Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain

1. The Birth of The Republic – 1931

“Glorious, bloodless, peaceful, harmonious” was the revolution of April 14, 1931. Two days before, the people had voted for the republican-socialist coalition in the countrywide municipal elections; this was enough to finish off Alfonso. The Spanish Republic came so easily… Its advent, however, was almost the only bloodless event connected with the revolution before or since 1931.

For over a century Spain had been attempting to give birth to a new regime. But the paralysis of centuries of senile decay from the days of empire had doomed every attempt. All the more bloody, therefore, was the history of failure and its punishment. Four major revolutions before 1875, followed by four white terrors, were merely crescendoes in an almost continuous tune of peasant revolts and army mutinies, civil wars, regionalist uprisings, army pronunciamentos, conspiracies and counter-plots of court camarillas.

Nor did the modern bourgeoisie, when it belatedly appeared on the scene, proceed to preparing the bourgeois revolution. Modern industry and transportation dates from the Spanish-American War, which brought a new ferment to Spain. The years 1898-1914 are called the “national renascence” (it was also the Indian summer of world capitalism). But the Spanish and Catalonian industrialists who flourished in those two decades vied with the most ancient landowning families in their loyalty to the monarchy. Some – like Count Romanones – were ennobled, purchased great tracts of land and combined in their own persons the old and the new economies; others cemented the bonds between the two by mortgages and intermarriages with the landed aristocracy. The King preserved the trappings of feudalism; but he was scarcely averse to associating with the bourgeoisie in their most dubious economic ventures. Seeking new fields for exploitation, the bourgeoisie secured from Alfonso the conquest of Morocco, begun in 1912. Alfonso’s profitable neutrality during the World War endeared him to the bourgeoisie, who for four years found the world market open to their wares.

When that market was taken back by the imperialists after the war, and the Catalonian and Spanish proletariat launched great struggles, and when the workers’ and peasants’ respect for the regime had been dissolved by the disasters to the army in Morocco, the Catalan industrialists financed Primo de Rivera’s coup. The dictator’s programme of public works and insurmountable tariff walls, suppression of the anarcho-syndicalists and compulsory arbitration boards for the socialist unions, gave industry a new impetus and to Rivera and Alfonso the most fervent adulation of the bourgeoisie. The world crisis put an end to Spanish prosperity and Rivera fell with the peseta in January 1930. But the bourgeoisie in the main still clung to Alfonso. Indeed, as late as September 28, 1930, and at a mass meeting protesting the government’s course, Alcala Zamora, who was to head the republic, could still end his speech with a paean of praise to the crown.

Meanwhile, in May 1930, the students and workers of Madrid had hoisted red and republican flags, and engaged the police in rifle fire; in September the socialists and the U.G.T. made a pact with the republican groups to finish with the monarchy; revolutionary general strikes followed in Seville, Madrid, Bilbao, Barcelona, Valencia, etc., involving fatal encounters with the armed forces in every instance. A rising of the workers to coincide with a republican mutiny in the army was frustrated when the soldiers’ revolt of December 12 was precipitated before the time planned; but the executions of the soldier-leaders inspired a manifesto signed by republican and socialist leaders announcing their object to be the immediate introduction of the republic. The signatories were put in the Model Prison of Madrid – and it became the centre of Spanish political life. Premier Berenguer’s desperate attempt to provide a Cortes on the old model as a support for Alfonso was defeated by the republican-socialist declaration of a boycott; Berenguer resigned. The municipal elections demonstrated that the masses were for a republic.

It was only at this last moment that the industrialists, frightened by the general strikes, by arming of the workers openly going on, and by the socialist threat of a national general strike, decided the monarchy was a cheap sacrifice to the wolves of the revolution. Then, and only then, when Alfonso himself was agreeing that to fight was futile, did the bourgeoisie also agree to the republic.

The spirit of the new republic is characterised by the fact that the oldest and largest of the republican parties did nothing to bring it into being, and was soon to ally itself with the monarchists. This was the Radical Party of Lerroux. Three decades of Spanish parliamentarism are filled with charges of bribery, blackmailing, cheating and trickery against this party. The Radical demagogues had served the monarchy in the struggle against Catalonian nationalism. The thievery and blackmail for which their French namesakes (now leading the Front Populaire) are so notorious, pale by comparison with the bold campaigns which the Spanish Radicals conducted against individual industrialists and bankers and which came to a sudden end in each case when the expected fat envelope had been quietly delivered. Within the Radical Party the normal method of polemic was mutual accusations of corruption and blackmailing. Because of its extremely filthy history, and despite the fact that it was the oldest and largest bourgeois republican party, there was the strongest opposition to its participation in the first republican government. This opposition came even from those Catholics, like Zamora, who at first seriously wanted the republic and who, having been a Minister under the monarchy, knew best for what class of services Alfonso had used the Radicals.

