Lessons of People’s War in Spain 1936-1939

4 R

Progressive Labor, Vol. 9, No. 5 (Oct.-Nov. 1974), 106-116.

The Spanish Civil War was the opening act of the Second World War in Europe. It was the military and political proving ground both for European Fascism, and for class-collaborationist policies that the old communist movement never outlived.

In one important respect, however, the Spanish War differed from the major conflict which was to follow. In Spain, the major capitalist powers united–despite their contradictions with one another–against the threat of proletarian revolution, a threat made real by the Asturias revolt of 1934. When the World War came, the lines were not drawn, as the imperialists had wished, with Hitler’s Germany attacking the Soviet Union, with active or “neutral” support from the “democracies.” Instead, the imperialists fought among themselves, leaving the Soviet workers to destroy Hitler virtually by themselves.

The History of the Civil war has long preoccupied red-baiters of all sorts, seeking to vilify Spanish communists, the Communist International, and Stalin. Anti-communist writers have produced almost as many pages of lies about the struggle in Spain as about the October Revolution. This article will be a brief attempt to exhume some of the lessons for the working class that have been buried under this mass of filth.

We will see that study of the war has practical value for communists of today on a number of points. We will see that the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) and the Comintern provided the only effective leadership–political and military–in the struggle against Fascism in Spain. The PCE, unlike all the groups of “left” creeps beloved of anti-communist writers from Orwell to Chomsky, was able to organize hundreds of thousands of working people into a powerful military force, despite the enormous material difficulties and their own weaknesses.

As for the errors of the PCE, they confirm major points of PL’s line: (I) communists lose when they abandon the struggle for workers’ dictatorship; (II) fighting fascism is critical for worker’s victory; (III) nationalism and alliances with bosses are disastrous; (IV) “unity” with various phony left groups–Anarchists and Trotskyites–is as fatal as “unity” with bosses.

The Spanish Republic

Spain was and is a minor capitalist power, largely agricultural, with major portions of its industry controlled from abroad. In the ’30s, industry was concentrated along the northern coast in Asturias and the Basque provinces (mainly mining) and in Catalonia on the east coast (light industry). The principal foreign owners were English, French, Belgian, Canadian and U.S. capitalists. The Catholic Church was a large land owner, and the Jesuits owned or controlled major banks, railways, mines, and factories.(1)

The Spanish Republic was established in 1931 when King Alfonso XIII decided to “suspend the use of (his) Royal Prerogatives” and leave the country.(2) Weakened and discredited by many years of colonial war against the Riffs in Morocco (costing over $800 million), and in the throes of the world economic depression, the monarchy was no longer a viable form of bourgeois rule, and was superceded first by a bourgeois republic and then by Fascism.

The Republic established universal suffrage (both sexes), promulgated a skimpy land reform, expanded public education, and reduced the prerogatives of the Army and the Catholic Church. The Catalan and Basque provinces were granted limited independence, and the Barcelona municipal government was reorganized as the Catalan Government, called the “Generalitat.”(3)

In 1932, General Sanjurjo led a small group of monarchists, landowners, clericalists and army officers in a coup against the Republic, but lacking support from the major forces of the ruling class, it failed. In the elections of November, 1933, however, the forces of the Right made substantial gains. The largest party in the Cortes (parliament) was the Rightist catholic party, CEDA, but the first government was formed as a coalition of Center parties, which halted or reversed many of the earlier reforms and amnestied Sanjurjo.(4)

In October, 1934, when a new government was formed with ministers from the CEDA, the Socialists and Communists of the UGT labor federation saw this as the onset of Fascism, and called a general strike in Madrid. The Socialist leadership of the UGT went underground, the large Anarchist-led labor federation (CNT) abstained, and the strike was short-lived. In Catalonia, the Generalitat declared independence from the central government, but the Anarchists again abstained and the rebellion was brief.

In Asturias, however, well-organized Socialist, Communist and Anarchist miners cooperated in a full-scale insurrection–in one place, declaring a Soviet Republic. The government called in the Foreign Legion and Moorish Regulares, commanded by Generals Goded and Franco. Franco, who had made his reputation in command of the Legion in the Moroccan wars, was selected for this similar job by multimillionaire Juan March, of whom we will hear more later.(5)

After bitter fighting, the rising was ruthlessly suppressed. As many as 3,000 workers were killed, mostly slaughtered after they surrendered. 30,000 prisoners were taken.(6)

The Rebellion in Asturias was a turning point in Spanish politics. Unlike the periodic rebellions of the Anarchists, it was sufficiently extensive and well-organized to show that working class revolution in Spain was a possibility to be reckoned with. The bosses learned this lesson well, but, for the most part, the Left did not, a failure which would lead to many future errors.

For the next elections of February, 1936, the parties of the Left formed a so-called “Popular Front” slate. The strategy of the Popular Front was developed at the 7th Congress of the Communist International, the idea being that in view of the dangers of Fascism and imperialist war, communists should form an alliance with Social-Democrats and some bourgeois elements to preserve bourgeois democracy and peace. This program was taken to include attempts to form united Socialist-Communist parties and, in some cases, communist participation in bourgeois governments. Thus the Popular Front was an alliance which included not only the rank-and-file, but also the class-collaborationist leadership of the Social-Democratic parties, and which supported the “good” liberal bosses against the “bad” Fascist ones. This line was made explicit by G. Dimitroff in his otherwise guarded exposition of the Popular Front strategy at the 7th Congress. Dimitroff claimed that those comrades who linked Roosevelt’s “New Deal” to Fascism were guilty of a “stereotyped approach” to the united front:

