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Andy Durgan

The rise and fall of
Largo Caballero

(Winter 1983)

From International Socialism 2 : 18, Winter 1983, pp. 87‐107.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The last few years have seen a resurgence of left reformism both in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. It is not a new phenomenon; there have been a number of periods in which the left within social democratic parties has blossomed. Yet the lessons of the past are all too often obscured by the enthusiasm of the immediate battles. But there is a wealth of experience to be absorbed – principally that such parties can never be transformed into organisations capable of leading a revolution through to a successful conclusion. Even the most radical of Social Democratic parties have failed the test of a revolutionary upsurge and nowhere is this more clear than Spain in the 1930’s.

In the thirties there was a considerable shift to the left within the Spanish Socialist Party. The Left socialists were part of a mass movement; they captured the trade union federation, the UGT, the Socialist Youth Federation and much of the Socialist Party itself. This movement was not simply a more militant version of reformism; rather it saw itself as being overtly revolutionary. One man symbolised this movement both in its strengths and its weaknesses – its undisputed leader, Francisco Largo Caballero.

Labour bureaucrat

Caballero was born in a poverty stricken district of Madrid in 1869. He left school at seven and became a plasterer two years later. In 1890 he joined the UGT as leader of the Madrid plasterers’ strike of that year. He began to rise in the ranks of the UGT. In 1905 he began his life long career as a full time official of the union. By 1918 he was General Secretary of the UGT, the Socialist Party’s national trade union federation. The Spanish Socialist Party and the UGT were typical products of the pre First World War socialist movement. The party was thoroughly reformist, clinging to a mechanical and deterministic Marxism. The union was based on skilled industrial workers and artisans and played little role amongst the mass of unskilled workers.

Caballero was a typical product of the movement, instinctively reformist and cautious. His outstanding quality however was his ability to engender a deep loyalty amongst the UGT’s rank and file. It was his plain speaking manner, his proletarian origins and his indisputable honesty that helped his retain a wide popularity and trust.

His career up to 1933 revealed his limitations. He could respond quickly enough to the radicalisation of the masses as when he led the ill-fated general strike of 1917. [1] But he never went beyond the limits of the Second International; for instance, he went on to successfully lead the opposition to the Socialist Party’s affiliation to the Third International. [2]

In 1923, the ‘soft’ dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera came to power. The dictator sought to incorporate the socialist movement in order to isolate the troublesome anarcho-syndicalists of the CNT. [3] The UGT leaders collaborated with this strategy, Caballero, in fact, became a member of the regime’s State Council. The marginal benefits obtained for the UGT were soon swamped by the regime’s unpopularity with the masses. By the late twenties, the majority of Socialist leaders, including the somewhat reluctant Caballero moved into opposition to the regime.

In April 1931 a bourgeois republic was established for the first time in Spain. It was run by the weak urban petty bourgeoisie and could only survive with the limited backing given it by the Socialist Party. The entry of three Socialist ministers into the government (one of whom was Caballero) was very controversial inside the party. The party’s most prestigious leader Julian Besteiro argued following the deterministic Marxism of the Second International, that since Spain was only ready for the bourgeois revolution Marxists should sit back and wait for the bourgeoisie to carry through their own revolution. Thus the Socialists should not collaborate with bourgeois governments but wait passively till it was the proletariat’s turn. On the right of the party, Indalecio Prieto headed a faction which always favoured the closest collaboration with the republicans. Previously, Caballero had been a supporter of Besteiro. But in the last years of the dictatorship the Socialist masses had already began to work on a local level with the republicans. Characteristically, Cabellero saw which way the membership were moving and switched to Prieto’s camp.

With the overthrow of the dictatorship, the workers began to take full advantage of their new freedom and flocked into the unions. The economy however was rapidly worsening and the Socialist ministers inevitably were forced to oppose the increasing number of strikes in order to preserve the regime’s stability. The government in which Caballero continued to sit increasingly came into brutal conflict with the rapid growth of the CNT. Strikes were smashed, arrests continued all with the connivance of Socialist ministers. The historic division between Socialists and Anarchists in the Spanish working class was deepened. [4]

The seeds of Caballero’s radicalism were planted during this period. Inside parliament he found his projected reforms continually sabotaged by the right. Outside, the employers and land owners ignored government legislation and launched a counter offensive against the workers. Internationally, the rise of fascism loomed, and their Spanish counterparts appeared in the shape of CEDA (the Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-Wing Groups).

The decisive factor in Caballero’s eventual shift to the left however was probably the radicalisation of the Socialist rank and file. Increasingly local sections of the UGT were forced to defend their limited gains by linking up with the CNT. Further the UGT were beginning to recruit from among militant farm workers. [5] They began to transform the UGT’s image from the organisation of the ‘labour aristocracy’ to that of a turbulent mass organisation. Caballero, sensitive as always to changes in the mood of his members, began to make more militant speeches. While justifying the need to stay inside the government in order to protect working class interests, he increasingly began to advocate workers taking the initiative if they were not to suffer the same fate as their Italian and German counterparts.

By 1933, Caballero, who until then had been a successful trade union bureaucrat and cabinet minister, was beginning to change direction.

Left turn

By 1933, the right was on the ascendant in parliament and it seemed only a matter of time before the Socialists were driven out of government. Caballero hastened to rebuild his position amongst the rank and file. As he came to rely on his increasingly militant members so he had to take up more leftist positions.

