Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain

4. The Fight Against Fascism: November 1933 to February 1936

Though governmental crises changed cabinet personnel six times during the next two years, Lerroux’s Radicals remained ostensibly at the helm, with either Lerroux or his lieutenants – Samper, Martinez Barrios – as Premier. The Radicals gave a pledge to the left that no Gil Robles man would enter the cabinet. Actually, this arrangement was dictated by Gil Robles. He had studied the methods of Hitler and Mussolini, and felt he dared not openly take power until his fascist movement had acquired a mass base.

It was certainly fitting that this degenerate and reactionary regime should be led by the Radicals, to whose malodorous history we have already referred. A party of such grotesque buffoonery (“Every Nun a Mother!” had been a Lerroux slogan) could exist only so long as capitalist and proletarian camps did not lock in mortal combat; it was soon to dissolve, its finish occasioned, appropriately enough, by a series of scandalous revelations of financial peculations involving the whole party leadership. But for the “bienio negro,” the two black years, its cynical satyrs served the austere clericals as Premiers and Ministers.

The legal structure provided by the republican-socialist coalition proved most useful to Lerroux-Gil Robles. Over a hundred issues of El Socialista were seized within a year. The Socialist International estimated in September 1934 a total of 12,000 imprisoned workers. The socialist militia was proscribed and its arms confiscated. Workers’ meeting halls were closed and their union accounts scanned to discover use of funds for revolutionary purposes. Socialists and other workers elected in the municipal councils were removed. All the laws which the socialists had thought to use against “irresponsibles” were now used against them.

Gil Robles’ main problem was to secure a mass base, a difficult task because Spain has an extremely small middle class. Outside of the small group of prosperous peasant-owners in the North – Basque and Navarra – where a force similar to the Austrian clerical-fascist militia was organised, Gil Robles would have much difficulty in recruiting from the lower classes. There were, however, the million and a half unemployed city and land workers: to win them, Gil Robles introduced a bill providing unemployment benefits, seeking to exploit the fact that the unemployed had been neglected by the republican-socialist government. The clericals set up a programme of government reforestation, the work camps being schools for fascism. They set up a youth movement, a “Christian Trade Union Movement” and a “Christian Peasants Movement.” Gil Robles even frightened his allies, the landowners of the Agrarian Party, with talk of dividing up the big estates. Even to unfriendly observers it appeared that Gil Robles was rolling up a mass following. But when, after months of patient labour and huge expenditure, the clerical-fascists attempted to show results by marshalling great mass gatherings, they were smashed and disintegrated by the socialist proletariat.

Why? It is true that clerical fascism was often inept. Nevertheless, the lack of a convincing demagogy had not prevented clerical-fascism from smashing the proletariat in Austria. Spanish clerical-fascism did not succeed for the reason that the proletariat, unlike that of Germany, did fight and, unlike the Austrians, fought before it was too late.

For the Spanish proletariat evidenced a real determination not to allow itself to be beaten by fascism. The leftward evolution of the international social-democracy after the defeats of Germany and Austria, came in Spain more rapidly than elsewhere. Caballero joined the left wing, of which the Socialist Youth, deeply critical of both the Second and Third Internationals, was the mainstay. The left wing declared for preparing the proletarian revolution, to be achieved by armed insurrection. The centre wing of the party, led by Prieto and Gonzales Pena, publicly pledged, in the Cortes, that any attempt at a fascist regime would be met by armed revolution. Only a small right wing under Besteiros refused to learn from Austria and Germany. In the U.G.T., Caballero introduced a regime of bold struggle and the right-wing socialists who objected were forced to resign from its executive. Precisely because they had been so ideologically dependent on the Kautskys and Bauers, the fall of their teachers enabled the Spanish socialists to make an extraordinarily sharp break with their past. The bourgeoisie, reading proletarian politics by way of bourgeois analogies, thought this was all bluff – until they were scared into conviction by the discovery of large depots of arms in socialist homes and buildings.

With the Socialist Party ready to struggle, the fight against fascism was enormously facilitated, indeed it is not too much to say that only the leftward turn of the Socialist Party made possible, under the existing conditions, the victory over fascism. To have rallied the masses in spite of the socialists, would have required a revolutionary party of such calibre and mass proportions as simply did not exist in Spain.

