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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 51, New Delhi, December 4, 2021

The Spanish revolution - 1936-39, the anti-fascist struggle and India today | Saurobijay Sarkar

Friday 3 December 2021


by Saurobijay Sarkar *

“Neither Fascism nor Liberalism: Sovietism!” These words are uttered by Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist and a revolutionary in 1924, when fascist movement in Italy led by Mussolini was reaching its peak. Gramsci took lessons from the Russian revolution and the working class struggle in Italy in 1920s, where factory occupation started in city and land occupation started in villages and subsequently it retreated, thanks to the leadership of reformist socialist leadership. Gramsci is writing in such a moment, where post-revolutionary momentum in Italy gets pacified a bit. Further quoting from his writing

“In the political crisis of the liquidation of fascism the opposition bloc increasingly appears to be a factor of a secondary order. Its heterogeneous social composition, its hesitations, and its aversion for a struggle of the popular masses against the Fascist regime reduce its actions to a journalistic campaign and parliamentary intrigues, which impotently run up against the armed militia of the Fascist party.”

Gramsci echoed the fundamental tenets of Marxism, although the rise of fascism in Italy represented a new era, a new danger for the entire oppressed people and humanity. Even if the correct slogan has been given at that point like ‘Down with the government of assassins! Dissolution of the Fascist militia!, Gramsci and the Italian Communist party at that point did not think of replacing it with a bourgeois-democratic regime, rather stressed on the independent struggle of working-class, peasants. The objective of current writing is not to give a detailed description of Italian events, rather we will shift our focus to the incidents in Spain especially in 1936-39, where a bloody civil war started against fascist Franco and fascist militia, but there was ongoing revolutionary process also, where working-class started factory occupations and farmers occupying large estates, which were finally crushed.

The Spanish revolution and the anti-fascist struggle 

Spain was a backward country compared to other advanced countries in Europe. Going backward in the years of 1900-31, there existed extreme polarization of wealth in many rural areas of Spain between the landlords and the landless laborers and peasants. This was particularly so in Southern Spain where the agricultural system consisted of huge estates, called latifundia, which were owned by a few wealthy landlords and worked by laborers hired by the day. Most rural unrest took place in southern Spain where rural hardships were most severe. Left-wing unions, which organized strikes and demonstrations. Particularly popular was the socialist union, the Union General de Trabajadores (UGT), and the anarcho-syndicalist Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo(CNT), the latter of which, by 1918, had over 700,000 members and by 1930s crossed 1 lakh membership.

The percentage of the workforce employed in industry increased in the early twentieth century, from 21.9 per cent in 1923, to 25.6 per cent in 1930. Urban centers grew as a consequence, with over a million people migrating to the cities namely Madrid, Barcelona, Catalonia etc. in this period.

Industrial workers were frequently housed in inner-city slums where rents were high and living conditions overcrowded and insanitary. There was no social legislation, so there was no minimum wage, no maximum working hours or protection from dangerous working conditions. The concentration of dissatisfied workers in Spain’s cities led to the growth of trade unionsand strikes. For the more privileged, the increase in unrest was frequently seen as evidence of the growing threat of social revolution following the successful Bolshevik Revolutionin Russia. Against this backdrop of economic, social discrimination, aspiration of revolutionary change in state and society was increasing among masses and as a result membership of left parties was swallowing. The most prominent left party in beginning of 1930 was Spanish Socialist workers Party (PSOE), a party influenced by Marxism, but leadership started moving in reformist direction, was a working class oriented party and connected with central trade union UGT in urban and rural areas. Influenced by militant mass movement, a left wing started to emerge within the party. The party and UGT took leading role in organizing several strikes in Spain. The communist party (PCE) was formed in 1921 by a split within PSOE, where members disillusioned by the reformist policy of PSOE leadership, influenced by the Russian revolution formed by the communist party. Both PSOE and PCE although played an active role in organizing workers and peasants struggle, the majority of their leadership believed that Spain, being a backward country, was not ripe for a socialist revolution, where by overthrowing feudalism and weak capitalism, a workers, peasants rule can be established, rather it needs to go through a two-stage revolution. AS opposed to this idea, there were anarchists, who were organized mainly under centralized trade union (CNT) and a party of smaller size but important and growing, which was POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification), which once was influenced by one of the leaders of the Russian revolution-Leon Trotsky.