The first major expression of this new radicalism came in a speech in July 1933. Basically the speech was moderate, defending participation in the government but he warned that if the Socialists were left with no alternative they would be forced to seize power to prevent the victory of fascism. His audience, made up of the militant Socialist youth federation greeted this part of the speech with wild acclaim. Throughout the summer Caballero repeated his message, making it clear all the time that he was committed to legality. But as the speeches became more radical, so the enthusiasm increased. Caballero began to emerge as the leader of the new left in the Socialist Party.

This left current was put to its first test with the calling of new elections in October 1933. Prieto argued for another alliance with the left republicans. The new left based around Caballero successfully argued against any collaboration. From now on the Socialist Party was split into two opposing factions, the right headed by Prieto and based on the northern industrial workers and the new left around Caballero based mainly in the newly unionised sections of the UGT and the youth.

The election campaign revealed the extent of the radicalisation of the rank and file. Caballero rapidly adapted to the new mood and his speeches became increasingly militant and threatening to the bourgeois order. ‘If legality is of no use to us ... if it hinders our advance,’ he threatened, ‘we shall bypass bourgeois democracy and proceed to the revolutionary conquest of power’. [6]

Although the Socialists received the highest vote of any single party in the election their representation was cut by half. A combination of centre-right collaboration, anarchist abstention (unlike 1931), left disunity and electoral corruption gave victory to the right. The new government was based on the centre parties but they were dependent on the biggest party in the new parliament the fascistic CEDA.

Throughout the labour movement the CEDA were now seen as preparing the ground for a ‘constitutional road to fascism’ (as in Germany). The failure of the Austrian Socialist uprising against Dolfuss in February 1934 strengthened the belief that revolutionary action would be needed to stem the rightist tide. ‘Better Vienna than Berlin’ became the new watchword for the left Socialists.

In late January Caballero’s supporters finally ousted Besteiro’s from the leadership of the union and brought it in line with the party. The Socialist Party in turn set up a special commission headed by Caballero, to ‘examine the practical side of organising a revolution’.

Even at this stage of the developing revolutionary movement, it was clear that the main aim of the Socialist leaders was still to scare the government into stepping down. Typical was Caballero’s speech in February where he asked rhetorically if the centre republicans in the government did not see that their policies were giving the working class the idea that legal struggle was useless.

But the working class was beginning to move despite the Socialists’ hesitations. In Catalonia, a new workers’ united front was being created on the initiative of the dissident communist Workers and Peasant Bloc (BOC). Called the Workers’ Alliance, they began to spread from Catalonia throughout the country in 1934. They were originally conceived as defensive bodies but gradually began to be seen as offensive insurrectionary organisations especially by the left Socialists and Socialist youth. Despite the latters’ verbal support, little practical aid was given on a national level and Socialist militants participated in them only on in local areas. Initially both the Communist Party and the CNT were hostile and so the Alliances never really united the majority of the organised working class. The one exception was in the northern mining region of Asturias where the CNT and Socialists signed a pact of alliance.

The left Socialists’ attitude to the Alliances highlighted some of the key weaknesses in their politics. The Alliances were not seen as united front bodies able to unify the working class through action. Rather they were seen as appendages to the Socialist Party, an instrument for the absorption of the working class into the Socialist Party which was to be the form of working class power. Nor were the Alliances seen as being an active instrument of the struggle brewing throughout Spain. Rather than attempting to develop workers’ confidence in the day to day agitation, the left Socialists argued against supporting strikes or other ‘defensive’ actions as these would waste the workers’ energy, before the inevitable insurrection.

This abstract leftism was to lead to disaster. In June 1934, the Socialist landworkers’ union came out on strike over wages. The Socialists in the urban centres did little to support and the strike was brutally smashed. Four months later, the much greater October uprising was deprived of rural support as the farmworkers lay defeated.

In early October 1934 the left Socialists’ insurrectionism was put to the test as the CEDA entered the government. For months they had been promising an uprising if the CEDA gained parliamentary power and now it had happened. Their bluff had been called. Their initial reaction was of hesitation, they attempted to pressurise the President to call new elections instead. But when this was refused, the Socialist leaders were forced to act.

Instead of the insurrection however, the leadership called for a general strike. The government arrested the left Socialist leaders and in most places the strike petered out within a week. Only in Catalonia, the Basque Country and the Asturias did the strike take on insurrectionary proportions and in none of these areas were Caballero’s supporters strong. In Madrid, which was his stronghold, the struggle did not go beyond a week-long strike. The left Socialists refused to call a meeting of the Workers’ Alliance in the city nor did they contact the Catalan Alliance.

October 1934 exposed much of the hollowness of Caballero’s leftism. At the first real test the left Socialists were unable to deliver what their rhetoric had promised. No serious preparations had been made for the insurrection with only a very few arms being smuggled into Spain. The unity of the workers’ movement had not been developed through a joint struggle over partial demands. Most damningly, the Workers’ Alliances which had been ‘saved’ for the insurrection were not used by the left Socialists in case the movement escaped from their control. The result was a bloody defeat for the Spanish working class. Only in the Asturias had the workers taken power. For ten days the miners held the region before being brutally smashed in their isolation by the army.

The uprising, although a bloody defeat for the workers, did curb the CEDA’s authoritarian ambitions. In fact the outcome saw a greater polarisation and the lines were now drawn for the civil war. Both sides now put even less emphasis on parliamentary methods. But the contradictions in Caballero’s position remained. He was to tell a military judge that he took no part in organising the rising. ‘I neither applaud nor condemn it’, he stated. [7] This contrasted with the Asturian miners’ leaders, who despite their explicit reformism and support for Prieto, took full responsibility and suffered accordingly. Some were brutally tortured in prison and others sentenced to death. Caballero was later to claim he had denied his part to prevent any admission of guilt being used as an excuse to justify smashing the Socialist Party and the UGT. Nothing could have better reflected his lifelong obsession to protect party and union structures at all costs. It was this that had led him to collaborate with firstly the Primo de Rivera dictatorship in the mid-twenties and secondly even to argue for ‘revolution’ ten years later.

