Lessons of the Asturian Commune, October 1934

On the 80th anniversary of the Asturian Commune we are publishing an article originally written ten years ago. During the Commune the mining and industrial region of Asturias in Spain witnessed one of the most fascinating revolutions in the history of the 20th century. During the course of 15 days men and women fought to establish a new society free of exploitation and ruled by the principles of workers’ democracy. This was the beginning of the Asturian Commune.

On April 12, 1931 the Spanish masses voted massively for Socialist and Republican candidates in local elections that took place throughout the country. One of the main features of this election was a high turn out. Two days later, On April 14, the hated Monarchist regime collapsed, the king was forced to flee the country, and Spain became a Republic.

The masses were seeking to finish centuries of exploitation, cultural backwardness and the influence of the almighty Catholic Church in the economic and social affairs of the country. The Bourgeois-Democratic programme of land reform, development of industry, the separation of the Church from State affairs and the promises of decent education and healthcare for all filled the Spanish peasants and workers with hope. This situation opened a period of Socialist-Republican coalition governments and hope for the historically oppressed masses in Spain.

However, by 1934 the bourgeois-democratic republic had shattered the early democratic illusions and hopes of a big layer of the working class and the peasants. Three years after the proclamation of the Republic, the working class was beginning to see that this Republic had not solved any of the problems they faced. In the elections that took place on November 19th, 1933, the workers massively abstained, and together with manoeuvres of the bosses a shift to the right in parliament took place. Lerroux’s Radical Party emerged as the winner, but without an absolute majority. This meant they needed the support of the CEDA, a far right bourgeois party. The CEDA was a far right party, which represented landowners, “caciques” (direct political representatives of the landowners in the countryside), army officers and the bosses.

The situation in Spain became one of profound instability, which ran through every section of the country, beginning at the top. One of the main features of political life became the permanent crisis in the cabinet. In the space of two years the cabinet changed 6 times, but the Radical party (a bourgeois party which used a left rhetoric) was a permanent feature of all these cabinets.

Another permanent feature of this period was repression. The Republican-Radical government used laws that had been passed by the Socialists when they had been in office (in coalition with bourgeois Republican parties) against the very same Socialist Party! Between November 1933 and September 1934 more than 100 issues of “El Socialist” were sequestered. Prior to the 1934 uprising 12,000 workers were in prison. The Socialist militias were banned and disarmed. The funds of the trade unions were also sequestered. It was a cruel irony for the Socialists; they were prosecuted with the same laws they themselves had passed against, “wreckers and enemies of the Republic”.

It was becoming increasingly clear to the mass of workers that the Republic could not fulfil their hopes and demands for a better life. Experience had dashed their illusions in just three years. The impotence of parliamentarism in the face of such a severe crisis of capitalism was becoming increasingly evident.

The struggle against fascism and the impact on the workers’ organisations

This period was one of Revolution and Counterrevolution across the whole of Europe. The 1929 crash had pushed this process even further. Unfortunately, the Social democratic leadership, and the ultra-left and sectarian policies pursued by the Communist parties, had led these revolutions to bloody defeats and the triumph of Fascist and other reactionary regimes. In 1933 Hitler had taken power in Germany. The most organised working class in Europe had suffered a terrible defeat. A similar situation unfolded in Austria. Years before, the Italian working class had been crushed under the jackboot of Fascism.

The defeat suffered by the German and Austrian working class alerted the rest of the European proletariat – especially the Spanish – to the dangers of Fascism. Among the rank and file of all the workers’ parties and trade unions a feeling of unity sprang up. Here we saw in practice an example of how the working class, when it feels the need to struggle, rejects splits and divisions as a general rule. The Spanish proletariat was determined to defeat Fascism. They did not want to go through the same experience as their German comrades.

The situation across Europe had the effect of pushing the parties of the Second International to the left. This shift to the left was initiated by the growth of the left wing within the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Party). Largo Caballero and his supporters within the UGT (Socialist trade union federation) and in the Socialist Youth even stated they were in favour of the preparation of the proletarian revolution. Even Prieto (identified with the moderate wing of the party) stated in Las Cortes (the Spanish parliament) that he was committed to preventing, by whatever means necessary – including an armed uprising – a fascist regime coming to power. The pressure of the masses on their leaders was pushing them further and further to the left.

