Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain

6. The Masses Struggle Against Fascism Despite the People’s Front: Feb. 16 to July 16, 1936

Fortunately for the future of the Spanish and the international working class, the masses from the first day of the February victory gave no indication of ceasing the struggle. The lessons of 1931-1933 had been burned into their consciousness. If they now, for the moment, were free of the domination of Gil Robles, they had won that freedom, arms in hand, in spite of the treachery of Companys and the “neutrality” of Azaña. The masses did not wait for Azaña to fulfil his promises. In the four days between the elections and Azaña’s hasty entry into the government, the masses effectively carried out the amnesty by tearing open the jails; so effectively, in fact, that the Permanent Committee of the old Cortes, including Gil Robles, thereafter unanimously ratified Azaña’s amnesty decree, both for fear of the masses in the streets and in order to make it appear that the constituted government remained in control of Spain. Nor did the workers wait for the government decree, and for the decision as to its constitutionality – which came from the Court of Constitutional Guarantees only on September 6! – to get back the jobs of those dismissed after the October revolt; in every shop and factory the workers took along those dismissed and confronted the employers: “Either, or!” Whatever fixing of responsibility for the excesses of October was done, was by the “plebeian method” of the aroused workers and peasants. The Stalinist and right wing socialist deputies shouted themselves hoarse, pleading with the workers to leave all this to the People’s Front government. The workers knew better!

The hated clergy, rulers of the “black two years,” were also dealt with in the time-honoured manner of oppressed peasants. Especially after it was clear the government would not touch the clergy, the masses took matters into their own hands. This consisted not only of burning churches, but of ordering the priests to leave the villages under sentence of death if they returned. Out of abject loyalty to the government, the Stalinists vilified the struggle against the clergy: “Remember that the setting fire to churches and monasteries brings support to the counter-revolution!” (Inprecorr, August 1, p. 928.) They were listened to no more than was Azaña. In the province of Valencia, where the workers have now smashed the counter-revolution so decisively, there was scarcely a functioning church in June.

In their full force, however, the mass actions began only after a series of events revealing the beginning of a rapprochement between the republicans and the reactionaries. Almost all the rightists voted for Barrios as Speaker of the Cortes. In March, Azaña prolonged the press censorship and the state of alarm decreed by the previous reactionary cabinet. On April 4, only eight days before the first municipal elections since 1931 were to be held, Azaña decreed an indefinite postponement, upon the demand of the reactionaries. The day before, Azaña made a speech promising the reactionaries that he would go no further than the limits fixed by the People’s Front programme, and that he would stop the strikes and seizures of the land. The speech was greeted with delirious joy by the reactionary press. Calvo Sotelo, the monarchist, declared: “It was the expression of a true conservative. His declaration of respect for the law and the Constitution should make a good impression on public opinion.” The spokesman of Gil Robles’ organisation declared: “I support ninety per cent of the speech.” On April 15, with many economic strikes going on, the rightists demanded an end to “the state of anarchy.” “The troublemakers and fomenters will be exterminated,” promised Minister Salvador on behalf of the cabinet. The same day, Azaña delivered a sharp attack on the proletariat: “The government will revise the whole system of defence, in order to put an end to the reign of violence,” declared Azaña. “Communism would signify the death of Spain!” The spokesman for the Catalan landowners, Ventosa, hailed him: “Azaña is the only man capable of offering the country security and defence of all legal rights.” The same day, emboldened, fascists and Civil Guard officers shot up a workers’ street in Madrid.

Such was the governmental atmosphere when, on April 17, the C.N.T. declared a general strike in Madrid in protest against the fascist attack. The U.G.T. had not been asked to join the strike, and at first denounced it, as did the Stalinists. But the workers came out of all the shops and factories and public services, not because they had changed their allegiance, but because they wanted to fight, and only the anarchists were calling them to struggle. As the whole commercial life of Madrid began to be paralysed, the Stalinists still declared “they may participate later. Their present decision was to support the Azaña government insofar as it takes effective action against the reactionaries.” (Daily Worker, April 18.) That evening, when in spite of them the strike had proved a huge success, the U.G.T. and the Stalinists belatedly endorsed it before it was called off.

The bourgeoisie realised that the general strike of April 17, and the wave of economic strikes which it inspired, would develop into a proletarian offensive against capitalism and its agency, the government. How to stop this offensive? The army proposed to crush it forcibly. But even among the reactionaries there was serious doubt whether this was possible as yet. Azaña had a much better solution: let the workers’ leaders stop the strikes. So, inducted in May as the new president of Spain to the tune of the “International” sung with clenched fists by Stalinist and socialist deputies who had elected him (the reactionaries did not put up an opposing candidate), Azaña asked Prieto to form a coalition cabinet.

Prieto was more than willing to become Premier. But the mere rumour produced such a storm of opposition in the Socialist Party, that he dared not accept. Caballero warned Prieto that he must not enter without the consent of the party; and behind Caballero, and decidedly to the left of him, was most of the party and the U.G.T.