It was while he was in prison for the sixth time in his life in early 1935 that the 66 year old Caballero supposedly read for the first time the classics of Marx and Lenin. He was reported to have been particularly impressed with Lenin’s The State and Revolution. His politics appeared to change rapidly.


In the aftermath of October 1934, 30,000 workers were imprisoned. The repression and the experience of the Alliances led to an increased desire among workers to overcome ideological differences and move towards unity. On the revolutionary left there was the founding of the POUM in September 1935 by the BOC and the Trotskyists. Amongst the anarcho-syndicalists, there was a re-unification amongst the ranks of the more moderate syndicalists who had split away in 1932–3.

It was from the Socialists however that the most significant unification took place. Internally the division between Caballero and Prieto became more acute than ever. But the left was not homogenous and sections of the left began to gravitate towards the Community Party. In organisational terms this led to the absorption of the small CP union, the CGTU, into the UGT in November 1935 and, more importantly, the unification of the Socialist and Communist youth organisations in July 1936.

The shift towards the Communist Party by some of Caballero’s supporters would seem surprising. Before 1934 the Spanish Communist Party was little more than an isolated sect pursuing an ultra-leftist strategy typical of ‘Third Period’ Stalinism. Its later development as the leader of the counter-revolution during the civil war appears to be very much at odds with the Socialists’ radicalism of 1934–6. Yet the drift of sections of the Socialist left towards the Communist Party was to be central to the defeat of Caballero during the civil war. There were a variety of reasons for this crucial development.

Firstly, the Communist Party was linked in many workers’ minds to the USSR which was increasingly seen as the only power willing and capable of standing up to the spread of fascism. As the international situation worsened so the potential role of the USSR became increasingly important.

Further, the left Socialists’ politics while revolutionary in language were crude and simplistic as the leadership attempted to respond to the mood of the masses. The talk was full of ‘democratic centralism’ and ‘bolshevisation’, without any explanation. The CP was able to provide an explanation, albeit thoroughly Stalinist, of what these terms meant. Without any real theoretical training, the left Socialists found the arguments of the CP beguiling while the tradition they had once originated from – that of the Russian Revolution – increasingly attractive.

The CP itself was shedding its ultra-leftism in the crucial years of 1934 to 1936 without as yet falling into the class collaborationism of the Popular Front. They adhered to the Worker’s Alliances in October 1934 and participated actively in the Asturian uprising. Although their role was controversial, the fact that they were involved and, in contrast to Caballero’s prevarication, openly claimed full responsibility for the insurrection meant that to the more militant socialists they became an increasingly attractive force.

Throughout 1935 the CP’s positions were increasingly attractive compared to those of the left Socialists’ leaders. A crucial difference was over the Workers’ Alliances. After October 1934, the Socialists’ former ambiguity towards them turned into outright indifference. Luis Araquitian, Caballero’s principal advisor, claimed that such bodies were the equivalent of Soviets which were unnecessary in Spain as the country had very different traditions from Russia. For Spain, the unions were sufficient to fulfil that role. Instead of genuine united front bodies Caballero instead proposed ‘Liaison Committees’ between the Socialists and Communists. The real reason for this opposition to the Alliances was the fear that workplace based committees could escape from the control of the Socialist Party.

The Communist Party during the crucial year of 1935 had a far’ more open position towards the Alliances. They campaigned for their formation both in the workplaces and on a national level and participated actively within them. It was only later that the CP switched to a developed ‘Popular Front’; for much of 1935 their positions on the Workers’ Alliances were superficially at least very close to those of the most militant sections of the left Socialists and dissident communist groups. The difference was that the Communist Party had a national presence and a coherence and discipline which was in sharp contrast to the other currents on the Spanish left. There has been a tendency to underestimate the importance of the Spanish CP in the pre-war period because of its small size compared to the much larger Socialist and Anarcho-syndicalist currents. But from late 1934 when the CP’s membership was probably only around 3,000 its influence grew rapidly and by the eve of the war it had some 50,000 members. Many had come from the left Socialists.

In particular, the CP influenced much of the leadership of the Socialist youth. They were often prepared to overlook the class collaborationist nature of the Popular Front politics put forward by the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in August 1935. Instead they took from it only the demand for working class unity. Some left Socialist leaders went further to argue that the new line meant more autonomy for national CPs thus opening up the possibility of Socialist affiliation to the Comintern.

The Socialist youth were moving rapidly to the left. In many ways they could have been influenced by genuine revolutionary arguments. Trotsky at this time was berating his ex-followers for their failure to enter the Socialist Party in order to win the radicalised masses. In fact the Socialist left urged the groups to the left of them along with the Communist Party to enter the Socialist Party to aid the left faction against the right. The dissident communists grouped in the POUM from September 1935 rejected the invitation, arguing that there was no guarantee they would be able to fight for their politics inside the party. More importantly, a regroupment outside the party was necessary if the anarchist masses were to be attracted.

This was particularly the case in Catalonia where the CNT were dominant, the Socialist Party negligible and the POUM had a significant independent base.

In the absence of the revolutionary left attracting the Socialist youth the latter developed a series of arguments which while often being very radical propelled them towards a unification with the Communist youth.

