The Spanish Revolution Revisited

Russell Blackwell was in Spain from October 1936 until he was imprisoned by the Russian GPU in 1938 for nine and a half months and finally deported in February 1939. His career as a revolutionary started when he joined the Young Communist League in 1924. He was active thereafter in Mexico, Central America and the United States. In 1929, he helped form the Mexican Trotskyist group and was subsequently deported from Mexico. His experiences in Spain led him to anarcho-syndicalism.

The history of half a century of defeated revolutions is filled with experiences of the greatest relevance for today’s radicals. Just as those of us who love mushrooms and want to survive the feast do not rush to the woods and gather every one in sight but first find out which are poisonous rather than dismissing such knowledge as “irrelevant,” so should the political experiences of recent decades be sifted and studied by radicals seeking solutions to contemporary problems.

From 1936 to 1939, the Spanish Revolution and Civil War provided a laboratory for testing varied radical ideologies in action. The workers of Spain were the first in Europe to resist the tide of fascism. And they fought fascism by counterposing to it the only effective defense—their own social revolution.. Their revolutionary struggle aroused the admiration of radicals and liberals everywhere. Large numbers of refugees from Italy, Germany and Greece, who had been living precariously in Western Europe, flooded to Spain to participate in the fight for freedom. Antifascists of every radical tendency gravitated to the scene of revolutionary action.

On their arrival in Spain, most associated themselves with the Spanish organization with which they felt the closest identification. Anarchists from many countries came to the support of the embattled Spanish Libertarian movement. Many independent Marxists and other unaffiliated radicals joined the militias of the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM). The Communist parties throughout Europe and the Americas recruited thousands of volunteers, not all of them Stalinists, for service in their International Brigades. These became Stalin’s shock troops. They were definitely a political army and their morale and ideology were zealously guarded by agents of the Russian Secret Police (GPU).

The inability of the Republic in its five years of existence to solve any of the basic problems of the country, had disillusioned the workers and peasants with traditional democratic processes. The remains of feudalism were still considerable; the army and the church were still powerful political forces. Everything, it seemed, remained to be done to bring Spain into the twentieth century.

The bulk of industrial workers and large masses of peasants were organized in unions of anarcho-syndicalist and socialist orientation. The need and conditions for a social revolution existed. Only positive revolutionary objectives can account for the militancy of the workers in opposing the military-fascist-clerical uprising. Although the political “Left” had won a clear victory at the polls in February, the republican politicians failed to struggle against the fascist rebellion when it broke out and in most localities refused to arm the people. In over half of Spain’s cities, poorly armed people defeated the military and, virtually ignoring the constituted authorities, established revolutionary committees of a united front character for administration of the economy and the conduct of the war. In most of Spain, the republican government had in effect ceased to exist and had been replaced by a network of revolutionary committees. The various liberal capitalist parties had resigned themselves to playing subordinate roles, accepting the inevitability of a social revolution. Most of the more powerful capitalists either fled the country or went into hiding. Many paid with their lives for their years as exploiters.

Immediately there was a wave of collectivization and socialization carried out by the unions at all levels. The National Confederation of Labor (CNT) was particularly active in this movement, although most of the reorganization of the economy took place under the joint control of the CNT and the General Union of Workers (UGT). Very little—almost nothing—of the old army remained operative, militias having been formed by the unions and the villages to oppose the military advances of Franco’s regular army troops.

Against this background, it was at first only the Communist Party and its satellite in Catalonia—the Unified Socialist Party (PSUC)—that actively opposed the revolution. Standing at the extreme right they claimed that there was no social revolution but simply a defense of democracy against fascism. The Stalinists opposed every revolutionary step taken by the workers and their mass organizations, attempting to direct the struggle into purely military and parliamentary channels. This was the policy of Stalin’s Third International in line with the then foreign policy of the Soviet Union which feared a successful revolution in the West and was primarily interested in seeking alliances with the Western democracies. Russian military aid was the lever that enabled Stalinism to become a major influence in spite of its initial numerical weakness. Russian officers, technicians and advisers came in large numbers, chaperoned by agents of the GPU. Political blackmail was used shamelessly to impose their will on the other anti-fascist parties and labor organizations.

The Spanish Socialist Party and its trade union counterpart, the UGT, were torn by internal dissension during the entire revolutionary and civil war period. Theirs was a relatively “soft” movement and the Stalinists were able to play the various socialist factions against each other. In early stages they used Francisco Largo Caballero whose group had the largest mass following in the unions and among the youth, and they engineered an organic unity between the Socialist and Communist Youth, affiliating the unified organization to the Young Communist International. They even attempted to merge the S.P. and the C.P., unsuccessfully, although a considerable Stalinist caucus developed within the S.P.

