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The New International, April 1939



The Popular Front’s Flight from Spain


From New International, Vol.5 No.4, April 1939, pp.101-104.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We publish below selections from an interview with Casanova, for the past several years a leading member of the Spanish section of the Fourth International. Comrade Casanova, after having served on the Aragon front, later in the administration of a number of agricultural collectives and more recently in the munitions industry at Barcelona, escaped to France at the time of the fall of Catalonia. – Ed.

Q. How did you get out?

Well, it was not so easy, not at all a de luxe trip. The French frontier is guarded by gendarmes and by Senegalese troops who do not speak French. They do not even let French citizens get by if they don’t have a regular passport. As for Spaniards, they let the women, children and wounded through during certain hours, but the rest are pitilessly driven back. The sights on the roads leading to the frontier are horrible. This headlong exodus of women – some of them pregnant, of children, of wounded – some of them with a leg amputated, others hastily evacuated from hospitals in towns threatened by the fascist advance, this exodus on foot of exhausted men, women and children was a sight to make us tremble. However, our feelings are not easily stirred after what we have seen in Spain.

Naturally, the departure was carried out differently by Messrs, ministers, deputies, bureaucrats, leading functionaries, who already by Monday, January 23 (three days before Franco entered Barcelona) were rolling along in luxurious cars toward Cerbere and Perthus. Observing along the road the two means of transportation, we had a concrete demonstration of the class division within the Popular Front: the left bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisified bureaucrats, on their side, travelled in fine limousines or at the worst in small Citroens; on the other side the workers and peasants and rank and file militants walked on foot.

We were present at tragic farewell scenes between those who left and those who because of family obligations were compelled to stay behind: moments of hesitation, quick, precipitous decisions, all under the constant threat of the fascist aviation which bombed and even machine-gunned the road. Sometimes it was necessary to stop suddenly, to hide in a ditch, to sleep on the road, to spend many nights with no information about the conditions at the front or the speed of the fascist advance; and all took place in the midst of general panic, of unprecedented disorganization and chaos. No newspaper was issued after Tuesday, January 24, the radio stations were not working, and up to the last we had hoped for a stiff resistance to the fascists. You will understand our disorientation ...

No, I have not come back “disenchanted” with Spain! Some may have come home “disenchanted” – the Stalinist volunteers, for example, who left with false ideas, who did not understand the meaning of events and who were kept in ignorance by the Stalinist leadership. But our international organization and our Spanish section predicted the logical consequences of the criminal policy of the Popular Front which opened the doors to Franco. The Spanish tragedy is one more crime to the count of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which crushed the revolutionary movement, assassinated the best militants, and by its whining policy toward so-called democratic capitalism, demoralized the heroic workers of Spain. But this crime is also a lesson – dearly paid for, it is true – from which the workers of other countries will profit, first of all the French workers.

Q. The French workers were surprised to learn of the taking of Barcelona after the military authorities had proclaimed resistance to the death.

I understand your surprise and I shared it. All of us, the ex-volunteers awaiting repatriation and all the militants as well, were tragically shocked at the ease with which the fascist advance moved toward Barcelona. True enough, we had no illusions and we took full account of the tragedy of the situation, but nevertheless we expected a desperate resistance before Barcelona and we cherished in our hearts the hope that heroic Barcelona would be a second Madrid. So long as a single position remains out of the grasp of the enemy, a revolutionist does not have the right to consider the struggle lost. In an article, Can We stop the Debacle? written five days before the taking of Barcelona, I presented a plan of action and rescue for Barcelona and the revolution. I put more or less as follows the opinions and slogans of the Bolsheviks:

“Barcelona can be saved. The most industrialized region of Spain, the province of Barcelona with the industrial fortresses of Manresa, Sabadell, Tarrasa, is not yet in the hands of the fascists. It will not be. Barcelona must be fortified, transformed into an impregnable fortress. For working on the fortifications there is in Barcelona no lack of speculators and chair-warmers. It is time they were made to swing some pickaxes. ‘Resist!’ This is the slogan of our comrade, Munis, imprisoned for a year in the Carcel del Estado at Modelo and now at Montjuich under the vicious charge of assassination. Resist, as Garcia Moreno resisted, who stopped four Italian tanks single-handed. But our slogan, ‘Resist!’ is different from Negrin’s. In order to resist, the working class must lift up its head, must regain confidence in itself, must constitute its Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and its own organizations independent of the bourgeois state power, as it did on July 19, 1936 – but this time it must go further.”

