On its 70th anniversary, BARRY WINTER lifts the veil of nostalgia that still obscures the Spanish civil war.
For Enriqueta Cervera the incident at the telephone exchange in Barcelona on the afternoon of 3 May 1937 remains as vivid as if it happened yesterday.
‘I remember it so well because it was all so unexpected. I was at the switchboard with two others. There weren’t many calls. Three or four anarchists were standing guard just outside the switchboard room which was on the third floor of the Telefonica. The guards were nodding off against the wall.
‘It must have been about 2.00pm when I looked out of the window. I saw several small lorries screeching to a halt outside the building. Assault guards started jumping out and running silently into the building. It all happened very quickly. So quickly that the guards outside the switchboard room had no time to react. Before they knew what was happening the assault guards were taking away their rifles.
‘But others upstairs must have heard the shouts. The assault guards rushed into the room and lined us up against the wall. Then we heard shots coming from the stairs. The guards told us: “Don’t touch the switchboard and don’t worry. Nothing will happen to you.” Still we were very scared.
‘They kept us there until 10.00pm when the next shift arrived and then they let us go home. As I walked out I remember seeing big crowds outside the building. A few scattered shots could still be heard, but I couldn’t tell whether they came from the Telefonica.
‘Four days later we were allowed to return to work. There were no anarchists there anymore. Only assault guards.’
Compared with many of the dramatic and bloody events that took place in Spain in the 1930s, particularly during the three-year civil war, Enriqueta Cervera’s encounter may sound relatively minor. But what she witnessed that day at work, and what took place in the few days before she resumed her duties, settled the fate of the republic.
To understand why the event was significant, it is vital to lift the veil that still continues to obscure the Spanish civil war. It means probing into actions that many still prefer to forget. It means refusing to be satisfied with the nostalgia about the undoubted courage of the International Brigades that so often substitutes for the full truth about events in Spain.
The civil war began in July 1936 when General Franco led a military rebellion against the democratically-elected republican government. The war and its aftermath led to the deaths of at least half a million people and forced 300,000 Spaniards into prolonged exile.
While the rise of Mussolini and Hitler had caused shock waves throughout Europe and America, the Spanish civil war moved many tens of thousands of working class men and women, and a great many intellectuals and writers, to take up the cause. Some of the most politically committed went to fight, others from a wide political spectrum, rallied round campaigns to aid Spain.
Among those who volunteered their military services to the Spanish republic was a 17-year-old member of the Young Communist League (YCL) from Bristol, Stafford Cottman. Anxious to get to Spain, he applied to both the commmunist-led International Brigade and the smaller ILP contingent. The ILP answered first and so he joined it. He was later expelled from the YCL.
Nicknamed ‘the boy’ because of his age, Staff became friends with another volunteer, Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell, who was later to win acclaim as a writer. ‘We used to hammer out the question of the war and the revolution and the relation between the two,’ says Staff. They agreed upon ‘the impossibility of getting people to give up what they had already accomplished’.
And here we come to the nub of the dispute. What had been accomlished by the Spanish people? What was really happenning in parts of republican Spain? Was the civil war primarily a fight between democracy and fascism, a precursor to the second world war, as Communist orthodoxy insisted?
Or was there more to it? Was Spain, as a former US communist, Murray Brookin, argues, also ‘caught in a world-historic revolution – a rare moment when the most generous, almost mythic dreams of freedom seemed suddenly to become real for millions of Spanish workers, peasants and intellectuals … the last of the classical European workers’ and peasants’ revolts’? (New Politics, no. 1 1986)
The answer to these questions were not merely academic. They were to have grave consequences for the course of the civil war and for the people of Spain for decades to come.
In common with other European countries in the 1930s, Spain was undergong serious social convulsions, but it also had special features of its own. It was a society in transition. In 1931 the monarch was swept away. Uprisings in the countryside against the land-owning classes were savagely put down, leaving behind a legacy of class hatred. In addition, Spain was also a land of several peoples, with the Basques and the Catalans struggling for autonomy from Madrid.
Far from being a supposedly ‘timeless’ feudal society, Spain was rapidly becoming industrialised. In the process a combative working class was being created out of an impoverished peasantry.
Governments swung from left to right, those of the left proving to be a bitter disappointment to the working class, those of the right brutally suppressing dissent. In 1934, after an abortive uprising in the Asturias against a right-wing government, at least 1,500 miners were executed and 30,000 people of various political persuasions were imprisoned.
