By Peter Robinson
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Spain 1936: from war to revolution

This article is over 6 years, 1 months old
On 17 July 1936 a cabal of army officers staged a military coup against the Spanish government. Workers had to decide how to respond. It was a pivotal moment for the politics of the 1930s and there are important lessons for socialists today.
Issue 415

For revolutionaries the Spanish Civil War resonates through the decades. It provides an inspirational example of the heroism, creativity and self-organisation of workers. Everything was possible. When the English writer George Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936 he wrote, “It was the first time that I had been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flags of the anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties.”

The Spanish Civil War is usually portrayed as a battle between fascism on one side and democracy on the other. But this was a workers’ revolution and the fact that it was crushed led directly to defeat for the republic and decades of fascist rule in the Spanish state. Eighty years on, questions arise that are still fundamental to our movement: how best to fight fascism; how revolutionaries should organise in the struggle for socialism; what programmes to adopt; who best to ally with; our attitude to the state.

The anti-fascist forces combined liberal republicans, regional nationalists, social democrats, communists, revolutionary socialists and anarchists, and they all battled to increase their own political, ideological and military influence. But what kind of democracy were people fighting for? What kind of political alliance would best lead the republic? And what kind of army was needed to prosecute the war most effectively?

The global depression following the 1929 Wall Street Crash had seen a polarisation in politics. Many in the international workers’ movement had moved left, galvanised by the example of the Russian Revolution. Ruling classes, desperate to defend their own interests, often resorted to brutal repression.

Fascism seemed to be on an inexorable rise. In Germany Europe’s best organised labour movement had failed its most important test. Instead of calling for working class unity against fascism, as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky argued, the German Communist Party accused social democrats of being “social fascists” for propping up capitalism. The labour movement was split with catastrophic consequences.


By the mid-1930s, with the Second World War on the horizon, Communist Parties, directed by Moscow, turned this policy on its head. Now they sought to make alliances with “progressive capitalists” in order to create a bulwark against the threat of German invasion. Russian leader Stalin was desperate to ally with capitalist imperial powers, especially Britain and France. Communist Parties were encouraged to enter alliances with not just social democrats but also bourgeois parties that were opposed to fascism, to show that the Communists could be trusted not to threaten capital. To many this idea of the popular front seemed to make sense, but in practice maintaining unity meant the interests of the working class became secondary.

In 1936 the Spanish republic was only five years old and since the King’s abdication power had see-sawed between the right and left. Spain was backward economically — industrial capitalism had developed mainly in just a few cities — and the bourgeois democratic revolution had weak foundations. Big business, the church, army and landowners looked with fear and contempt at the rights and social reforms workers were demanding.

After “two black years” of repression, the popular front government was elected in February. The reformist Socialist Party was a key component. Their power base came from the trade union it had founded, the moderate General Union of Workers (UGT) which claimed up to 1.5 million members. One of their leaders, Largo Caballero, was known as the “Spanish Lenin”.

This should not obscure the fact that the popular front was dominated by middle class republican parties. Previous republican governments had instituted some moderate land reforms and made concessions to the regional aspirations of Catalonia, although not the Basque Country. Ultimately their aim was to strengthen Spanish capitalism.

Nevertheless, workers celebrated the popular front victory, immediately raising demands for reforms and organising strikes. Now, after months of planning, sections of the ruling class acted decisively. When the army mutinied its leaders expected a quick victory against a weak opponent. Garrisons revolted in most major cities. Fascist leaders declared their first task was to defeat the workers’ movement and threatened to execute strikers. Their methods were savage, exemplified by their use of rape as a weapon of war.

The man who came to lead the fascists was General Francisco Franco who was head of the Spanish Army of Africa based in Morocco. In the first days of the war, with the government paralysed, Franco persuaded Hitler and Mussolini to give him planes to airlift his troops into Spain.


What Franco had not anticipated was a spontaneous revolutionary anti-fascist uprising. When the government refused to distribute weapons, the trade unions called a general strike and workers stormed military barracks in order to arm themselves. They formed anti-fascist committees and organised militias, managing to repel the army, and in the process took control of several major cities.

