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Mieczyslaw Bortenstein (M. Casanova)

Spain Betrayed

How the Popular Front Opened the Gates to Franco

8. War Industry

You do well to talk about that, Casanova, for it is of supreme importance. That was the case in Spain and would be in any country where the proletariat is obliged to wage a revolutionary war against Fascism. The production of munitions of good quality and in great quantity is a life and death question in every revolution! Was the Republic able to succeed in the creation of a war industry, and if so, upon what basis?

Although I am no expert in this field, I do have some experience, having worked in precisely the war industry for the entire year of 1938. To start off with I worked as an accountant in a little Catalan village in the province of Barcelona for three months in a factory that before 19 July used to make carts and agricultural machines, and which had been transformed into an arms factory. Grenades and machine gun parts, etc, were made there. Then for nearly nine months I was a manager in an arms factory in Barcelona itself. To describe the difficulties we ran up against all the time, and particularly the constant and permanent sabotage, bureaucracy, waste, theft, negligence, anarchy (in the vulgar sense of the word), and finally the exploits of the criminal administration of the war industry, the so-called Subsecretaria de Armamento, would require a whole book, rich in lessons, and I am no writer.

When you witnessed these thefts, the permanent waste (useless ferrying of supplies, the lack of electricity precisely during the hours you most needed it, valuable raw materials arriving at the factory when they were not asked for just because the stores of the Under Secretariat were spewing them out, etc.) – when you saw all this, you constantly asked yourself: “Are these imbeciles, or Fascists?” That was the sole topic of conversation in our office during our free moments between myself and my colleague, who although a Stalinist, was an honest and devoted worker who undertook the task to which he had been assigned by the Under Secretariat of Armaments.

Imbeciles or Fascists? Obviously, there were imbeciles, and even more so Fascists, the agents of the Fifth Column as well perhaps as those who did its work unconsciously.

To start off with in 1936 it was the Generalitat which completely controlled the war industry in Catalonia. To do this it set up an organisation called the Comision de Industrias de Guerra de Cataluna. Initially this commission was run by a Barcelona metalworker, Vallejo [41], a militant of the CNT metalworkers’ trade union. However critical your opinions may be as to Anarcho-Syndicalist ideas, which were those of the majority of the vanguard of the Catalan working class, you have to render due homage to his devotion, his limitless self-sacrifice, his courage, his energy and his initiative.

This man, who was an activist, a simple worker, was capable of transforming a engineering factory into an arms factory inside a week, or even a few days. He found the machines he needed, confiscated them on the spot, loaded them onto a lorry, and even, for example, went hunting for church bells, whose bronze was useful for making bullets. In Catalonia as well as in the rest of Spain, there were surely hundreds and thousands of qualified workers like Vallejo, who knew their trade, who sacrificed themselves on the barricades and in their workplace as well, in front of lathe, forge and furnace. But their efforts, abilities, energy and devotion to the cause of the war industry (they knew all too well the value of every shell that came from their workshops) were paralysed at every turn by the central organisations. The same can be said of the many devoted and good specialists who came from abroad.

I will quote at random the case of a Belgian engineer, Comrade K [42], a specialist in the manufacture of explosives, who volunteered to work for the appropriate department, but which refused his services because they had contracts with foreign suppliers; and that of a Spanish engineer, who directed an aviation school and put forward a perfectly realistic project for a factory that could produce aeroplanes, but was turned down in order to allow purchases from abroad.

As for the Vallejo whom I mentioned above, he was dismissed round about May 1937, and like so many other devoted workers, was evidently replaced by Stalinists and – Fascists.

Fascists? Surely you are exaggerating?

