The national question was of primary importance in the process of revolution and counter-revolution in the 1930s, from which important lessons can be learned. Today, the national question of the Spanish state continues without resolution. The bourgeoisie have been historically incapable of successfully completing the task of a bourgeois-democratic revolution of national unification. On the contrary, 40 years of horrible centralism, exercised by the Francoist dictatorship, exacerbated the centralist tendencies. Upon the fall of Francoism, these tendencies became even more defined.
The "national question" was of primary importance in the process of revolution and counterrevolution in the 1930's, from which important lessons can be learned. Today, the "national question" of the Spanish state continues without resolution. The bourgeoisie have been historically incapable of successfully completing the task of a democratic-bourgeois revolution of national unification. On the contrary, 40 years of horrible centralism, exercised by the Francoist dictatorship, exacerbated the centralist tendencies. Upon the fall of Francoism, these tendencies became even more defined.
The brutal repression that Francoism exercised against the democratic rights, language and culture of historic nationalities( Euskadi, Cataluna, Galicia, etc.) has allowed the bourgeoisie of these nationalities to appear as victims of this said repression against the masses. But what role did the national question play in the 30's? What did the nationalist Basque and Catalan bourgeoisie do during the Civil War? What lessons can be gleaned from this?
The Spanish State "...a conglomerate of ill-ruled republics with a nominal sovereignty at the head."
The weakness of the Spanish bourgeoisie that is reflected today in a huge atomization of the Right, (with an important variety of regionalist parties scattered over all of Spain: Valencian Unity, Alaves Unity, Aragonian Regionalist Party, Canary Coalition, etc, together with the existence of strong nationalisms in Euskadi, Cataluna, and Galicia) has its historic origins in a peculiar growth of capitalism in the Spanish state.
Because of the parasitic nature of the oligarchy, the vast colonial riches of Spain made capitalist growth difficult because they attended to the needs of the monarchy, the Church, the military castes and the entire feudal bureocracy that maintained contact with the colonies. It did nothing less than consolidate the feudal regime. Instead of taking its ingresses out of the growth of the country's productive forces, the dominant Spanish class preferred the semifeudal exploitation of its colonies.
Thus, the economic recession produced after the loss of the colonial empire during the 17th and 18th centuries had no other effect than to enflame centralist tendencies in the entire country. The dissipation of the commercial and industrial life of the cities started a break off of internal exchanges and relations between the inhabitants of different provinces. The means of communication were left uncared for and the royal roads were abandoned. These factors had the effect of accentuating the local differences. Because of this, after the loss of the colonies, the Spanish oligarchy(predominantly agrarian) began with all possible means to continue its parasitic exploitation of the most rich, most industrial areas of the State: the Basque provinces and Cataluna. The possibility of the looting and draining of other towns was one of the causes of the economic stagnation of Spain. The gigantic profits gained from the robbing and deprivation of the colonies, far from being an advantage to creating industrial potence in the State, became on the contrary an element of backwardness. Therefore, it is certain that the initial unity in the Spanish state returned to being (as Marx defined it): "a conglomerate of ill-ruled republics with a nominal sovereignty at the head."
The Spanish bourgeoisie were incapable of leading the deprived masses against the feudal regression. The revolutionary wave that began in Spain after the French Revolution of 1789 lost the weak bourgeoisie with a change of pace. Frightened by the revolutionary eruption of the masses, the liberal bourgeoisie in the Spanish state even began to wager in favor of intervention by Napoleonic armies. Some sections of the privileged classes considered Napoleon "the providential regenerator of Spain"; others "the only possible bulwark against the revolution". The dominant classes of the era did not believe in the possibility of a national resistance and adopted a passive, collaboratory attitude with the invader. Thus the masses saw themselves, liberated from their leadership, able to renew all their initiative in order to combat the foreign invasion and the tyranny of Napoleon. It is a historic paradox that, to gain national independence, the Spanish townspeople had to fight the symbols of the French Revolution. The intervention of the masses organizing themselves into provincial Juntas is accentuated even further taking into account the local loyalties.
In any attempt of the bourgeoisie (in 1812, 1820, 1843, 1854, 1868), they were unable to accomplish their historic tasks. For fear of independent action of the masses, and because of the close ties which bound together the nobles and the landowners, they ended up each time throwing themselves into the arms of reactionism.In the Spanish state, the clash between the new bourgeois society took on the aspect of a dynastic struggle. The civil wars fought by the liberalists and Carlists in the 19th century formed part of the long fight for the impeachment of absolutism and the consolidation of a bourgeois state. These wars broke out in an intermittent fashion over a period of more than 40 years. The past Catholic unity of Spain was juxtaposed with a future capitalist unification of the national market, the traditional Catholic monarchy with a constitutional monarchy.
For the explanation of this attitude, one must look into the visceral fear the bourgeoisie felt of the masses. "Once the middle classes undertake the battle against despotism, the workers (as a result of modern organization of labor) enter the scene, and they enter intent on reclaiming their share of the fruits of victory. Frightened by the consequences of this alliance formed against their will, the middle classes retreat back under the protection of the armed forces of the hated despotism."(1) The bourgeoisie of the Spanish state opted in each revolutionary situation to closely reinstate their ties with the nobility and landowners against the masses.
Definitively, at the end of the 19th century, Spain was a prototypical country of "unequal and combined" growth (as defined by Trotsky.) A country which, having lost its colonies, saw itself "colonized" by foreign capital without having ever ceased to be a predominantly backward, agrarian State, Spain experienced a growth of flourishing modern industries on its coastal areas. Spain, rather than a country, was a series of countries and regions marked by their uneven historic growth.
The uneven combined growth meant the coexistence of very unadvanced areas(with archaic means of production and communication) with industrial areas in the vanguard of capitalist growth, with large industries that incorporated the most modern technology of the era and important concentrated groupings of workers.
The Development of the "National Question" in Euskadi and Cataluna
The growth of industry in some areas, principally Euskadi and Cataluna, increased the force of the worker class that,(by way of its growing awareness) fought against some of the bosses, who were more and more uncompromising. In a parallel situation, the particular growth and problems of the consumer goods industry in Cataluna and Euskadi pitted the respective bourgeoisie against the large property owners of Andalucia and Castilla, that dominated the political power.
While the dominant classes of Spain were sustained on a principally backward and agrarian economy, a rapid economic growth was taking place on the coasts. The increase in demand for iron ore in England around the 19th century( because of growth in the iron-steel industry,) the means of transportation, and of communication all stimulated industry in the Basque Province(the second-most industrialized region after Cataluna, and the first in the mineral-metallurgical sector).
While the increase in commercial capital meant for Spain the fortification of the dying feudal system, this did not happen with the Basque commercial capital. Inspired by the affluence of new capital(much of it generated by the Basques who immigrated to America) and by a series of factors like the constantly growing foreign presence, the opening of new markets, the discovery of new deposits of iron ore, and the conditions of its own seaboard, it was able to emerge as a perfectly defined power with a base of production, giving place to new social relations which permitted the creation of a new regime. The close contact established between the interior production and the exterior commerce gave Euskadi its powerful predominace on the peninsula, and caused the rapid transfusion from commercial capital to industry.
With the growth of capitalism in Euskadi, so grew the class awareness of the Basque bourgeoisie who, by means of their economic potential, arranged themselves at the head of society, passing over and destroying the social significance of the feudal remains still in existence. The industrial and financial bourgeoisie were displacing the hostile commercial bourgeoisie and the nationalist recoveries linked to the feudal regime and absolute monarchy.
