Spanish Revolution of 1931–39
a revolution during which there evolved in Spain a democratic republic which for about three years from the middle of 1936 struggled for its existence, waging a national revolutionary war against fascist insurgents and Italo-German invaders. The specific features of the Spanish Revolution were in large measure attributable to certain distinctive characteristics of Spain’s historical development, above all the exceptional vitality of feudal vestiges (the landlords, who are the chief heirs of the feudal traditions, have formed a close alliance with the financial-industrial oligarchy in the years of the fascist regime). The axis of the political struggle that unfolded on the eve of the revolutionary eruption was the antagonism between the bloc of landowning aristocracy and the financial oligarchy (its dominance personified by the monarchy) and the Spanish people as a whole. The contradictions of the social and political system that prevailed were exacerbated by the economic crisis that enveloped Spain in the middle of 1930.
Striving to avert the collapse of the monarchy, which then ruled Spain, the government of Berenguer, which had replaced the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera in January 1930, issued a decree scheduling elections to the Cortes for March 19. This maneuver failed, because with the revolutionary upsurge in the country the opposition forces refused to take part in the elections and forced Berenguer to resign (Feb. 14, 1931). King Alfonso XIII (ruled 1902–31) named Admiral Aznar as head of the government in place of General Berenguer. The new government immediately announced municipal-council elections for April 12. The elections developed into a decisive antimonarch-ical plebiscite. The republicans won the elections in every city in Spain. The overwhelming majority of Spain’s population came out for a republic. The day after the elections, the leader of the Catalonian national movement, Maciá, proclaimed the creation of a Catalonian republic. On Apr. 14, 1931, the Revolutionary Committee (created by leaders of the bourgeois republican movement on the basis of the Pact of San Sebastián of 1930) gathered in the Ministry of Internal Affairs building and formed a provisional government, headed by Alcalá-Zamora (leader of the Democratic Liberal Party). That day the king abdicated. On June 27, 1931, the Constituent Cortes assembled and on Dec. 9, 1931, adopted a republican constitution.
This peaceful revolution took power away from the landowning aristocracy and big bourgeoisie; the bloc that took over represented the entire bourgeoisie except certain groups of monopoly capitalists. Striving to build themselves a base among the masses, the bourgeoisie recruited the Socialist Party to participate in the government. In December 1931 the pressure of the masses led to the removal from power of the two most right-wing political parties in the government bloc: the Conservatives (led by M. Maura) and the Radicals (led by A. Lerroux). Leadership of the government proved to be in the hands of petit bourgeois republicans, who did not take the path of radical socioeconomic reforms. The new bourgeois-democratic system preserved the latifundia system, rent in kind, and métayage (sharecropping) and failed to carry out an agrarian reform—a reform that was so essential for Spain, “a country of land without people and people without land,” and one demanded by millions of downtrodden peasants and farm workers. Republican and Socialist ministers alienated the masses from the republic, pursuing a policy of flirtation with reactionaries and of violence against the working class and the peasantry, thereby clearing the path for counterrevolutionary forces that started to prepare to restore the old order. That is why the military revolt of Aug. 10, 1932, led by General Sanjurjo, became possible, but it was quickly suppressed because of retaliatory action by the masses (Sanjurjo, who was first sentenced to death and then to 30 years in prison, was released in 1934 by the Lerroux government). In September 1933, as a result of a drive by the reactionaries, the Socialists were ousted from the government. The split in the Republican-Socialist bloc, which resulted from the government’s contradictory and inconsistent domestic policy, produced a political crisis. The republican parties, under the pressure of rightist forces, split into small groups. The parliament was dissolved. New elections (Nov. 19, 1933) brought victory to the Radical Party and the right-wing profascist forces. The Socialist Party lost almost half of its seats.
Having scored a victory in the 1933 elections, the reactionaries were in a position to seize power legally and to undermine the republic from within. With this objective, the reactionary forces merged into the Confederation of Autonomous Rights (CEDA), headed by Gil Robles. In early October 1934 the CEDA, after a series of preparatory maneuvers, joined the government.