Despite a great following among the bourgeoisie as the most conservative republican party, Lerroux’s Radicals provided no political leadership. They occupied themselves in scrambling for lucrative posts. However, the horror shared by other republicans and socialists, that any touch of scandal should reach the new republic, was a terribly constraining influence on the Radicals. They were happier when they left the government shortly and allied themselves with Gil Robles’ clericals – the Radicals, whose chief stock in trade had been anti-clericalism!

The other republican parties, except for the Catalan Left which had peasants in its ranks, were mere makeshifts created for the April elections and had little mass support, for the lower middle class of Spain is tiny and impotent.

The only real support for the republic, therefore, came from the socialist and trade union proletariat. That very fact, however, signified that the republic could be only a transition to a struggle for power between fascist-monarchist reaction and socialism. There was no room, at this late stage, for the democratic republic in Spain.

Unfortunately, however, the socialist leadership did not prepare for the struggle. Instead, it shared the petty-bourgeois outlook of the Azañas.

That outlook was avowedly modelled on the French Revolution of 1789. Spain was presumed to have before it a long course of peaceful development in which the tasks of the bourgeois revolution would be carried out by an alliance between the republicans and the workers. After that – decades after 1931 – the republic would be changed into a socialist republic. But that was a long way off! thought the socialist leaders, Prieto, Caballero, de los Rios, Besteiros, del Vayo, Araquistain, who had grown to middle age, at the least, under the almost Asiatic regime of the monarchy. Madrid, chief socialist stronghold, was still much the city of crafts that it had been in the nineties; its socialism was a compound of the provincial reformism of the founder, Pablo Iglesias, and the German Social-Democracy of the worst, the post-war period.

The other major current in the Spanish proletariat, anarcho-syndicalism, commanding in the C.N.T. about half the strength of the socialist U.G.T. unions, dominated the modern industrial city of Barcelona but had changed little since its origin in the Cordoba Congress of 1872. Hopelessly anti-political, it played no role in bringing the Republic; then swung in the honeymoon days to a position of passive support, which changed to wild putschism as soon as the rosy haze disappeared. Spain would not find its ideological leadership here. Five years of revolution were needed before anarcho-syndicalism would begin to break with its doctrinaire refusal to enter the political field and fight for a workers’ state.

The making of the Soviet Union and its achievements – a peasant country like Spain – were extraordinarily popular in Spain. But the Bolshevik methodology of the Russian Revolution was almost unknown. The theoretical backwardness of Spanish socialism had produced only a small wing for Bolshevism in 1918. What progress it had made by 1930 was cut off by the Comintern’s expulsion of practically the whole party for Trotskyist, “Right” and other heresies. Despite the vast backing of the Comintern, the official Communist Party in the ensuing period played no role whatever. In March 1932, the Comintern discovered new heresy and wiped out the entire leadership again. Following their “third period” (1929-1934) ideology, the Stalinists denounced united fronts with anarchist or socialist organisations, which they dubbed twins of the fascists; built empty “Red unions” against the C.N.T. and U.G.T.; made empty boasts that they were building peasant Soviets, at a time when they had no following among the proletariat, which must lead such soviets; propagandised for the “intermediary democratic workers and peasants revolution” – a concept repudiated by Lenin in 1917 – as distinct from the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions, thereby hopelessly confusing the task of the struggle for the masses with the subsequent struggle for power. The Stalinists dropped this “third period” hodgepodge in 1935 – only to pick up the discredited “People’s Front” policy of coalitions with the bourgeoisie. First, and last, they played a thoroughly reactionary role.

The real Bolshevik tradition was consistently represented in Spain only by the small group, the Communist Left, adhering to the international “Trotskyist” movement. Trotsky himself wrote two great pamphlets, The Revolution in Spain several months before the actual arrival of the republic, and The Spanish Revolution in Danger shortly afterward, and many articles as events unfolded. No one can understand the dynamics of the Spanish revolution without reading Trotsky’s prophetic analyses. On every basic question events have vindicated his writings. To the pseudo-Jacobin doctrines of official socialism he counterposed a Marxist-Leninist proof, rich in concrete grasp of Spanish conditions, of the impossibility of the bourgeois republic undertaking the democratic tasks of the revolution. To the pseudo-leftist nonsense of the Stalinists, he counterposed the specific programme by which a revolutionary party could win the Spanish masses and carry them to a victorious revolution.

But the Communist Left was a tiny handful and not a party. Parties are not built overnight, not even in a revolutionary situation. A group is not a party. The Communist Left, unfortunately, failed to understand this, and did not follow Trotsky in his estimation of the profound significance of the leftward development in the socialist ranks after events confirmed Trotsky’s predictions. This “leftism” was followed by an opportunist line leading to signing the Popular Front programme. It was only after the present civil war broke out that the former Trotskyists (now in the P.O.U.M.) again turned toward a Bolshevik policy.

Thus, the proletariat was without the leadership to prepare it for its great tasks, when the republic arrived. It was to pay dearly for this lack!

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.