The Spanish Revolution Betrayed

The year 2001 marks the 70th anniversary of the proclamation of the Spanish Republic in 1931, an event which was the opening shot in the Spanish Revolution. Also 65 years ago, on July 18th 1936, we saw the uprising of Franco, once the Spanish ruling class understood that they could no longer rule through 'democratic' means. We are publishing here an article by Alan Woods which deals with the last period of the spanish Revolution. This article was first published in 1986 as a concluding part of a series of articles on the Spanish Revolution 1931-37.

The victory of Franco was not a foregone conclusion. It is a fact which is not generally realised that the Spanish ruling class, having embarked on the course of civil war came within an inch of losing everything.

The Spanish workers could undoubtedly have smashed the fascists - as they succeeded in doing in Catalonia - and set about the task of transforming society on one condition - that the workers' leaders would have had a revolutionary policy.

The conduct of the war would have to be taken out of the hands of treacherous capitalist politicians. The resources of Spain - the land, the factories, the banks -would have to be taken over by the workers and peasants. The masses would have to be armed in defence of their social conquest and the leadership of the struggle would have to be in the hands of the known and trusted representatives of the workers' cause.

But the liberal capitalist ministers would never accept such a programme - far better to hand Spain over bound and gagged to the fascists than allow the workers and peasants to take over the running of society.

The unwillingness and complete incapacity of the Republicans to fight the fascists was revealed from the very beginning. The treacherous and cowardly behaviour of the Republican leaders in the face of the coup, their suppression of the news and refusal to arm the workers was no accident. It flowed from their class point of view.

Yet the Socialist and Communist leaders continued to prop up the Republican ministers with their authority. Only in September 1936 did the left Socialist leader, Largo Caballero, under the pressure of the masses, become Prime Minister.

The most pernicious role in all this was played by the leaders of the "Communist" Party, who took their orders from Moscow. Stalin was terrified of the possibility of a victorious workers' revolution in Spain.

The example of a healthy workers' democracy in Spain would exercise a powerful effect on the Russian workers, who were growing restive under the impositions of the bureaucratic totalitarian regime.

It is no accident that Stalin unleashed the infamous purge trials precisely at this time. The bloody extermination of all those who had been connected with the democratic and internationalist traditions of Lenin and the October Revolution was a "one-sided civil war" of the Stalinist bureaucracy against Bolshevism. It was meant as a pre-emptive strike to prevent the danger of a resurgence of a Leninist opposition in Russia, inspired by the movement of the Spanish workers.

Having abandoned Lenin's revolutionary internationalist policy, which based the defence of the Soviet Union fundamentally upon the support of the world working class and the victory of socialism internationally, the Russian bureaucracy attempted to get the support of the "good", "democratic", capitalist states (Britain and France) against Hitler.

At one stage, they even supported "good" Italian fascism against the "bad" Germany variety! The strangling of the Spanish revolution would thus have had the additional advantage of proving Stalin's "respectability" to London and Paris.

The real policy of the British and French capitalists was not dictated by their alleged love of "democracy" but by naked class interests and, above all, fear of the revolution in Spain. Hiding behind the monstrous policy of "non-intervention" they hypocritically turned a blind eye to the help given by fascist Germany and Italy to Franco.

Stalin's policy

For his part, Stalin sent limited arms supplies to Spain - not enough to achieve the decisive military defeat of Franco, but more than enough to help the Republicans - in cahoots with the Spanish Stalinists - to rebuild the shattered capitalist state machine.

The leaders of the Spanish "Communist" Party became the most fervent defenders of capitalist "law and order". Under the slogan "first win the war, then make the revolution", they systematically sabotaged all independent movement of the workers and peasants.

The Spanish Stalinists, who had at first opposed the idea of the socialists taking over the government, preferring to support the Republicans from outside, put pressure on Largo Caballero to abandon the socialist policies which he had earlier defended, at least in words.

For their part, the anarchist leaders of the CNT, who had refused to set up a workers' government in Catalonia, where power was in the hands of the working class, now proceeded to ditch all their previous ideas and do a 180-degree somersault by joining the capitalist popular front government.

The "theories" of anarchism, as Trotsky once observed, are like a leaky umbrella - useless precisely when it rains.

All the forces of the old society thus conspired to defeat the heroic movement of the Spanish working class. In the moment of truth, the leaders of all the workers' organisations passed over to the camp of the capitalist class. They justified their policy of class collaboration on the grounds of the need to fight fascism, "for democracy". The workers understand the need to fight against fascism and to defend those democratic rights won in struggle against the very "Republican" employers, bankers and capitalists.

The question is how victory was to be achieved. Trotsky answered in this way:

"You are right in fighting Franco. We must exterminate the fascists, but not in order to have the same Spain as before the civil war, because Franco issued from this Spain. We must exterminate the foundations of Franco, the social foundations of Franco, which is the social system of capitalism." (Spanish Revolution 1931-39, p.255)

In 1936, as we have seen, the Socialists and Communists united, not with the imaginary" progressive capitalists" but with a phantom. The real capitalists, bankers and landlords had in the main fled to the side of Franco at the beginning of the civil war.

The only social force which remained to fight against fascism were the workers and peasants. What were they supposed to be fighting for? For the "Republic"? But the capitalist Republic had failed to solve any one of the basic problems of the workers and peasants.

Not for nothing did the fascists demagogically use the slogan: "Que te da a comer la Republica?" ("What does the Republic give you to eat?")

The way to defeat Franco was not by clinging to an alliance with the "liberal" capitalists - who were striving all along to reach a deal with the fascists - but linking the military struggle against fascism to the revolutionary struggle for real democracy, a workers democracy!

The POUM (Workers' Party of Marxist Unification) was a party which, in words, stood for a socialist policy. But the lack of theoretical clarity and inconsistency of Nin, Andrade and the other ex-Trotskyist leaders of the POUM proved fatal to the workers' cause.

The POUM allowed itself to be ensnared in Popular Front ministerialism, joining the Catalan government, the Generalitat. Andres Nin, ironically in view of his fate, became councillor for justice.

The POUM leaders naively tried to persuade the Catalan popular-front to take the road of revolution from inside the government. They reduced themselves to the role of unpaid advisers of the capitalist and reformist politicians, instead of pursuing an independent class policy.


This policy of the POUM disorientated the leftward moving workers who were looking to it for a lead. Large sections of the anarchist CNT - especially the youth - were disgusted with the sell-out of their leaders and looking for an alternative. By joining the popular front, the POUM leadership threw away the opportunity of providing that alternative.

Under pressure from the Stalinists, Largo Caballero agreed to replace the workers' militias with a "regular army". Using this as an excuse, they set about liquidating the gains of the revolution, not flinching from the task of bloody executioners where the workers attempted to defend themselves against the counter-revolution.

The main cutting-edge of the counter-revolution was provided by the "Communist" Party, particularly in Catalonia:

"Communist members formally increased to 250,000 by the end of 1936. Their championship of peasant ownership and opposition to revolution everywhere gained them ground. The Catalan writer, Jose Austin Goytisolo, later wrote that his father joined the PSUC [The Catalan CP - AW] since, though a man of the right, he wanted protection against the anarchists who desired to take over the factory where he worked as an engineer.

"Jose Diaz was to tell the Communist Central Committee in March that no less than 76,000 (almost a third) of party members were peasant proprietors and 15,482 (6.2 percent) members of the urban middle class. There were thus more peasant proprietors than agricultural workers, an extraordinary situation." (Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, p. 522)

The old capitalist state machine in Catalonia had been destroyed by the workers in July 1936. The Stalinists of the PSUC now helped the Catalan bourgeois nationalists to rebuild their power base. In order to do this, the anarchist and POUMist workers must be crushed. The Stalinists assumed the main responsibility for this hangman's task.

Towards the end of 1936, they began to agitate in favour of the dissolution of the workers' committee under the slogan: "All power to the Generalitat!" (The Catalan capitalist government.) The Stalinist Food Minister Comorera abolished the anarchist-controlled bread committees, which had controlled a key section of food distribution. By degrees, the elements of workers' control were being whittled away.

As happens in every revolution when it begins to ebb, the workers began to realise that power was slipping from their hands. The anarchist leaders of the CNT did nothing to halt the Stalinist-led onslaught.

