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Repression that crushed the Spanish revolution

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Our series concludes with an Andy Durgan analysing the defeat of the Spanish Revolution
Issue 2053
Andreu Nin
Andreu Nin

The outcome of the five days of intense fighting in Barcelona in May 1937 – the “civil war within the civil war” – was a decisive defeat for the revolution that had begun in July 1936.

Widespread repression was the immediate consequence of the May Events and the anarchist CNT and revolutionary socialist Poum’s decision to withdraw from the barricades.

Parallel to state-organised repression was the activity of the Soviet secret police, which operated with impunity in the Republican zone.

It established prisons where it interrogated and tortured suspected dissidents. Foreign revolutionaries, especially those associated with the Poum, were imprisoned or even assassinated.

The more conservative elements in the Republican government took advantage of the crisis to get rid of prime minister Largo Caballero, the veteran leader of the Socialist Party left.

Caballero had refused to move against the Poum as the Communists insisted. In mid-May he was replaced by the moderate Socialist Juan Negrín. He excluded the CNT and left Socialists from the government.

The Poum, denounced by the Communists as “fascist”, was accused of having organised a “putsch” in May and made illegal.

The Poum’s leaders were arrested, its offices closed and its militia disbanded. Party leader Andreu Nin died under torture when he refused to “confess” to being a “fascist agent”.

Other Poum members were also murdered and around a thousand of its members imprisoned. Only an international campaign of solidarity meant that the rest of its leadership did not face the same fate as Nin.

There were many other victims of the counter-revolution.

Thousands of anarchists were arrested in the following months, filling the Republic’s jails. By late 1937, the Poum calculated there were 15,000 anti-fascist prisoners in the Republican zone.

The working class organisations were disarmed and the police reinforced. In August 1937, a new secret police, the Military Intelligence Service (SIM), was established. The SIM’s activities were aimed as much against the revolutionary left as fascist subversion.

Factories and land that had been brought under collective ownership were now given back to former owners. Where this was not viable – most factory owners had fled to the fascist side – they were put under direct government control.

The last stronghold of the revolution, rural Eastern Aragon fell to Communist-led troops in August 1937, with the dismantling of the local collectives and the arrest of hundreds of peasants and anarchists.

The fighting in Barcelona had been provoked in order to finish off an already weakened revolution and guarantee the war would be fought in defence of capitalist democracy.

The Popular Front parties, with the Communists at their head, argued that everything had to be subordinated to presenting a respectable face to the world in order to win support from Britain and France.

But the democracies were never going to aid the Republic. Once the revolution was crushed, the British government moved further away from supporting Spain’s democrats and effectively established relations with the fascist General Franco.

The alternative to the Popular Front’s military orthodoxy was a revolutionary strategy that mobilised the commitment and enthusiasm of workers and peasants as had happened during the Russian Revolution and civil war.

But the weaknesses of the revolutionary left were exposed in May 1937.

Although the Poum argued for the establishment of a workers’ government based on elected workers, peasants and fighters’ committees, it proved too weak and, in May, indecisive to win its position.

Instead it feared breaking with the CNT leadership, which it tried to persuade to take power. But for them, control of the factories, land and, initially, the streets was sufficient.

There was no need, said the CNT, to take power as such and build a new state. In fact, to so would be to establish a dictatorship.

Thus the CNT renounced any control over the armed forces, finance and trade. The working class would pay an enormous price for the CNT leadership’s capitulation in May 1937.

The result was both the defeat of the revolution and the abandonment of any alternative strategy to win the war.

Andy Durgan’s new book The Spanish Civil War, will be published by Palgrave in June

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