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Mieczyslaw Bortenstein (M. Casanova)

Spain Betrayed

How the Popular Front Opened the Gates to Franco

11. The Events of May 1937

Dual power did exist in Spain, if in an incomplete and partial form, in the first months that followed 19 July. The second power, the embryonic power of the working class, expressed itself in the workers’ committees that were created in every town and in the smallest villages of governmental Spain. These committees, into which came the representatives of the working class organisations, took on the most diverse forms; it was the Defence Committees that guaranteed public order by means of the Control Patrols and which administered the villages and towns. In the factories Works Committees were formed. Transport and the entire state administration were controlled by the trade union delegates. The sailors formed their councils on the ships. From the beginning the militias were organised by the parties and the trade unions. The Central Committee of the Anti-Fascist Militias was created in Catalonia on the proposal of President Companys. [68] Formally, it was an organisation of the Generalitat, but in reality during this unique first period it was the sole effective power in Catalonia. The ‘government’ of the Generalitat was a sham, tolerated because the working class organisations did not have the courage to liquidate it.

Yet it was this semblance of power, the Generalitat, which defeated the power of the people and the committees. New blood was infused into the dying organisation by the leaders of the working class organisations. The Central Committee of the Anti-Fascist Militias was abolished, and towards the end of September the coalition ministry of Taradellas [69] was formed in Catalonia. A month later the Anarchists entered the central government as well. Starting with the formation of coalition governments, the situation in ‘governmental’ Spain developed through weakening the power of the committees and the strengthening of the central bourgeois power. The reasons for this reactionary development are entirely due to the policy of the working class parties.

The central slogan of the Spanish Communist Party and its Catalan affiliate was “All power to the Government!”, to which the Communists added “Mas pan y menos comités!” (More bread and fewer committees!). The Stalinists blamed the committees, that is the revolution, for being responsible for all the administrative difficulties, the lack of organisation, and the supply disaster. However, the abolition of the committees by the party of Comorera only made the difficulties worse. The committees were destroyed, but bread became even scarcer. The Communists were strongly supported by bourgeois and nationalist elements in their campaign for the destruction of the Defence Committees, the Control Patrols, and the Sailors’ Councils.

The Esquerra Catalana (the Catalan Left) the bourgeois democratic party, and the Estat Catala [70] (Catalan State), the Catalan nationalist and separatist party, supported them in this counter-revolutionary work in Catalonia. As for the Anarchists, they joined the tail of the Stalino-bourgeois bloc. If the leadership of the CNT did show some resistance, that was because of pressure from their base, in other words the Anarchist workers who wanted to preserve the conquests of the revolution. In Catalonia the revolution had, from the social point of view, been carried further than in the rest of Spain. It was not surprising that the conflict of the two forces took on its sharpest form there.

The decrees of the Generalitat of Catalonia were only carried out if the working class organisations, and the CNT in particular, agreed. For example, after November 1936 the militias had been militarised and the “Ejercito Popular” (Peoples’ Army) had been formed by a decree of the Generalitat. In law they were linked solely with the Defence Council and the central government’s General Staff. But in fact the militias were attached to organisations led by the parties and trade unions. The same applied to public order.

Dual power, a general phenomenon at the beginning of every revolution, can only be a transitory period. One of the contending powers must disappear. Dual power could even less continue during the civil war against Fascism. The centralisation of power was both inescapable and necessary. According to we Bolshevik-Leninists it should have functioned on the basis of generalised, democratised and coordinated workers’ committees. According to the Stalinists and the Republicans it should have operated on the basis of the constitution of the bourgeois Republic.

It is true that certain Anarchists imagined that the two powers could carry on competing indefinitely. Isn’t that anarchy? In fact dual power has this in common with anarchy, in the vulgar sense of the word, that the conflict of jurisdiction between the contestants for power prevents the formation of a strong and centralised power. But this ‘anarchy’, or, better still, this disequilibrium of society in the course of the history of revolutions, always ends in a clash between the rival powers. Following this always bloody clash one power imposes itself upon the other, and eliminates its rival. This was the meaning of the events of 3-6 May in Barcelona.

The occupation of the Telephone Exchange by the Assault Guards [71] was only a pretext on the part of the Stalino-bourgeois coalition in order to disarm the proletariat. As a result of the softness of the POUM, and particularly of the leadership of the CNT and FAI and their successive retreats and capitulations, the Stalinists and the bourgeois Republicans, who in the first months did not even dare to show their noses, from the beginning of May 1937 felt strong enough to attempt their vile coup against the revolution and its organisations.

