Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain

9. The Counter-Revolution and the Masses

It would be a libel on the socialist and anarchist-led masses to think that they were not alarmed by the advance of the counter-revolution. Discontent, however, is not enough. It is necessary also to know the way out. Without a firm, well-developed strategy for repelling the counter-revolution and leading the masses to state power, discontent can accumulate indefinitely and only issue in sporadic, desperate lunges which are doomed to defeat. In other words, the masses require a revolutionary leadership.

Especially in the ranks of the CNT and FAI the discontent was enormous. It seeped out in hundreds of articles and letters in the anarchist press. Though the anarchist ministers in Valencia and the Generalidad voted for the governmental decrees or submitted to them without public protest, their press did not dare defend the governmental policies directly. As governmental repressions increased, the pressure of the CNT workers on their leadership increased.

On March 27, the CNT ministers withdrew from the Catalonian government. The ensuing ministerial crisis lasted three whole weeks. ‘We cannot sacrifice the revolution to unity,’ declared the CNT press. ‘No more concessions to reformism.’ ‘Unity has been maintained until now on the basis of our concessions.’ ‘We can retreat no further.’

Precisely what the CNT leadership now proposed, however, was a mystery. Companys neatly punctured their postures by a summary of the ministerial course since December, demonstrating that the CNT ministers had voted for everything – the disarming of the workers, the army mobilisation and reorganisation decrees, dissolution of the workers’ patrols, etc. Stop this humbug and come back to work, Companys was saving. And as a matter of fact, the CNT ministers were ready to come back at the end of the first week. At this point, however, the Stalinists demanded a further capitulation: the organisations providing ministers should sign a joint declaration pledging themselves to carry out a stated series of tasks. The CNT ministers protested that the usual ministerial declaration after constituting the new cabinet would be sufficient – the Stalinist proposal would have left the CNT ministers absolutely naked before the masses. Thus the ministerial crisis dragged out two more weeks.

There then ensued a little by-play which amounted to nothing more than a division of labour, whereby the CNT leaders were bound more strongly than ever to the Generalidad. Companys assured the CNT that he agreed with them and not with the Stalinists, and offered his services to ‘force’ the Stalinists to relinquish their demand. At the same time, Premier Tarradellas, Companys’ lieutenant, defended the administration of the war industries (run by the CNT) against an attack in the PSUC organ, Treball, which he termed the ‘most arbitrary falsehoods’. For these little services, the CNT abjectly gave Company’s unconditional political support:

We declare publicly that the CNT is to be found at the side of the president of the Generalidad, Luis Companys, whom we have accorded whatever facilities have been required for the solution of the political crisis. We stand by the president who, without any kind of servile praise – a proceeding incompatible with the morale of our revolutionary movement – knows that he can count on our most profound respect and our most sincere support. (Solidaridad Obrera, April 15, 1937, p. 12)

Companys, of course, managed to persuade the Stalinists to relinquish the demand for a pact, and on April 16, the ministerial crisis was ‘resolved’. The new cabinet, like its predecessor, provided a majority for the bourgeoisie and the Stalinists, and, of course, differed in nothing from the previous one.

The masses of the CNT could not be so ‘flexible’. They had a heroic tradition of struggle to the death against capitalism. Even more insistently, the revival of the bourgeois state was taking place on their backs. Inflation and the uncontrolled manipulation of prices by the businessmen ‘mediating’ between the peasantry and the city masses now led to perpendicular price rises. In this period the rise of prices is the leit-motif of all activity. The press is full of the problem. The condition of the masses was growing daily more intolerable, and the CNT leaders showed them no way out.

Many voices now cried for a return to the traditional a-politicism of the CNT. ‘No More Governments!’ Local CNT papers broke discipline and took up this refrain. It was counsel of unthinking despair.

Far more significant was the rise of the Friends of Durruti. In the name of the martyred leader, a movement rose which had assimilated the need for political life, but rejected collaboration with the bourgeoisie and reformists. The Friends of Durruti were organised to wrest leadership from the CNT bureaucracy. In the last days of April, they plastered Barcelona with their slogans – an open break with the CNT leadership. These slogans included the essential points of a revolutionary programme: all power to the working class, and democratic organs of the workers, peasants and combatants, as the expression of the workers’ power.