“One must indeed be a confirmed addict of the use of hackneyed schemes not to see that the most reactionary circles of American finance capital, which are attacking Roosevelt, represent first and foremost the very force which is stimulating and organizing the Fascist movement in the United States.”(7)

However, as subsequent events in Spain and elsewhere were to demonstrate, ruling class differences over Fascism versus bourgeois democracy were merely temporary and tactical. The very same bosses try to ensure their rule with “democracy” at one place or time and Fascism at another. We will see below how English, French and U.S. bosses, to which the Spanish Republic appealed for aid, helped their friendly local Fascists instead. We will also see how the utterly futile attempts of the Spanish communists to get ruling class support eventually cost them the war. The minimum condition for support was, of course, abandoning the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat. In fact the PCE agitated against workers’ rule and repudiated it as an immediate goal. This was a line not only for public consumption, but one around which they recruited and organized the party’s base. Thus when the treachery, incompetence and defeatism of the Republican government became absolutely unbearable, the PCE was willing and able to force some of the worst offenders from the government, but not to take power and lead the struggle through a workers’ government.

The Fascist Rising

In the February elections, the Popular Front won a major electoral victory, obtaining 278 seats in the Cortes, while the Right took only 134. The parties of the Center practically ceased to exist. Even Francisco Cambo, biggest capitalist in Catalonia, lost his seat.

The elections were not even completed before planning for another right-wing coup began, this time on a large scale. Franco urged the caretaker Prime Minister to declare a state of war and keep the Popular Front from taking office. His request was refused on the grounds that granting it would provoke a revolution.(8)

With this refusal, Franco began to plot in earnest, together with a number of generals, including Sanjurjo and Mola (both to die within the year under mysterious circumstances, thus incidentally assuring Franco’s ascendancy in the Fascist camp.)

Among others, the plotters included representatives of the feuding monarchist factions, the CEDA, and, through them, various financiers.(9)  Juan March, who reportedly contributed $15,000,000 to the coup,(10)  had left the country for France, but kept in contact with the plotters through his envoy, the Bishop of the Catholic Mission in France.(11) Francisco Cambo also left the country, having deposited the principal assets of his Catalan financial empire in Buenos Aires.(12) Cambo was apparently not directly involved in the coup, but supported it after the fact.(13)  The plotters were assured in advance of German and Italian financial support in exchange for metal ores.(14)

The tiny Falange Espanola, the “official” Fascist party of Spain, took part in the plot and together with the Carlists (monarchists) of Navarre, provided the whole of the minuscule popular support on which the plotters could count. The Falange was supported in its early days by Juan March, the Bank of Vizcaya (partly controlled by the Jesuits), various Basque industrialists and Bourbon monarchists.(15) After the rising, it was transformed into Franco’s party.(16)

Rumors of the plot were widespread. On July 13, PCE deputy Jose Diaz accused the Right in the Cortes: “You cannot deny that you are plotting, that you are preparing a coup.”(17) The same day, PCE spokeswoman Dolores Ibarurri (“La Pasionaria”) spoke in Asturias:

“Asturianos! Be vigilant. Reaction is even now in arms. If they dare attempt to rise, you will know what to do. Retrieve your arms now, from where you have hidden them–and keep your powder dry.”(18)

A good aspect of the PCE actions shown here was their reliance on workers to combat Fascism, but here and for the entire war, their outlook was largely defensive. Not: “let’s go kill the plotters and establish socialism,” but “let’s get them if they try anything.”

On the 16th of July, Franco flew in a British plane from his quasi-exile in the Canary Islands to Mallorca in the Mediterranean. On the plane with him was a certain Captain Pollard, agent of the British Secret Service. Pollard got the British Consul to intercede with the Republican authorities when the plane was seized for lack of papers. It was released.(19)

On the next afternoon, the Fascist rising began in Morocco. Hearing of the events in Morocco, the trade unions and parties of the Left demanded that the workers be armed by the government. In most areas, they were not, but many rebellious garrisons on the mainland were subdued by workers with arms taken from police and army units. At the end of this first phase of the rebellion, two-thirds of the territory of Spain and three-fourths of its population were held by the Republic. The main forces of the Fascists were the Foreign Legion and the Moorish Regulares of the Army of Africa in Morocco, but they could not cross the straits to Spain since the sailors of the fleet had arrested their officers and prevented them from joining the revolt. To get Franco out of this difficulty, Hitler sent the first substantial military aid, 20 transport planes to bring the Army of Africa to Spain. At its peak, German aid to Franco would stand at about 6,000 specialized troops of the Condor Legion, mainly tankmen, pilots, artillerymen and advisors, plus a large amount of material. The maximum size of the Italian forces was about 100,000 troops, with enormous quantities of material.(20) The European “democracies” chipped in with a “non-intervention” policy which began by refusal to sell arms to the Republic and worked up to a naval blockade in conjunction with Germany and Italy.

In May, 1937, the U.S. Neutrality Act became law, supplementing the informal efforts of the State Department to prevent arms sales to Spain.(21) In the first days of the fighting, Vacuum Oil refused to honor a contract to fuel Republican ships in Tangiers, and Texaco diverted five tankers of gasoline bound for the Republic to the Fascists.(22) The State Department tried to prevent the sale of aircraft to the Republic by Mexico.(23)  During the war, Texaco delivered at least 1,866,000 metric tons of petroleum products to Franco. Ford, General Motors and Studebaker sold a total of 12,000 trucks to Franco, as compared to 1,700 from Italy and 1,800 from Germany. Neither fuel nor trucks were sold to the Republic.(24)

U.S. companies also sold arms to the Fascists by first shipping them to Nazi Germany, from which they were transshipped to Spain. In 1938, Dupont-owned Atlas Powder Company sent 60,000 aerial bombs to Germany in this fashion, all marked “For transshipment to an undisclosed destination.”(25) In April, 1938, Roosevelt publicly admitted that the bombs falling on Republican cities were American-made. “It is all perfectly legal,” he said.(26)

Apart from the naval “non-intervention” patrol, Britain confined her aid to Franco to ammunition deliveries through Gibraltar and intelligence reports on Russian aid to the Republic, plus various commercial deals.(27)

For their part, the Popular Front government of France made its contribution to Fascism in a number of ways other than “non-intervention.” After selling the Republic a small quantity of obsolete aircraft, they closed the border to arms and volunteers. Volunteers for the Republic caught in France were imprisoned, but the largely communist-led underground organizations got many over the border. Large quantities of Soviet arms and arms purchased by the Comintern were held on French soil. After the fall of Catalonia, Republican refugees were treated to the best in ruling class hospitality–concentration camps.

Aid to the Republic from the Soviet Union began arriving in Spain in October, 1936, barely in time for a detachment of Soviet tanks to help in the defense of Madrid. The total number of Soviet personnel in Spain at any one time probably never totaled 700.(28) Soviet arms shipments were limited after the closing of the French border by the necessity to run the gauntlet of Italian submarines and aircraft and the “non-intervention” patrol–and also by the desire to avoid a world war, a desire unrealized in the event. According to Franco sources, 53 merchant ships were sunk, 324 captured and 1,000 detained at sea for carrying arms to the Republic. Not all of these were carrying Soviet war material, of course, but among the Soviet ships known sunk were the Komsomol, the Timiriazev, and the Blagoev.(29)

The general effect of foreign intervention of all sorts was that the Republic almost never fought with parity of arms, and typically faced odds in material and men of 3 or 4 to one.(30)

Communists Organize For Victory

After being transported from Morocco by Hitler’s planes, the Army of Africa advanced rapidly north through the open country of central Spain, pushing back the poorly armed and inexperienced militias of the Popular Front. As the militias retreated toward Madrid, however, resistance stiffened. The PCE urged the Republican government, headed by “left” Socialist fatmouth Francisco Largo Caballero, to organize fortification of the city. His reply: “Spaniards might fight from behind trees, but never from trenches.”(31)  Minister of War as well as Prime Minister, Largo displayed his dazzling incompetence only during specified hours; he would sign papers only between 8:30 and 9:00 A.M., and left orders not to be disturbed after 10:00 P.M.!(32) On November 6, the government formalized its abdication of responsibility for defense of the capital and moved to Valencia. All the ministers except the communists left with Largo Caballero, taking even the records of the Ministry of War.(33) On the 9th, as fierce fighting raged in the city, Largo sent a messenger to Madrid for the silverware he had left behind, but received only the reply that “we who have remained in Madrid are still eating.”(34)

Largo had left the defense of the capital to Miaja, an incompetent Republican general of doubtful loyalty, and to a Defense Junta of trade union and Popular Front representatives. Fortunately, Soviet General Goriev, nominally Miaja’s advisor, was on hand to handle the military planning of the defense.(35)

The even more important political side of the mobilization of the city’s population was led by the PCE. At the start of the rebellion, La Pasionaria’s broadcasts and speeches called for the resolute defense of Madrid: “They shall not pass!” “Madrid will be the tomb of Fascism!” Since then, the PCE had organized to make this a reality. Their famous Fifth Regiment had recruited over 60,000 militiamen (half PCE members), which soon became the backbone of the People’s Army. Modeled on the Soviet Red Army of Russian civil war days, the 5thRegiment had a system of political commissars responsible for the political understanding of the troops and commanders, and who acted as commanders themselves when the need arose. Tens of thousands of workers were trained in the Regiment, including the soon to be famous commanders Lister (a quarryman), Modesto (a woodcutter) and El Campesino (“The Peasant”). Barracks, commissary, and training schools were organized, as well as committees to look after families of recruits. Discipline came hard and a special company was organized as an example. The commissar of the 5th Regiment described this company to a journalist:

“We called it the “Steel Company” and made stringent requirements. To join this company a man must know something of arms, must have good health and must be guaranteed by some group as a determined anti-fascist. For this company we established special slogans designed to create an iron unity. ‘Never leave a comrade, wounded or dead, in the hands of the enemy’ was one of these. ‘If my comrade advances or retreats without orders, I have the right to shoot him’, was another.

How Madrid laughed at that. The Spaniard is such an individualist that nobody will accept such discipline, they said. Then our first Steel Company–mostly Communists and metalworkers–paraded through the city: it made a sensation. After that we created twenty-eight such companies of picked men, besides the ordinary muster of our regular Fifth Regiment militia.”(36)

Partly because of the seriousness and effectiveness with which the communists organized the militias, membership in the PCE, JSU (United Socialist Youth) and the PSUC (United Socialist Party of Catalonia, also affiliated with the Comintern) soared: from 30,000 at the beginning of the war to 200,000 at the end of 1936 to 1,000,000 by June, 1937.(37)

Foreign volunteers recruited largely by communist parties were organized into communist-led International Brigades. About 40,000 served in the Brigades, as many as 17,000 at any one time.(38) Like the Fifth Regiment, the Internationals were famous for their discipline and courage. Hemingway described the hill in Teruel defended by the German exiles of the Thaelmann Brigade as “a position that they sold as dearly as any position was sold in any war.”(39) The Internationals played a significant role in the early days of the fighting when troops with any sort of training were scarce, and fought well throughout. Their recruitment was an act of internationalism enormously appreciated by the Spanish workers. In the later part of the war, many Spaniards were recruited to the Brigades. Foreigners were withdrawn in 1938 in a vain effort to secure League of Nations action against German and Italian intervention. By that time, however, there were many crack units in the People’s Army.