True, the situation was critical. The fascists were advancing as much as fifteen or twenty kilometers a day. Positions of the utmost strategical importance were systematically given up almost without struggle: like the fortifications constructed during eight months around Balaguer, those at Segre, the important position of Las Borgas Blancas whose conquest by the fascists permitted their march toward the sea and the encirclement of Tarragona, and, at the eleventh hour, the chain of mountains around Igualada, whose conquest opened the road toward Barcelona. We were witnessing a repetition of the March catastrophe on the Aragon front, only on a still vaster scale: treason in the high command; desertions to the enemy with defense plans; desertions to the fascists of entire corps of the carabiniers (left intact by the Stalinist and anarchist officials). But Barcelona still remained. Toward the sea, there were still the Saraf hills, which could have been made a resistance point. It is true that the main roads which lead to Barcelona cross a plain: one which comes from Villafranca de Pamades and the other from Tibidabo, the two joining about twenty kilometers from the city. But even if the fascists approached the city itself, there were still the mountains that surround the Catalan capital. Barcelona is surrounded by Montjuich and Tibidabo. We could have fortified these hills and transformed them into a line of defense at the very gates of the city.

Q. But they nevertheless say that, from a strategic point of view, Barcelona was indefensible?

That is a lie. True, we could more easily have defended Barcelona at the chain of mountains near Igualada or at the Saraf hills than at the gates of the city itself. But the town itself is more defensible than, for example, Madrid. Neither the undoubted superiority of the fascist armaments (a result of the passivity of the international proletariat, which had been put to sleep by the Popular Front) nor strategic reasons suffice to explain the fall of Barcelona, especially a fall so rapid and almost without a struggle. The fascists entered Barcelona after a brief battle at Hospitalet, a suburb of Barcelona on the side of the sea ...

Q. What, then, happened?

In brief: strategy and military technic are subordinate to policy, above all in a civil war. Barcelona was abandoned because there was no one to defend it, no one or scarcely anyone who was ready to give his life to defend it against Franco. That is the tragic reality.

Needless to speak of the government, the sinister “Government of Victory”. Monday evening, three days before the entry of Franco, the government met. A communication read by Uribe, the communist Minister of Agriculture, informed us of the officially announced decisions and the measures decided upon:

  1. To declare a “state of war” (martial law) in what remained of governmental Spain – that is to say, to try to muzzle the proletariat (though in reality it was powerless to do so);
  2. To hold out in Barcelona.

That was the official declaration.

Q. And the reality?

The reality? At the same time that they were making this announcement, Messrs. Ministers already had their bags packed, their furniture and a surprising quantity of mattresses were already loaded on trucks, and on that very day the aristocratic flight in Rolls Royces and Hispano-Suizas was beginning.

Filled with panic, the ministers wanted to appeal to the CNT workers of Barcelona, in order that the workers would once more shed their generous blood and save the situation – above all the dangerous personal situation of the ministers. These gentlemen believed that the same trick could be repeated an infinite number of times. According to their view, the proletariat should normally be in chains, should respect bourgeois law, should continually do the ugly chores, should watch its militants mistreated, etc. At the moment of danger, one may loosen the chain a little and generously permit the proletariat to die for the defense of the legitimate government and the democratic republic. The proletariat, according to the scheme of these gentlemen, takes advantage of the happy occasion offered to it, mounts the barricades, offers up several tens of thousands of victims, and saves the situation. The fascist danger passes. One pulls the chain tight again and puts the proletariat to work just as before. That is the plan. Ingenious, certainly, but the same trick succeeds only a limited number of times.

Seized with panic, then, the ministers sent a hurry call for Garcia Oliver (the anarchist leader) in order to have him put in charge of six military divisions and direct operations.

Q. But Garcia Oliver is not a military man!

I do not wish to recall to you the services which Oliver performed for the Spanish proletariat during those days of May, 1937, in Barcelona [1], but in any case he is above all an agitational orator. But he represented the CNT, in particular the FAI, and the ministers thought that summoning him would be to summon also the tens of thousands of militants of the CNT. But the Barcelona workers were demoralized. They remembered the days of May, 1937. To understand the tragedy of January 26, 1939, we must remember the tragedy of May 3-6, 1937. There is a logical connection between these two dates. By destroying the revolution, they lost the anti-fascist war.

The Stalinists provoked, organized the events of May 1937: that is to say, carried out the disarming of the proletariat, the destruction of its combat organizations, the assassination of its militants, etc. They instituted a regime of terror against the proletariat. All this was justified by the policy of the Popular Front: that is to say, “first to win the war,” and to do this by winning the support of France and England. We now see the result. They did not win the good graces of the bourgeoisie of France and England; but while waiting for it, they disgusted and demoralized the Spanish, especially the Catalan, proletariat. It was the most effective way to lose the war.

