The Heroic Tragedy: Civil War and Social Revolution in Spain


‘Back the revolutionary general strike the very instant anyone [i.e. the military] revolts. We, the people of Catalonia, let us be on a war footing and ready to act. Be valiant. Arm yourselves and do battle. Long Live the CNT! Long Live Libertarian Communism! Launch the revolutionary general strike against fascism.’ – CNT statement of 19 July 1936

Eighty years ago this summer, Spain saw an attempted military coup being temporarily defeated by ordinary people in many parts of the country. This was the beginning of what was to be a three year long civil war, resulting in half a million deaths, and followed by the four decade dictatorship of General Franco. This article will aim to describe some of the key features of the conflict, paying close attention to the ‘social revolution’ in Catalonia and Aragon which is of most relevance to socialists.

To understand the outbreak of the civil war it is first necessary to understand some of the background to the conflict. Spain in the early twentieth century was a predominately agrarian society; large scale industrialisation had only taken place in the north of the country and in Catalonia, around Barcelona. In the countryside an entrenched land owning class, of which the church was a significant section, had been resistant to agrarian economic reform, rural workers were locked into a state of poverty, often forced to work for long hours for little more than subsistence wages. Decades of agitation and self education had given birth to a strong and militant anarchist and syndicalist movement. Spain had become the only country where the anarchist ideas of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta and others had given rise to a social movement of significant numbers. By the time of the 1930’s the major workers unions were the CNT (National Confederation of Labour) and the UGT (General Workers’Union). Despite ideological differences and occasional conflict there was often cooperation between the two organisations. The CNT was an anarcho-syndicalist organisation that shunned parliamentary elections and advocated industrial direct action as a means of overcoming capitalism. From the late twenties onwards, the FAI (Anarchist Federation of Iberia) had gained influence within the CNT. The FAI pushed for a programme of insurrectional ‘revolutionary gymnastics’with the intent of immediately bringing about anarchism through violent confrontation with the state. These policies clashed with those of the more orthodox syndicalists within the CNT who saw the social revolution as only being possible after a longer period of working class self-education and self-organisation. The UGT was affiliated to the labourist social-democratic PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party) and pursued a line that was more in favour of winning legal concessions from the government.

The military declaration of 1936, which bought the beginning of the civil war, was not the first time that Spain had faced dictatorship. The dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera came about in 1923 when the government resigned in the face of a similar pronunciamiento from the Army. Following a bloodless coup, Primo de Rivera stayed in power until 1931, when the support of the military and the wealthy classes was lost. Subsequent elections gave victory to anti-monarchist parties, causing the King to abdicate and flee the country, thus bringing into being the Second Republic of Spain.

The coming of the Second Republic saw a sudden rise in working class activity as workers looked to it as a means to finally solve their economic and social problems. Rural and urban workers, even in areas not previously known for their radicalism, began to demand improvements to working conditions, public meetings became commonplace and the church, seen by many to be defending the privileged and the wealthy, often became a target for grievances. The increase in working class militancy, and particularly attacks on the Roman Catholic Church, enraged certain sections of the ruling class. In the election of 1933 a confederation of Catholic parties, the CEDA, operating on a quasi-fascist platform, won the largest amount of seats but not enough of a majority to form a government. Despite this, power was offered to the second largest party, the Radical Republican Party. The Radicals co-operated with the CEDA and in 1934 they ceded, giving three ministerial positions to the CEDA.

In protest against the CEDA entering the government the PSOE declared a general strike on 5th October 1934. In most parts of the country the strike was rapidly defeated as the government declared a state of martial law and the army took over the running of essential services. In Barcelona the regional government declared an independent state of Catalonia. A blood bath was avoided, when a request to arm the workers was refused, and when the military general in charge of re-establishing the authority of the Madrid central government ordered his troops to be ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ towards any provocations. The only place the strike held on for any amount of time was in the northern mining area of Asturias where, unlike in other areas, the strike had the backing of all the workers organisations. There the situation rapidly became insurrectional. An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 armed miners took part in an uprising. Civil Guard posts and public buildings were attacked and several towns being successfully occupied. Comunismo libertario was declared with revolutionary committees taking on the social responsibilities of government, the use of money was restricted and ration vouchers were distributed to families. In response the government sent General Franco and the Moroccan Army of Africa, as well as the navy and airforce, to quell the disturbance. Retribution was brutal, around 2000 miners were killed and a further 20,000 to 30,000 imprisoned. Moorish troops unleashed a wave of looting, rape and summary executions on the surrounding mining villages. The Asturian uprising showed a pattern of events that would be repeated on a larger scale two years later, as the civil war took its course.