As Fascist troops approached Madrid, Communists assumed the functions of the departed civil servants; radio, leaflets and banners urged the workers of Madrid to dig trenches and build barricades. Workers’ districts were organized block by block; 5th Regiment leaflets gave advice on battling tanks and house-to-house fighting.(40)

On November 7th, Franco’s troops, expecting an easy victory, assaulted the city from the west, southwest, and northwest, but were repulsed by the hard-pressed militias, particularly the Fifthh Regiment, in hand-to-hand fighting. For the 8th, the defenders prepared for renewed attacks, which they knew would come throughout the University City. The Fascist forces intentionally avoided attacking through the working-class districts “heavily seeded with Communist workers.”(41)

Resistance was furious in the University, with workers and Fascist troops occupying different floors of the same building. In some places rifles were so scarce that workers waited under cover until those with arms had been shot, then rushed out to pick up the guns and fight on.(42) In the afternoon, the vanguard of the recently constituted 11th International Brigade marched up the Gran Via, singing the Internationale. Crowds cheered the volunteers of the Edgar Andre (Belgian), Dombrowski (Polish) and Commune de Paris (French) battalions, shouting “United Proletarian Brothers,” the motto of the Asturias revolt of 1934. Many believed the Brigades to be Russian and gave vivas for “los russos.”

By nightfall, the much-needed machine guns of the Edgar Andres were in positions in the Hall of Philosophy in the University, and other brigades were distributed to vital points. Twice on the next day the Moroccan Tabors broke through militia lines at the Toledo and Princes Bridges, but were driven back with heavy losses.(43)  In the evening, the Internationals outflanked the Moroccans in the Casa de Campo, driving them back with enormous losses.(44)

From November 8th to the 15th, nine militia units came from other areas to aid Madrid. One, the 3,000-man Anarchist column from the Aragon Front, deserves mention for its example of Anarchist military organization. The column was led by Buenaventura Durruti, whose demands for an independent section of the front “so that their achievements could not then be claimed by other units” were supported by the Anarchist Minister of Justice.(45) 

The Anarchists were given a sector in the University City, with artillery and air support, but refused to attack. The next day, the Fascists attacked and the Anarchists broke and ran, abandoning a key bridge and positions in the University. Counterattacks by exhausted militiamen and Internationals regained some of the lost territory; lines thus established were to remain the same until the end of the war. Ashamed of the performance of his men, Durruti tried to persuade them not to leave Madrid but was shot and killed by one of them.(46)

Aragon and Catalonia: Anarchists and Trotskyites Play at Revolution

The Trotskyite POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) was formed in October, 1935 by the fusion of two sects led by renegades from the PCE. Their activities were largely confined to Catalonia. Until their suppression in May, 1937, the POUM acted as an adjunct to the Anarchist Federation of Iberia (FAI) and the labor federation (CNT) which the FAI led. Vitriolic in their attacks on “Stalinists,”(47) the POUM merely offered friendly advice to the Anarchists, who held “similar ideas concerning hopes and perspectives on the revolution.”(48)

After the Fascist rising, the FAI-CNT was the strongest political force in Catalonia, dominating the Anti-Fascist Militias committee. This Committee held the real power in Barcelona for the first year of the war, although the Generalitat continued to have some influence in the countryside.(49)

Under Anarchist leadership, workers’ committees took over the factories in Barcelona and established agricultural collectives in rural areas, in some cases by force.(50) A number of foreign-owned plants were not confiscated; 87 British enterprises were protected by agreement with the British Consulate.(51)

Sources sympathetic to the Anarchists claim that their industrial experiments were successful, particularly in the arms industries,(52) and were sabotaged by the lack of credit from the central government. Conflicts with the central government did exist, but a more accurate explanation of the causes of industrial failures in Catalonia is given by Abad de Santillan, Anarchist member of the Militias Committee:

“We have not organized the economic apparatus which we had planned. We have been satisfied with throwing out the proprietors from the factories and putting ourselves in them, as committees of control. There has been no attempt at connections, there has been no coordination of the economy in due form. We have worked without plans and without real knowledge of what we were doing.”(53)

Abad de Santillan thought that this situation was improving at the end of 1936, but noted that 15,000-20,000 workers were still collecting wages without working.(54) The fact is that the individualistic and muddle-headed FAIists were incapable of giving the leadership that would have enabled the working class to organize industry effectively.

After the defeat of the Fascist rising in Barcelona, Anarchists and POUMists organized militias which “fought” on the Aragon front. Their military accomplishments were truly amazing: they made a demonstration in the direction of Zaragoza, the capital of Aragon, and settled in to trade occasional shots with the Fascists. New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews was told by a POUM militiaman from the “Lenin” Division at Huesca that

“We used to play football with the Fascists down there on the plain. They were good fellows. They invited us to spend the weekend in Saragossa and Jaca, and promised they’d let us come back.”(55)

Huesca had been virtually surrounded by the inactive Catalan militias for 11 months when a major attempt was made to capture the city by newly-organized People’s Army forces.(56) The lull had been put to better use than football games by the Fascists, who had built substantial fortifications. The attack failed.(57)

Internationals relieving Anarchist troops on the Ebro Riber a year after the beginning of the war found no fortifications, and positions a full two kilometers from Fascist lines.(58) Exactly two casualties had been admitted to the nearby military hospital in the previous three months.(59) Anarchist militias had elevated chaos into a political principle. A leaflet distributed in Aragon stated that:

“We do not recognize military formations because this is the negation of Anarchism. Winning the war does not mean winning the revolution. Technology and strategy are important in the present war, not discipline which presupposes a negation of the personality.”(60)

