This book has been brought together to right an historic wrong: not the wrong of the betrayal and sabotage done to the Spanish working people, for that can only be righted by their assuming sovereign power, but the wrong kept alive by two generations of liberal and Communist historians – let us call them the Left Establishment – in misrepresenting the cause for which they fought, and the reasons for their defeat.

Not much of the myth of ‘democracy versus Fascism’ about the Spanish Civil War remains on the European mainland, where the facts are too well known for it to be entertained by serious enquirers any more. But the British deep-rooted empiricist distaste for going into serious political questions, and the romantic mythology never absent from fashionable causes in Britain, have combined to confine historical comment in these islands to a superficial level. Two books, it is true, one old (Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia) and one newer (Bolloten’s The Spanish Revolution) stand out like beacons in the English speaking world, and the adjustments made to the third edition of Thomas’ The Spanish Civil War show that some of their light is finally shining over the ivory towersBut little of it ever illuminates the ramparts of the professional practitioners of ‘Labour History’.

Over 50 years ago Leon Trotsky pointed out that the “witnesses, victims and participants” of the “innumerable crimes committed on the Iberian peninsula by the international scoundrels in Stalin’s employ” would “carry with them everywhere their testimony”, and that “truth will become accessible to broad circles of the population in all countries”. Our aim is to let them speak through these pages. Only one of these accounts has ever appeared before in English. The contributions range across the whole spectrum of what can be loosely described as dissident Marxist – Trotskyist (both official and dissenting), Brandlerite, POUM left, Italian Maximalist, and left wing Social Democrat, together with a number of studies by modern investigators who do not toe the official pro-Communist ‘line’. And whilst the Spanish left itself has not been neglected, we have deliberately concentrated upon the accounts of international observers – Italians, Germans, Austrians, French, Americans and Belgians – who were able to bring a wider grasp of the politics of Europe to their understanding of what was going on before themWe have not included any Anarchist accounts, not out of any myopic factional motives, but because a number of excellent books telling their story are readily available, and largely confirm the picture presented here. [1]

The general lines of the picture are all too clear. A revolution did take place behind the Republican lines, which was the real target of Franco’s uprising, and it was reversed by the policies of domestic and international Stalinism. In political terms this was accomplished by the politics of the Popular Front, which placed in power the puppet government of Doctor Negrín, and the large scale operations of the murder and torture squads of the NKVD, which demoralised the workers and peasantsIn economic terms it was effected by the sabotage of the collectivised land and industry, and by the blockade enforced by the ‘non-intervention’ policy of another Popular Front government, that in France. All this was made clear at the time by the analyses of Trotsky [2] and of Felix Morrow [3], and our own compilation here is intended to serve as a companion to the study of these books.

Various indications have not been wanting that Stalinists themselves were well aware of what they had done, and why they did it. In 1960 an illuminating admission came from a Soviet historian, K.L. Maidanik:

It seems to me that the events of 19 July marked the beginning of a qualitatively new stage in the Spanish revolution. The activity of the proletarian masses and their subjective outlook both support this conclusion. July-August 1936 saw settled, in fact, the basic problems of the revolution, those of political power and ownership of the instruments and means of productionLocal authority passed, in practice, into the hands of the armed proletariat. Also into their hands, and to a lesser extent into those of the peasants, passed all the instruments and means of production belonging to the capitalists and landowners. A large part of the bourgeoisie and its state machine was liquidated on the territory held by the Republic. All this went beyond the limits of a bourgeois-democratic revolution. [4]

Even the Spanish Stalinists themselves have begun to admit some of what they have done. Santiago Carrillo thought it “possible” in 1974 that Nin “was executed in our zone” [5], and in 1987 the present General Secretary of the Catalan Communist Party (PSUC), Rafael Ribó, accepted the complicity of his party in his kidnapping and murder, whilst the former leading Communist novelist Jorge Semprún recalled Nin, “whom we ourselves tortured and murdered”. [6]

Whilst glasnost in foreign policy has now come around to admitting the truth about the secret codicil to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which divided Poland between the Soviet Union and Germany, the Katyn Forest massacre, and the Soviet refusal to assist the Warsaw Uprising, it has so far been strangely reticent about the Spanish Civil War. But even if the secrets of Soviet policy were brought into broad daylight, it would be years before the British Communists admitted that they were in existence, for they have always been doggedly determined to hang onto the lies they told, and to accept the minimum modification once the truth became painfully obvious.

Readers of the eyewitness accounts of Bortenstein and Bolze about the Huesca front will be amused to see that in the 1970s the view was that “the Aragon front, through the fault of the Catalan Anarchists, was inactive”, but by 1986 we learn that “the attack on Huesca had petered out, partly through lack of arms and partly because the Anarchist and POUM militias were unwilling to press the assault”. [7]

As for the Barcelona May Days, first we were told that “Fascists in some parts at least of Republican territory were advised to join the POUM”, and that there was “a very strong indication that Fascist agents were involved in the putsch”. [8] Then we were equally solemnly informed that:

The Fascists ... used their agents to stir into revolt perfectly genuine and sincere Anarchist ‘Friends of Durruti’, members of the leftist POUM and such few direct supporters as Trotsky had in Barcelona. These people acted in what they believed were ways which would serve the proletarian revolution and a consequent disintegration of the Fascist army. In fact, they were being manipulated by Franco for the purpose of taking pressure off his army and helping to consolidate his position. [9]

By 1985 this had become modified into “shortly afterwards, allegations that the POUM leaders were conscious traitors acting on behalf of the Fascist Franco began to receive credence”. [10]

A cursory glance over the heated polemics directed by the Trotskyists against the POUM should melt into thin air the remarks about that party’s alleged ‘Trotskyism’. Nevertheless, the 1970s version considered that “the problem of the extent to which the POUM was Trotskyist or just ‘leftist’ would make an interesting subject for a thesis”; by the 1980s we could read that the POUM was “deeply critical of the Soviet Union and in general shared Trotsky’s views”. [11]

The first reaction to the authentic reports of Soviet assassins and torturers at work in Spain was simply to brazen it out:

Stories about ‘NKVD agents’ in Spain, especially in relation to the fight against Trotskyism, have been propagated so widely that one meets them almost everywhere, and this includes works by progressive historians. The authors of this article are inclined to think that most of them are apocryphal. [12]

By 1982 these ‘horror stories’ about ‘Communist repression’ were being traced back to deserters, even if “there were inevitably some unjust arrests, imprisonments and even executions on the Republican side. However, they were rare and atypical ...” [13]

The changing tone of these slanders brings discredit upon them as a whole, but other myths have so far escaped public repudiation. Readers of our collected testimonies will surely know what to make of assertions that the Barcelona May Days were an “unsuccessful putsch carried out by a section of the Anarchists and the members of the POUM”, doomed “by the fact that it never had the support of the mass of the working class members of the CNT, who remained neutral and passive” [14]; that Juan Negrín was “not the kind of human material out of which puppets are made” [15]; that “the majority of the leaders of the FAI in Catalonia were favourable towards the idea of seizing power in Catalonia by means of a coup d’état” [16]; or that production at the Hispano-Suiza works was in a mess because “the CNT was not cooperating with the government’s drive to increase industrial production, especially in the war industries, and the CNT leaders in the factory resented the presence of Socialist foreigners ...” [17]

A good example of what happens when you try to put a bold face on things is the following edifying tale about Wally Tapsell’s mission to Barcelona after reports about the May Days began to sow disquiet among the British International Brigaders:

It was known that the British group sent out by the Independent Labour Party had left the Aragon front and was in Barcelona, so Walter Tapsell was sent there from Albacete to try to extricate it from its links with the POUM ... It appears that none of the group took an active part in the uprising, but they did provide an armed guard for the POUM headquarters, and were shocked and bewildered by the events. [18]

Unfortunately for the credibility of this piece, its writer had forgotten that it had been blown sky high 34 years ago by Fred Copeman:

It was decided that Wally Tapsell should make an enquiry on behalf of the Brigade. On his return he reported what he had found, being fully aware of the serious political repercussions. He was of the opinion that the Spanish Communist Party were not unconnected with the uprising, and that the POUM were being used as a blind. [19]

