Revolution in 1930s Spain

July 21, 2011

Gen. Francisco Franco's military coup against the democratically elected Popular Front government in Spain took place 75 years ago this summer. It was the event that marked the beginning of a nearly three-year civil war against Franco's fascist forces. At a time when the promise of workers' revolution was being dashed by the rise of fascism on the one hand and the rise of Stalinism on the other, the workers of Spain led a heroic fight against the fascists, but also a rebellion that gave the world an inspiring glimpse of what workers' power could look like.

For the Spanish workers and peasants who fought against it, though, Franco's uprising was not the beginning of the struggle. It was the high point of reaction against a revolutionary movement that had been developing for years. In the first part of a two-part article, Geoff Bailey explains the years of rebellion and reaction that led to the Spanish Civil War.

The Second Republic

Spain had entered the 20th century as one of the most backward countries in Europe. An aged, decrepit monarchy ruled the country, propped up by the twin pillars of the Catholic Church and an aristocratic officer corps. The Spanish bourgeoisie, although at times critical of the monarchy, lacked the resolve to attempt any serious challenge. As the Russian revolutionary writer Leon Trotsky wrote:

Even less than in the 19th century can the Spanish bourgeoisie lay claim to that historic role which the British and French bourgeoisie once played. Appearing too late, dependent on foreign capital, the big industrial bourgeoisie of Spain, which has dug like a leech into the body of the people, is incapable of coming forward as the leader of the people, is incapable of coming forward as the leader of the "nation" against the old estates, even for a brief period.

Lacking reliable support from the propertied classes, the monarchy turned time and again to the military for support. In 1923, Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera took power under a military dictatorship. But Primo de Rivera's dictatorship could not ensure order against a rising tide of struggle. When the Great Depression broke out in 1929, Spain fell into a severe economic crisis, and the ruling class found that it could no longer contain the growing anger with brute force.

People who gathered to celebrate the first elections under the Spanish Republic are attacked by police in Barcelona
People who gathered to celebrate the first elections under the Spanish Republic are attacked by police in Barcelona

In 1930, Primo de Rivera was forced to resign. King Alfonso XIII called for democratic elections, ushering in the Second Republic--the First Republic, formed in 1873, lasted only a year--and five years of social unrest, during which the political right and left vied for control. Elections held in April 1931 went overwhelmingly to the republican parties, forcing King Alfonso to abdicate the throne and flee the country.

The government of the Second Republic, led by Manuel Azaña, was composed of a coalition of the middle-class republican parties and the right wing of the Spanish Socialist Party, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE).

As is often the case, the initial months of the revolution were marked by a tremendous outpouring of solidarity and unity. There were celebrations in cities and town throughout the country, and calls by all the main Left parties for unity in the struggle for democracy. But just below the surface, there were deep cracks in the Republican forces.


The class nature of the revolution

The main forces on the Republican side were a number of smaller middle-class parties opposed to the monarchy and the dictatorship, but fully committed to the defense of Spanish capitalism; the Catalan and Basque nationalist parties; and the Spanish Socialist Party, which itself was divided between a sizable right wing thoroughly committed to the gradual reform of capitalism and a large left wing that spoke openly of the need for revolution (although more in speech than in deed).

Outside the republican government stood the powerful anarcho-syndicalist union, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT). It stood firmly for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, but also against any participation in political action.

Although all the left forces agreed that the main issues facing the revolution were the question of democracy and land reform, very quickly, it became clear that consolidating the gains of the revolution meant challenging the limits of Spanish capitalism.

Land reform was perhaps the most pressing issue in all of Spain. Agricultural products accounted for half of the country's income and two-thirds of its exports. Seventy percent of Spain's population worked the land, yet a small class of landowners controlled two-thirds of all the country's arable land, most of it held in large estates.

Peasants rose up demanding confiscation of the large estates and redistribution of land to millions of poor peasants, but this reform went to the heart of Spanish capitalism. Land in Spain was mortgaged and heavily indebted to Spanish banks. Any expropriation of the large estates threatened not only the large landowners; it would wipe out loans owed to the banks, crippling Spanish capital. The government promised reform, then delayed.

Workers who had just thrown off the repressive government of Primo de Rivera wanted pay increases, unemployment assistance and the removal of monarchist managers. They were met with calls for patience and sacrifice by the new government.

The republican government was paralyzed between the aspirations of the workers and peasants who had elected it into power and its continued defense of the bourgeoisie. It was incapable of carrying through even the most basic democratic reforms.

Reforms could only be defended and extended by strengthening the power of working-class organizations. Only by calling into question the very existence of the bourgeois government could the workers' movement be strengthened. As Trotsky wrote prophetically in 1931:

The Madrid government...promises strong measures against unemployment and land-hunger, but it does not dare to touch a single one of the social ulcers...The discordance between the progress of the mass revolution and the policy of the new ruling classes–that is the source of the irreconcilable conflict that, in its future development, will either bury the first revolution or produce a second one.

The struggle over democratic demands was not simply a fight for a less repressive state; it was at the core of the fight for workers' power and socialism. The working class, as Trotsky argued, was the only class capable of leading the fight for democratic demands for the peasantry and the oppressed minorities. But in that fight, it was bound also to fight for its own socialist aspirations.


Crisis of the Second Republic

In less than two months, the republican-Socialist coalition traded its first blows with the workers' movement. In May 1931, members of the Civil Guard shot 10 workers after a clash with monarchist groups. In July, a general strike broke out in Seville in support of a walkout by local telephone workers. The government declared martial law. Forty workers died and more than 200 were wounded in the ensuing street battles.

