The Spanish Civil War

August 18, 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.

In the second part of a two-part article, Geoff Bailey tells the story of the battle between the working-class revolution and the fascist generals over Spain's future.

Reaction and revolution

The elections in February 1936 were celebrated by workers and peasants across Spain.

For the previous two years, known popularly as El Bienio Negro (the Two Black Years), the right-wing government had savagely attacked workers' and peasants' living standards. To take one example, farmworkers' wages were cut in half. Leftists and republicans were purged from the military, from universities and from the public sector.

So when the right was defeated by the electoral alliance of left-wing and republican parties known as the Popular Front, spontaneous celebrations broke out in working-class districts across Spain.

The Popular Front wasn't radical. It was an electoral alliance of the middle-class left republican parties, the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), the still-small Spanish Communist Party (PCE) and the main Catalan nationalist parties. Its program consisted mainly of promises of amnesty for political prisoners jailed during the 1934 revolt in Asturias, modest land reform and renewed autonomy (though not independence) for Catalonia.

Members of an anarchist militia at the barricades in Spain
Members of an anarchist militia at the barricades in Spain

But most workers saw the victory of the Popular Front--whatever the limitations of the stated program--in more far-reaching terms, as a continuation of the revolution begun in 1930. As one Madrid socialist put it:

[The workers] wanted to go forward, they weren't satisfied simply with the release of political prisoners and the return to their jobs of all those who had been sacked as a result of the revolutionary insurrection of October 1934. Instinctively, they were pressing forward, not necessarily to take power, not to create soviets, but to push forward the revolution which had begun with the Republic's proclamation.

The right wing, despite assurances of the government to the contrary, saw the victory of the Popular Front as a declaration of war. Almost immediately following the election, far-right forces began organizing plans for a coup d'état. On July 17, 1936, Gen. Francisco Franco launched his uprising, led by the notorious army garrison in Spanish Morocco.

This was an attack not only on the Popular Front government, but also on the working-class organizations that had brought it to power. After seizing control of the Seville garrison on July 17, Gen. Gonzalo Queipo de Llano signed a proclamation declaring that the leaders of any labor union on strike would "immediately be shot," along with "an equal number of members selected discretionally."

The coup had significant support among right-wing parties and sections of the military, but it should have ended quickly. Had the Popular Front government, from the start, armed the population, it could have quickly halted Franco's advance.

Wherever workers were given arms, or were able to seize them, the coup was pushed back. Franco's forces were quickly routed in all the main industrial centers, as well as in Aragon and much of Andalusia, sites of the most radical peasant organizing. As Marxist historians Pierre Broué and Émile Témime write:

In effect, each time that the workers' organizations allowed themselves to be paralyzed by their anxiety to respect republican legality and each time that their leaders were satisfied with what was said by the officers, the latter prevailed. On the other hand, the Movimiento was repulsed whenever the workers had time to arm and whenever they set about the destruction of the army as such, independently of their leaders' positions or the attitude of "legitimate" public authorities.

Had the government pushed through radical land reform in the countryside, it would have driven a wedge between the army command and rank-and-file soldiers, many of whom came from peasant families. Had the Popular Front government declared independence for Morocco, it could have rallied support from Moroccan nationalist forces and opened a second front against Franco's armies.

Yet, as during the first years of the Second Republic, in each case, the government found itself paralyzed. Committed to a defense of Spanish capitalism, it was unwilling to push the class struggle forward in a way that could have broken the fascist resistance.

Initially, the government tried to downplay news of the uprising as it looked for ways to negotiate with the right. Its first act in response to the coup was to dissolve itself and constitute a new government that included right-wing politicians from outside the Popular Front.

But the authority of the Popular Front government was quickly eroding. The right wing had abandoned the government in support of the coup. Large sections of the bourgeoisie were fleeing abroad, along with their money. And much of the military and police apparatus had gone over to the side of the rebels. The Popular Front still governed, but the state apparatus on which it depended was crumbing.

Revolution and War

As the old society began to fall apart, the workers' movement organized new structures in its place. The unions commandeered cars and trucks to transport members of the newly formed workers' militias. They formed ambulance services and worker-run hospitals. Communal kitchens and transportation centers were organized.

In the cities, workers took over factories and placed them under workers' control. They elected representatives to oversee production and coordinate work in the shops. Author George Orwell, who arrived in Barcelona from Britain six months after the uprising, wrote a moving description of the city under workers' control in his book Homage to Catalonia:

It was the first time that 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...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...

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.