If in nothing else, Durruti was certainly right when he lamented that “War is made by soldiers, not by Anarchists.”(61)

The Internationals also found a peasant population embittered against Republican forces by the Anarchist seizures. The commissar of the Lincoln Brigade found one farmer incredulous that he was offered money for food instead of worthless script.(62) The sullen attitudes of the Aragon farmers contrasted markedly with the enthusiastic support that had met the People’s Army forces outside Anarchist-controlled areas.(63)

On the Fascist side, the Aragon front was very weakly held: a Franco historian says that the Fascists were able to remove forces from that front to attack Madrid.(64) POUMists and their defenders have excused their criminal footdragging by the lack of arms for POUM and FAI-CNT forces, claiming that communists withheld Soviet material from Aragon.(65) Orwell, for example, explains their failure to attack, despite the desires of the rank-and-file militiamen, by the lack of artillery and maps, the difficult terrain, and the fact that there was only one machine gun for every fifty men.(66) With the same material difficulties–including one machine gun per fifty men–the communist-led 35th Division forced the Ebro River in July, 1938, advanced 25 kilometers, captured 4 towns and 2500 prisoners.(67)  The POUM leaders’ attitude is amply summed up by a remark Orwell quotes from his POUM commander Georges Kopp: “This is not war, it is comic opera with an occasional death.”(68) As we have seen, things weren’t so comic on the Madrid front.

Still, it must be said that the material shortages on the Aragon front do have a sinister explanation–but not the one the red-baiters offer. After the war, FAIist Abad de Santillan obliged us with a frank confession:

“If all the leaders of the Libertarian (anarchist) organizations had ever seriously resolved to send all their armament, their war material and their best men to the front–the war would easily have been over in a few months�We can no longer conceal the fact that while, at the front itself, we had by 30,000 rifles (and perhaps as many as 24 batteries, 200 heavy guns), in the rear, in the power of the organizations, we had an additional 60,000 rifles with more ammunition than was ever in the proximity of the enemy.”(69)

The intended purpose of these arms the anarchists kept from the front was combat with the other parties after the victory over Franco,(70) although the occasion never arose.

In fact, the opportunity for the supreme act of treachery did not come to the POUM or the Catalan Anarchists, but to Corp Commander Cipriano Mera, the highest ranking Anarchist officer in Spain. Mera’s contribution to Fascism came in 1939, when General Casado ran a coup against the Republican government to prevent further resistance to the Fascists. Communist commanders led their troops against Casado to put down the coup, but Mera brought his troops to Casado’s support and the PCE troops were defeated.(71)

The Trots Lose Their Playground

In Catalonia in late ’36 and early ’37, the disorganization of production, inflation, lack of serious prosecution of the war, and growth of the communist parties (PCE and PUSC) combined to weaken and discredit the POUM and the FAI. Faced with the clear failure of their utopian theories, the Anarchist movement began to disintegrate. In September, ’36, the FAI-CNT compromised their grotesquely anti-political principles and entered the Catalan Generalitat, along with the PUSC and Catalan Nationalist parties, with one delegate from the POUM.(72) Attacking the “Stalinists” for their advocacy of the Popular Front, the POUM was only too happy to be included in this one. Their incredibly sophistical defense of this action was that the “petty bourgeoisie” was collaborating with them, rather than vice-versa!(73)

In March, 1937, the central government ordered the confiscation of arms from the political parties(74); in Barcelona, measures were taken to curb the numerous street murders by the “uncontrollables”–thugs who had attached themselves to the FAI(75) — and to disband the militia “police.” The CNT and POUM declined to surrender arms or submit to the draft.(76)

Numerically insignificant, unable to build a base among workers and discredited by their “sheer inefficiency and incompetence all along the line,”(77)  the political bankruptcy of the POUM was complete. Dropping any pretense of fighting the Fascists, the POUM decided for an all-out battle against the communists instead.

On May 3, 1937, Catalan police chief Rodriguez Sala and the Generalitat representative for the Telephone Exchange went to the Exchange�s censorship department to complain of anarchist interference with government phone calls. Anarchist militiamen, who had held the exchange since the start of the war, fired from an upper floor. Brief fighting ensued, which was stopped by an FAI leader. Rumors of a “provocation” spread among CNT members and barricades were erected throughout the city. As sporadic fighting began between CNT and PUSC members, POUM leaders proposed to FAI-CNT leaders that communists be expelled from the government and “Stalinist” influence be eliminated in Catalonia once and for all.(78) The POUM was turned down flat.(79) Supported only by a small Anarchist group called the “Friends of Durriti” and a section of the Libertarian Youth, the POUM called for the overthrow of the Generalitat and the establishment of a Revolutionary Junta. Anarchist leaders attempted to secure truce in the barricade fighting and eventually did so, after several false starts. The arrival of 4,000 Assault Guards from Valencia assured that it would continue. Total casualties were reported as 400 killed, 1,000 wounded.(80)

In the central government, the PCE demanded the suppression of the POUM for these crimes. Largo Caballero refused, but this was the last straw even for members of his own party. Largo was ousted and Socialist Juan Negrin became Prime Minister. The POUM was suppressed, and about 40 POUMists arrested. Treacherous POUM leader Andres Nin was apparently executed by Soviet agents, small retribution for the deaths in Barcelona.(81) Other POUMists were held for trial on charges of espionage, treason, fomenting the fighting in Barcelona, and removing troops under their command from the front to Barcelona. At the trial, the POUMists denied they had helped to provoke the fighting, conveniently “forgetting” the articles in their own newspaper, La Batalla.(82) They even denied commanding the troops that had left the front at Heusca, some of them forced to return to the lines by the threat of bombing their buses.(83)  POUM “political secretary” Julian Gorkin was able to “remember” that La Batalla had reprinted a Fascist leaflet attacking the government which had been dropped over the lines. When Don Jose Gomis Soler, the public prosecutor, asked Gorkin why the source of the fascist leaflet was referred to in the tiniest type below the proclamation, Gorkin laughingly said: “This is a mere typographical matter.”(84)

The accused were found innocent of espionage and treason; all except one were found guilty of the other charges and sentenced to various terms.

