The Asturian Commune of 1934

The Workers’ Alliance sealed on 28th March 1934 was an agreement between the (anarcho-syndicalist) CNT and (trade unionist) UGT, later joined by the PSOE (Socialist Party), the BOC (Worker-Peasant Bloc) and their youth organisations, the Communist Left and later the Communist Party. The Alliance intended to set up local revolutionary workers’ committees, each organisation retaining its independence, in a regional and eventual national alliance. This was to stand firm until a socialist federated society was achieved.

Such an alliance was only possible because of the supposed radicalisation of the socialists. Three years after the victory of the Left and the establishment of the Republic (1931) the Right had won the elections, and the PSOE and UGT began to talk about insurrection. They later admitted their rhetoric was the result of grassroots pressure. In Asturias he socialists were more revolutionary than elsewhere and the leadership closer to the people. This alliance would have been the key to success but in the rest of Spain there was no insurrection but a general strike.

The CNT in the whole of Spain was broadly in favour of an alliance but differed as to the timing. Many in the CNT, and also the FAI (Spanish Anarchist Federation), had doubts about its political implications, mistrusting the Socialists. But in Asturias, where 25-30,000 of the organised 80,000 workers belonged to the CNT (and sympathisers were put at a further 20 thousand) the other organisations combined were larger and (more importantly) not reformist as elsewhere. Even so, there were stormy arguments, not about the UGT but about the dubious role of the PSOE. The FAI would not join the Alliance, nor the La Felguera local Federation of the CNT. However, the FAI and the La Felguera CNT threw themselves wholeheartedly into the insurrection.

The local Communist Party had a hundred out of only 800 members in the whole of Spain. It discredited the alliance, as it offered no scope for it to assume leadership. At the last moment it applied for membership, doubtless on instructions from the USSR.

Preparations for Red October

The anarchists of La Felguera had a resounding victory during the Duro-Felguera strike of 1933, and there were strikes and actions across Asturias. A general strike (8th December 1933) was called by the CNT across Spain, with sabotage, bombs and attacks on the security forces. Accion Popular (the right wing party of Gil Robles) tried to mount a rally from Covadonga (extolled by patriots as the town where the expulsion of the Moors began). The workers’ alliance (under the watchword UHP, Proletarian Brothers United) had called a strike throughout the mining region, leaving the streets, strewn with nails, with no taxis, rail connections cut, sporadic sniping and so on. Such actions led to the October 1934 rising.

On 4th October it was announced that three CEDA (clerical-fascist) members were joining the government and the Socialist Party in Madrid called at last for a general strike.

The events of the Revolution

Early on 5th October the Guardia Civil barracks throughout the villages of Asturias were called upon to surrender, and then attacked. When they had been overcome, revolutionary groups were set up in Sama, La Felguera and Mieres to attack Oviedo, the provincial capital, where there had only been risings in one or two barrios, and where the government forces had seized strategic positions. On the 8th/9th October the Model Prison in Oviedo was stormed and found to contain a huge quantity of rifles and machine guns but no ammunition. However, the government troops were forced to retreat.

On 9th October Gijon was bombarded by the Regular Army and Navy as were other towns. Gijon fell on 11th October. On 12th October the enemy seized back most of Oviedo and a new front was established. Without ammunition, the Provincial Committee was forced to surrender. General Lopez Ochoa, commanding, demanded surrender of the weapons of the captive Guardia Civil and Guardia de Asalto, restoration of all arms, the lives of prisoners taken to be spared, and the committees to give themselves up. No shots were to be fired on the advancing troops. The committees’ conditions for workers to lay down their arms were for the Tercio and Regulares to be kept out of the mining towns and withdrawn from the front on account of their bloody reputation.

Ochoa agreed to these terms, and the Committee surrendered on condition that none of the committee were handed over. The agreement was read out to the population in Sama, who greeted it with cries of “treachery”. They refused to surrender, knowing how vicious the repression would be. They said they would sooner take to the hills. In the end it was accepted as inevitable and when the troops entered the town there came the harshest repression yet known in Asturias.

Ever since March 1934 the people of Gijon had been demanding part of the weaponry seized from the towns but they were denied by the Socialists who had possession. Nor were they given any reinforcements once the revolt got underway. This delayed the insurrection there. In the end the industrial workers and fishermen in the town took to the streets, but the Yague Column (foreign legionnaires and Moorish troops brought in via Ceuta by sea) put men, women and children alike to the sword.

