Max Shachtman

In Spain: “The Democratic
Republic of the Workers”

A First Hand Account of Conditions Under the Socialist-Republican Regime

(January 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. 5 No. 4 (Whole No. 100), 23 January 1932, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This is the first of a series of articles on the situation in Spain by comrade Max Shachtman who has just returned from a visit to that country.Ed.

The social democrats throughout the world beat the drums mightily for their Spanish colleagues when, a few months ago, the prominent socialist parliamentary leader, Luis Araquistain, speaking for the Constitutional Committee, presented the committee’s report to the Cortes at Madrid which incorporated into the fundamental law of the land the proclamation that Spain was henceforth a “democratic republic of the workers”. Not even a genuine republic of the workers could be expected to perform miracles for the proletariat after an existence of a handful of months. But the least that one can demand is that the political regime guides the destinies of a republic so lofty in intention should give some indications that it plans to improve the status of the class whose republic it announces itself to be. Or if not that, then at the very least, it should not stand very much in the way of any endeavors the workers themselves may make to ameliorate their conditions. By even such a simple and empirical test, the new “workers’ republic” of Spain has already proved to be one of those cruel deceptions with which the bourgeoisie has always fed those over whom it rules.

What do the conditions of the Spanish workers actually look like, now that Alfonso Bourbon has been driven from the throne, his henchmen dispersed, and the republic proclaimed?

The Conditions of the Workers

The far from revolutionary International Labor Bureau of the League of Nations places Spain, in a recent survey, at the bottom of a list of some dozen representative European countries, with regard to the standards of living of the working class, lower in the scale than some of the classic countries of misery in the Balkans and the Baltic states.

With the Spanish peseta now equal to less than nine cents in U.S. coin, the industrial workers average about 8 pesetas a day which means that on the basis of a 48-hour week, the Spanish worker would average something like five dollars a week. In Valencia, the workers average from 9 to 10 pesetas a day. In Madrid, the capital of the country, which has relatively few industrial workers, the building trades workers, the most highly-paid in the city, get anywhere from 13 to 15 pesetas a day. The metal workers in Vizcaya, probably the most highly paid in the country, receive from 15 to 17 pesetas a day. Workers in the famous textile mills of Barcelona get about 10 pesetas a day, while women workers in the same mills will average but half of that wage. In Saragossa, where the cost of living is somewhat higher than elsewhere, a painter will earn 8 pesetas a day. In the smaller city of Palencia, building trades workers like masons, carpenters and painters receive only some 6 to 7 pesetas. Day laborers in the cities may get an average of 7 pesetas a day, often less.

But these are not the worst by any means. Agricultural laborers not only have a highly seasonable employ, but when they do work in the fields they will get from 3.5 to 4 pesetas a day and in some districts as low as 2.5 pesetas a day (about twenty cents a day in U.S. coin!), together with their board and the highly doubtful pleasure of sleeping in barns and stables with the live stock. In Madrid, I saw a sight which can only be compared with the very worst days of the sweat-shop industries of New York’s forgotten East Side. In a room of a communal family flat, a half-dozen young girls, not one of them out of her teens, were crowded together, at work, making waists, with no ventilation and the most meager illumination. These children – most of them were that, literally – get 2.5 pesetas for eight hours of work, but since they work “a day and a half” each day, or 12 hours, they carry off the magnificent pay of 3.75 pesetas at the end of each back-breaking, eye-tearing day. Such a sight is far from unique in Madrid; the system is quite widespread. And what must conditions be in the less modern sections of the country?

Such a wage standard is better understood when the reader learns that a rather modest meal at a very modest restaurant costs two pesetas. A dozen eggs are three pesetas. The housing conditions of the average worker are positively wretched. The home of one of our most active militants, representative of the average, consisted of one room, probably 12 feet by 7, illuminated – if one may say so – by an air-shaft window four feet square, with miserable sanitary facilities, and permission to use the communal kitchen for cooking. The average worker lives in similar flats, containing four families, who are distributed in five rooms, one of which serves as the joint kitchen. The comrade I speak of paid the average rent for the one room – forty-five pesetas a month.

The Misery of Unemployment

For those who are fortunate enough to have work, life is still “bearable”, so to speak. But what about the unemployed? With a munificent gesture. the Republican-Socialist coalition government has introduced the 8-hour working day. It cost it little, since most of the workers had already acquired that standard. In some cases, the law made conditions worse by lengthening the working day. But of what value is the 8-hour working day to those who cannot find work for one hour a day?