Throughout the 19th century, the Basques' desire for independence in opposition to the central powers had not manifested itself on political terrain so much as on economic. In the Basque towns, isolationism predominated as a political theory, one that defended exemption from tributes and the draft. It was at the end of the 19th century when Sabino Arana caught up the discontent of the petite bourgeoisie and the jauntos( semi-destitute landowners) who opposed the capitalist monopolies. Arana wrote in 1895: "Bizkaia was poor and we had nothing but fields and flocks, and yet we were patriotic and happy." Nevertheless, the greater Basque bourgeoisie soon saw the potential of the PNV as a good instrument for the defense of their interests, stirring up the discontent of the masses of the petite bourgeoisie and the peasants to obtain advantages for themselves in the Central Government. The first efforts of Sabino Arana(who died in 1903) came together shortly after the formation of the PNV.
The Basque bourgeoisie embraced the nationalism that permitted them to maintain control over the masses and to gain from Madrid benificial agreements concerning fiscal material etc., at the same time partaking greedily of the benefits which accompanied their position in the State. During the First World War, the most exorbitant of the benfits: approval of the neutrality of the Spanish State, and the subsequent increase in demand , were realized by the bank in the North. The groups of families who dominated the iron, steel and mineral production, the merchant fleet, and the paper industry(the Arteches Chavarris Zubirias, the Sofas, the Basterras, the Urquijos, the Echavarrieta Ibarras, the Arestis, the Herreros, the Ussias, etc.) gilded themselves with wealth. This kind of social stratum had never before been identified , save personal exceptions, with distinctly Basque problems. Instead, it had come to occupy a chief post in Spanish capitalism in the conjunct from which they connected banks and industries, and contributed to the growth of iron and steelworks and electrical energy production.
The conflicts with the central power of the Basque bourgeoisie permitted it to divert attention and, to a certain measure attenuate the class conflicts in the territory of Euskadi. While these bourgeoisie grew rich on the war, the masses of the worker class were exploited in the industries and in the Bizkaia mines with miserable salaries and work conditions. The administration often used the different heritages of the workers to form little groups composed of Galicians, Andalucians, etc, dividing them and starting quarrels among them. From the beginning, the Basque bourgeoisie gained as many benefits from nationalism as from their collaboration with the State.
The Catalan Bourgeoisie
Collaboration with the central power was more evident in the case of the Catalan bourgeoisie. In Cataluna the nationalist forces, with Prat de la Riba prominent among them, had suceeded at the end of the century. The Catalan League sucessfully channeled this movement supported by the industrial bourgeoisie, and their sucess in the 1901 elections is evidence of this. Nevertheless, there were class interests predominating over the nationalist phraseology, which sometimes compelled them to maintain a firm collaboration with the central powers,(like the Catalan bourgeoisie's support of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship and of the monarchy)and would also lead them to believe in other movements in 1930, such as the nationalist Catalan bourgeoisie, more "leftist" with support from the petite bourgeoisie, the farmers, and even among some of the proletariat, principally of the CNT, acquiring a strong populist following and including leftist sectors in its ranks.
Just as the workers' organizations grew with force and inculcation, the nationalist Catalan bourgeoisie tried (like that of the Basques) again and again to exploit and redirect the discontent and frustration of the masses for their own benefit. The movements for autonomy in Cataluna, Euskadi, and Galicia were taking shape with definite actions. In Barcelona, Cambo in a speech on January 16, 1918 had to pose the issue of autonomy as an immediate perspective . By July the Basque Delegation, reunited in Vitoria, had already requested autonomy. Its petition was endorsed on August 10th by the Basque Council under the tree of Guernica. The Galician regionalists acted with no less intensity; in November they went to Barcelona where they celebrated Galician Week. The Catalans returned the visit with a meeting celbrating El Ferrol in January(which was suspended).
Basque and Catalan nationalism grew in a parallel fashion, under similar circumstances, and yet at the same time with different characteristics. Thus, in Cataluna the national movement was based in the industrial centers, and within these centers, in the most advanced segment of the population. Because of the attitude of the boycott of the CNT administration, many of its militants gave their support to nationalist organizations in the elections. In the Basque province it was in just these industrial centers where the issue of national liberation was not felt. Where nationalism had more enemies was among the working masses(the majority of whom were socialists) who opposed it with a fierce resistance. Its birthplace and force was in the peasant class directed by the Church. Conscious of this weakness,the Basque nationalism empowered a union(STV, Solidarity of Basque Workers) to better combat the aspirations of the proletariat by dividing its forces.
The Basque and Catalan bourgeoisie , from the beginning, used the wave of nationalism to unite for themselves in turn the same sections of society that they were exploiting and draining in connivance with the Spanish oligarchy. Neither the Basque nor the Catalan bourgeoisie had ever had the intention of becoming independent from the Spanish State, not so long as they continued to gain benefits.
Thus, as Prat de la Riba proclaimed: "The Catalans are not separatists, nor will they ever be as long as Cataluna is buried well inside of Spain...Cataluna must enlarge itself, as large as it can, and save from the latest ruin the Spanish State, reconstruct it, and direct it."
Today, we can comprehend in all its significance this historic sentence that sums up the sentiment of the Catalan oligarchy and its "support" of the Madrid government in benefit of its own class, and not in benefit of "the Catalans" as they cynically pretended to believe. The Catalan workers could not hope for anything more from the Catalan bourgeoisie than attacks to equal those of the Spanish, Basques, Galicians, etc. from their respective bourgeoisies and from all of them at the same time.
The close collaboration that we see today between the Government of the Popular Party, CIU and PNV reflects their common class interests, opposed to the working class and the majority of society.
The Reactionary Character of the Nationalist Bourgeoisie
Time and again, when the class interests of the bourgeoisie are threatened by the labor struggles of the working class(as for instance happened after the victory of the Russian Revolution in 1917 with an important explosion of strikes and insurrections in different parts of the State) the bourgeoisie throw themselves into the hands of reactionism.
The Catalan bourgeoisie supported the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, even though he later turned on them. Very few weeks transpired before the mutual pleasantries betweent the Directory of Primo de Rivera and the capitalist Catalans ceased. The military powers attacked Cataluna, beginning in September: it began with the dismissal of the Commonwealth president, the naming of a monarch, the banning of the Catalan flag and language of the official corporations, and ended with the dissolution of the Commonwealth in May, 1924. But nonetheless, again in1930, the oligarchy(both Catalan and Basque) pandered to the throne, fearful of revolutionary outbreaks. For the time, the League had incorporated itself with the dominant oligarchy of the Spanish State, unlike the northern bourgeoisie who, save one exception, preferred that others should govern so that their own hands would be free for business.
The Basque oligarchy did not participate in the governments of the dictatorship but they were nevertheless one of its chief benficiaries. They never denied support to the monarchy, but neither did they want to compromise themselves in the last moments by defending it. The near majority of the family groups who held the controls of the national economy, the titles of wealth, and the sources of the most abundant imports were to the last day with the monarchy of Alfonso XIII. Nevertheless, they had no qualm about proclaiming themselves republicans if it would allow them to keep their properties and benefits.
The Catalan bourgeoisie had to pay a price. The Regionalist League split as a consequence of its collaboration with the Governments of Madrid. The Catalan nationalist groups, reunited in Barcelona under the presidency of Macia, founded the Republican Esquerra of Cataluna that unified the radicalized nationalist petite bourgeoisie.
