Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain

2. The Tasks of the Bourgeois-democratic Revolution

Five great tasks confronted the bourgeois republic; these must be carried out, or the regime must give way to reaction, monarchical or fascist, or to a new revolution and a workers’ state:

1. The Agrarian Question

Agriculture was accounting for over half of the national income, almost two-thirds of exports and most of the government’s internal revenue; and with seventy per cent of the population on the land, this was the key question for Spain’s future.

The division of the land is the worst in Europe. One third owned by great landowners, in some cases in estates covering half a province. Another third owned by a group of “middle owners,” more numerous than the great landowners, but also in large estates tilled by sharecroppers and land workers. Only one third owned by peasants, and most of this in primitively-equipped farms of five hectares or less of dry, poor land – insufficient to support their families. Such good land as peasants own – in the gardening lands of the Mediterranean coast – is divided into dooryard-size patches.

The five million peasant families fall into three categories:

Two million who own the insufficient holdings. Only in the northern provinces are there any number of peasant families who are moderately comfortable. For the most part, these millions of “owners” starve with the landless, hiring themselves out for day-labour whenever they can.

A million and a half sharecroppers renting on a basis of dividing the crop with the landlord, and subject to the threefold oppression of the landlord, the usurer who finances the crop and the merchant who buys it.

A million and a half land workers hiring themselves out at incredibly low wages and under the best of conditions out of employment from ninety to one hundred fifty days a year. A good wage is six pesetas (75 cents) a day.

The direct exploitation on the land is supplemented by tax squeezing. Of the total tax levy collected from the land in the first year of the republic, more than one-half came from the landowning peasants.

The conditions under which millions of peasant families live beggar description. For comparison one must go to the Orient, to the living conditions of the Chinese and Hindu peasantry. Starvation between harvests is a normal process. The Spanish press at such times carries numerous reports of whole districts of peasants living on roots and boiled greens. Desperate revolts, seizures of crops, raids on storehouses and periods of guerrilla warfare have been part of the history of Spain for a century; but each time it was proven again that the scattered peasantry, without the help of the cities, could not free itself.

The last decades brought the peasant no relief. The halcyon war years, 1914-1918, gave Spanish agriculture an opportunity to enter the world market and secure high prices. The resultant rise in the price of produce and land was capitalised into cash via mortgages by the landowners; the peasants got little of it. The burdens of the collapse of agriculture following the war were, however, quickly shifted onto the peasants. The agricultural crisis, part of the world crisis, aggravated by the tariff barriers raised against Spanish agriculture by England and France, brought the peasant in 1931 to such a plight that whole regions were in danger of extermination by starvation, and with a permanent army of the unemployed on the land.

The only solution for this dreadful condition was the immediate expropriation of the two-thirds of the land held by landowners, and its division among the peasantry. Even this would not suffice. With the exception of the gardening regions on the Mediterranean, Spanish agriculture is conducted by primitive methods. Its yield per hectare is the lowest in Europe. Intensive methods of agriculture, requiring training, modern implements, fertiliser, etc., which mean systematic state aid to agriculture, would have to supplement the distribution of the land.

The feudal tenure of the land in France was destroyed by the Jacobins with nothing but benefit to capitalist relations of production. But in Spain of 1931 the land was already exploited under capitalist relations. Land had long been alienable, bought and sold in the market; hence mortgageable and debt-laden. Hence confiscation of the land would also be confiscation of bank-capital, would be a death-blow to Spanish capitalism, both agricultural and industrial.

From this perfectly obvious fact, the coalition government drew the conclusion that, therefore, the land could not be confiscated.

Instead, elaborate and futile plans were developed, whereby the government, through its Institute for Agrarian Reform, would purchase the landed estates and parcel them out to the peasants on a rental basis. Since Spain is an impoverished land, providing little income to the State, this process would necessarily be a very long one. The government’s own figures showed that its method of dividing the land by purchase would take at least a century.

2. The Development of Spanish Industry

If the republican-socialist coalition could not solve the agrarian question, could it develop the productive forces of industry and transportation?

Compared to the industry of the great imperialist powers, Spain is pitifully backward. Only 8,500 miles of railroad, in a country larger than Germany! With 1.1% of world trade in 1930, she had slightly less than she had had before the war.