The Friends of Durruti represented a deep ferment in the libertarian movement. On April 1, a manifesto of the Libertarian Youth of Catalonia (Ruta, April 1, 1937) had denounced the ‘United Socialist Youth’ [Stalinists], who first assisted the revaluation of the Azaña stock-fallen so low in the first days of the revolution when he tried to flee the country-and who called to the Unified Catholic Youth and even to those who were sympathetic to fascism; stigmatised the bourgeois-Stalinist bloc as ‘supporting openly all the intentions of the English and French governments to encircle the Spanish revolution’; excoriated the counter-revolutionary assaults on the publishing houses and radio station of the POUM in Madrid. It pointed out that ‘arms are denied to the Aragon front because it is definitely revolutionary, in order to be able afterward to throw mud at the columns operating on that front’; ‘the Central Government boycotts Catalan economy in order to force us to renounce our revolutionary conquests’; ‘the sons of the people are sent to the front, but for counter-revolutionary ends the uniformed forces are being kept in the rear’; ‘they have gained ground for a dictatorship – not proletarian! – but bourgeois.’

Clearly differentiating the Anarchist Youth from the CNT ministers, the manifesto concluded: ‘We are firmly decided not to be responsible for the crimes and betrayals of which the working class is being made the object… We are ready to return, if that is necessary, to the underground struggle against the deceivers, against the tyrants of the people and the miserable merchants of politics.’ An editorial in the same issue of Ruta declared: ‘Let not certain comrades come to us with appeasing words. We shall not renounce our struggle. Official automobiles and the sedentary life of the bureaucracy do not dazzle us.’ This from the official organisation of the anarchist youth!

Not in a day or a month, however, does a regroupment take place. The CNT had a long tradition and the discontent of its masses would evolve only at a slow pace into an organised struggle for a new leadership and a new programme. Particularly was this true because no revolutionary party existed to encourage this development.

The POUM’s Answer to the Counter-Revolution

An abyss was opening up between the CNT leaders and the masses within the CNT movement. Would the POUM step into the breach and place itself at the head of the militant masses?

The prevalence of a wide tendency in CNT ranks to go back to traditional a-politicism was an annihilating criticism of the POUM, which had done nothing to win these workers to revolutionary-political life. Also with no aid from the POUM leadership, a genuinely revolutionary current was crystallising in the Friends of Durruti and the Libertarian Youth. If the POUM was ever to strike out independently of the CNT leadership, this was the moment!

The POUM did nothing of the sort. On the contrary, in the ministerial crisis of March 26-April 16, it revealed that it had learned nothing whatever from its earlier participation in the Generalidad. The Central Committee of the POUM adopted a resolution declaring:

There is needed a government that would canalise the aspirations of the masses, giving a radical and concrete solution to all the problems by way of the creation of a new order that would be guarantor of the revolution and of the victory at the front. This Government can only be a government formed by representatives of all the political and trade union organisations of the working class which would propose as immediate tasks the realisation of the following programme. (La Batalla, March 30)

The proposed fifteen-point programme is not a bad one – for a revolutionary government. But the absurdity of proposing it to a government which by definition includes the Stalinists and the Esquerra-controlled Union of Rabassaires (independent peasants) is indicated immediately by the last point on the programme: the convocation of a congress of delegates of the unions, peasants and combatants which will in turn elect a permanent workers’ and peasants’ government.

For six months the POUM had been saying that the Stalinists were organising the counter-revolution. How, then, could the POUM propose to collaborate with them in the government and in convoking the congress? From this proposal the workers could only conclude that the POUM’s characterisation of the Stalinists had been so much factional talk, and would henceforth take no POUM charges against the Stalinists as being seriously meant.

And Companys and his Esquerra? A new cabinet must receive a mandate from Companys, and the POUM proposed no break with this law. Was it conceivable that Companys would agree to a government which would convoke such a congress? Here, too, the masses could only draw the conclusion that the POUM’s declaration of the necessarily counter-revolutionary rôle of the Esquerra of Companys was not seriously meant.

As a matter of fact, the workers could not feel that the POUM attached fundamental importance to the congress. Much more important seemed the entry of the POUM into the Generalidad. La Batalla (March 30) published side by side two columns headed: ‘Balance of two periods of government.’ One, ‘the government in which the POUM participated’ the other, ‘the government in which the POUM did not participate’. The government of September 26-December 12 is described lyrically as a period of revolutionary construction. Thus, the POUM still refused to understand how the government in which it had participated had taken the first giant steps in reviving the bourgeois state. From these tables, the worker could draw only one logical conclusion: all that was needed was that the POUM should be re-admitted into the government.