Among the right wings the most prominent was Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rights’, CEDA, which although participate in elections, was more oriented to organize fascist type rallies propagating idea of unified Spain defined itself in terms of the ’affirmation and defense of the principles of Christian civilization. Funded and supported heavily by monarchists, landowners, industrialists, church, this party appears to be the real representative of Spanish ruling class, landlords and few industrialists, monarchists, who prefer to rule country by authoritarian dictatorship. There are parties like Radical Republican party, relatively moderate rights, but have its contradictions with left and the far right. Spain which had history of militant mass struggle of workers and peasants, saw the dictatorial government formed by coup as well, when Primo de Rivera, by support of army, organized a coup and took control and ruled for seven years starting in 1923. The subsequent periods saw change of government in elections, but fundamental problem of society remains same — on one side struggling, impoverished workers, peasants and oppressed mass and on the other hand monarchists, landowners, monarchists. In 1931 election, the election saw, on one hand, the huge number of seats of the Socialist party, being the largest party due to its involvement in the workers and peasants struggle and one other side the prominence of republicans a coalition, popularly termed as republican left, who are against the dictatorship and the election subsequently ousted monarchy from power. The republican government formed by the socialists and the republican left introduced series of reforms related to abolition of monarchy, moderate agrarian reform, granting autonomy to Catalonia etc. However these were not sufficient to fulfil demands of the mass, who from their experience understood the rottenness of the system, expect bolder measures. But Spanish ruling class, themselves plagued by the crisis could not tolerate further revolt. The republican government, although pursued some reforms, took harsh measures to suppress resent. The communist party at that period took ultra-left stand in so called third period, where it dubbed social democrats as social fascists and refused any type of united struggle with the socialists and as a result remained minuscule. The Anarchists organized through CNT and POUM, recently formed did not join the government. What should be the attitude of the revolutionary left towards this type of government? The same as Bolsheviks show, expose the rotten ness of the system and not joining such government, who can pursue some reforms, but ultimately bow down to the ruling class, and patiently explain to workers, peasants to prepare for tomorrows revolution. What should be the nature of the revolution? In backward country and especially in the context of dictatorship the nature will be primary democratic, however as the revolutionary process will move forward, working mass will understand the limitations of sole democratic revolution, and by the dialectical relationship of revolutionary mass and the proletarian party the revolution will move forward to expropriate landowners and industrialists to start the socialist revolution. This started in Russia, and the process started in Spain as well. Here an important point is the objective condition and revolutionary consciousness of mass. An argument can be put forward that under certain conditions especially in colonial and semi-colonial countries, but in others in wake of fascist dictatorship, this type of government cannot be ruled out, but even if so only for a transition period to organize mass and not to rule over on them, however entering into liberal right-wing government and holding ministerial portfolio had its own risks and that exactly happened in Spain. The extreme right-wing who also talked against the unstable system to gather masses behind it like Hitler and any fascists do, became stronger and due the growing anger of the mass and failure of the left to channelize it, one reason majority was involved in governmental reform, which was insufficient and the disunity among various leftist. In 1933 republic was captured by extreme right-wing through electoral process. The new government ruled for two years in what became known as the black years, because they embarked on systematically reversing the Left Republic’s reforms. Church control was restored over education and the clergy were again to be paid by the state. Azaña’s key economic reform — the land program — was halted. The increasing attack on impoverished mass further awakened them. Spanish proletariat, numerically small and huge section of peasantry, already witnessed several elections, now started moving against the system. In 1934, a major strike is called by Asturian miners’ and lasted two weeks in the month of October. Which eventually turned into uprising in Asturias, Catalonia. The strike and the situation in general strengthened left wing inside the Socialist Party and UGT — left wing, Anarchist controlled CNT-FAI, now the Communist party and the POUM supported the strike and justified the rebellion. The Spanish ruling class got terrified and the army entered into arena in suppressing the rebellion. The Spanish ruling class started leaning heavily towards extreme right and right-wing leader and a military man entered into the arena, who started thinking Moscow and the Soviet uprising was behind this uprising, which is not actually the case, but from this period fascists started to change their strategy towards a right-wing military uprising inspired by Mussolini and Hitler. Although uprising was spontaneous and to some extent influenced by Anarchist union, this can be termed as premature and the role of the all communist groupings should be what was Rosa Luxemberg’s position in 1919 German uprising, which she later phase termed premature but eventually murdered by the German state, along with her comrades. Several thousand people died in uprising and by later suppression. As a result of the uprising, several strikes and in general dissent against the system and government, the 1936 saw again a change of government, primarily a reaction against the fascist dictatorship and against landowners, industrialists, control of church etc.