During this period the Communist Party of Spain (CPS; created in 1920) was becoming the leader and organizer of the masses, which were uniting against the forces of counterrevolution. The Communist Party advanced agrarian reform as the most important measure aimed at democratizing the country. It demanded that the domination of the country’s economic and social life by large national and foreign banks and monopolies be restricted. The party strongly supported the right to self-determination of Catalonia, the Basque Provinces, and Galicia, the granting of full independence to Morocco, and the withdrawal of Spanish troops from North Africa. In the opinion of the Communists, the republic had to carry out a democratic rejuvenation of the state apparatus and above all of the command of the Spanish Army. The Communist Party contended that it was essential for the consistent democratization of the country that the working class act as the leader of the popular masses, with the unification of all the forces of the working class being the most important precondition of this democratization. Therefore, the party made the struggle for the unity of the working class the mainspring of its policy. The policy of unity was making headway in the masses; it also found a sympathetic response in the ranks of the Socialist Party, which was going through an acute crisis since the party had been ousted from the government. While the defeat and failure of their policy prodded some Socialist leaders into an overt move to the right, toward liberalism, and into an abandonment of class positions, a segment of the leadership closer to the proletariat, led by F. Largo Caballero, actively joined the antifascist struggle. This made it possible during 1934 to achieve the first successes in establishing unity of action between the Communist and Socialist parties.
When the CEDA joined the government on Oct. 4, 1934, the masses, led by the Socialist and Communist parties, immediately expressed their opposition. A general strike was declared in Spain, which in Asturias, the Basque Provinces, Catalonia, and Madrid grew into an armed revolt. The struggle was sharpest and broadest in Asturias. The government flung against the working people units of the Foreign Legion and Moroccan units, which dealt with the Asturian miners with particular brutality. The repressions against the rebel movement in October 1934 were led by General F. Franco, who was already preparing a plot against the republic. Although the October Uprising of 1934 was defeated because of inadequate preparation and lack of coordination of action, it was able to delay the realization of the reactionaries’ plans and generate throughout the country a mass movement of solidarity with the insurgents and hatred for the reactionaries, thus preparing conditions for the formation of the Popular Front.
Two months after the struggle in Asturias ended, an underground liaison committee of the leaders of the Socialist and Communist parties was created at the initiative of the Communist Party. In May 1935 the CPS, enjoying the support of the antifascist bloc that had been in operation for several months, proposed to the Socialist Party that a popular front be formed. But the Socialist Party, under the pretext that it was unwilling to cooperate with the bourgeois republican parties that had expelled it from the government, refused. Although the Communist proposal was not accepted on a nationwide scale, numerous local Popular Front committees and committees of liaison between the Socialists and Communists sprang up, and they carried out the policy of unity in practice. Based on the decisions of the seventh congress on the Comintern (July 25-Aug. 20, 1935, in Moscow), the Communist Party began exploiting the successes achieved in creating the Popular Front. In December 1935 the General Confederation of United Workers, which was under Communist influence, joined the General Union of Workers (UGT), which was led by the Socialists. This was an important step toward trade union solidarity.
In December 1935, under the pressure of the masses, the reactionary government was forced to resign. The new government was headed by the bourgeois democrat Portela Valladares, who dissolved parliament and scheduled new elections. This was a victory for the democratic forces that hastened the creation of the Popular Front. On Jan. 15, 1936, a pact was signed forming the Popular Front, which incorporated the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Left Republican Party, the Republican Alliance, the UGT, and a number of minor political groups. The anarchist National Confederation of Labor (CNT) remained outside the Popular Front, although rank-and-file CNT members collaborated with workers of other political orientations despite the sectarian tactics of their leaders. In the elections held February 16, the democratic forces scored a convincing victory. The Popular Front parties won 268 of 480 seats in parliament.