The era of development of Spanish industry was short – 1898-1918. The very development of Spanish industry in the war years became a source of further difficulties. The end of the war meant that Spain’s industry, infantile and backed by no strong power, soon fell behind in the imperialist race for markets. Even Spain’s internal market could not long be preserved for her own industry. Primo de Rivera’s insurmountable tariff walls brought from France and England retaliation against Spanish agriculture. With agriculture accounting for one-half to two-thirds of exports, this meant a terrific agricultural crisis followed by the collapse of the internal market for industry. That very crisis, in 1931, ushered in the republic.

These facts stared it in the face, but the republican-socialist coalition repeated, as if it were a magic formula, that Spain was only at the beginning of its capitalist development, that somehow they would build industry and commerce, that the world crisis would let up, etc., etc. The republic found nearly a million unemployed workers and peasants and before the end of 1933 the number was a million and a half, who with their dependents accounted for 25% of the population.

With iron logic the Trotskyists showed that weak Spanish industry, under capitalist relations, can develop only in an expanding world market, and that the world market has been progressively contracting; Spanish industry can be developed only under protection of a monopoly of foreign trade, but the pressure of foreign capital in Spain and the threat to agricultural exports from France and England means that a bourgeois government cannot create a monopoly of foreign trade.

If the lateness of Spanish industry barred its further development under capitalism, that same lateness (like that of Russia) had resulted in a concentration of its proletariat in large enterprises in a few cities. Barcelona, the largest port and also the largest industrial centre, with the industrial towns of Catalonia, alone accounts for fully 45% of the Spanish working class. The Biscay region, Asturias and Madrid account for most of the rest. All in all, Spain has less than two million industrial workers, but their specific gravity, in view of their concentration, is comparable to that of the Russian proletariat.

3. The Church

The separation of Church and State was no mere parliamentary task. To achieve separation, the French Revolution confiscated the Church lands, rallying the peasantry for their seizure; dissolved the religious orders, seized the churches and their wealth, and for many years illegalised and prohibited the functioning of the priesthood. Only then was even the inadequate separation of Church and State achieved in France.

In Spain of 1931 the problem was even more urgent and compelling. By its whole past the Church could not but be the mortal enemy of the Republic. For centuries the Church had prevented any form of progress. Even a most Catholic King, Carlos III, had been compelled to expel the Jesuits in 1767; Joseph Bonaparte had to dissolve the religious orders, and the liberal Mendisabel suppressed them in 1835. The Church had destroyed every revolution of the 19th century; in turn every revolution, every quickening of Spanish life, had been necessarily anti-clerical. Even King Alfonso, after the Barcelona revolt of 1909, had to announce that he would “give expression to the public aspirations for the reduction and regulation of the excessive number of religious orders,” and would establish religious freedom. Rome, however, changed Alfonso’s mind for him. Every attempt at widening the basis of the regime was frustrated by the Church – the last in 1923, when it vetoed Premier Alhucemas’ proposal to call a constituent Cortes and instead backed the dictatorship. No wonder that every period of ferment since 1812 has been followed by burning of churches and killing of clericals.

The economic power wielded by the Church can be gauged from the estimate, given to the Cortes in 1931, that the Jesuit order possessed one-third of the country’s wealth. Such lands as had been confiscated after the revolution of 1868 had been so generously indemnified by the reaction, that the Church was launched on a career in industry and finance. Its monopolistic “agricultural credit” banks were the usurers of the countryside and its city banks the partners of industry. The religious orders conducted regular industrial establishments (flour mills, laundries, sewing, clothing, etc.) with unpaid labour (orphans, “students”) competing to great advantage against industry. As the established religion it received tens of millions of pesetas each year from the state treasury, was freed of all tax obligations even in industrial production, and received rich fees from baptism, marriage, death, etc.

Its official control of education meant that the student would be safeguarded from radicalism and the peasantry kept illiterate – half the Spanish population could neither read nor write in 1930. The superstition bred by the Church may be realised from the fact that until quite recently papal indulgences sold for a few pesetas each; signed by an archbishop they could be purchased in shops displaying the advertisement: “Bulas are cheap today.”

Its robed hordes were a veritable army confronting the republic: eighty to ninety thousand in 4,000 religious houses of the orders, and over 25,000 parish priests – the number in the religious orders alone thus outnumbering the total of high school students and being double the number of college students in the country.