Madrid, strongest of the party organisations, had adopted a new programme in April and was presenting it for adoption by the national convention in June. The programme declared the bourgeoisie could not carry out the democratic tasks of the revolution, above all was incapable of settling the agrarian question and that therefore the proletarian revolution was on the order of the day. It was weakened by many grave errors, notably the continued failure to understand the role of soviets. But it signified a profound break with reformism.

Logically, that programme, accepted by Caballero, should have been accompanied by a decisive break with the Popular Front policy. Logic, however, scarcely guides centrists. Declaring that the government “has not yet entirely exhausted its possibilities, and that trade union unity and merger of the Marxist parties must precede the revolution, Caballero continued to direct the left socialist deputies in alternately abusing the government but supporting it on every crucial question. Nevertheless, in spite of his frequent love feasts of oratory with the Stalinists, the left socialist organ under his control, Claridad, continued to be a daily contrast to the organs of the Communist Party and the right wing socialists. Claridad effectively exposed the fraudulent character of the agrarian programme; showed how Prieto’s pet projects of irrigation works were enriching the big landowners while the peasants remained poor, and even carried articles calling upon the peasantry to seize the big estates. Simultaneously, the Stalinists and right wing socialists praised regularly the Quiroga government’s agrarian reform! Though Caballero finally had agreed to support Azaña for the presidency, Claridad had to carry Javier Bueno’s articles denouncing Azaña as the candidate of the rightists. The revolutionary elements among the left socialists were so strong that they had their say despite Caballero.

On the issue of Prieto’s entry into the government, Caballero dared not break with his revolutionary following. Equally, however, Prieto dared not submit the question for decision to the national convention. There then took place an extraordinary campaign of pressure to induce the party to let Prieto become Premier. Almost everybody outside the Socialist Party wanted Prieto in the government. The republican press asked for an end of the party conflict – and its solution by Prieto’s entry. Barrios’ “Republican Union” Party, by this time representing much of the industrial bourgeoisie since Lerroux’ Radicals had disappeared, declared it wanted a socialist premier, and that he be Prieto. Miguel Maura, representing the extreme right industrialists and land-owners, called for an authoritarian regime, with the Cortes suspended, and carried out by “all republicans and those socialists not contaminated by revolutionary lunacy.” The Catalan government and its supporters, including the Stalinists, called for entry of the socialists.

The Stalinists sought to make support of this reactionary demand sound very radical. “If the government continues on this road (the false road of 1931), we will work, not breaking the Popular Front, but strengthening it and pushing it toward the solution of a government of a popular revolutionary type, which will do those things which this government has not understood or has not wished to understand.” (Mundo Obrero, July 6.) But all that was required to make this government completely identical with that of 1931 was to include in it proletarian hostages!

Even the P.O.U.M., “Workers Party of Marxist Unity,” joined the chorus. Formed by a fusion of the so-called Trotskyists with the “Workers and Peasants Bloc,” a semi-nationalist Catalan group, it had signed the Popular Front pact, had declared its “independence” of the pact and attacked the concept of the People’s Front, only again to support a People’s Front for the municipal elections, and again to declare its independence when Azaña decreed the postponement. In order to justify its refusal to enter the Socialist Party, as Trotsky proposed, and thereby throw its forces – numbering only a few thousand even according to its own estimates – on the side of the left wing, it refused to see the profound significance of the development of the left wing. In fact, in La Batalla of May 22nd, it denied that there was any real difference between the left and right wings. This false estimate led to deplorable tactics: at a time when the left socialists were engaged in a struggle with the right wing on this question, the P.O.U.M. called for “an authentic Government of the Popular Front, with the direct (ministerial) participation of the Socialist and Communist Parties” as a means to “complete the democratic experience of the masses” and hasten the revolution.

This well-nigh universal pressure failed to weaken the determination of the left socialists. Whereupon Prieto tried desperate measures. Under his control, the National Executive Committee postponed the convention from June to October; outlawed Claridad and cut it off from party funds; instructed the district committees to “reorganise” dissident sections, and ran a farcical election to fill vacancies on the executive, not counting the left wing votes. The left wing repudiated these actions, and declared the Prieto leadership had forfeited the confidence of the party.