Unemployment in Spain at the present moment is terrific and the consequences are almost indescribable. Industries are paralyzed, there is an acute financial crisis, the peseta continues to careen along the downward path. I was reliably informed – accurate statistics are unavailable – that between forty and forty-five percent of the industrial and agricultural workers, some 1,000,000 of them, are completely unemployed, while another twenty percent are at work only part of the time. In Vizcaya, they say, there is not a single worker who is employed for a full week at a time, and this in a section whose mining, metal and building trades industries make it proportionately more important, industrially speaking, than Barcelona itself. When the situation was not quite so acute, the municipalities would give free food to the jobless. Now the food is not only of a greatly inferior quality, but many of the municipalities are confining the food rations to those who are “natives” of the town. That is, only those workers who are actually born in the town may taste of the thin bounty of the “workers’ republic”.

Misery and suffering march in the train of this situation, which has even more dramatic and sensational results. Prostitution, an inescapable curse of capitalism under all conditions, rages like a pestilence. The streets of Madrid, for instance, literally ran with these unfortunates like a great sore. The “ataco”, or payroll holdups, which were brought to an end by the Primo de Rivera dictatorship, are becoming frequent occurrences again, just as the individual pillaging and pilfering of stores by desperate jobless workers is on the increase: here as everywhere, poverty is the nesting place of crime. Along the most magnificent streets of Madrid, on its Broadway – the Gran Via – one sees innumerable groups of four silent men, each holding a corner of an extended white cloth into which the passer-by sometimes throws a copper which is to appease the fierce hunger of the unemployed worker before whom the national constitution so eloquently proclaims “his” republic. So that the sensibilities of the bourgeoisie shall not be made to suffer, and in order that the miserable realities shall not too rudely reveal their disharmony with the farcical constitutional phrase, cities like Barcelona and Bilbao have formally prohibited the “four with a cloth” from begging in the streets. But mendicancy is still widespread, in spite of the prohibition. Along the Ramblas in Barcelona, infants, as wild-eyed and raggedly clothed as any of the Russian “homeless waifs” over whom the world bourgeoisie and the social democracy love to make such a horror-stricken to-do, infants and their elders by the hundreds are engaged, either professionally or by economic compulsion, in the degrading business of begging.

The Two Revolutions

— But was your workers’ republic any better at the outset? One can hear the retort of all manners of social democrats and their apologists. The comparison of the Spanish “workers’ republic” with the Russian proletarian dictatorship after the Bolshevik revolution, even the casual one, does not speak a single word in favor of the former of its artificers. Unlike Spain, the Russian workers proclaimed their republic after three years of the most horrible and exhausting war known to history, a war in which the flower of the Russian working class and peasantry was driven to the slaughter by a depraved royalty and a cynical semi-feudal militarism, and decimated by the millions. The Russian revolution took place amid the economic ruin brought about by czarism, a heritage which it has not yet been able to throw off completely. The Russian revolution saw the light of day at a time when half or more of it was occupied by hostile foreign troops, ravaging the country and locking out the Russian government from occupation of some of the most essential industrial and agricultural regions. The Russian revolution was almost coincidental with the establishment of a strangulating economic blockade which sought – and for a time succeeded – to cut Russia off from the life’s blood of the world market.

Yet, in spite of these enormous differences, quantitative as well as qualitative, which constituted such mountainous obstacles to the progress of the Russian workers’ republic, one may say without exaggeration that the Bolshevik regime gave the working class and the peasantry infinitely more in one week than the Socialist-Republican revolution and regime have even thought of giving the Spanish workers and peasants in the whole nine months of their existence.

At the very outset, the Bolsheviks established a workers’ control of production which was a veritable control, and not the class-collaborationist burlesque which the Socialist minister of labor, Caballero, has so solemnly presented as a gift to the employers under the guise of benefiting labor. At the very outset, the Bolsheviks, gave the peasants the land for which they hungered by simply expropriating the large landowners and the church something which the Spanish bourgeoisie and their socialist assistants will never think of doing anywhere but on paper, if there. The dis-establishment of church and state in Russia was a trenchant reality and not the elaborate farce that has been played in Spain, where the church continues to have a stranglehold on the country’s industries and agriculture, not in its own name so much – it has yielded in the form – as in the more legal name of its known adherents.

In a word, the difference between the two revolutions and the two republics they produced is the difference between the proletariat in power which crushes the bourgeoisie and their social democratic guardsmen, and the bourgeoisie in power which, with the aid of its social democracy, crushes the proletariat. However extensive the advertising campaign which the international social democracy is carrying on for its Spanish colleague, this fundamental distinction cannot be covered up.

The next article in the series will appear in the Militant next week under the title: The Republic Establishes Law and Order.

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Last updated on 23.3.2013