Introduction to The Spanish Revolution 1931-37

This introduction originally written in 1995 points out that the new generation of young workers and youth should learn the lessons of history. The tragedy of the Spanish revolution is a painful lesson of cynical betrayal. We must learn from the defeats as well as the victories of working people to prepare ourselves for the future.

1995 introduction by Rob Sewell

The release of Ken Loach's new film Land and Freedom has generated renewed interest in the Spanish Revolution of 1936. 1996 also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the victory of the Popular Front, Franco's uprising and the revolutionary events of the civil war. As a consequence, we are reproducing this work on the Spanish Revolution by Ted Grant as well as a short article by Leon Trotsky analysing these events and explaining the reasons for the ultimate defeat of the Spanish working class.

The article by Ted Grant was originally published in 1973 as part of the discussions that were taking place in the Spanish underground movement against Franco. It summed up the lessons of the Spanish revolution and served as a contribution to the rearming of the new generation of workers and youth in the Spanish young socialists, the UGT and the PSOE. At that time, they were faced with the immanent collapse of the Franco regime and a new revolutionary offensive of the Spanish working class. Again, the Spanish 'Communist' Party, which played such a disastrous role in 1936-37, was also attempting to resurrect the old class collaborationist policies of popular frontism.

By the 1970s, the Spanish proletariat had grown in renewed strength and confidence. The whole of the Iberian peninsular was experiencing new revolutionary upheavals. The overthrow of Caetano dictatorship in Portugal in the mass movement of April 1974, pushed the revolution forward. Every attempt by the bourgeois to reestablish its control resulted a greater swing to the left. But, with the lack of a clear Marxist leadership, the leaders of the Socialist Party and the CP used their authority to side track the movement and prepared the way for counter-revolution. In Spain, after the death of Franco, the movement reached new heights. Nevertheless, as the bourgeois representatives rushed to throw of their fascist uniforms and collect their 'democratic' credentials, the leaders off the workers parties moved rapidly to the right, seeking an accommodation with the new regime. The trade unions looked for a pact with the employers, while the CP defended the monarchy and the national flag! They gave credence to the new 'democratic' capitalist parties. This lead to colossal disillusionment amongst the militant layers of the working class. As a result, the general elections called in 1977 saw the victory of the 'Centre' Parties. This provided only a temporarily respite, and they were forced to call new elections only two years later, which again were won by the 'Centre'. The workers parties offered no alternative. However, the attempted military coup led by General Tejero in 1981, reflected the fragile nature of Spanish 'democracy'. Yet, given the class balance of forces, the coup failed to gain support and turned into a comic affair. Rather than prepare the way for reaction, it led in 1982 to a landslide victory for the PSOE in the general election.

In power, the PSOE leaders moved rapidly to the right. Given the weak nature of Spanish capitalism, the PSOE government abandoned its reforms and moved to counter reform. Gonzales, the once 'radical' leader, turned into an extreme rightwinger. However, the boom of the eighties and the disarray amongst the bourgeois parties, together with the worn but deep seated loyalty of the workers, kept the PSOE in office throughout the 1980s.

Unemployment at officially 23% is the highest in Europe. The employers' offensive and the attacks of the government against the Spanish workers has led to a number of bitter clashes and a series of general strikes. Recently, there have been violent protests over the attempt to closure steel plants and shipyards. A new School Students Union has sprung up which has given militant leadership to important struggles affecting millions of youth.

The recent scandal of government ministers being involved in the creation of death squads used against ETA in the 1980s, has rocked the PSOE. The withdrawal of parliamentary support by the Catalan nationalists has prepared the way for new elections in which the PSOE is likely to be defeated. A new bourgeois government, as in France, will be met with grave economic and social difficulties. Given the pent up frustration of the workers and the revolutionary traditions of the Spanish workers, the scene is being set for mighty class battles. This new period corresponds with a new volatile period internationally. Weak Spanish capitalism cannot afford the reforms of the past. On the contrary, counter reforms are on the order of the day. Many workers on the basis of their experience in the post war period never believed that they would witness war on the mainland of Europe. But the bloody conflict in former Yugoslavia has brought home the nature of the new period. The mighty revolutionary events of the past also will return. The need for a militant fighting leadership for the workers' organisations will be posed again and again. At the same time, the weakness of the CP, which has splintered into a number of groups, will mean that they will not be able to play the same role as in the past. For the new generation of worker activists, it is necessary nevertheless to learn the lessons of history, especially the lessons of 1931-37, and prepare ourselves for the future.

