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The New International, April 1944

Miriam Gould

Spain, 1936 – A Study in Soviets

An Analysis of a Civil War and Revolution


From The New International, Vol. X No. 4, April 1944, pp. 109–113.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Today the eyes of all revolutionary internationalists are turned toward the coming European revolution. In order to help us understand and anticipate more dearly the events that are looming up before us, I propose to look backward into the history of the little known chapter of the struggle for socialism, the Iberian revolution of July, 1936. We have studied again and again the Russian Revolution of October 1917 as the classic example of the seizure of power by a proletarian vanguard party. We cannot learn all of the same lessons from Spain, but we can get a further insight into the potentialities of the soviet, or committee, form of state power, as well as a better understanding of the changed objective circumstances which made the Iberian revolution of 1936 from the first, more profound and intense than the Russian in all that related to mass economic and political activity.

In many respects there were very close parallels between the proletarian revolutions of 1917 and 1936. Spain and Russia were both gripped by profound economic crises rooted in their semi-feudal land systems. Both were agricultural economies based on a poverty-stricken peasantry. Capitalism had made little headway in Spain because of its inability to compete with the great industrial nations which had got into the field ahead of it; and because of the restricted internal market open to it. Spanish industry struggled along by supplementing the economies of the major powers. The Basque country produced steel and iron, the Asturias coal, and Catalonia textiles (300,000 textile workers were concentrated in that one province). Catalonia also had some light metallurgical and consumption-goods industry.

Neither in Spain nor Russia had the capitalists been able to wrest control of the state from the hands of the feudal aristocracy, linked as it was with the banking interests (native and foreign) who financed the agricultural holdings and operations. Hence industry suffered a continual hamstringing of its activities: no tariff protection, heavy taxes, lack of facilities, such as roads, power, etc. All these difficulties only worsened the condition of the proletariat, already underpaid because of their capitalism’s unfavorable position on the world market (fifteen dollars a week was the wage of a skilled auto worker in Barcelona in 1936).

In Russia the situation was brought to a climax by World War I; in Spain, by the 1929 depression. These weak, semi-feudal economies could not stand any additional stress. The starving, long-suffering peasants stirred into action and peasant revolts began, supported by strikes of the city workers. They led to the overthrow of the Czar in February 1917 and the abdication of King Alfonso in 1931. So began two social revolutions. Here the similarity stops.

* * *

The organizational history of the class struggle in these two countries was vastly different. In Russia there was a socialist vanguard party oriented toward the establishment of a workers’ state. After the initial anti-monarchist revolt that started the revolution, the Bolsheviks were able, thanks to the genius of Lenin, to take full advantage of subsequent political developments. They won the support of the masses of workers and peasants, and removed state power from the shaky hands of the liberals and capitalists. This the Communist Party did in the eight months between February and October, 1917. There was no such party in Spain, and events took an entirely different turn, the most obvious feature of which was a lapse of five years before proletarian revolution succeeded bourgeois revolution.

The Indispensable Missing Factor

The great weakness of the Iberian proletariat was its lack of a true Marxist party, and its division into two mass union organizations (the reformist socialists and the anarchists), neither of which wanted to fight for workers’ power. The socialists controlled the UGT (General Workers Union) and the anarchists the CNT (National Confederation of Workers). The UGT practiced business unionism, collaboration with all the governmental agencies, etc., while the CNT was anarcho-syndicalist, always calling general strikes (with no strike benefits), minor insurrections, putsches and the like in anticipation of the general strike that was to inaugurate The Revolution. All of the proletariat was enrolled in one or the other of these organizations. Then- numerical relation to one another (each had about one and a half million members) did not change appreciably between 1931 and 1936. Neither recruited from the other, nor did any third, Bolshevik, party appear to crystallize the discontent that existed within both of them. The long static period of labor politics is in strong contrast to the regroupings, splits, individual and mass defections from the reformist parties that Lenin fomented in the short interval between February and October.