No, I am not exaggerating anything. I am stating a fact. Catalonia possessed quite an important metal working industry which was easily convertible, whose necessary raw materials came in sufficient quantities from the centre and abroad. A powerful war industry could and should have been created that could have rendered Spain almost independent of foreign speculators. Here is the historical proof of it. During the Great War, didn’t it supply both of the belligerent camps to whom it provided good quality munitions? Yet 90 per cent of the shells manufactured during the final months for the Republican government by a large munitions factory (which once worked for France during the Great War and whose engineer had been mysteriously assassinated by the agents of German counter-intelligence) turned out to be duds.

In the factory where I was in charge, only towards the end did production fall about 30 or 40 per cent (but this was an exceptional case). But production did fall, not only in quantity but in quality as well, and this was a general phenomenon. The reasons? Inertia and bad organisation, and that in spite of the ever-growing numbers of ‘organisers’, of new inspectors, and of new committees, who had to find out the reasons for this anarchy.

But the more there were of these new committees, the more there were of circulars of instructions changing work methods every 15 days, the more statistics that were drawn up, the more bits of paper there were to fill in (a simple invoice had to be made out in six copies), the more there were of these Control Commissions, for example searching out the supposedly sick [43], the more controllers there were looking for ‘incontrolados’ (uncontrollables), the worse it became, in spite of the official boasting and despite the monkey tricks of Stakhanovism. [44] Let us first illustrate this sinister bungling and then try to explain it. The Subsecretaria de Armamento, which coordinated and directed the entire war industry, had the job of supplying us with raw materials (iron, coke, wood, petrol, fireclay, foundry sand, lubrication for the machines, etc., etc.). Without these raw materials, or if even one of them was missing, we were held up, and the workers were reduced to playing cards inside the workshop.

Now some raw material of importance was very often missing. It was missing, not because the Subsecretaria did not have it (its stores were full and the same material was very often stolen), but because the corresponding head of department, despite written or telephoned orders, had forgotten to send it to us; for example, he ‘forgot’ to send us petrol or coke, even though he had received the orders supplied with all the stamps. On the other hand, he or his colleague ‘didn’t forget’ to send some raw material in such great quantities as to risk blocking up a factory.

There were some funny cases, or rather, tragi-comic cases in this connection. On one occasion a head of department had made a mistake about a number and – simply added a zero. Instead of five tons of coke he sent 50 tons of it. This is no leg-pull, it is a fact – there was so much of it. I can find stories of this type by the Soviet humorist Zoshchenko [45], but Zoshchenko was writing satire and was exaggerating intentionally, whereas I can only say what happened. Very expensive raw materials were sent to us which our factory did not require. For example, in defiance of common sense, one contract drawn up between our factory and the Subsecretaria envisaged a monthly delivery of 200 kilos of ferro-manganese and 200 kilos of ferro-silicon. Several verbal and telephone conversations on the part of the technical director, the Controller of the Subsecretaria and myself tried to stop these deliveries of very expensive raw materials, which other factories needed and lacked, but all to no avail. Ferro-manganese and ferro-silicon kept arriving at our factory right up to the last moment.

To shift raw material from one factory to another authorisations and special permits, were necessary from the Controller of the Subsecretaria, without which nothing could be done. And as we were part of a collective, involving some 30 factories, and as the government was carrying on a policy of sabotaging these collectives (I will deal with the problem of the collectives later), the authorisations were never granted.

The Subsecretaria preferred to paralyse the production with which it was officially charged with promoting and coordinating, rather than collaborate honestly with the collective.

Now I will pass on to the electrical supply (a problem of prime importance), without which we could ‘rien faire’, as the French say. Well! There was no electricity precisely during the hours we had most need of it, that is to say, during the hours we were working the foundry.

One long interruption in the electric supply and the contents of the electric furnace solidified, rendering it useless and immobilising the factory. At such a time I recall my colleague, the technical director (the old boss), very embarrassed, begging me on each occasion to telephone the Electricity Headquarters.

We lacked electricity not only during alerts (which was inevitable), but several times in the day as well, and there were days (very frequently towards the end) in which we didn’t get it at all. Obviously, these incidents became the pretext for an abundance of red tape. Every morning we had to record in triplicate interruptions to the electricity supply during the night (number, duration, etc. ...). As you can see, more lists, more bumph, and more red tape, but we still had no electricity.