The POUM’s proposal was indeed nothing but a shame-faced formulation for a return to the government of September 26. This is borne out by the POUM’s Adelante of Lerida (April 13) which, more outspokenly, writes of a government in which the workers’ organisations will have first place and the bourgeoisie second place. All the lessons of eight months had been lost upon the POUM leadership!

Let us look more closely at the POUM’s proposed congress of delegates of unions, peasants and combatants. It sounds ‘almost’ like soviets; and indeed it was proposed precisely to delude the restless left wing of the POUM. But it has nothing whatever in common with the Leninist conception of soviets.

One must never forget – what the Stalinists have completely buried – that soviets do not begin as organs of state power. They arise in 1905, 1917, in Germany and Austria in 1918, rather as powerful strike committees and representatives of the masses in dealing with immediate concrete problems and with the government. Long before they can seize state power, they carry on as organs defending the workers’ daily interests. Long before the workers’, peasants’ and soldiers; deputies have united in an all-national congress, there must have been formed the city, village, regimental soviets which are later to be united in a national organ. The way to begin getting such a congress is to begin electing factory, peasants’ and combatants’ committees wherever the workers can be taught to function through their own committees. The example of a few committees in a few factories and regiments will win the masses to this form, the most democratic method of representation known to mankind. Then, only, can one organise an all-national congress in a bid for power.

At that point, moreover, the congress will inevitably be a reflection, even if a more accurate one than other organs, of the political level of the masses. If the Stalinist, anarchist, and other reformist organisations are still powerful, then the congress will reflect their political line. There is, in a word, no magic in the soviet form: it is merely the most accurate; most quickly reflecting and responsively changing form of political representation of the masses.

The mere convocation of the congress would not solve the basic political task of the POUM: to wrest from the Stalinists and the anarchists the political leadership of a majority of the working class. The congress would concentrate the political thoughts and yearnings of the masses as no other organ could. It would provide the arena in which the revolutionary party can win the support of the working class – but only in the sharpest struggle against the false political lines of the reformists of all varieties.

Were the POUM leadership serious about the proposed congress, it would not have asked the government to convoke it, but would immediately have sought election of committees wherever possible. But the POUM did not even elect such committees in the factories or militias under its own control. Its ten thousand militiamen were controlled bureaucratically by officials appointed by the Central Committee of the party, election of soldiers’ committees being expressly forbidden. As the internal life of the party grew more intense, with the left-wing workers demanding a new course, more and more bureaucratic became the control of the leadership over the factories and militiamen. Here was scarcely an example to inspire the workers elsewhere to create elective committees!

The soviet form bases itself directly on the factories, by direct representation from each factory in the localities. This provides direct contact with the factories, enabling the soviet through recall and new elections to renew itself and reduce the time-lag of political development to a minimum. This characteristic of soviets also enables the revolutionists to converse directly with the factories, without the intervention of the trade union bureaucrats. Yet, precisely in this basic characteristic, the congress proposed by the POUM differs from the soviet form: the POUM proposes representation of the unions. This was simply another concession to the prejudices of the CNT leadership, who conceive the unions, and not the far broader workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ soviets, as the governing form of industry in a socialist society and – incidentally! – object to the revolutionists reaching the workers in the factories.

Thus the utopian project of the POUM was a fraud, a counterfeit, doomed to a paper existence – an empty concession to the left wing.

One seeks in vain, in the POUM documents, for a systematic defence of its opportunist course. One finds only a paragraph here and there, which may be presumed to be the germ of a new theory. For example, Nin appeared to think that the only genuine form of the dictatorship of the proletariat must be based on the leadership of more than one workers’ party:

The dictatorship of the proletariat is not that of Russia, for that is a dictatorship of one party. The reformist workers’ parties within the soviets worked for armed struggle against the Bolsheviks and this created the circumstances for the taking of power by the Bolshevik party. In Spain, nobody can think of a dictatorship of a party, but of a government of full workers’ democracy … (La Batalla, March 23, 1937)

Nin thus wipes out the soviet democracy of the first years after the October Revolution, and the history of the process of reaction, resulting from the isolation of the revolution from Europe, which in the end led in Russia, not to the dictatorship of a party but the dictatorship of a bureaucracy. If his words are to be taken seriously, Spain could not have a dictatorship of the proletariat, no matter how wide the influence of the POUM became, unless other organisations (FAI and CNT) agreed to work for it; if they did not, then Spain is doomed to capitalist domination! Thus Nin rationalised his refusal to let go of the coat-tails of the CNT leaders:

The crux of the matter is that Nin had abandoned the Leninist conception of soviets. This he did explicitly:

In Russia there was no democratic tradition. There did not exist a tradition of organisation and of struggle in the proletariat We do have that. We have unions, parties, publications. A system of workers’ democracy.