The split in the labor movement, plus the lack of a revolutionary party, was responsible for the five years of indecisive class conflicts between 1931 and 1936, years in which the working class saw demonstrated again and again the inability of its leaders to mobilize its strength and strike a definitive blow for freedom. The peasants became disillusioned in the republic in this interval because it failed completely to improve their miserable situation. It did not divide the big estates among the peasants, nor did it give them easy access to that much coveted land as renters.

Agrarian resentment found expression in the victory of the Catholic-led reactionaries, the CEDA, in the 1933 elections. A tremendous leftward movement of the working class in defense of its economic organizations met this right-wing political victory. The strike wave of 1934 reached its climax in the Asturian revolt of October, when the miners of the North created active united front groups, seized all the power in their region, and commenced an attack on Oviedo, the capital of the province. Their Commune held out for fifteen days, and then was subdued by Moroccan troops and foreign legionnaires: neither the CNT nor the UGT came to its support. The UGT came out on a “peaceful general strike,” but that was insufficient to keep the police and military detachments out of the Asturias. Indeed, only a well planned armed insurrection could have saved the first Spanish Commune. The CNT boycotted even the mild efforts of the socialists to support the Asturians.

The most important feature about the Asturian Commune was this, that once the masses overcame their division, they made an immediate bid for power, and simultaneously commenced a socialist economic transformation. October was a dress rehearsal for July. In the interval between the fall of 1934 and the summer of 1936 there were still no significant shifts of influence within the labor movement, although there was a certain disgust among the Catalan vanguard toward the CNT for its ignominious role in the 1934 events. The few so-called Trotskyists on the scene were unable to make their ideas felt. (Most of the Fourth Internationalists, Nin, Andrade, Molins, entered the Maurin-led POUM, or Workers Party of Marxist Unity, which waged ineffective politics against the anarchist-controlled CNT. Another handful went into the SP and was not heard from again.)

However, despite their traditional organizational weakness, the revolutionary Iberian people continued to press for an improvement of their economic conditions. The fierce economic struggles forced the landowners and bankers into action, and the fascist revolt of Generals Franco, Sanjuro et al. was prepared. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that this counter-revolutionary offensive of the owning class was possible only because of the complete lack of revolutionary political leadership in the proletarian camp, a failure which kept the powerful movements of the masses limited to purely economic actions which had no future unless they were generalized into political action. In this case it was only too clear that Spanish politics was concentrated economics.

A Spontaneous Revolution [1]

The fascist counter-revolution was the blow that fused the divided Spanish proletariat into one revolutionary anti-fascist mass, which rose spontaneously in insurrection to prevent the success of the military coup. The Iberian proletariat showed, as has been shown before in other countries, that it was capable of basic, decisive political action without the leadership of a vanguard party. The workers’ reaction to the open fascist attack had two important characteristics. First, their action was universal throughout the peninsula, and was everywhere identical in form: in all the principal cities, two days before the revolt was scheduled to come off, a general strike was declared, the workers took to the streets and armed themselves. This happened in Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, Oviedo, Seville, Lerida, Gerona, Cartagena, as well as in hundreds of smaller towns and villages. Secondly, and equally important, in so doing the masses acted independently of, and in most cases against the will of their official leadership.

Both the UGT and CNT leaders opposed the masses coming into the streets to demonstrate – much less to rise in insurrection. In spite of the open secret of the rebellion scheduled for Sunday, July 19, the Madrid UGT – far from taking the logical step of calling a political general strike – tried to stop even the legitimate economic strike of the construction workers because of the troubled situation! Claridad (the official UGT daily paper) urged them not to respect the CNT picket lines, and to be sure to report for work on Monday, the 20th. On Saturday night, when the fascists had already seized power in Spanish Morocco, the Social-Democratic and Communist Parties called on the workers to strike only where the fascists were already in power! Where they had not yet succeeded, the people were to leave all to the government – the same which had let the fascists arm and rise! What a monumental betrayal of their role as leaders of the proletariat! The strategy of the social-democratic leaders was a sure guarantee of defeat.