Like other public utilities, the Telephone Exchange had been run since July by workers’ committees, with representation from the two trade union centres, the UGT and CNT. It was the CNT that predominated in Catalonia. The occupation of the Telephone Exchange by the Assault Guards was carried out as the result of a conspiracy arranged by the Stalinists and the Republicans, without the Catalan government, the Generalitat, being in on the secret. The Anarchist ministers did not know about the decision to occupy the Telephone Exchange.

The CNT workers of Barcelona spontaneously reacted by constructing barricades. They understood that the Stalinists and the Republicans wanted to disarm them and remove their conquests of 19 July. The POUM joined in the movement. Yet its leadership waited for the decisions of the regional committee of the CNT. The movement was powerful. The revolutionary workers of the CNT dominated the town. The CNT had all the cards in its hands; the support of the majority of the proletariat, arms in sufficient quantity, and transport, which would allow it to prevent the arrival of troops from Valencia. The province of Catalonia would follow the movement. The rank and file of the CNT only awaited the order of the centre to launch an attack.

On the other side of the barricades in Barcelona were the police and the Stalinists, but in view of their inferiority, the police in several places decided not to intervene and declared themselves neutral. As for the Stalinists, they felt strong enough to assassinate isolated revolutionary militants like Berneri, Barbieri [72] and others, but they no longer dared to go over to the attack. They waited for help from Valencia.

The situation called for the leadership of the CNT to play the rôle of the leading centre in the proletarian insurrection, but it played the rôle of an enemy agent. It betrayed the movement both by exhorting the workers not to attack and later to abandon the barricades, and in this way it betrayed the Barcelona proletariat to the Stalino-bourgeois reaction.

“But we could not engage in a full battle, for that would have required the recall of our militias from the front, and would in consequence have favoured Franco!” argued the Anarcho-Ministers. It is typical that this argument did not exist for the right wing of the Popular Front, in other words the Stalinists and the bourgeoisie. The latter did not hesitate to send troops that were needed at the front to Barcelona.

But to dominate the situation in Barcelona, Catalonia and Aragon, the CNT had no need to recall the CNT militias from the front. It had sufficient forces in the rear. The CNT leaders evoked imaginary dangers to justify their betrayals. On the contrary: the liquidation of the bourgeois power, that is to say, the Generalitat, and the passing of the power into the hands of the Defence Committees, spontaneously created in the course of the struggle, would have delivered a terrible blow to Franco. A triumphant proletarian revolution in Catalonia would have immeasurably changed the situation in the whole of Spain. It would have encouraged the workers of Madrid and Valencia, who would have followed the example of Barcelona, it would have increased the energy and combativity of the proletariat a hundredfold, it would have had repercussions behind the Francoist rear, which would have woken up, and it would even have had repercussions outside the frontiers of Spain.

García Oliver and Frederica Montseny [73] preferred the other road. They followed the bourgeoisie and the Stalinists. They received no reward: three weeks later they were dismissed. The skivvy had finished her job, and now the skivvy could go. The government of Largo Caballero was replaced by ‘El Gobierno de la Victoria’, that of Doctor Negrín. The CNT workers were disarmed. The Control Patrols were dissolved. The economic conquests of the proletariat were progressively eliminated.

The crushing of the revolutionary workers of Barcelona opened the road to the Stalino-bourgeois reaction, and as a result, to Franco.



68. Luis Companys y Jover (1883-1940) was a Catalan Nationalist politician who was President of the regional government in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. He was handed over to Franco by Pétain and shot in 1940.

69. Josep Tarradellas (1900-1988) was a Catalan Nationalist and an associate of Companys (note 68 above). He returned to Spain after Franco’s death and played a similar rôle in the regional politics of Catalonia after the installation of a constitutional regime.

70. The Esquerra was the left party of Catalan nationalism, petit-bourgeois and autonomist; the Estat Catala was semi-Fascist and separatist.

71. The Assault Guards (Asaltos) were a paramilitary police force created by the Spanish Republic to maintain public order.

72. Camillo Berneri (1897-1937) was a well known Italian philosopher and Anarchist who had left Italy to escape persecution by Mussolini. He opposed the governmental collaboration of the Anarchist leaders in the Popular Front in his newspaper, Guerra di Classe; Francesco Barbieri was a comrade of his. Their bodies were discovered barbarously mutilated after being murdered by the Stalinists.

73. Frederica Montseny Mané (1905-  ) was the Anarchist Minister of Health in the Popular Front government of Largo Caballero (1936-37).

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Last updated on 27.7.2003