In the countryside, peasants took control of the land, redistributing large estates and, in many places, collectivizing the land and setting up communes. An anarchist in the town of Membrilla, described their local commune:

On July 22, the big landowners were expropriated, small property was liquidated, and all the land passed into the hands of the commune...The local treasury was empty. Among private individuals, the sum of 30,000 pesetas in all was found and seized. 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.

But at every turn, the Popular Front government attempted to hold back the revolution.

From the beginning, the republican parties had nothing but contempt for the revolution. But by 1936, they had little mass support. They held on to power largely through the collaboration offered by left-wing parties.

As it had during the first period of the republic, the leadership of the PSOE continued to defend the republican parties. Now the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) joined them.

Before the civil war, the PCE had been an insignificant party. It had failed to gain a large following after its founding in 1921. Following Joseph Stalin's rise to power in Russia, it had abandoned any commitment to revolutionary struggle and become little more than a tool of Soviet foreign policy.

Now, after a brief period of ultra-leftism in the early 1930s in which it refused to work jointly with reformist workers' organizations, the PCE flipped over to become the leading advocate of the Popular Front. Stalin hoped to win the support of the Allies to join a coalition against fascism--at a time when the USSR was facing increasing hostility from the Nazi government in Germany.

From the first days of the war, the Popular Front government, with the support of the PSOE and the PCE, 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. 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.

The failure to seize power

The Popular Front still held power in Madrid, but the resistance to Franco's assault left large sections of the country effectively under the control of workers and peasants. Nowhere was this more clear than in Barcelona, the heart of the Spanish workers' movement.

There, the Popular Front government was powerless, with real power being held by the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT). The CNT organized food and medical care throughout the city. It organized local committees to defend the revolution and it trained armed militias to fight back Franco's coup.

In a classic case of "dual power," the Popular Front government was able to rule only when its actions did not contradict the orders of the CNT. Its powerlessness was so acute that the head of the Popular Front government in Catalonia called the CNT leaders to his office and told them that if they wished, he would step down and turn power over to the CNT.

But the anarchists in the CNT, who rejected any form of state power--even a workers' state--as a form of hierarchy, refused. According to historian Robert Alexander, the anarchist leader Federica Montseny, for example, explained at the time that "her conscience as an anarchist would not permit her to [take power], because the installation of an anarchist dictatorship, because it was a dictatorship, could never be anarchist."

After a lengthy debate, the anarchists announced that they would allow the Popular Front government to continue to rule. Trotsky wrote at the time of the bankruptcy of the anarchist strategy:

In and of itself, this self-justification that "we did not seize power not because we were unable, but because we did not wish to, because we were against every kind of dictatorship," and the like, contains an irrevocable condemnation of anarchism as an utterly anti-revolutionary doctrine. 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.

Co-opting the left

In the hopes of expanding the base of the Popular Front government, a new cabinet was formed, with the influential leader of the left wing of the PSOE, Francisco Largo Caballero, named prime minister and minister of war. Caballero also offered seats in the new government to the CNT.

The anarchist leaders of the CNT hoped that they could avoid the state, relying instead on the power of the local workers' and peasants' committees to defend the gains of the revolution. But as in any revolutionary situation, a situation of "dual power" cannot last indefinitely. Either the revolutionary forces push forward and come into conflict with--and ultimately displace--the existing state, or the forces of the old order will recapture the initiative and strangle the revolution.

As the PSOE and the PCE--which had gained increasing influence in the government based on its ability to provide money and weapons via the USSR--gained control over government supply lines and weapons, they began to starve the revolutionary militias of provisions and arms.

The anarchists realized that they could not remain indifferent to the composition of the government. Having renounced the intention of overthrowing the state, the CNT now opted for collaboration with it. When Caballero agreed to give the CNT four seats in the government, they accepted.

Again and again during the civil war, despite the failures of the left-wing parties, workers and peasants showed incredible courage and sacrifice in their opposition to Franco and defense of the revolution.

When Franco's forces attacked Madrid, the newly formed Caballero government fled the capital, along with the leaders of most of the political parties and trade unions, except the Communists. Abandoned by the government, the inhabitants of Madrid began scrambling to build defenses. One young man recalled: "When the government left, we felt betrayed...Everyone expected the enemy to take the city. But they didn't. The climate began to change. There were calls everywhere to defend the city. 'Better to die than to live on your knees.'"

Men, women and even children hastily gathered arms. The union of streetcar workers began running free shuttles from the working-class quarters to the front. For weeks, workers fought the fascists street by street, house by house, showing incredible heroism. Men and women often went to the front unarmed, waiting to relieve someone or waiting for a comrade to fall in battle so they could take up arms. A single slogan dominated the city: "No Pasarán" (They shall not pass!)