The July events had proved conclusively that there was only one virile class in Spain that could organize the anti-fascist war: the proletariat. And their method was that of uprooting fascism completely by overthrowing the system that breeds it. This the Spanish social-democrats could not tolerate for an instant, and fought relentlessly until the final victory of Franco.

The anarchists were not much better. In Barcelona, the workers started to arm on Friday. Saturday the left republican government of Catalonia [2] called out the Civil Guards (national strike-breaking police) to disarm the unionists and raid their headquarters for arms. The top anarchist leaders, including Durruti, Garcia Oliver, Ascaso, de Santillan, urged their members to surrender their arms peaceably to the police, since they considered a successful anti-fascist action impossible without the support of the bourgeois state, and the latter still denied the existence of the revolt. The thousands of CNT workers gathered outside their union hall refused to give up their precious guns and only a few hours later were using them in desperate battle against the fascist troops which had occupied the main buildings of the town.

Since the treachery and incompetence of the leaders of the mass labor organizations prevented an organized defense against the fascists, what was the nature of the popular action that stopped them? And who led it?

* * *

The very nature of the fascist plans (which were broadcast through working-class neighborhoods by the telegraph and telephone workers) determined the first steps the people took. In every province the military governor was to march on the main cities, occupy the telephone exchanges, railway stations, public buildings and other strategic spots. When this news leaked out Friday, a general strike was declared by the local industrial, or peasant, unions. In the small towns and villages of Catalonia, Levant, Asturias, the Center and the South, anti-fascist committees were organized by the local unions and party branches. In many respects the small-scale actions in the rural areas were better organized than the mass action in the capitals, although the latter was in every sense of the word decisive. The local Revolutionary Committee (sometimes called the Popular Committee, or the Militia Committee, the Executive Committee, or just el comite) planned how to surround the town barracks and persuade the soldiers to come over to its side; it planned the blowing up of local bridges and highways if necessary; it arrested local fascists and occupied the strategic buildings in the vicinity. This pattern was universal in the smaller towns, where the Sunday revolt just failed to come off.

Proletarian Initiative

In the cities the apparatus of the big labor organizations concentrated there prevented such complete and centralized preparations for meeting the rebellion. Here the initiative was taken by local industrial unions, factory committees, socialist or POUM party branches, and the FAI [3] district defense committees of the proletarian neighborhoods. Decisive battles were fought in Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, Seville, Toledo and a few other cities. In Valencia and some other Southern towns, the fascists held back, waiting to see the outcome elsewhere. Barcelona, in whose vicinity was concentrated forty per cent of Spain’s proletariat, was the Petrograd of the Iberian revolution. Madrid, the capital of the country, was the other decisive city.

This article is not an account of the development of the Spanish civil war; here we want only to examine the nature and actions of the proletarian organs that launched the war by means of a social revolution. Suffice it to say that the spontaneous rank and file actions of the first weeks cleared two-thirds of the Peninsula of fascists, and brought three-quarters of the population into the scope of their activities.

The Russian dual power of February–October 1917 was also launched by the appearance of popular democratic organs, the Soviets, whose historic role was identical with that of the Spanish committees. Both were the organs of power of the rising proletarian revolution. And, naturally, the fundamental differences in the character of the organized class struggle of the two countries found expression in these most democratic of all political forms.

The existence in Russia of a party consciously oriented toward a working-class seizure of power forced on the Soviets continued discussion of basic political problems. It sharpened and clarified the positions of all the participating labor groups. The political agitation of the Bolsheviks, both in and out of the Soviets, against their anti-working class majority, made the masses conscious of the role the new power could and should play; and kept continually before the people the problem of state power. The Bolsheviks were always pushing the Soviets to the left.