The Socialist youth argued that in order to avoid another defeat like that of October it was necessary to ‘bolshevise’ the Socialist party. This meant reorganising the party on a democratic centralist basis, expelling Besteiro’s followers (since they had opposed the uprising), removing Prieto’s faction from office, withdrawing from the Second International to form a new international grouping ‘on the basis of the Russian Revolution’, unifying with other Marxist organisations and adopting ‘a clear revolutionary programme’. In addition to this ‘bolshevisation’ of the Party the Socialist youth drew what was clearly ultra-leftist lessons from the October failure. The Workers’ Alliances should be ‘insurrectional bodies’ only. They had wasted their energies in organising and supporting strikes and other ‘non-revolutionary’ activities. Further the Alliances were not the embryos of Soviets – this role would be exercised by the Socialist Party alone.

Caballero and his supporters had a slightly different view from the Socialist youth. While he was swept along by the campaign for ‘bolshevisation’, really it was in order to strengthen his position against Prieto. Caballero remained what he always had been; a fervent anti-communist. He opposed the Socialist youth’s plan of breaking with the Second International arguing that a radicalised Spanish party could transform the International. But Caballero did not oppose the increasing unity between the Socialist and Communist youth, in fact he publicly recommended their unification.

Caballero appears to have believed that it was possible for the Socialists to absorb the much smaller Communist Party. This belief was strengthened by the successful absorption of the small Communist federation by the much larger UGT. But to absorb a party with very different traditions was a very different problem from the same operation with unions. Yet Caballero appeared to believe that the size of the membership rather than political clarity and organisation was sufficient to absorb the Communists.

The end result of Caballero’s naivety was that by July 1936 the Youth federations of the Socialist and Communist Parties amalgamated. In Catalonia the Communists and Socialists also fused to form the PSUC. These two developments were to be crucial during the Civil War. The unification of the Youth Federations meant that the Socialist Party lost its most dynamic and radical section to the CP and the consequence was that PSUC was to become the rallying point of all those against the development of the revolution in Catalonia.

Popular Front

In December 1935 the CEDA withdrew its support from the Centre government and it consequently collapsed. New elections were called for February 1936. The thorny problem of electoral alliances now presented itself. The electoral system heavily favoured electoral alliances, coupled with this was the overwhelmingly popular demand for the release of the 30,000 political prisoners. Prieto strongly favoured, as usual, an alliance with the left Republicans. Caballero and the Socialist left were opposed to this on the grounds that this meant collaborating with bourgeois forces. The CP on the other hand called for the broadest possible alliance in order to create an effective ‘popular front against fascism’.

The tragic outcome of the CP’s policy would be seen in the civil war. Theoretically this meant the Communists now claimed that the next ‘stage’ of development in Spain was the ‘bourgeois revolution’. In practice, however, it meant suppressing any working class demands or activity that might alienate their middle class republican allies. It was a far cry from their ultra-leftism five years earlier when they called for Soviets rather than support the establishment of the bourgeois republic.

Alarmed at Caballero’s opposition, which could have left the decision with Prieto who would have excluded the Communist Party from any coalition, the Comintern dispatched Jacques Duclos to try to change his mind. After three days of argument, during which Caballero quoted Lenin in his defence, Duclos finally persuaded him to accept an alliance. The fact that the Communist Party advocated the Popular Front was a useful cover for Caballero and the Socialist left. An electoral victory would see the release of the political prisoners and what was more the anarchists might be predisposed to vote for a broad alliance. The reality was that the bulk of the Socialist left had no alternative to the Popular Front and were very ambiguous towards the idea in the months leading up to the civil war. A proposal by the POUM to form a ‘workers front’ based on the Workers Alliances was ignored by Caballero and his supporters. Such a strategy linked to developing working class unity in action could have laid the basis for continuing the revolutionary agitation of 1934. Furthermore it would not have clouded the class nature of the Republic as the Popular Front undoubtedly did.

The electoral alliance’s programme was extremely moderate, since only on this basis could an agreement with the Republicans be reached. There was initially much disquiet over its content among the left Socialists, but the insistence by the Communists for compromise helped ease it through. At this stage only the CP referred to the alliance as the ‘Popular Front’, the rest tended to call it the ‘Left Electoral Front’.

The Socialists’ electoral campaign was dominated by Caballero, who persistently talked in grandiose terms of the need for proletarian unity and for the transformation of capitalist society: ‘Our duty is to establish socialism’ Caballero stated in January,

And when I speak of socialism ... I speak of Marxist socialism. When I speak of Marxist socialism I speak of revolutionary socialism ... Our aspiration is the conquest of political power ... By what means? Those we are able to use! ... (Let) it be well understood that by going with the left Republicans we are mortgaging nothing of our ideology and action ... It is an alliance, a circumstantial coalition, for which a programme is being prepared that is certainly not going to satisfy us ... Do not be dismayed, do not be disheartened if you do not see things in the programme that are absolutely basic to our ideology. No! That must never be a reason for ceasing to work with complete faith and enthusiasm for victory. That way, comrades, after victory and freed to every kind of commitment we shall be able to say to everyone, absolutely everyone that we shall pursue our course without interruption, if possible, until the triumph of our ideals. [8]

The left’s victory in February 1936 had very little to do with their programme. The great mass of workers saw it very differently. As soon as the results were announced the prisons were stormed and the prisoners released. In the next six months there was a massive strike wave, accompanied by land occupations and a growing street war between leftist and fascist youth.