Internal differences began to appear in the ranks of the anarchist workers. The "Friends of Durruti" represented a genuinely revolutionary tendency which was in the process of breaking from anarchism and moving towards Marxism. Had the leaders of the POUM maintained a real revolutionary policy, they could have now won over the majority of the CNT activists.

But the lack of an independent class policy, the shamefaced illusions in popular frontism and continual centrist vacillations and ambiguities meant that the POUM, in the decisive moment, played a fatal role. Up to the last moment, the POUM leaders clung to the policy of collaborating with the very people who were plotting counter-revolution, the PSUC.

Even when they were expelled from the Popular Front government as a result of pressure from the Stalinists, they demanded re-entry. Like Hilferding who, at the time of the German revolution in 1918 advocated a "marriage" of the soviets with capitalist parliamentarianism, the POUM leaders put forward the naive idea of a special conference -convened by the capitalist Generalitat - to create soviets!

This overlooked the minor detail that the Generalitat, as the centre of counter-revolution, was bent upon destroying the elements of soviets - the workers' councils - that already existed.

The Barcelona May Days

Having prepared the climate of reaction for six months, in May of 1937, the Stalinists struck. The anarchist workers had seized the Barcelona telephone exchange during the 1936 insurrection. Now the Stalinists sent troops and tanks to seize the exchange.

The anarchist workers resisted. A general strike was called and barricades set up all over Catalonia. An attempt to use the foreign International Brigades against the Barcelona workers was thwarted by the refusal of the former to intervene. Power was once more firmly in the hands of the proletariat in Catalonia.

This was the last chance to carry out the revolution in Spain. With correct leadership, the May days could have ended in victory for the workers. After the event, the anarchist newspaper Solidaridad Obrera stated that: "If we had wished to take power, we could have accomplished it in May with certainty. But we are against dictatorship."

It is a disgraceful fact that the leaders of the CNT and the POUM came to the rescue of the capitalist state each time it appeared in danger of overthrow. The leaders of the anarchists, Garcia Oliver and Federica Montseny called on the workers to lay down their arms and return to work. The anarchist centre, the Casa CNT ordered the workers to leave the barricades.

For four days the workers effectively controlled Barcelona.

Had the POUM called upon the workers to take power, nothing could have stopped them. The example of a workers' and peasants' revolutionary government in Catalonia would have spread like wildfire through the rest of Spain.

"Had the POUM taken power, they could have offered a united front against Franco to the government in Madrid. The government had no troops on which it could rely. Very rapidly the masses in Madrid, Valencia and at the fronts would have rallied to the banner of socialism in Barcelona. The power of the Madrid government would have crumbled and disappeared." (Ted Grant, The Spanish Revolution 1931-37, p. 56)

The defeat of the Barcelona proletariat unleashed an orgy of counter-revolution. The Stalinists began to round up anarchists and POUMists and to disarm the workers. The workers' committees and collectives were destroyed. The POUM was made illegal, under the lying pretext that it had plotted with Franco. Nin and other leaders were brutally tortured and murdered by Stalin's agents in Spain.

To his credit, the left Socialist leader, Largo Caballero attempted to protest against the activities of the Stalinists in Catalonia. This sealed his fate. The Stalinists ganged up with the right-wing Socialists led by Prieto to provoke a cabinet crisis which led to the fall of Caballero.

Caballero was replaced with the right-wing Socialist Juan Negrin, described by Hugh Thomas as "a man of the grande bourgeoisie, a defender of private property, even of capitalism." (The Spanish Civil War, p. 667) Under Negrin, the left Socialists and anarchists were systematically purged from all positions of responsibility.

Rebuilding the capitalist state

With the enthusiastic assistance of the "Communists", Negrin rebuilt the old capitalist state apparatus and placed the armed forces under the control of "loyal" (i.e. pro-capitalist reactionary) army officers, like General Miaja who held a CP card (in fact he seems to have held a card for all the political parties!)

The old judges, police chiefs, prison directors and civil servants again climbed out of the woodwork. Radical lawyers, who were considered to be too sympathetic to the workers' cause were dismissed. The peasants' collectives were broken up and their leaders arrested.