The release of the film Land and Freedom which highlights the treacherous role of the Stalinists during the civil war, has provoked a series of major articles in the Morning Star regurgitating all the old lies and arguments of the 1930s. They are attempting to cover up their disastrous role in 1936 and 1937. They are a blatant attempt to rewrite history.


In the Morning Star of 1st September 1995, Michael O'Riordan, chairman of the Irish Communist Party and former International Brigader lambasted the film as a "distortion" under the title "Damn good anti-Communist stuff". He says the film is based on George Orwell's book, Homage to Catalonia, and proceeds to deride him: "Orwell went up to the hills, fires a few shots in the air and, with his book under his arm, left for Britain to be embraced by the Tory establishment..." In fact the picture described by Orwell is derived from his own personal experiences and is a crushing blow against the actions of the Stalinists in Spain, and its view is backed up by many historians, notably Hugh Thomas, as well as the classic contemporary account by Felix Morrow.

This is a complete distorsion. A quick glance at the press of the CNT, POUM, FAI and even UGT will show you that these organisations had been demanding a general offensive on all the fronts as the best way to help Madrid, but the Republican government consistently refused to act. The Aragón front had been boycotted (arms, ammunitions, food, etc.) by the republican government because it was composed mainly by CNT and POUM militieas which were conducting a semi revolutionary war by collectivising the land. Despite this sabotage, the Aragón front was very active. In fact Orwell was wounded during an offensive on the road to Jaca. This was part of the offensive to take Huesca, which failed because the Republican government refused to provide the promised air cover.

Orwell stayed four months on the Aragón front. After being wounded (he was shot through the neck) during the Huesca offensive, he was sent back to Barcelona on the 17/18th June. A day earlier, the POUM had been illegalised, all its buildings occupied by the police, the leadership imprisoned and all its members were under threat of arrest. Orwell had never been a member of the POUM, but had fought in the 29th Lenin Division of the POUM and as a result was on a police "suspects" list. He stayed in Barcelona until the 23rd June, sleeping in the streets (all boarding houses had to report about foreigners), and hiding during the day. That was the reason why he left Spain, not because he had "a book under his arm". In fact the picture described by ORwell in his HOmage to Catalonia is derived from his own personal experiences and is crushing blow against the actions of the Stalinists in Spain. It is a view backed up by many historians, notably Hugh Thomas, as well as the classic contemporary account by Felix Morrow.

In the Morning Star, O'Riordan stands things on their head. He accuses the anachists of "antagonising the peasantry" by "a forcible collectivisation of peasants' land down to the last shovel". In reality, the anarchists favoured voluntary collectivisation. It was the Stalinists in the USSR that carried out a programme&emdash;against the warnings of the Left Opposition&emdash;of forced collectivisation between 1928-30 which led to the death of millions of people in the famine which followed. In fact, Soviet agriculture never recovered fully from this debacle. And now the Stalinists have the temerity to suggest it was the policy of their opponents!

Another critic, Bill Alexandre, writes in the Morning Star (7th Octobre 1995): "Orwell and the small ILP group remained without serious fighting until, on April 27 1937, they turned their backs on the enemy, leaving the front open, to retreat to Barcelonan to guard the POUM headquarters".


This is another slander. We have already commentated on the "lack" of fighting on the Aragón front. Let us remember that during the offensive on Huesca 3,000 people died! Orwell and the small ILP group left the front on official leave permits. At that time those permits were only issued every 3 months. When they arrived in Barcelona they became involved in the May Days, and played an important role in defending the POUM headquarters from Stalinist attacks (what Bill Alexander doesn't explain is why it was attacked). After the May Days, they went back to the front line to participate in the Huesca offensive and did not leave until mid-June when the POUM had been illegalised, the 29th Lenin Division disbanded by the Republican Army and most of their members arrested.