Spain had become deeply divided. The capitalists, the landowners, the reactionary and hierarchical Catholic Church, the petty bourgeoisie, the top civil servants, the military leaders, the police and the fascists stood on the side of the existing order.
On the other side, seeking a new order, were the trade unions and political parties of the working class and the politicised peasantry. The trade union federation, UGT, which was linked to the socialists, had a million members. Equally large and influential was the anarcho-syndicalist movement, CNT, with its stronghold in Catalonia among industrial workers.
The election of the coalition government known as the Popular Front in February 1936 had an electrifying effect on both sides of the class divide. Its success had much to do with the widespread desire for an amnesty for the many thousands of political prisoners. Even though the initial composition of the government was notoriously moderate, its victory raised the confidence and expectations of the working class.
At the same time, the result fanned the fears of the Spanish right which plotted feverishly to overthrow the government. These plans were an open secret. Yet the Popular Front government, which was more fearful of the working class that elected it than the forces of reaction, did little to prevent the rebellion. The day before the rising the government prevented the left press from publishing warnings of what was about to happen.
Working class power
The real resistance to Franco’s forces came not from the republican government but from the people themselves. Badly armed and even unarmed, they threw back the military in large areas of Spain with acts of great courage. Much of the machinery of state – including the army and the police – melted away or, rather, went over to the other side.
While the Popular Front government formally held office, power in the republican zone was dispersed among the towns and villages. Armed workers’ and peasants’ organisations set up their own militias, ran their own police forces and dispensed their own, sometimes rough, justice.
In the countryside, large private properties were either collectivised or divided among the local people. The government then ratified these actions. The wave of collectivisation was not restricted to the rural areas, however. According to one estimate, 18,000 industrial and commercial enterprises were taken over, 2,500 in Madrid and 3,000 in the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona.
One historian of the revolution, Burnett Bolloten, records:
‘Railways, streetcars and buses, taxicabs and shipping, electric light and power companies, gasworks and waterworks, engineering and autmobile assembly plants, mines and cement works, textile mills and paper factories, electrical and chemical concerns, glass bottle factories and perfumeries, food processing plants and breweries, as well as a host of other enterprises were confiscated or controlled by workmen’s [sic] committees.’
He also reports that cinemas, theatres, department stores and hotels, restaurants and bars were also brought under workers’ control.
Josep Costa, secretary of the CNT textile workers in Badalona, found himself facing a massive problem.
‘The workers were ready to work but there was no management, no orders, no system. The truth is that we had no intention of collectivising … The decision to take over fuller control of the industry started taking shape as we heard the news of repression by the reactionary forces … Now we [the union] had been forced by events into becoming the vanguard of the working class in its fight against capitalism.
‘But I was not optimistic. I felt that the great powers abroad would not allow a revolution to happen in Spain. Why did we decide to forge ahead with the revolution anyway? Because we had no option. We were being pushed by the workers themsleves. That is what we had always preached, now we had to put it into practice regardless.’
The CNT also introduced important social reforms. Costa mentions ‘totally free and very efficient health plans under which workers could choose the specialist they wanted to be treated by. They also had maternity leave and better pension schemes.’
Nor were the changes confined to managing the workplaces. Republican Spain experienced an outburst of creativity and innovation. Agricultural collectives built their own schools. Education was freed from Catholicism and made available to everyone. Museums and libraries were opened to all. Crêches were introduced.
A new wave of popular art hit the streets – posters, murals and even trains and cars were painted. Music and poetry were revived and radical theatre groups, like that of the poet Lorca’s, toured remote rural regions. Bull-fighting was abolished.
As in Russia after its revolution, social relationships began to change. Divorce and abortion were legalised. In some areas church marriages were swept away. Eduard Pons Prades, who was 14 in 1936, recalls heated arguments among anarchists about young people, ‘free love’ and morality:
‘As a result of these debates our union devised a way of formalising relationships. The couple would be brought to our offices and a long statement would be read to them on the revolutionary meaning of love. They would sign the statement and a copy would be kept at our offices. The final words of the ceremony were: “Now, dear comrades, we wish you happiness for your own good and the good of the revolution.”’
Lola Iturbe recalls that, like her, most women had no formal education. She was also socially handicapped by the stigma of illegitimacy which made her extremely timid. ‘When I came into contact with libertarian ideas I felt myself to be freer, more secure, more able to face up to life. With a changed perspective on life.’
