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The New International, December 1934


L. Fersen

The Defeat of the Spanish October

From New International, Vol. I No. 5, December 1934, pp. 136–139.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE ENTRANCE of the Christian-Fascists into the government was the signal for the insurrection to the Spanish working class. Having learned the lessons of the recent international experiences, particularly those of Austria, it well understood that there was no use in creating illusions for oneself. The hour for the armed struggle had arrived. Any delay, no matter what the pretext, would have weakened the position of the proletariat, giving the enemy time to prepare himself better, and besides, would have sowed demoralization in the workers’ ranks at the time when its spirit was at maximum tension.

Reaction and the government in spite of the discoveries made of arms deposits, and the even more resolute attitude of the socialist press, did not expect anything like so rapid and serious a reply. The majority government was formed at 6 p.m. on October 4 and the general strike began at midnight.

The bourgeoisie never took the revolutionary threats of the syndicalists in all seriousness. The very prudent history of the syndicalists in the labor movement was known and it was no secret that when radical phraseology was resorted to, the object was to cover its shameful acts with a heavy veil of rhetoric. On the other hand, the socialists in their speeches, commenced to assume an ultra-intransigeant position in direct contradiction to their daily behavior in action. This too awoke many doubts and was the result of the inability of the socialist party leaders, and their lack of decision when it came to taking a clear position in a given political situation. From the moment that their participation in the government came to an end, they announced a complete reorientation onto the revolutionary road, affirming that they were no longer interested in the course of “bourgeois” republican politics which according to them belonged to a world that the socialist party had forever renounced. The socialist party leaders pretended a disdain that they did not feel and which was contradicted by their daily acts, for all of the republican parties, for all possible government changes, for all electoral problems. As the legislation of the republican-socialist period was annulled, without the socialist party in spite of its verbal intransigeance doing anything more than make the usual gestures, the bourgeoisie continued arrogantly to assert itself in the belief that this revolutionary hysteria on the part of the socialist party might be the result of offended pride for having been displaced from power, a means of intimidation, or else a propaganda stunt intended to attract the masses but certainly no firm revolutionary determination. The recent discoveries of arms deposits, many at the homes of leading socialists, again commenced to sow the seeds of alarm among the bourgeoisie at a time when the latter had thought the danger of a socialist revolution to be past.

But one well acquainted with the socialist movement could, in spite of its inconsistent policy, have formed an even clearer idea of the direction of its policy, than the socialist party leaders themselves. This, in spite of the pedantic skepticism of the doctrinary elements of the working class (Stalinists, anarchists) who were fortified by an entirely negative attitude towards the social democracy, and the ironical reserve with which the most conscious elements of the bourgeoisie received the warnings of the revolution. As the situation became more acute, it was increasingly evident that the socialist party was really determined not to allow itself to be beaten down by Fascism. This was the only thing that was clear: the other revolutionary gesticulations had not crystallized into anything concrete.

The youngest and most enthusiastic elements formed an exaggerated idea of evolution of the party, which they assumed had broken or was about to break forever with reformism. The Leftward evolution, manifested in the international social democracy after the victories of the counter-revolution in Germany and Austria, was sharper and more rapid in Spain than anywhere else. This was due to the special political situation of the country and not to any real essential difference. We well know that under the present circumstances of the labor movement the possibilities of victory over Fascism depend in the first place on the degree to which the social democracy has evolved towards the Left. This is especially so, in view of the uselessness of expecting anything progressive from the Communist International, that paralyzed appendage of the diplomatic policy of the USSR which now perhaps is about to disappear from the political arena. It would however be a mistake to suppose that the social democracy, through internal evolution, can transform itself into a truly revolutionary party.