In spite of all Prieto’s moves it was clear that the left wing had the masses. Caballero had been re-elected Secretary of the U.G.T. by overwhelming numbers. And behind Caballero stood much more determined elements. Javier Bueno, a leader of the Asturian rebellion, was speaking at great meetings and demanding not only an end to Prieto’s politics, but also to Caballero’s. Significant sections of the party had refused to support the Popular Front ticket in the presidential election, and had put up straight socialist tickets. While Caballero’s national policy for the U.G.T. was little better than that of the Stalinists, other leaders, on a local or industrial scale, were joining with the C.N.T. in powerful and successful strikes. Permanent committees joined the two unions in the ports, on the ships and on the railroads; port and ship workers thereby won nationwide strikes, and the railroad workers had just voted for a national strike when the revolt broke out. The backward peasant elements in the party were learned enough to know what they wanted. Two days after Vidarte, secretary to the Prieto leadership, had indignantly denied to the United Press the rumour that the socialist peasantry of Badajoz were seizing the land, 25,000 peasant families, socialist-led, took over the big estates. The same thing took place elsewhere; Prieto’s attempt to conceal the revolutionary significance of the seizure, by getting the Institute for Agrarian Reform to send in its engineers and legalize the seizure, only encouraged left socialists to repeat the process. The grim miners of Asturias, once the stronghold of the Prieto group, now engaged in political strikes against the government; 30,000 of them struck on June 13, demanding dismissal of the Ministers of Labour and Agriculture (the latter, Funes, a darling of the Stalinists!), and on June 19 fulfilled their threat of having all 90,000 miners cease work. The government managed to get them back to work on June 23, but on July 6 they, and the workers of Oviedo, threatened a general strike against the dismissal by the government of Governor Bosque of Asturias (Calvo Sotelo, chief of the reaction, had received an insulting telegram from the pro-labour governor, and successfully insisted upon his dismissal). The miners repeated their demand, on July 15, and would have gone on strike had not the revolt broken out. In the face of all these unambiguous indications of the revolutionary temper of the socialist proletariat, Prieto dared not risk entry into the cabinet.

Meanwhile, the strike wave reached the proportions of a revolutionary crisis. We can only roughly indicate its magnitude. Every city of any importance had at least one general strike during those five months. Nearly a million were on strike on June 10; a half million on June 20; a million on June 24; over a million during the first days of July. The strikes covered both the cities and the agricultural workers; the latter shattered the traditional village boundaries of struggle, waging, for example, a five weeks’ strike covering Malaga province and 125,000 peasant families.

El Socialista denounced the tidal wave: “The system is genuinely anarchistic and provokes the irritation of the rightists.” Mundo Obrero pleaded with the workers that the struggles were bringing them into collision with the Popular Front government. That government, and its provincial governors, threw the Civil Guard against the strikers in desperate attempts to halt the offensive. Particularly desperate measures were taken against the C.N.T. Companys filled the Barcelona jails with anarchists. In Madrid, their headquarters were closed and 180 of them arrested in a raid on May 31; on June 4, Minister Augusto Barcia announced that “if the syndicalists persist in disobeying the orders of the Ministry of Labour, the government proposes to declare syndicalism outside the law.” On June 19, the government again closed the C.N.T. headquarters. But this was not 1931, when Caballero himself led the attack on the C.N.T.! The U.G.T. now solidarised itself with its anarcho-syndicalist comrades, and the government had to retreat.

Strikes for political demands against the government also developed. On June 8, a general strike was called in Lerida to force the government to fulfil its promise to feed the unemployed. The Murcia miners went out on June 24 protesting against the government’s failure to fulfil electoral promises of bettering conditions. On July 2, the Federation of Agricultural Workers of Andalusia demanded government funds to make up for loss of crops. We have already mentioned the Asturian political strikes. On July 8, students in Barcelona Catholic schools struck, demanding the priests be turned out and lay teachers provided. On July 14, workers demonstrated in Madrid, carrying enlarged photographs of a formal ball held at the Brazilian Embassy, titled, “The republican ministers amuse themselves while the workers die.” These are merely examples of political issues raised by the masses. We may be sure that they were not led by supporters of the People’s Front!

Neither El Socialista’s intimations that Claridad obtained money from a bank of Catholic reactionaries, nor the filthy slanders of Mundo Obrero that the C.N.T. was in league with fascist groups, nor the government’s repressive measures, could halt the revolutionary development of the left socialists, the growing unity between C.N.T. and U.G.T. and the tidal wave of strikes.

Nor did the scope for fascist organisation and arming provided by the People’s Front policy go unresisted by the militant proletariat. They left to El Socialista and Mundo Obrero pleading with the government to stop the fascists. The revolutionary workers confronted the fascists on the street. From February to the July revolt, these street fights accounted for two deaths and six wounded per day. This was, in truth, civil war; and the fascists suffered the greatest casualties. The deadly blows to the morale of the fascist groups also steeled thousands of militants for leadership on July 18.

Finally, the wage and hour improvements won by the strikes, not being followed by an increase in production, of which Spanish industry is deprived by the world crisis, led to price increases; early in July the Madrid press estimated a 20% rise in one month. The workers felt they had been cheated, and prepared for more decisive strikes for more decisive demands. (The identical process is now – mid-September – taking place in France!)

The reaction – which is to say, Spanish capitalism – had pinned its hopes on Azaña for a time; when he proved impotent to stop the workers, its hopes had shifted to Prieto; but the left socialists prevented that solution. There could be no hope, therefore, of a repetition of 1931-1933, and a peaceful return of reaction. The right wing socialists and Stalinists were powerless to prevent the revolutionary development of the Spanish proletariat. Having armed and prepared for the worst, the reactionaries dared not wait until the revolutionary tide overwhelmed them. With ninety-nine per cent of the officer corps, the Foreign Legion and Moorish troops, and most of the fifty provincial garrisons in their hands, Spanish capitalism revolted against impending doom.