Here we must single out a dialectic contradiction that will allow us to better understand the events which took place during the 30's, which is that while the class interests of all the Spanish bourgeoisie(meaning Spanish, Basque and Catalan) against the masses were the same, they represent the interests of exploiters against exploited. Nonetheless, in the fight for a share of the national pie, fiscal affairs, budgets, exemptions, obligations, external commerce, administrative apparatus, etc all had conflicted interests. All of them could not have the biggest piece, and so continued the fights and alliances in the midst of the pressures they received from "beneath".
The National Question Under the Republican-Socialist Coalition
The revolution raised, with more force than ever, all the questions, and among those, all the issues of nationalities. In the decade of the 30's, the Basque nationalists affirmed that, with 5% of the total population of Spain, they produced 24% of the financial capital, 42% of bank deposits, 33% of all personal savings, 78 and 74 % respectively of all iron and steel production, and 71% of the paper and naval industry.On its part, Cataluna, with 12% of the total population, produced 34% of all personal savings, 31% of all the electricity, 19.5% of financial capital, and 28% of industrial capital. These statistics give one an idea of the chasm which separated the economic growth between both nationalities and the rest of the country., and thus the importance of the national issue in the post-revolutionary period in the fight against Franco.
These numbers do not show the conditions of extreme hardship in which the masses of the working and peasant class(both Basque and Catalan) lived. In addition, they suffered as the rest of Spain did, from the increasingly bad effects of the economic standstill and crisis, which after the crash of 1929 affected the Spanish State and principally these economies(like the Basque and Catalan) that most depended on external commerce.
Catalan nationalism had grown under the oppression of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship. As a result, a day before the proclamation of the Republic in Madrid, the Catalans had already occupied the government buildings and proclaimed an independent Catalan Republic.
As one can judge from the text of the Bando of the proclamation of the Catalan Republic, the issue which most preoccupied the Catalan bourgeoisie was(in response to the growing strike movement of the working class) to be able to maintain power in their own hands in raising the flag of Catalan nationalism. El Bando, published April 14, 1931 and signed by Francesco Macia, declares :"Catalans, echoing the sentiment of the town spokesmen and the yearnings of the people who have just gained their suffrage, I proclaim the Catalan Republic as an integral state of the Iberian Federation. We ask that every Catalan and every resident of Cataluna take charge of the enormous responsibility that rests on us at this moment. Furthermore, anyone who disrupts the order of this newborn Republic will be considered a hostile agent and a traitor to the country." Logically, this untouchable sacred order was that of the bourgeoisie themselves, and the intended recipients of this message were the masses, pricipally cenetistas, who filled the Catalan prisons.
A commission of the republican and "socialist" leaders descended on Barcelona, which combined promises of a statute of autonomy with extreme threats of repression. The final arrangement gave Cataluna a very restricted autonomy, that left the Catalan politicians aggrieved, made so that they could use it advantageously to maintain social support.
The Statute of Catalan Autonomy was submitted to a plebiscite on Aug. 2, 1931, and approved by 99% of voters and 75% of the electoral vote. In Barcelona, where 370,000 out of 1 million inhabitants were not even Catalan, only 3000 votes were registered against it, which proves how even an important part of the CNT base participated in the said illusions. Josep Costa, a textile worker who had been a cenetista all his life, sympathized with the concept of Catalan autonomy: "I was not the only one. In Cataluna many sectors of the CNT were more or less Catalanists." The new Statute recognized Catalan as the official language alongside Castilian, and gave the Generalitat competencies in teaching, police intern services, railroad, maritime and highway transportation, public works, justice, and certain aspects of tax collection.
The situation of the masses, increasingly more defined as a result of the crisis, continued to deteriorate. When the Statute was conceded to Cataluna in September, 1932, Costa, the cenetista worker, was startled. But he soon realized that, although Cataluna now had its own government, economic interests continued as before: "My boss was a Catalanist. He still went on harrassing me and the other workers just as before. I understood that I had to decide clearly where my real interests were....and at that moment there were very few doubts..." The Basque workers and peasants, however, could not share in this experience.
The national question in Basque provinces in 1931 had even more serious consequences: the nationalist movement was controlled by the clericals and conservatives, and became a bloc of the most reactionary officials in the Constituent Courts.
For the Basque bourgeoisie, "in May 1931, autonomy signified the defense of Catholicism, social order, and exclusionist traditions." A little later the Basque Statute was presented on the 14th of June. In Estella, the representatives of 480 Basque municipalities(out of a total of 520), including Navarra, approved a project of a General Basque State Statute that "would be autonomous within the totality of the Spanish State" but which would reserve the function of relations between the Church and State.
In the general Constituent Court elections on June 28th of the same year, the PNV announced itself in alliance with the Carlists with the objective of "stopping the worker movement and the possibility of a revolution." They got 15 of the 24 electoral votes of the 4 Basque provinces(7 nationalist, 5 Carlist and 3 Independent Catholic).
In those moments, under the pretext that the Basque nationalist movement was reactionary, the republican-socialist coalition retracted the solution of this issue. Refusing to approve the statute of autonomy, and , threatened by the growth of the worker movement,it granted the Basque clericals a new influence among the masses.
The 9th of December marked the rupture between the PNV and the Carlists, who were shifting Right to fascist positions initiating armament with the aid of Mussolini. The Spanish Right reacted by taking up arms on account of Catalan autonomy. The monarchic-militaristic rebellion of Sanjurgo, that took place in Sevilla in August of 1932, was an attempt to restore the monarchy and keep the Bill of the Catalan Statute from being approved in the Courts. 4 months before, Calvo Sotelo, monarchic leader, had corrected the bill of "instigation of soverignty and theft of patrimony". The Basque oligarchy pressured the PNV to support the Sanjurgo Coup. Many Basque names such as Urquijo and Zubiria were among those entreated, in addition to March, Goicoechea and Jose Felix of Lequerica who acted as the chief political agent of the Bilbao industrialists and the Vizcaya Bank(connected with the Jesuits). The Sevillian worker class did away with the mess using revolutionary methods.
In June 1932 a new bill for a Basque Statute was presented with the support of the PSOE. The Carlists were opposed and the Statute was rejected in Navarra by 123 municipalities against 104.
April 22, 1933 produced the first municipal republican elections. The PNV and ANV(a "leftist" split of the PNV) got two-thirds of the votes. The republican-socialist coalition lost popular support "precisely from the right-wing policy of the leftist regime" stated Prieto.
On November 5, 1933, the statute of autonomy was approved by 411,756 votes against 14,196 with 87% participation, the highest in history. Nonetheless, the tensions between the different Basque provinces were reflected in the results of the province of Alava in which 42% did not vote and there were 11.9% of votes opposed. On the 22nd of December, 57 municipal governments out of 77 existing in Alava pronounced themselves against the autonomy project. In a parallel fashion the political situation was deteriorating by the minute in the entire State. While the Left lost ground as a result of frustration with the policy of the republican-socialist Government, the Right(also in Euskadi) gained positions. In the November 1933 elections, the PNV got 12 out of 24 electoral votes, principally in Guipuzcoa and Vizcaya, the Carlists and their allies got 10 votes, and the Left 2 in Bilbao.
During the first years of the Republic, with a socialist program which combined the class assertions with the defense of democratic-national rights, the right of self-determination, and the most permissive autonomy with the end of uniting the worker class of all the State in a fight for an Iberian Socialist Federation, the socialists would have won over to their ranks those sections of the masses influenced by the wave of bourgeois nationalism. Instead, they opted for an alliance with the bourgeois republicans, refusing to approve the Statute of autonomy, which was cleverly used by the PNV to maintian its influence.