If reaction had ceased to advance, the radicalization of the socialist party would have become limited to a diversity of opinions and tendencies inside a party that was stalled in its traditional reformism. At the same time that the socialist party on the one hand was energetically preparing to fight Fascism, it kept open to the very last moment a means of retreat, whereby it might be able to take refuge in a democratic solution. It is here that we must look for the immediate and concrete causes of the failure of the October 5 insurrection. That is where the explanation lies and not in the insurrection having come too late as in Vienna or an act of treason by the organization responsible for the movement. If a reformist party, because of its reformist character did not decide to resort to the insurrection until it saw the enemy actually taking over, the power, this does not mean that a revolutionary party placed in the same position would have rebelled at an earlier date. But it would not have arrived at the day of the insurrection in such disadvantageous condition, it would have utilized thoroughly every recourse at its disposal in order to alter the course of political developments, without ceasing to prepare for the worst. Although it is true that the Spanish socialist party had progressed somewhat compared with its international colleagues, it allowed the months to slip by, remaining passive, taking no advantage of excellent, perhaps decisive opportunities for influencing the immediate course of national politics and for the future of the revolution. But not one of the dominant points of view existing in the socialist party could understand the necessity of partial struggles. Those who dreamed of a formula for democratic concord were afraid of barring the road to this possible solution by antagonizing the Rights with their audacity. And those who dreamed of the revolution, which to them was summed up in the single word “insurrection” looked down from the heights of their dreams with nothing but disdain for the partial struggles; they considered the latter to be of little significance, fearing that the final triumph might be compromised by the expenditure of energies in partial combats. But in view of the advances of reaction there was no other way out than through the armed insurrection. In this respect the socialist party cannot be accused of having been too soon or too late. If the revolution failed, or rather, if at the decisive moment in Madrid, there was no insurrection – which according to many probabilities would have been sufficient for victory – this is because in the decisive days the SP policy, ever vacillating between the insurrection and the hope of a miracle that could have made possible the establishment of a democratic equilibrium, had catastrophic consequences.

Lacking the broad revolutionary Marxist conception, the socialist party canalized the whole revolutionary movement onto conspiratorial grounds, making it solely and exclusively a question of secret and meticulous preparation of a coup de main. All of the reasons given above pushed the SP in just that direction. This natural inclination was still further stimulated by one of the most brilliant jewels of international sensationalist literature which put the finishing touch to the narrow concept that the SP held of the revolution. We refer to the book Coup d’Etat – the Technique of Revolution, by the Fascist writer Curzio Malaparte. The strange thesis that for the conquest of a modern state, a previously instructed minority capable of seizing a few key points, is sufficient, adds to an already sufficiently narrow idea of the revolution, a still narrower concept of the insurrection. The socialists found their inspiration in this text – one of the greatest “technical” nemeses that has enlightened contemporaneous thought – believing that they had come into possession of “Trotsky’s tactics”, as they themselves stated. Malaparte, it must be noted, attributes to Trotsky the discovery of the recipe that makes it possible for a minority to win revolutions irrespective of the political situation or of the masses. The Malapartist “technique” has not, it is clear, had any important effect on the course of the revolt, nor could it have had at the decisive moment. If we refer to it at all, it is only in order to point out the extent to which the more solid conceptions of social revolution had been overshadowed by conspiratorial ideas. No one proposes to deny the need for trained cadres with definite objectives. If the insurrection had taken place in Madrid, the militia would without doubt have been the most important element in the armed struggle, although not to the extent of making superfluous the intervention of the great masses. The problem consists in determining why it was, if an insurrection had been planned, that so far as Madrid is concerned, it was limited to a general strike with skirmishes doomed to failure.

In the first place, the leadership lacked energy, not daring to launch the movement in its full intensity. When the order was given for the general strike it was said that it should commence peacefully in order to resort to the insurrection afterwards. Such an order could not have been due to any technical consideration, which would have been stupid. It reflected a moment of weakness on the part of the leadership. In spite of this order having been given at the last moment it is not likely that it would have been of much consequence if the militia had been in readiness for action. Being in complete disagreement with the plan, such an order would have arrived too late to have influenced the activity of the militia.

But the militia were without arms. The party held on to the guns until the last moment in the hope that the government crisis would be solved without the entrance of the Christian-Fascists in the cabinet, in which case there would have been no armed struggle. There were a number of reasons for hoping that the crisis might be solved in a manner unfavorable to the Rights, although none of these reasons was a very sure one. The socialist party placed itself on the sidelines, conditioning the movement on the outcome of the crisis, without on the other hand, doing anything to influence this outcome. When the solution given to the cabinet crisis became known, the movement was decided upon. But the task of arming the militia at that time, in the space of a few hours, was extraordinarily difficult, not to say impossible, especially for a leadership that was already vacillating on the matter of the intensity of the attack. It was enough for the armed forces of the state to come out into the streets, repeatedly searching passersby and vehicles, in order to cut the movement to pieces. The insurrection in Madrid was limited to a long strike, sustained by the proletariat with exemplary enthusiasm and discipline.

At the same time in the province of Asturias, the miners proceeded with extraordinary rapidity and energy to sow demoralization and panic among the bourgeoisie, being able actually to gain control of the entire province. Aside from the inevitable excesses, there was nothing chaotic about the revolution in Asturias, that is to say, it was not a movement that had gotten out of control. No; the Asturian workers restricted themselves to making the revolution victorious in their zone. If Madrid had responded in like fashion, the insurrection, supported by the general strike in most of the towns, would have gained in extent and depth. The probabilities of victory would have been great.

What occurred can be attributed to nothing else than the desire not to have the proletariat armed in case the leadership, enabled to find a democratic solution, wished to renounce the struggle. This position, maintained tenaciously and carried to repulsive extremes, wound up with catastrophic consequences. In the activity of the SP during thq preparation for the armed struggle, the most important consideration was that of assuring the retreat if there were occasion for it, rather than taking measures to assure victory if a struggle took place. All of its tactics were motivated by a restraining attitude towards the masses. From this emanated its exclusivist obsession in the question of leadership, its immeasurable will to control, carried to the point of attempting to control the uncontrollable, to flinch at what must be dared, to back down for fear of losing. Under this cloak of exclusion in the leadership were concealed no high revolutionary considerations, but prudent calculation worked out with an eye to possible settlements. The care that was taken to leave no channel open for the revolutionary spirit of the proletariat, in case the party wished to take refuge in some compromise formula, ended by closing the road to victory when the encounter between the classes became inevitable.

We can be certain that there will be many socialists who refuse to accept this interpretation. But how then are these events to be explained? How can the fact that the insurrection was limited to a strike be explained, if the movement commenced precisely under the circumstances chosen by the leadership and with the unconditional support of the working masses? Where was the catch? These questions can only be “explained” by unloading the responsibility on one scapegoat or another, by accusing so-and-so of desertion, another of treachery, etc. Had this been so, had the failure of the movement resulted from the failure to carry out orders coming from the leadership, some essential cog in the machine would have broken down completely. But everyone feels that there was no such betrayal or desertion. The working class was unable to act because it was not allowed to prepare itself to do so in advance. If we add to this the last minute wavering of the leadership, which under other circumstances might perhaps have been overcome, we have the full explanation of the pitiful spectacle presented by the revolution in Madrid.

The Catalonian developments should be dealt with separately. Here the leadership was in the hands of the autonomous government. Between the government and the workers’ organizations, or rather the Catalonian workers’ organizations, there was no connection at all. Furthermore the Catalonian working class movement was divided into two great groups – the group of organizations affiliated to the Workers Alliance, and the CNT. The latter, of its own volition, withheld from the conflict entirely.

Relations had been broken off between the autonomous government of Catalonia and the central government in Madrid, although in some regards, the appearances of discipline were maintained. This situation prevailed as the result of the agrarian law passed by the Catalonian parliament. The Catalonian reactionaries utilized the central government which declared the law annulled. The autonomous regime however attempted to apply the law in defiance of Madrid. This intransigeance of Catalonia created a situation that could only be solved by violent means, or else by displacing the Rights in Madrid and reestablishing harmony between the two governments.

Objectively, Catalonia was the point most to be feared by Spanish reaction. The Rights feared it even more than they did the labor movement itself, for here the enemy was a government that could count on the support of the urban petty bourgeoisie, of the peasants who were its strongest support, of the proletariat which while not adhering to the Catalonian government, did owe its allegiance to the revolution, and on all of the moral and material resources that go with state power. Having at its command its own official forces, the support of the overwhelming majority of the population, and every facility to prepare itself, the revolution in Catalonia should have been invincible. But to the petty bourgeois composition of the government can be attributed the reason why Catalonia, mainstay of the revolution, was the one to succumb first and with the least resistance.