Were the POUM Leaders Franco’s Agents?

The POUM leaders were accused by the PCE of being in the pay of Franco, and some of the incidents reported above indicate why this was plausible and widely believed in Republican Spain.(85)  Plainly, the POUM earned their money, even if they didn’t collect it.

On May 11, 5 days after the fighting began, Faupel, Hitler’s ambassador to Franco, wrote:

“Concerning the disorders in Barcelona, Franco has told me that the street fighting was provoked by his agents. Nicholas Franco has confirmed this report, informing me that they have a total of 13 agents in Barcelona. Some time ago one of them had reported that the tension between Anarchists and Communists in Barcelona was so great that it could well end in street fighting. The Generalissimo told me that at first he doubted this agent’s reports, but later they were confirmed by other agents. Ordinarily he didn’t intend to take advantage of the possibility until military operations had been established in Catalonia. But since the Reds had recently attacked Teruel to aid the Government of Euzcadi (the Basque provinces), he thought the time was right for the outbreak of disorders in Barcelona. In fact, a few days after he had received the order, the agent in question with three or four of this men, succeeded in provoking shooting in the streets which later led to the desired results.”(86)

Soon after the May fighting, a number of Franco agents were caught in Barcelona, and implicated Nin–perhaps for their own reasons.(87)

Some Catalan Anarchists openly expressed their Fascist sympathies. After the war, Abad de Santillan had praise for Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Fascist Falange Espanola:

“Despite the difference which separated us, we can understand this “spiritual kinship” with Jose Antonio, who after all was a fighter and a patriot in search of solutions for his country�Spaniards of his stature, patriots such as he are not dangerous. They are not the enemy. As for changing the destiny of Spain, there had been, before July, 1936, diverse attempts to align with us. If an accord had been tactically feasible, it would have been according to the desires of his father, Primo de Rivera (dictator of Spain under the monarchy).”(88)

Such are the political degenerates lionized by phony leftists who attack and slander communists.

What the Communists Did Wrong–Racism

Throughout the war, Franco relied on troops recruited and conscripted in Spanish (and French) Morocco. Perhaps 100,000 Moors fought for the Fascists.(89)  The Fascists encouraged every sort of atrocity on the part of the Moors, playing on the racism of the Republicans with great success. Fascist General Quiepo de Llano broadcast revolting descriptions of the rapes to be committed by Moorish troops should they capture Madrid.(90) Republican propaganda repeated and embroidered this racist trash. Posters in Madrid depicted Moorish soldiers as “thick-lipped, hideously grinning, powerful turbaned figures attacking defenseless white women and bayoneting white children.”(91)

Republican Minister of Foreign Affairs Alvarez del Vayo characterized Moors as “immune from all political propaganda of a democratic nature.”(92)  The facts are the exact opposite. Representatives of the Riffs of Morocco, who had fought a long war for independence in the teens and twenties, offered to organize against Franco in return for independence from Spain. The Republican government turned them down flat, fearing French reaction to an independence movement adjoining their own colonies in Africa, and hoping to use Morocco for bargaining with other capitalist powers. A Catalan delegation of Communists and Anarchists supported the Moroccan request, but got nowhere.(93)

The PCE never made a public fight over this crucial issue, which should not only have been a matter of principle, but which could have produced a powerful and proven ally in the struggle against Franco. Nor did the PCE combat racism in any other way. Instead, they promoted it! La Pasionaria repeated the filth of Radio Seville, accusing the Fascists of lack of patriotism for urging the Moors to rape Spanish women:

�Peasant girls violated by legionaries, mercenaries, and Moors, who have been tempted from their African villages by the promise of a “good time,” bear witness to this “patriotism” of the fascist murderers.(94)

PCE promotion of racism was far more than a lost opportunity for militant allies in Morocco (and the Spanish mainland); it was an error that contributed to all sorts of weaknesses of line and strategic failures. French bosses were right to fear that an independent Spanish Morocco would ignite independence struggles in the neighboring French colonies. This would have been an excellent development for the Republic, drawing off French and British aid to Franco. A determined struggle against racism would have dealt a major blow to the many nationalist divisions in the Republic. These divisions constituted an enormously important weakness, contributing to Anarchist predominance in Catalonia, where the war was finally lost.

The development of a class understanding of racism and capitalism’s need for it might have force the communist movement world-wide to abandon their wrong line on the nature of Fascism and capitalist rule. In other words, understanding the role of racism under capitalism leads to understanding the necessity for workers’ power; as well as making it possible to fight for it. A key strategy for organizing the struggle for socialism is to unite with and rely on the most oppressed–and the most militant–working people. In the long colonial wars, the Moors had shown themselves to be just that.