Largo Caballero illustrated the mood developing amongst the rank and file of the workers’ parties. He had been a Minister of Labour during the Primo de Rivera dictatorship (1924-1930). In spite of that, in the 1930s his shift to the left was such that he became known as the “Spanish Lenin”. However, the PSOE leaders were far from being Marxists or Leninists. They replaced their earlier parliamentary cretinism with an increasingly ultra-left policy. They suddenly declared they were no longer interested in “bourgeois politics” anymore. Having abandoned the idea of changing society slowly through parliamentary means, they now failed to grasp the role that the platforms provided by the system could play in the fight against capitalism.

The Revolutionary Workers’ Alliance

At the same time as a wide layer of the PSOE ranks was shifting to the left a new phenomenon, the Revolutionary Workers’ Alliance (RWA), was springing up all over the country. Its aim was to give expression to the deep-rooted feeling of unity among the proletariat. In October 1933 the BOC (Peasants’ and Workers’ Block) and the Catalan federation of the PSOE organised a rally appealing for the formation of a Workers’ United Front.

Later on, after the defeat suffered by the left-wing parties in the November general election and the failure of the last Anarchist uprising promoted by the FAI, a Revolutionary Workers’ Alliance was created in Barcelona. The original committee consisted of the BOC, UGT, PSOE (Catalan federation), FSL, Communist Left, USC (Catalan Socialist Union), Unio de Rabassaires (Catalan small and medium landowners’ union), trade unions expelled from the CNT (controlled by the BOC) and the dissident trade unions within the CNT gathered around Angel Pestana.

The Unio de Rabassaires and the USC withdrew from the Workers’ Alliance. The fact that both were giving support to the bourgeois Companys government quite quickly brought them into conflict with the original spirit of the Workers’ Alliance, which was that of a workers’ united front.

The first practical test for the Workers’ Alliance took place on March 13, 1934. The Workers’ Alliance called for a strike against the increasing influence of reaction in the central government. However, the strike was called without appealing to the CNT (Anarchist trade union federation). The CNT organised half of the unionised working class in Spain at the time. The adventurism of the Workers’ Alliance leaders and the sectarianism of the CNT leaders (especially in Catalonia) prepared the ground for the defeat of that strike, particularly in Barcelona. In general, the Workers’ Alliance failed to be a real united front against Fascism.

The sponsors of the Alliance, the Communist Left led by Andreu Nin and the BOC by Joaquin Maurin, never tried to unite the workers’ organisations at rank and file level. They always sought unity from the top. This bureaucratic method undermined the whole project despite the desires and mood in favour of unity against fascism within the rank and file of the trade unions and workers’ parties. They failed to stand for a Leninist policy on the united front – march separately and strike together.

The sectarianism of the CNT leadership and the then tiny Communist Party played a major role too. The Communist Party went so far as to call the Workers’ Alliances “Reactionary Workers’ Alliances”. This was in line with Stalin’s policy of the Third Period where the Socialists, Anarchists and Trotskyists were denounced as Fascists.

Despite the opposition of the CNT to the Workers’ Alliance in Catalonia the Asturian CNT leaders supported the idea of the Alliance and they eventually joined it against the will of the CNT leaders in the rest of Spain.

The explanation for the curious behaviour of the Asturian CNT is to be found in the fact that the UGT and the CNT had almost equal forces in Asturias. This situation had pushed the workers from the Socialist and Anarchist trade unions to work together and fight together. For instance, whilst the SOMA-UGT (Socialist mineworkers’ trade union) dominated in all the pits, the majority of the metal workers were organised in the CNT.

Historically, the Asturian labour movement had been the best organised in Spain. The number of “People’s Houses” (social centres run by the PSOE), Anarchist Social Centres, Cooperatives and even schools run by the trade unions, is one example of how well organised the Asturian proletariat was.

However, the process of drawing the CNT into the Revolutionary Workers’ Alliance was not free from controversy and opposition within the CNT itself. The stronghold of La Felguera controlled by the FAI always opposed the Workers’ Alliance.

It is also important to remember the role played by the Communist Party leadership. In the early 1930s the Communist Party had adopted the ultra-left Stalinist idea of the “Third Period”, whereby the Leninst tactic of the United Front was abandoned, which led them to split the labour movement down the middle and facilitate the rise of the fascists to power.