The agrarian conflict over the land cultivation laws went no further than a discussion on the jurisdiction of the one government as opposed to the other, a dispute among lawyers, in which the Catalonian government maintained its positions magnificently, but without at the same time preparing for the struggle that was inevitably approaching for fear of being accused of revolutionary activities or of assuming a subversive attitude. This attitude was in radical contrast to the socialist party which had been preparing many months for the armed struggle, although when the struggle did take place such deplorable use was made of the valuable previous preparations. The Catalonian government held itself strictly aloof from the labor organizations and even from the peasant organization that supported it whole-heartedly and with which it could have no serious differences, in view of the fact that the peasants only wished to expropriate the land without indemnification. The government wished the peasants to confide blindly in its benevolence, and to hold their peace. Upon what forces then did the Catalonian government expect to rely in the struggle? The answer is not difficult: the official forces under its command and the hope – founded on we know not what – that the army of the central government would support it. Only thus can one explain an attitude that in other circumstances would have been comical. A plenary session of the Catalonian Generalidad, meeting in its own official hall, on the 5th of October, proclaimed the Catalonian Federal Republic ... and right there the whole Generalidad continued to sit as if it were functioning in the most normal of times, sending out calls by radio to a populace which had not armed itself and which at that particular moment, had no intention of preparing for battle.

Martial law was declared and the army, charged with suppressing the uprising, called on the Catalonian government to capitulate. This demand was rejected, upon which the army commander announced without any sign of haste that the government palace would be bombarded at dawn. The bombardment took place according to schedule and, realizing the ridiculousness and useless-ness of resistance, the autonomous government surrendered. In different parts of the city small skirmishes took place in which there were few casualties. Thus the Catalonian movement was suppressed.

Let us now look into the role played by the other labor organizations. Given the absolute hegemony of the socialist party in the movement, together with its unwillingness to share or concede the leadership or any part in it, the dilemma became quite clear for the rest. They could either join the movement, attempting to strengthen it and give it increased impetus, or else hold aloof from it, which wou-ld have simply meant to betray the revolution. Examples of both these attitudes were to be seen. The first was the position of the tendencies making up the Workers Alliances, and the second was the position of the CNT which did not participate in the Workers Alliances excepting in Asturias.

Why didn’t the Workers Alliances play a more important role? Why did they limit themselves to following the socialist party? On a number of occasions the doctrinaries of all countries have accused us of playing not only a pitiful but even a dismal role for playing up these Alliances that in general have no strength of their own and no real independence of the socialist party. There was no one in the Alliances but knew of this situation, but they only knew that there was only one way of overcoming this dependence. This could only be by giving impetus to the development of the Alliances, being willing at the same time to make all the concessions necessarily imposed by the relationships of forces. Step by step the correctness of this position has been demonstrated to the enemies of the Alliances. After having emptied their batteries against the Alliances, after having attempted to utilize the fact of the establishment of the united front between the CP and the SP in France, in order to set up in Spain also, a direct pact between Stalinists and socialists, the Spanish Stalinist party a few days prior to the insurrection finally decided to enter the Workers Alliances. The CNT placed itself in a similar position, adapting to the anarchist language the self-same sectarianism. The CNT first condemned the Alliances as a pact among politicians arrived at in order to deceive the masses, later it showed itself inclined to cede on the condition that the united front be limited to trade union organizations to the exclusion of the political parties. Its original intransigeance was visibly reduced to the position of a legal formula, to an intellectual artifice that might serve as a fig-leaf to cover up the abandonment of an erroneous position. The current in favor of the Alliances gained ground daily in the ranks of the CNT. In defiance of its superior committees, the CNT of Asturias joined the Workers Alliances. If the whole organization on a national scale had done likewise, the role played by the Alliances in the uprising would most certainly have been very different. At least the CNT would not have covered itself with shame, as it did during these events, with the honorable exception of Asturias.

