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The Spanish Civil War – a hidden history

By: 
Faline Bobier

December 2, 2017

Last year was the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War. What happened in Spain in 1936 was a civil war against fascism and a prelude to World War Two, as well as being a workers and peasants' revolution that sought to create a new kind of society where the toilers, rather than the rich, would inherit the earth.

Although these struggles happened 80 years ago they are still relevant today for what they say about the potential and pitfalls for those of us who want to change the world. With the reemergence of fascist currents in Europe and North America, the experience of Spanish workers and peasants during this period can be instructive.

Popular Front

In February 1936 a Popular Front government won the Spanish national elections. The Popular Front government stood for the creation of a republic, as opposed to the monarchy and the ruling oligarchy that controlled Spanish society. There had been jockeying for position for dominance on either side since the early 30s. In July 1936 the Spanish officer corps (including Franco) staged a military rebellion against the Popular Front government. For the next three years there would be civil war as both sides vied for control. The British writer George Orwell, who spent time in revolutionary Spain fighting the fascist threat represented by the attempted military coup, wrote about the forces that backed Franco and the generals:

“Franco’s chief supporters, apart from certain sections of Big Business, were the land-owning aristocracy and the huge, parasitic Church. Obviously a rising of this kind will array against it various forces which are not in agreement on any other point. The peasant and the worker hate feudalism and clericalism; but so does the ‘liberal’ bourgeois, who is not in the least opposed to a more modern version of Fascism, at least so long as it isn’t called Fascism. Hence, in the face of such a blatant reactionary as Franco, you get for a while a situation in which the worker and the bourgeois, in reality deadly enemies, are fighting side by side. This uneasy alliance is known as the Popular Front (or, in the Communist press, to give it a spuriously democratic appeal, People’s Front). It is a combination with about as much vitality, and about as much right to exist, as a pig with two heads or some other Barnum and Bailey monstrosity.”

To understand the nature of the Popular Front government in Spain we need to look at similar developments in France over roughly the same period. It was the Communist International, then firmly under the control of Stalin, which came up with the Popular Front strategy, which was used first to crush the workers revolt in France in 1936 (which paved the way to the Vichy Regime).

The threat of fascism was real in France in the summer of 1935. French Communist Party leader Maurice Thorez argued that in order to defeat fascism they needed to create the French Popular Front, which would be a joining together of left and middle class forces. What this meant in reality was the dampening down of workers and peasants role and the subordination of their interests to those of the French ruling class.

In May 1936 a Popular Front government was elected in France. Thorez claimed that the working class alone could not stop fascism, but the elections triggered the greatest strike wave yet seen in working-class history to that point. What happened were not just strikes but factory occupations, which had the potential to win important workers’ rights and also to undercut the middle class base for fascism. French middle class support was growing for the workers, but only when they were leading and winning.

But the French Popular Front alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie capitulated and brought an end to that. Across the Pyrenees that summer workers were fighting fascism by taking over cities in Spain. The French Popular Front even refused to intervene and provide military aid in the fight against Franco, and this impacted the course of the revolution at a key moment.

The Spanish Popular Front government, like in France, was an alliance of Communist and Socialist parties with the liberal bourgeoisie and middle-class Republicans “more afraid of the revolution than of the Fascists.” And the roots of the Popular Front strategy have to be seen in the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy, who were more concerned at this point with manipulation of Communist parties outside Russia—not to spread proletarian revolution, but to shore up Russia's interests on the world stage.

Given the compromised nature of the Popular Front government, it was up to ordinary Spanish workers and peasants to defend the gains of the Republic and, indeed, to push for gains that had never been dreamed of by the compromised leaders of the Popular Front.

Revolution

On the eve of the civil war, the CNT, an anarchosyndacalist union, claimed more than a million members and had as its stated aim the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. In the aftermath of the attempted military coup in July 1936 the CNT and the UGT, another smaller anarchosyndicalist union, demanded that the government arm the workers, but it refused.

With the refusal of the Popular Front government to arm the population, detachments of workers broke into the army barracks, seized weapons and distributed them to anyone with a trade union or party membership card. They organized defenses, barricades and armed patrols, and arrested fascist sympathizers. Within days, the workers crushed the military rebellion in key areas like Madrid and Barcelona. And the success of workers themselves pushing back the fascists on July 19 changed everything.

There were many similarities between the circumstances of Russian workers and peasants before the 1917 revolution and in Spain at the time of the civil war. Like in Russia, the Spanish revolution would be fought by an alliance between workers in industry and landless peasants who cobbled together a bare subsistence by following the harvests on vast, wealthy agricultural estates.

What followed the military coup in Spain was a social revolution for the redistribution of wealth, which also brought change on a range of social questions in a very socially backward society. The Catholic Church had been in full control of secondary education, and education for women was deemed unnecessary. Universal literacy was regarded as a danger rather than a goal; divorce was illegal. And yet, women played key roles in the workers’ militias that for a time pushed back Franco, and in the seizures of land and workers’ collectives that took over factories.