It proved impossible, however, to instil the Socialist Party with the Marxist conception of the insurrection. Even the best of the left socialist leaders held an extremely narrow conception. In pseudo-leftist terms similar to those of the anarchists and the “third-period” Stalinists, the socialists affirmed themselves no longer interested in the course of bourgeois-republican politics – as if the revolution cannot take advantage of, cannot influence, the course of bourgeois politics! For example: the rightists had carried Catalonia in the November elections, but such was the resurgence of the masses that, only two months later, the left bloc swept the Catalonian municipal elections. The November defeat created a crisis within the C.N.T., part of the leadership demanding an end to boycotting all elections. Hence, a socialist campaign demanding dissolution of the Cortes and new elections could have aided the socialists in rallying the masses, could have torn syndicalists away from the anarchists, could have driven a wedge between Gil Robles and many supporters of Lerroux. Apparently, however, the socialists were afraid of not being left enough.

The broad character of the proletarian insurrection was explained by the Communist Left (Trotskyist). It devoted itself to efforts to build the indispensable instrument of the insurrection: workers’ councils constituted by delegates representing all the labour parties and unions, the shops and streets; to be created in every locality and joined together nationally; a veritable mass leadership which as it functioned would succeed in drawing to it all non-party, non-union and anarchist workers seriously desirous of fighting against capitalism. Unfortunately, the socialists failed to understand the profound need of these Workers’ Alliances. The bureaucratic traditions were not to be so easily overcome; Caballero, no more than Prieto, could understand that the mass leadership of the revolution must be broader than the party leadership; the socialist leaders thought that the Workers’ Alliances meant that they would have merely to share leadership with the Communist Left and other dissident communist groups. Thus, though the Communist Left was persuasive enough to achieve their creation in Asturias and Valencia, and they nominally existed in Madrid and elsewhere, actually in most cases they were merely “top” committees, without elected or lower-rank delegates, that is, little more than liaison committees between the leadership of the organisations involved; and even these were never completed by being joined together through a national committee.

Incredible as it may seem, the fascist scribbler, Curzio Malaparte’s Technique of the Coup D’état had a great vogue among the socialist leaders. They actually thought Malaparte’s preposterous dialogues between Lenin and Trotsky, elaborating a purely putchist conception of seizure of power by small groups of armed men, were genuine transcripts! The socialists seemed to be completely ignorant of the role of the masses in the October revolution of 1917. They failed to tell the masses what the coming revolution would mean to them. Though leading, in June 1934, a general strike of landowners involving nearly half a million, the socialists did not cement the bond between city and country by rallying the city workers to their aid with pickets and funds; nor was the strike used to systematically propagate the slogan of seizure of the land, although during those same months peasant seizures of land reached their highest peak. As a result, when the bitter strike ended without victory, the class-consciousness of the land workers, always so much weaker than that of the industrial proletariat, was so shaken that they played no role at all in the October insurrection. Nor was the city proletariat prepared to seize the factories and public institutions, and impregnated with the conviction that it was up to them to overthrow capitalism and begin building the new order. Instead, the socialists hinted darkly of their complete preparations to effect the revolution themselves.

In their partial struggles against the fascist menace, however, the socialists acquitted themselves magnificently. Gil Robles put his greatest efforts on three carefully-planned concentrations: that at Escurial, near Madrid, on April 22, 1934; that of the Catalonian landowners in Madrid on September 8th against liberal tenancy laws adopted by the Catalonian government, and that on September 9th at Covadongas, Asturias. Not one of these was successful. The workers declared general strikes covering each area; street car rails were torn up; trains were stopped; food and accommodations were made impossible; roads were blocked by barricades, and with fists and weapons the reactionaries were turned back and dispersed. The small groups of wealthy young bloods and their servants, clergy and landowners, who managed to get through with the aid of the army and Civil Guard, presented such a ludicrous contrast to the forces of their opponents that the clerical fascist claim to represent all Spain received an irreparable blow.