The socialists accepted the Alliances inasmuch as this would extend their authority over masses without mortgaging their political independence as leaders of the movement. The overwhelming majority of the proletariat was already in the socialists’ ranks so that for them the Alliances could be nothing but an addition wherewith to augment their prestige. On the other hand, to have attempted at this time to alter the relationship of forces, breaking contact with the socialist party which could easily have been done by proposing united front conditions unacceptable to them, would have shown a desire to waste time to the great detriment of the revolutionary movement. The experience of those who have attempted to do this is conclusive, and we are quite sure that it could not have been very different even if they had carried on their propaganda more intelligently. This is why the socialist party, strong in its organized numerical superiority, was not interested in carrying the Workers Alliance movement to its ultimate goal – the national united front. The dispersion of the existing Alliances assured the socialists of the support of the various tendencies without need of making any concessions in the national leadership of the movement. The only way in which the socialists could have been forced into a national united front, with all that this implies, was to strengthen the Alliances within the limits already accepted by them – local and regional. Then the national united front would be imposed by the Alliances themselves, and it would be but a matter of time to decide in what manner this would be established, whether by a National Congress of the Workers Alliances or by an agreement among the national committees of the organizations. Thus the moment would have arrived, as a consequence of their own development and because of the hold that they had among the workers, when no party, not even the strongest would be in a position to counterpose itself to the Alliances without seriously cracking. But this impetus could only come through the joint effort of the Left wing, and it is quite clear that the Workers Alliances could not put themselves in shape in time to play an important role in the insurrection, if during the nine or ten months of their existence, they have had to spend in warding off the blows directed against them by the most considerable sections of that very Left wing – the anarchists and the Stalinists. The socialists limited themselves to reporting to the Alliances the most important decisions that they had taken, listening to the opinions of the latter, reserving to themselves the right to accept or reject these opinions. In those Alliances where the socialist influence was greatest, such criticism as was not accepted by means of a friendly interchange of views, had no chance of winning by votes.

However it should not be supposed that the role of the Workers Alliances was nil or of little consequence. They contributed powerfully to raising the morale of the proletariat, giving it a palpable and growing idea of unity of action. The only conscious activity of the workers in Catalonia, assuring them of contact with the rest of the country, was due to the Workers Alliance. The slight influence that the Workers Alliances were able to exert over the socialist party, was of real benefit, contributing to break down some of its most dangerous prejudices. Finally, as we have already said, the only force to remain outside of the Workers Alliances was the CNT whose aloofness has been of such a nature that we cannot end this article without saying something about it. The CNT has gone through this whole period with its back turned to the danger of the Rights, devoting itself to combatting the Catalonian government and the socialists. Bearing in mind only the repressions it suffered in Catalonia and the persecutions through which it had gone during the first period of the republic, it converted itself into an instrument that could be readily used for the benefit of reaction. It cannot be denied that the most influential and least conscious elements of the CNT preferred the Lerroux regime to the political situation that had existed previously, although these preferences were covered up by the verbal repudiation of “all politicians” equally. Badly broken as a result of its previous actions, the CNT was no longer a danger to the reactionaries whose principal purpose was to defeat the socialist party, which for the moment had become the point of convergence of the majority of the labor forces. The regime of relative tolerance, that the Rightist reaction consciously conceded to the CNT was sufficient to definitely decide them in their ill-concealed preferences. Wherever its forces were weak the CNT gave a lukewarm support to the insurrection, but where its forces were greatest, it gave no support at all. It would seem that what was at stake in this struggle was not the life or death of the labor movement, but rather, they said, a “socialist movement”.

As a culmination, after such an indescribable attitude, the CNT attempted on November 7 to declare a peaceful general strike of 24 hours as a protest against two executions carried out in Asturias. The strike was of no great importance nor could it be in view of the weakness of the organization. But the date set for the strike was precisely the day when the legal period following the state of martial law would normally expire. The government was able to utilize this unimportant strike as a pretext to extend martial law for another month.

On certain details of the attitude of the anarchists, no definite opinion can yet be given; but what there can be no doubt at all about is that, during this period, the anarchist organization was the most fertile field for all reactionary speculation.

With the crushing of the workers’ insurrection an intermediate situation which cannot be of great duration has been created. The defeat of the working class has not been translated immediately into a complete victory of reaction, as would certainly have happened had the insurrection taken place later than it did. The victory of the government was received very frigidly. This extremely singular situation must be explained, but such cannot be the purpose of this article.


L. Fersen
November 12, 1934

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