The triumph of the Popular Front inspired Spain’s progressive forces to struggle for the implementation of a profound democratic transformation. Large street demonstrations held in Madrid and other cities attested to the determination of the masses to solidify and develop their victory. The people demanded the release of political prisoners, and this demand was met without delay. The influence of the Communist Party was on the increase: its membership totaled 30,000 in Feburary 1936, 50,000 in March, 60,000 in April, 84,000 in June, and 100,000 in July. The Popular Front, whose leading force was the working class, grew stronger. The merger of the Socialist and Communist youth organizations into the United Socialist Youth (April 1936) laid the foundations for the unity of the entire youth movement. In Catalonia, the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia was created as a result of the merger of four workers’ parties (July 1936). The Popular Front revived the prospect of a peaceful and parliamentary development of the democratic revolution. The result of the Popular Front’s victory was a republican government supported by the Socialists and Communists, who did not belong to it. The Communist Party favored creation of a Popular Front government, but the Socialist Party objected to this.
The governments of Azańa (Feb. 19-May 12, 1936) and Casares Quiroga (May 12-July 18, 1936), formed after the victory of the Popular Front, did not take account of the stern lessons of the first years of the republic and failed to implement the necessary measures to defend the democratic system. The majority of reactionary generals and leaders were in their old places in the army (including Franco, Mola, Goded, Queipo de Llano, Aranda, Cabanellas, and Yagüe), where they were preparing a plot against the republic. In close contact with such reactionary political groups as the Spanish Falange (the fascist party), founded in 1933, and the Rejuvenation of Spain organization, headed by Calvo Sotelo, a former minister under dictator Primo de Rivera (whose rule lasted from Sept. 13, 1923, to Jan. 28, 1930), these generals completed preparations for the revolt. They were backed by a landowning and financial oligarchy, which was striving to establish a fascist dictatorship and thereby solidify its position in the country.
In preparing the revolt against the republic, the reactionaries leaned on the support of Hitler and Mussolini. As early as 1934, representatives of Spanish reaction concluded an agreement in Rome with Mussolini, who promised to provide arms and money to extreme right-wing Spanish forces. In March 1936, after the victory of the Popular Front, General Sanjurjo (who was to have led the revolt; his death in a plane crash on July 20, 1936, opened the way for General Franco to become the principal leader) and the leader of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, set off for Berlin to settle the details of fascist Germany’s participation in the struggle against the Spanish people. On July 16, General Mola notified all the generals taking part in the conspiracy that the revolt would begin on July 18 and develop over the next two days. Military men serving in Morocco acted ahead of schedule (on the morning of July 17). The first units used by the insurgents were mostly soldiers of the Foreign Legion (11,000) and Moroccan soldiers (14,000). The military, after brutally crushing isolated attempts at resistance, took over the cities of Melilla, Ceuta, and T–touan. On July 18 the conspirators who rose up on the Iberian Peninsula captured Cédiz and Sevilla.
The fascist military revolt left the republic without an army. In a situation that demanded energetic and immediate action, the most prominent republican leaders showed weakness and indecision. The head of the government, Casares Quiroga (Left Republican Party), and Azańa, the president of the republic (since May 1936), opposed until the last moment arming the people and attempted to reach an agreement with the insurgents. But the working class and the popular masses would not agree to the surrender that the government was proposing to them. As soon as word of the revolt in Morocco reached Madrid, all enterprises ceased operation and the people came out into the streets, demanding arms from the government to defend the republic. A Communist Party delegation went to the head of the government and endorsed the demands of the masses. On July 18 a commission of representatives of the Popular Front again visited Casares Quiroga and demanded that the people be armed.
A formidable popular wave rose up to repel the reactionary revolt. Casares Quiroga, who had lost control of the situation, resigned. President Azańa charged D. Martines Barrio (leader of the Republican Alliance) with forming a government that was to reach an agreement with the insurgents, which in effect would mean surrender. A vigorous protest by the people foiled this attempt. On July 19 a new government, headed by one of the leaders of the Left Republican Party, José Giral, took office. However, three days were lost in disputes about whether to arm the people, and the conspirators used these days of vacillation to capture 23 cities. The people paid with their blood for the vacillation of the republican leaders.
