Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2


Spain Betrayed

Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck & Grigory Sevostianov
Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War
Yale University Press, New Haven 2001, pp. 537, £27.50

THIS collection of documents from the Moscow archives on the Soviet rôle in the Spanish Civil War shows that from the beginning Comintern ‘advisors’ were directing the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) and eventually much of the state’s repressive machinery. Clearly, liberal historians such as Paul Preston and Gabriel Jackson have underestimated the extent of the Comintern’s power. Only six days after Franco’s rising, José Diaz, the PCE’s Secretary, was instructed ‘not to exceed the limits of a struggle for a truly democratic republic’. A report by André Marty in October 1936 shows that he, Codovilla, the Argentine Communist leader, and Ernö Gerö, a future dictator of Hungary, were the party’s real leaders. By November, the Comintern had more than 700 military ‘advisors’, many of whom were commanding troops in the field. In October, the military attaché, Vladimir Gorev, emphasised the need for secrecy over the extent of Russian involvement. Marty claims that Codovilla even wrote the editorials for the PCE’s paper, the Mundo Obrero. By September 1937, Palmiro Togliatti favoured less control and criticised the detailed interference by Comintern agents, arguing that the PCE leaders should do more themselves, noting approvingly that Dolores Ibárruri had actually written a political document without help from the ‘advisors’.

These documents give conclusive proof of the Comintern’s part in the repression against the left. A report to Litvinov in February 1937 by Marchenko, the plenipotentiary in Spain, which calls for the smashing of the POUM in order to facilitate an accommodation with the anarchists, provides the background to the struggle in May 1937 which toppled the Caballero government and led to the murder of Andrés Nin. In April 1937, Rosenberg, the Soviet ambassador, told Litvinov, his foreign minister, that Caballero must be removed from office. In April, Dimitrov sent Voroshilov a report from an informant, probably André Marty, expanding on that theme. Clearly, the Stalinist seizure of the Barcelona telephone exchange, which provoked the street fighting that was the turning point of the struggle to secure Stalinist domination, was not accidental, but the consequence of those decisions.

The Comintern agents’ depiction of an heroic Communist party fighting against the sinister concealed powers of Trotsky/fascism approaches insanity. Every difficulty was ascribed to those dark forces, as if there were no cock-ups due to real-world inexperience, ignorance or chance. For example, ‘General Walter’ (Karol Sverchevsky) described in a report to Voroshilov in August 1938 the extensive Trotskyist sabotage campaign consisting of spreading rumours, deliberately losing weapons and feeding troops poisoned chocolates. He pleaded for help from the NKVD as his investigations were obstructed by the saboteurs’ powerful friends. Even Harry Pollitt played the Trotskyist game by spiriting away a spy to a British destroyer in Barcelona. Unluckily for ‘Walter’, another ‘spy’ he had arrested died at the hands of an over-enthusiastic interrogator before he could disclose the extent of the plot.

The POUM was often described as Trotskyist by Stalinists and others, but here the label is extended to include anarchists, supporters of Caballero and even the conservative Catholic Basque nationalist Manuel Irujo. There must have been an element of cynicism by agents providing their superiors with the misinformation they demanded, but the hysterical tone of their reports suggests they did believe in the Trotskyist/fascist conspiracy. After all, Communist party members were required to believe that the Old Bolsheviks accused in the Moscow Trials were Hitler’s agents. If all the other tendencies were infiltrated by Trotskyists, why should the PCE and other Communist parties be immune? In such an atmosphere, there was no limit to suspicion, and few of the agents liked each other. Many of the ‘advisors’, including Rosenberg and Antonov-Ovseenko, were victims of Stalin’s purges when they were recalled to the Soviet Union, just as many accusers ended up joining their victims in the dock in show trials in the Peoples’ Democracies of the 1950s.

The Spanish Republic’s war effort faced many real problems. Local nationalisms and the central government were uneasy allies, troops did not have the level of training which would be usual in a professional army, there were long-standing conflicts between anarchists and socialists, and regular officers were widely suspected of Francoist sympathies, as the army had been an instrument for suppressing internal dissent and colonial revolt rather than fighting a modern war. But, in the Stalinist world view, real difficulties were produced by fascist/Trotskyist sabotage. The scarcity of actual Trotskyists was not a disadvantage, as a witch-hunt does not require the existence of real witches. The leaders of the POUM did not fully appreciate that the Moscow Trials were an historical turning point, but their courage in defending Trotsky against Stalinist slanders was exemplary. It is not possible to list all of the questions which are cleared up by these documents. Jesús Hernández’s claim that he opposed the murder of Nin, made in his book, Yo fui un ministro de Stalin, written after he had lost out to Ibárruri in the fight to be the Communist Party’s General Secretary, is clearly false. A report by the Comintern agent ‘Cid’ recounts that at a meeting of the council of ministers in July 1937 Hernández attacked the Socialist minister Zugazagoitia for questioning the Communist story that Nin had been freed by a detachment of fascists, and demanded that he pursue those ‘criminals’ rather than slander the Russians.

Political establishments need historians to provide them with a usable past, but that will vary from one country to another. The editors of this volume are soldiers in the ‘history wars’ being fought in the United States between Cold War and revisionist academics. (Rumour has it that later volumes in the Annals of Communism series will be edited by alternate teams of revisionists and cold warriors.) In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the editors of this volume are, understandably, elated that not just Stalinism, but socialism – and even liberalism? – have been consigned to the dustbin of history. The authorities they cite include Paul Johnson, François Fejtö and Robert Alexander, rather than the contemporary Spanish scholars one might expect. That is not because academic orthodoxy in Spain favours either the left or Stalinism. Spain also has its ‘history wars’, but the line-up there is rather different. The prevailing academic orthodoxy, represented by Bizcarrondo, Elorza and Casanova among others, not mentioned by the editors of Spain Betrayed, defends the Republic, but attacks the Stalinist repression as a hideous stain on it, while criticising the ‘excesses’ of the anarchists and the POUM. The revolutionary tradition is defended by the left-wing historians grouped around the manifesto Combate por la Historia.

John Sullivan

Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011