Finally, fighting racism in Spain could have helped develop a better line in other countries when their volunteers returned. As it was, the Internationals absorbed the prevailing racist atmosphere and took that home. British volunteers actually called the Moors “niggers.”(95)

Guerrilla War

The racist failure to aid the Moors to rise in Franco’s rear is paralleled by the Republic’s failure to develop partisan warfare in Fascist-held Spain. Stalin (among others) had urged Largo Caballero to organize partisans in December, 1936,(96)  but the policy was rejected on the grounds of lack of trained cadre and arms.(97)

If the PCE had understood that the war must be won by relying on the workers and peasants of Spain and Morocco, rather than waiting for help from foreign capitalists, it would have been obvious that organizing guerrillas in Fascist areas was necessary and possible. Guerrillas had operated successfully in Spain since the Napoleonic Wars, and large numbers of leftist sympathizers were in Franco-held areas. Disaffection with the Fascist regime was enormous behind the lines. In May, 1938, Franco described 40% of the population in the areas he controlled as “unreliable.”(98)  Nevertheless, guerrilla operations in the war were largely limited to Soviet-organized commando and intelligence operations, and a great opportunity to expand and win People’s War in Spain was lost.

Socialism: The Only Way to Win

Despite the importance of the previous points, the key to victory in the civil war was the fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat, not as a vague objective for the far-off future, but the immediate program to put into effect. There can be no doubt that the opportunity for taking power existed: the PCE and PUSC were the real organizers of the war against Fascism, and could have united the working class even more completely around worker’s dictatorship than around “a new type of parliamentary-democratic republic”(99) –a fig-leaf for bourgeois rule.

The effect of not taking power was to leave it in the hands of bosses’ agents who sabotaged the struggle against Franco. “Socialist” Largo Caballero was more than an incompetent egomaniac–he went so far as to bargain with the British and French to exclude the communists and Soviet aircraft.(100)  His successor in the Ministry of War, “Socialist” Indalecio Prieto, went around telling everyone who would listen that the Republic was bound to lose, and did virtually nothing to oppose a successful Fascist drive to cut the Republic in two in March, 1938.(101) Instead of taking power, the PCE organized an enormous demonstration in Barcelona, demanding that Prieto be ousted (which he was). But purging the government of such criminals after they have done irreparable damage cannot win. It is merely a defensive strategy to stave off defeat a little longer.

In contrast, the Bolsheviks of 1917 used the self-exposure of the Social-Democrats in the government to show that only workers’ rule can accomplish what the working class needs–and they took power.

Instead of this revolutionary policy, the republic, supported by the PCE, mounted military offensives not to win, but to hold out and impress the capitalist “democracies.” Like the NLF’s Tet offensive, the Ebro offensive in July, 1938, had no real chance of defeating the enemy militarily. Like the Tet offensive, it was aimed at achieving a favorable position in negotiations with the enemy; the Republic hoped to exploit the developing contradictions of England, France, and the U.S. with the Fascist powers by showing that the Republic was still an anti-Fascist force to be reckoned with.(102)  Thus, a main element of Popular Front strategy was to rely on the very bosses who were supporting Franco, and the strategy worked no better in Spain that it did in Vietnam. The bosses can be relied on for racism, murder and exploitation, but not for help! The only alternative is to rely on the workers, and that means fighting for workers’ power. Spain shows clearly what relying on the bosses means, since 400,000 people–apart from those dead in the fighting–were slaughtered after the Republic fell.(103)

The policy of attempting to exploit contradictions among the imperialists was also followed by the Soviet Union during the Spanish War, despite the fact that the “democracies” were busy inciting Hitler to wipe out workers’ power in Russia. During the thirties, the Soviet government tried to concoct alliances for the forthcoming war with almost every combination of European powers, finally signing a pact with Hitler himself. Even though the imperialists were finally unable to overcome their rivalries and unite against the Soviet Union, Soviet workers were left to defeat the Nazis virtually alone.(104)

Thus, the clear lesson of Spain and the larger conflict which was to follow is that workers have absolutely nothing to gain from alliances with bosses. We must rely on our own strength, fight racism and settle for nothing short of workers’ power and socialism. If we learn this lesson and put it into practice, the struggles and sacrifices of Spanish workers, though representing a temporary defeat, will contribute to final victory over capitalism and put into practice the motto of Asturias: “UNITE PROLETARIAN BROTHERS!”


1. Frank Jellinek, The Civil War in Spain, London, 1938, Chaps I, II, IV.

2. Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, New York, 1961, p. 19.