The Reaction, the Black Biennium and the Bourgeois Nationalists
The victory of the CEDA of Gil Robles meant agrarian counterreform, an increase of power for the businessmen, and an attack on the autonomist rights of the historic nationalities.
In its shifts of this era we can clearly note the the dual character of the PNV movements. When reactionary Spanish nationalism threatened to curtail its privileges, the PNV opted to oppose them by supporting itself on its "left" wing, but when the opposition from the masses threatened to overcome the regime, of which the PNV formed a part, its leaders threw themselves into the arms of the reactionaries.
While in July and August the PNV had aligned itself with the opposition against the attacks of the Right, upon the breakouts of worker mobilizations in the month of October, they shifted the opposite direction. On October 4, 1934, a general strike was declared in Asturias which extended to Euskadi. The PNV, these "fierce defenders of life" (so preoccupied in 1937 with "avoiding violence" that they liberated 2000 fascists from jail and signed an agreement to a separate peace) collected in the rearguard and allowed Gil Robles and the military to drown the miners in blood on orders from Franco, causing 4,000 deaths and a fierce repression.
On the 5th of October a general strike was declared in the capitals of Spain. In Euskadi the general strike invoked by the PSOE and UGT was seconded by the CNT, the PCE and the nationalist union STV(Basque Workers' Solidarity, related to the PNV). In Vizkaya, the PNV proposed "absolute abstention from participation in any class movement, paying attention to orders which, if necessary, shall be given by the authorities". The STV, more flexible because of more pressure from its base, ordered: "Where one can work without danger, all laborers shall go to work. However, if they meet with difficulty or danger, they will leave without participating in any non-association-ordered activity".
In spite of the abstentionism propagated by the PNV and the "prudence" of the STV directors, the worker bases of both organizations seconded them with enthusiasm. The strike was unanimous in Vizkaya and Guipuzcoa. In some localities (Portugalete, Hernani, Eibar) antifascist Committees leading the action were formed, which began to take on the aspect of an armed struggle.
With the PNV thus inhibited, the sections of the worker class who supported nationalism were not followers of the October movement, but rather in solidarity with their fellow class members. There was not even a single manifestation in favor of national Basque liberation by the October revolutionaries. The revolutionary Spanish context set this precedent. The PNV found itself obligated, like so many times before, to swim between two currents. After the defeat of the '34 Revolution, the repression was equally terrible in Euskadi.
This was the role played by the Basque bourgeoisie against the revolutionary events of '34. Meanwhile, what were the Catalan bourgeoisie doing?
In Barcelona, the situation was extremely strained. There was news that, in Sabadell, under the direction of the Workers' Alliance, the workers had paralized the city. In Villanueva and Geltru, Sitges and other locations, there was an insurrectional situation. In Manresa and Tarrasa, the strike was also unanimous.
At 5 in the afternoon, Companys made an appeal for calm over the radio: "The Government takes charge of its responsibilities and duty and in each moment will lead the direction of events with the assistance and discipline of the people which the Government must conserve for the increased efficience of the defense of Catalunan liberties and the democratic essences of the Republic". But who would defend the liberties and "democratic essences" of Cataluna, the "leftist" Catalan bourgeoisie that occupied power, the Esquerra, or the proletariat?
While the youth, responding to the appeal of the Workers' Alliance, marched in the plaza demanding weapons, Companys returned to intervene. He warned that it was necessary "to abstain from violence lest the Government should find itself unfortunately obligated to use force", and force indeed was used. Nevertheless, when the pressure from the masses became intolerable and the movement threatened to overflow and escape from their control, the bourgeoisie, in the name of the "Catalan Republic", reclaimed their right to power, demanding from the masses "absolute obedience".
On the dawn of the 6th day, the Workers' Alliance released a manifesto that ended thus: "It is today that we must proclaim the Catalan Republic. Tomorrow may be too late...long live the revolutionary strike! Long live the Catalan Republic!" Pressured by the situation and overwhelmed by events, Companys declared the Catalan State within the Federal Spanish Republic: "Cataluna hoists its flag and calls all to the completion of their duty and to absolute obedience to the Generalitat Government...the presiding Government assumes all faculties of power in Cataluna...and upon the establishment and fortification of a relation with the leaders of the general protest against fascism, invites them to establish in Cataluna a provisional Government of the Republic". As we can see once again, in the face of revolutionary events, the Catalan bourgeoisie reclaimed power for themselves in the name of Cataluna.
The reaction to this was not long in coming. Following the orders from Madrid, General Batet (leader of the 4th Division of the military) proclaimed a state of war in Cataluna. When his soldiers opened fire on the palace of the Generalitat, president Companys telephoned General Batet to tell him that he would surrender. The "radical" Catalan bourgeoisie fell in 24 hours. Companys surrendered without resistance in an ignominious fashion. The white flag replaced the Catalan flags hanging from the principal balconies of the Generalitat and the City Council. Companys and the members of the Generalitat Government were arrested and the Statute of Autonomy was suspended. This is the way that the most "radical" wing of the Catalan bourgeoisie "defended the liberties of Cataluna and the democratic essences". The democratic rights of the Catalans and Basques can only be defended by (in consistent form) with revolutionary action of the proletariat, and this was once again confirmed by experience.
The Catalan bourgeoisie (just like the Basque) did not set up a pretense, but rather divided and held in subjugation the Basque, Catalan, Galician or Spanish workers for their(the bourgeoisie's)own benfit. When the pressure from the masses became intolerable for the bourgeoisie, they(incapable of maintaining their old forms of domination) had to turn from their first monarchical position to a republican position. Later they would have to support themselves on the most radicalized republican wing, and finally on the very organizations of the worker class, and, within these, on their leaders with more authority and capacity in order to hinder the movement, like on the CNT in Cataluna, Largo Caballero in the PSOE and the Communist Party. All these shifts, which did not take place in a straight line , but rather in ups and downs, showed like a barometer the pressure of the revolutionary movement that was produced by the lowest ranks of society. In those circumstances, the defense on the part of the worker leaders of the "bourgeois democracy" (in any of its incarnations) meant throwing sand in the eyes of the worker movement, to confuse it and separate it from its historic tasks.
The Catalan proletariat was the spearhead of the revolutionary movement and, above all among the anarchist masses, there were illusions on going forward with the process. Trotsky warned at the beginning of the 30's of the necessity of uniting with the Spanish proletariat. In order to be sucessful, the Catalan proletariat would have to (go from the hand) of the rest of the proletariat in the Spanish State. Their goal must not be bourgeois republic in Cataluna. This said cohesion represented a total departure from the worker movement on the part of the worker leaders who gave in to nationalism without emphasizing its class character.
The democratic rights of the historic nationalities, like the solution to the land problem, the standstill, and the living conditions of the vast majority of society, could only be resolved by the seizure of power by the proletariat in the entire state, sweeping the bourgeoisie and their representatives out of Madrid, Barcelona or Bilbao. Giving up initiative on any of these meant a betrayal of the worker movement and the abused nationalities.
Trotsky, since the beginning of the 30's, alerted the Communist Left in Cataluna to the necessity of unbreakably uniting the worker movement in all the state: "The Catalan Federation must make an effort to gain unification with the trans-Spain Communist organization...Cataluna is in the vanguard. But if this vanguard does not advance at the same pace as the proletariat and does not include the peasants of all of Spain, the Catalan movement will end, at the best, with a grandiose episode in the style of the Paris Commune. The particular position of Cataluna can produce such results. The national conflict may so agitate itself that the Catalan explosion will take place before, with Spain in its conjunct, it can be ready for a second revolution. It would be a historic disgrace for the Catalan proletariat to give in to effervescence and fermentation of national sentiment and allow itself to be dragged into a decisive struggle before having been able to closely bind itself to all of proletarian Spain. The activity of the Leftist Opposition in Barcelona, just as in Madrid, can and must consist of elevating all the issues to their historic dimension" (The Catalan Question. Letter to Nin, April 23, 1931).