During these pre-war months the Socialist left vacillated between the increasingly strident Popular Frontism of the CP and the revolutionary position of the CNT. Caballero’s followers continued to indulge in revolutionary rhetoric, for example the important Madrid section declared a month after the elections.

The illusion that the proletarian socialist revolution can be achieved by reforming the existing stage must be eliminated. There is no course but to destroy its roots … Imperceptibly, the dictatorship of the proletariat or workers democracy will be converted into a full democracy, without classes, from which the coercive state will gradually disappear. The instrument of the dictatorship will be the Socialist Party, which will exercise this dictatorship during the period of transition from one society to another and as long as the surrounding capitalist states make a strong proletarian state necessary. [9]

The right of the Socialist Party was keen to collaborate in government with the Republicans. This was, it is true, effectively blocked by the left, who argued that the completion of the bourgeois revolution was the task of the bourgeoisie. However they had no real alternative strategy of how the Socialists should actually proceed to power. Caballero hoped that the Republicans would carry out their electoral programme and then make way for an all-Socialist government. It seems clear that he had no serious intention of overthrowing the government by insurrectional means and did nothing to actually hinder its working. Despite all the rhetoric Caballero was reduced to inviting the Republicans ‘to leave their place to the working class’. [10] But in any case the idea of a proletarian dictatorship based on the Socialist Party seemed somewhat problematic given that Prieto now controlled the executive.

Both the workers and bourgeoisie did, however, take Caballero’s rhetoric very seriously. Certainly the opportunities for a genuine revolutionary strategy were growing daily after the elections. The ruling class were not going to wait around to see if those opportunities were grasped and began to prepare for a military takeover.

As in 1934 a real opportunity emerged of significantly bridging the gap between the CNT and the UGT. Now again Caballero and the left Socialists stepped back from a strategy for united action. Instead Caballero called in April 1936 for a fusion between the UGT and the CNT. This call was a diversion as a simple fusion was unrealistic given the deep historic division between the two unions. However in the context of Spring 1936 and the developments inside the CNT, unity in action was a real possibility. The CNT themselves rejected Caballero’s demagogic appeal and instead called for the setting up of joint committees to discuss united activity leading to a ‘Revolutionary Alliance’. In reality, as the level of struggle intensified and CNT influence increased, the Socialist left actually shrunk back from some of their more radical positions of the previous two years. In the months before the outbreak of the civil war the UGT leadership increasingly opposed strikes as being provocative and likely to destabilise the regime.

Any serious revolutionary organisation in Spain at this time had to develop a strategy aimed at winning over the anarcho-syndicalist movement. At best their attitude was one of gradiose schemes of absorption, though generally it was the traditional attitude of sectarian hostility. An attitude that, of course, was usually reciprocated.

Meanwhile at a local level the CNT’s militancy was having its effects. Rank and file supporters of Caballero were becoming increasingly involved in anarchist initiated disputes. This was particularly true in Caballero’s own stronghold of Madrid. The climax to the post-election strike wave was the bitter construction trike in the capital in July. After initially supporting the strike the UGT urged the acceptance of an arbitration agreement. A large minority refused to go back to work and mass pickets persuaded many Socialist workers to stay out. The CNT was in turn fiercely denounced by all the different Socialist factions and the Communist Party, and violent clashes took place between strikers and those still working. By July workers’ militancy had reached fever pitch. The significance of this situation was apparent to any revolutionary. But Caballero and the UGT chose to treat these battles either as normal trade union disputes or as anarchist ‘adventures’. As if to emphasise that he saw no particular significance in these developments, at the height of the builders’ strike when 100,000 workers were out he chose to go to London to attend an international trade union conference.

War and revolution

The revolutionary fervour of Spanish workers finally exploded in response to the military uprising on July 18th 1936. Within days the workers controlled two thirds of the country. The bourgeois Republican government was powerless. But the new workers’ power was extremely fragmented in a myriad of committees, collectives and militias. Throughout the summer a vacuum existed and with Franco’s fascist-backed armies pressing from all sides the question of power had to be resolved.

Typically Caballero was swept along with the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses. Also typically, he was initially very unclear as to which direction the revolution should proceed. In mid-August in a letter to Ben Tillet he claimed the socialists were fighting only for the triumph of democracy and had not thought of establishing socialism. [11] But on August 22 his mouthpiece Claridad declared,

Some persons [i.e. the Communists] are saying, ‘let us crush fascism first, let us finish the war victoriously, and then there will be time to speak of revolution and to make it if necessary’. Those who express themselves in this way have obviously not reflected maturely upon the formidable dialectical process that is carrying us all along. The war and the revolution are one and the same thing. Not only do they not exclude or hinder each other but they compliment and support each other. The war needs the revolution for its triumph in the same way that the revolution needed the war to bring it into being. [12]

Simultaneously the Socialist left were stepping up their agitation against the ineffectual Republican government that still stumbled along in office.

But it was not the revolutionary workers of the UGT and the CNT that were to resolve the question of power. The Communist Party, in particular, wanted to re-build the old state, to hold back the revolution and project the war as a simple struggle between democracy and fascism. There was, however, no possibility of a Republican and right Socialist government being able to fulfil this task. It was necessary to present a new government as a product of the revolution, as the workers’ own government. To achieve this both the Communists and their growing number of Socialist fellow-travellers saw the importance of getting Caballero’s collaboration. They went to considerable lengths to win him over, their press eulogized him as the ‘Spanish Lenin’, they even curbed their popular frontism and spoke in more militant language so as not to alienate him or his followers.

