The 1936-37 Spanish Revolution and those who killed it: a chronology

Submitted by Matthew on 8 January, 2010 - 1:19 Author: Martin Thomas

The Spanish civil war was not primarily a struggle of “democracy against fascism”. It was a class struggle of the Spanish workers and peasants against capitalist, landlord and priest rule in Spain. This working class struggle was subverted by the Stalinists, who came to dominate the Republican areas from which the old ruling class had fled. The workers had effective power in society, but, led by anarchists who did not believe in class power, the Spanish workers did not consolidate that power. The Spanish Communist Party, under the military discipline of Stalin, defended in the Republican areas the interests of the Spanish bourgeoisie, even those who had fled to the area controlled by the fascist General Franco. Why?

Stalin wanted to show Britain and France, hoping for an alliance with them against Germany, that he could quell any threat from the working class in any part of Europe. Erecting a police state in the Republican areas, the Stalinists drove the peasants off the land they had seized from landlords and quelled the independent workers’ movement in Catalonia.

The carrying through of the social revolution in the Republican areas would have won workers and peasants from Franco; the granting of independence to Morocco would have won over Franco’s Moorish troops. By crushing the social revolution in the “anti-fascist” areas instead, and refusing to grant Moroccan independence the Stalinists strengthened Franco, and ultimately ensured his victory.

It was the Stalinists, not the fascists, who killed the Spanish revolution: the fascist scavengers then moved in for 40 years of fascist rule in Spain. That is the story in brief.

In the following pages we publish documents, eye-witness accounts and contemporary political analysis which amplify, demonstrate and prove these statements.

In June 1931 the second Spanish Republic is instituted. The government disestablishes the Catholic Church and makes some weak liberal reforms. It crushes the strike wave of July-August 1931.

In October 1933 the Spanish fascist movement, the Falange Española, is founded.

At the end of 1934 anarchist and socialist workers organise huge protests around the country, and in the Northern Asturias a miners’ insurrection is crushed by an army led by General Franco. 5,000 are killed, 30,000 arrested.

In September 1935 a new left party in Spain — the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) — is formed by former followers of Trotsky such as Andrés Nin and the Workers’ and Peasants’ Bloc, a “Bukharinite” group originating in the Catalonian Communist Party and led by Joaquín Maurín.

In February 1936 the “Popular Front”, an electoral alliance of the Socialist Party, left Republicans, Catalonian nationalists and the tiny Communist Party wins the general election.

Trotsky bitterly denounces the Popular Front as an alliance tying the working-class parties to the bourgeoisie.

The Republicans, however, govern alone until September 1936, when the Socialist and Communist Parties join the government. Both anarchists and the POUM support the Popular Front’s election, but keep their distance.

Despite a gigantic wave of peasant land seizures in March 1936, the government equivocates on agrarian reform, though Spain has the most unequal distribution of land in Europe. The vast majority of the rural population are landless labourers or small tenant farmers.

On 17 July 1936 the Spanish military rise in rebellion, supported by the Falange, the Catholic Church and monarchists. The government refuses to arm the workers, who arm themselves.

Those who had stayed with Trotsky’s Left Opposition after 1935 — the “Bolshevik-Leninists” — are very small in number but they are the only group to consistently call for the establishment of soviets, the arming of the workers, for the replacement of the Republican/Popular Front government with a workers’ government.

With the Stalinists working ruthlessly behind the scenes, gradually the government, which after September 1936 has a Socialist Prime Minister, Largo Caballero, wrests control away from the workers organisations.

The Stalinist slogan — behind which they organised a bloody counter-revolution — was “win the war against the fascists first, then make a workers’ revolution”. While the POUM and the much larger organisations of anarchist workers — the CNT (syndicalist union) and FAI (anarchist “party”) — support workers’ control, both adapt themselves to the Stalinist line. Both join the Popular Front government (the POUM in Catalonia and Valencia). Anarchist leaders such as Garcia Oliver and Frederica Monteseny remain in the government that was at war with the revolutionary anarchists!

In August 1936 — the months of the first of the Moscow Trials, in which the leaders of the Bolshevik Party in 1917 are tried as fascist agents and sentenced to be shot — the Stalinists begin a campaign of smears and attacks against both the POUM and the anarchists. In December 1936 the POUM is kicked out of the Catalonian autonomous government.

Stalin sends “experts” from his secret police (GPU), and the Spanish Stalinists begin to organise a local GPU.

In May 1937 Assault Guards, at the behest of the Stalinists, attempt to seize the Barcelona telephone exchange which had been won by the anarchist workers in July 1936 from the army. Spontaneously, barricades go up around Barcelona. This was plainly an attempt to liquidate the most militant group of workers in Barcelona and strike a fatal blow at the workers’ revolution. The battle ends after the anarchists and POUM leaders “negotiate” a deal with the government. After 3 days the POUM orders their members to leave the barricades.

Extracts published here tell this story and its aftermath in some detail. George Orwell gives an eye-witness account and John McNair answers the lies the Stalinists told about the POUM and revolutionary workers after May 1937.

What did the Trotskyists propose? Our comrades argued for a general strike, for the arming of the working class, for unity of the POUM and the anarchists in defence of the revolution, for soviets and the working class to seize power. We reprint here the leaflet they distributed on the barricades — “Next time it will be too late”.

A document published here — “Anarchists massacred at Tarragona” — tells in the words of a survivor the tragic story of another counter-revolutionary attack elsewhere in Catalonia, at Tarragona, in May. Hundreds of anarchist workers are murdered. Things like this were repeated in many places.

By the middle of June the POUM is outlawed, its leaders arrested. Their foremost leader, Nin, is kidnapped, tortured and murdered.

The repression of the workers’ movement is pursued ruthlessly. The Stalinist Republican police state has much in common with Franco’s police state.

By strangling the workers’ movement the government weakens the fight against the fascists. The strength of the militias, the production of food and arms depends upon the real, lived, committed involvement of the workers in the struggle. And because the struggle for equality, which is absolutely central to it all, has become sidelined and crushed it no longer has the hearts and minds of the workers. Two of our extracts here demonstrate this most graphically: that of M Casanova who shows how the Stalinists killed workers’ control in the economic sphere, and the account by a young British socialist Robert Martin of his experiences, “With the International Brigade”. He tells how class differentiation and class rule had been introduced into the International Brigade and how demoralising this was to his comrades and himself.

As a traceable consequence of the counter-revolution in Republican Spain, from late in 1937 the tide of war turns in favour of the fascists. In January 1938 the fascists advanceinto Catalonia and Valencia and the bombardment of Barcelona begins. A year and two months later Madrid surrenders. The fighting ends. The workers are defeated, and 40 years of Francoist rule begin.