Last month marked 75 years since the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Solidarity explores the lessons of the events of 1936.
On July 17, 1936 General Franco’s fascist forces staged a military coup that began the Spanish Civil War. As the elected government wavered, workers took up arms, formed militias, and took control over the running of much of society. This was also the beginning of a social revolution—yet within a year this revolution had been undermined, not by fascists, but from within.
Spain in the early 20th century was a place of intense contestation and class conflict. Until 1931, the country was ruled by a monarchy backed by the major landowners and the military.
While it had begun to industrialise, it remained a weak economy by European standards and its rulers were unable to provide basic living and working conditions for the vast majority of the population.
In 1931, following waves of strikes and protests, the emerging capitalist class got rid of the monarchy and established a Republic. Yet it became evident very quickly that the new government could not meet the promises it had made to workers and peasants.
The Republican state did not deliver land or industrial reforms, conditions did not improve and any resistance was met with brutal repression.
As the effects of the world Depression were felt, unemployment rose. The working class surged forward, leading to the election of a Popular Front government in February 1936. The Popular Front had been founded as an electoral coalition bringing together the main parties of the middle classes with workers organisations, including the Communist Party.
Though its program was moderate (failing yet again to deliver promised reforms), it encouraged a further escalation of workers’ struggle. For employers and landowners this represented an existential threat to everything they stood for.
As strike activity escalated, the fascist Falange party was flooded by middle class youth who saw it as the only force capable of defending private property, the unity of Spain, the church and the family. Street bands openly engaged the left in armed clashes. In the first half of 1936 an average of two people a day died in such clashes.
The July 1936 fascist coup was thus a response to high levels of worker and peasant struggle and fear by both capitalists and landowners that workers might take power. It was an attempt to uproot the workers movement; to achieve what Mussolini had done in Italy or what Hitler had done in Germany.
The response of the Republican government, who were also desperate to prevent workers taking arms, was to negotiate with the fascists. Azaña, the elected president, attempted to broker a compromise with Franco and censored warnings about the coup. It was a brutal betrayal of those who had voted him into power.
However the working class recognised the threat that Franco posed. Militant workers rejected orders from the government, took up arms and erected barricades. This response was able to defeat Franco in five of Spain’s seven major cities.
A new society
The workers’ uprising was not only about defending Republican institutions. Workers sought not only to prevent a fascist dictatorship, but to assert their control of the factories and push forward the gains won through the overthrow of the monarchy.
In the ensuing revolution the Republican state all but collapsed and workers became the de facto controllers of the Republican territory.
In the cities 3000 workplaces were collectivised and democratically elected committees and armed militias controlled the streets.
There were instant improvements in living and working conditions as wages were raised and hours were shortened. The local committees took control of health care, education, transport and distribution of food and resources. In Barcelona, where workers’ control was most extensive, the number of children attending schools doubled in the five months following the revolution.
In the surrounding areas of Catalonia, Aragon and Valencia, a large number of peasants not only took over the land but also collectivised agricultural production. At least 800 rural collectives of 400,000 day labourers and peasants were formed.
The significance of the revolution is reflected in the transformation in the role played by women. Spain pre-1936 was a very conservative Catholic country, with women suffering entrenched oppression in both the workplace and the home.
However during the revolution women played an active role and fought alongside men inside both committees and militias. This occurred at a time when it was illegal for women to fight in armies all over the world. In Barcelona abortion was legalised, birth control information was made available and a new type of civil marriage was developed.
George Orwell wrote of Barcelona:
“It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flags of the anarchists… every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black…
“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 not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”
These achievements reflected the beginnings of a revolutionary process. They demonstrated the potential of workers’ struggle to not only defeat fascism, but to take control of society and run it according to the needs of the people.
Co-ordination and organisation could have seen the revolution spread into the fascist controlled areas of Spain and even Morocco, undermining Franco’s base. This would have provided inspiration for the global anti-fascist and anti-capitalist resistance, and for those seeking a socialist alternative to the Stalinist Soviet Union.
The Popular Front government between the old Republican order and the Stalinist backed Communist Party consistently attempted to undermine workers’ power.
The Communist Party in particular argued that socialism was not on the immediate agenda and that the revolution undermined the war against Franco, which required the cross-class unity between workers organisations and bourgeois republicans embodied in the Popular Front.
Therefore the Popular Front, dominated increasingly by the Communist Party, subordinated the workers’ struggle to the interests of capitalists in order to keep them “onside”, and argued that the derailing of worker and peasant power was essential in winning the war.
The argument reflected the degeneration of communist parties all over the world. This resulted from Stalin’s defeat of the revolution in Russia and his ensuing foreign policy that sought alliances with major capitalist states and thus had an interest in suppressing revolutionary activity.
Yet it was only the grassroots struggle of workers fighting for a better society that had initially defeated Franco. The resistance had been able to spread because it was not merely about restoring Azaña to power, who was seen by many as a façade for the old order of oppression.
The Communist Party strategy of “war first” entailed the undermining of this grassroots democracy—forcing workers to increase productivity and coercing peasants to increase food production. It saw the implementation of an authoritarian top-down army and the forcing of women back into the home.
This was not only repressive. It also had the effect of demoralising and alienating the only force capable of defeating Franco.
The civil war was first and foremost a political war about what type of society for Spain, and as George Orwell ominously predicted, the loss of this political potential undermined anti-fascist resistance.
It was now impossible to appeal to working class solidarity abroad and in the fascist held territories, undermining the opportunity to attack Franco’s rear through social upheaval in Morocco. The anti-fascists had no hope of winning the war in purely military terms—they were up against the might not just of Franco’s trained and disciplined force but also of the German and Italian armies who intervened to back him.
As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote at the time:
“From a purely military point of view, the Spanish revolution is much weaker than its enemy. Its strength lies in its ability to rouse the great masses to action. It can even take away the army from its reactionary officers.
“To accomplish this it is necessary to seriously and courageously advance 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 to the hands of the people… The fascists could not resist the influence of such a programme for 24 hours”.
The question was not that of war versus revolution but rather, as the historian Ronald Fraser identifies, that of revolutionary war.
By May 1937, long before the fascist victory, the popular front’s ideological and physical attack on collective control had destroyed the revolution. In less than a year Barcelona went from being a city run democratically by the working class, to one controlled by a capitalist state with a bourgeois top-down army.
As workers and peasants were brutally massacred and repressed across the Republican territory, it became a crime punishable by death to be a revolutionary.
The success of the Communist Party’s attack on workers’ power was underpinned by the failure of the revolutionary left to offer a political alternative.
During the July coup, the initial call to defence was made by the leaders of the anarcho-syndicalist trade union the CNT, supported by the dissident communists of the POUM. And while no left organisation called for the revolutionary takeover that followed, the struggle remained overwhelmingly influenced by anarchist ideology due to the size and weight of the CNT within the movement.
From the outset there was a desperate need to centralise and co-ordinate the workers resistance into a unified political force. While workers and peasants democratically controlled workplaces, certain army units, community services and food production, the existing capitalist state—with its control of communications, trade, finance and military organisations—was left intact.
This needed to be abolished and the fragmented elements of workers power such as individual occupied workplaces needed to be extended into a workers state. This could have democratically co-ordinated the war and the spread of the revolution.
Yet the anarchist leadership failed to recognise this necessity. In Barcelona particularly, the old state apparatus had all but collapsed in the upheaval, to the point where the president actually offered the CNT state power.
Yet rather than abolishing the old state institutions and calling for the revolution to fill the vacuum, the CNT allowed the state to continue to exist. Throughout 1936 a system of dual power prevailed—a largely uncoordinated network of workers on the streets, and a centralised capitalist state whose institutions of power were left intact.
This failure to seize state power reflected the deeper contradictions within the CNT, where there was no consistent approach to social transformation.
Many within the CNT adhered to a syndicalist philosophy with a focus on the trade union as the organ of change. Others were influenced by the more individual or autonomous philosophies that had gained strength through the 1920s.
For example, while a debate within the CNT in 1934 concluded that “individual expropriation was incompatible with collective class struggle”, one of the well-known leading members at the time and right through the civil war, Montseny, wrote that “individualism is the basis of life and human progress”. The individualists believed that workers could spontaneously take power, but any form of centralisation was seen as corrupt or dictatorial.
The syndicalists were less clearly anti-centralist; but in seeing the union as the basis of change they didn’t see the need to cohere a separate workers’ state with clear politics.
Therefore the leaders of the workers’ movement left open a space for the old capitalist ruling state to reassert itself.
The Communist Party was quick to exploit this as it became increasingly evident that co-ordination and centralised planning would be needed to win the war. So by the end of 1936 the Popular Front was able to recruit, particularly amongst the peasantry, on the basis that a Republican state was needed to defeat fascism.
The response of the CNT leadership exposed the contradictions inside their organisation. Leading members took seats in the Catalan government alongside counter-revolutionaries. In effect they faced the choice of fighting to set up an independent workers’ state or co-operating with the existing state.
Their refusal to see the need for a workers’ state led to the acceptance of the right of the existing capitalist state to control affairs, and drew them into trying to work inside it.
Criticism of them from other anarchists was simply that they had conceded to centralisation, failing to address the need for a workers’ state to continue both the revolution and the war.
The events of May Day 1937 provide a microcosm of the way that the Communist Party was able to exploit lack of clarity within the workers’ movement.
By this point the counter-revolution, spurred on by the troops, arms and propaganda of Stalin, had been successful in most of the Republican territory, and it was only Barcelona and its surrounding areas where workers remained in control.
The Communist Party attempted to ban demonstrations and seize control of Barcelona’s telephone exchange, which had been an important symbol of workers’ power. None of the major left organisations called for resistance to this attack.
However by the next day barricades had gone up all over the city, a general strike was called and workers took up arms to defend the revolution. Again, they had the upper hand, but remained isolated, lacking any organ that could unify the defence. Far from providing this leadership, the CNT leaders capitulated and supported the Republican state.
They left their own rank-and-file isolated, allowing 3000 Stalinist troops that arrived two days later to smash the barricades and persecute anyone who had supported the revolution.
The events of Spain 1936 above all demonstrate the potential for creating a new type of society—one based on the needs and the decisions of the majority not just a select few.
But the events also show the need for a revolutionary organisation with the size and the politics to link together all the elements of workers resistance into a united struggle for a new kind of society.