The only troops that left the front during the May Days were the government troops. Six thousand soldiers were sent from Valencia to disarm the workers in Barcelona. Companys, the Catalan president, even asked for the air force to bomb the CNT headquarters in Barcelona. The 29th Lenin Division (POUM) and the 23rd Division (CNT) at the Aragón front wanted to go to Barcelona to defend their comrades from being slaughtered but were prevented by their own leaders in Barcelona.

The Morning Star 4th August attacks Loach's film for denigrating communists and the International Brigade. "Without the room to catalogue all the film's calumnies," states the article, "from the assertion that the communists didn't organise volunteers into Spain (who asserted this?) to the charge that they murdered and tortured their allies - suffice to say that they are lies born of Trotskyite dogma." This is no 'Trotskyite dogma', it is a fact. Leopold Trepper in his memoirs, The Great Game, who was the head of Soviet intelligence in occupied Europe during World War Two, reveals what was happening: "I saw General Berzin again after his return from Spain, and he seemed a different man. He had learned there that Tukhachevski and his staff had been liquidated. He knew that the 'evidence' gathered against them was false, and he had been stunned.

"Further, he was too lucid to nourish any illusion about his own fate: the wave of repression that had swept away his comrades would drown him also. In spite of danger, he had come back, on his own initiative, to protest to Stalin against the massacres of communists that had been perpetrated by the OGPU (later known as the NKVD and ultimately the KGB) in Spain." (page 87) This is not an isolated example, thousands of Stalinists who came back after fighting in Spain were liquidated by Stalin in case they had been inflected by the revolution.

This is no invention, but was simply the continuation of the great Purge Trials of 1936-38 where millions were sent to their death as "enemies of the people". Trepper recalls: "The members of the Central Committee of the Polish Communist Party, who were on assignment in Paris or fighting in Spain, were summoned to Moscow ...they arrived suspecting nothing. The united anti-fascist front ended, for them, in the cellars of the NKVD, where old militants like Adolf Varsky or Lenski, who was known as the 'Polish Lenin', disappeared forever. The liquidation of Bela Kun and the leaders of the Polish party was confirmed to me, with details I had not known, by survivors who shared my cell in Lubianka after the war....

"Yugoslavs, Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs - all disappeared. By 1937, not one of the principal leaders of the German Communist Party was left, except for Wilhelm Pieck and Walter Ulbricht. The repressive madness had no limits. The Korean section was decimated; the delegates from India had disappeared; the representatives of the Chinese Communist Party had been arrested. The glow of October was being extinguished in the shadows of underground chambers. The revolution had degenerated into a system of terror and horror; the ideals of socialism were ridiculed in the name of a fossilised dogma which the executioners still had the effrontery to call Marxism....

"And yet we went along, sick at heart, but passive, caught up in machinery we had set in motion with our own hands. Mere cogs in the apparatus, terrorised to the point of madness, we became the instruments of our own subjugation. All those who did not rise up against the Stalinist machine are responsible, collectively responsible. I am no exception to this verdict." (pp. 53-55).

These methods were imported into Spain by large numbers of GPU 'advisers', who established murder squads, torture chambers, and underground prisons to carry through Stalin's counter-revolutionary policy in Spain. As Ted Grant explains, Stalin feared the Spanish revolution because it could act as an impulse to the Russian working class and the overthrow of Stalinism. On the other hand, Stalin wanted to prove to the Western powers that he could act in a respectable fashion - the sabotaging of the Spanish revolution was part of this strategy.

In early 1936, Roy Howard, an American journalist, interviewed Stalin.

"Howard: Does this statement of yours mean that the Soviet Union has to any degree abandoned its plans and intentions to bring about a world revolution?
Stalin: We never had any such plans or intentions.
Howard: You appreciate, no doubt Mr. Stalin, that much of the world has for long entertained a different impression?
Stalin: This is the product of misunderstanding.
Howard: A tragic misunderstanding?
Stalin: No, comic. Or perhaps tragicomic.." (Communist International, March/April 1936)

The attempt to woo the imperialist democracies failed miserably. Instead, Stalin turned to Hitler, cementing a pact with him in August 1939. As the deal meant the abolition of Poland, Stalin got around this little problem earlier by dissolving the Polish Communist party and murdering practically all its leaders as "fascists"!