Caballero himself was toying with the idea of a workers’ government based on the trade unions. The Russian ambassador, Rosenberg, intervened to try and prevent this, arguing that such a government would be ‘premature’ and the war should be waged under ‘the banner of the democratic Republic’. [13] Despite initially rejecting this advice Caballero was finally persuaded to ditch any solution to political power based on the various workers’ committees, militias etc., and instead to head a new government based on the old bourgeois state apparatus, which was formed on September 4. This was a coalition of the Socialists, Republicans and the Communists and Caballero not only became Prime Minister but also War Minister.

To the mass of workers, now reeling under a series of military defeats, the new united government, headed by probably the most popular working class leader, was widely welcomed. This seemed the only alternative to the disorganisation and factionalism that had characterised the first six weeks of the revolution. Tragically the strongest revolutionary organisation, the CNT, posed no alternative; their apolitical anti-statism would not have allowed this. Yet they were so committed to the need for some form of centralised organisation to fight Franco that a mere two months later they too entered the government, adding their weight to the bourgeois state apparatus. This strengthened the government’s prestige even further among the masses. The CNT’s collaboration was essential to the counter-revolution’s success, as many anarcho-syndicalists were to admit in retrospect. The POUM, who alone argued for a government based on workers, soldiers and peasant committees, were relatively isolated in Catalonia and swamped by the CNT’s hostility to ‘parties’, particularly Marxist ones.

Caballero accepted power, because he saw himself at the head of a strong government, fortified by the workers’ organisations. He believed that this government would receive foreign aid as it was still within republican legality. This implied a temporary halting of the revolution in order to gain aid and so pursue the war. The strength of the UGT and his personal influence and prestige were, in his opinion, guarantees that this ‘halting of the revolution’ would not mark the beginning of a move against it.

Of course in reality to ‘temporarily halt’ the revolution meant to go against it. And as the state was gradually rebuilt so the strength of the revolution receded, and correspondingly the influence of Caballero in the government fell.

The ‘war first’ option dominated the new government’s actions. Caballero stated to the Daily Express on October 30: ‘Civil war has by definition, a social character and naturally during the course of the war problems of a social and economic nature arise... Solving them will be subordinated to a single objective: winning the war’.

He went even further a month later when he said:

The government of the Spanish Republic is not aiming at setting up a soviet regime in Spain in spite of what has been alleged in some quarters abroad... the government’s essential aim is to maintain the parliamentary regime of the republic as it was set up by the constitution ... [14]

One of the first acts of the new government was to move against the numerous revolutionary committees that existed throughout the republican zone. New municipal councils were established based on the same distribution of representation as central government. The left socialist Claridad argued,

We can claim that all these bodies now have accomplished the mission they were created for. Henceforth they can only be a hindrance to a task that devolves solely and exclusively on the Popular Front government ... in which all political and trade union organisations play a full responsible part. [15]

Already the initiative was moving from the hands of rank and file workers to the government. The workers’ patrols, set up by the different parties and unions to deal with counter-revolutionaries, were united on September 21 into the rear-vigilance militias. Later they became a new unified ‘a-political’ police force. This body in turn came under heavy Stalinist domination, mainly because of the growing influence of Russian aid.

On the economic front an anarchist proposal to decree general collectivization of industry was opposed by Caballero on the grounds that it would lead to Western reprisals and a further tightening of the arms embargo. Only in Catalonia, where the revolutionaries were very strong was collectivisation ‘legalised’ on October 24, though even here compensation was given because of the dictates of foreign policy.

The most important aspect of re-building the state was the need to undermine the power of the militias. This was done by the constitution of a new regular army under centralised command. This Popular Army, as it became known, despite the provision of political commissars, was to be structured like any bourgeois army with ranks, privileges and all the rigours of military discipline. Throughout the summer the Socialist left had vehemently opposed such an idea. Any move away from the militias was seen as ‘counter revolutionary’. Caballero himself stated at the time that, ‘... to think of replacing the present combatants by another type of army that to a certain extent, would control their revolutionary action, is to think in a counter-revolutionary way.’ [16] Calls by the then all Republican government for a ‘voluntary’ army were rejected by Caballero and his supporters. In an interview with Stalin’s unofficial envoy, the journalist Mikhail Koltzov, Caballero predicted that a regular army would ‘wrest control from the people the arms that have cost them so dearly’. [17]

The Communists had refrained from calling for the merging of the militias into a government-controlled army because they knew Caballero distrusted the government. Once the new government was formed, under the impact of successive defeats, they pressed for such an army. Apparently Caballero long resisted the idea of a regular army but Russian military advisors, who were becoming increasingly important, persuaded him of the necessity. [18] Nevertheless it was a long way from the first ‘militarization’ decree of September 1936 to the full establishment of this new army. For the next nine months there was a long, bitter, but fragmented struggle to impose militarization upon recalcitrant militias, particularly those under anarchist influence.

The new army became centred on the CP-dominated 5th Regiment. They had voluntarily disbanded their militias and managed to attract to their regiment thousands of both ordinary workers and former Republican army officers who were tired of the disorganisation and ineffectiveness of the militias. Their position was greatly strengthened by the preferential treatment they received. Not only did the best Russian weapons find their way to the Communists’ units but there was also a steady flow of military advisors from the Comintern. Added to this was the control of many key posts in the war ministry by Communists and their sympathisers. In particular the appointment of commissars to the new regiments was in the hands of fellow travellers, who had previously been supporters of Caballero. It seems that Caballero was unaware of the extent of Stalinist penetration of the war ministry until some months later. [19] The outcome of this was that as the war progressed the Stalinists were able to systematically undermine those militias who opposed militarisation by depriving them of ammunition and supplies.