The largest revolutionary force was the Libertarian movement: the CNT and the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) together with the Libertarian Youth (JJLL). In this movement, also, there was division and dissension although of a completely different nature, since its “moderates” were far to the left of the most radical Socialists. Incurably parliamentarian by tradition, the latter participated in the official governmental apparatus as a matter of course. On the other hand, the anarchist entry into the governments of Spain and Catalonia was consistently opposed by large segments of the Libertarian movement. This governmental participation violated all tenets of anarchism and castrated the revolution.

The POUM, as a minority party with revolutionary perspectives, identified most closely with the anarchists, holding with them the position that the war and the revolution were inseparable. This was a new party that had been established late in 1935 through the fusion of the Spanish Communist Left led by Andres Nin, who had broken with Trotsky some years before, and the Workers and Peasants Bloc led by Joaquin Maurin. While ideologically Marxist, the POUM included many workers of a revolutionary syndicalist background and was generally labor oriented rather than politically doctrinaire.

Anarchists had long realized that between the two totalitarian alternatives there was little or no real choice. For them the revolution in Spain was a new opening in the direction of freedom. Russian state policy at that time was based on the formation of Peoples Fronts in all countries. This meant alliances with such diverse elements as Chiang Kai Shek, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Fulgencio Batista and Leon Blum, and a denial of revolution everywhere including Spain. The Stalinists claimed that in Spain there was purely and simply a civil war between democracy and fascism and that to work for a social revolution was “counter-revolutionary.” In the Moscow Pravda of December 16, 1936, the Russian Communist Party had boldly announced that: “As for Catalonia—the purging of the Trotskyists and Anarcho-Syndicalists has already begun: and it will be conducted with the same energy with which it has been conducted in the U.S.S.R.”

Stalin knew all too well which forces stood in the way of his policies in Spain. The Anarcho-Syndicalists were the most powerful single group with tens of thousands of men already tempered in the class struggle and inspired by the vision of a stateless, classless society. Their elimination would not be an easy matter. A logical first step was to destroy the POUM which the Stalinists insisted on referring to as Trotskyist. But this was not an overnight matter either. With upward of 10,000 members, the POUM had its own armed militias. It included many militants whose probity was well established and recognized by their political competitors in the Socialist, Libertarian and Republican camps. Its leaders were individually better known and of greater intellectual working class stature than the leading Spanish Stalinists.

There was considerable resistance—although mostly passive—among the members and some leaders of the Spanish Communist Party to the aggressive policies of repression imposed by Moscow’s direct agents. The foreign Stalinists insisted on controlling and directing and held virtual veto power—backed up by the omnipresent GPU—over all major policy decisions. The Russians imposed themselves on their Spanish comrades in a manner less ruthless only in degree than that used against their declared enemies. Much of this has been documented in the book Yo Fui un Ministro de Stalin, by Jesus Hernandez, Mexico, 1953.

The weakening of the revolutionary forces was achieved by erosion of the conquests of the revolution itself. This was facilitated by the lack of intransigence and the opportunism of the revolutionists, who yielded position after position in the name of “anti-fascist unity.” The entrance of the Anarchists and the POUM into the organs of the government, the weakening or suppression of the revolutionary committees, the “militarization” of the militias and the dissolution of the Workers Patrols, were major steps in this erosion. Each retreat by the revolution meant an advance by the counterrevolution personified by Stalinism and its allies. The POUM operated in the shadow of the CNT and was destined to go under as soon as the Anarcho-Syndicalist movement was sufficiently weakened vis-a-vis the Peoples Front government.

The armed barricade struggle of May 3 to 7, 1937 in the revolutionary stronghold of Barcelona was the culmination of a series of Stalinist political maneuvers and GPU terrorist actions and provocations directed against the revolutionary elements. The private prisons of the GPU were filled with persons known, or thought to be, opposed to Stalinist policies. Several key people of the Anarchist movement were murdered. In the Central region alone 80 anarchists were assassinated between January and May. Press censorship was greatly increased and a number of revolutionary papers were suspended.

On the afternoon of May 3, 1937 the regular police forces (Assault Guards) of the government, which were controlled locally by the Stalinists and their collaborators, attempted to seize the central telephone exchange building in the heart of Barcelona. The workers there resisted, cut off telephone communications of all police, Stalinist and governmental offices, and burned up the lines calling for support against this latest provocation against the already greatly weakened positions of the revolution. A spontaneous general strike took place as factory after factory poured its workers into the streets.

Armed workers occupied important intersections and plazas and during the night barricades were raised throughout the city, as the cobblestoned streets were torn up. For several days the workers held the city except for a few small enclaves in the center of town and the scattered precinct stations. Our people controlled the streets while the Stalinists and their allies were bottled-up in a few government buildings. With the Karl Marx barracks surrounded, the Stalinists were afraid to bring their own troops into the streets.

The other cities and towns of Catalonia were also in the workers’ hands. Several divisions at the front were prepared to march into Barcelona to defend the revolution but were assured their aid would not be required. Although no serious attempt was made to root out our opponents, they were clearly on the defensive throughout. Sniping and occasional forays accounted for 300-400 dead. The “Friends of Durruti” —an anti-collaborationist anarchist group—called for the seizure of power by the CNT, as the CNT’s ministers in the government appealed for an abandonment of the barricades via the radio in Valencia. As in the summer of 1936, the revolution floundered in its moment of victory. One by one the barricades were abandoned, and several days later, Assault Guard reinforcements arrived from Valencia to patrol the streets.

The Libertarians had been no match for the Stalinists in political intrigue. For the sake of a false and self-defeating “unity against fascism,” they had yielded one position after another until the revolution was lost. And with the revolutionary fervor gone, the military fight against Franco (an unequal one at best) was also lost.

After the May Days, the Stalinists were able to provoke a political crisis which brought down the national government of Largo Caballero, General Secretary of the UGT. He was replaced by Dr. Juan Negrin as Prime Minister and Indalecio Prieto as Minister of War, both right wing Socialists. The Anarcho-Syndicalists refused to participate in what they denounced as a counterrevolutionary government. The Negrin regime was hailed by the Stalinists (and by itself) as the “Government of Victory” and proceeded to lose the war piecemeal, due largely to the demoralizing effect of its anti-revolutionary policies on the morale of the people. Upon taking power, Negrin crushed the POUM and brought its leaders to trial as “fascist agents,” just as most of the Old Bolsheviks in Russia, accused of being “fascist agents,” had been liquidated by Stalin. The Russian GPU operated actively and almost openly. Andres Nin of POUM, many Anarchists, and a number of foreigners in anti-Stalinist Marxist groups, were murdered by its agents.

The CNT now went into open opposition where it was joined by the Left Socialists around Largo Caballero. A split in the UGT was effected by a bloc of Stalinists and right Socialists. The repression reached mammoth proportions. The press censorship was crippling and the Anarchists and Socialists were obliged to issue illegal newspapers so that they would not entirely lose their political identities. The Stalinist International Brigades were sent into Aragon to smash the peasant collectives by force of arms.

By the end of 1937, the Negrin-Stalin government was firmly in power and the counterrevolution was triumphant. Until March 1939, the war dragged on as a purely military affair. With Franco’s victory, those surviving revolutionists who had been unable to escape abroad were hunted down by the fascist police. Several thousand Spanish Stalinists made it to Russia where over half died in slave labor camps and Jose Diaz, general secretary of the Spanish Communist Party, was murdered by the GPU. Within six months of Franco’s victory, Stalin joined Hitler in the pact that gave the green light to World War II.

One of the most profound lessons of the Spanish Civil War is that in the fight for social justice we must fully comprehend the difference between freedom and dictatorship. That this lesson is lost on some of our non-ideological and ahistorical new leftists, who think of themselves as revolutionaries, is evidenced by the ease, sometimes fervor, with which they hail Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Mao Tse Tung and Ho Chi Minh. It was the Fidels, the Hos and Maos of the Thirties who betrayed the Spanish Revolution, and to confuse these dictators of one-party states with anarchism is the most arrant nonsense. Anarchism means a free libertarian society without state coercion of any kind and implies the highest level of social responsibility for the individual, which explains why Cuban anarchists are in Castro’s prisons. It is no accident that Francisco Franco is one of Fidel’s greatest admirers. This should be as instructive to the New Left as is [the South Vietnamese] Ky’s admiration for Adolf Hitler.

Today’s radical youth are as entitled to their mistakes as we were to ours but the mistakes should be their own, not a repetition of the errors of the past. Their revolutionary idealism, sense of commitment, their struggle for racial equality, their fight against war and militarism are of incalculable worth. However, an understanding of the lessons of history and a positive revolutionary ideology are essential for the movement’s survival and growth.

From: New Politics, vol. VII, no. 3, Summer 1968, pages 84 to 89.