The victory of General Francisco Franco’s army over the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War is often presented as inevitable.
It seems common sense that Franco’s superior forces, with the fascist powers of Germany and Italy backing them, were always going to win.
But fascism could have been defeated. Failures on the Republican side allowed it to win.
Workers and peasants had taken control of local areas in a revolution that followed Franco’s attempted coup in July 1936.
This worried Spanish capitalists, Western powers and state capitalist Russia.
Russia’s dictator Joseph Stalin did not want a revolution in Spain. So the Stalinist Communist Party called for anti-fascist unity around the Popular Front government.
They raised the slogan, “Let us finish Franco first and make the revolution afterward.”
Everyone who accepted this argument, including workers and right wing “democrats” who wanted to smash the revolution, gathered around the Communist Party.
The Popular Front thought the West would send arms to help it fight fascism.
Revolutionary groups, including the anarchist-led CNT union and the Poum socialist party, also supported “unity”—with fatal consequences.
Their support allowed the counter-revolution to advance, despite workers’ discontent with the lessening of their control over society. The Stalinists finally crushed the revolution in May 1937.
This was also the death knell for any chance of ultimate success in the war against Franco.
Fascists pushed back a new, united and disciplined army of the Republic until finally defeating it in April 1939. Western support never materialised.
The Popular Front even refused to grant independence to the Spanish colony of Morocco, which was under Franco’s control.
Independence would have caused rebellion and undermined Franco—but it would also have damaged Western colonial interests and the Popular Front wasn’t willing to upset these interests.
The only way to win was to inspire the masses by fighting for a different kind of world—where they would be the rulers.
The exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky argued for this from the beginning.
He wrote, “A civil war is waged not only with military but also with political weapons.
“From a purely military point of view, the Spanish Revolution is much weaker than its enemy.
“Its strength lies in its ability to arouse the great masses to action.
“It is necessary to proclaim that, from now on, the land, the factories, and shops will pass from the capitalists into the hands of the people.
“The fascist army could not resist the influence of such a programme—the soldiers would tie their officers hand and foot and hand them over to the nearest headquarters of the workers’ militia.”
Trotsky compared events in Spain to how the Bolsheviks prosecuted the civil war in Russia after the 1917 revolution.
Facing superior forces backed by Western powers, the Bolsheviks forged a revolutionary Red Army. Peasants rallied to the Bolsheviks because they were committed to overthrowing the old order.
The Red Army defeated the counter-revolutionaries and Western armies.
Tragically, there was no major party arguing for similar policies in Spain.There the Stalinists were committed to unity with the capitalists.
They offered a Spain where the relations of capitalist and worker, and landowner and peasant, would remain.
What revolutionary methods could have achieved was seen in the defence of Madrid in November 1936.
Faced with a major fascist assault, the Communists used revolutionary propaganda to urge the city’s population to fight back.
A mass mobilisation threw back the attack.
It brought to the fore, once again, the force capable of winning fundamental transformation of society.
But the Communist Party could not continue with methods that unleashed the full weight of the working class and threatened to raise wider demands.
This would put Stalin’s strategy in jeopardy.
Spanish workers suffered under Franco for almost four decades after the Communist Party crushed the revolution.
But their resistance to fascism, and their battle to build a new world, should inspire us today.