The Morning Star (4th August 1995) berates the Loach film for daring to suggest the betrayal of the revolution was "an actual criminal conspiracy hatched in the evil mind of Joseph Stalin..." It is as if Stalin, who had butchered millions, could not rise to such an 'evil' deed! The Soviet archives in Moscow were opened and examined by Spanish journalists who discovered evidence that the GPU kidnapped and later murdered Andreu Nin, the leader of the POUM, in Alcala, just outside Madrid. Michael O'Riordan (Morning Star 1/9/95) repeats the old Stalin lie that Durruti, the anarchist leader, "was shot by one of his own column after he tried, in a threatening last vain effort, to make them (the anarchists) stay at their post." Historian, Huge Thomas, says there is no truth in this Stalinist rumour: "there is no proof, nor is it likely." The anarchists made many mistakes and blunders, but murdering one of their own was never their method. On the contrary, it was always the method of the Stalinists to murder opponents and blame it on their own supporters.


The case was not only of Durruti, but Nin and Trotsky also. With the outlawing of the POUM after the 'May Days' in Barcelona, the GPU kidnapped and assassinated Nin and then blamed his murder on his so-called fascist collaborators. This was recounted by Jesus Hernandez, the Communist Minister of Education in the Negrin government. He revealed in La Grande Trahison, that Nin was tortured to the limits and then, according to a scheme devised by Vidali (alias Contreras) "liberated" by supposed agents of the Gestapo disguised as members of the International Brigade, leaving behind "evidence" indicating that he was a German spy. Even Santiago Carrillo, the CP youth leader at the time, who describes himself as "a sort of Minister of the Interior, at Madrid, in the Junta of Defence", says it was "possible that he was executed in our (Soviet) zone." (Dialogue on Spain, p 53).

But Carrillo, whose supporters ended up on the rightwing of the PSOE, has much to hide. He and other Stalinists were charged in April 1937 by Rodriguez, CNT member and Special Commissioner of prisons, of illegally seizing workers arrested by Cazorla, but acquitted and "taking said acquitted parties to secret jails or sending them into communist militia battalions in advance positions to be used as 'fortifications'."

They were carrying through Stalin's orders. On 7th December 1936, Pravda declared: "As for Catalonia, the purging of the Trotskyists and the Anarcho-syndicalists has begun: it will be conducted with the same energy with which it was conducted in the USSR."

Carrillo was asked to comment on this in his book' Dialogue on Spain: "It has often been said that the Soviet political police - the GPU, as it was called in those days - had ramifications in Spain, its own secret prisons. There are even issues of Illustration which show photographs (whether genuine or bogus) of the dungeons of the GPU in Barcelona in 1938." All Carrillo could say was: "Perhaps there were some later; perhaps there were some even then....I personally have no proof that there were and I never saw one, even though I believe the Soviet people (!) must have had certain services in Spain, connected with the presence of their volunteers who were fighting at the front." (pages 51-52)

The Stalinist justification for the suppression of the revolution was "first win the war, then the revolution". Under this slogan they carried through the reestablishment of the bourgeois state apparatus, ended the workers' control of the factories, opposed the collectivisation of land, dissolved the worker' militias - in a word - carried through the counter-revolution. As Carrillo admitted: "In that period we didn't talk about socialist revolution, and we even criticised those who did." In fact, they not only criticised but murdered those who advocated revolution. He continued: "If we didn't talk about it, this was primarily because of the international context. We wanted to neutralise the bourgeois forces in the European democracies... It is obvious that during that period the Soviet Union was interested in an alliance with the parliamentary powers against fascism. In my opinion that policy was correct." It was this policy that strangled the revolution. The limited arms that arrived from the USSR came after three months delay, and came with a political price. Stalin wrote to Caballero directly urging him not to harm the interests of private property. "To sum up on this," says Carrillo, "it is clear that at that time the European bourgeoisie would not have tolerated a situation in which a small isolated country like Spain could victoriously carry through a socialist revolution." (pp 160-61). Whenever have they 'tolerated' a socialist revolution?

