What was the ‘Spanish civil war’ of 1936-39?
Most official histories, excluding those of the extreme right, present the Spanish civil war as a heroic defence of a democratically elected government against the mounting threat of fascism. More critical versions, such as those by the Trotskyists, argue that the Civil War was in fact the Spanish Revolution. While agreeing that it was necessary to fight for the Republic against Franco (Trotsky told his followers to be “the best soldiers for the Republic”), they argued that this was also compatible with the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and the installation of a true workers’ republic. The anarchists, for the most part, even claim that the ‘collectivisation’ of the factories and farms under the control of the anarchist trade union, the CNT, was the highest point ever reached in the fight for a communist society.
The Italian communist left, which published the review Bilan in the 1930s, had a very different view. For it, democracy and fascism were two wings of capitalism, equally reactionary and anti-working class. They analysed the period of the thirties as one of profound defeat for the working class, opening the path to a second imperialist world war. Both fascist and democratic ideologies played their part in mobilising the workers for the approaching war, and the carnage in Spain was a preparation for the bigger massacre on the horizon.
This did not mean that Bilan did not see the existence of a real class struggle in Spain. They hailed the spontaneous strike and uprising of the workers of Barcelona against the Francoist putsch of July 1936, which showed the ability of the working class to defend itself when it fights with its own methods. But they also saw that this initial class movement had almost immediately been derailed into an inter-capitalist war, indeed an inter-imperialist war as the great powers became drawn into the conflict on both sides, most directly ‘Soviet’ Russia and Germany. And the political forces most crucially involved in taking the working class away from the fight for their own class interests were the forces of the ‘left’, including the anarchist CNT, who turned the armed workers’ militias of July 36 into the nucleus of the Republican army, and the factory occupations into ‘self-managed’ enterprises working flat out for the war economy.
Not that this transformation was achieved without resistance from the working class. And in May 1937, the real class conflict within the ‘anti-fascist’ camp came to a head, when the Stalinist-run police force attempted to take control of the occupied Barcelona telephone exchange and ‘clean out’ all those seen as an internal obstacle to the Republican war machine. This action provoked barricades and a new general strike, this time pitting the workers not against Franco but against the repressive apparatus of the democratic Republic. And this open class divide also drew a line between those anarchists who had become part of that apparatus (in effect, the official CNT) and those who stood on the proletarian side of the barricades, like the Italian Camillo Berneri or the Friends of Durruti group, along with some elements in the Trotskyist movement.
The Italian left fraction, along with the newly formed Belgian fraction, issued the manifesto on the Barcelona events in May-June 1937 which we are reprinting below. Seventy years on, it stands out for its political clarity and its unshakeable loyalty to internationalism and proletarian autonomy. Even if certain of its formulations are no longer ours (for example, the idea of the party as the “brain” of the class), the manifesto’s insistence on the absolute necessity for the communist political organisation as the best advocate of working class independence is as valid today as it was then.
World Revolution, 5/5/07.
BULLETS, MACHINE GUNS, PRISONS: this is the reply of the Popular Front to the workers of Barcelona who dared to resist the capitalist offensive
July 19 1936 - the workers of Barcelona, BAREHANDED, crushed the attack of Franco’s battalions which were fully armed to the teeth.
May 4 1937 - the same workers, NOW EQUIPPED WITH ARMS, left many more dead on the streets than in July when they had to fight back against Franco. This time it is the anti-fascist government - including the anarchists and receiving the indirect solidarity of the POUM - which unleashes the scum of the forces of repression against the workers.
On 19 July the workers of Barcelona were an invincible force. Their class struggle, free from any ties with the bourgeois state, echoed inside Franco’s regiments and caused them to decompose by awakening the soldiers’ class instincts. It was the strike that snatched the rifles and cannons from Franco and shattered his offensive.