  1.  Ibid., Chapters III, IV, V, VI, VII.
  2.  Ibid., Chapters VII, VIII.

5. Arthur Landis, Spain! The Unfinished Revolution, Baldwin Park, Cal., 1972, p. 58. Cited as “Landis.”

6. Thomas, pp. 80-5

7. G. Dimitroff, United Front Against Fascism, New York, 1937, p. 100.

8. Thomas, p. 96.

  1.  Ibid., p. 96.

10. G. Jackson, The Spanish Republic and Civil War, 1931-1939, Princeton, 1965, p. 417.

11. Jellinek, p. 285

  1.  Ibid., p. 75.

13. Richard Robinson, The Origins of Franco’s Spain, Pittsburg, 1970, p. 291.

14. Jellinek, p. 279.

15. Stanley Payne, Falange, Stanford; 1961, p. 45.

16. Jackson, pp. 356-8.

17. D. Ibarurri, They Shall Not Pass, New York, 1966, p. 185.

18. Quoted in Landis, p. 136.

  1.  Ibid., p. 105.

20. Jackson, p. 333.

21. Landis, p. 205.

  1.  Ibid.

23. Ibid., p. 207.

  1.  Ibid., p. 208.
  2.  Ibid.
  3.  Ibid.

27. German Charge d’Affairs in Fascist Spain, quoted ibid., p. 239.

28. Stanley Payne, The Spanish Revolution, New York, 1970, p. 324. Cited as “Payne.”

29. Landis, p. 243.

30. Arthur Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, New York, 1967, passim. Cited as “Landis, ALB.”

31. Landis, p. 246.

  1.  Ibid., p. 247.

33. Thomas, p. 319.

34. Quoted in Landis, p. 269.

35. Burnett Bolloten, The Grand Camouflage, New York, 1961, p. 239.

36. Anna Louise Strong, Spain in Arms, 1937, New York, 1937, pp. 42-3.

37. P. Broue & E. Temime, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain, Cambridge, Mass., 1970, p. 229.

38. Landis, p. 252.

39. Quoted in Landis ALB, p. 376.

40. Landis, p. 262.

41. Quoted in ibid., p. 259.

  1.  Ibid., p. 267.
  2.  Ibid., pp. 268-9.
  3.  Ibid., p. 370.
  4.  Ibid., p. 273.
  5.  Ibid., pp. 275-6.

47. The Spanish Revolution, (POUM English-language newspaper), 2/3/37.

  1.  Ibid., 3/31/37.

49. Broue and Temime, pp. 130-3; Thomas, 187-92.

50. Quoted in Landis, p. 324. The source is J. Petro, Anarchist Minister in the Republic Government.

51. Payne, p. 246.

52. G. Brennan, The Spanish Labyrinth, Cambridge, U.K., 1943, p. 321.

53. Abad de Santillan, After the Revolution, New York, 1937, p. 122.

54. Ibid, p. 134.

55. Quoted in H.L. Matthews, Two Wars and More to Come, New York, 1938, p. 294.

  1.  Ibid., Thomas, p. 443.

57. Matthews, p. 295.

58. Landis ALB, pp. 252-6.

  1.  Ibid.

60. Quoted in Ibarurri, p. 285.

61. Quoted in Landis, p. 323.

62. Steve Nelson, The Volunteers, New York, 1953, p. 175.

  1.  Ibid.

64. M. Anzar, Historia Militar de la Guerra de Espania (1930-1939), Madrid, 1958; quoted in Landis, p. 320.

65. The Spanish Revolution, 2/17/37.

66. G. Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, New York, 1952, pp. 32-5.

67. Landis, p. 331; the battle is described in Landis ALB, p. 517ff.

68. Orwell, p. 32.

69. Abad de Santillan, Porque Perdimos la Guerra, Buenos Aires, 1940, pp. 67-8; quoted in Landis, p. 321.

  1.  Ibid.

71. Thomas, pp. 586-603.

72. Landis, p. 337.

73. The Spanish Revolution, 11/4/36.

74. Payne, p. 294.

  1.  Ibid.
  2.  Ibid.

77. F. Borkenau, quogted in Landis, p. 320.

78. Julian Gorkin (POUM leader), Nota sobre las Jornadas de Mayo de 1937, unpublished MS in Hoover Institute; cited in Payne, p. 297.

  1.  Ibid.

80. Thomas, pp. 424-9.

  1.  Ibid., pp. 452-5.

82. “The Treason Trial of the POUM,” World News and Views, vol. 18 (1938), #50, pp. 1143-4.

83. Ibarurri, p. 286.

84. E. Rolfe, in The Daily Worker, 12 Oct., ’38.

85. Claude Bowers (U.S. Ambassador to the Spanish Republic), My Mission to Spain, New York, 1954, p. 356.

86. Quoted in Ibarurri, p. 282.

87. Thomas pp. 454ff, 568; relevant documents are reprinted in The Communist International, vol. 16 (1939), p. 165ff.

88. Abad de Santillan, Porque Perdimos la Guerra, as quoted in Landis, p. 312.

89. Barton Whaley, Guerrillas in the Spanish Civil War, Detroit, 1969, p. 40.

90. Thomas, p. 181.

91. Whaley, p. 42.

92. Quoted ibid., p. 39.

93. Whaley, passim; Payne 270-2.

94. D. Ibarruri, Speeches and Articles, 1936-1938, New York, 1938, p. 130.

95. Whaley, p. 42.

  1.  Ibid., p. 15
  2.  Ibid., p. 13.

98. Jackson, p. 429.

99. D. Ibarruri, “The Time Has Come to Create a Single Party of the Proletariat in Spain,” Communist International, vol. 14 (1937), #9, p. 651.

100. Payne, pp. 270-2.

101. Landis, p. 372; Landis ALB, p. 401ff.

102. Jackson, p. 454.

103. Landis, p. 405. Executions were still taking place in 1944 (ibid.)

104. In the Battle of Stalingrad, military and political turning point of World War II, the Red Army destroyed 113 Fascist divisions, two and one half times the German forces facing the Normandy invasion. (See, for example, G. Deborin, Secrets of the Second World War, Moscow, 1971, pp. 100, 163). While the Soviet workers were making enormous sacrifices to destroy the German armies, the capitalist “allies” were delaying a second front, fooling around with minor operations in North Africa and Sicily for public relations. When the second front was finally launched in Normandy, a year and a half after the Stalingrad victory, one main motive was simply fear of communist revolution in Europe (with Soviet army support), which would have denied the imperialists any slice of the European pie. Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. troops in Europe, put this point with some frankness after the war:

To avoid chaos on the continent it would have been necessary for us to move such forces as we had, cross the Channel at one, move on into Germany, disarm its troops and seize control of the nation. (quoted in Deborin, P. 161)

In the final reckoning, the Red Army destroyed 507 German divisions, plus 100 of her allies’, as against 176 on all other fronts (Deborin, p. 269). U.S. and British aid to the Soviet Union provided only 1.9% of the guns, 8.3% of the planes and 10.5% of the tanks used by the Red Army, many of them of very inferior quality, plus some food and a quantity of trucks (Deborin, pp. 130-3, A. Werth, Russia at War, 1941-1945, New York, 1964, pp. 575-7). No significant aid reached the Soviet Union in time for Stalingrad.

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