True, the Barcelona workers understood that Franco was the worst evil, and, in spite of the fact that their confidence in Negrin was extremely low, they wished for the defeat of the fascists and the victory of the republican armies; but they no longer had any active participation in the struggle. After May, 1937, they no longer felt themselves to be the masters. And, besides, they no longer were.

They told the workers many times a day that they were not fighting for their social emancipation (God save us from such Trotskyist ideas!) but merely for a return to the democratic republic – which had nourished the fascist insurrection. That hardly favored a spirit of sacrifice or enthusiasm for the war; on the contrary it was the source of indifference toward it.

Q. But why were not the rank-and-file workers, the revolutionary workers of Barcelona, able to understand the imminence of the danger? They knew what was waiting for them in the event of Franco’s victory: the ruin of all their hopes. We have so often insisted on the spontaneous character of the struggles of the Spanish and especially the Catalan proletariat, which is for the most part anarchist in tendency. Why did not the Barcelona workers act against the will of their leaders?

The “spontaneity” of the Catalan workers has, you see, limits, in spite of their impulsive temperament. They did everything to break their morale and their fighting spirit. They preached calm and patience to them, and confidence in the leaders of the Popular Front and in the government, and above all they lulled them with illusions about the intentions of the English and especially the French bourgeoisie. They kept saying to the workers:

“At the eleventh hour England and especially France will intervene and will not permit the German and Italian fascists to get a foothold on the Pyrenees, for we are fighting for the security of the democratic empires.”

The summit of wisdom from the penmen and orators of the Popular Front, in their papers and meetings, was to remind Chamberlain and Daladier of their imperialist duties ... which should have preserved the Spanish working class from fascism. These illusions, or rather these criminal deceptions, were above all propagated in particularly critical situations. At such times they exaggerated immeasurably the diplomatic tensions between the two “axes”, and portrayed the international situation as if war between the democratic powers and the fascist powers were on the point of breaking out, as if the British fleet and the French army were going to intervene from one moment to the next. What was most serious was that they worked with all their strength to shut the eyes of the proletariat, and they succeeded.

A few examples to illustrate the myopia of the “realistic” leaders of the Popular Front: Several weeks ago they said at Barcelona that hundreds of French airplanes and tanks had arrived. They said this in order to bolster morale! Another example: Just a few days ago, before the fall of Barcelona, a foreign comrade, who was a left anarchist in a rather important post, asking me to keep it secret (the usual way of spreading news), told me that several French divisions had crossed the Pyrenees and were coming to help us. He had heard from a member of the Regional or perhaps the National Committee that these divisions had crossed the frontier.

In the Middle Ages, ascetics and saints saw the blessed Virgin in mystic ecstasies, and sometimes even heard her voice. In order to do so, it is true, they mortified their flesh. The leaders of the Popular Front, without any mortifications or ecstasies, got their visions of French troops coming to their rescue.

Unfortunately, these criminal fables were listened to, and put the proletariat off guard. Lenin once said that truths, even harsh truths, must be told the proletariat in order to educate it; but, after all, was not he also a Trotskyist?

Q. Let us be more concrete. The communist party, in spite of its policy, must have known the danger that threatened it. It was a question of saving its own skin. What did it do for the defense of Barcelona?

It kept repeating, of course: “They shall not pass!” But it did everything possible to let them pass. Its central slogan, advanced with a fury and a spirit worthy of a better cause, was: “Everything through Negrin’s Government of Victory!” Through the government ... which was packing its bags, or rather having them packed. Consequently, all independent initiative, every attempt, however timid, to set up independent workers’ organizations which alone could have brought back confidence, was characterized as Trotskyist and fascist.

Frente Rojo, the organ of the communist party, published on Tuesday an appeal which was headed: “Everyone on the barricades! As on July 19th!” But the barricades remained in the columns of the paper. These heroes of the PSUC (Catalan section of the Third International) were capable of mounting the barricades only once. That was during the month of May, 1937, when they mounted them against the Barcelona workers, in order to chase the workers out of the Telephone building, the sacred property of American capitalism, and in order to help the bourgeois police machine-gun the workers.

It is true that if they succeeded, it was only because the CNT, or, more precisely, the leadership of the CNT, allowed them to.

Q. You mention the CNT. The Barcelona workers are anarchist in their decisive majority. We do not understand why they did not act or at least try to act to save Barcelona, They have produced heroes, like Durruti and Ascaso, who are the pride of the international proletariat. What did the CNT do in the tragic crisis?