It would be foolish, of course, to assume from this sorry catalogue that lies are the property of the Stalinist movement alone, and still more foolish to assume that lies are confined to politiciansBut Anarchist discussions of the history of the Spanish Civil War have always in the past been characterised by a very different standard of integrityIt is all the more disappointing, then, that we should have to read in an article written on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War that the international Trotskyist movement was “arguing that the Spanish workers did not need arms”, that “their line was that arms weren’t necessary”, that “the rump of the German and mid-European Trotskyist intelligentsia buzzed around the POUM like flies, taking no part in its militia but offering their propaganda services”, that the Spanish Trotskyists “did not make any resistance” to the terror of the Stalinist torturers, and that Ramon Mercader del Rio, Trotsky’s own murderer, had been a member of the Spanish Trotskyists. [20] The purpose of these slanders appears to be the pretence that the Fourth International was acting in secret agreement with the Third International, all the more embarrassing for our Anarchist since this was the propaganda line of Josef Göbbels at the time:

... were the Trots in Spain working for Stalin, not Hitler? It was not beyond Stalin’s cynicism, and without their active cooperation he could not have framed the POUM. [21]

There are several good reasons for publishing this book. The first is to rehabilitate the memory of all those who sacrificed their lives and liberties to fight for Socialism during the Spanish Civil War, to refute the slander that those who did not toe the Stalinist party line were ‘wreckers’ and ‘agents of Franco’, and to show that there were alternatives to the Popular Front policies of the Social Democrats and Stalinists, and that these alternatives were put forward by principled and devoted fighters for the cause of the working class. These voices have been unheard, and have never been mentioned in the liberal and/or Stalinist versions of history served up by Britain’s Left Establishment.

Even more important is the fact that our views of the past colour our understanding of the present, and influence the decisions we make today. Without an adequate understanding of the past we cannot fully understand the present. False assumptions perpetuated on a false interpretation of the past can lead to a repetition of the errors that led to defeat then and can lead to new defeats today. The slogan on the cover of each issue of Revolutionary History reads: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We should add that we have no objection to repeating successesBut, alas, so far, the defeats and errors have outweighed the successes, and it is the repetition of the former we must avoid.

We have deliberately used the plural and spoken of alternative policies, not of one alternative policy, because this book is a symposium of contributions from a wide spectrum of views. We do not expect that everyone will today draw exactly the same lessons and conclusions from the Spanish events of the 1930s in their approach to current politics. Nor has it ever been the intention of the Editorial Board to impose a monolithic application of the lessons of the past to the politics of today. We are not purveyors of ‘the revealed truth’. The Board itself represents a broad range of views.

We offer this book in memory of Sam Bornstein, as our contribution towards an informed evaluation of the past which, we hope, will help the present generation solve the tasks of the present.

As for us, it only remains to offer our thanks to all those who made the book possible: to our contributors Don Bateman, Andy Durgan and Hans Schafranek; to Pierre Broué for the extensive use we have made of the Cahiers Léon Trotsky, chiefly nos.3 and 10, and of his definitive edition of Trotsky’s La Révolution espagnole; to Mike Jones and John Sullivan for crucial areas of our research as well as translation work, and to our other translators Paolo Casciola, Angela Giumelli and Esther LeslieTed Crawford was responsible for translating Hans Schafranek’s article and for editing the translations of Rous and Bortenstein’s pamphlets, whilst Paul Flewers undertook the exhausting labour of production work. Al Richardson had overall responsibility for the editorial work.

Finally we must thank Sam Bornstein’s admirers for their financial help.

Socialist Platform

Revolutionary History



1. Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, London 1953 (third edition, 1973); Sam Dolgoff, The Anarchist Collectives, New York 1974; Gaston Leval, Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, London, 1975; Abel Paz, Durruti: The People Armed, Montreal 1976; Murray Bookchin, The Spanish Anarchists, New York 1977; José Peirats, Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, Detroit 1977; Albert Meltzer (ed.), A New World in Our Hearts, London 1978; Augustin Souchy Bauer, With the Peasants of Aragon, Orkney 1982; Emma Goldman, Vision on Fire, New York 1983; Freedom Press, The May Days in Barcelona, 1937, London 1987; Freedom Press, Spain 1936-39: Social Revolution and Counter-Revolution, London 1990.