History only records a few brief moments during which the proletariat can become completely autonomous from the capitalist state. A few days after 19 July, the Catalan proletariat reached the cross-roads. Either it would enter into a HIGHER STAGE of struggle and destroy the bourgeois state, or capitalism would re-forge the links in its chain of power. At this stage in the struggle, when class instinct is not enough and CONSCIOUSNESS becomes the decisive factor, the proletariat can only win through if it has at its disposal theoretical capital accumulated patiently by its left fractions, transformed by the explosion of events into parties. If the Spanish proletariat today is living through such a stark tragedy, this is the result of its lack of maturity in being unable to forge its class party: the brain which, ALONE, can give life to the class.
From 19 July in Catalonia the workers created, spontaneously and on their own class terrain, the autonomous organs of their struggle. But immediately the anguishing dilemma arose: either fight to the end the POLITICAL BATTLE for the total destruction of the capitalist state and thus bring to perfection the economic and military successes, or leave the enemy’s machinery of oppression standing and thereby allow it to deform and liquidate the workers’ other conquests.
Classes struggle with the means imposed on them by the situation and by the level of social tension. Confronted with class conflagration, capitalism cannot even dream of resorting to the classical methods of legality. What threatens capitalism is the INDEPENDENCE of the proletarian struggle, since that provides the condition for the class to go on to the revolutionary stage of posing the question of destroying bourgeois power. Capitalism must therefore renew the bonds of its control over the exploited masses. These bonds, previously represented by the magistrates, the police, and prisons, have in the extreme conditions which reign in Barcelona taken the form of the Committee of Militias, the socialized industries, the workers’ unions managing the key sectors of the economy, the vigilante patrols, etc.
And so in Spain today, history once again poses the problem resolved in Italy and Germany by the crushing of the proletariat: the workers manage to keep their own class weapons that they have themselves created in the heat of struggle, only as long as they use them against the bourgeois state. The workers arm their future executioners if, lacking the strength to smash their class enemy, they allow themselves to be caught in the net of the bourgeoisie’s apparatus of power.
The workers’ militia of 19 July was an organ of the proletariat. The ‘proletarian militia’ of the following week was a capitalist organ adapted to the needs of the moment. And in the implementation of its counter-revolutionary strategy, the bourgeoisie was able to call upon the centrists (the Stalinists), the CNT, the FAI, and the POUM to convince the workers that THE STATE CHANGES ITS NATURE WHEN ITS MANAGING PERSONNEL CHANGES COLOUR. Disguising itself behind a red flag, capitalism patiently set about sharpening the sword of its repression which by May 4 was made ready for use by all the forces that had since 19 July broken the class backbone of the Spanish proletariat.
The son of Noske and the Weimar Constitution was Hitler; the son of Giolitti and the ‘workers’ was Mussolini; the son of the Spanish anti-fascist Front, the ‘socialisations’, and the ‘proletarian’ militias was the carnage in Barcelona on 4 May 1937.
AND ONLY THE RUSSIAN PROLETARIAT RESPONDED TO THE FALL OF CZARISM WITH OCTOBER 1917 BECAUSE IT ALONE HAD MANAGED TO BUILD ITS CLASS PARTY THROUGH THE WORK OF THE LEFT FRACTIONS.
Franco was able to prepare his attack under the wing of the Popular Front government. In a spirit of conciliation Barrio tried to form on 19 July a united government capable of carrying out the programme of Spanish capitalism as a whole, either under the leadership of Franco, or under the mixed leadership of a fraternally united left and right. But the workers’ revolts in Barcelona, Madrid and the Asturias forced capitalism to divide its government in half, to share out the tasks between its Republican and military agents, who were joined together by indivisible class solidarity.
Where Franco was unable to achieve an immediate victory, capitalism called the workers into its services in order to ‘fight fascism’. This was a bloody trap in which thousands of workers died, believing that under the leadership of the Republican government they could crush the legitimate heir of capitalism - fascism. And so they went off to the passes of Aragon, to the mountains of Guadarrama, to the Asturias, to fight for the victory of the anti-fascist war.
Once again, as in l9l4, history has underlined in blood, over the mass graves of the workers, the irreconcilable opposition existing between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
Are the military fronts a necessity imposed by the current situation? No! They are a necessity for capitalism if it is to contain and crush the workers! May 4 1937 is stark proof of the fact that after July 19 1936 the proletariat had to fight Companys and Giral just as much as Franco. The military fronts can only dig a grave for the workers because they represent the fronts of capitalism’s war against the proletariat. The only answer the Spanish workers can give to this war is the one given by their Russian brothers in 1917: revolutionary defeatism in both camps of the bourgeoisie, the Republican as well as the ‘fascist’; the transformation of the capitalist war into a civil war for the total destruction of the bourgeois state.
The Italian Left Fraction has solely been supported in its tragic isolation by the solidarity of a current of the International Communist League in Belgium, which has just founded the Belgian Fraction of the International Communist Left. These two currents alone have rung the alarm bells while everyone else has been proclaiming the necessity to safeguard the conquests of the revolution, to smash Franco so as to be able to smash Caballero thereafter.
The recent events in Barcelona are a gloomy confirmation of our initial thesis. They showed how the Popular Front, flanked by the anarchists and the POUM, turned on the insurgent workers on the 4 of May with a cruelty equal to that of Franco.
The vicissitudes of the military battles were so many occasions for the Republican government to regain its grip over the masses. In the absence of a proletarian policy of revolutionary defeatism, both the military successes and failures of the Republican army were simply steps in the bloody defeat of the working class. At Badajoz, Irún, and San Sebastián, the Popular Front contributed to the deliberate massacre of the proletariat while strengthening the bonds of the Union Sacrée, since in order to win the anti-fascist war, there had to be a disciplined and centralised army. The resistance in Madrid, on the other hand, facilitated the offensive of the Popular Front which could now rid itself of its former lackey, the POUM, and prepare the attack of 4th May. The fall of Malaga re-forged the bloody chains of the Union Sacrée, while the military victory at Guadalajara opened the period which culminated in the massacre in Barcelona. The attack of 4 May thus germinated and blossomed in an atmosphere of war fever.
Parallel to this, all over the world, Spanish capital’s war of extermination gave life to the forces of international bourgeois repression: the fascist and ‘anti-fascist’ deaths in Spain were accompanied by the murders in Moscow and the machine-gunnings in Clichy. And it was on the bloody altar of anti-fascism that the traitors mobilised the workers of Brussels around the democratic wing of Belgian capitalism in the elections of April 11 1937. ‘ARMS FOR SPAIN’: this was the great slogan drummed into the ears of the workers. And these arms have been used to shoot their brothers in Barcelona. Soviet Russia, by co-operating in the arming of the anti-fascist war, has also demonstrated itself to be part of the capitalist system in this carnage. On the order of Stalin - who exposed his anti-communist violence on 3 March 1937 - the PSUC of Catalonia took the initiative in the massacre.
Once again, as in 1914, the workers are using their arms to kill each other instead of using them to destroy the regime of capitalist oppression.
On May 4 1937 the workers of Barcelona returned to the path they had taken up on 19 July. The path capitalism had been able to divert them from with the help of all the forces composing the Popular Front. By launching the general strike, even within the sectors presented as CONQUESTS OF THE REVOLUTION, they formed a class front against the Republican-Fascist bloc of capital. And the Republican government responded with the same savagery that Franco displayed at Badajoz and Irún. If the Salamanca government did not take advantage of this conflagration behind the Aragon Front to go onto the offensive, it was merely because it knew that its accomplices on the left would admirably carry out their role as executioners of the proletariat.
Exhausted by ten months of war, by class collaboration by the CNT, by the FAI, and by the POUM, the Catalan proletariat just suffered a terrible defeat. But this defeat is also a step towards the victory of tomorrow, a moment in the emancipation of the proletariat, because it signifies the death of all those ideologies which enabled capitalism to maintain its rule in spite of the gigantic shock of 19 July.