The workers’ opposition was reinforced by the struggle for national liberation. Moves against its semi-autonomous status roused the Catalonian nation; Companys, still in power, had to endorse a series of huge demonstrations against Gil Robles. Finally, the nationalist deputies left the Cortes altogether. Reactionary centralisation even drove the conservative Basques into hostility; their municipal councils, in August 1934, met and decided to refuse all collaboration with the government; Lerroux’ answer, the arrest of all Basque mayors, only intensified the crisis.

The clerical-fascists dared wait no longer. They had failed to build a mass base; but with every day the opposition grew stronger. The disunity within the workers’ ranks was slowly but surely tending to disappear. Despite Lerroux’ clever game of gentle treatment for the C.N.T., in order to re-inforce the anti-political elements who were arguing that all governments were equally bad and Lerroux’ government no worse than the last, socialist proposals were beginning to meet with acceptances; in a number of strikes the C.N.T. cooperated with the U.G.T. and in several places, notably in Asturias, the anarchists had entered the Workers’ Alliances.

Even the Stalinists were compelled to come along. Since November 1933, they had met each socialist step to the left by the foulest kind of invective. Kuusinen, official reporter at the 13th Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, December 1933, accused the Spanish socialists of taking part “in the preparation for establishing a fascist dictatorship.” “There are no disagreements between the fascists and the social-fascists as far as the necessity for the further fascisation of the bourgeois dictatorship is concerned,” said the E.C.C.I. “The social-democrats are in favour of fascisation provided the parliamentary form is preserved … What is worrying these people is that in their furious zeal the fascists may hasten the doom of capitalism. The fascisation of social-democracy is proceeding at an accelerated pace.” (Inprecorr, vol. 14, p. 109.) When in April 1934 the secretary of the Communist Party of Spain, Balbontin, resigned because the Communist International refused to sanction a united front, he was answered: “The social-fascists have to maintain the illusion among the working masses that they are ‘enemies’ of fascism, and that there is a great struggle between socialism and fascism, as some petty-bourgeois counter-revolutionaries (Balbontin) want to make the workers believe.” (Ibid, p. 545.) In June 1934, when the socialist Juanita Rico was killed by fascists in Madrid, the Communist Party had to accept the socialist invitation for participation in the mass funeral. But on July 12 it rejected a socialist invitation for joint action and entry into the Workers’ Alliances, and declared that “our correct united front tactics enabled us to frustrate the counter-revolutionary plans of the Workers’ Alliance.” But by September 12 the pressure from its own ranks was irresistible, its delegates taking their seats in the Alliances on September 23 – just a few days before the armed struggle began. If the chief exponents of the theory of social-fascism had to join the proletarian united front, the anarchist-led workers of the C.N.T. would soon take the same road. Gil Robles dared wait no longer; he struck.

Zamora named Lerroux to form a new cabinet; three of Gil Robles’ nominees entered it. The socialists had declared they would answer such a move with arms. If they now retreated, the initiative would pass to Gil Robles, the masses would be demoralised. The socialists took up the challenge within six hours. At midnight of October 4, the Workers’ Alliances and the U.G.T. declared a nationwide general strike.

The stirring events of the next fifteen days are well-enough known not to be repeated here. Despite the absence of real soviets, the lack of clarity concerning the goal of the struggle, the failure to call the peasants to take the land and the workers to seize the factories, the workers heroically threw themselves into the struggle. The backbone of the struggle was broken, however, when the refusal of the C.N.T. railroad workers to strike enabled the government to transport goods and troops. The few hours between the general strike call and the mobilisation of the workers’ militia was sufficient delay to enable the government to arrest the soldiers who were depended upon to split the army; the failure to arm the workers beforehand could not be made up for within a few hours, while government troops and police were raiding every likely building. There were many outright betrayals of arms depots; many key men fled when victory appeared out of the question. In Catalonia, which should have been the fortress of the uprising, dependence on the petty-bourgeois government of Companys proved fatal; more fearful of arming the workers than of capitulating to Gil Robles, Companys broadcast reassuring statements until, surrounded by Madrid troops, he abjectly surrendered.