2. L.D. Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution 1931-39, New York, 1973.

3. F. Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, second expanded edition, New York 1974.

4. K.L. Maidanik, Ispansky proletariat v natsionalnoye-revolyytsionni voiny, 1936-37gg, Moscow 1960, cited in F. Claudín, The Communist Movement, New York 1975, p.224.

5. S. Carrillo, Dialogue on Spain, London 1976, p.53.

6. PS, No vivimos solo de verdades, dice Vargas Llosa, El País, 18 June 1987; Xavier Domingo, El lider del PSUC reabilita a Nin, Cambio 16, 3 August 1987, cited in Victor Alba and Stephen Schwartz, Spanish Marxism Versus Soviet Communism, New Brunswick 1988, pp.217-8.

7. Nan Green and A.M. Elliott, Spain Against Fascism, 1936-39, n.d. (1970s), p.20; Jim Fyrth, The Signal was Spain: The Spanish Aid Movement in Britain, 1936-39, London 1986, p.59.

8. Green and Elliott, op. cit., pp.19, 21.

9. Monty Johnstone, Trotsky and World Revolution, London 1976, p.13.

10. Noreen Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain: 1927-41, London 1985, p.244.

11. Green and Elliott, op. cit., p.20; Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty: Spain 1936-39, London 1982, p.19. (Our emphasis)

12. Green and Elliott, op. cit., p.22.

13. Alexander, op. cit., pp.81, 27.

14. Green and Elliott, op. cit., pp.17, 21. That the story has not been dropped since is shown by Alexander’s remarks that “the people of Barcelona – the heartland of Anarchism – did not support the POUM revolt against the Republic in May 1937” (Alexander, op. cit., p.25).

15. Green and Elliott, op. cit., p.12.

16. Ibid., p20.

17. Alexander, op. cit., p.220.

18. Ibid., pp.108-9.

19. Fred Copeman, Reason in Revolt, Blandford 1948, p.119. Copeman uses the word “uprising” in respect of the Stalinists’ assault upon the Barcelona Telephone Exchange, whereas Alexander uses it in respect of the working class response to the Stalinists’ provocation.

20. Albert Meltzer, Hidden History of the Trots in Spain, Black Flag, nos.194, 195, October and November/December 1989. Apart from what appears below on this topic, cf. L.D. Trotsky, Answers to Questions on the Spanish Situation, 14 September 1937, The Spanish Revolution 1931-39, op. cit., pp.284-5. The material in this book is a sufficient refutation of this nonsense that Trotsky had been killed by one of his own disgruntled followers, but it is interesting to note that this line was in fact the explanation of the Stalinists at the time, which they have been obliged to abandon since: “The various Trotskyite sects throughout the world waged fratricidal war against each other and the recent attack on Trotsky may well have been an incident in that war.” (J.R. Campbell, A Counter-Revolutionary Gangster Passes, Daily Worker, 23 August 1940) Ramon Mercader had never been a Trotskyist; he was a member of the PSUC, a fact established as long ago as 1950 by Gorkin and since confirmed by Mercader’s surviving relatives.

21. “It is curious that Nazi propaganda in this period [of the Moscow Trials] alleged that in spite of appearances the Fourth International was a secret agency of the Third, operating on the basis of a division of labour.” (Brian Pearce, The British Stalinists and the Moscow Trials, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, London 1975, p.225) Given the scale of Meltzer’s lying, it would be futile to pick him up on more trivial remarks, such as that Albert Weisbord was a “Trotskyist” when he went to Spain, or that a “Trotskyist” called Cordera of whom nobody seems to have heard “became a Fascist labour organiser”. Perhaps he means Gomilla, cf. Andy Durgan’s account below, p.50 n55.

Updated by ETOL: 6.8.2003