2000s >> 2006 >> no-1224-august-2006

For whom the bell tolled

This summer has seen commemorations for the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil war remains a conflict shrouded in myth, heroism and controversy.

For most of the early 20th Century Spain had been in turmoil, the monarchy fell, in 1931 – and liberals and conservatives were still struggling over the future shape of society. Trade unions – heavily influence by anarchism (especially in Catalonia and Barcelona) were more like paramilitary forces, fighting a pistolismo war with employers and the state who were brutally trying to suppress them into brutal poverty.

The worker’s movement was split, however, and there was a large Socialist Party (PSE, chiefly a Labour party of the traditional type) with its trade union federation the UGT, with the anarchists in the syndicalist CNT. Some (these days, those with long memories) use the example of Spain as an incident in which the capitalists would turn to arms and civil war to stop a rising socialist  movement, but this ignores several features of the events that lead up to the civil war.

Although often portrayed as a war to defend democracy from insurgent fascists, it is fair to say that political democracy did not command strong support from all sides of the political spectrum. Indeed, in 1934, Largo Caballero, the “Spanish Lenin”, led an abortive revolt with a general strike that was crushed in Madrid, and the miners in Asturias managed to take control of their whole region before being put down – a genuine uprising.

This attempt at violent revolution terrified the professional and ruling class of Spain, and set the stage for later tensions. By February 1936 Caballero and the leadership of the Spanish Socialist Party were out of prison and instead part of the newly elected popular front government which won by the slimmest of majorities. This front consisted of liberals, Basque and Catalan separatists, the PSE and the Communist Party.

Although the working class parties were the larger, the liberals actually headed the government – something which was not conducive to stable rule. The PSE itself was not united, ranging from Fabian-like reformists through to die-hard revolutionaries.

So it is clear that there was not a solid considered demand for revolutionary change. The Asturias rising had frightened the horses, and the right began to plot their own uprising.

In the background to all of this, political assassinations and murders continued apace – with partisans of the right and the left at each others’ throats. Churches were burned down, political offices wrecked, chaos was spreading throughout society. The sort of everyday politically motivated chaos we have seen so many times since – currently in Iraq, for example.

At the head of the rightwing were the Falangists, a genuinely radical fascist grouping determined to smash the socialists. They were joined by conservative Catholics (representing a large landowning interest), monarchists and the military. It would be the military, under General Francesco Franco, who would provide the main vehicle for the National Front’s resistance.

On 18 July 1936 Franco issued a pronunciamento, the traditional announcement that preceded Spain’s many previous military coups. Unlike them, however, this was a call for a massive social struggle, and one that both sides had been waiting for. Carnage began immediately – radio officers shot their ship’s captain rather than hand over the ship. The barracks in Barcelona
was surrounded and eventually vanquished after bloody struggle – a national general strike was called. There followed a savage war – with estimates of the number who died varying from three hundred thousand to a million.

 It was a thoroughly modern war of the people in arms – aided with zeal, heroism and determination against the organised efficiency of a professional army.

Although the advantage nominally lay with the loyalist Popular Front government forces (they had the money) they were deeply divided and Franco took the bulk of  the army – especially the experienced troops.

The “international community” reacted by imposing an arms embargo on both sides – the same sort of trick the Major government used to back the Serbs in their war in the former Yugoslavia. Despite this embargo, some of the great European powers saw this as a chance to flex their muscles. Mussolini’s fascist government sent troops and armaments. The German Nazis sent the Condor Legion – and Spain quickly became a training yard for the new form of aerial warfare practised by the Luftwaffe. On the loyalist side aid was given by the Soviet Union through the auspices of its International Brigades – recruited by Communist Parties in various countries. Others, such as George Orwell, volunteered independently.

The international brigades to this day hold a place of honour for many in Britain, especially among the Labour Party, some of  whose members revere them as defenders of democracy and anti-fascists leading the way in a war that could have stopped fascism before the great slaughter of world war two.Many died, bravely; and their defence of Madrid reads like something from an epic poem. Their enthusiasm was not enough to actually save political democracy in Spain.

What started as a local struggle quickly developed into an imperialist battleground, a proxy battle for the tussle between Germany and Russia. This aspect quickly overrode the local concerns – the communists were able to punch above their weight of support thanks to their gift of arms, and they quickly joined with government forces in suppressing the elements of social revolution and independence thrown up by anarchist groups throughout the country. Communist Party torture chambers were discovered after some of their strongholds fell.

This is the source of much of the political recriminations springing from that war. Trotskyists accuse the anarchists of failing to organise a vanguard party and seize power (which was, apparently offered them, much as Baldwin offered the reigns of  government to a shocked TUC in 1926). Anarchists point to the role of the Stalinists in liquidating their advances, and point, with some justice, to their achievements. The Trotskyists accuse the Stalinists of selling out Spain in order to demonstrate to the capitalist powers that the USSR had no designs on spreading a world revolution.

In some areas revolutionary committees controlled all the major infrastructure and industry – money was replaced by varying types of voucher system (although in some places they simply instituted controlled prices and wages). Democracy ran throughout the anarchist columns, with democratically elected officers accountable to their troops.

The ad hoc nature of these efforts – heroic and imaginative though they were – coupled with the fragmentation of Spain, the ongoing warfare and the continued existence of the market throughout the supply chain eventually meant that they were doomed to failure.

Eventually Franco triumphed, and went on to rule Spain until his death in 1975 – to that rare reward for dictators, death in office. His period of authoritarian rule, built on the back of smashing an independent workers’ movement and suppressing the regionalist tendencies of the Basques and Catalans meant that a reasonably orderly transition to capitalist business as usual was possible.

The Spanish civil war has an immense ability for people to read their own interestsand perspectives into it. It was a melange of heroism, imagination and derring-do mixed with calculated cruelty, brutality, murder mayhem and brute stupidity. It is difficult to blame anarchists who took up arms to defend themselves and their unions from murderous bosses; but we can perhaps look to the rejection of political democracy that preceded the civil war and gave the armed authoritarians the support they needed to break cover and launch their assault.

It is vitally important today to remember that socialists must be the standard bearers of civilisation – the defenders of the political democracy and the peace that we will need to successfully manage the transition to production for use. Rubble doesn’t make a good basis for building socialism.


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