Eighty years ago this month the Spanish Civil War began. It continued until the defeat of the government forces in March 1939; it killed about 600,000 people (many of them murdered, assassinated or executed) and it roused passions of one sort or another all over the world. 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 influenced 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. 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 change by force terrified the ruling class of Spain and the right-wing began to plot their own uprising. The worker's movement was split, however, and there was a large Socialist Party (PSE, chiefly a Labour party of the traditional type but itself not united, ranging from Fabian-like reformists through to die-hard revolutionaries) with its trade union federation the UGT, with the anarchists in the syndicalist CNT. If the workers attacked churches, that was because of the close political connection between the clerics and the conservatives.
Franco in a conspiracy with other generals and backed by conservative groups, the aristocracy and the high, on 18 July 1936, launched a rebellion against the elected Republican government. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy sent forces in to help their right-wing allies, and Soviet Russia intervened, helping the Communist Party (which was a relatively insignificant organisation) rather than the government. The civil war was used by the great powers partly as a rehearsal for the clash which came in September 1939, and partly for what economic advantage they could get out of it. The German Nazis sent the Condor Legion - and practised their dive-bombing; the French tested their aviation equipment. The Germans were also after the rich deposits of iron ore in Spain while the Russians drove a hard bargain for the arms they supplied to the Spanish Government and insisted on prompt payment for them in gold. The war ended with Franco in power from 1939 until 1975. The losers, as always, were the common people, pawns in a struggle between power brokers. Those who weren't killed were crammed into Franco's concentration camps, penal labour battalions, or settled down to a hungry future. The country swarmed with 57 varieties of police. It was government by machine-gun and terror.
Army officers had marched out the troops from the barracks in Barcelona and deployed them in the streets. They occupied strategic buildings but in a very short time the whole of the population of Barcelona had joined in the fight. Barricades went up, machine-gun nests were established and the battle spread all over the city. As soon as the troops realised that they were being used by their officers to effect a coup, they broke ranks and fraternised with the people. From that moment the Fascist cause was lost in Barcelona, for a few years at least. The various trade unions and political parties set about re-organising and recruiting their militias, at the same time, taking over the control of the city and surrounding district. The defeat of the military coup meant that the CNT and its armed militias became the only real power in Barcelona. Despite this, and because of their anarchist ideology, the CNT refused to enter the government and to exercise the political power that they already had, thus leaving the door open for the eventual Stalinist takeover. By refusing to take power, thinkers such as Bookchin argue, the anarchists did not destroy power but merely transferred it into the hands of their enemies. While the CNT did hold power in the factories and workplaces, a vast swathe of real governmental power, from the administration of military affairs and the overseeing of justice, was left in control of the liberals and Stalinists who would later use this power to reverse the gains made by the workers.
Understanding Spain is not easy even for those interested. The Spanish civil war has an immense ability for people to read their own perspectives into it. It was a mixture of imagination and derring-do but also containing calculated cruelty, brutality and murderous mayhem. Some may feel the significance of the Spanish Civil War or the depth of support for the more radical movements within it has been over-stated. What cannot be denied, even eighty years on, is that it was an event of enough significance to analyse and learn from? At the time, the issue appeared to be a simple matter of democracy versus dictatorship, a straight-forward struggle between a democratically elected government and a band of bloodthirsty rebels and it provoked passionate debate. Orwell's experiences during the Spanish Civil War transformed his thinking.
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. But a war within capitalism could only be fought on capitalist terms. You can't have a democratic army, as the anarchists in the CNT found out.
"Arming of the people is meaningless. The nature of military warfare is determined by the class directing it. An army fighting in defence of a bourgeois state, even if it should be antifascist, is an army in the service of capitalism . . . War between a fascist state and an antifascist state is not a revolutionary class war. The proletariat's intervention on one side is an indication that it has already been defeated. Insuperable technical and professional inferiority on the part of the popular or militia-based army was implicit in military struggle on a military front" (Friends of Durruti Group: 1937-1939 By Agustin Guillamon).
No capitalist government, whatever its composition or colour can allow the armed forces of the state to pass out of its control. An armed working class is a menace to the system. In class society, the dominant class must have at its disposal the power to maintain "law and order" amongst the class that it dominates, even when it is divided within itself. As Franz Borkenau maintained there was not one view of what kind of army to build, but three incompatible views—a revolutionary popular army like that of the French after the revolution, a "political" army like that of Russia, or a non-political army like the British. The Anarchists favoured the first, the Communists the second, and the army officers and Liberal-Republicans the third. Circumstances made the task impossible.