Army Atrocities

General Lopez Ochoa led 25,000 troops against Asturias, but the orders came from generals Franco and Goded in Madrid. Ironically (in view of what Covadonga was supposed to mean) they had brought Moorish soldiers back to Spain to wipe out the people. As the troops advanced they encountered blown-up bridges and roads blocked by trees, even where the revolution had not broken out, showing the depth of support it had. In Grado the armed forces faced resistance from a small group of 400 that forced them back to Aviles.

However when the troops reached Oviedo, the generals had all the wounded in hospital rounded up and shot. They did not even enquire which side they were on. The prisoners were questioned and shot. A hundred held out on Monte Naranco. In flushing them out, a young girl, 16 year old Aida de la Fuente was killed. Her friend was wounded and raped before being murdered.

Revolutionary Conduct

All the Spanish historians, and even those who belittle the events, agree that in the anarcho-syndicalist areas like La Felguera, Ciano, Valdesoto and Gijon, there was greater respect and consideration shown to prisoners and clergy. During the struggle food was obtained by means of ration cards issued by the Supply Committee, determining allocation by family size. Foodstuffs were taken from warehouses and goods vans. All had access to them.

It is traditional for miners in Asturias to combine their toil with some gardening, so there was no shortage of milk and eggs in the hospitals. There are no large holdings there, only tiny holdings, so some way had to be found of obtaining meat without alienating the farmers. The committees bought in sheep from Extremadura shepherds, while in Pola de Laviana traders were paid for their foodstuffs. In these transactions, money (which had been abolished) was temporarily brought back. The Oviedo branch of the Bank of Spain was cleaned out.

Many fires were blamed on the “savagery of the miners” when in fact they were started by the military. In the case of the torching of the Campoamor Theatre in Oviedo, this was done by the revolutionaries, and had to be done to deprive the enemy of a vantage point. In this way, a nunnery had to be set on fire, though its residents were led to safety.

The committees

The War Committee attended to the distribution of materials and tactics. The Supply Committees allocated food and clothing to the villagers and fighters. There was also a Sanitary Committee, which managed the hospitals. In some cases medical supplies had to be manufactured: “staimant” splints for fractures were manufactured in Duro-Felguera. The Transport Committees in nearly every town had access to fifteen or twenty vehicles, while the Work Committees ensured the mines were kept in good order. Furnaces, which would be needed in a new society, were also kept in order. Telephone communications were restored or, where none had existed, introduced.

Repression

Once the rebels had surrendered, the police crackdown began. The signal was the ransacking of the Workers’ Athenaeum in Sama, with 500 books tossed on the flames.

The rubbish incinerator in Oviedo was burning for eight solid days burning bodies, including Aida and her female friend. By the end of October, 10 thousand people had been arrested, a third of them ending in prisons which had capacity for a couple of hundred.

Reasons For Failure

One might cite strategic oversights, the sectarianism of the Socialist leaders, lack of munitions, the deadly air raids, the failure of the Leon air base to rise in revolt, and of course the fact that in the rest of Spain, the rising held out for one or two days, at best amounting to a general strike and some sporadic shooting. But the fact is it could not have been otherwise.

The CNT and FAI, who enjoyed the sympathy of the Spanish workers, failed to throw themselves into the revolt in the rest of Spain because of the attitude of the PSOE, whose sole objective was to seize power and win back the support it lost among the workers due to its collaboration with the Primo de Rivera dictatorship (in which Socialist leaders like Largo Caballero had served) and its time-serving attitude under the Republic. The same might be said of the UGT.

In Catalonia the Generalitat declared an independent Catalan State. The Anarchists were alert and ready for a rising. But even as the new regional government was defying the national governments, anarchists were rounded up and jailed. The Generalitat’s council of defence declared “Watch out for the FAI”.

Anarcho-syndicalists could see the revolt there was nationalist and not revolutionary. Outside Catalonia the PSOE aimed only at a general strike, not a rising, a rebuke that was later put to it in Asturias. Anti-statist anarcho-syndicalism was not disposed to mount a rising that would simply be in the interests of a party and its trade union appendage. Only In Asturias did the proper conditions exist for the setting aside of past resentments and an insurrection in which all were united.

From: "CNT" (October 1993) Granada, reprinted in "Black Flag" 204, Spring 1994 . Translated by: Paul Sharkey.