(Some of the concrete actions that Lenin urged on the Soviets are listed here as a yardstick for comparison with the accomplishments of the Spanish committees: workers’ control of industry to stop the economic sabotage of the capitalists; unification and either state control or nationalization of the banks; abolition of commercial secrets; distribution of land to the peasants; regulation of consumption to equalize the war burden, by means of revolutionary democratic methods, such as compulsory organization into consumers’ societies, labor duty for the rich, equal distribution of all consumption goods, popular supply committees of the poor to control the consumption of the rich, etc. These measures were not carried out in Russia until after the Bolshevik-controlled Soviets seized state power.)

In Spain, where there was no such vanguard party, the development of the workers’ committee, after they inaugurated dual power, was altogether different. Instead of becoming national policy-making and administrative bodies, they remained local united fronts of action. After September, they were not recognized by any of the working class parties. The very fact of their continued existence, after the numerous orders for their dissolution issued by their official leaders, was an accomplishment. The committees lived on because they were the only organizations on the scene with an intention of carrying out the extremely revolutionary will of the Spanish anti-fascists. They concentrated on resolving local economic and political problems and left untouched the ultimately decisive national problems of getting a coordinated state power, a unified army and carrying through a general planned economic and financial reorganization, beginning with the banks.

The local, factory and neighborhood committees carried out on their own initiative economic and political reforms more drastic than those Lenin advocated in Russia. But because their revolution lacked just that planned approach to the basic problems that the Bolsheviks had supplied, the committees proved unable to consolidate their superior gains by the creation of a powerful workers’ state to protect them. With this all-important weakness in mind, let us examine some of the things the committees did accomplish to see how far along the road to workers’ power the spontaneous acts of a mid-twentieth century proletariat could take them.

Economic Power

A few days after July 19 the local unions, municipal committees and factory committees began confiscating public services, hotels, apartments and office buildings, the transportation system, and all the principal industries. (Immediately prior to the rebellion they had begun seizing cars, food, guns, etc.) On July 30 the Barcelona Local Committee of the CNT had issued its famous order: “All denunciations from workers whose capitalists refuse to open their factories or other places of production should be presented to this federation, so that it can proceed to confiscation with precise legal formalities.” Of course the legality of the confiscations actually depended on who won the dual power struggle, i.e., who got control of the state power. But that supremely important political question was universally ignored at the time. The expropriations continued in increasing numbers until September. By that time all of anti-fascist Spain’s industry, commerce and agriculture had passed into the hands of committees of some variety. (Except for the Basque regions, where a powerful workers’ control existed, a few small businesses and private land-holdings in Catalonia and Levant.)

In Russia the course of the economic revolution was vastly different. The private capitalists retained a large measure of control over their plants during the February-October period. They were able to lock out workers, disrupt the economy and exert political pressure by many other tricks. Only after the Bolsheviks seized state power and ended the dual power were heavy industry, transportation and the banking system nationalized.

Most of Spain’s small capitalist class fled to France on the eve of the rising, as did the fascist land-owners. The petty industrialists who remained either assumed managerial posts in the confiscated industries or lost all contact with them and lived off their personal bank accounts, which, along with the banking system as a whole, were left untouched. Needless to say, the lack of a central plan for expropriating and reorganizing the economy led to a great variety of forms of “workers’ ownership,” which was what the workers confidently thought they were insuring; There was a sad lack of that “flood of decrees” with which Lenin was accused of deluging Russia in 1917: those same decrees would have instantly taken on a concrete socialist reality had they been promulgated from Barcelona or Madrid that summer of 1936.

The Spanish revolutionists were spared some of the trials that harassed the Russians. At least they had no struggle against individual capitalist and technical sabotage after the July revolt. The capitalists were gone, and the workers’ control, re-enforced by the proletariat in arms, was too powerful for the technicians to trifle with. But the Spanish workers’ power met sabotage from the state apparatus in Madrid: a sabotage that was exercized in the realm of national and international finance and trade. The workers had the individual factories, and even industries, firmly under control: their problems were posed at the initial stages of the dual power on a more advanced historical level than in Russia. Their main enemy, in the absence of the individual capitalists, was the state itself; nor did this make the straggle any easier – a point to be borne in mind by those who point to the “abdication” of the French capitalists as facilitating the coming European revolution.

