In 1936, after General Franco had led an unsuccessful coup against a democratically elected government, revolution swept across Spain. Neil Faulkner explains why the workers were ultimately defeated

It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle,’ wrote George Orwell of Barcelona in November 1936. ‘Practically every building had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags …

‘Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised… There were no private motor cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport was painted red and black… In outward appearance, it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist…

‘Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.’

Spain had become two armed camps. On 17-18 July, General Francisco Franco had launched a military coup, attempting to wrest control of Spain from the democratically elected Popular Front government in Madrid.

The coup was backed by Army, Church, big landowners, and all the right-wing parties – monarchists, Carlists, and Falangists (fascists). It was generally successful in the more backward, rural parts of Spain.

But on 19-20 July, armed workers had surrounded the barracks in Barcelona and Madrid and forced the soldiers to surrender. Their action had triggered popular revolts across working-class Spain.

The Spanish working class had doubled in size between 1910 and 1930, and now made up about a quarter of the population. In July 1936, there were revolutionary risings in five main areas – in the Basque country, with 70% of Spain’s iron, steel, and shipbuilding; in the coal-mining region of Asturias; in Madrid, the capital city; in Andalucia, where 800,000 day-labourers were working on big estates; and in Catalonia, where more than half the working class was concentrated.

Class tension had been high in Spain since the late 19th century. Industrialisation had produced a well organised working class with a tradition of militant struggle. But it was politically divided.

The General Union of Labour (UGT), dominant in Madrid, was led by the Socialist Party (PSOE). The National Confederation of Labour (CNT), dominant in Catalonia, was, by contrast, an anarcho-syndicalist organisation. Smaller left parties included the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC), the Worker’s Party of Marxist Unity (POUM), and the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI).

In 1931, a combined monarchy and dictatorship had been overthrown and replaced by an elected liberal-republican government. But the new government failed to carry out promised reforms and cracked down hard on land occupations and strikes.

In October 1934, the government lost its parliamentary majority and gave way to a new conservative administration. When 20,000 Asturian coal-miners rose in revolt, they were crushed in two weeks of fierce fighting; more than 3,000 miners were murdered after surrendering, and 40,000 activists were jailed across Spain.

But in February 1936, a Popular Front of liberal, socialist, and separatist parties won the general election. The election victory brought millions of workers and peasants into action – storming prisons to free jailed activists, taking strike action for both economic and political demands, and seizing land from the landowners.

It was this movement that prompted the right-wing coup. And its defeat across half of Spain had nothing to do with the Popular Front government. Official advice was ‘to guarantee the normality of daily life, in order to set an example of serenity and of confidence in the means of military strength of the state’.

Since ‘the means of military strength of the state’ was carrying out a coup, this was nonsense. But both the Socialist and Communist leaders parroted this message, stating that ‘The moment is a difficult one, but by no means desperate. The government is certain that it has sufficient resources to overcome the criminal attempt…’

The workers took no notice. Revolution from below secured most of northern and eastern Spain, with workers’ control of the factories, peasant land seizures, and the creation of popular militias.

In the militias, officers were elected, rank carried no privileges, and tactics were debated. Much had to be improvised, since the Nationalists began the war with most of the weapons. But the Republicans had one potentially decisive advantage: the appeal of their revolutionary message to ordinary Nationalist soldiers conscripted to fight in the interests of officers, landlords, and priests.

‘A civil war is waged … not only with military but also with political weapons,’ explained Trotsky. ‘From a purely military point of view, the Spanish Revolution is much weaker than its enemy. Its strength lies in its ability to rouse great masses to action. It can even take away the army from its reactionary officers. To accomplish this, it is only necessary to advance seriously and courageously the programme of the socialist revolution.

‘It is necessary to proclaim that from now on the land, factories, and shops will pass from the hands of the capitalists into the hands of the people… The fascist army could not resist the influence of such a programme for 24 hours.’

But it was not to be. The leaders of the CNT ceded power in Barcelona to the liberals. The leaders of the POUM would not break with the CNT and offer decisive, independent, revolutionary leadership.

Barcelona was the Petrograd of the Spanish Revolution. But it was Petrograd without soviets or Bolsheviks. There was neither a network of democratic councils able to give organised expression to the will of the masses, nor a revolutionary party committed to a decisive struggle for power and the creation of a workers’ state. There was the steam of revolution, but no box or piston.

In Madrid, the PCE became increasingly powerful. This was partly because workers were attracted to its radical-sounding rhetoric, and partly because Stalin was supplying Russian military hardware. He who pays the piper calls the tune: Communist guns meant Communist influence.

But the PCE was a sinister counter-revolutionary force. Its slogan – ‘First win the war, then win the revolution’ – gulled workers with hope while justifying the disarming of the militias and the return of the factories to the capitalists and the land to the landlords.

In honour of Moscow’s ‘popular frontist’ line (see MHW 84), the PCE used its control of Russian arms to help the Republican bourgeoisie create a conventional Popular Army controlled from above that would defend private property.

By April 1937, Orwell could see the difference in Barcelona. ‘The smart restaurants and hotels were full of rich people wolfing expensive meals, while for the working-class population food-prices had jumped enormously without any corresponding rise in wages… the queues for bread, olive oil, and other necessities were hundreds of yards long.’

The following month, the liberal bourgeoisie and their Stalinist allies felt strong enough to go onto the offensive. They used three lorry-loads of Assault Guards to evict the CNT from the Barcelona telephone exchange, one of the first buildings to be put under workers’ control the previous July.

Barricades went up all over Barcelona. Even now, had the CNT and POUM leaders acted with determination – organising an insurrection to seize state power in Catalonia, then issuing a general call for land seizures, worker’s control, and colonial independence (25,000 of Franco’s best troops were Moroccans) – they could still have won.

But they did not. They did the opposite. They called on their supporters to lay down their guns. After five days of fighting costing 500 lives, most of the barricades came down.

Savage repression followed. The city was flooded with 5,000 Assault Guards. The POUM was made illegal. Its leaders were arrested, tortured, and murdered. The CNT and POUM militias were forcibly incorporated into the Popular Army and put under regular military discipline. Dissidents were denounced as ‘Trotsky-fascists’. Estates and factories were returned to their former owners.

The May Days counter-revolution killed the July Days revolution. The Spanish Civil War was transformed from a revolutionary war between classes into a conventional war between rival fractions of the same class, one liberal, the other fascist.

The outcome was now determined by firepower, not politics. This meant victory for Franco, who was supported by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Barcelona fell to fascism in January 1939, Madrid in March, confirming the truth of Trotsky’s epitaph for the Spanish Revolution: ‘The demand not to transgress the bounds of bourgeois democracy signifies in practice not a defence of the democratic revolution but a repudiation of it.’

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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