And yet, in spite of all this, the workers put up a tremendous struggle. In Madrid, Bilbao and other cities, armed clashes went no further than guerrilla sniping by the workers; but the general strikes were carried on for a long period, sustained by the proletariat with exemplary enthusiasm and discipline, and paralysing industrial and commercial life as no previous struggle had ever done in Spain. The greatest and most glorious struggle took place in Asturias. Here the Workers’ Alliances were most nearly like soviets, and had been functioning for a year under socialist and Communist Left leadership. Pena and Manuel Grossi led the miners, who made up for lack of arms by dynamite, tool of their trade, in a victorious insurrection. The “Workers and Peasants Republic” of Asturias gave the land to the peasants, confiscated the factories, tried their enemies in revolutionary tribunals, and for fifteen historic days held off the Foreign Legion and Moorish troops. There is a saying in Spain that had there been three Asturiases, the revolution would have been successful. Only the failure of the rebellion elsewhere enabled the government to concentrate its full force on Asturias.

Nor did there follow a period of pessimism in the workers’ ranks. On the contrary, there was widespread recognition that they had not been defeated in a general engagement; the masses had merely gone on strike and confined their fighting to driving off scabs; their ranks were still intact. They would fight again very soon, and this time would know better how to fight. The dread story of how 3,000 Asturian workers had been slaughtered, most of them after surrender, only served to steel the determination of the masses. Gil Robles’ attempts to seize workers’ headquarters, close down unions, confiscate funds, met with the fiercest resistance. To take the place of the confiscated labour press, illegal organs sprang up and were openly circulated. Executions of October prisoners were met with general strikes. Numerous economic strikes demonstrated the unshaken morale of the proletariat. On May 1, 1935, despite the most frenzied efforts of the government, there was a complete stoppage of work, an absolute paralysis of everything except the public services manned by government troops. The amnesty campaigns, for reprieves of condemned men and release of the prisoners, drew in large sections of the peasantry and the petty-bourgeoisie: the cry of “Amnistia, amnistia!” drew hitherto untouched layers into political life. The Radical-clerical regime began to crack.

President Zamora himself dared go no further. Before the struggle was over, he commuted the death sentences of the Catalan chiefs. The Radical Party split, the perspicacious Martinez Barrios – who as Premier in December 1933 ferociously crushed an anarchist putsch – leading an anti-fascist grouping, and joining with Azaña and other republicans, in May, to fight for amnesty. Lerroux himself now retreated, reprieving Pena and 18 other condemned socialists, on March 29; when Gil Robles retaliated by driving his cabinet out of office, Lerroux was named Premier again by Zamora and dissolved the Cortes for a month in which the Radicals ruled alone; on May 4, Lerroux again formed a cabinet with clerical-fascists, this time with Gil Robles himself as Minister of War, but May Day had already made clear the turn of the tide. We now know that Gil Robles then took over the War Ministry for the purpose of preparing the army, arms depots and secret emplacements around Madrid, for the struggle which is now waging, and therefore knew as well as anybody that he would soon be ousted.

Great anti-fascist rallies took place around the demand for dissolution of the Cortes and new elections. Meetings of a hundred thousand, of two hundred thousand, became regular occurrences. Within the working class, the sentiment for unity was the dominant note. Terribly discredited for their refusal to join the October revolt, the anarchists sought to apologise by pointing to the repressions they were undergoing at the time from Companys and asserted they were ready to join with socialists in the struggle for freedom; Angel Pestana led a split and organised the Syndicalist Party for participation in the coming elections; and even the C.N.T. leadership made it clear they would let their followers vote against the semi-fascist regime. With the tide, most of the bourgeois press turned against Gil Robles. It needed only the final touch of financial scandal involving the Lerroux government. The clerical-fascists had arrived at an impasse; they had to retreat.

They had no idea, however, of the extent of the tidal wave which was to sweep over them. They thought that the February elections would give the balance of power to centre groups. So, too, thought Azaña who, eight days before the elections, sought a postponement, fearing the republican-workers’ coalition had not had enough time for its propaganda. But the masses of peasants and workers, men and women, had their say. They swept the semi-fascist regime away. And not only at the polls. With the posting of the election returns, the masses came out on the streets. Within four days of the elections Azaña was again at the head of the government and again crying for peace, for the workers to go back to work, banishing any spirit of vengeance. Already he was repeating the phrases, and pursuing the policies of 1931-1933!