No, the proletarians who fell on 4 May cannot be laid claim to by any of the political currents who on 19 July led them off their own class terrain into the jaws of anti-fascism. The fallen workers belong to the proletariat and to the proletariat alone. They represent the raw stuff of the brain of the world working class: the class party of the communist revolution.
The workers of the whole world bow before the entire dead and lay claim to their corpses against all the traitors: the traitors of yesterday and of today. The proletariat of the whole world salutes Berneri as one of its own, and his martyrdom for the ideal of anarchism is yet another protest against a political school which has met its downfall during these events in Spain. It was under the direction of a government in which the anarchists participated that the police have done to the body of Berneri what Mussolini did to the body of Matteotti!
The carnage of Barcelona is the harbinger of even more bloody repression against the workers of Spain and the rest of the world. But it is even more a fore-runner of the social tempests which, tomorrow, will sweep across the capitalist world.
In a mere ten months capitalism has had to use up all the political resources it had been hoping to use in order to demolish the proletariat, in order to prevent the class from completing the task of forming the party, the weapon of its emancipation, and creating the communist society. Centrism and anarchism, by rejoining the ranks of Social Democracy, have reached in Spain the end of their evolution, as was the case in 1914 when the war reduced the Second International to a corpse. In Spain capitalism has unleashed a battle of international importance: the battle between fascism and anti-fascism. In the extreme form of armed confrontation, it demonstrates the acute tension between the classes on the international arena.
The deaths in Barcelona have cleared the ground for the construction of the party of the working class. All those political forces that called upon the workers to fight for the revolution while mobilising them into a capitalist war have passed to the other side of the barricade. Before the workers of the whole world a bright horizon is opening up: a horizon in which the workers of Barcelona have emblazoned with their own blood the class lessons already sketched in the blood of the dead of 1914-18. THE WORKERS’ STRUGGLE IS A PROLETARIAN STRUGGLE ONLY IF IT IS DIRECTED AGAINST CAPITALISM AND ITS STATE: IT SERVES THE INTERESTS OF THE ENEMY IF IT IS NOT DIRECTED AGAINST BOTH, AT EVERY INSTANT, IN EVERY SPHERE, IN ALL THE PROLETARIAN ORGANISATIONS THE SITUATION ENGENDERS.
The world proletariat must fight against capitalism even when the latter begins to repress its erstwhile lackeys. It is the working class, not its class enemies, which has the responsibility of settling its debts with those forces which were once part of its own development as a class, which were a moment in its struggle for emancipation from capitalist slavery.
The international battle which Spanish capitalism has launched against the proletariat has opened up a new chapter in the life of the fractions in different countries. The world proletariat, which must continue to fight against the ‘builders’ of artificial Internationals, knows that it can only build the proletarian International in a situation where a profound transformation of class forces on a world scale has opened up the way to the communist revolution. In the face of the war in Spain, itself a sign of the development of revolutionary ferment in other countries, the world proletariat feels that the time has come to forge the first international links between the fractions of the communist left.
WORKERS OF THE WORLD!
Your class is invincible; it is the motor force of historical evolution. The events in Spain are proof of this, because it is your class ALONE which is the stake in the battle shaking the whole world!
This defeat must not discourage you; you must draw from this defeat the lessons for tomorrow’s victory!
On your own class basis, re-forge your class unity, beyond all frontiers, against all the mystifications of the capitalist enemy!
In Spain, against any attempt at a compromise aimed at the establishment of peace based on capitalist exploitation, fight back with fraternisation between the exploited of both armies and a simultaneous struggle against capitalism!
On your feet for the revolutionary struggle in all countries!
Long live the workers of Barcelona who have turned a new and bloody page in the history of the world revolution!
Forward to the construction of an International Bureau to accelerate the formation of left fractions in every country!
Let us raise the standard of the communist revolution which the fascist and anti-fascist murderers are preventing the defeated workers from passing on to their class heirs.
Let us be worthy of our brothers who have fallen!
Long live the world communist revolution!
The Belgian and Italian Fractions of the International Communist Left (Bilan, no.41, June 1937).