The Role of the Basque Bourgeoisie During the Civil War
Navarra was the neurological center where the military strike of July 18th was prepared. The republican Government sent General Mola, who managed at his ease, with the environment and the necessary means, to prepare the uprising. While they were preparing, the Civil Governments, faced with this urgent news, dedicted themselves to calming the population, affirming that the news was nothing more than rumors, when they already knew to an exact science the nature of the attack. All these errors were not the result of a mistake.
The oligarchy in the Spanish State,(reflecting the crisis of the capitalist system at an international level) incapable of increasing the productive forces and bettering the living conditions of the masses, could not maintain democratic forms of control. Faced with their inability to abort the worker movement by means of the terrible repression which suceeded the failed October '34 revolution, they had arrived at the conclusion that the class struggle, carried to its extremes, had only two possible outcomes: revolution or fascism, socialism or capitalism.
The Catalan League entered the right-wing blocs with the concession of Gil Robles "against the revolutions and its accomplices." For its part, the administration of the PNV from the beginning vacillated without knowing what to do: support the coup, stay on the sidelined, or help support the Popular Front Government?
In January, the PNV had made a visit to the Vatican where they were advised to create a Catholic front in Euskadi to defeat the Popular Front. The deputies of the PNV did not see that alternative as politicallly viable. "The struggle is between Christ and Lenin", the Vatican clergy repeated over and over.
Finally, the PNV decided to convene in solitude, getting 8 electoral votes(the Carlists 7), chiefly in Alava and Navarra, and the Popular Front got 7. The tensions provoked by the polarization between the social classes, carried to its extremes, sent the PNV scattering in all directions.
When the military rebellion broke out, the directive organs of the PNV in Navarra and Alava supported it without hesitation, while in Guipuzcoa a tense internal debate arose between those in favor of and those in opposition to supporting a fascist uprising. In Vizcaya, the dominant province, overcome by the movement of the masses, they had no choice but to stay on the side and be swept away by the said movement, or to try to control it by opposing the fascist uprising.
The Navarra PNV made a public declaration of support for Franco's army: "Given the fervently Catholic and isolationist ideology of the PNV, it has not nor will it ever unite with the Government in the current battle"(July 20, 1936, with Napar Buru Batzar signing). The repression in Navarra, particularly in the South where there were more socialist tendencies, was brutal.
In Alava, meanwhile, General Alonso Vega calmly prepared the constitution during the 16th to the 18th of July. The Civil Government calmed the population, saying "nothing is happening" "normality is complete." Instead of allotting arms to the population, they opted to tranquilize them, which facilitated the triumph of the fascist rebels.
On the 19th day at 7:00 in the morning, a state of war was declared by the three leaders of the principal forces of Vitoria. Not until the 20th day was a General Strike declared throughout the province. This strike was drowned in blood on the 23rd day.
Under those circumstances, the Araba Buru Batzar received the following message:"The Regional Counsel of the Alava PNV, with the keenly voiced desire to avoid fratricidal conflicts and bloodshed between Alaves brothers, and in order to prevent anarchy from taking control of the population, orders that all affiliates complete their social obligations and be ready at all times at the disposition of the military authorities and delgates of which it consists."
One sector of the PNV openly supported the coup, as demonstrated by the manifesto of Jabier de Landaburu, delgate to Cortes and Manuel Ibarrondo: "The PNV affiliates mentioned declare: the circumstances that confronted the government of Spain, and which drove the citzens to irremediable moral and material ruin, have compelled some well-intentioned men, by an impulse exclusive to their good patriotism, to initiate and actively participate, in these dramatic moments, in a crusade of spiritual regeneration and material fortification. In the scene before us there is no room for disjunctives before the anarchy atill reigning in many Spanish towns, before the threat of barbarous communism, which is completely unrespectable. There is no longer any room for doubt, least of all among those who are Basque nationalists, those who desire for this country even a minimum of liberty and wellbeing(which communism could never achieve). We exhort out nationalist friends to assist and not impede the imminent success of those who are going to redeem such a precious treasure. Let them shout with us 'Long live Spain! Long live the Basque Province!'"
In Guipuzcoa, where the PNV was the most important party, with 50,000 votes in the February elections, the EBB positioned itself in the Republic in a stormy reunion. An important part of the nationalist base mobilized alongside of the leftist forces, while its administration was in a constant shift toward Carlism. Even though the PNV declared its support of the Republic on July 19th, and in spite of its participation in the Defense Junta created in San Sebastian, almost 3 weeks transpired before the first nationalist Basque militias (called Eusko-Guardarostea) formed themselves in Guipuzcoa. The power in Guipuzcoa was in the hands of the Defense Juntas that had formed: that of San Sebastian, presided over by a left Socialist with the participation of Communists and cenetistas; the Eibar Junta was controlled by the Socialists; that of Irun by the Communists and CNT; and that of Azpeitia presided over by Manuel de Irujo and controlled entirely by the PNV. It was this Junta of Azpeitia which initiated the formation of the Basque militias. Nonetheless, when the Gudaris opened fire in the Urola valley, an area of which the Azpeitia Junta had taken charge, they lost without a fight, or with "very discreet resistance", as affirmed by the very leader of the enemy artillery, Commandant Martinez de Campos.
Nevertheless, the PNV could not do the same thing in Vizcaya where the worker base was much more significant. That would have meant losing any possible control of the former situation, representing an initiative for the Basque workers' organizations to adopt revolutionary measures, like the deprivatization of industries, the nationalization of the bank, implantation of organs of worker power, just as in other areas of the State where the bourgeoisie had collected on the side of the reactionaries.
In the heart of Basque nationalism were sectors which did not share the doubts and vacillations of some of their colleagues in the PNV. The nationalist Basque union STV declared itself "completely on the side of the People" according to its president Manuel Robles, "the working class did not harbor any of the vacillations of which certain elements of the PNV were showing signs." Between them Ajuriaguerra, leader of the PNV, who, as he himself said , on the night of the 17th until the 18th of July "had the hope of hearing some news that would save us from having to make a decision: that one group or the other would have won the conflict...at 6 in the morning we decided to give our support to the Republican Government(....)We made this decision without much enthusiasm(...) convinced(....)that, had we decided on the other band, our base would have opposed us(...)"
They could not do anything else. The worker masses in Vizcaya, faithful to their traditions, impeded any tendency to a coup. The news of the rebellion of the army in Africa ran through Bilbao like a trail of gunpowder. While the fascists moved by car through the center of Bilbao, it was officially declared that the situation was controlled. Ignoring the Civil Government, thousands of workers gathered in Garellano in the early hours of the 18th day, surrounded the barracks and forced the rebellious armies to desist from their aims.
It was in Euskadi where the reactionary role of the Basque bourgeoisie was more evident. Javier de Landaburu wrote a letter to Jose Antonio Aguirre, dated Aug. 3, 1936 from Vitoria, conveying to him the feelings of the rebels, which clearly reflected a posteriori the attitude of the PNV on the occurences of the Civil War:
"They(the rebels) wish to make known to you(Aguirre) the preoccupation of the high leaders of the military concerning the luck of Vizcaya and Guipuzcoa, and they find it strange that the nationalists there should be on the side of the rojos(...) if, while the rojos are in control, the nationalists restrict you to being guardians of the buildings and the people, and you refrain from taking arms against the Military, you will be respected when the Military takes control of the area."
