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How Spain’s flames of hope were extinguished

This article is over 10 years, 5 months old
In his second column of this series Matthew Cookson looks at how a counter-revolution won control
Issue 2263

We showed last week that Spain in 1936 was a country on the brink of revolutionary change. Tragically, forces that the revolutionaries believed were on their side extinguished this flame of hope.

The Popular Front, an alliance of left wing and Republican parties, was elected to government in 1936 on the back of workers’ resistance.

Worried by this, the military launched a coup. But a workers uprising halted it.

Revolutionary power, based on local committees and militias, developed in Republican areas.

The liberal government based in Madrid was weak. It struggled to cope with the twin threats of revolution and fascism.

The military, led by General Francisco Franco, inflicted blows to Republican forces, who fought to re-establish control. The fascist German and Italian states supported Franco’s forces. No Western powers came to the aid of the Republic.

The lack of co‑ordination between different local militias, who didn’t trust the government, also contributed to the defeats.

Stalinist Russia was the only major power that materially aided the Republic, sending arms and advisors.

Joseph Stalin had crushed socialism in Russia. He argued that in order to advance the revolution in Spain it, was vital first to win the war against fascism.

In reality, Stalin did not want his attempts to befriend the capitalist powers of Britain and France disrupted by revolutionary Spain.

He hoped to keep Spanish capitalists on board, and encourage Western powers to back the democratic forces.

The Spanish Communist Party grew as it became the focus of all those who agreed that, to defeat fascism, the revolution had to be halted.

Middle class forces that opposed the revolution and wanted a bourgeois democracy joined.

Russia’s support, and the party’s militants’ success in fighting fascists, added to its appeal.

A new government, led by respected socialist Largo Caballero, was formed. It legalised some of the revolutionary gains, while shutting down its most radical aspects. The revolutionary groups failed to challenge this.

The anarchists, a powerful force in Spain, continued to oppose all forms of states as oppressive—so rejected fighting for a revolutionary government.

With military losses mounting, the mass anarchist CNT organisation saw the need to centralise the struggle against fascism. It accepted the argument that the civil war must be won first.

So it supported the new Caballero government and took over four ministries. It also entered the government of Catalonia—where the revolution reached its highpoint.

The revolutionary socialist Poum party also joined the Catalan government. Both groups were subjected to centralised control over their activities.

They supported the Popular Front government to defeat fascism. But, in reality, this government launched a counter-revolution that destroyed the best hope of victory.

It abolished the local committees that ran society and forced workers to leave the factories they had taken over. It rolled back the peasants’ takeover of the land.

Stalin’s belief that Western powers would back the government against the fascists did not become a reality.

Workers’ resentment grew as their hopes of a new society disappeared.

Their fury exploded when government troops tried to seize the telephone exchange in Barcelona in May 1937—one of the last vestiges of workers’ control.

Workers took control of the city for two days. It was a crucial moment.

The revolutionaries could have gone on the offensive. But the CNT and the Poum, desperate to keep the unity of the Popular Front, urged supporters to abandon the barricades.

This disillusioned their followers. The government regained control.

The Stalinist Communist Party and the government then “liquidated” the revolution and its supporters, killing leading figures such as the Poum’s Andreu Nin.

This counter-revolution destroyed the enthusiasm of tens of thousands who had fought for a better world.

The army could not replace the inspiration of the idea of a different society.

The Republic was heading for defeat at the hands of the right following the end of Barcelona’s revolutionary days.

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