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The hope amid the horror of 1930s fascism
The Spanish Civil War

August 11, 2006 | Page 15

GEOFF BAILEY tells the story of the Spanish Civil War, which began 70 years ago with a military uprising led by Gen. Francisco Franco.

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ON JULY 18, 1936, sections of the Spanish military, led by fascist Gen. Francisco Franco, and supported by members of the upper class and Catholic Church, rose up in an attempt to crush the country's short-lived Republic.

The resulting civil war, which lasted the better part of the next three years, pitted the forces of fascism against a popular rebellion. The conflict was seen by many as a dress rehearsal for the coming World War.

What else to read

Some of the most insightful commentary on the Spanish Civil War comes from the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. His letters, pamphlets and articles have been collected into a single volume called The Spanish Revolution, 1931-1939.

The best history of the revolution remains Felix Morrow's classic Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, published by Pathfinder Press. George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia provides a brilliant and inspiring firsthand account of life in the revolutionary militias and in worker-controlled Barcelona.


Yet at its height, it provided something more: a glimpse of how millions of ordinary workers could join together to lay the foundation for a more just society. For millions of workers around the world, the Spanish Civil War was a moment of hope against the horror of the rise of fascism in Germany and Stalinism in Russia.

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FRANCO'S INITIAL advance was stopped by the initiative of millions of workers around Spain.

In previous years, socialist and anarchist ideas had gained a strong hold among Spain's workers and peasants. When they learned of Franco's revolt, workers stormed local garrisons and police stations. They distributed arms to anyone who belonged to a trade union or left-wing party.

Across the countryside, land was seized from wealthy landowners and redistributed or collectivized. Workers' organizations formed militias and set up revolutionary tribunals. Trade unions organized communal kitchens, laundries and child care centers. Women's lives, in particular, were transformed by the resistance--they joined factory committees, signed up to fight in the militias and were elected leaders in local committees.

Spanish workers were joined by thousands of volunteers from around the world, known as the International Brigades, who came to Spain to join in the fight. For the millions of people who took part, the fight was not just to defeat the fascists, but to win a more just and equitable society. It was a fight for socialism.

From the beginning, however, the anti-fascist camp was far from united.

Initially, the liberal politicians of the Republican government, which followed the overthrow of Spain's king, tried to cover up news of Franco's revolt and prevented the arming of the population, in a vain hope of negotiating a settlement with Franco. They feared, not without reason, that an open war between Franco and the country's workers would sweep them aside as well.

The government, from the beginning, preached restraint. It put restrictions on land seizures in the countryside and factory occupations in the cities. The workers, they argued, had to limit their demands so as not to frighten the rich, and by extension the governments of the United States and Britain, which they hoped would intervene on their behalf.

The government argued that unity with the upper classes was needed in the fight against fascism. But it was precisely these classes that were supporting Franco. And no matter what the government said, it was seen as too radical for Britain and the U.S., who stood by and watched as the fascists marched to victory.

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EVERY ATTEMPT to appease the upper classes only undermined the Republic's greatest strength.

This was not a conventional war. The fascists had the advantage in equipment, weapons and money. Their first advance had only been stopped through the courageous sacrifice of thousands of workers. But such sacrifice hardly seemed worth it if the goal was a return to the old order.

What was needed was a revolutionary war. 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."

That the liberal bourgeois parties would recoil from such a strategy was to be expected, but they were aided by an unlikely ally--the Spanish Communist Party (PCE).

The PCE had, prior to the war, been a small, insignificant party. But its access to money and arms via the USSR had made it an attractive ally to the Republican government, and it had grown in influence and size during the war.

The PCE, however, was no workers' party. Its membership was largely middle-class shopkeepers and army officers. And its policies were hardly revolutionary. Its policy was set in Russia by the dictator Stalin, who was not interested in revolution--and certainly not one that was out of his control. Stalin's main goal was courting support from the Allied powers as protection against a possible invasion by the Nazis.

The PCE became the most fervent supporter of the government line--that workers' demands should be limited, land should be restored to its owners, and the militias should be disbanded and folded into a regular army.

That such a position should win out against the wishes of millions of workers--who saw the fights against fascism and for socialism as one and the same--is a tragic example of the need for revolutionary organization, and its absence in Spain.

The largest revolutionary alternative to the PCE was the CNT, a radical trade union with more than a million members.

The CNT, along with the socialist-led UGT, had led opposition to Franco. Its leadership, most of whom were anarchists, were committed revolutionaries, whose stated aim was the overthrow of capitalism. In many parts of the country, especially the heart of the revolution in Barcelona, the CNT held the streets, the factories and the power.

At the start of the war, the mayor of Barcelona offered to step down and turn over power to the anarchists. But the anarchists rejected all states, capitalist ones as well as revolutionary ones. Thus, they rejected the mayor's offer to form their own state, instead leaving the bourgeoisie in control of the old one.

As Trotsky wrote: "To renounce the conquest of power is voluntarily to leave the power with those who wield it, the exploiters. The essence of every revolution consisted and consists in putting a new class in power, thus enabling it to realize its own program in life. It is impossible to wage war and to reject victory. It is impossible to lead the masses towards insurrection without preparing for the conquest of power."

The anarchists hoped that their power in the streets would be sufficient to secure the victory of the revolution. But as the government used its power to limit the militias and disarm the more radical parties, the anarchists realized they could not just stand aside. From rejecting the government, the anarchists now decided to join it, sending four ministers to be a part of the republican government.

Only the POUM, a small Marxist party, put forward an argument for the direct seizure of power by the workers and peasants. But the POUM was too small to influence events on its own and was wary of breaking with the CNT leadership.

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IN THE end, the government was able to starve, and then cripple, the revolution.

The counterrevolution came to a head in May 1937, when government forces were sent to put down an uprising in revolutionary Barcelona. For days, government soldiers battled CNT and POUM militia members.

Isolated and besieged (the government even sent two of the anarchist ministers to argue with their comrades to stop fighting), the revolution was disarmed, and then beheaded. Following the battle in Barcelona, the government, led by the Communists, disbanded the militias, outlawed the radical parties, and hundreds of revolutionaries disappeared and were murdered.

With the revolution defeated, it was only a matter of time, before Franco's military superiority would prevail.

The tragedy was complete when Franco's forces entered Barcelona in January of 1938. This time, there were no heroics, no courageous defense. There was nothing left to fight for. As one observer wrote: "Barcelona accepted defeat with sorrow and saw no purpose at all in prolonging the fight. We were no longer in 1936."

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