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The New International, May 1943

Miriam Gould

Lessons of the Spanish Commune

On the Anniversary of the Barcelona Uprising


From The New International, Vol. IX No. 5, May 1943, pp. 137–139.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


On the Monday afternoon of May 3, 1937, Barcelona, Spain, witnessed one more heroic attempt of the European working class to take the future into its own hands. On that day was repeated the tremendous effort of July, 1936, when the Spanish workers first declared their complete independence of the old ruling class plans for their future. Had they succeeded, the whole course of human history might have taken a different turn.

In these “May Days,” the same forces that brought the entire European labor movement to its recent defeats – that is, the People’s Fronters, the socialist-reformists, the Stalinists and trade union fakers – dashed in open and violent conflict with the aroused and determined revolutionary workers of Catalonia. To understand the full significance of these events, we must go back a few months to the beginning of the Spanish civil war.

In the months preceding the attempted fascist coup of July 19, 1936, the Spanish workers had shown their class maturity again and again. Mass actions, abortive insurrections and land seizures had mirrored for all who wished to see, their readiness for a drastic social change. But the anarchist and socialist mass organizations did not want to see. The misleaders of the labor movement were incapable of directing an aggressive fight in the face of the blows that the rapidly deteriorating Spanish economy was dealing the workers. While the vanguard of the labor movement dissipated its energy in sporadic actions, the political initiative was left to the monarchist and fascist generals who openly planned and staged the military revolt of July 19.

The republican government, vainly trying to stay on the fence between the aroused working class and the determined fascists, awoke one morning to find itself completely stripped of its army and police force. Those sections of the armed forces which had not gone over to the fascists, had joined the ranks of the revolutionaries. The epic of that July in Catalonia has been told many times – how the rank and file workers left their factories to seek arms (which were denied them by the People’s Front government of liberals and pink-tea socialists); how they surrounded the barracks and disarmed, or conquered, the revolting fascist army.

The Initiative of the Spanish Workers

What has not been so well understood is the relation between the republic of 1931, the armed Spanish masses, and their betrayers in the weeks following the rout of the fascists.

The revolt was put down by the revolutionary workers in the big cities and industrial centers of Spain. The fighting spread across the Peninsula in a contest between the hastily formed workers’ columns and the few remaining army divisions, to cross the country areas and reach the distant centers where the working class was, with difficulty, still holding out – Seville, Granada, Toledo, Saragossa, etc.

In order to stop the fascists, the organized workers – the only force which was offering them any resistance – took over every major industry in Spain within a few days of the revolt: transport, communications, steel, coal, metallurgy, etc., and, to all practical purposes, socialized distribution. On July 20, rank and file committees in politically and industrially advanced Catalonia were proclaiming the social revolution and calling for the organization of a new social system.

So tremendous was the impetus of the revolutionary movement launched by the Spanish workers in answer to the fascist attack, that their official chiefs – of the Socialist Party and the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) – were pulled along in tow for almost two months, unable to stem the tide. All the leadership these gentlemen gave in those first few days was contained in an order to declare a general strike in those cities where the fascist revolt was successful!

On their own hook, the third and fourth-string leaders of the anarchist trade unions (CNT) and the socialist unions (UGT) went ahead to organize militias and confiscate factories. But the moment soon arrived when centralized, coordinated leadership – in the true sense – was needed. Overall plans for waging the war and reorganizing the economy to meet its demands were required, as Franco’s general staff found its stride and began to coordinate its activities on the newly formed “fronts”: Madrid, Aragon, and the southern front.

It was at this juncture, in September 1936, that the Spanish working class fell victim to the tragic weakness of labor in our era: all their heroism could not substitute for the lack of a resolute, revolutionary, class leadership. Their old chiefs returned to the scene then, with all their plans for waging the war – plans that were inseparably linked with those of the British Foreign Office, and directed against the true interests of the laboring masses.