There were many opinions, in the heart of the Basque bourgeoisie and of the extreme PNV militants which reflect what their true position was. Juan Manuel Epalza(vicepresident of the Mendigoixales, PNV youth movement, who was an indusrial engineer by profession) believed that, above all, the adhesion of the PNV to the republic signified that the party had the intention of maintaining law and order in the rearguard and keeping the Left from considering it(the PNV) their enemy: "Until the night before, our real enemy had been the Left. Not because it was left, but because it was Spanish, an as such, intransigent. We vacillated for 2 weeks or more, hesitating about whether or not we should ally ourselves with our former enemies. If it had been possible, we would have remained neutral..." Nonetheless, as he affirms, "we were resolved to stop the atrocities, and to be certain that those on the Left would not kill, rob, or burn churches. We were between the sword and the wall. It was absurd, tragic: we had more in common with the Carlists who were attacking us than with the people with whom we soon found ourselves allied..."
This was the feeling of the nationalist Basque bourgeoisie, to which the Government of the Republic handed over power, and the administration of the struggle against fascism, with the goal of wresting it from the workers' organizations(principally the Socialist Party and the UGT). These workers' organizations were the ones who had carried the fundamental weight of the defense of Bilbao as recognized by the CNT director Manuel Chiapuso.
According to Pedro Basabilota, secretary to the PNV militia leader,: "the Left continued to be as great a danger for us as the fascists. We knew that, in case of winning the war, they would have to unleash a second assault..." Juan Miguel Epalza was already preparing himself for this "second assault". Without any kind of doubt, the Left would come back against the Basque nationalists if they were victorious. He and others created a greater parallel state with the end of being ready to combat the Left. When self-government was conceded to the Basque Province, they could "dispense with the said greater parallel, since apart from it there was only one authority and it was controlled by the PNV."
The Basque bourgeoisie feared revolution much more than fascism, which could bring "order" and respect for the newly-private property. The nationalism of Franco on one side and the Statute of autonomy on the other allowed the bourgeoisie to explain their support of the Republican Government to the masses in terms of defense of democratic rights. Still, their first priority above all was their class interests, and the Basque bourgeoisie was well disposed to leave their autonomy for better times if it meant stopping the revolution. This attitude totally determined the PNV policy against the Basque Government. The fact that other worker organizations might collaborate with the PNV did not vary the results a whit now that it was the PNV that was imposing its policy, as we shall see shortly.
On October 31, 1936, the Courts approved the Statute of Autonomy of the Basque Province, which consisted of a brief text which conceded a reasonable, modest level of autonomy to Alava, Guipuzcoa, and Vizcaya; transferred to them competencies and legislation, interior regulations, civil legislation, natural resources, transportation, organization of justice, and police and public order; declared the co-officiality of Euskara and Castilian; recognized the Basques' own teaching centers although the State retained its own and expressly affirmed the unity of Spain. Also, it determined that during the course of the war Euskadi would direct a Provisional Government, delegating the election of the president of this Government to the councillors, who could freely give out the vote. In other words, it turned the presidency over to the PNV which controlled a vast majority of the 1,009 councillors, the majority of which in Vizcaya voted on October 7 for Jose Antonio Aguirre as president of the Basque Government. The formation of the Aguirre Government represented the reappearance of the power of the bourgeois state against the revolutionary power that stopped the uprising of July 18 in Vizcaya and Guipuzcoa.
The war in the Basque Provinces thus had two distinclty different phases. First, that of the Defense Juntas, between July 18th and October 7th 1936, in which the regional power and the resistance effort fell back upon the political forces of the worker Left. The other, the phase of the Basque Government between October 7th,1936 and the fall of Bilbao, during which the PNV assumed responsibility as much in the governing of the Basque Provinces as in the direction of the war.
In Euskadi, the Popular Front(supporting itself on nationalism) managed to prevent a revolutionary response to the war by bringing about the nationalization of industries and banks, in order that it might utilize all its potential against the troops of Franco.
On October 7th, 1936, President Aguirre established the Basque Government. One of his primary objectives was to establish sole control and militarization of all the militias: "The Basque Government will promote the workers' access to capital, benefits, and to the coadministration of business, being able to achieve appropriation and socialization of the elements of production that are deemed necessary to rapidly organize victory. It will assist at any moment to avoid unnecessary injury in the interests of the producers and will decidedly protect the industrial man and the merchant." In the text of this discourse we can see the pressures from the worker movement. Nevertheless, all this phraseology would serve for nothing but to allow the PNV to gain power, with the goal of protecting the private property of the bank and industry, which, in the midst of the conflict, continued to function normally in the hands of their old owners, since they were not nationalized as the situation demanded to supply the war industry.
This situation was appreciated by many honored militants and nonetheless combatted by their leaders. According to Ricardo Valganon, communist founder: "The Basque government did not know how to get the most out of the human and industrial potential that it had at its disposal. And it was due to this that it was not a revolutionary party. It feared that, in case the war was won, it would produce an advance of socialism, to which it was hostile.."
As in the rest of the State, the consensus in Euskadi was to first win the war, then the revolution, without understanding that it was impossible to do the first without doing the second. The only ones who benefitted from this tactic were the Basque, Catalan, and Spanish bourgeoisie, and later the fascist reaction. This was the conclusion of many Communist militants, gained from their own experience: "Our only desire was to win the war. All the rest was left for later. The working class and the Communist Party of Euskadi did not present assertions to the Basque Government, even when Euskadi Roja, the party's newsletter, tried to indicate that we were not just fighting for national liberation, but rather to change the structure of society, and the PNV put themselves in a position to censor it." From their point of view "the Communist Party was extremely silent. At the moment, national liberation was (of course) the biggest social victory for the people of Euskadi. If the fascists won, the Basques would lose their liberty and their democracy. In spite of all this, the fact that no social victories were being made meant inevitably going along with the bourgeoisie."
The Basque proletariat deserved the credit for keeping Guipuzcoa and Vizkaya from falling into the hands of General Mola. The expeditionary ranks left for the fronts among the cheers for the Republic, the Popular Front, and the proletariat. The collective slogans were revolutionary ones. The improvised battalions marched to the sounds of the Internationale and the Himno de Riego. Irujo, the nationalist deputy in Guipuzcoa criticized the "cult to the idols of the revolution", which, in accordance with his own words, gave up the San Sebastian Junta. Steer, the Times correspondent, wrote that the base of the Guipuzcoan militia was "urban and proletarian, not Basque nationalist." The same could be said of the Vizcayan militia.
On September 3rd, a force composed of insurgents from Navarra captured the border population of Irun, closing the frontier between the Basque provinces and France. After that, communications from the north with the rest of the Popular Front zone could only be accomplished by sea or air. Before abandoning Irun, some of its defenders set fire to certain parts of the city. Ten days later, the Basque nationalists surrendered San Sebastian to the enemies without firing a shot. A force of gudaris(Basque nationalist soldiers) stayed behind in the city to make sure that the retreating armies would not set fires, as had happened in Irun. They had previously disarmed the anarchist militia, which was in favor of resisting.
The bloody street riots that culminated in the smoothing over of the military insurrection in the city, and the prolonged siege of the Loyola barracks(which did not surrender until July 28th) only served to keep Guipuzcoa in the Popular Front zone for less than two more months.
The surrender of San Sebastian caused the front to shift some 60 km west in the direction of the borders of Vizcaya, the only province which was still in the Popular Front area, all between night and morning.