She tells how in Barcelona the CNT wing of Free Women took up neglected aspects of women’s struggles with extensive campaigns against prostitution and the denigrated lives led by most women. There were literacy programmes. Cultural, technical and professional training were provided. Leaflets were distributed in the poorest districts, inviting women there ‘to come to study centres. Workshops were planned and set up for them to learn a skill. All this was done on a grand scale and a lot was achieved.’
Despite the growing weight of evidence that, in the midst of civil war, republican Spain was undergoing revolutionary changes, albeit unevenly, these facts are relatively little known and still less appreciated. One reason for this is the eventual victory of the forces of reaction which did much to physically annihilate the opposition and erase its memory.
There is another reason why the picture remains blurred – the strategic role played by the international communist movement and the historic failure of communist parties to confront their terrible record. For it should be remembered that on the republican side it was the communist strategy that prevailed.
In the 1930s the world communist movement was very much the instrument of Stalin’s foreign policy. After the rise of fascism in Germany – and the very real threat this posed to the Soviet Union – the suicidal and sectarian strategy of denouncing the rest of the left as ‘social fascists’ was dropped in favour of broad, popular front campaigns.
Just as Stalin sought to build diplomatic alliances to protect the Soviet Union from Nazi Germany by courting Conservative Britain and Popular Front France, so communist parties sought wide alliances with left and liberal forces to combat fascism.
Spain presented Stalin with a problem. As the former leading Spanish communist, Fernando Claudin, writes, Spain was ‘the untimely revolution’ for the Soviet leadership. Neither Britain nor France would swallow a Soviet-supported revolution in Spain, but nor could the communist movement do nothing to assist the Spanish working class.
Stalin aimed to make the republic presentable to the governments of Britain and France, portraying it simply as a parliamentary democracy. In fact, neither government was persuaded and both stoutly upheld their policy of ‘non-intervention’ (at a time when Germany and Italy were actively backing Franco).
The communist strategy, which allowed it to build links with the most moderate forces in the republic, brought it into conflict with the majority of the organised working class, even though its emphasis on military struggle had much merit. In a futile attempt to encourage other governments to aid Spain, communists not only sought to disguise the Spanish revolution but to contain it, and then inevitably they started to claw back advances. They were set on a collision course.
What strengthened communist influence over the conduct of events was the republic’s dependence on Russian arms and equipment – for which the Spanish people paid a heavy price in the gold bullion they shipped to the Soviet Union as payment. The communists also had the advantage of having a clear strategy when compared with the vagueness of the socialist leadership and the contradictions of the anarchists. They also installed their own political representatives, military advisers and secret police in Spain to ensure that Stalin’s policy was carried out to the letter.
Enemies of the people
There is another reason why the international focus on Spain came at an inconvenient time for the Soviet leadership. The now notorious Moscow trials of the old Bolsheviks, who were charged with being Trotskyist/fascist agents, were in full swing.
While many on the European left either defended or turned a blind eye to the trials, one Spanish revolutionary party publically denounced them as bogus. This was POUM, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity (which was closely linked with the ILP in Britain).
Formed from a fusion of two political groups only 10 months before the outbreak of the civil war, and heavily concentrated in Catalonia, POUM nonetheless had a politically experienced leadership. Several had been founder members of the Spanish Communist Party, others had broken with Trotsky. The most senior was Andres Nin who had worked in Moscow for some years for the communist movement. He knew too much about Stalin’s Russia from the inside.
Denounced almost from the outset by the Communist International as Trotskyists and, much worse, as agents of fascism, POUM members were, in fact, anti-Stalinist communists. They were subjected to a massive and continuous torrent of abuse.
A speech by the general secretary of the Spanish Communist Party, José Diaz, in March 1937, shows the nature of these attacks. He asked rhetorically:
‘Who are the enemies of the people? The enemies of the people are the fascists, Trotskyists and the “uncontrolled” elements. Our chief enemy is fascism agasinst which we concentrate our fire and all the hatred of the people. But our hatred is directed with equal force against the agents of fascism, against those who, like the POUM, these Trotskyists in disguise, conceal themselves behind pseudo-revolutionary phraseology so as to better fulfil their role as agents of our enemies in our own country.’
Later, for good measure, he added, ominously:
‘Fascism, Trotskyism and the “uncontrolled” elements are the three enemies of the people which must be removed from political life not only of Spain but also of civilised countries.’
Teresa Pamies, a Young Communist active in the women’s movement, had some misgivings. ‘I had close relatives who belonged to POUM, and I knew them to be honest and decent; I knew in my heart that they could never be enemy agents. No, I wasn’t following Moscow’s instructions when I attacked POUM but I just wanted to believe what Moscow was telling us.’