The mistaken policies of the Stalinist leaders led to defeats in China (because of the Popular Front tactic), and in Germany and then Austria (because of the sectarian “Third Period”. Through these various zig-zags, by 1934, the Comintern had ceased to be a genuine revolutionary International. Instead, as Trotsky explained, it had been reduced to the role of border guard for the Stalinists in Moscow.

Later on, the Stalinists shifted to the right again and adopted the tactic of the popular front. They changed their ultra-sectarian outlook on the Social Democracy to one of class collaboration. Marxism explains that ultraleftism and opportunism are two sides of the same coin. Both policies resulted in catastrophe during the course of the Spanish Revolution. In Asturias, on the eve of the uprising, the PCE (Communist party) leadership dropped their definition of the Workers’ Alliance as the “live nerve of counterrevolution” and instead applied to join it! The pressure of events, and from their own rank and file, was becoming too much for them to resist.

From the General Strike to the Revolution

By the end of September the crisis was so serious that the Radical-Republican cabinet headed by Samper collapsed and in the early October days, Alcala Zamora (the president of the Republic) called on Lerroux to appoint a new government.

The ruling class did not have a real way out. There was also mounting anxiety and tension amongst the working class. Everybody was waiting to see whether Lerroux would give any ministries to the CEDA. The working class regarded the entry of CEDA into the new government as the first step towards Fascism in Spain. The German experience was fresh in their minds. On October 3, Lerroux appointed three CEDA ministers. Six hours later the UGT and the Workers’ Alliances called a general strike.

Despite the shortcomings of the leadership – their failure to call on workers to occupy factories and peasants to seize land, and the lack of real soviets and clarity – the working class threw themselves into the fight.

In the end the general strike was doomed by the lack of participation of the workers of some key sectors of the economy organised by the CNT, such as the railways. This allowed the transportation of ammunition and troops to crush the protest. The workers did not receive arms until hours after the public appeal for the general strike. The Army used this time to arrest workers and disband militias. But, the workers resisted with the general strike going on for days and industry and trade were paralysed. In spite of the limitations of its leadership, when the working class starts to fight with such determination, it cannot be easily stopped. A ferocious struggle ensued. However, in the end, the failure of the leaders was decisive and the movement was defeated.

The failure of that movement was analysed by Leon Trotsky. In his article The consequence of parliamentary reformism, in which he stated:

“The Socialist Party, like the Russian Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, shared power with the republican bourgeoisie to prevent the workers and peasants from carrying the revolution to its conclusion. For two years the Socialists in power helped the bourgeoisie disembarrass itself of the masses by crumbs of national, social, and agrarian reforms. Against the most revolutionary strata of the people, the Socialists used repression (…). When the Socialist Party was sufficiently compromised, the bourgeoisie drove it from power and took over the offensive on the whole front. The Socialist Party had to defend itself under the most unfavourable conditions, which had been prepared for it by its own policy”.

Trotsky pointed out that as a result of the previous parliamentary cretinism of the Socialist Party, anarcho-syndicalism was strengthened as a tendency within the labour movement and it drew towards itself the best militant layers of the proletariat.

Nevertheless the role of the Anarchist leadership was as pernicious as the social democratic leadership. They refused to support the insurrection led by the Socialists. The insurrection is a decisive moment, not a game, and it must be skilfully used and prepared.

Again Leon Trotsky: “Marxism is quite far from the thought that armed struggle is the only revolutionary method, or a panacea good under all conditions. Marxism in general knows no fetishes, neither parliamentary nor insurrectional. There is a time and place for everything.”

The worst betrayal of the movement took place in Catalonia. Lluis Companys (Catalan Premier) feared the workers more than the troops sent by the Republican government. He used the divisions within the labour movement in Catalonia (especially in Barcelona) to proclaim the “Estat Catala” (Catalan state). The President of the Generalitat appealed to the Catalan people to calm them down. When the troops arrived from Madrid and surrounded Barcelona, he just surrendered without resistance. Of course, this “Estat Catala” did not challenge private property nor the current social establishment. The Catalan bourgeoisie was attempting to divert the attention of the masses through this manoeuvre. Leaving the leadership of the struggle in the hands of the petty bourgeoisie represented by the ERC (Catalan Republican Left) and the Unio de Rabassaires proved to be a grave mistake.

