Spain’s workers successfully threw back an attempted military coup against a radical government in 1936. Their heroic acts were the beginning of three years of bloody fighting for the soul of Spain.
While many historians describe this as the Spanish Civil War, a revolution also took place.
Workers and peasants took over much of the country, having democratic control over their own lives for the first time. If this had deepened it could have seen a very different outcome to the civil war.
On 18 July 1936 the military, led by General Francisco Franco, launched a coup against the Popular Front government of the Republic.
Spain’s elite feared that a government elected on the back of mass struggle would encourage workers to launch a revolution.
Instead of halting the revolutionary movement, however, the coup sparked one. As the government remained passive in the face of the military insurgency, workers took to the streets.
The unions launched general strikes. There were workers’ risings in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities.
The mass anarchist CNT union and revolutionary socialists were central to this. Workers used what weapons they could get to force the right back.
The military had expected an easy victory, but the strength, speed and bravery of the resistance foiled its plans.
The generals still took control of many areas. In the areas under Republican control, a situation of dual power developed between those trying to push the revolution forward and those trying to hold it back.
The state’s authority fell away in the face of the coup and workers’ fightback.
Committees sprung up in villages, towns and cities to run society. Left wing militias maintained security.
The symbols of the old regime were targeted—many churches, previously used as organising centres by the old ruling class, were burned.
Workers seized control of their factories in many areas. In others they ran factories alongside government officials.
Peasants took over parts of the countryside.
Women played a key role in the struggle, fighting at the front or entering workplaces for the first time in their lives.
The revolution went furthest in Catalonia, particularly in its capital, Barcelona.
Here, according to the French left wing writers Pierre Broue and Emile Temime, “the workers had power: they were everywhere to be seen, in the streets, in front of buildings, and on the Ramblas, rifles slung across their backs and revolvers stuck in their belts, wearing their working clothes.
“No more nightclubs, restaurants, or luxury hotels [which were used by the elite]: requisitioned by workers’ organisations, they were used as popular eating places.
“The usual beggars had disappeared, taken care of by the unions’ welfare system.
“Everywhere, on buildings, cafes, shops, factories, streetcars, and trucks, were notices saying that the business had been ‘collectivised by the people’ or that it ‘belonged to the CNT’.”
The writer George Orwell, who fought in the Spanish Revolution, stated that Barcelona was a city “where the working class was in the saddle”.
But the revolution did not go as far in other areas.
In Madrid the official police were back on the streets by the end of July. The few armed workers in the streets wore uniforms.
There were fewer committees and workers had not taken control of industry to the same extent.
Democratic control of society in other areas fell somewhere between these two great cities.
Despite the crisis, the state continued to exist.
The weak liberal government continued to sit in Madrid, as did those in the autonomous areas of Catalonia and the Basque Country.
As the military, with the help of the fascist powers of Germany and Italy, advanced, more right wing elements attempted to reassert control in the Republican areas.
They argued that the revolution had to be rolled back to gain the wide support in Spain and internationally that would be needed to win the war.
This meant reducing the power of the committees and the left, and centralising the army under government control.
The Communist Party, which was under the influence of Joseph Stalin’s Russia, supported this aim.
Disastrously for the fate of the revolution, the failures of socialists outside the Communist Party and anarchists allowed this to happen.
We will examine this more closely in next week’s column.