The universal and spontaneous expropriation of Spain’s social wealth by the very bottom strata of society was not limited to Catalonia, as is commonly and mistakenly supposed. All the major industries, including those dominated by the reformist UGT, were collectivized and put under workers’ control. Outside of Catalonia, the railroads, metallurgical industry, construction, public services, maritime transport, mines and, moat important of all, the land – all were expropriated by the toilers. Whether this property remained expropriated was a political question, but the masses had done all that could be asked of them.

Here again, in the question of the land, the basic economic problems were posed more sharply than in Russia: the further decay of capitalism in the nineteen years since 1917 had advanced popular consciousness of what is necessary to insure adequate production for all. It is significant that collective farming was the common form of organization of the expropriated land in Spain especially when we remember the long struggle of the Russian bolsheviks against the ever-present problem of the kulaks and the tragedy of the forced collectivization finally put through by Stalin. One reason for the immediate collectivization of the land in Spain was the experience of the landless share-croppers and agricultural day laborers as members of the UGT and CNT peasant unions. Another was the long Spanish tradition of village and communal cooperation. Still another was the improvement in transportation which enabled the proletarian revolutionists from the cities to penetrate all the agricultural regions with propaganda for collectivization.

Along with the mass expropriation of the means of production came the growth of a system of supply committees, which organized distribution on an equalitarian basis. The strong desire of the people to impose a labor duty on the rich became one of the main points of contention between the rank and file committees and the top labor leaders, who managed to prevent it. As was the case with all the other popular organisms cast up by the people, the supply and distribution committees were a spontaneous growth, and a surprise to the “official” labor leaders.

Political Power

Inevitably, since the masses who carried out this social revolution were members of already existing labor organizations, the leaders of these organizations intervened in the revolution with disastrous results. That story we leave for another time. Here we limit ourselves to a brief record of what the workers were able to accomplish in spite of their misleaders. We will only sketch the main line of socialist and anarchist official policy because it is indispensable for an understanding of the subsequent political activities of the committees.

After their members disobeyed their orders by conducting a general strike, an armed insurrection, and finally a completely unauthorized expropriation of the expropriators, the labor leaders caught their breath and tried to regain control of the situation under the guise of centralizing and coordinating nationally what the masses had done on a regional and local scale. Once again it was a case of elemental mass actions that left the self-styled “revolutionary leaders” far behind. Even the most radical party in Spain, the POUM, did not keep up with the proletariat. It was calling for economic concessions from the Generality while the workers were confiscating the factories and establishing dual power. It should have been raising slogans of “All Power to the Committees.”

For the aroused masses, arms in hand, had not stopped with the factory seizures: they took political steps to consolidate their control by erecting a powerful dual-power apparatus throughout the length and breadth of the land. They acted without knowing it on Lenin’s dictum: Without workers’ power there can be no workers’ control. The revolutionary anti-fascist committees assumed full power in Catalonia and some degree of power in all the rest of anti-fascist Spain’s towns and villages.

Political Acts by Worker

The anti-fascist committees set up sub-committees of investigation and control, i.e., workers’ police. Reliable militants from all groups worked together in these police corps, which resembled the Bolshevik Red Guard. Again with this difference: their control from the beginning of the dual power was more complete and unchallenged than in Russia. There were no instances of bourgeois or middle class crowds jeering or even assembling against the will of the Spanish workers’ police. Just the opposite: these respectable elements in Spain tried to pass themselves off as anarchists, to buy or steal union cards off their domestic servants. They quit wearing ties, hats and their good suits in frantic efforts to pass through the vigilant street and building patrols of the proletariat.

