July ‘36: How the Popular Front turned civil war into imperialist war

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The years 1930 to 1939 saw the bourgeoisie preparing for war on the ashes of the 1917-23 revolutionary wave. All over the world, the working class had been beaten, defeated, caught up in the cogs of capitalism, which had dragged it from defending its own class interests by means of the false choice between fascism and democracy, subjecting it to the nationalist hysteria which led inexorably towards war.

At the same time, following the death of the Communist International, sanctioned by its proclamation of ‘Socialism in One Country’, the majority of working class organisations had degenerated, gone over to the bourgeois camp or fallen apart. The ‘Communist Parties’ had become transmission belts for the ‘defence of the Socialist fatherland’ and the Stalinist counter-revolution. The only voices raised against this tide and holding firmly to class positions (such as Bilan, the review of the Italian Communist Left in exile between 1933 and 1938) came from a tiny minority of revolutionaries.

The left subordinates the proletariat to the bourgeois state

In Spain there was still a fraction of the world proletariat which had not yet been crushed, because the country had stayed out of the First World War and avoided revolutionary confrontations in the post-war period. Spain was now to be at the heart of a vast manoeuvre by the bourgeoisie, which had a common interest in diverting the working class from its own terrain and pulling it into a purely military and imperialist conflict.

Because of its geopolitical situation at the gates of Europe, facing the Mediterranean and Africa on one side and the Atlantic on the other, Spain was an ideal focus for the imperialist tensions which had been sharpened by the economic crisis. This was especially true for German and Italian imperialism, which were seeking to gain a stronger presence in the Mediterranean and accelerate the drive towards war.

Furthermore, the archaic structures of the country, which had been profoundly shaken by the world economic crisis, offered a favourable soil for derailing the working class. The myth of a ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’, to be carried out by the workers, had been used for some time to range them behind the alternative of ‘Republic vs Monarchy’, which in turn gave rise to the choice between anti-fascism and fascism.

After the military dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, which had been set up in 1923 and which benefited from the active collaboration of the Socialist trade union, the UGT, the Spanish bourgeoisie arrived at the ‘Pact of San Sebastian’ in 1930, supported by the two main unions, the UGT and the CNT – the latter being dominated by the anarchists.  This Pact laid down the bases for a ‘Republican alternative’ to the monarchy. Then, on 14 April 1931, King Alphonso XIII was forced to abdicate by the threat of a railway strike, and the Republic was proclaimed. At the elections a Socialist-Republican coalition was swept to power. The new government soon revealed its anti-working class nature. Violent repression was meted out to the strike movements provoked by the rapid rise in unemployment and in prices. Hundreds of workers were killed or wounded, notably in January 1933 at Casas Viejas in Andalucia. The ‘Socialist’ Azana had issued the order; “no wounded, no prisoners, shoot them in the guts!”.

This bloody repression against workers’ struggles in the name of democracy, and which was to go on for several years, enabled the forces of the right to organise themselves and led to the exhaustion of the government coalition. In 1933, elections gave a majority to the right. A section of the Socialist party, which had been largely discredited through its involvement in the repression, used the opportunity to shift to the left.

The preparation of an imperialist war front necessitated the muzzling of a working class which was still fighting for its interests. This was the real meaning of the activity of the left wing political organisations. In April-May 1934 the strike movement took on a new breadth. The metal workers of Barcelona, the railway workers and above all the building workers of Madrid launched very hard struggles. In the face of these struggles, all the propaganda of the left and the extreme left was axed around anti-fascism, with the aim of drawing the workers into a ‘united front of all the democrats’.

In 1934-35, the workers were subjected to a huge ideological barrage around the new elections, with the goal of setting up a Popular Front to face up to the ‘fascist danger’.

In October 1934, pushed by the forces of the left, the workers of the Asturias fell into the trap of a suicidal confrontation with the bourgeois state. Their uprising, and their heroic resistance in the mining zones and the industrial belt of Oviedo and Gijon, was completely isolated by the Socialist party and the UGT, which made sure that the struggle did not spread to the rest of Spain, in particular to Madrid. The government deployed 30,000 troops with tanks and planes to crush the Asturias workers, and unleashed a wave of repression across the country.

The Popular Front leads the workers into a massacre

On 15 January 1935, the electoral alliance of the Popular Front was signed by all the organisations of the left, including the semi-Trotskyists of the POUM. The anarcho-syndicalist leaders of the CNT/FAI suspended their ‘anti-electoral principles’ with a complicit silence, which amounted to support for this enterprise. In February 1936 the first Popular Front government was elected. As a new strike wave developed, the government issued appeals for calm, demanding that the workers cease their strikes, saying that they were playing the game of fascism. The Spanish Communist Party went so far as to say that “the bosses are provoking and encouraging strikes for political reasons of sabotage”. In Madrid, where a general strike broke out on 1 June, the CNT prevented any direct confrontation with the state by launching its famous slogan of self-management. This self-management was to shut the workers up inside ‘their’ factories or villages, notably in Catalonia and Aragon.

Now feeling the moment had come, the military forces led by Franco from Morocco issued their ‘Pronuncimento’. Franco had cut his teeth as a general serving the Socialist-dominated Republic.

The workers’ response was immediate: on 19 July 1936, the workers of Barcelona came out on strike against Franco’s uprising, going en masse to the barracks to disarm this attempt, without worrying about orders to the contrary from the Popular Front government. Uniting the struggle for economic demands with the political struggle, the workers held back Franco’s murderous hand. It was at this point that the Popular Front appealed for calm: “the government gives orders, the Popular Front obeys”. These slogans were followed elsewhere. In Seville for example, where the workers followed the government’s orders to wait, they were slaughtered by the army.

The forces of the left of capital then threw all their energies into dragooning the workers behind the Popular Front1.

In 24 hours, the government which had been negotiating with the Francoist troops and cooperating in the massacre of the workers gave way to the Giral government, which was more ‘left wing’, more ‘antifascist’, and which put itself at the head of the workers’ uprising in order to orient it solely towards a confrontation with Franco on the military terrain. The workers were only given arms to be sent to the fronts against Franco’s troops, away from their class home ground. Even more deviously, the bourgeoisie set the trap of the so-called ‘disappearance of the Republican capitalist state’, when in fact the latter was hiding behind a pseudo-workers’ government which served to drag workers into the Sacred Union against Franco through organs like the Central Committee of Antifascist Militias and the Central Council of the Economy. This illusion of a kind of ‘dual power’ placed the workers in the hands of their butchers. The bloody massacres which then took place in Aragon, Oviedo and Madrid were the result of the criminal manoeuvres of the left and Republican wing of the bourgeoisie, which succeeded in stifling the workers’ reaction of 19 July. From then on, hundreds of thousands of workers were enrolled in the antifascist militias of the anarchists and poumists and sent off to be cut to pieces on the imperialist front.

Having abandoned its class terrain, the proletariat was subjected to the horrors of war and to a savage of superexploitation in the name of the anti-fascist war economy: wage cuts, inflation, rationing, militarisation of labour, lengthening of the working day.

In May 1937 the proletariat of Barcelona rose up again, but this time in desperation, and was crushed by the Popular Front government led by the Spanish Communist Party and its Catalan wing the PSUC; the Francoist troops deliberately halted their advance to allow the Stalinists to deal with the workers.

On 19 July 1936, the workers of Barcelona, BAREHANDED, smashed the attack by Franco’s battalions which were ARMED TO THE TEETH. On 4 May 1937, the same workers, NOW EQUIPPED WITH WEAPONS, suffered many more dead than in July when they had to block Franco; and it was the anti-fascist government – now including the anarchists and indirectly supported by the POUM – which unleashed the scum of the forces of repression against the workers” (Bilan 1938, in the manifesto ‘Bullets, machine guns, prison: this is the response of the Popular Front to the workers of Barcelona’).

In this terrible tragedy all the so-called working class organisations not only showed that they had been integrated into the bourgeois state, but actively participated in crushing the proletariat: some, like the PCE and PSUC, the PSOE and the UGT directly took on the role of parties of bourgeois order by assassinating the workers; others, like the CNT, the FAI and the POUM, by persuading the workers to leave their class terrain in the name of the anti-fascist front, threw them into the arms of their assassins and into the imperialist carnage. The presence of anarchist ministers in the Catalan government, then in Caballero’s central government was a powerful factor in the Popular Front’s ability to mystify the workers. The anarchists played a key role in deceiving the workers about the class nature of the Popular Front: “Both on the level of principles and by conviction, the CNT has always been anti-state and the enemy of any form of government. But circumstances have changed the nature of the Spanish government and of the state. Today the government, as an instrument of controlling the state organs, has ceased to be a force of oppression against the working class, just as the state has ceased to be an organ that divides society into classes. Both oppress the people less now that the members of the CNT are intervening within them” (CNT minister Federica Montseny, 4.11.1936).

All the leading organs of the CNT declared a ferocious war against those rare currents, such as the Friends of Durruti group, which, even in a deeply confused way, were struggling to defend revolutionary positions. Elements from such currents were sent to the most exposed parts of the front or delivered over to the prisons of the Republican police.

The events in Spain made it clear who was really on the side of the workers and who was not. Democrats, ‘Socialists’, ‘Communists’ and even ‘anarchists’ ranged themselves alongside the bourgeois state and the national capital.  

The war in Spain continued until 1939, resulting in the victory of Franco; it was at the same moment that the other fractions of the world proletariat, vanquished by the counter-revolution, began in turn to serve as cannon-fodder in a new world imperialist massacre. CB    

Originally published in Revolution Internationale 258, July-August 1996  

1 The capacity of the Spanish bourgeoisie to adapt in the face of the workers’ struggle can be illustrated by the political trajectory of Largo Caballero: president of the UGT union since 1914, Socialist member of parliament, he became a state adviser to the dictator Primo de Rivera then labour minister in the first Republican coalition between 1931 and 1933. He then became one of the main architects of the Popular Front before arriving at the ‘leftist’ positions which allowed him to become the head of government between September 36 and May 37.