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Mieczyslaw Bortenstein (M. Casanova)

Spain Betrayed

How the Popular Front Opened the Gates to Franco

12. The Economy of the Popular Front

The workers took control of the factories. The revolution came from below. From above, in other words from the leadership of the workers’ parties, came only curbs. The decrees of the Taradellas government of the Generalitat on collectivisation, for example, were only a tardy confirmation of an already established state of fact.

The economy of governmental Spain reflected the contradictory tendencies that tore the anti-Fascist camp apart. On the one side there were the measures of nationalisation, in other words the state takeover of ‘abandoned’ factories and enterprises, those factories where the workers had forced out the capitalists, and on the other the collectivisation, which reflected the desire of the workers to run the economy, and which were particularly inspired by the Anarchists, who saw in them the start of the realisation of their theories of a union of free communes. These collectives quite often had features of petit-bourgeois Socialism: the workers would seize an enterprise, and often even shared the proceeds. In spite of this false orientation these collectivisations could obviously have served as a starting point for a Socialist economy in the event of revolutionary developments.

Despite the methods of the trade union bureaucracy that prevented them functioning democratically, the factory councils constituted a proletarian organisation arising from the movement of 19 July. Hence the government’s constant struggle against the factory councils.

The Popular Front government was torn between capitalist concepts of the economy, the Anarchist concept of free communes, and the Socialist conception.

The general orientation of the Popular Front obviously pointed down the road towards the suppression of the collectives. They did not fit inside the framework of the democratic republic, and formed an obstacle to winning Chamberlain’s frozen heart. Four months ago Vidiella [74], a councillor of the Generalitat and one of the leaders of the PSUC, declared openly that he was ashamed to see in Barcelona so many conceptions of this type: “Colectividad, Industria Socializada, etc. ...” Vidiella said that this put foreign visitors off, the English in particular, and prevented help from the democracies.

Only despite this tender and persistent courtship of Chamberlain, the leaders of the Popular Front could not go all the way to the suppression of the collectives. They could not break with the workers, neither the CNTers in particular nor the workers of the UGT, who did not want the destruction of the collectives either.

In a word, our democrats were placed between two fires. They wanted to reconcile the good God and the Devil. It was difficult. It was even impossible. But by their very class nature these petit-bourgeois could do no other than attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable.

The economic policy of the Popular Front is an exact reflection of this contradiction. The story of the collective where I worked is symptomatic in this respect. In January 1938 the government decided to take into its own hands this collective, or rather this conglomerate of collectives, which then passed under the control of the government and became a state enterprise. However, the experience of étatism lasted for only three months. There were constant conflicts between the government representatives and the factory councils, and between the Under-Secretariat and the CNT trade union. It was not going anywhere. In March the government decided to cancel the decree of nationalisation and we became a collective again, an independent enterprise which drew up contracts with the government and was controlled by it.

This new ‘period’, which for our collective began in March 1938 and lasted right up to the end, was not in the least a period of peaceful collaboration between the government and the factory council. On the contrary – and here I remind you of everything that I have said already when talking about the war industry.

It was a war, sometimes silent, sometimes open, which took on different forms, but was permanent. The government haggled with us at every turn. It always held a revolver at the head of the collective. We lived under the constant threat of a fresh measure of nationalisation. On one occasion the Generalitat inspector even wanted to make a complaint against the collective that would have resulted in its compulsory nationalisation due to an accounting error of 800 pesetas.

The Communists were naturally the supporters of the state taking over the whole war industry. This was the leitmotiv of all their propaganda: “War industry and transport into the hands of the government.” But it was easier said than done.

The workers had no confidence in Negrín’s state, in other words the bourgeois state. The centralisation of the entire war industry, transport, and the economy in general was obviously necessary as far as we Spanish Bolshevik-Leninists were concerned as well, but it could be only realised under proletarian power, which is called the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Communists, however, were impatient. They pushed the government in the direction of energetic measures, new measures of nationalisation, in other words. For these heroes of gangsterism everything came down to energetic and dictatorial measures. These ‘Marxists’ imagined that everything could be resolved by administrative measures and the methods of a ‘strong government’. Thus they believed that strong and dictatorial measures would bring order into the war industry, that decrees would suppress flourishing speculation, etc. And this, moreover, is easy to understand. Did they not, by police measures, ‘crush’ Trotskyism and assassinate Andrés Nin, our Erwin Wolf, Moulin, etc.? [75] Only it is far easier to carry out an order to kill working class militants than it is to solve an economic problem by decree. It is true that the Communists called Russia to mind and the dictatorial methods that were applied there in the course of the civil war. Only they forgot one small detail, and that was to understand that in Russia the Bolsheviks had established the dictatorship of the proletariat under the aegis of Lenin and Trotsky, and not the rotten regime of Popular Fronts.

But let us return to the collectives. Some weeks before the collapse, the Communists won their case: a new government decree handed back to the state all the industries that, even indirectly, were working for the war, but there was no time for it to be enforced. We may well ask as to whether it would have been implemented even if the collapse had not taken place.