Other political acts of the workers’ power organs included seizure of the government buildings, barracks, railroad stations, post offices, customs, etc. They met no opposition, once the “so-called militarists” (as they contemptuously termed the fascists) were overcome. And who would dare oppose the victorious anti-fascists, who alone had put down the rebellion in most of Spain? In this respect they got off to a better psychological start in their relations with the middle class than did the Bolsheviks, who seized power after a relatively peaceful internal political struggle, marked only by the weak counter-revolutionary attempt of Kornilov.

The revolutionary rank and file authors of the fascist defeat followed their victory by an immediate clean-up of all military and reactionary circles. Popular tribunals of trade union militants administered swift justice to all known fascist and anti-labor elements. This revolutionary terror of the first weeks was not controlled – or desired – by the labor leadership.

The main function of these armed dual-power organs was to protect the economic conquests of the workers. But once the fascists were gone and the revolution greeted enthusiastically by all, the. armed workers were not at all sure whom they had to protect it against. A Lenin or a Trotsky could have told them: against the state, that final repository of capitalist power, and against their own treacherous leadership. How incessantly Lenin put before the Russian masses the questions, Where is the power? and Where is the counter-revolution? Later on in the course of the dual power’s development, the local committees began to realize where the counter-revolution lay, even though every political party on the scene tried to keep the knowledge from them.

From this brief description we can summarize the spontaneous revolution of July 1936 thus: led by united fronts of local segments of the union and political organizations, following a period of mounting class tension and struggle, the Spanish proletariat rose in armed insurrection, against the orders of their top leadership, to meet the counter-revolutionary fascist blow. These united fronts organized themselves as anti-fascist or revolutionary committees, and in the act of putting down the revolt began the long-thwarted social revolution the people so ardently desired. During and immediately alter the anti-fascist insurrection they expropriated all Spain’s industry, and in the subsequent months (August, September, October) by intensifying and consolidating their economic and political power, the dispersed committees laid the groundwork for a democratic, mass-administered workers’ state power throughout Spain.

Here was a classic example of how far the proletarian can go toward achieving its own emancipation. The trends implicit in other unsuccessful proletarian revolutions were given their fullest expression in Spain, and the result was a series of necessary but not sufficient steps toward securing workers’ power. The masses showed that they had grasped the general historic truths of their epoch, and of their national situation. They understood the inability of Spain’s bankrupt economy to support them; they realized that the dangerous and definitive nature of Franco’s counter-revolution was not to be trifled with (as their leaders were doing); and they saw the urgent necessity of united revolutionary action. But they could not achieve, untaught, the creation of a Bolshevik party.

Not only does this example of an unled, spontaneous and unsuccessful social revolution show us the limits of what may be expected from spontaneous efforts of the workers: it also defines for us once again the role of the Marxian vanguard party. As the dual power developed in Spain the tasks of the party stood out dearly. The local factory and revolutionary committees lacked that overall grasp of the internal and international political situation that only Marxist theory could supply. And they were completely disoriented about the role of their own leadership – although eventually, even without a party, they caught on to this. What was needed was a nationwide organization to bring together all the local political and economic initiatives according to a central plan for waging the civil war and developing the revolutionary economy. This very plan would have been the best agitational weapon available against the anarchist, social-democratic and Stalinist misleaders.

(To be continued)


1. I have purposely used the much-debated term “spontaneous” because I feel that Spain is a true example of what it means. I would be interested to hear from any dissenters what the term does mean, if not what is described herein.

2. The Generalidad of Catalonia was the pseudo-autonomous government allowed Catalonia by the Madrid government as a gesture to satisfy their nationalist aspirations. It had no police power prior to July 19 and little power to tax. It concentrated on administering libraries, museums and the like.

3. The FAI – the Anarchist Federation of Iberia – operated as a secret faction in the CNT, but did not completely control the latter’s leading committees.

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