Nonetheless, the insurgents soon became convinced of the determination of the popular masses to block fascism. In Barcelona and Madrid the revolt was quickly suppressed. Workers, peasants, artisans, and intelligentsia throughout Spain rose up to defend the republic.
In early August 1936 the advantage was still with the republic. The republicans still had Madrid, Valencia, Catalonia, Asturias, the Basque Provinces, New Castile, Murcia, and a large part of Estremadura. The republic controlled the chief industrial and mining centers, the ports (including Barcelona, Bilbao, Santander, Málaga, Almería, and Cartagena) and the richest agricultural areas. The revolt, for the most part, was suppressed. The republic was saved from the first fascist onslaught.
The Spanish working masses succeeded in defeating the fascist revolt because of the Communists persistent attempts to achieve unity of action among the workers and all antifascists and to obtain mutual understanding and concord between the Communist and Socialist parties.
After the first blows dealt to the insurgents, the war could have ended if it had been waged within a national framework, but Hitler and Mussolini came to the reactionaries’ aid, sending German and Italian troops equipped with modern weapons. This altered the character of the war that had unfolded in Spain. It was no longer a civil war. As a result of the foreign intervention, the war for the Spanish people turned into a national-revolutionary war: national because Spain’s integrity and national independence were being defended and revolutionary because it was a war for freedom and democracy against fascism.
To some degree the war in Spain affected every country, every people, and every government. To carry out his aggressive plans aimed against Europe and the whole world, Hitler needed the Iberian Peninsula as a strategic base to move into France’s rear, to obtain control of routes to Africa and the Orient, and to get closer to the American continent. The British, French, and American governments not only allowed Hitler to carry out open intervention in Spain but aided his aggressive plans by declaring with regard to the republic and the Spanish people the criminal policy of “nonintervention,” which was crucial to the outcome of the war in Spain and hastened the unleashing of World War II.
The Italo-German intervention played a decisive role in the first stage of the war in Spain and, as the republicans’ resistance grew, took on greater and greater scope. Mussolini dispatched 150,000 soldiers, including several divisions that had had combat experience in Ethiopia. The Italian Navy, which included submarines, was operating in the Mediterranean Sea. Italian aircraft deployed in Spain carried out 86, 420 sorties (during the war in Ethiopia they carried out 3,949 sorties) and 5,319 bombings, during which 11,585 tons of explosives were dropped on Spanish communities.
Hitler’s contribution to Franco was a sizable quantity of planes, tanks, artillery, and communications facilities and thousands of officers, who were supposed to train and organize the Franco army; he also sent the Condor Legion, under General Sperrle and later under Richthofen and Volkmann. The fact that 26,113 German servicemen were decorated by Hitler for services in the war in Spain shows the scale of German intervention.
Large US monopolies did their bit to support the insurgents: in 1936 Franco received from Standard Oil and other US companies 344,000 tons of fuel; this rose to 420,000 tons in 1937, 478,000 tons in 1938, and 624,000 tons in 1939 (according to the data of H. Feis, an economic officer of the US embassy in Madrid). Deliveries of American trucks (12,000 from Ford, Stude-baker, and General Motors) were of no less importance for the insurgents. At the same time the USA prohibited the sale of arms, planes, and fuel to the Spanish Republic. The USSR, which resolutely rose to the defense of Spanish democracy, supplied the republicans with arms despite all kinds of difficulties. Soviet volunteers, mostly tanktroops and pilots, fought for the republic. A broad movement of solidarity unfolded in support of the republic’s struggle, exemplified by the International Brigades, which were organized chiefly by Communist parties.
The heroic struggle of the Spanish people and their first victories were the best proof that fascism could be fought and defeated. Yet the Labor and Socialist International, by turning down repeated proposals by the Comintern to unite the efforts of the international workers’ movement in defense of the Spanish people, in effect supported the policy of nonintervention..
For 32½ months, from July 17, 1936, to Apr. 1, 1939, the Spanish people resisted fascist aggression in extraordinarily difficult conditions. In the first stage, until the spring of 1937, the main tasks were the struggle for the creation of a people’s army and the defense of the capital, which was threatened by the insurgents and interventionists. On Aug. 8, 1936, the fascists captured Badajoz, and on September 3 they took Talavera de la Reina, about 100 km from Madrid.