As early as April 1937, Leon Trotsky warned that capitalist democracy was doomed in Spain irrespective of which side won the war. The line of thinking of Negrin was revealed even before his coming to power when he said that Spain "required a dictatorship under democratic rules [!] which would prepare the people for the future." Trotsky's prediction was confirmed by subsequent events.

Negrin's government, cynically styled "the government of victory" by the CP, presided over a series of crushing military defeats. The morale of the workers had been broken by the liquidation of the gains of the revolution.

In reality, the Republican government was not looking for a military victory but a deal with Franco. The right Socialist Prieto secretly offered the fascists a coalition with Gil Robles and - himself! But Franco had no intention of making any concessions.

The much-heralded offensive on the Ebro ended in defeat, which placed Catalonia at the mercy of Franco. The crushing of the workers of Barcelona destroyed the fighting spirit of the capital, which soon fell to the fascists, who unleashed a nightmare of repression.

As Trotsky had foreseen, the defeat of the working class would inevitably spell the victory of counter-revolution, even if the Republic won the war. The Stalinists had helped reconstruct the capitalist state and deliver the army to the control of the old officer caste. The latter now proceeded to kick the "Communists" to one side and carry out a coup d'etat behind the lines.

Generals Casado and Miaja (still with a CP card in his pocket) conspired with Negrin to illegalise the "Communist" Party and attempt to do a deal with Franco. Casado offered to arrest and hand over to Franco many CP and other leaders.

Right-wing Socialist leaders like Besteiro were involved up to the hilt in the conspiracy. Besteiro even offered to meet Franco to surrender in person.

Getting wind of the plot, La Pasionaria and other Stalinist leaders fled to France, leaving the ordinary CP members to their fate. The "Communist" Party paid for its treachery by being crushed - not by Franco, but by those very "democratic", "progressive" Republican generals and politicians whom they had put in power.

With the elimination of the Stalinists, General Casado tried to negotiate with Franco. But by now there was nothing to negotiate about. On midday, March 27, 1939, Franco's forces occupied Madrid with virtually no resistance. Negrin, Prieto and the other right-wing Socialist leaders took a plane to Mexico with enormous quantities of gold and precious stones, to live out a comfortable exile whilst the Socialist rank-and-file were left to the tender mercies of Franco's executioners.

Besteiro stayed behind, foolishly imagining he would be spared, and died in gaol. Largo Caballero, along with thousands of other Spanish refugees, was caught up by the German invasion of France and sent to a Nazi concentration camp.

Francoist repression

The Spanish working class paid an appalling price for the false policies, cowardice and outright betrayal of its leaders. The fascists took a terrible revenge on the workers. Up to one million people were killed in the civil war itself. Thousands more were murdered in the immediate aftermath of defeat.

In every village there is a lonely path which leads into the countryside. To this day, old people will describe how the ''nacionales" came and took so-and-so for a "paseito" (a "little stroll") along that road, never to be seen again, as the landlords and capitalists settled old scores.

The prisons of Spain were filled to overflowing. By 1942, it is estimated that maybe two million people had passed through the prisons and camps. Many were sentenced to death. Others were "fortunate" to have their sentence commuted to 30 years imprisonment.

The most elementary rights of the workers were taken away; their political and trade union organisations outlawed. A dark night of barbarism settled upon Spain which was to last nearly 40 years.

The defeat of the Spanish workers also settled the fate of Europe. Trotsky had predicted that such a defeat would make the second world war inevitable. The "democratic" British and French ruling classes who connived at the victory of Franco (Chamberlain wrote in his diary: "I think we ought to be able to establish excellent relations with Franco, who seems well disposed to us.") prepared the ground for Hitler's onslaught on Poland and France within a year of the fall of Madrid.

For his part, Stalin was already negotiating secretly for a deal with Hitler even while the war in Spain was continuing. The second world war, with its tens of millions of dead, which brought humanity to the brink of barbarism, was the direct result of the failure of the Spanish working class to take power in 1936-37.

"He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it." The present world crisis of capitalism will once again place on the order of the day the socialist transformation of society.

It is the duty of all conscious workers to study the lessons of the Spanish revolution in order to equip themselves to carry through the struggle to a victorious conclusion.

August 1986

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