In the first months of the republic the Church moved cautiously in its struggle against the new regime, and advisedly: a pastoral letter advising Catholics to vote for Catholic candidates who were “neither republican nor monarchist” was answered, in May, by mass burning of churches and monasteries. Nevertheless, it was no secret to anyone that the myriad army of monks and nuns and parish priests were vigorously propagandising from house to house. As in every critical period in Spanish history in which the Church felt itself endangered by a change, it disseminated to the superstitious reports of miraculous incidents – statues seen weeping, crucifixes exuding blood – portents of evil times having come. What would the republican government do about this powerful menace?

The Church question brought the first governmental crisis; Azaña formulated a compromise, which was adopted. The clerical orders were not to be molested unless proven, like any other organisation, detrimental to the commonweal, and there was a gentleman’s agreement that this would apply only to the Jesuits, who were dissolved in January 1932, having been given plenty of opportunity to transfer most of their wealth to individuals and other orders. Government subventions to the clergy ended formally with the official declaration of disestablishment but were partly retrieved by payments to the Church for education; for the ousting of the Church from the schools was to be a “long term” programme. This was the sum total of the government’s Church programme. Even this pathetically inadequate legislation created a furore among the bourgeoisie; it was opposed, for example, not only by Ministers Zamora and Maura (Catholics), but by the republican Radical, Lerroux, who had made a lifetime career in Spanish politics out of anti-clericalism. Anti-clerical in words and desiring a fairer division of the spoils, the republican bourgeoisie were so intertwined with capitalist-landowner interests which in turn rested on the Church, that they were absolutely incapable of a serious onslaught on its political and economic power.

The Communist Left declared that this was a further proof of the bankruptcy of the coalition government. It could not even fulfil the “bourgeois-democratic” task of curbing the Church. The revolutionists demanded the confiscation of all Church wealth, the dissolution of all orders, the immediate prohibition of religious teachers in schools, the use of Church funds to aid the peasantry in cultivating the land, and called upon the peasantry to seize the Church lands.

4. The Army

The history of Spain during the nineteenth and the first third of the twentieth century is a history of military plots and pronunciamentos. Called in by the monarchy itself to put a period to opposition, the army’s privileged role led to pampering of an officer caste. So numerous did the officers become that the whole colonial administration and much of that in the country itself (including the police force, the Civil Guard) was entrusted to them. Alfonso’s growing need of army support was used by the officers to entrench themselves. The Law of Jurisdictions of 1905, empowering military tribunals to try and punish civilian libels on the army, made labour and press criticism lèse majesté. Even Alfonso’s Premier Maura, in 1917, protested that the officers were making civil government impossible. In 1919, disapproving of concessions made to the general strike, the army caste, organised into Officers’ Councils for pressure on government and public, demanded the dismissal of the Chief of Police. The War Minister was always one of their men. There was an officer for every six men in the ranks, and the military budget grew accordingly. Indeed, the military budget grew so insupportable that even Rivera tried to cut down the officer caste; the Officers’ Councils retaliated by letting him fall without protest, though they had joined him in his original coup. Alfonso supported them to the last.

The tradition of an independent and privileged caste was a grave danger for the republic. In a country where the lower middle class is so tiny and undistinguished, the officers have to be drawn from the upper classes, which means that they will be tied by kinship, friendship, social position, etc., to the reactionary landowners and industrialists. Or the officers must be drawn from the ranks, that is from the peasantry and the workers. And haste was needed: control of the army is the life and death question of every regime.

The republican-socialist coalition put this grave problem into the hands of Azaña himself, as Minister of War. He reduced the army by a voluntary system of retirement pay for officers, so reasonable in their eyes that within a few days 7,000 officers agreed to retire with pay. The diminished officer corps remained in spirit what it had been under the monarchy.

The Communist Left denounced this as treachery to the democratic revolution. They demanded dismissal of the whole officer corps and its replacement by officers from the ranks, elected by the soldiers. They appealed to the soldiers to take matters into their own hands, pointing out that the bourgeois republic was treating them just as barbarously as had the monarchy. They sought to draw the soldiers into fraternisation and common councils with the revolutionary worker.