To combat the increased threat, a new republican government, headed by F. Largo Caballero, the leader of the Socialists, was formed on September 4; it included all the parties of the Popular Front, including the Communist Party. Some time later the Basque National Party joined the government. On Oct. 1, 1936, the Republican Cortes approved the Statute of the Basque Provinces, and on October 7 an autonomous government headed by Aguirre, a Catholic, was created in Bilbao. On Nov. 4, 1936, representatives of the CNT were incorporated into the Largo Caballero government.
By November 6, Franco’s troops had approached the outskirts of Madrid. During this period the historic slogan of Madrid’s defenders was heard round the world: “They shall not pass!” The fascist troops crashed into the steely heroism of the republican fighters, the fighters of the International Brigades, and the entire population of Madrid, who rose to defend every street and every house. In February 1937 the fascists’ attempts to encircle Madrid collapsed as a result of the Jarama operation conducted by the republican army. On March 8–20, 1937, the people’s army won a victory near Guadalajara, where several regular divisions of Mussolini’s army were smashed. Franco had to abandon his plan to take Madrid. The center of gravity of the hostilities shifted to northern Spain, to the region of the Basque iron mines.
The heroic defense of Madrid demonstrated the correctness of the policy of the Communist Party of Spain, which aimed at creating a people’s army capable of repulsing the enemy and which was being carried out despite the resistance of Largo Caballero. He was increasingly falling under the influence of the anarchists and of professional military men who did not believe in the victory of the people. His complicity with the anarchist adventurists caused the takeover of Mélaga by the fascists on Feb. 14, 1937. Largo Caballero’s connivance enabled anarchic Trotskyist groups, in which enemy agents were operating, to whip up a putsch in Barcelona on May 3, 1937, against the republican government. The putsch was suppressed by the Catalonian working people under the leadership of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia. The seriousness of the situation dictated the persistent necessity of radically changing the policy of the republican government. On May 17, 1937, a new Popular Front government was created, headed by Socialist J. Negrín.
In the second stage of the war (from the spring of 1937 until the spring of 1938), many of the members of the UGT, which was led by Largo Caballero, and the CNT refused to support the new government; nevertheless, successes were achieved in the creation of an army, which was able to launch offensive operations near Brunete (in July 1937) and Belchite (in August-September 1937). But Largo Caballero left a grim legacy behind him. The situation in northern Spain was extremely difficult, and there was no possibility of holding back the fascist offensive, which was not effectively opposed by the bourgeois-nationalist policy of the government of the Basque Provinces. This government preferred to yield the enterprises of Bilbao intact to the fascists and did not organize consistent resistance. On June 20 the fascists entered Bilbao, and on August 26 Santander fell. Asturias resisted until the end of October 1937.
In order to thwart Franco’s new drive on Madrid, the republican army launched an offensive of its own on December 15 and captured the city of Teruel. However, as at Guadalajara, this success was not exploited by the government. A negative feature of this stage of the war was the activity of the minister of defense, the Socialist I. Prieto. Fanatically anticommunist and lacking any faith in the people, he impeded the strengthening of the popular army, seeking to replace it with a professional army. Events quickly proved that this policy was leading to defeat.
Having solidified his forces thanks to new aid from the Germans and Italians, the enemy broke through the Aragon front on Mar. 9, 1938. On April 15 the fascist troops reached the Mediterranean Sea, having cut the republic’s territory in two. The grave military situation was further complicated by the policy of direct complicity with the fascist aggressors that was being pursued by the Western countries. Without encountering any resistance from Great Britain, the USA, or France, Hitler seized Austria in March 1938. On Apr. 16, 1938, Chamberlain signed an agreement with Mussolini that signified Britain’s tacit consent to the Italian troops’ participation in the struggle on Franco’s side. In these conditions a capitulationist outlook began to crystallize in the ruling circles of the Spanish Republic, an outlook fostered by Socialist leaders such as J. Besteiro and Prieto, some republican leaders, and the heads of the Federation of Iberian Anarchists (FAI).