We Trotskyists are opponents of the theory of ‘Socialism in One Country’, and this is one of our cardinal sins, but even more so we understand the foolishness of the theories and practices of Socialism in a single village, as well as in a single factory and on a single farm. In fact the collectives could only develop and prosper when centralised and generalised and with the continued help of a proletarian government. But yet again, this did not exist in Spain.

The economy of Republican Spain was therefore very diverse: nationalised industry, run by either the central government or the Generalitat, each waging war on the other; the collectives competing with each other; and finally, private capitalism, which little by little rebuilt itself. Add to this a flourishing speculation, the influx of a number of foreign adventurers and traders against whom the policy of the Popular Front could do nothing, the almost complete breakdown of exchange between town and country, as the peasant shut himself up in his collective or on his little plot, not wishing to sell anything because he would only receive banknotes from the town whose value diminished by the day – and we get a return to a primitive economy, etc.

Since money had only a nominal value, all trade took place on the basis of barter. If you were able to find oil you exchanged it for rice or kidney beans, almonds for soap, bread for tobacco, and food products for clothing. For example, it was impossible to get shoes resoled in Barcelona using notes from the Bank of Spain, but the doors were always open on the other hand for a few kilos of rice or a kilo of sugar. Everybody bartered, everybody swapped, everybody hoarded things. It was an individual, a firm, a collective, and even a single bureaucracy at permanent war with the others. The result was easy to predict: an ever-increasing mess.

All the ‘energetic’ measures of the government were only chatter, and could not be anything else. Speculation was fought of course, for instance by arresting miserable women who sold nuts too dearly on the streets. [76] Sometimes a big speculator was fined. But this was an occupational risk, and a minimal one. The speculator was always protected by his friends among the police.

Denouncing speculation was dangerous, though not for the speculator, but for his victim. Moreover, everyone else was left alone. The sense of responsibility disappeared. Indifference became general. You lived from day to day. Everyone knew that this mess could not go on forever, and sought an immediate profit. The regime of the Popular Front satisfied nobody, but on the contrary inconvenienced everybody. It was too red for some and too white for others.

We understand the contradictions that tore the economy of the Popular Front apart, but was not the Fascist economy also torn apart by the various rival currents, for example between the Falangist supporters of a corporatist economy and the old-style reactionaries? [77] Did not Franco suffer the same difficulties as Negrín in the economic sphere? Why was he able to ‘hold on’ in this sphere so much better than Negrín?

This is a serious mistake! Franco’s economy (I am unable to supply the details) would function roughly the way the capitalist economy functions in any country. It would be controlled and regulated by the law that regulates the capitalist economy, the laws of the free market and free competition.

Negrín’s economy, on the other hand, was not, and could not be, an organised capitalist economy, any more than it was a ‘socialist’ economy either (that is to say, the economy of the transitional period and of the dictatorship of the proletariat). It was neither chalk nor cheese. It was a nonsense, erected into a system. You do not have to be a great scholar to understand its impotence and its congenital weakness. You only have to be a Marxist. Unfortunately, there were so few of those in the Iberian peninsula.

‘To resist’, to be able to oppose Fascism victoriously on the economic plane, just as in the military sphere, as well as the ideological plane, you could only counterpose to Fascism the dictatorship of the proletariat. Let the workers of other countries not forget this.

Before bringing to a close these few words that are intended to give the French workers an idea of the economy of governmental Spain, I will recall one small fact. Everybody stole, stole purely and simply, with all the tricks of the trade. Highly placed functionaries stole, bureaucrats stole, speculators, and even the poorer bourgeois and ordinary workers stole: they had to eat and had to feed their little ones, and their wages were only enough to buy turnips and nuts.

Even in several war factories coke, wood and even grease, engine oil and sometimes some rather valuable metals disappeared. Machines were not stolen, because they were difficult to carry off and use.

And you remained idle faced with such crimes?

More or less. To fight against these crimes meant destroying their root cause, the entire rotten utopian policy of the democratic republic, that is to say the same policy that was defended by the all-powerful leaders of the Popular Front.

Moreover, denouncing a thief or a spy was not always possible, since the Fifth Column was well protected inside the apparatus. On one occasion in our factory a worker who had worked there for 20 years was sacked because he had stolen a pot of oil. He took it to make soap out of it. You can only pity him. But as for the real thieves, they were well protected by the system of the Popular Front.



74. Rafael Vidiella (1889-  ) was a member of the PSUC and Minister of Labour in the Catalan Regional government.

75. Andrés Nin (1892-1937), the General Secretary of the POUM, Erwin Wolf (1902-1937), a Czech German who had been Trotsky’s secretary, and Hans David Freund, called Moulin (1912-1937), a Trotskyist of German Jewish origin, were all murdered by the GPU, whether in Spain itself or after kidnapping to the Soviet Union.

76. The Generalitat had set up an entire apparatus for this, and bands of men, mainly from the PSUC, were in constant pursuit of ‘speculators’ – vendors of seasonal goods, in other words. [Author’s note]

77. The Falange Española y las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista was the Spanish Fascist party founded in 1934 by José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the son of the previous military dictator. He was caught on the Republican side of the lines in 1936 and shot.

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Last updated on 27.7.2003