Another thing. Our collective needed certain machines, which it could only buy from abroad. It had delegated some representatives to make these purchases. But the government, which was not inclined to favour the collective (a CNT-UGT collective [46], even though a majority of the workers in the factory and on the council were from the CNT), refused any passports under the pretext that there was no currency for such luxuries. On the other hand, there was currency to send repeated delegations abroad with the aim of bootlicking millionaire democrats and floorpolishing in the antechambers of the gentlemen ministers of France and Britain, in order to win Chamberlain’s heart – the central and impossible aim of the entire international policy of the Popular Front. Well, the machines were not purchased. It ended in a loss for the collective, and made it impossible to start up some sections in several factories. This was obviously a loss of output for the war industry, but the gentlemen in the Subsecretaria were not bothered by this detail.

Whenever a piece was finished, whether it was an ingot, a machine part, a tripod for a Hotchkiss machine gun, or a shell, it had to be delivered to the recipient, that is to say, to another factory which had to finish it off, or, for example, to an arsenal, and on principle it was not meant to be left to wait ‘se maduran lo higos’ (until the figs ripen).

That is so obvious that it is far too simple for you to have to explain it to us.

It may be simple to you, but it was not so simple for me, or for any of us in our factory in Barcelona. For example, we would receive an order from the Subsecretaria of the Explosives section, or from the Armour section, to make a certain quantity of parts urgently, ‘urgentisimo’. They had to be ready, say, within the week. The workers gave it all they had. They were ready within the appointed time. But then somebody had to come to get them. (These are small matters, but little things make big ones, don’t they?) Well, sometimes, despite ‘urgentisimo’, weeks passed, and sometimes a month, and the parts were still waiting. We telephoned dozens of times for somebody to pick them up, and always received the same answer, the first that a foreigner hears and learns in Spain: ‘mañana’ (tomorrow).

On the other hand lorries often came to us needlessly, very often simply to wish us good day. This was all very kind and very heartening, but it cost precious petrol. I could also cite the case of two motorcyclists, who made a journey of 100 kilometres to bring back “a document of the highest importance” – a simple invoice that could easily have been sent through the post.

You are quibbling. You are dwelling on small points that are not always of decisive importance. Isn’t this just bureaucratism that you meet a bit of everywhere, and most of all in a period of revolution when the newly constructed apparatus is not able to function properly?

I object, I can easily see that you have not had the slightest experience of this work, which let me get closely acquainted with these things.

“Solo trabajando mucho ganaremos la guerra”, as well as “trabajar 12 horas, 14, 18, 24 horas no es bastante para ganar la guerra” [47], and that is true enough. If useful things were made, obviously the war could be won by working. Time is a factor of the first order, but as for the bureaucratism that I have pointed out, not only has it taken on colossal proportions, but it was never seriously fought. I will use a rather crude expression that I do not like at all, but which reflects the reality all too well, at any rate as regards the Catalan administration: “Nobody gives a toss.” “Es igual”, “esta bien” (all the same, and that’s how it goes). But behind this I-don’t-care-a-toss is concealed, not only the casualness of imbecility, but real sabotage as well – and the real Fifth Column. [48] You can’t even compare this bureaucratism with the bureaucratism that exists now and did exist in Russia during the first years of the revolution.

Let me give you one example to show you the difference in going about things in similar circumstances both in Russia in 1918 and 1919 at the height of the Civil War, and in Spain in 1936-39.

At the end of March, at the time of the smashing of the Aragon front, a representative of the Subsecretaria came to the factory where I was working with an order for pickaxes. In view of the rapid advance of the Fascists, who had broken through the front and were advancing with lightning speed towards Catalonia, they were urgently needed. The factory was piled high with orders, but clearly parts that had been ordered previously could wait. The pickaxes were the urgent thing. They were needed for digging trenches and constructing a new line of defence. Well, in the same situation in Russia (I could provide facts as they were described to me by a comrade who had worked in the war industry in Russia and then 20 years later in Spain) a military order arrived: the order had to be carried out – under penalty of being liquidated.