The Communist Party warned the nation of the mortal danger. A mighty patriotic surge engulfed the Spanish people, who at enormous demonstrations, such as the one on Mar. 16, 1938, in Barcelona, demanded that capitulationist ministers be ousted from the government. With the formation on April 8 of the second Negrín government, in which the previous parties were joined by both trade union centers (the UGT and the CNT), the war entered a new period. The Communist Party of Spain began to fight for a broad national alliance aimed at achieving mutual understanding among all the patriotic forces and resolving the military conflict on the basis of guarantees of national independence, sovereignty, and respect for the democratic rights of the Spanish people. The expression of this policy was the so-called Thirteen Points, published on May 1, 1938. The points provided for the postwar declaration of a general amnesty and the holding of a plebiscite in which the Spanish people would choose their form of government without foreign interference.
In order for the policy of national alliance to make headway, it was necessary to intensify resistance and strike hard at the fascists. By May 1938 the situation on the front had stabilized. On July 25, 1938, the republican army, which was defending a line on the Ebro River and was led mostly by Communist military commanders, suddenly attacked and broke through the enemy’s fortifications, demonstrating its readiness and high combat capacity. The Spanish people again displayed miracles of heroism. But the capitulationists, who had entrenched themselves at headquarters and other command posts, paralyzed the operations of other fronts while the army units on the Ebro were exhausting their resources in repelling the attacks of Franco’s main forces. The governments of Paris and London continued to tighten the noose of nonintervention.
On Dec. 23, 1938, with Italian troops in the vanguard and enjoying a huge superiority in equipment, Franco began an offensive in Catalonia. On Jan. 26, 1939, he took Barcelona, and by mid-February all of Catalonia had been occupied by the fascists. On February 9 a British squadron sailed up to Minorca and forced that island to surrender to Franco.
Despite the loss of Catalonia, the republic still had the possibility of continuing resistance in the central and southern zone. While the Communist Party exerted all its efforts in the struggle against fascism, the capitulationists, incited by the imperialist circles of Great Britain and encouraged by Negrín’s vacillations in the last phase of the war, rebelled against the legal government on Mar. 5, 1939. In Madrid they created a junta headed by Colonel Casado that included Socialist and Anarchist leaders. Under the pretext of negotiations for an “honorable peace,” the junta stabbed the people in the back by opening the gates of Madrid (Mar. 28, 1939) to the hordes of fascist murderers.
Two Spains collided in the National Revolutionary War of 1936–39—the Spain of reaction and the Spain of progress and democracy. The revolutionary character, political maturity, and social and political conceptions of workers’ organizations and of leftist political parties were tested. In those days of difficult struggle, the political role of party leaders was determined above all by their attitude toward unity. Those leaders of the Socialists, Anarchists, and republicans who really tried to strengthen the alliance of democratic forces made an invaluable contribution to the cause of combating fascism. The Communist Party of Spain was the soul of the Popular Front, the driving force of the resistance to aggression. Honor is due to the Communist Party for creating the 5th Regiment—the foundation of the popular army. To counter the reckless Anarchist policy of coercive collectivization, the Communists put forth a program of turning land over to the peasants and, after joining the government, implemented this program, carrying out a radical agrarian reform in Spain for the first time. The nationalities policy of the Communist Party contributed to the adoption of the Statute of the Basque Provinces. At the initiative of the Communists, institutes and universities were opened to workers and peasants, who were guaranteed their previous earnings. Women began to receive wages on a par with men.
Not only were big landowners stripped of their property, but large banks and enterprises came under the control of the democratic state. During the war the republic radically changed its class essence. Workers and peasants played the leading role in it. A sizable segment of the new army was commanded by revolutionary workers. During the war a new type of democratic republic evolved in Spain, created by the efforts and blood of the popular masses.
The Spanish popular-democratic republic lives in the memory of the Spanish people, who continue the struggle for liberation from the yoke of fascism.
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