Staff Cottman, on leave in Barcelona in May 1937, explains that ‘the business of the war or the revolution came to a head’ when the Communist-led security forces attacked the telephone exchange in Barcelona. The exchange had been under the control of the anarchists since the outbreak of the civil war.
The reaction on the streets was immediate. Barricades were erected against the communists by rank and file anarchists and POUM members. ‘You had to take sides,’ says Staff.
For five dramatic days the organised working class controlled the city and the Communists were pinned down. It was civil war within the civil war. Fearful of the consequences the anrachist leaders drew back, much to the anger of their members who felt betrayed. POUM followed suit.
The Communists were quick to capitalise on the events which they described as a fascist-inspired revolt organised by POUM and certain anarchists. They succeeded in replacing the left socialist, Largo Caballero, prime minister since September 1936 (who was growing increasingly hostile to the daily detailed directives from the Soviet ambassador), with the right wing socialist, Juan Negrin.
Within two months POUM was outlawed, many of its leaders were put on trial for treason, and Andres Nin was murdered by Soviet agents. The anarchists were next in line for repression. In the summer, a Communist general led a bloody campaign to smash the rural collectives in Aragon.
The May events marked the beginning of the end. Josep Costa summed it up:
‘The men were like lambs going to the slaughter. There was no longer an army, no longer anything. All the dynamic was destroyed by the treachery of the Communist Party in the May events. We went through the motions of fighing because there was an enemy in front. The trouble was there was an enemy behind us too. I saw a comrade lying dead with a wound in the back of the neck that couldn’t have been inflicted by the Nationalists.’
Lola Iturbe says of the world of Free Women:
‘The political events of May cut everything short, all those movements which had been growing with such intensity.’
Eduard Pons Prades says of the republican assault guards who took over his district in Barcelona when the anarchists capitulated:
‘The first thing they did was to burn the libraries of the union and of the Juventas Libertarias [anarchist youth]. The first things to take the rap were the books because they were apparently a danger to the status quo be it republic or Francoist … You know that the first thing the Francoist troops did when they entered a town was to burn books before they started on the people.’
The civil war dragged on until April 1939, although Soviet arms dried up six months earlier. Instead of the republican struggle becoming an inspiration to others, a glimpse of the better society that a politicised working class is capable of achieving, it ended in bitterness and recrimination.
Criticising the way the Communists reduced the war to a conventional one in which the fascists were better able to win, George Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia: ‘Perhaps the POUM and the anarchist slogan “the war and the revolution are inseparable” was less visionary than it sounds.’
Enric Adroer, a POUM militant, says that the internal fighting continued even at a French concentration camp.
‘News about Nazi victories were broadcast every day through the camp loudspeakers and I remember how the Communists used to cheer. At the time, remember, Hitler was Stalin’s ally. When they [the authorities] shipped us out to Mexico, the Communists threatened to throw me overboard, but I was well protectedby the POUM people and our CNT friends.’
Eduard Pons Prades, returning to Spain after 40 years in exile, recalls a trip he made to a village where there had been a successful socialist/anarchist collective and a conversation he had with an old countryman. Reflecting on that experience the old man told him: ‘Yes, yes, life in the village had never been the same before and probably never will be again. It was the first time that we, the wretched country labourers, realised that we were worth something in this world.’
Then, after a short silence, he added: ‘The shame is that there had to be a war and we had to kill each other.’
The torch that had been lit in revolutionary Spain may have been extinguished, and the hopes of a generation may have been dashed. Yet we have a duty to remember, to retrieve the truth and to learn the lessons. Only then can we say that the attempt by millions of Spanish people to take control of their own destinies was not wasted.
This was originally published as an ILP pamphlet in 1996 to coincide with the release of Ken Loach’s feature film, Land and Freedom
Before and after
‘The revolution was still in full swing … the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. 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 cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised… Waiters and shop workers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal… Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy … There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people and no beggars except gypsies. 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.’
‘The revolutinary atmosphere had vanished … Once again it was an ordinary city … with no outward sign of working class predominance… Fat, prosperous men, elegant women, and sleek cars were everywhere… There were two facts that were the keynote of all else. One was that the people – the civil population – had lost much of their interest in the war; the other was that the normal division of society into rich and poor, upper class and lower class, was reasserting itself… But it was significant that all over Spain voluntary enlistment had dwindled… Undoubtedly it was bound up with the disappointment of the revolutionary hopes with which the war had started.’
From Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell