recueil de Documents-Editions CNT-FAI, '937'

[4] Quoted from vol. 8 of the Selected Works, ed, Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, Moscow (English translation, New York: International Publishers: p. 205).