From these statements it is absolutely clear that the policy of the Stalinists was the subordination of the revolution to the foreign policy needs of the Kremlin. It is a confirmation of the criticisms Trotsky made at the time. Those who refused to comply with this policy were denounced as Trotsky-fascists, and accomplices of the Fascist powers. That is precisely why the POUM militias were deprived of arms.

Following the May events in Barcelona, the forerunner of the Morning Star, the Daily Worker, published an article from its Spanish correspondent, Cockburn, entitled "Trotskyist Rising As Signal", in which it stated: "We know now that the German and Italian agents, who poured into Barcelona ostensibly in order to 'prepare' the notorious 'Congress of the Fourth International', had one big task. It was this:

"They were - in co-operation with the local Trotskyists - to prepare a situation of disorder and bloodshed, in which it would be possible for the Germans and Italians to declare that they were 'unable to exercise naval control on the Catalan coats effectively', because of 'the disorder prevailing in Barcelona', and were, therefore, 'unable to do otherwise' than land forces in Barcelona...In the past, the leaders of the POUM have frequently sought to deny their complicity as agents of a fascist cause against the People's Front. This time they are convicted out of their own mouths as clearly as their allies, operating in the Soviet Union, who confessed to the crimes of espionage, sabotage, and attempted murder against the government of the Soviet Union." (Daily Worker, 11 May 1937)

The POUM was never a Trotskyist organisation, as the Stalinists maintained. The policy of the POUM as bitterly criticised by Trotsky as being centrist - revolutionary in words, but in practise trailing behind the coat-tails of the CNT and the republican government. Nevertheless, all who opposed the Stalinists were labelled Trotskyists or Anarchists, and had to be eliminated. The events in Barcelona in May 1937 were deliberately provoked by the Stalinists who attempted to seize control of the CNT-run telephone exchange. It was used as the pretext to ban the POUM and arrest and murder its leaders.

The Stalinists are still today trying to portray these events as fascist inspired and organised. This time they use the old edition of Huge Thomas' book as evidence. "In fact, as Hugh Thomas reminds us, Hitler's ambassador to Franco Spain, Wilhelm von Faupel, admitted that 'Franco had confirmed' that the counter-revolutionary events in Barcelona in 1937 were sparked by his own agents who were eager to exploit the divisions between the anarchists and communists", states Jeff Sawtell in the Morning Star (4 August 1995). Whereas Hugh Thomas in the first edition of his book The Spanish Civil War accepted this view as plausible, in his third revised and enlarged edition he dismisses the idea: "But spies are boastful, and that one may have attributed the spontaneous outbreak of the fighting to his own intrigues. Franco must also have been anxious to suggest the efficacy of his intelligence services to the Germans." (p 656, 1977 edition)


As Ted Grant explains, the war against Franco could only be won as a revolutionary war, where the factories are owned and controlled by the workers and the peasants are given the land. On military terms, Franco was in a stronger position. Trotsky made the same point repeatedly: "I believe that I have expressed it in many interviews and articles: The only way possible to assure victory in Spain is to say to the peasants: 'The Spanish soil is your soil.' To say to the workers: 'The Spanish factories are your factories.' That is the only possibility to assure victory. Stalin, in order not to frighten the French bourgeoisie, has become the guard of private property in Spain." (The Case of Leon Trotsky, p 294).

The new generation of young workers and youth should learn the lessons of history. The tragedy of the Spanish revolution is a painful lesson of cynical betrayal. In Leopold Trepper's memoirs he states: "Today, the Trotskyites have a right to accuse those who once howled along with the wolves." He goes on to say: "Let them not forget, however, that they had the enormous advantage over us of having a coherent political system capable of replacing Stalinism. They had something to cling to in the midst of their profound distress at seeing the revolution betrayed. They did not 'confess', for they knew that their confession would serve neither the party nor socialism." We must learn from the defeats as well as the victories of working people to prepare ourselves for the mighty events that lie ahead. To this end, we hope this work will assist and also create a thirst to study the more detailed classic writings on the Spanish civil war, most notably Felix Morrow's Revolution and Counter-revolution in Spain, and Leon Trotsky's Spanish Revolution 1931-37.

Rob Sewell
15th November 1995

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