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What Happened in the Spanish Civil War?

Jim Creegan

ON 19 JULY Counterpunch launched an occasional series commemorating the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, fittingly dedicated to the "imperishable gallantry of the Republic’s defenders". It began with an overview by Vincente Navarro, who shows how the dominant sectors of the Spanish establishment, including most liberals, continue to view Franco’s 1936 insurrection against the Spanish Republic as, at worst, a necessary evil in the fight against Communism, and to this day impose an official silence concerning the massacres that took place during the war and after the Generalisimo’s victory three years later (‘The Spanish Civil War, 70 Years On: The Deafening Silence on Franco’s Genocide’).

It is therefore disappointing that Navarro himself only goes part of the way in dispelling the misconceptions that continue to surround the war. He depicts the conflict as a struggle between, on the one hand, the forces of reaction – church, army chiefs and landed oligarchs – and, on the other, a progressive, modernizing government, supported by the majority and pursuing a program of enlightened social reform. While Navarro’s description of the Franco camp is accurate, his picture of the Republican side is heavily airbrushed. Missing from his overview, as it was from official Spanish Republican propaganda of the time, are the class struggles that took place behind Republican lines. Navarro, in fact, specifically takes to task two popular works that tell parts of this story: Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s 1938 eyewitness account of the war and the fighting between Republican forces in Barcelona, and Ken Loach’s 1995 film, Land and Freedom, which depicts the resistance of Republican militias to being dissolved into the regular army. In a subsequent contribution to the series, George Galloway also disparages the same two authors (‘John Cornford and the Fight for the Spanish Republic’, Counterpunch, 21 July 2006). Such criticisms are undeserved. Orwell and Loach open a window on a side of Spanish Republican history that has been excised from the official legend, but which is indispensable to understanding the dynamics of the war, and its outcome.

* * * *

The attempted right-wing coup of July 1936 did not, as one might conclude from reading Navarro, interrupt Spain’s steady progress towards democratic rights and social equality. The country at that time was by Western European standards an uncommonly poor and class-polarized society. It was dominated with an iron hand by a small group of landowners and capitalists. The main ideological/"spiritual" prop for their rule was a singularly retrograde Catholic Church, despised by the masses. Unlike Britain or France, Spain had never had a democratic revolution. The Catalan and Basque national minorities had long been held in thrall. The majority of the peasantry were not smallholders, but landless agricultural laborers. The development of Spanish industry in the late nineteenth century had also produced an impoverished but militant urban proletariat, centered in the Catalan region. The CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo), a revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist trade-union federation, was the leading organization among both peasants and workers.

When the monarchy was deposed in 1931, a small group of middle class politicians did attempt to graft onto this society a moderate parliamentary regime, but it was clear almost from the start that the circuits of bourgeois democracy were too fragile by far for the voltages of class struggle passing through them. The country seethed with rebellion; huge strikes had taken place, churches had been burned to the ground and haciendas besieged in the years before the Second Republic was proclaimed. The ruling classes feared, not unreasonably, that the slightest relaxation of authoritarian rule would provide an opening for the masses to assert their power and do away with the régime of private property altogether. The right thus conspired from the beginning to put an end to parliamentary rule. Already in 1934, a nationwide general strike was called to pre-empt one such anticipated rightist attempt; this led to armed clashes between government troops and miners in the northern province of Asturias, leaving at least 1,000 strikers dead. Leading the repression was General Francisco Franco.

When, two years later, the self-same Franco, in response to an electoral victory by the Popular Front, headed a military junta that openly declared war on the Spanish Republic from its Moroccan base, the leaders of the Republican government tried to tell the people that the coup posed no real danger, and held out for a deal with Franco. The Spanish masses, on the other hand, clamored for arms. Having obtained them despite opposition from Republican politicians, they drove back the reactionaries in roughly two thirds of the country. The poor who had defeated the rightist putsch were more radical by several orders of magnitude than the government they rose to defend. As George Orwell wrote:

"... the Spanish working class did not, as we might conceivably do in England, resist Franco in the name of ‘democracy’ and the status quo; their resistance was accompanied by – one might almost say it consisted of – a definite revolutionary outbreak. Land was seized by the peasants; many factories and most of transport was seized by the trade unions; churches were wrecked and the priests driven out or killed" (Homage to Catalonia, New York, 1952, pp. 48-49).

Most of the resistance to Franco was not at this point carried out by regular government troops, but by union-organized militias and leftist political parties. The largest of these combat forces adhered to the anarchist CNT. But tens of thousands more from the socialist trade union federation, the UGT (Union General de Trabajadores) and a newly created party of anti-Stalinist Communists called the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) also took their places at the battlefronts.

The citadel of new-found popular power was the heavily working-class Catalan capital of Barcelona. Following the route of nationalist troops, most of the factory owners fled the city for fear of the union militias, leaving the latter free to occupy the factories and place them under workers’ control. Orwell described scene at the time of his arrival in 1936:

"... The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing ... when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It is the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’ and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’. Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for" (ibid., pp.4-5).