By early 1937 Caballero was becoming unhappy about the growth of Stalinist influence in the new state machine. Yet again he was responding to the discontent of many rank and file workers who were increasingly discontented by the continual attacks on their revolutionary gains. The Communist Party itself, was now more confident that it could do without Caballero and tentatively began to move against him. Caballero tried to curb Communist influence in the army by taking over the responsibility for appointing commissars himself. This in turn fuelled the CP’s opposition to the Prime Minister.

Added to this clash was the failure of the Communists to secure the unification of the Socialist and Communist parties, which they had pressed for since the formation of the government in September 1936. This idea had been in the air since 1935 and had initially been received sympathetically by Caballero. This was partly because he believed the Socialist Party could absorb the Communists and partly because of the radical way the Communists had posed the fusion at the time. [20] However Caballero’s experience in government and the gradual realisation that his base was being destroyed meant that despite Communist sycophancy in the early months, he went against the idea. More specifically he had encouraged the unification of the Socialist and Communist youth organisations in early 1936 which had proved disastrous to the Socialists. The new unified organisation, the JSU, fell quickly under Stalinist domination and provided the shock troops for the Communists’ push to power.

The fall of Malaga in February 1937, amid accusations of treachery and military incompetence, saw the scales tip firmly against Caballero. Despite strenuous efforts by the Socialist leader to avoid it, the eventual scapegoat was the under-secretary of state General Jose Asenio, a supporter of Caballero’s. This was the turning point for his fortunes in the government. [21]

By spring 1937 the majority in the government: Republicans, Basque and Catalan nationalists, Communists and right Socialists were lined up against Caballero. He tried to turn to the anarchists for support. But it was too late: the balance of forces had decisively shifted against him. The logic of his participation in the government had forced him continually to pursue policies that undermined his own base.

In the early months of 1937 the economic situation was deteriorating. The combination of this and the now openly counter-revolutionary activity of the re-built state led to an upsurge of revolutionary opposition. This finally came to a head when anarchist and POUM workers clashed with government forces in Barcelona in May 1937. As usual Caballero prevaricated, wanting neither to give the CP more strength nor undermine the war effort. The outcome was the crushing to the revolution’s principal remaining stronghold. It was now only a matter of days before a new government was formed without Caballero or his supporters. The Communist Party wanted the dissolution of the anti-Stalinist POUM. Caballero refused to contemplate this and vehemently defended them against charges of being ‘Fascist agents’. It was now quite clear to him that his own future was tied to the fate of the revolution. But even among the left Socialists his support had been considerably undermined. Not only had the youth gone over to supporting the Stalinists, but so also had a considerable number of UGT leaders. He had recently even lost control of Claridad. His remaining supporters were demoralised and disorientated and by October 1937 the combined forces of the reformists and the pro-Communists and the CP itself had ousted Caballero’s faction from the UGT leadership itself. Belatedly he broke the public unity he had been at such pains to preserve in the first year of the war and openly attacked the Stalinists at a massive meeting in Madrid on October 18, 1937. However his speech contained no alternative policy to that of the new government now headed by moderate Socialist Juan Negrin. But it was still too much for the government and he was arrested four days later. He subsequently agreed to desist in his campaign against the government and the new UGT leadership. On November 30, 1937, his last mouthpiece La Correspondencia de Valencia was seized. He was to play no further part in the country’s political life. He died in exile in France in 1946 after spending the war in a Nazi concentration camp.

The Spanish Lenin?

In early 1936, Caballero and his supporters appeared to be revolutionary socialists. They adhered in words to all the tenets of revolutionary Marxism; the impossibility of reform, the necessity for armed insurrection, the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. He was the leader of one of the strongest political currents in Spain with mass support in the unions and amongst the youth.

Caballero was nicknamed the Spanish Lenin but he was no Lenin. The Russian had led a successful revolution, the Spaniard played a key role in the derailment of the uprising of 1936. In two key areas Caballero, for all his rhetoric, was no revolutionary:

The Revolution. Caballero’s belief in early 1936 of the necessity for revolution was not based on the belief that it was impossible to reform capitalism. Rather his revolutionary position was based on the fact that the ruling class was intransigent and would not allow the Socialist Party to introduce socialism or even preserve its gains except through the revolution. So the revolution was reduced to the level of bluff to frighten the bourgeoisie. It was not seen as the only solution to the proletariat’s defensive struggles and offensive aspirations. If the revolution was only a threat then no consistent policy could be worked out. So the left Socialists lurched from the irresponsible revolutionary demagogy of 1934 to the pure pragmatism when a revolutionary crisis was looming in the July of 1936.

The Party. Caballero was brought up in the traditions of the Second International, not those of the Russian Revolution. A key part of that ideology was that the party rather than the class itself was the key instrument of the transition to socialism. Caballero thus put the highest priority on the preservation of the structures of the party and the union rather than starting from what the structures did. On the one hand this meant that Caballero was very sensitive and adaptable to the mood of the class. When it shifted the left, the party became more militant, when it relapsed into confusion or passivity the party followed suit. It gave no lead, it merely reflected the confusion and contradictions of the masses.

The results of this position meant that the left Socialists were never able to offer a strategy for the class; rather they perpetuated its weaknesses and divisions. Crucial was their attitude to the anarchists. The left Socialists could never propose any kind of unity in action towards them. That could have meant losing control of their own supporters. Instead they could merely demand that the anarchists merge into the structures of the UGT and the Socialist Party. This led to the missing of a succession of critical opportunities for the reunification of the Spanish working class, most notably through the Workers’ Alliance or in the strike waves of the early thirties. Instead the Spanish working class stumbled into the Civil War divided into different and often antagonistic currents.