The hastily organised volunteer militia units commandeered trucks and left the cities to prevent the rebel advance. At its high point, it is estimated there were 25,000 militia fighters on the Aragon front and perhaps 150,000 in total.

In the political vacuum, neighbourhood workers’ committees organised healthcare, food, transportation and public safety. In the areas they controlled, workers took over the factories and much of the land. In Barcelona, for example, 80 percent of industry was collectivised and in eastern Aragon up to 400 agricultural collectives were established.

In a state previously dominated by the repressive Catholic church, women gained new freedoms. Often for the first time they entered the workplace, although not on equal pay with their male counterparts. Women now participated actively in politics by joining workplace cooperatives, anti-fascist committees and armed militias. They fought alongside their male comrades at the front. Other gains included information on birth control and limited legalisation of abortion; marriages were conducted at militia headquarters and cohabiting couples gained legal rights.

The main organisation pushing the revolution forward was the National Confederation of Labour (CNT). The anarcho-syndicalist trade union had been deeply rooted in the working class since the 19th century, especially in Barcelona where it dominated the politics of the left. By the outbreak of war it had about 1 million members.

The anarchists steadfastly rejected political parties and standing for elections. For them, revolution meant controlling the streets, factories and land, not political institutions. Nevertheless it supported the popular front government and an anarchist was even appointed minister for health and welfare the following November. This had the effect of disorientating members of their rank and file — were they for revolution or stability?

In Barcelona, Lluis Companys, head of the Catalan regional government, met CNT leaders less than a week after the attempted military coup. He told them, “Today you are masters of the city and of Catalonia… You have conquered and everything is in your power; if you do not need or want me as president of Catalonia, tell me now.”


The CNT regional committee then debated whether to take power. They voted against, with one dissenter. It would mean substituting one form of dictatorship for another, they argued, and they were not prepared to take on dictatorial powers. Trotsky’s verdict was damning:

In and of itself this self-justification…contains an irrevocable condemnation of anarchism as an utterly anti-revolutionary doctrine. To renounce the conquest of power is voluntarily to leave the power with those who wield it, the exploiters. The essence of every revolution consisted and consists in putting a new class in power, thus enabling it to realise its own programme in life. It is impossible to wage war and to reject victory.

The other important revolutionary group was the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (Poum), a small, recently formed revolutionary socialist party. It was led by Andreu Nin, a former teacher and journalist and member of the Communist Party (CP), who had been expelled from Russia as a member of the Left Opposition to Stalin.

Nin was anti-Stalinist and had links with Trotsky, but Trotsky criticised the Poum heavily from his exile in Mexico, particularly for signing the popular front pact in early 1936 and entering the Catalan government the following September. They argued to build an alternative revolutionary power based on workers’, peasants’ and fighters’ committees and the construction of a red army modelled on the one Trotsky led in defending the Russian Revolution.

But the Poum, with about 3,000 to 5,000 militants, was too small to prevail and, fearing isolation, ended up tailing the CNT. Although Nin wrote the Catalan government’s economic programme, essentially it was propping up the crumbling republican state instead of fighting for a revolutionary alternative.

The CP remained relatively small with 20, 000 to 30,000 members by the outbreak of the war, mainly because of their sectarian politics. Now the CP was arguing that the revolution was a distraction and only a popular front strategy could prevail. Radical actions would only alienate moderates, the middle class, and business who they were desperate to stop going over to the fascist side. One CP official wrote that socialisation and collectivisation were “not only not desirable but absolutely impermissible”.

In order to draw the teeth of the revolution the republican government attempted to centralise the anti-fascist forces. In September the anarchists agreed to dissolve the short-lived Anti-Fascist Militia Committee, which they dominated, and centralise the revolution through the Catalan government, which they joined as ministers. In November they went on to join the Spanish republican government.


Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Russia all signed a Non-Intervention Agreement in August, supported by the US. They agreed not to supply arms or personnel to either side. Nevertheless, Germany and Italy immediately flouted the agreement by shipping weapons, aircraft and thousands of troops to bolster the fascist side. At the same time the republic was starved of weapons by the Western democracies.

Russia was the only country to provide arms to the republic, using the republic’s gold reserves as collateral. Controlling the distribution of these weapons greatly increased the Communist Party’s influence in the republican areas.

Orwell wrote that the infantry had “worn out Mauser rifles which usually jammed after five shots; approximately one machine gun to 50 men and one pistol or revolver to about 30 men. These weapons, so necessary in trench warfare, were not issued by the government… A government which sends boys of 15 to the front with rifles 40 years old and keeps its biggest men and newest weapons in the rear is manifestly more afraid of the revolution than the fascists.”

In Moscow by 1937 any remaining Bolsheviks were being purged on Stalin’s orders and any dissenters, particularly Trotskyists, were being slandered as fascists. In Spain this played out in the May Events in Barcelona, when the republicans, led by Communists, sought to disarm the militias in order to decapitate the revolution and consolidate their own power. At this time perhaps four fifths of Barcelona was in the hands of anarchist and Poum militias.

After six days of street fighting the CNT, fearing undermining anti-fascist unity, convinced their members to disarm. The “Trotsky-fascist Poum” was outlawed and Nin, along with scores of his comrades, was tortured and then murdered. Hundreds more filled republican jails. Many of the gains of the revolution were reversed. Collectivised estates and factories under workers’ control were returned to individual owners or taken over by the state and churches reopened.

So was victory ever a possibility for the anti-fascists or was the Spanish Civil War a heroic but doomed gesture? The outcome depended on the type of warfare they used. Was it to be an orthodox or revolutionary war?

Trotsky wrote at the time, “A civil war is waged, as everyone knows, not only with military but also with political weapons… To accomplish this it is only necessary to advance the programme of the revolution.”

Franco controlled about 50 percent of the land. A revolutionary war could have included a programme of land redistribution to win the peasants over. Similarly commitments to regional independence for Catalonia and the Basque Country could have ensured the adherence of wavering supporters in those areas.

Another option was to grant independence to Morocco, which Franco was using as a base of operations. This was discounted for fear of alarming the imperial powers, particularly France, which controlled neighbouring Algeria.

The siege of Madrid was the only time when Communists utilised revolutionary methods such as mass mobilisation and flexible tactics such as guerrilla warfare. Neighbourhood committees organised collective meals, laundry and crèches. Revolutionary propaganda was also used, and they raised slogans such as “No pasaran!” or “They shall not pass.”


There were other missed opportunities. Sailors had quickly brought the navy under republican control, but the government refused to deploy it fearing that Western governments would see it as a threat to their interests in the Mediterranean.

Three years of war brought carnage with around 100,000 executions by the fascists and post-war repression that claimed the lives of tens of thousands more. A further 200,000 died of hunger and disease during the first years after the war. Around half a million refugees fled to France and were interned in terrible conditions. There followed 36 years of fascist rule. The church gained its former power and women were thrown back into the home with their freedoms ripped from them.

The republican government’s refusal to use all the options open to it led to a terrible defeat for the working class. This was ensured by the counter-revolutionary actions of the CP, ideological shortcomings of the anarchists and lack of weight of the revolutionary socialists.

Since the 15 May 2011 anti-austerity movement in the Spanish state the prospect of change in society is again creating hope among working people. As we go to press the radical alliance Podemos are tipped to do well in the elections. We all owe it to the heroes of the Spanish Revolution to learn from their struggle.

Further reading

» The Spanish Civil War by Andy Durgan
» The Revolution and Civil War in Spain by Pierre Broué and Émile Témine
» Revolution and Counter Revolution in Spain by Felix Morrow
» Orwell in Spain by George Orwell
» The Spanish Revolution 1931-1939 by Leon Trotsky
» Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War by Ronald Fraser
» Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona 1898-1937 by Chris Ealham

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