The anarchists launched a counter-attack. Committed to militant direct action, in January 1932, they launched an insurrection in the Catalan mining town of Alto Llobregat. The military suppressed it almost immediately.

In January 1933, anarchists initiated a call for an insurrection in support of a strike of railway workers. Sporadic uprisings broke out in Catalonia, Valencia and parts of Andalusia. They were uniformly crushed almost immediately. The centralized Spanish army had no trouble isolating and defeating each revolt in succession.

Just a week after the January insurrections, anarchists in the small village of Casas Viejas rose up and seized nearby land, proclaiming a libertarian society. The government ordered the military to restore order. In the fighting, the military killed hundreds, burning some alive.

Pictures of the massacre of peasants, armed with hatchets and scythes, by soldiers who were armed with rifles and artillery infuriated the public and helped to seal the fate of the Azaña government. But the cycle of insurrections took a heavy toll on the anarchists. Thousands of union militants were arrested and the wave of anarchist uprisings was extinguished.

With the anarchists in retreat and the PSOE discredited for its role in the republican government, the right took the initiative.

Right-wing parties began cynically exposing the atrocities of the Casas Viejas massacre in their press, and even formed their own tribunals to examine abuses by the military. All of this was a self-serving attempt to embarrass the Azaña government by groups that had nothing but contempt for the peasantry, but in the absence of an alternative from the left, it allowed the right wing to gain the upper hand.

When elections were called in November 1933, the right won an overwhelming victory, ushering in what became known as "El Bienio Negro," the two black years.


Reaction and revolt

The right-wing government that took power in November 1933, headed by Alejandro Lerroux, did so against the backdrop of the rise of fascism in Europe. Hitler had been appointed chancellor of Germany in January by the conservative president Hindenburg. In March, the Austrian fascist, Englebert Dolfuss, had convinced the Austrian president to cede him dictatorial powers. Austrian workers rose up heroically to defeat Dolfuss, but were crushed.

Many Spanish workers feared that Spain would be next. After the November elections, the largest number of seats in the Cortes went to members of the Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (CEDA), a confederation of industrialists, monarchists and admirers of Mussolini and Dolfuss, led by José María Gil Robles.

The membership of the PSOE and its affiliated union, the Unión General del Trabajadores (UGT), radicalized by the failure of Germany's Social Democrats to put up any resistance to the rise of fascism and by the Austrian workers' fierce resistance, put pressure on their leadership to prevent any attempt by Gil Robles to take power.

Moderate PSOE leaders publicly pledged in the parliament that any attempt to install a fascist regime would be met with armed revolution. The large left wing, led by the Socialist Youth, declared that they were preparing for a proletarian revolution. A call went out for the formation of a broad united front of workers' organizations, known as the Alianza Obrera, to resist the advance of the right.

On October 1, members of CEDA demanded seats in the government, leading to the collapse of the Lerroux government. Lerroux formed a new cabinet that included four members of CEDA. The PSOE leadership, which only months before had promised armed resistance to Gil Robles, was now forced to act.

On October 4, the Alianza Obrera and the UGT called a nationwide general strike. In most places the strike was a tragic failure. The reformist PSOE leadership that had called for the strike had only partially committed to it.

The start of the strike was postponed twice in the hopes that an agreement could be reached with Lerroux to remove CEDA from the cabinet. When the UGT finally issued a strike call, it was on short notice and following a declaration of martial law that enabled the government to arrest hundred of socialist organizers.


The Asturias

Only in the mining center of Asturias did the strike take on truly revolutionary proportions. There, the UGT and the CNT had both entered into the Alianza Obrera under pressure from their rank and file, signing a pact that committed them to work together "until they obtain a social revolution in Spain."

On the night of October 4, sirens announced the beginning of the strike. Joint militias attacked the barracks of the Civil Guards, disarming them. Miners marched on the capital, Oviedo, liberating towns along the route and gathering forces. When the miners took control of cities, they redistributed land to the peasants and seized the mines and factories.

When they reached the capital, an armed column of 8,000 miners occupied the city. For 15 days, the beleaguered miners of Asturias held out against the troops of the Foreign Legion. In the slaughter that followed, more than 3,000 were killed and thousands more were imprisoned.

The various workers' organizations had joined together spontaneously in Asturias. The October rebellion showed the potential of a united workers' movement and the desire for unity among many rank-and-file workers from all parties.

When the CNT national leadership rebuked the local CNT committee for having signed such a pact without their consent, the rank-and-file miners responded, "In social struggles, as in other wars, victory always goes to those who previously got together and jointly organized their forces." Nationally, though, the call for united action through the Alianza Obrera was rejected by the CNT, which opposed the participation of the "pro-state" PSOE.

The CNT's hostility to the Socialists was, to be sure, fueled by the opportunism of the PSOE. Though rhetorically to the left of other social-democratic parties in Europe, it had long since abandoned revolutionary politics. The bulk of the leadership of the PSOE saw the Alianza Obrera as nothing more than a paper alliance.

But by dismissing calls for unity and political struggle, the anarchists turned their backs on millions of workers ready to unite in struggle against the right, at best leaving them under the vacillating leadership of the reformists and centrists of the PSOE. At worst, it needlessly divided the forces of the working class and hastened the defeat of the Asturias revolt.

For Lerroux's right-wing coalition, however, the rebellion in Asturias was the beginning of the end. The right had been thoroughly discredited and a new militancy was growing among workers and the peasantry. When new elections were called, no one doubted that the left would win a decisive victory. Temporarily defeated, the right began laying plans for a coup around the figure of Gen. Francisco Franco.

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