This period is very interesting period in history. The rise of Hitler is reaching its peak. Threatened by fascist uprising, by which world’s first workers state Soviet Union presence was mostly threatened, the third international, mostly controlled by Soviet Union, adopted a policy of Popular front, which found theoretical expression in the report of Georgi Dimitrov to the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in August 1935, which outlined

“Now the toiling masses in a number of capitalist countries are faced with the necessity of making a definite choice, and of making it today, not between proletarian dictatorship and bourgeois democracy, but between bourgeois democracy and Fascism."
[ . . . ]
“To defend bourgeois democracy, the proletariat must aim to ally with all other social groups threatened by fascism, including the "anti-fascist" sections of the bourgeoisie in a vast ‘People’s Front’.”

It is true that military rise of fascism threatens the other side of imperialist camp, namely Britain, America primarily because of the war to capture colony and there were divisions in the capitalist camps in country like France. But in country like Spain a country of weak capitalism, threatened with the workers uprising, big industrialists, landowners mostly sided with Franco. What remained is shadow of capitalism, which was represented by republicans. The turbulent situation in the world has given in rise of class struggle and in Spain this was a pre-revolutionary situation. Dimitrov thesis, primarily aimed to protect Soviet Union by forging an alliance with liberal right wing parties in several countries and a diplomatic-military- political alliance with the other sides of imperialist camp, which was termed as progressive. This has undermined the rise of class struggle and there was no guidelines from the Third international regarding the role of the communist parties in the colony of British, America like India and in the countries like Spain, where uprising by workers — peasants is reaching peak to overthrow the rotten system. Coupled with this, the theory of Stalin and other like-minded communist leaders ‘The countries like Spain was not ripe for a proletarian revolution’ acted as a catalyst.

The Spanish communist party, although under pressure of revolutionary mass, supported Asuturius uprising, now under the danger of fascist military uprising, aligned with the Socialist party right wing to form a popular front with the republicans and in 1936 election this front won the election by narrow margin. The victory was primarily the reaction of a huge section of Spanish mass to resolve their problems and to continue the revolutionary process and also against fascist-military uprising, the military whom they hated because of their bloody past. But on the other side, there was still considerable support behind Spain’s extreme right-wing. All of these parties entered into popular front government, not merely as a transitional step to save Spain from Fascism, but rather to uphold the flags of bourgeoisie democracy and a semi plural authoritarian dictatorship of the Spanish ruling class.

Still, the front is seen as left-wing danger from the Fascist camp worldwide, and they started plotting a coup and civil war inside Spain to overthrow the liberal regime and Franco and Spanish fascists started getting help from Hitler, Mussolini. On the other hand workers peasants also started looking for alternatives — uprising started in several places mostly under the CNT-FAI influence and in some areas left-wing UGT and few places under the POUM influence. The anarchists and POUM — a party that was formed between dissident communists and syndicalist groupings, under initial influence of Leo Trotsky, criticized the popular front theory and started taking part and leadership and uprisings. Those were the uprising not exactly directed against popular front government, this was the ongoing struggle against the exploitative system and also directed against the fascist danger. The most notable was uprising in Barcelona, where POUM has strong influence and Catalonia under leadership of CNT. In brief the Spanish Revolution began during the outbreak of the Spanish revolution in 1936 and resulted in the widespread implementation of anarchist and more broadly libertarian socialist organizational principles throughout various portions of the country for two to three years, primarily Catalonia, Aragaon, Andalusia, and parts of the valancian community. Much of the economy of Spain was put under worker control; in anarchist strongholds like Catalonia the figure was as high as 75%. Factories were run through worker committees, and agrarian areas became collectivized and run as libertarian socialist communes. The left-wing socialist, Anarchists and the POUM were active and leading in several processes, while communist party and right-wing socialists thanks to their presence in the government, remained passive or opposed it. The ideology of Third international was ‘First win the war, then revolution’. Following this passivity and the tendency to sideline and slander the opponents, PCE at initial stage still remained minority — the membership was 40000, while the POUM membership surpassed them. The uprisings and the alternative soviet type power structure which was getting formed, was finally crushed by end of 1937 by the popular front government where left had considerable portfolios.

