A Study of the Revolution in Spain, 1936-1937

by Stuart Christie


In July 1936, the popular movement that contained the military and right-wing uprising in Spain triggered one of the most profound social revolutions of the twentieth century. The period that began on 19 July 1936 and ended in August 1937 with the destruction of the revolutionary AragÛn collectives by communist-led republican military forces was one of profound and extended freedom and democracy in the management of social life, work and the economy. The history of the Spain of 1936-7 demonstrates the fate of a revolution that attempted to create a genuinely autonomous society, but did not make a complete break with those bodies that are inherently given to control and manipulation - the state, the political parties and the unions. In other words, the Spanish anarchist movement of the time failed to clarify its radicalism and to pursue the logic of its principles. Why did this happen? How did the republican parties re-establish the authority both of the Catalan regional government and of the central government in Madrid? What brought about the ultimate ascendancy of the Communist Party under the premiership of Juan Negrin?

A key factor in understanding this is the slogan, 'First the war, then the revolution.' This phrase was cynical when it was used by not only by the republicans, socialists and communists, who never wanted a popular revolution anyway, but also by those anarchists who were so far removed from the people that they no longer identified with them.

More dangerously, though, the slogan was ingenuous when it was mouthed by many other, entirely committed anarchists, because it obscured the reality that a war is a very political phenomenon, and that how it is fought is determined by political alignments.

First published in Great Britain 1998 by The Meltzer Press, PO Box 35, Hastings, East Sussex, TN34 2UX Fax: (01424) 442913, E-mail 100104.1406@Compuserve.Com

It is ingenuous to believe that the only possible anti-fascist front is one made among leaders at governmental level. Such a point of view sees efficiency in obedience, and fails to take account of the importance of the will to fight, which derives from what is being fought for. In fact, there were only three major victories by the republican side in the war: the original defeat of Franco's revolt, the defence of Madrid and the battle of Guadalajara. The first two were won by the spontaneous action of the people, by the committees and militias and through revolutionary enthusiasm, while even in the third, which came after revolutionary hopes began to die, political subversion of enemy troops played a decisive role.

The political decision to organise a hierarchical, traditional army placed political limitations on the way the war was fought. A war of movement was excluded. It would have required highly independent units. But in the war of positions that took place instead, the technical advantages of the Francoists were maximised and the main advantage of the anti-fascists - the fact that most of the population were anti-Franco - was lost. Political factors also entered into play very directly in another way: the fronts held predominantly by anarchist troops, such as in AragÛn, were starved of arms and ammunition, and the central front, where Stalinists ruled, was heavily supplied, even though it was less vulnerable and the fighting had moved elsewhere. This prevented the possibility of action in the north, which might have united the isolated republican region in the north-west (with its mining and industrial base) with the main area. But this would also have united revolutionary Asturias with revolutionary AragÛn and Catalonia.

There was much else also to be gained for the republican state in avoiding a dynamic approach. The prospect of a victory over fascism while the state was shaky and the revolutionary movement organised, active and armed could only strike fear into the hearts of the politicians. Thus not only were anarchist troops deliberately used in such a way as to decimate them, but there was an immense concentration of weaponry retained for repressive purposes in the rear while the fronts went without. This is a genuine irony given all the allegations by the Stalinists that weaponry was being hoarded in the rearguard by the revolutionaries. Competitive political interests at great cost dominated military planning. At the end of the war, lives continued to be wasted because hostilities were pointlessly prolonged for the sake of illusory diplomatic ends. The point here is not that victory would have been possible if these obstructions had been removed. The limitations of the revolution, already mentioned, would themselves have placed curbs on the military possibilities. The point is that the slogan 'First the war, then the revolution' was no innocent plea made from practical necessity. Instead, it was the most vital ideological weapon that the republican state and its restorers, including the 'leadership' of the CNT/FAI, possessed. Probably the most important element in the argument it represented was that of foreign policy.

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Britain and France, it held, would not supply arms or assist Spain diplomatically if there was any talk of revolution. However, the 'non-intervention' of the West soon showed itself to be a means of doing nothing to aid Spain, while allowing Germany and Italy relatively undisrupted intervention. Moreover, wisdom on this score was soon beside the point, for it was Stalin who the Spanish were reassuring by placating the international bourgeoisie, once Russian aid began to flow in September 1936. Stalin was out to suppress any true, autonomous revolution, and wanted to use Spain to achieve a western anti-fascist commitment. A counter-revolutionary policy served both these desires, and it was imposed both through the lever of aid and by Communist Party and secret police terrorism. Though the revolutionaries at least should have understood that the West was more anti-Russian than anti-fascist, the 'foreign policy' argument against revolution continued to be used even after Stalin started laying the basis for the Nazi-Soviet Pact and let aid to Spain drop.

For the sake of this deluded hope (which became an excuse for counter-revolution), real opportunities were lost, and the revolutionary gains for which the people fought so hard and sacrificed so much were reviled, eroded and subject to repression. The Italian anarchist Camillo Berneri wrote the following to Federica Montseny shortly before his murder during the Stalinist police terror of the May Days of 1937: 'The war in Spain, thus stripped of all new faith, of all ideas of social change, of all revolutionary greatness, of all universal meaning, is no more than a common war of national independence, which must be carried out to avoid the extermination which the world plutocracy has in mind. There remains the terrible question of life or death, but it is no longer a war to assure a new regime and a new humanity...' He added: 'The dilemma: war or revolution no longer has any meeting. The only dilemma is this one: either victory over Franco thanks to the revolutionary war, or defeat'.

The author wishes to thank Mark Hendy, Chris Ealham and Greg George for their invaluable input and comments during the drafting of this work.

Chapter 1 July 1936

Chapter 2 August 1936

Chapter 3 September 1936

Chapter 4 October 1936

Taken from the Meltzer Press site with permission of the author

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