The war in Spain in the 1930s: An internationalist voice from the US

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“The events in Spain have put every organisation to the test”. In 1936-7 the entire international revolutionary movement was faced with the necessity to affirm the absolute incompatibility between proletarian class struggle and imperialist war, since the one can only advance to the detriment of the other. The class struggle either prevents or disrupts imperialist war; the working masses can only be mobilised for imperialist war by renouncing the class struggle. As we argue in the article on anarchism and imperialist war in this issue, significant parts of the anarchist movement failed this test in 1914, and even more spectacularly over the war in Spain; and the same pattern of capitulation to capitalist war is being repeated today in relation to Ukraine and the Middle East today. But the war in Spain also precipitated a crisis in the Marxist currents which had initially tried to resist the Stalinist counter-revolution, and it was only a small minority which was able to remain loyal to internationalism during that dark period.

The text we are republishing below[1], written by Eiffel, was a resolution on the war in Spain submitted by the minority of the Revolutionary Workers’ League in the USA. It was published in the November 1937 issue of The Fourth International, the RWL’s journal. As we recount in our book The Italian Communist Left, the RWL was one of the groups to the left of official Trotskyism which the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left engaged in discussion following the Fraction’s own exclusion from Trotsky’s International Left Opposition. Its best-known militant was Hugo Oehler. It had rejected the 1934 ‘turn’ towards entryism in the Socialist Parties and with regard to the events in Spain again stood on the left of the Trotskyists. But it also retained key elements of the Trotskyist platform, such as the defence of the USSR, and it was never able to make a clean break from the opportunist methods and habits of Trotskyism. Eiffel’s resolution is aimed at the fatal ambiguities of the RWL on the question of Spain, since in the final analysis its position offered a variety of critical support for the Republican war effort against Franco.

Eiffel was the pseudonym of the German anthropologist Paul Kirchoff, who had been a member of the left communist KAPD until 1931. After arriving in the USA in that year, he was involved first in the milieu of the Left Opposition in New York and then became a member of the RWL, primarily because of his opposition to the entryist policy. Expelled from the USA in 1937, he went to Mexico and, following his break from the RWL, formed the Marxist Workers’ Group whose documents on the wars in Spain and China, and on the reactionary nature of the nationalisations carried out by the leftist government in Mexico, were warmly welcomed by the Italian Fraction. We have published some of the MWG’s key documents in the International Review[2].

Resolution on Spain

The events in Spain have put every organisation to the test. We have to admit that we have not stood it. Seeing this, our first and foremost duty is to study the roots of our failure; our second duty is to admit our failure in all frankness before the national and international proletariat. Only thus can we hope to rehabilitate ourselves as a Marxist vanguard organisation.

The following resolution is very far from being a sufficiently searching analysis of the real significance of the events in Spain and of our attitude towards them. It aims to be nothing more than a first admission of our failure in the face of these events, and an introduction to the discussion which the whole organisation must at this late hour begin immediately.

The evolution of the position of our organisation with respect to the events in Spain has followed on the whole a line which seems to indicate that underlying all our mistakes there is a healthy and solid Marxist base; that line of evolution has steadily, although hesitatingly, moved away from the initial false position and has progressively approached a correct one. But this process has been exceedingly slow and to a large extent shame-faced or even unconscious. Not once during the past seven months, the most crucial months not only in the recent history of the proletariat, but of our organization as well, has the question of the correctness or incorrectness of our fundamental line on Spain been squarely posed by any of the leading comrades as the life or death question for our organization. Those who, like comrade Eiffel, had from the very beginning fundamental differences with the majority of the PC on this question, but did not make this difference the center of a principled struggle for a different line, have failed to carry out one of the most elementary duties of a leading member.

While the gradual evolution of our line on Spain seems to indicate that there is at bottom a really Marxist base in our organization, our initial failure and the false manner in which we have subsequently corrected it in part, are grave symptoms of the youth and immaturity of our organisation. If the organization pulls through this crisis, i.e. analyses to the bottom its failure to meet a historical test, and corrects it completely, it will be essentially a new organization, having outgrown the weaknesses of its childhood days. It will then be one of the very few organizations on an international scale that have weathered the Spanish storm. In fact it will be stronger than before, as are those who are capable of correcting themselves even when that correction touches the very essential of their position.

The essential significance of the events in Spain is this: the workers’ reaction to the attempt of the bourgeoisie, to shift from corruption to brutal oppression, induced the latter to embark upon a new road of driving the workers off their class line, a method never used before in such a thorough and systematic manner: WAR! The struggle in Spain began as a civil war, but was rapidly concerted into a capitalist, i.e. an imperialist war. The whole strategy of the Spanish and international bourgeoisie has consisted in carrying this transformation through without a change in the outward appearances and without the workers of Spain and the world noticing it. To achieve its end, the bourgeoisie had by all means at its disposal to keep alive the belief of the workers that they were fighting for their own class interests, i.e. that it was a civil war.

Those who did not recognise in time this transformation had already taken place (who saw it only after many months) or who did not radically change from the moment they recognized this (again we belong to this category), objectively played the game of the bourgeoisie. Radical workers’ organizations which combatted the open forms of class betrayal, but who at the same time prolonged the illusions of the workers that this war had anything to do with their class interests, that it was “at bottom” a civil war, were in fact indispensable to the plan of the Bourgeoisie. The most concise formula of this objective support to the Spanish and world bourgeoisie is contained in a leaflet published by the PC in the second half of February, that is in the seventh month of the war in Spain: “The Spanish working-class must march together with the People’s Front against Franco, but must prepare to turn their guns against Caballero to-morrow”.

To say this at a time when we had already understood and declared openly that civil war had been converted into imperialist war, is the very opposite of what Marxists have to tell the workers during imperialist war; sabotage! Fraternization with the “enemy”! desert! Revolutionary defeatism! Turn imperialist war into civil war! – It is only necessary to compare these slogans of Marxists during the world war with our slogans, to see the full depth of our failure to analyse the situation correctly and to draw the correct conclusions from it. To speak of imperialist war (beginning of article in January number of Fourth International) and then to end the same article with the statement; “It is necessary to fight at the front” – is proof what we really did not understand what “imperialist war” means in Marxist language. The following words (in that article mentioned) sound revolutionary, but in reality are left support to the schemes of the bourgeoisie, because they try to bring together what never can be brought together; class war and the imperialist war. (“… if power is not consolidated in the rear … the fight at the front is transformed into a fight to defend private property etc etc.”)

It is obvious that power can be won (for it is a question of winning, not “consolidating” it) only by strictly class methods, employed both in the rear and at the front; strikes, sabotage, fraternization, desertion, revolutionary defeatism. But not one of their (these) slogans was ever raised by us! Without them our slogans for the creation of soviets and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat (abstracting from the question of the existence of non-existence of a class party of the proletariat) objectively had the same effect as the slogan “Turn imperialist war into civil war” WITHOUT THE SLOGAN OF REVOLUTIONARY DEFEATISM, - a point we had well understood theoretically and even made a central point in our propaganda, but which we failed to apply in PRACTICE when the first historical test came. In fact we did not even raise the slogan “Turn the imperialist war into civil war”, which would probably have led to the logical conclusions: if this is the task, then we must be for the defeat of the People’s Front armies just as well as the armies of Franco.

Summing up we have to admit that we, just as those we have criticised, have fallen victims to the attempt of the world bourgeoisie to use the war in Spain in order to drive the proletariat off its clear class line and that in reality we have acted only as the leftest of the left in the camp of those duped by the bourgeoisie, forgetting during a period of months to mention even once the fundamental class weapon of the proletariat: STRIKE! We, who had built our whole PROPAGANDA on the question of the independence of the proletariat from the bourgeoisie, did not know how to concretize this idea in PRACTICE.

[1]. Our thanks to the comrade who signs as fnbrill on libcom, who sent us this and other texts written by the minority in the RWL. As can be seen from this thread on libcom ( ), the comrade is currently researching the American ‘Bordigist’ group of the 1930s and 40s.