The chaos suffered in the defending of San Sebastian started various violent confrontations within the PNV. For its part, the Bizkai Buru Batzar(PNV administration in Vizcaya) said that even if it responded to the defense of Guipuzcoa, where there were men in abundance but not guns, that province would still fall and the defense of Vizcaya would be endangered.
In the province of Vizcaya itself, the PNV(unlike the other parties) did not send militias to the front until the last 10 days of September when the enemy was almost at its borders.
The Basque nationalist battalions , formed principally by peasants, constituted the most well-represented element of the army. Even the young officials were conscious of the fact that the Jefe del Estado Mayor, Colonel Montaud, an officer by career who was a confidant of President Aguirre, was a defeatist. Lieutenant Luis Michelena, ex-bookkeeper of Renteria(Guipuzcoa) and PNV militant, was of the opinion that Montaud ought to have been shot. It was not a question of loyalty, but rather of the way the colonel perceived the war. "He always thought that any operation he planned would go badly. Even though it was clear, there were few professional officers who valued anything in the Basque army. The majority were of a functionary mentality, lacking initiative and comprehension of the large forces under their command. Also, they suspected the local population..."(R. Fraser, pg. 136)
The president of the PNV kept this paragon of defeatism on the front until it was no longer possible; then Colonel Montaud was substituted as Jefe del Estado Mayor and President Aguirre became the supreme commander upon the suggestion of the Stalinists.
There was great claimed efficiency of the PNV in creating large army divisions in short amounts of time. These divisions were well-equipped, numerous, and with a centralized, foresighted command to prepare the "iron belt" to protect Bilbao. This was nothing more than a smoke screen to hide its felony and treachery. (In reality the PNV, which for weeks on end had refused to raise arms against the fascists, had no choice but to react and put itself at the head of an army, with the goal of not being overwhelmed by events, and being able to redirect the situation, protecting at any moment, as their principal goal, the property and persons of the bourgeoisie. By the PNV, the central command of the troops was used to put the proletarian battalions under the orders of the Basque bourgeoisie.
As for the "great defensive work in Bilbao", it was a complete fiasco. The "iron belt" was incomplete: it lacked protection against aerial attacks, it had little depth(10-15 km from Bilbao), it did not have access to elevated lines of support, and it left important positions out in the open, from which they could easily have easily controlled the situation. To General Gamir, the test of the belt turned out ot be "disappointing" and to Franco it appeared "an error, an immense error." On June 11th, 1937, it was broken after the artillery and the airforce destroyed a point by Larrebezua, where the fortifications were almost completed. The Francoist forces knew where to attack: at the commencement of the campaign, the engineer Goicoechea, who had worked on the fortifications, went over to the other side. "We had trusted in him, we considered him one of our best because he came from a PNV family" recorded Juan Ajuriaguerra, president of the Vizcaya PNV.
Nevertheless, he could not be ignorant of the true desires of the "good families" of the PNV, owners of wealth-producing industries that they wanted to maintain at any cost, even if it was with another regime. In fact, this was the second betrayal: the first engineer who started and planned the defensive line had been executed for intending to pass information to the enemy. Goicoechea, his aide, continued working on the line. The troops were completely devastated by his defection, so much so that they christened an enemy airplane on recon missions with his name. Nonetheless, according to Ramon Rubial, the iron belt was virtually useless anyway. The socialist lathe-operator who now commanded the 5th socialist battalion verified that the cement forts were uncamouflaged and that the trenches were thick and straight. "It did not inspire confidence in us" he said.
In ther JSU battalion where Saturnino Calvo, a 17-year-old miner, was serving, they could already sense the PNV's treachery. They knew that it was possible to win because the nationalist bourgeoisie was not on the front, and they would have been able to contain the enemy by fighting in the mountains with and adequate net of defensive positions. "But there was also a need for a war policy that the Basque government was not disposed to adopt. A scorched-earth policy, a revolutionary war like in Madrid. We had a great advantage that the defenders of Madrid did not: rocky terrain". But in the hands of the PNV, these advantages of powerful industry, of rough terrain that was good for establishing defensive lines and for hindering the advance of the troops, were of little use.
On July 17th, the Basque government agreed to the evacuation of Bilbao. The organization of this evacuation was encharged to a Defense Junta presided over by Jesus Maria de Leizaola, Congierge of Justice of the Basque Government. Leizaola stopped the completion of the Republican Government orders because he feared buildings strategic value and industrial installations would be destroyed. In a few days, between June 22nd and July 2nd, Franco's army completed the occupation of Vizcaya. They encountered no resistance as they conquered all the cities of the industrial and mining zone along the left bank and the Encartacions with intact mines, industies, and abundant materials. These could be quickly used and even imported to Germany to finance the importation of more weaponry for Francoist troops.
All the successes gained by the proletariat, and by many sincere Gudaris who fought against reactionism were worn away by the Basque bourgeoisie who, ever since the establishment of the autonomous Government, had sytematically and astutely dedicated itself to facilitating the victory of "order and Catholicism." This had already been done openly in Alava and Navarra by Araba and Napar Buru Batzar respectively.
From a military point of view, J. P. Fusi affirmed "The northern offensive changed the course and the nature of the war. The conquest of Vizkaya was one of the chief steps in the victory of Franco."
Aguirre, like the rest of the bourgeoisie, was conscious that, while the bourgeoisie remained latent in other parts of the State, particularly Cataluna, the threat to the their property had not disappeared. After the fall of Bilbao and before the surrender of the Basque troops to the Italians, Aguirre took an initiative that he himself relates in his book From Guernica to New York: "I directed myself by plane to Valencia, where I arrived one July afternoon in 1937. The object of my visit was audacious. I was going to propose the immediate embarcation of the Basque divisions, transferring them to the Catalunan front(...) the Basque divisions in Cataluna would serve as replacements for many Catalan patriots and constitute an element that would give back to the republican territory the features that were necessary to present before Europe." To what "features" is Aguirre referring? He explains them himself: "..the carelessness of businesses, including foreign ones, on the part of unions, the abundance of communist and anarchist emblems in the first moments of confusion, etc. were detracting from sympathy abroad for a just cause in all forms." Is it possible to more clearly express his hatred of the Catalan proletarian revolution?
Also according to Aguirre: "In Cataluna, the disorientation and indignation of the Catalan patriots grew by the minute, as they saw themselves inundated with extremist organizations, fewer in number, but greater in audacity. The Catalan authorities found themselves without the coactive means which military rebellion had taken from them(...) the arrival of the Basque divisions would have raised the morale of the real Cataluna and changed the rhythm of things."
The Basque bourgeoisie, unable to fight the fascists, offered the remainder of their army to quash the Catalan revolutionary proletariat.
Aguirre's proposals were not taken into account by Companys and other "foreign personalities" that he visited. His counterrevolutionary role would have been too evident. They preferred to support themselves on the directors of the PCE who, following the orders of Stalin, allied with the republican bourgeoisie, who intended to drown the entire revolutionary process in order to "win the war". The Government of Negrin, called "The Government of Victory" served to accomplish these ends.
Thus Companys, Azana, and their accomplices told Aguirre that if he wanted so badly to fight for the Republic, it should be done on the northern front. After this response, Aguirre declined all responsibility and flew "to Santander ready to do anything that would best contribute to saving the greatest possible number of men." Ready at least to initiate a separate peace with the Italians...