Could an "anarchist revolution" have been sustained in Spain? Certainly, the workers showed that they could take over and run the factories and the peasants that they could take over and cultivate the land without capitalists and landlords but could it have lasted. But what would happen when everyday life began to feel the pinch of economic want of the material problems imposed not only by the Civil War but by Spain's narrow technological base? Socialism will be the result of abundance, without which it will remain only an ideal. Could the ardour of the CNT and FAI surmount the obstacles of scarcity and material want in the basic necessities of life, obstacles that had limited the forward thrust of earlier revolutions? But in any event, the matter was not tested. The "anarchist revolution" was first stopped by the Republican government and the Stalinist "Communists” and then savagely crushed by the Franco fascists. The truth before they could hope to make progress in organising for the conquest of power for socialism/anarchism - that it was presently absolutely out of the question, and that their only present hope was for the right to organise and carry on propaganda under a capitalist democracy. Trying to go beyond this by means of armed revolts, and so on, gained nothing except disillusionment, and did not help the working class movement.
The Spanish Revolution provoked passionate debate in the Socialist Party. Heroism is not enough, although there was plenty of that. Some on the Left seek to draw parallels with the ideas and actions the working class might take in contemporary Britain but we question their relevancy. The only actions which are pertinent to the working class revolutionary are those which are concerned with the enlightenment and empowerment of the class to which they belong, and the collective transformation of capitalism into socialism. Not for us a re-run of anything akin to the Spain and revolution, no matter how well-meaning many of those who fought on the republican side might have been. We have a different war to fight. Some with long memories use the example of Spain as an event 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 led up to the rebellion. The International Brigades to this day hold a place of honour for many in Britain revered as defenders of democracy. Many died, bravely; and their defence of Madrid reads like something from an epic poem. Yet their enthusiasm was not enough to actually save political democracy in Spain. One thing the revolt did show: that is the difficulty or the impossibility of achieving real unity by merging together in a Popular Front parties and individuals who differ fundamentally in aim, outlook, and method. It was obvious in 1936 that it would be an enormous task to secure unity between long-standing opponents like the Spanish Labourites, Anarchist-Syndicalists, Communists, Trotskyists, Liberal Republicans, Catholic Basque Separatists, etc. Even the trauma of war will not make men and women who think differently work in common cause.
It is difficult to blame the socialists and anarchists who took up arms to defend themselves and their unions but we can also perhaps look to the rejection of political democracy that preceded the civil war which gave the Falangists the pretext they needed to break cover and launch their insurrection. It is a matter of course that socialists are on the side of the exploited in their struggles against the propertied class. This is true whether the workers concerned are socialist or not, organised or unorganised, and whether the struggle is a strike or a lock-out, or whether it is concerned with gaining "elbow room" for the working class movement, i. e., the right to organise, to carry on propaganda, to secure the franchise and parliamentary government. These struggles are all expressions of the class struggle and are in the line of development towards Socialism. It is the plain duty of the organised workers in the more advanced countries to support and encourage such struggles, both at home and in the less advanced countries. Whether the democratic resistance is eventually successful or not makes no difference to the socialist attitude. On the one side, there was Franco, who threaten to deprive the workers of the power to organise politically and industrially in their own interests. On the other side were the workers. Whether the Spanish workers were wise in participating in a struggle so costly in human lives may be debatable, but as they chose to take the plunge against the most violent partisans of capitalism, socialists were, of course, on their side. It must be assumed that the Spanish workers weighed up the situation and counted the cost before deciding their course of action. That is a matter upon which their judgement should be better than that of people outside the country. We pay tribute to the conduct of the Spanish workers. Believing that a vital principle was at stake, they rallied against a powerful revolt backed by the greater part of the armed forces. Workers, with little or no military training, stood up to trained and experienced soldiers. On the one side was all the advantage of organisation and equipment and on the other the enthusiasm and voluntary discipline of a popular movement. It is true that large sections of the military forces remained loyal to the Government, but even these were hampered by treason and sabotage among the officers. Only the untrained volunteer militias were thoroughly dependable.