One of the great struggles of the 20th century broke out 80 years ago this month when General Francisco Franco launched a military coup in Spain.
Democracy had only existed in Spain for five years and Franco expected a quick victory. But he hadn’t counted on the revolutionary movement that his coup unleashed.
In 1936 Spanish society was brittle. The monarchy had collapsed a few years earlier and a Republic was established in 1931.
Struggles broke out after the Republic failed to keep promises on land reform and improved living standards.
An anarchist uprising in Barcelona in January 1933 was brutally crushed. A general strike was called in 1934. But its leaders got cold feet and it only took root in one area—the northern province of Asturias.
There armed miners fought security forces, led by Franco, for two weeks before they were beaten. Some 3,000 miners were slaughtered, 10,000 wounded and 40,000 workers jailed.
Workers’ alliances sprung up across the country but were derailed by reformist politicians.
Two pro-capitalist Republican parties, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the UGT union federation and other groups agreed an electoral pact.
This “Popular Front” ignored class and political differences to try and achieve unity. In practice it subordinated the left to the right.
Yet the anarchist leaders of the CNT union federation approved the pact and the far left Poum party rubber stamped it.
The Popular Front was elected in February 1936. Workers’ mistrust of the government’s promises saw them begin to put them into practice themselves.
Within days workers in Valencia were breaking down the doors of prisons. Peasants began occupying the land. By April, strikes had spread across the country.
The extreme right was also on the move. On the day of the election Franco and others said the new government must not be allowed to take office.
Sections of the upper and middle classes were horrified by the strikes and felt threatened.
Fascists began a campaign of violence against the government and the left. The government ignored the right and clamped down on workers instead.
In July Franco began the fascist uprising. At the time he was in command of the Spanish army in Morocco, then a colony. German and Italian military planes took his troops to Spain.
In Seville and Zaragoza thousands of workers were rounded up. Many were shot. The whole province of Navarre was in fascist hands within 24 hours of the coup.
But widespread militant anti-fascism, particularly in working class areas, blocked Franco.
The government discouraged this resistance. It initially refused to distribute arms to workers.
Instead it called for people to rely on the army—despite the fact that large sections had already gone over to Franco.
Workers and peasants took things into their own hands. Everywhere the fascists met resistance but in many places the strength of Franco’s forces meant it quickly crumbled.
But in most major cities, and many areas of the countryside, the coup was held back.
The bulk of the organised working class was firmly established in Barcelona, capital of the semi-independent province of Catalonia, where the struggle against the coup quickly became a revolution.
Armed units of the CNT, the FAI federation of anarchist groups, and the Poum immediately went into action. Barricades were built and arms stores ransacked.
One worker remembered “militants seizing everything they could find, from shotguns in shops to dynamite in the docks. A group of anarchist dockworkers made off with all the guns in the harbour.”
So strong was the response that a section of the security forces joined it. As one worker recalled, “It was unforgettable. The Guardia Civil on the people’s side! We knew we must win now.”
By the next day the pro-Franco uprising had been defeated.
Within hours Companys, Catalonia’s president, had the anarchist leaders ushered in to see him. “Today you are the masters of the city,” he told them. “Everything is in your power. If you do not need me as president of Catalonia tell me now.”
The anarchists didn’t take power. Instead a central militia committee was set up to organise the armed units.
Workers were taking over factories, transport, food distribution and hospitals. The whole state was almost completely under workers’ control.
Rail worker Narciso Julian said, “It was incredible, the proof in practice of what one knows in history. The power and the strength of the masses when they take to the streets.
“The city blossomed red and black flags, red and black neckerchiefs, banners and slogans. Almost no one wore hats and ties, the bourgeoisie went out in old clothes; overalls were the dress of the day.”
Workers set about destroying the trappings of the Catholic society that had oppressed them. Women came to the fore. Within weeks abortion was legalised, birth control information published and marriage rights turned upside down.
Many other areas of Spain followed. Workers’ militias replaced armed forces and police. Revolution was the way to beat Franco.
The government was in power, but its physical means of enforcing that power had disappeared. It was forced to rule in conjunction with workers’ organisations.
In Barcelona the revolution was deepening. One factory after another was taken over by workers. Unions ran whole industries. And in Aragon, village anti-fascist committees were set up, property rights destroyed and large landowners driven off.
But Franco’s forces were moving closer to the capital Madrid. It was imperative that some form of centralisation and discipline was organised—the question was, under whose control?
In August Companys approached CNT and Poum leaders and suggested the formation of a council. Tragically they agreed—and were incorporated into the Catalonian government.
The same process was happening elsewhere. The CNT and Poum leaders entered Basque and Valencian regional governments.
Anarchist leaders of the CNT believed their control of factories and militias meant capitalism had disappeared. Leaders of the Poum followed a strategy of not criticising the CNT, believing they could win them over to confronting state power.
Only the establishment of a workers’ state could wrest control from the old ruling classes and transform society.
Yet the new Catalan government’s first act was to dissolve all the revolutionary committees. Within weeks a land decree was imposed prohibiting the division of estates not belonging to fascists. Even more significant was a decree disarming workers.
Neither the leaders of the CNT nor the Poum opposed these measures.
The government had put faith in Britain, France and Russia coming to Spain’s aid. To ensure this, it was necessary to stifle any revolutionary fervour. But only Russia sent aid—slowly and at a cost.
Supporting revolution from below abroad did not fit with dictator Stalin’s efforts to snuff out the memory of the Bolshevik revolution at home.
The Republican government, instead of spreading revolution, held it back to maintain the Popular Front alliance. Then it turned on the left.
Tensions came to a head in Barcelona in May 1937. The assault guards, one of the police forces that existed before the revolution, was sent to take control of the CNT-controlled telephone exchange.
Workers responded with guns and barricades. Strikes broke out all over Barcelona. They resisted the police. But the revolt was crushed.
The Communist Party Stalinists undermined the revolution.
And forces to its left did not build up and centralise the workers’ committees and militias. Instead they joined governments whose aim was the destruction of workers’ power.
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky said, “The Spanish proletariat fell victim to a coalition composed of imperialists, Spanish Republicans, Socialists, anarchists, Stalinists, and on the left flank, the Poum.”
It took Franco another four years to finally defeat the revolution. But the outcome was four decades of fascism and the most terrible repression.
Between July 1936 and May 1937 the revolution in Catalonia could have spread across Republican Spain and into fascist-controlled Spain too. It would have been the best way of both smashing Franco and bringing socialist change.
- Blood of Spain by Ronald Fraser, £15
- Revolution and Counter Revolution in Spain by Felix Morrow bit.ly/29ss4YH
- Land and Freedom, a film by Ken Loach
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk