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Mieczyslaw Bortenstein (M. Casanova)

Spain Betrayed

How the Popular Front Opened the Gates to Franco

13. Food Supplies

You said that the workers were forced to barter and occasionally even to steal to feed their little ones. Would you say something about the problem of supplies and the way that it was handled by the Republican government? The press suddenly announced that famine reigned in Catalonia. This is a very important problem. You forget that people have to eat!

I have not forgotten. Over the past eight days I thought of nothing else, and every now and again I even try to understand the policy of non-intervention while staring at white bread and fine French cuisine.

The problem of supplies is one of the central problems during a war, and a civil war at that. You have to eat to live, and even more so to hold a trench or to work. A turner, a fitter, particularly a smith, a smelter or a manual worker cannot feed himself on fine talk. They cannot produce if there are only turnips and nuts for sale. I saw this at first hand.

There was no real famine in the true sense of the word in Catalonia or Barcelona such as there was, for example, in Russia in 1920. But there was marked undernourishment. We were eating less and less. Meat, margarine and apples progressively disappeared, and finally even vegetables were close to vanishing. We were still eating, but in ever-decreasing quantities, and without margarine. As for bread, the ration was 150 grammes per person per day. The average weight of an adult in Barcelona fell by about 20 kilos.

But not for all the people of Barcelona. In order better to understand the provisioning policy of the Popular Front, it would be instructive to compare the drop in the average weight of a speculator, a well-placed bureaucrat, a policeman and even a carabineer on the one hand, and that of a factory worker, even in the war factories, on the other. Such statistics have not been drawn up, but nobody who lived in Barcelona would contradict me when I say that if category A, in other words bureaucrats, reconstructed bourgeois, speculators, police, Assault Guards and all those who in general were part of the repressive forces of the state, occasionally grew fatter, or maintained their girth, or in the worst cases lost a few kilos of useless fat, category B, on the other hand, the Barcelona workers in other words, lost on average 20 kilos of weight. One worker died in my factory as a result of undernourishment that weakened his constitution and rendered him incapable of ‘resisting’.

The food policy of the Popular Front was the opposite of the famous evangelical precept: “He that does not work, neither shall he eat.” It was precisely those who worked the least who ate the most. Can you understand the effect that had on morale at the rear, can you understand the extent to which this demoralised the workers? Nothing else except the food problem was ever talked about in Barcelona. Not only housewives, but everyone, even men inclined to be philosophical, were preoccupied with getting hold of another extra ration of rice, of beans, or even a crust of bread. Every Sunday, and occasionally during the week as well, the workers went off to the countryside in search of food. In the factories there were special commissions of ‘abastos’ (provisioning) who were responsible for buying food. In the last period they would come back after three days travel with pumpkins (calabaza) and nuts, but often they were empty handed.

Of course by 1938, food was no longer abundant in Catalonia because, for reasons that are interesting to study but which I will leave aside for the moment, the peasants left much of the land uncultivated, and in addition insufficient quantities of food came in from abroad.

But the chief reason was that the food products that Catalonia and Spain did have at their disposal were shared out in more or less the same way as in any other bourgeois country. It was only the more disgusting because it was going on in the middle of an anti-Fascist war.

The Spanish worker needs no lessons in devotion and self-sacrifice. He has shown that he knows how to sacrifice himself right up to the end. Only he was mocked at every turn. Even the official rationing was organised in a way opposed to the interests of the working class, and consequently of the war as well.

Far be it from me to idealise all that was done in revolutionary Russia, even during the Leninist period of 1917-23. But all the same I take the liberty of pointing out the basic difference that existed in this sphere too between Bolshevik Russia and Popular Front Spain. For example, bread cards were introduced in Russia in 1918. The population was divided up into four categories; the first category was the manual workers, then afterwards came the workers in light industry, then in the liberal professions, and finally the bourgeois.

According to the rules of formal democracy in Spain, the rations were equal for all. And if the workers in a war factory received one more ration of bread and occasionally of vegetables, that was nothing compared to the rations in the Subsecretariat, for example, or among the Assault Guards. As for the speculators, they didn’t come out of it too badly.

Here is a vivid example to illustrate this. The above-mentioned smelter who worked in our factory and was sacked from it for the theft of a little pot of oil did not do too badly for all that. He began to undertake journeys into the countryside in order to gather up food there and sell it. From then on he ate better than when he practised his trade as a smelter. Such an example did not predispose the workers to go on working.

To summarise the problem of supplies, we can say that the class contours, or, better still, the class divisions within the Popular Front surfaced in this sphere just as much as they came up during the days of the tragic flight when some saved themselves in plush cars whilst others were reduced to going on foot.

Chapter 12 | Chapter 14

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Last updated on 27.7.2003