After a month of brutal fighting, in the face of heroic resistance from the workers of the city, Franco's forces began to retreat. But it was the Communist Party that would benefit the most from the defense of Madrid.

When the Popular Front government fled Madrid, it took with them the leaderships of all the leading political parties and trade unions except the Communists. The organization of the defense of the city was left largely in their hands. After the defense of Madrid, the Communist press printed glowing accounts of how the Communists had saved Madrid, of the often-deserved heroism of the Communist-controlled International Brigades and of the support received from the USSR during the defense.

After the defense of Madrid, the Communists used their newfound popularity to begin to take control of the Popular Army and police forces, recruiting or winning support from leading members of the right wing of the PSOE and many of the remaining officer corps. They then took full advantage of their position over the distribution of weapons to withhold ammunition and supplies from the workers' militias of the CNT and the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), a small anti-Stalinist party based mainly in Catalonia.

The aim was clear: to starve the revolution. But the Communists could not gain undisputed control of the war without settling scores with the anarchists, the POUM and the revolutionary workers of Barcelona.

The defeat of the revolution

Barcelona was the heart of revolutionary Spain. But as the revolution was rolled back throughout the rest of the country, the city descended into an uneasy truce. The CNT and the workers' militias controlled most aspects of daily life, but the regional government was slowly clawing back power and finding ways to curtail the independence of the revolutionary committees.

George Orwell, on leave from the front, described the changes in the city since his last visit:

[Under] the surface-aspect of the town, under the luxury and growing poverty, under the seeming gaiety of the streets with their propaganda-posters, and thronging crowds, there was an unmistakable and horrible feeling of political rivalry and hatred. People of all shades of opinion were saying forebodingly: "There's going to be trouble before long." The danger was quite simple and intelligible. It was the antagonism between those who wished the revolution to go forward and those who wished to check or prevent it--ultimately, between Anarchists and Communists.

The inevitable clash finally came on the morning of May 3, when three truckloads of assault guards, under the personal command of a Communist minister, arrived at the anarchist-held Telephone Exchange with an eviction notice.

This was a test of power. The Telephone Exchange had been seized by the CNT in the first days of fighting in July and had been run under workers' control ever since. It was widely regarded as the most visible symbol of workers' power in the city. What followed was a week of street fighting between anarchist and Communist militants.

Once the fighting started, two things were clear. First, the spontaneous uprising in Barcelona had the support of the majority of workers in Catalonia. Second, this provocation by the government was intended as an act of war against the revolution. This time, there could be no collaboration--either the workers would move forward and overthrow the government, or their defeat would be the beginning of the end for the revolution. There were no guarantees that an uprising in Barcelona would have gained support outside of Catalonia, but a defeat in Barcelona guaranteed the defeat of the revolution.

The Popular Front government appealed to the CNT, and two anarchist ministers were sent to Barcelona to urge their comrades to put down their weapons. The barricades remained for another five days, but without the support of the CNT leadership, militants eventually retreated in frustration and disgust. The revolution had been defeated.

The months that followed were ones of outright reaction. Revolutionary leaders were hunted down, jailed, tortured and in some cases murdered. The revolutionary committees were forcibly broken up. The popular militias were disbanded and reintegrated into the regular army.

The war continued for another two years, but the defeat of Barcelona sealed its fate. When Franco's forces finally marched into the city in January 1938, there were no barricades, no revolutionary call to arms, no heroic opposition.

It wasn't just opposition to the fascists that motivated millions of workers and peasants to fight and sometimes to die in their struggle against Franco. It was the hope that victory would lead to a revolutionary reorganization of society--to a more just and democratic society.

Today, as a new generation fights its own battles for democracy, the lessons of Spain remain. In virtually every revolutionary situation, revolution begins with a period of unity of all those opposed to the old order. Workers and the left are told to moderate their demands in order preserve that initial unity.

But revolutions cannot be made halfway. Either the revolutionary movement moves forward and begins to challenge the limits of the existing capitalist system, or the old forces begin to claw back control, either through the outright victory of counter-revolution or through the co-optation of more conservative sections of the movement.

The victories of the revolution can only be secured by deepening and extending the revolutionary movement. Although the revolution in Spain was ultimately defeated, it provides a glimpse of what such a process might look like. But it will be today, in the streets of Cairo, Damascus, Athens and here in the U.S. that the process remains to be completed.

Further Reading

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