(George Galloway notwithstanding, the Orwell of 1936 – the young writer, Independent Labour Party member and POUM militia volunteer who was wounded on the front the following year – was not yet the cold warrior and informer he was to become a decade hence.)

The popular conquest was uneven throughout the country. Most industries in the Basque country remained private hands. But neither were expropriations confined to Catalonia. They took place, widely if less universally, in many other regions of Spain. Workers’ committees often existed side by side with the old-time bosses in both nationalized and private industries. The entire national transportation system was in union hands. Agriculture was partly or wholly collectivized in most regions, even down to medium-sized and small holdings. However, the spontaneous revolution that had taken place on the ground was never ratified on the political level. Hereby hangs the tale that keepers of the official Republican flame would as lief be left untold.

* * * *

In May of 1937, fighting broke out in Barcelona between government forces on one side, and CNT and POUM militias on the other. The immediate cause was the resistance of CNT workers to a government attempt to take over town’s telephone exchange. The workers understood that by giving up the exchange they would relinquish not only a fortress of their recently established power, which they had shed their blood to wrest from Franco’s troops, but also a listening post from which they could eavesdrop on government officials as they laid their larger plans. These plans aimed to reprivatize collectively run farms and factories and to dissolve the party and union militias – in which officers were elected by the ranks and paid the same wages as privates – into a regular national army, with appointed officers and conventional gradations of rank and pay. When firing from the rooftops had ceased after several days of on-and-off skirmishing, and the barricades came down, hundreds of militiamen and women lay dead. The government then proceeded to unleash a reign of terror, in which militiamen were disarmed and sometimes shot on the spot and thousands were arrested and disappeared. Two of the left’s most respected leaders – Andrés Nin of the POUM, and the Italian expatriate anarchist Camillo Berneri – were murdered. All this was justified to the Spanish people and the world by claims that the victims of this terror, who had conquered Barcelona for the republic only months before, and whose comrades had died at the front, were part of a fascist fifth column behind republican lines, staging a provocation on orders from Franco. A widely circulated cartoon showed a POUM militiaman removing a hammer-and-sickle mask to reveal a swastika.

The "May Days" of Barcelona were not an isolated incident, only the most visible – and violent – manifestation of a counter-revolution that went on throughout loyalist-held territory. In other places a combination of deceit and political cajolery was used to deprive the masses of the fruits of their victory. Another effective tool was the financial strangulation of worker and peasant collectives by withholding state bank credit. All of these policies pursued a single, unwavering aim: to drain the anti-Franco struggle of all radical social and economic content, and reduce it to nothing more than a fight for electoral democracy, pure and simple, waged by a conventional army employing conventional military methods.

It is easy enough to understand why the middle-class parties in the republican government championed policies which conformed to their interests as persons of property and privilege. But the most zealous promoters of the conservative course were not middle-class moderates, but the Spanish Communist Party (PCE). Vincente Navarro says that the Communist role in the government is often exaggerated. And it is true that, compared to the millions in the CNT, and the tens of thousands in the Socialist unions and even smaller leftist groups like the POUM, actual PCE membership was tiny. But the PCE had one crucial advantage: it was the official Spanish representative of the Soviet Union, the only country outside Mexico selling arms to the Republic. Control of the Soviet aid spigot permitted the PCE to exercise an influence disproportionate to its numbers, and even to dictate policy to the government and dismiss and appoint its leading personnel. Months after the Barcelona fighting, the PCE, working with Soviet and other foreign Communist operatives in Spain, engineered the downfall of the centrist-socialist government of Largo Caballero, whose mediating services they no longer required after the far left had been defeated. He was replaced by the more compliant Juan Negrín.

Navarro also says that Orwell’s account of the Barcelona fighting, in addition to Loach’s film, are used by the contemporary Spanish right to justify retrospective support for Franco. This is no doubt true. But such right-wing arguments are usually little more than exercises in demonology, according to which Communists always and everywhere obey some dark urge to stamp out democracy and impose totalitarian rule. The real motives of the PCE were a little less mysterious. With the declaration of the Popular Front in 1935, the Kremlin and its allied parties in the Communist International (Comintern) sought to counter the menace of expansion by Nazi Germany by means of a "collective security" agreement with France and Britain, by which all three governments would combine to halt Hitler’s aggression. The French and British governments were cool to Stalin’s overtures. It was therefore important to Stalin to convince France and Britain that the fight against Franco, who was backed by Germany and Italy, posed no threat to foreign – particularly British – investments in Spain, to European overseas empires, or to the capitalist order in general. The initiatives of the Spanish masses posed precisely such a threat, which had to be extirpated if Soviet foreign policy aims were to be realized. In the event they weren’t realized; France and Britain never lifted a finger to aid the Spanish Republic or to join forces with the USSR in the run-up to World War II.

Any doubts as to Stalin’s intentions are put to rest by a personal letter he sent to the Spanish premier, Largo Caballero (before he was deposed). According to Hugh Thomas, the principal English-language historian of the war, the letter was "... full of patronizing advice: the parliamentary method might be more revolutionarily effective in Spain than in Russia.... The letter ended with the advice that peasants’ and foreigners’ property should be respected ... that the small bourgeoisie should not be attacked, and that Azaña [Spanish president and head of middle-class Republicans] and the republicans should not be cold-shouldered" (The Spanish Civil War, 1986, p.533).

Thus right-wing and liberal attempts of the kind Navarro mentions to use the work of those who told the truth about Soviet/PCE policy as proof of the evils of Communism, inevitably run up against a paradox: the Communist Party of Spain was not fighting for communism; anarchists, dissident Communists and left-wing socialists, whom the PCE repressed, were doing a better job of that. The PCE was rather attempting to turn Spain into a stable capitalist democracy, the very thing conservatives claim to stand for.

* * * *

It is reasonable to ask whether the Soviet-PCE strategy was not in the final analysis the only realistic one conceivable under the circumstances. Was not growing German-Italian power the main danger at the time, to be stopped at all costs, even if this meant putting aside for a time all hopes for a different social order? Was it not common sense to unite the greatest number of people from all social classes around the single common objective of preserving Spanish democracy, and postpone the settlement of social questions until after the war had been won? Class war, however, does not always obey the logic of common sense (and the Spanish Civil War was a class war, when all is said and done). First, the number of small business owners and professionals on the Republican side was a negligible quantity compared to the great mass of poor peasants and proletarians who comprised the bulk of the loyalist armies. The quantitative advantage of keeping these people on side was therefore insignificant. And when a great mass of people is thrown into combat, it is crucial to their morale that they have a good reason to fight. Were they more inclined to give their all for land and factories that belonged to them, or for a pale abstraction like parliamentary government? They themselves answered this question definitively whenever they had the chance.

Second, what of Franco’s troops? Most of them were poor peasants and workers as well. Would not the prospect of throwing off their landlords and bosses have undermined their loyalty to their own officers encouraged them to desert? Thirdly, there is the question of Spanish Morocco. The Moorish legions were perhaps the most dreaded and brutal combat force in Franco’s armies. Would they have fought so fiercely for their colonial masters if the Spanish Republican government had declared the independence Morocco? We will never know. For fear of offending Spain’s potential French allies, who ruled over a contiguous Moroccan colony, and didn’t want Spain putting any emancipatory notions into the heads of their colonial slaves, the Spanish government refused to free this subject people. All of the above are cases in which the political weapons of class struggle could perhaps have been every bit as potent as the German Condor Legion that bombed Geurnica. The fact that these weapons were never deployed could serve only to demoralize the rank and file, and was arguably a major factor in the Republic’s ultimate defeat in 1939.

As for the wider European situation, the Spanish events took place not only against the backdrop of fascist conquests, but simultaneously with a profound radicalization of French politics. In the same year the Civil War broke out, the Popular Front government of Léon Blum came to power in France in the wake of armed anti-fascist mobilizations by French workers. Blum’s election, in turn, triggered the biggest strike wave in the history of France, as a result of which workers won, among other things, the eight hour day and paid vacations for the first time. Would not a revolutionary victory in Spain have given French workers even more confidence? And if, in fact, the latter had taken power, would this not have confronted the fascist states with an obstacle more formidable than the supposed good intentions of Chamberlain and Daladier? It is, again, impossible to say for sure, now or even then. What we can say is that the spontaneous actions of the Spanish masses opened the possibility of an of an anti-fascist struggle very different from that promoted by Stalin, the Comintern, the Popular Front or the Spanish government.

Twenty years earlier, the Russian people had by their spontaneous actions presented a similar alternative to the carnage of World War I. It was precisely the combination of revolutionary audacity and the political weapons of class struggle that swept the Red Army to victory over the Whites in the Russian Civil War that followed. But the prolonged isolation of the USSR, combined with the desire of those who ruled the Russian state to enjoy unmolested what small privileges they had acquired, caused the Soviet rulers to forget that they once looked to revolution in other countries, rather than diplomatic maneuvers with capitalist powers, to end their encirclement. By 1936, they could see eruptions like the one in Spain only as threats to the international peace they required to build up their own industrial base. Having written off the international revolution, Stalin and his subordinates spared no effort to derail all movements and forces that did not share their pessimism. Thus perished, in the trenches before Madrid, what may have been the last chance of defeating fascism and averting war by replacing the social system that spawned them.

* * * *

The considerations presented above are hardly new. The vagaries of the Spanish Civil War have been chewed over endlessly – and tediously – by leftists of every stripe and sect in the seven decades that have since elapsed. But we should remember the war – if only as an antidote to the temper of our own profoundly dystopian (Orwellian?) times. We should pay tribute to the selflessness of all the fighters, regardless of political faction, who gave up home and family, sometimes country and life, for the life of the Republic. It is also helpful to recall that there was a time, not all that remote from our own, when nationalizing an oil well or a natural gas facility was not considered the height of radicalism, and in which preserving a pension plan was not thought of as the greatest possible victory in the class struggle. It was a time in which ordinary people in one European country, but not only there, were possessed of the wildly unrealistic notion that they could take over and run their country, and, in combination with the workers of other lands, maybe even the world. This was the notion for which hundreds of thousands bled and died. To those bandoliered, plebeian knights errant is the highest honor due.