The military rebellion

In 1936 a leftist popular front, supported for the first time by the votes of the anarcho-syndicalists, won the election. The victory was partly due to the promise to release the thousands of prisoners who were still being held following the uprisings of ‘34 and to also reverse and improve on wage reductions imposed by the previous government. Determined to put a stop to the growth of working class militancy, anti-religiosity and regional separatism that had accompanied the coming of the republic, a conspiracy of officers in the military sought to reimpose what they saw as being the true will of the nation. A coup was organised to take place in July 1936. The generals hoped that they would achieve a rapid victory. However, this was not to be. In the event, beginning on the 18 July, significant elements in the military and security forces remained loyal to the Republic. The whole of the Navy remained loyal, just over half of the Guardia Civil (Civil Guard –a rural paramilitary police force) as did over 70 percent of the Guardias de Asalto (Assault Guards –an urban paramilitary police force set up during the time of the republic).

On hearing of the military rising the government, in the beginning in denial about the seriousness of the situation, was at first unwilling to arm the workers organisations. So initially through their own initiatives, by raiding gun-shops, digging up weapons stored since the Asturias uprising or by being provided weapons by loyal Assault Guards, ordinary workers began to come out against the rising. In Madrid a crowd stormed the Montanna barracks. In Barcelona factory sirens sounded to warn of the rising and an immediate general strike came into effect. Thousands of people took to the streets, setting up barricades to hinder the incursions of the military. Where the workers movement was strong, and opposition was organised quickly, the rising was defeated. In areas which failed to offer resistance, the rising was successful and the military rebels (henceforth referred to as the ‘Nationalists’) began serving out a brutal repression of the workers organisations and anyone who was seen as being loyal to the republic. Spain was split into two zones, as noted by Raymond Carr ‘those who happened to be in a zone that was hostile to their beliefs had to conform, escape, or risk imprisonment or shooting. Loyalty was often a matter of locality.’Though, where given the choice, the working classes generally supported the Republic and the upper classes, the Nationalists.

The working class in the saddle

The effect of arming the unions meant that the workers organisations were in control. In Barcelona, the CNT was offered full control of the Generalitat (Catalonian regional government) but refused to take it, partly because they did not want to set up a ‘workers’dictatorship’, and partly because they were not sure how to deal with the situation. Instead they took a place on the Anti-Fascist Militia Committee, which was in effect a sub-committee of the regional government. This committee was later dissolved and the CNT took a minority position within the Generalitat. While the CNT held power in the factories and workplaces, a vast swathe of governmental state power, including the administration of military affairs and the overseeing of justice, was left with the Generalitat. This would later be used as a level to prise power away from the syndicalists.

In Barcelona, Catalonia, Aragon and the surrounding areas the CNT enacted their anarcho-syndicalist ideology and set about collectivising large sections of industry, though it was in the countryside that the most far-reaching attempts at realising ‘libertarian communism’ were attempted. Following the upheavals, most large landowners in republican controlled areas had fled. With the landowning class absent, rural workers began spontaneously commandeering and collectivising land. Collectivisation meant that access to equipment, resources and labour could be pooled, leading to and increase in output and productivity and an improvement in living conditions. Within the collectives attempts at achieving an equitable distribution of goods and services were conducted in a various different ways. Some, a minority, practised a system of free access where people could simply take what they needed from the communal store. Others printed their own forms of currency or ration cards. As time went on the normal state of affairs gravitated towards that of being paid a fixed ‘family wage’ where collective members were entitled to certain quantities of various household items. To say that money was abolished is to push too far, ‘money’does not necessarily mean only state minted currency but whatever can serve as a general measure of value and means of exchange. Whilst some agricultural collectives did not pay their workers in state currency, it was still used as a means of accounting between units. Despite the collectivisations the basic economic unit was still that of separate and competing enterprises.

“Anarchists abandoned the idea of a substitute for national money. The agrarian collectives decided to abolish money, only to adopt other systems of exchange…. The difficulties created by local money and the lack of a unified currency soon became evident. Very soon the collectivists of Aragon saw the advantages of a kind of national bank”–Frank Mintz

In Catalonia and Aragon nearly 70 percent of the workforce was involved in the collectives. Across the whole of the Republican territory there were almost 800,000 involved on the land and just over one million in industry.

Industrial collectivisation was not as deep or far-reaching as the efforts in the countryside. In the first days of the revolution workers simply seized abandoned factories and restarted production. Workers in a collectivised enterprise would organise themselves into committees, and the committees would be federated regionally. The basic unit of organisation was the factory committee. The requisitions were retrospectively made legal in late October 1936. This was partly in an effort for the central government to regain control of industry. Part of the legislation meant that each factory council had a designated ‘controller’that was responsible to the government. The vast majority of industry in Catalonia was organised in this way. While the workers certainly had more control over their working conditions than in a privately or state owned enterprise, the industrial situation could best be described as kind of trade-union controlled capitalism; production was still being conducted for the purpose of exchange, both within the Republic and with the outside world.

(to be continued and concluded next month)


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