This manoeuvre of the Catalan petty bourgeoisie could have been overcome, but the CNT leadership dismissed the general strike as “political” and did not join the movement. In a decisive moment, the CNT that organised the majority of the Barcelona proletariat provided no leadership. As dialectics explains, nature abhors a vacuum. This vacuum was filled by the petty bourgeoisie led by Companys who did not hesitate to betray the movement. In spite of this the Madrid government “rewarded” Lluis Companys by jailing him and sentencing him to death, which was later commuted. With the failure of the insurrection in Catalonia the struggle in the rest of the country was seriously undermined.

UHP! (Proletarian brothers and sisters unite!)

In Asturias, however the situation was completely different. Here the General Strike took the form of an armed uprising. Only hours after the armed uprising began important mining areas like Mieres were under the control of the revolutionary workers. In two days the revolutionary workers took over the Oviedo council, the Asturian capital. The Workers’ Alliance had been established more than a year earlier and was a real united front.

As explained before, the pressure of the workers on the leadership in Asturias made them unite whether they wanted to or not. For instance, the PCE was forced to join the Workers’ Alliance despite the sectarian and ultra-left position of the leadership on this question. The mineworkers led by Gonzalez Pena and Grossi were clearing the way ahead with barrels of dynamite due to the lack of arms and ammunition. The revolutionary Asturian proletariat was making up for the lack of means and experience with their class instinct and creativity.

While the workers and peasants were establishing a new order called the Commune, the institutions of the capitalist system were collapsing. The Civil Guards and the Assault Guards were fleeing from the barracks. When they saw the armed workers, some of them even joined the proletarian army. The case of lieutenant Torrens is one of the most famous. He surrendered his squad of Civil Guards and joined the workers as a military advisor.

The Workers’ Alliances and the bodies which emerged from them (like the Revolutionary Councils) during the revolution, acted as real soviets. Despite the failure of those organisations in the rest of the country, in Asturias they led the revolution.

During the 15 days of the Asturian Commune, the Revolutionary Councils seized land, occupied factories, put the enemies of the working class on trial through the Revolutionary Tribunals (a right that reaction never conceded to the Asturian workers following the repression of the Commune), established Workers’ Democracy and held off the Moorish troops and the Legion, the two most reactionary bodies of the Spanish army.

In spite of the courage of the Asturian masses the movement faced serious problems. On the one hand the insurrection was isolated to Asturias. This made it easier for reaction to defeat it. But the lack of coordination of the different areas where the uprising was taking place also made it very difficult for the militias to overcome their lack of ammunition and weapons.

The failure of the insurrection in the rest of the country made it possible for the Republican government to focus their efforts on smashing the Asturian Commune. It became a common saying that if three Asturian Communes had taken place, the Revolution would have been successful throughout the country. Instead of the greatest of victories there was the most terrible of defeats.

Repression was horrific. The Republican Army, led by Franco, did not hesitate to use aerial bombing against the civil population. They also sent thousands of troops to kill, rape and torture women and children. These are the brutal methods that the ruling class used to crush the Asturian uprising. They could not allow the workers and peasants to decide their own fate. There are no exact figures, but different sources calculate the numbers killed as 2000-4000. The people in jail were counted in tens of thousands.

Once again, the lack of a clear programme and tactics proved to be a disaster and the working class paid for it. If a genuine Bolshevik leadership in the Socialist and Communist party and the trade unions (both anarcho-syndicalist and Socialist) had led the revolution throughout the country, the result would have been substantially different.

But the sacrifice of the Asturian workers was not completely in vain. They did prevent the rise of Fascism through parliamentary means. The ruling class could only impose its open dictatorship after a 3 year long civil war in which the Spanish workers fought like lions despite being led by lambs.

We wish to pay homage to the struggle of these men and women who bravely fought for a better world. They showed to the workers and peasants of the entire world that a society without classes is possible. Once again we reclaim the motto of the Asturian Commune against capitalism, Unios Hermanos Proletarios! (Proletarian Brothers and Sisters Unite!) UHP!

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