Orwell, in his famous book Homage to Catalonia, described the society he saw when he came to Barcelona in 1936: "It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Peasants took control of the land, redistributing large estates and, in many places, collectivizing the land and setting up communes…the big landowners were expropriated, small property was liquidated, and all the land passed into the hands of the commune.... All the food, the clothing, the tools, etc., were distributed equitably along the population. Money was abolished, labor was collectivized, property was taken over by the community, and the distribution of consumer goods was socialized...Three liters of wine are distributed to every person per week. Rent, electricity, water, medical attention and medicines are free."

The Popular Front government showed itself to be totally ineffective in combatting the military coup and the fascist threat that lay behind it, because they were much more concerned with reassuring Spanish capital that the hierarchy of society would not be threatened. It was up to ordinary people to step up and defend democracy and indeed to move towards a real democracy, where the vast majority of Spanish society – workers and peasants – would be the ones in charge of their own destiny. As in Russia, they did this by creating workers' and peasants' committees (like the Russian soviets) to run the factories and to oversee the seizure of land from the rich landowners.

They also created workers' militias to defend the Republic, although they often had to fight with outdated, defective or non-existent weapons. The magnificent struggles of ordinary men and women during this period are movingly documented in British film maker Ken Loach's Land and Freedom. Loach tells the story through the experience of a young British worker who comes to Spain to participate in the International Brigades.

Outside Spain, in fact for workers around the world, the Spanish Civil War was a beacon of hope against the tide of fascism sweeping Europe. In Canada, the hidden history includes the fact that although the Canadian government refused to send troops against Franco, ordinary Canadians volunteered and raised their own funds for an anti-fascist battalion, the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.

In a military contest, the forces of reaction had the upper hand. Franco had support from large sections of the army—and beyond that, financial support from much of the bourgeoisie and military support from the fascist government in Italy and the Nazis in Germany. But as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote at the time: "A civil war is waged, as everyone knows, not only with military but also with political weapons. From a purely military point of view, the Spanish revolution is much weaker than its enemy. Its strength lies in its ability to rouse the great masses to action. It can even take away the army from its reactionary officers. To accomplish this, it is only necessary to seriously and courageously advance the program of the socialist revolution."

Compromise

But from the first days of the war, the Popular Front government, with the support of the PSOE (Socialist Party) and the PCE (Communist Party), passed restrictions against peasants seizing large land holdings and on workers' running factories under their own control. It passed laws stating that under no condition would the private property of foreign firms be seized. Only by restraining the demands of workers and peasants, the Popular Front government and its supporters argued, could it maintain unity among all anti-fascist forces, including the bourgeoisie. This strategy not only held back the revolution, but undermined the struggle against Franco and the far right.

The civil war was waged over a period of three years from 1936-1939, when Franco's forces were finally able to take control. The final victory came in January 1939 when Franco took the city of Barcelona, which represented the very heart of the revolution.

But this victory was not inevitable. It was made possible by the failings of the Communist Party and the anarchist leadership of organizations like the CNT. In the early days, after the routing of the military coup, the leaders of the CNT in Barcelona were called into the offices of Luis Companys, head of the regional government, who said: “You are masters of the city and of Catalonia.... You have won and everything is in your power. If you do not need or want me as president, say so now. If, on the other hand, you believe me when I say that I shall yield this post to victorious Fascism only when I am dead, then perhaps I can be of use to you.”

In the end the anarchist leaders of the CNT agreed to collaborate with Companys, despite the fact that real power was already held by the armed workers and the organization committees in the streets of Barcelona and by the government committees in the towns and villages. This would prove to be one of the decisive moments in the civil war, because this compromise with Popular Front-style politics laid the grounds for the failure of revolution and the ultimate victory of fascism.

One of the anarchists defended the decision this way: “We could have remained alone, imposed our absolute will, declared the Generalidad null and void, and imposed the true power of the people in its place, but we did not believe in dictatorship when it was being exercised against us, and we did not want it when we could exercise it ourselves only at the expense of others. The Generalidad would remain in force with President Companys at its head, and the popular forces would organize themselves into militias to carry on the struggle for the liberation of Spain.”         

Equating the dictatorship of capital and the ruling class with that of workers and peasants seizing power in order to build workers democracy and socialism dooms any dreams for a different kind of society to failure. As Trotsky wrote about this failure of leadership: "In opposing the goal, the conquest of power, the Anarchists could not in the end fail to oppose the means, the revolution.”

Lessons for today

The debate about the United Front vs. Popular Front is relevant beyond the fight against fascism: and remains relevant today even after the demise of the Communist International. The revolution also raises issues about the limits of anarchism and the question of power (especially the building of a revolutionary party before a revolution).

But most importantly, it gives us a glimpse of what worker’s control and self-emancipation looks like in practice, outside of the Russian experience with revolution. And it can inspire those fighting today to realize that it is possible for ordinary people to storm the heavens and remake society so that it benefits all of us, not just the tiny minority sitting at the top of a disintegrating and ultimately inhuman system.

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