The plan of the socialist, Prieto, was to mortgage the future of the Spanish workers to Britain, in return for a negotiated peace. UGT leader Caballero’s plan was to outwit Prieto by building on the support of the USSR, whose ambassador, Rosenberg, visited him almost daily with “advice.” The plan of the anarcho-syndicalists was to fool Caballero and Prieto, Britain and Russia, into building up a powerful worker-owned economic unit in Catalonia which they, as union bureaucrats, would administer. They would fool them by entering the People’s Front government and making whatever political concessions were asked of them – since every good anarchist knows that in the last analysis it is the economy which determines everything!

The CNT bureaucrats took Durruti’s slogan as their own: “Surrender everything but the victory.” And they embarked in fact on a program of surrendering every economic and social gain the masses had won – and were still in the process of organizing – in the fall and winter of 1936. None of the social and economic changes of the revolution were ever legalized by that People’s Front government.

As early as November 1936, the rank and file, both socialist and anarchist, began to see the fallacy of this program. So far had the bankruptcy of capitalism progressed in Spain, that almost every worker in a shop knew himself, through his own experience with the revolting army and the disorganized economy, that the old politicians (”Management,” as such, was practically extinct on Spanish soil) couldn’t organize anything, least of all the successful prosecution of a complicated modern war.

Sharp Conflicts with the Betrayers

The Catalans, the Valencianos and the Madrilenos had indeed put their hand to the wheel of guiding their own destinies, and did not propose that their worker-controlled economy or army should be returned to the discredited republican politicians, who planned openly to ask Britain for vast “reconstruction” loans. The tremendous awakening that swept through the Spanish fields and factories brought in its wake hundreds of local, regional and provincial papers and radios through which the local industrial unions and party branches declared their intentions. Here there were many who left records of their thoughts: they saw plainly that their leaders were taking them back into the old paths again; that their fight was being subordinated to the aims and politics of the old imperialists, who had always decided the fate of the world by means of their own private wars, so destructive to the masses.

Some groups of workers saw farther than others. But by May 1937, after ten months of unsuccessful warfare, a deep unrest was stirring the whole population of anti-fascist Spain. They saw that their break with the old system and its plans for the future of Spain was being bridged over by the reformist People’s Front government, in as many ways as it could devise. Alvarez del Vayo, the socialist foreign Minister, pleaded with Britain to accept responsibility for the future of Spain. In fact, on February 9, 1937, the government even offered Spanish Morocco to the “democratic powers,” if only they would intervene.

The masses saw all this; but the thing they understood best was the government’s repeated efforts to disarm them. Downing Street insisted on this “restoration of internal order” because it knew that as long as the Spanish unionists were armed and controlled the policing of Spain, they would never surrender the foreign-owned industries they had seized. The workers knew exactly the same thing; to them, their rifles and few machine guns were the symbol and the guarantee of their power. When Prieto said, his eye on London: “This war will be won on the home front”; and when Galarza, the socialist minister, actually launched the war on the home front to disarm the masses, Pueblo Libre (Free People) of Levante said: “They need rifles at the home front? Let them send up the 15,000 held by the republican police, and their machine guns and artillery along with them.” (March 13, 1937)

These sentiments were echoed by the unionists of Castille, Andalusia and Levante, as the “second front” offensive reached their villages – led by the Stalinists, ever zealous to show England how trustworthy and non-revolutionary they were. In February and March 1937 the deaths and imprisonments in these regions totalled many hundreds as the anti-working class forces advanced. In Catalonia, where the reaction had less of a foothold, the riots only began in April, and there were not so many workers killed because the revolutionaries so outnumbered their opponents.

So it was that in May 1937 the whole movement of the Spanish revolution was heading toward a climax, and with it the fate of the European labor movement. Was it possible for the heroic Catalan proletariat to finish the socialist revolution it started in July? It was a situation where the success or failure of the elemental and gigantic mass reaction that was shaking the political scene depended on the existence of an organized party that could give conscious expression and direction to the feelings and needs of the workers.

The Stalinist Counter-Revolution

There were tardy fumblings in the direction of such a party. There were regroupments going on within every labor organization, due to the impact, at the base, of the last months of “official” retreat. The big industrial federations of the UGT were forcing Caballero to a split with the Stalinists. In the libertarian movement, several left-wing groups were in opposition to the leadership; in the northern part of Catalonia, many local governments had signed mutual aid pacts to remain armed, in readiness for the Stalinist-bourgeois attack; in Bajo Llobregat, an industrial area near Barcelona, Ideas was openly calling for a second revolution to complete the first; the Friends of Durruti, a fast-growing group in the FAI, demanded the constitution of a revolutionary committee; in the POUM, a strong left wing threatened to wrest control from the old leadership.

The ranks were slowly educating their “leaders,” so-called, and pushing some of them to the left. But not fast enough to make up for the months lost in retreat – months that the British had used to win over big sections of the union and party machines to their policies; months when able Stalinist propaganda had recruited sizeable groups of policemen, small merchants, government officials and army officers into their party.

The lead in resolving the tense situation was taken by the Stalinists. They were determined to gain control of the country’s political life, and gained in this project the scarcely veiled support of the republicans and right-wing socialists. Their plans, laid out by the Kremlin, revolved around that favorite stratagem of the police mind: provocation.

The GPU confected a plot in Brussels to provoke the Catalan workers into armed revolt against the “legitimate government,” in which their “own leaders were holding posts.” This revolt was then to serve as the pretext for a total disarming and repression of all independent organs of class action. It was hoped that this would finally “sell” England on supporting Spanish anti-fascism – of the non-revolutionary variety.

The provocation itself was simple enough. Groups of Stalinists assaulted and disarmed or assassinated revolutionary militants for several weeks leading up to May 3, when they systematically began to occupy key buildings: the telephone exchanges in Barcelona and Tarragona, the anarchist headquarters elsewhere. The workers rose to the provocation, despite the repeated appeals of their leaders to remain “serene and calm.” They saw what was behind the provocation – namely, the determination of the last defenders of the old ruling class to disarm and chain the workers once again to the worn-out system. On May 3, factory whistles of the collectivized plants in Barcelona signaled a general strike. The workers took to the streets and surrounded every police headquarters, government and Stalinist building with barricades. The district defense committees wanted to clean up their own parts of town and then concentrate on the official buildings in the center. Barcelona was surrounded by a “Red Ring” of armed workers’ power.

In the rest of Catalonia, the issue had already come to a head and many of the towns were already in the power of joint POUM-CNT committees. On the Aragon front, where thousands of soldiers had been immobilized for months, columns were prepared to return to the rear and “clean it up.”

The Valencia government was withdrawing troops from the front to send to Barcelona. From towns along the route of the troops came calls to the anarchist headquarters – should the union conductors bring the trains in? Should the village defense committees let them pass?

The whole tragedy of the Spanish revolution was given its most graphic expression in that week. History presented Europe with its last chance to change the nature of the coming war. The power was again in the streets; the armed Spanish workers were prepared to defend their independent revolutionary actions and carry them further.

But the official “labor” leadership was much farther to the right than it had been in July. The Barcelona CNT-FAI committees, under the tremendous pressure of the masses, wavered and stumbled toward a seizure of power. CNT ministers Garcia Oliver and Federica Momseny flew in by special plane from Valencia to reiterate over the radio the command: “Alto fuego!” (“Stop firing!”) The FAI refused to allow its defense committee to call a mobilization for the center of the city.

The moment was lost. The careful preparatory work of building a revolutionary party had been lacking. The recent regroupings were isolated, disorganized and unclear as to what they wanted to do. The courageous and militant Barcelona working class lost 500 killed and 1,500 wounded in its unsuccessful attempt to regain the road of socialist revolution.

With the defeat began a white terror in all anti-fascist Spain, directed by the GPU, toward the extermination of the most militant leaders. A few weeks after this silencing of working class objections, Negrin’s “Government of Victory” was formed, which followed the directives of the Foreign Office and led Spain to slaughter on the altar of appeasement. The same People’s Fronters, reformists and Stalinists led the French workers to defeat, discouragement and the debacle of 1940.

The European working class is paying dearly for the betrayals of the revolutionary movement in Spain. They and we must learn the lessons of the heroic stand of the Catalan workers, which will go down in history as a Second Commune. This time it held out for ten long months and showed us again that only a party that remains absolutely true to the watchword of independent political action of the working class can lead the masses to a final victory over their oppressors.

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Last updated on 26 May 2015