In my factory in the year of grace 1938, discussions began, and then bargaining, after that meetings of committees followed by correspondence between the factory and the Subsecretaria, and the pickaxes were not made.

Even if bureaucratism was not scarce in Russia, at least there was a firm hand and a conscious leadership that centralised everything and which, in spite of sabotage and every obstacle, imposed its will. All this was missing in Spain, and missing because there was no real unity (despite all that was sung about it), a unity that above all could not be created on the contradictory basis of the Popular Front. This contradiction appeared at every turn. For those who knew how to see it stared you in the face. The contradiction was this: on the one side was the working class, which wanted to emancipate itself economically, and on the other side was the left bourgeoisie and its flunkeys, whether they were of the Stalinist or the Anarchist church. The former wanted to be the masters of the factories, whereas the latter wanted everything to return to order – the bourgeois order, in which they would generously allow some reforms to the workers. The former, the workers, wanted to be rid of capitalism, but the latter wanted to preserve it. You needed no microscope to see the contradiction, but even a microscope cannot help the blind.

This ‘slight’ contradiction, a reminder of which was considered by the ostriches of the Popular Front as the twentieth century’s cardinal sin, which they called Trotskyism, came up everywhere, absolutely everywhere, for it was not accidental, additional or occasional, but was at the basis of the whole civil war in Spain.

As I explained before, it surfaced in the war industry, in the Republican army, in the entire life of governmental Spain, and most of all in its economy.



41. Eugenio Vallejo used the Central Committee of the Anti-Fascist militias of Catalonia together with the CNT metallurgical union to set up a war industry in Catalonia.

42. Comrade K is Georges Kopp (1902-1951), a Belgian engineer and friend of George Orwell. A major with the Lenin battalion of the POUM, he had fled from his own country to escape arrest for manufacturing and smuggling explosives for Republican Spain. He was arrested by the Stalinists and accused of espionage. (Cf. Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counter Revolution in Spain, New York 1978, pp.192-3, and the account of Don Bateman below.)

43. The ‘supposedly sick’ were workers who were fiddling the Social Security, and under various specious pretexts had not been presenting themselves for work. [Author’s note]

44. Stakhanovism was a system of work emulation used in the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s, and was based upon individual workers increasing their work output. It was named after a miner whose output was artificially increased to create a record, and it was used by the regime to increase the production norms for the ordinary worker. It proved very unpopular with ordinary workers, and, because of its emphasis on individual output, actually helped disorganise production. The Soviet bureaucracy benefitted, however, because it created a privileged stratum in the working class that was loyal to the regime.

45. Mikhail Mikhailovich Zoshchenko (1895-1958) was a leading Russian writer of short stories.

46. The UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores) was the Socialist trade union federation in Spain, whose leader was Largo Caballero. Later it fell largely under Stalinist domination, particularly in Catalonia.

47. “Sole trabajando mucho ganaremos la guerra” – “only by hard work will we win the war”; “Trabajar 12 horas, 14, 18, 24 horas no es bastante para ganar la guerra” #8211; “working 12 hours, 14, 18, 24 hours is not enough to win the war” – these were propaganda notices. The first was encountered in offices – where they did not exactly kill themselves with work. The other notice was shown in all the cinemas and theatres in Barcelona. [Author’s note]

48. The Fifth Column was a phrase first used by General Mola during the attack upon Madrid in the autumn of 1936. He boasted to some journalists that whilst he had four army columns advancing upon the city from outside, he had a “fifth column”, of sympathisers working for him inside. From then onwards Fascist traitors, spies and saboteurs became known as the ‘Fifth Column’, a phrase that continued into the Second World War.

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Last updated on 27.7.2003