The democratisation of the army was viewed by the revolutionists as a necessary task, not for the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie – other organs were needed for that – but as a measure of defence against a return of reaction. The failure of the coalition government to undertake this elementary task of the democratic revolution was simply further proof that only the proletarian revolution would solve the “bourgeois-democratic” tasks of the Spanish revolution.

5. The Colonial and National Questions

The “feudal” monarchy had not only been modern enough to foster the rise, development and decline of bourgeois industry and finance. It was ultra-modern enough to embark on seizure and exploitation of colonies in the most contemporary manner of finance-capitalism. The “national renascence” included the conquest and subjugation of Morocco (1912-1926). In the disaster of Anual (1921) alone, ten thousand workers and peasants, serving under two-year compulsory military service, were destroyed. Seven hundred million pesetas a year was the cost of the Moroccan campaign after the World War. Riots when recruits and reserves were called up and mutinies at embarkation preceded Rivera’s coup. An alliance with French imperialism (1925) led to a decisive victory over the Moroccan people the next year. A murderously cruel colonial administration proceeded to exploit the Moroccan peasants and tribesmen for the benefit of government and a few capitalists.

The republican-socialist coalition took over the Spanish colonies in Morocco and ruled them, as had the monarchy, through the Foreign Legion and native mercenaries. The socialists argued that when conditions justified they would extend democracy to Morocco and would permit it to participate in the benefits of a progressive regime.

Trotsky and his adherents termed the socialist position an act of treachery against an oppressed people. But for the safety of the Spanish masses, too, Morocco must be set free. The peculiarly vicious legionnaires and mercenaries bred there would be the first force to be used by a reactionary coup, and Morocco itself as a military base for the reaction. Withdrawal of all troops and independence for Morocco were immediate demands for which the workers themselves must fight, and incite the Moroccan people to achieve. The liberty of the Spanish masses would be imperilled unless the colonies were freed.

Similar to the colonial question was the issue of national liberation of the Catalan and Basque peoples. The strong petty-bourgeois Catalan Esquerra (Left) Party derived its chief following from among the militant sharecroppers who should be the allies of the revolutionary workers, but who succumb to the nationalist programme of the petty-bourgeoisie, the latter thereby finding a support in the peasantry against the de-nationalising role of big capital and the Spanish state bureaucracy. In the Basque provinces the national question in 1931 led to even more serious consequences; the nationalist movement there was clerical-conservative in control and returned a bloc of the most reactionary deputies in the Constituent Cortes. Since the Basque and Catalonian provinces are also the chief industrial regions, this was a decisive question to the future of the labour movement: how free these workers and peasants from the control of alien classes?

The model for the solution was given by the Russian Bolsheviks, who inscribed in their programme the slogan of national liberation, and carried it out after the October revolution. The broadest autonomy for the national regions is perfectly compatible with economic unity; the masses have nothing to fear from such a measure, which in a workers’ republic will enable economy and culture to flourish freely.

Any other position than support of national liberation becomes, directly or indirectly, support for the maximum bureaucratic centralisation of Spain demanded by the ruling class, and will be recognised as such by the oppressed nationalities.

Catalonian nationalism had grown under the oppression of the Rivera dictatorship. Hence, a day before the republic was proclaimed in Madrid, the Catalans had already seized the government buildings and declared an independent Catalonian republic. A deputation of republican and socialist leaders rushed to Barcelona, and combined promises of an autonomy statute with dire threats of suppression; the final settlement provided a much-restricted autonomy which left the Catalan politicians with grievances they could display with profitable results in the way of maintaining their following among the workers and peasants. On the pretext that the Basque nationalist movement was reactionary, the republican-socialist coalition delayed a settlement of the question and thereby gave the Basque clericals, threatened by the proletarianisation of the region, a new hold on the masses. In the name of getting away from regional prejudices, the socialists identified themselves with the outlook of Spanish bourgeois-imperialism.

Thus, in all fields, the bourgeois republic proved absolutely incapable of undertaking the “bourgeois-democratic” tasks of the Spanish revolution. That meant that the republic could have no stability; it could be only a transition stage, and a short one. Its place would be taken either by military, fascist or monarchical reaction – or by a real social revolution which would give the workers power to build a socialist society. The struggle against reaction and for socialism was a single task, and on the order of the day.