The Spanish Socialist Party which Caballero hoped would absorb all other currents was never going to be a revolutionary party. Its traditions and structure were geared towards electoral intervention, not towards leading the class to the successful seizure of power. Its traditions were those of the Second International and its historic leaders – Caballero included – had spent most of their lives deeply involved in that tradition. Its structure too militated against its transformation. Within the leadership right-wing reformists like Prieto and Negrin rubbed shoulders with Caballero and his supporters. For the left Socialists, there was no question of splitting the party along the lines of two different traditions. Rather the whole campaign for ‘bolshevisation’ merely meant the left taking over the existing structures of the party and bending them their way. The Russian Lenin had radically broken with the Second International both organisationally and politically. Caballero did not.

So what was Caballero? Essentially he was the representative of a mass centrist current. Like much of his base he vacillated between an attempt to solve the crisis through reformist pressure on the government of the day and the appeal of revolution. All too often, and most clearly in October of 1934 his speeches were revolutionary but his actions were not. Such centrist currents as that represented by Caballero can only survive as long as there is room for manoeuvre. When the revolutionary crisis came in the twelve months after June 1936 the left Socialists and Largo Caballero himself were destroyed. There was no more space left to arbitrate between the state and the masses. Pierre Broué summed up Caballero’s position:

He wished to arbitrate in the name of the state ... He did not want to relaunch the revolution for fear of losing the war, nor did he wish to deprive the workers of their reasons for winning the war by coming out openly against the revolution ... although he was the workers’ a representative at the head of state, he had ceased to be master of either. [22]

In conclusion, the experience of Largo Caballero and the left Socialists demonstrates that there is no middle road between revolution and reformism, between the smashing of the state and rebuilding it again, between the creation of a revolutionary party and the transformation of a reformist one. Those like Caballero who try to straddle the two are broken at times of revolutionary crisis.


1. This was the outcome of the first ever agreement between the UGT and the CNT in December 1916. The strike was meant to coincide with a general anti-regime movement involving dissident army officers, Catalan nationalists and republicans. The government provoked the two unions into premature action and effectively isolated and smashed those workers who came out.

2. Between 1919 and 1921 there were three special Socialist Party congresses to discuss affiliation to the Comintern, until the pro-Communist minority broke away to form a new party. While the various votes were quite close in the party, the union, firmly under Caballero’s grip, voted by 110,902 to 17,919 against the Comintern at their 1920 congress.

3. The anarcho-syndicalist union grew dramatically between 1918 when they claimed 75,000 members to their peak of 700,000 in 1921. With the end of the revolutionary wave the CNT fell to around 300,000 members by 1923 compared with 200,000 in the UGT. (cf. Tunon de Lara, El movimiento obrera en la historia de Espana, vol. 2, pp. 275, 258).

4. The CNT got a taste of what to expect from the new government during the long and bitter telephone workers’ strike in the summer of 1931. When a violent general strike in solidarity broke out in Seville, Caballero demanded that the conservative-republican Minister of the Interior, Miguel Maura, should take immediate action to prevent the dispute discrediting the regime. Simultaneously he proposed a draft decree for declaring strikes illegal in certain circumstances. The following day, with cabinet approval, troops moved into the city and attacked the CNT district headquarters with artillery. Later Caballero helped elaborate the authoritarian Law for the Defence of the Republic.

5. In 1931 with the apparent benefits of a Socialist controlled Labour Ministry the UGT quickly recruited large numbers of farmworkers in those areas where no previous anarchist organisation had existed. The UGT’s farmworkers union, the FNTT, grew from 100,000 to 445,000 between 1931 and 1932. The UGT’s total membership rose from 277,011 in 1930 to 1,041,539 in 1932. The party meanwhile grew from 23,009 to 76,011 in the same period, (cf. A. de Bias Guerrero, El socialismo radical en la Segunda Republica, p. 35.

6. Largo Caballero, Discurses a los trabajadores, p. 119.

7. S. Julia, La Izquierda del PSOE (1935-1936), p. 74.

8. El Socialista, 14 January 1936.

9. Claridad, 19 March 1936

10. R. Fraser, Blood of Spain, p. 100.

11. B. Bolloten, The Spanish Revolution, p. 118.

12. Claridad, 22 August 1936.

13. F. Claudin, La crisis del movimiento comunista, p. 610

14. Manchester Guardian, 25 November 1936.

15. Claridad, 19 February 1937.

16. Claridad, 20 August 1936.

17. Bolloten, op. cit., p. 243.

18. L. Fischer, Men and Politics, p. 354

19. cf. Bolloten, op. cit., pp. 335–363.

20. For example the letter to the Socialist Party in March 1936 which talks of fusion on the basis of, ‘Complete independence with regard to the bourgeoisie ... complete rupture of the social democratic bloc with the bourgeoisie ... recognition of the need for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois domination and for the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the form of Soviets’. (Claridad, 12 March 1936)

21. Following this he then failed to obtain support for an offensive against the western region of Extremadura to take the pressure off Madrid. The offensive was opposed by the Russian advisers, ostensibly on purely technical grounds. The real reason was a fear that the offensive’s success would have undoubtedly strengthened Caballero’s position in the government.

22. P. Broué and E. Temime, The Revolution and Civil War in Spain, p. 281.

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