In February 1917, Lenin and Bolsheviks gave slogan ‘Down with the provisional government. All power to the Soviets’. In Spain the situation was a bit more extraordinary. The fascist upsurge threatened internationally and the presence of Soviet Union. Fascism was more spreading internationally unlike Gramsci’s time in Italy. However continuing the alternate organs of power and spreading it, could organize workers and peasants into organized armed militia and could provide further resistance to fascist uprising. The crushing of the uprisings and killing several anarchist and Poumists further demoralized revolutionary process. The fear of the communist party and the reformist socialist party was that through the process of working class revolution, Spanish middle class, a section of which was drawn into support of Spanish popular front, would be alienated as well as international diplomatic relations would be hampered with respect to the struggle against fascism. It is true that the struggle against fascism is not only the struggle by working class and poor peasants, it is the struggle to save the entire humanity. A broad layer of mass could be organized under slogan of democracy, which can be immediate slogan and through the revolutionary process and uprising this can be further converted towards the struggle of socialist revolution. The incidents of uprisings were all documented in George Orwells’ ‘A Homage to Catalonia’ and film maker Ken Loach’s ‘Land and Freedom’. Orwell who served in Lenin Brigade and fought fascism, later turned into anti-Soviet personality.
Although election victory in 1936 prevents far right to win the election, the crushing of workers — peasants uprising and disarming them, differences among several groups and some differences within popular front further gave space to fascist militia. When Spanish nationalists-fascists invaded Madrid, they faced little resistance from the government, which was initially very passive like the ‘progressive’ imperialist bourgeoisie camp internationally. Soviet union, which initially did not anticipate so much danger, later started giving arms to Spain republican government and took initiative of forming international brigade in support of the Spanish civil war, that started in July of 1936, initiated by Franco led Fascist forces who started taking active help from Germany, Italy, Portugal regarding monetary help, arms and people long before. Hence 1936-37 was both a scenario of Spanish civil war and an ongoing revolutionary process of workers and peasants for alternative power structure. Among the Non Soviet Camp, only America and Mexico supplied arms to popular front government. France popular front government, although initially eager to help, later became passive towards Spanish republican government, in the fear of the working class revolution. Aided by Soviet arms and by the heroic struggle, the communist party members and leaders fought a heroic struggle, along with Socialist party, anarchists and remaining POUM and their membership grew by leaps and bounds. At later stage by social pressure POUM and Anarchist leaders joined the government and there were disagreements also between anarchist rank and file and its leaders. The nationalist camp of Spain, although initially divided, later got united and in spite of heroic struggle of the international brigade, the fascists won in Spain in the year 1939, through bloody battle and Franco ruled until 1975. Writing in relative comfortable situation today is easy, still to analyze the reason of fascist victory in Spain it appears strong military aid, the swing of Spanish military, whose one section initially sides with republican government , strongly went in favor of Franco, the passivity of popular front government and the delay in Soviet Union, although later it is the only country who strongly supported republican government in Spain, crushing of other lefts and workers peasants uprising led to Fascist victory in Spain. Although lost, the struggle of the international brigade and leftist struggle in the civil war, which cited total 500000 loss of lives totaling loss of both sides earned respect worldwide. Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean Poet, expressed his active support and emotion in his book ‘Spain in our hearts, 1938’. The slogan ‘No passaran’ means they will not pass, used by a Spanish communist in the Spanish civil war, became internationally popular. Today when standing in 2021, in the important month of November, when in the year of 1917, same month the Russian revolution became victorious and this year is 150 years of the Paris Commune, the humble writing not only gives tribute to several anti-fascist fighters including socialist, communists , dissident communists , anarchists, who got martyred , but also focuses on the uprisings of workers, peasants, which if whole heartedly supported by the so called ‘vanguards’, could spread and move forward towards creating an alternative society. The question towards workers autonomy, the dialectical relationship between revolutionary mass and the party or parties remained vital even under exceptionally difficult situation, a situation to some extent different as compared to Marx or Lenin’s time.

India today

In India, although the party at the center, BJP, inspired by the fascist ideology of RSS showed its fascist nature by crushing all democratic resistance through notorious UAPA etc. and police, administration, but partially successful in creating a support towards aggressive Hinduism. Although nowhere similar to military condition in 2nd world war and Spain, it organized social counter-revolution towards destruction of Babri masjid and post Godhra Massacre by highlighting minorities an artificial enemy. The absence of strong workers, peasant’s movement (Acknowledging the recent farmers movement against farm laws, although) endanger the prolongment of parliamentary process and bourgeoisie democratic regime, and this scenario is distinctly different from Russia in 1905-17 or Spain 1930s. In this long-lasting parliamentary process and bourgeois regime, the tactics of the left will vary. Although primary force to defeat fascism is through left consolidation basing themselves on the struggle of workers, peasants, students, youth, there is need to consolidate with other center forces and democratic individuals and in some cases forces also to popularize ‘Defeat BJP-RSS slogan’. But this will not undermine the struggle with other forces of the right-wing and actively struggle against those governments to form viable left alternative. With all our lessons from November revolution, Paris commune, Spanish revolution hope the long march of workers and peasants will continue to create an alternative society in distant future.

(Author: Saurobijay Sarkar is a left-minded intellectual and activist connected with IIMS (Indian Institute of Marxist Study). His writings have appeared in Bengali Magazine ’Onnoswor (Other Voice)’. He has an introductory essay to the Indian edition of Trotsky’s ’The Revolution Betrayed’, published by Aakar Books )

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