The CNT is another story. True, Durruti, Ascaso, and thousands of anonymous heroes will, like the Paris Commune, be cherished forever in the heart of the proletariat; but as for the policy of these “anti-politicos”, “anti-Statists”, of the leadership of the CNT, that was grossly reformist, petty bourgeois and objectively criminal toward the proletariat and the revolution. It was of a kind to instruct the workers of the entire world (at this time of general ideological disorientation, when anarchist ideas can have a certain attraction for those who are disoriented) as to the value of the theory and especially of the practise of anarchism.

In the past, I mean in 1936 and 1937, these anti-Statists abolished and sometimes even burned money in the little villages of Aragon where they set up libertarian communism and the rule of love and freedom; but they never had the idea of laying a hand on the big banks. However, the Barcelona branch of the Bank of Spain was located directly across from the Regional Committee of the CNT and the anarchist general staff; but the anti-Statists walked on tiptoe before big finance. They believe it to be a mark of original sin to talk about a workers’ state or the formation and extension of workers’ committees; but, on the other side, while continuing to speak of anarchism, they labor with order and method at the task of reconstituting the bourgeois state. During the month of May, 1937, they turned the Barcelona workers over to the Stalinist-bourgeois counter-revolution. During June of that same year, the bourgeoisie, having no further need of them and feeling itself sufficiently strong, dismissed them from the government.

Nine months later, in May, 1938, at a moment of danger (the smashing of the Aragon front), the bourgeoisie offered them the decorative and unimportant post of Minister of Public Instruction in the second Negrin cabinet: and, with a not at all anarchist haste, they accepted. The bourgeoisie knows that it is dealing with domesticated and well-trained animals. As a consequence, the CNT and even the FAI covered up the entire policy of social reaction of the Negrin government. Negrin’s thirteen points (his program for the re-consolidation of the bourgeois republic), the counter-revolutionary decrees dissolving the proletarian organizations, were all covered up by the CNT and the FAI. Moreover, even the formal distinction between the frankly chauvinist and reformist language of the Stalinists and socialists and the verbally revolutionary language of the CNT disappeared during 1938. The press was “coordinated”. Solidandad Obrera, central organ of the CNT, pictured the conflict between British and German finance-capital as an ideological conflict between democracy and dictatorship; it daily praised Yankee imperialism, and Roosevelt as the apostle of peace; and naturally explained that the security of the empires required intervention in Spain, and gave lessons in patriotism to Chamberlain and Daladier.

For several months the regional committee of the CNT was disoriented and did not know what slogan to adopt. It finally found out in November.

Q. What was it?

Here it is: A councillor’s post in the Catalonian Generality must be given to the CNT. Honesty, justice and above all idealism toward the noble men carrying on constant battle against the dirty manoeuvres of politicians demanded satisfaction for the crying injustice committed after May, 1937, when the representatives of the CNT were thrown out of the Catalonian Generality. Besides, the regional committee demanded a ministerial post, we read in Solidaridad, not for the low motives which characterize politicians – for example, to achieve a political aim or perhaps simply to enjoy a portfolio – but for altogether ideal reasons ...

As for me, vulgar materialist that I am, I do not altogether overlook the practical interest attached to the post of councillor to the Generality. It opens up certain pleasing perspectives, but as a slogan for a situation rather more than serious it is a bit thin.

In spite of the demoralizing effect of the policy of Negrin-Comorera, there would have been, even two weeks ago, several thousand workers at Barcelona ready once more to mount the barricades and to die, if need be, for the revolution. They were ready to join the regiments of the Libertarian Youth, but they had no confidence in the republican commanders who, whenever they got a chance, went over to the enemy. The appeals of the official bodies were not listened to. In the factories, for example, numerous measures of coercion were necessary to pull fake specialists into the army (technical specialists, needed in the factories, were exempt from military service).

A single illustration: The National Committee of the Libertarian Youth, which was affiliated with the National Committee of the CNT, observing that the youth affiliated with the Libertarian Youth were slow to enlist in the official regiments, published a very characteristic communication. In this, the National Committee assured its young members that they need have no fear to enlist in the governments regiments of mixed volunteers because the National Committee had a representative in the organization committee of the regiments! This “assurance” did not convince the youth, who were waiting in vain for a voice that would inspire them with confidence.

In brief, the CNT left its adherents at the final hour without slogans and without a plan of action.

PARIS, Mar. 1939



1. Through his speech on May 4, 1937, which ended with the appeal, “Cease firing!”, the anarchist Minister of Justice, Garcia Oliver, delivered the CNT militants up to massacre by the Stalinists. The workers of Barcelona remember this speech clearly.

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