One understands, therefore, that in Russia the soviets should have developed the importance that they did. The soviets were a spontaneous creation that in 1905 and 1917 took on an entirely political character.

Our proletariat, however, had its unions, its parties, its own organisations. For this reason, the soviets have not risen among us. (The Fundamental Problem of Power, La Batalla, April 27, 1937)

Once embarked on a false, opportunist course, revolutionists will decompose politically at a fearful rate. Who would have believed, a few years ago, that Nin would be capable of speaking these lines? The gigantic ‘tradition of organisation and of struggle’ amassed by the Russian proletariat in the Revolution of 1905, the study and analysis of which developed the cadres which made the October Revolution, ‘escapes’ him. What was peculiarly Russian about the soviet form? In 1918, in countries with a far richer proletarian tradition than Spain-Germany and Austria – the soviets rose. As a matter of simple fact, what were the factory committees, the militia committees, the village committees, the workers’ supply committees, the workers’ patrols, the investigation committees, etc., etc., which surged up in Spain in July 1936 – were these not the foundation stones, which required only deeper politicalisation and coordination, direct representation of the masses instead of the organisations, in order to form the soviet power? Nin’s rationalisation is pitiful; it will not stand up for a moment; he had joined with the Stalinists and the bourgeoisie, in September, explicitly to abolish the soviet dual power as ‘unnecessary duplication’ – and nine months later could say, ‘the soviets have not risen among us’.

Thus, the POUM leadership stood at the tail of the CNT. Instead of assimilating the lessons of Leninism, they denounced it as … Trotskyism. Why do the Stalinists call us Trotskyists? – this is the perennial complaint of the POUM leadership. The following is typical, from an article by Gorkin:

In any case Trotsky has given no basis for our being called Trotskyists. In 1931 he published two articles upon the then Workers and Peasants Bloc and its chief Maurin. For him [Trotsky] our political line was a ‘mixture of petty-bourgeois prejudices, of ignorance, of provincial “science” and of political knavery.’ …

With the Spanish Civil War, we have seen manifested once more the sectarianism of Trotsky … The representative today of the Fourth International in Spain, within two hours of arriving, and a quarter of an hour of talking with us, drew from his pocket a programme prepared a priori, giving us advice concerning the tactic that we ought to apply. Courteously, we advised him to take a walk through Barcelona and to study a little better the situation. This citizen … is the perfect symbol of Trotskyism: of a sectarian doctrinairism, of a great sufficiency, certain that he possessed the revolutionary philosopher’s stone. (La Batalla, April 24, 1937)

This provincial smugness, the heritage of Maurin, had not only been criticised by Trotsky. Nin himself, in August 1931, had declared that the greatest danger for the Workers and Peasants Bloc was Maurin’s contempt for the lessons of the Russian Revolution. In inheriting Maurin’s mantle, however, Nin had taken over this tradition of provincial blindness.

Not all those who had agreed with Nin in 1931 followed him in his renunciation of Leninism. Bearing the chief brunt of bourgeois-Stalinist repressions, the Madrid section of the POUM gave an overwhelming majority to an oppositional programme based on the Leninist course. The main section of the party, Barcelona, voted for the immediate organisation of soviets on April 15, 1937. Bureaucratic measures were resorted to by Nin and Gorkin to prevent the growth of the left wing. Dissidents were brought back from the front under guard, and expelled. Fraction organisations were forbidden. More important than the repressions by the leadership were those of the government, which fell most heavily, naturally, on those workers who stood out in the ranks and in the factories. The left-wing workers of the POUM – those expelled constituting themselves the Spanish Bolshevik-Leninists (Fourth Internationalists) – established close contacts with the anarchist workers, especially the ‘Friends of Durruti’. But the regroupment took place too slowly. Before the revolutionary forces could come together and win the confidence of the masses, transform their discontent into the positive drive for power, substitute the objective strategy of leadership for the subjective desperation of the masses, the bitterness of the leaderless workers had already overflowed: the barricades went up on May 3.