The PNV commenced participation in the war after the surrender of the Basque batallions in Santona(Santander) in August of 1937. Its leader "Juan de Ajuriaguerra met with the Italian command and signed an agreement which said that the Basque soldiers, after surrendering, would remain free and would be exempt from any obligation to participate in the war. It also promised that the Basque population would not be persecuted. On the night of the 25th, the Italians entered Laredo and posted copies of the convention on every corner. The Defense Junta, formed by various Basque nationalists, turned the city over to the Italian Colonel Fergosi. At the same time, two British boats sank at Santona, which had been intended for anyone who wished to leave for France. Shortly afterwards, all illusions were shattered. The convention was nothing but a worthless piece of paper now that the headquarters of Burgos had ordered that noone leave the city. The Italians stationed their machine guns across from the port to make everyone already on the British boats disembark. Some of the leaders were indignant about the ridiculous piece of paper that they haad been obligated to represent. And the Basques concentrated in the city were sent to prisons and concentration camps to wait for their fate to be decided."
The PNV had faithfully completed their objective: to take care of the assets of the Basque bourgeoisie and insure that they were not appropriated or destroyed by the revolutionaries, and also to watch over the 2,000 fascists who were freed from the prisons by the nationalists after the fall of Bilbao and conveyed by night to where they could successfully reach Francoist lines.
The Role of the Catalan Bourgeoisie
The most characteristic phenomenon of the first phase of the war was the absence of power. The initiative was entirely in the hands of the armed masses. The workers' parties and unions were the backbone of the only power that arose to fight the majority of the rebel army. With initiative lost, the central government found itself suspended in the air. In the ministries, efforts were made to insure the continuity of the Government, but its authority had foundered. In those circumstances, the bourgeoisie had no other remedy but to support themselves on worker leaders like Indalecio Prieto who, without having an official post, found himself installed in the ministry of Marina, as the first collaborator of the governmental work.
Azana was deeply pessimistic. He did not believe in the possibility of resistance, and felt in disagreement with the revolutionary shift that, as a counterpart to the rebellion, the events were taking. Azana himself acknowledged this in La Velada of Benicarlo: "Ever since the suppression of the military insurrection, the government found itself without coactive means, and a proletarian uprising was produced, which was not directed against the Government. The revolutionary movement began under a republican government that neither wanted to nor could sponsor it". (Rather entirely to the contrary, we might add; they wished to crush it, which meant handing the proletariat over to fascism bound hand and foot).
If Madrid represented the enclave of the resistance to fascism, Cataluna was the center of supply for troops, food, clothes, and weapons. The amazing Catalan revolutionary proletariat, which occupied and organized industry and transportation as it had never been done before, at the same time managed to better the living conditions of the workers.
In Barcelona the Central Committee of Antifascist Militias was, during the first few months after the uprising, the real power and the Generalitat was a "true straw government" that decreed a posteriori what the street battles had already accomplished. The Catalan bourgeoisie remained at the head of the power because the CNT leaders had given it to them against the wishes of their own base.
On September 26 th the Generalitat formed a new government called Consejo(Council). The CNT participated in that government. One of its first measures taken was the establishment of the solitary command and the dissolution of the Central Committee of Militias, which represented the beginning of the end for the Regional Council of Aragonian Defense.
After the fall of the Basque Provinces, Cataluna became the fulcrum and center of the revolutionary process. In those circumstances, the Esquerra was encharged with maintaining the umbilical cord between the Generalitat Government and the bourgeoisie in a situation of dual power. In the task of establishing the state bourgeois apparatus, the Catalan nationalist bourgeoisie collaborated closely with the Central Government in the midst of a revolutionary process which, as we have seen, erased the state apparatus and a good part of the industrial private property and land which passed into the hands of the workers and peasants.
The government of the Popular Front, after having for years refused to concede autonomy to the Basque Provinces, approved a Statute of Autonomy during a state of open civil war, and after the fall of Pamplona, Vitoria, Irun, and San Sebastian. This Statute transferred the power from the great industrial colossus that was Bilbao to the PNV, which wasted very little time in handing it over to the reactionaries with industries and mines intact. This was done at the cost of sacrificing thousands of proletarians and Basque gudaris who continued their fight on the front while the Basque Government ignominiously agreed to a separate peace with the Italian troops. The Government feared revolution more than they feared Franco, and so, just a few months after giving autonomy to Vizcaya(the rest of the Basque Provinces had already been turned over to the fascists), after the journeys of May in Barcelona, the Government of the Republic eliminated the autonomy of Cataluna, taking control of the Catalan Interior and Defense Ministries with the object of disarming the worker patrols.
In Euskadi autonomy was used to give power to a segment of the bourgeoisie, the Basque bourgeoisie who paved the way for reactionism, while in Cataluna power was snatched away from the revolutionary masses in the name of centralism, equally preparing the way for reaction.
The Worker Organizations Opposite the National Question
The leaders of the workers' organizations had the opportunity, by supporting themselves on the worker movement, to bring about a policy of class independence, refusing to parley with the bourgeoisie and winning over the deprived nationalities with a socialist program. The working class was the only one which could lead this movement, implementing in the Spanish State the same program regarding nationalities that the Bolsheviks had adopted in Russia. After all, the working class in Spain was not weaker that that in Russia, but rather entirely to the contrary. Between 1910 and 1930 the industrial working class had more than doubled in size, amounting to 2.5 million people. They now represented 26% of the working class, in comparison with 16% 20 years earlier. Nevertheless, the directors of the workers' organizations centered all their strategy on the defense of the bourgeois Republic that did not resolve, nor could radically resolve any of the fundamental problems of the democratic revolution: agragian problems, nationality problems, relations with the Church, the transformation of the entire bureucratic-administrative mechanism of the State, etc.
What was the policy of the workers' organizations in regards to the national question? On one side, the CNT of Cataluna, at the critical moment of the conflict between the ephemeral Catalan Republic and the central power in 1931, declared itself disposed to fight against Catalan independence by all means short of "armed insurrection". In Euskadi, the CNT nevertheless took up a very different position, as shown by Chiapuso giving the PNV a "margin of maneuver" in 1936. According to the Basque anarchists, the federalism that this promoted was a "progressive factor".
The Stalinists demanded to "make the nationalist movement their own" in order to "integrate" this movement to the Communist Party. The Socialist Party's position was to yield to the dictates of the republican bourgeoisie, defending Spanish nationalism to the death, ruining Catalan autonomy and denying it to the Basque Provinces until the establishment of the Republic.
Then the hour of truth came in 1936, after the Journeys of May(spearheaded by the revolutionary movement in Cataluna). At the moment when the seizure of power by the working class was imperative for defeating fascism, the workers' leaders declined to take control, leaving it to the Catalan nationalist bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie, under the authority of Companys, did not hesitate in ceding it to the Madrid government with the intention of crushing the revolutionary movement in Cataluna and in the entire State.
Incongruency prevailed among the attitudes of the labor leaders in regards to the national question. Their policy in this area was to give continuous surges, now supporting the strictest Spanish nationalism, or the bourgeois nationalists. Indalecio Prieto, leader of the Basque socialists, affirmed in 1931 that "The nationalism of the Right is an instrument of reaction." Nevertheless, his hostile attitude towards democratic national rights helped the Basque borugeoisie enormously during those years when the Socialist Party needed to fortify itself in order to fight reactionism. And finally, when the "fight to the death" exploded between reactionism and socialism 5 years later, forgetting their own words and in a state of open civil war, the PSOE administration gave their support to the deady enemy of the revolution, the PNV, at the decisive moment. In trying to correct one error, they had committed an even greater one.
Each time the masses led a revolutionary movement for the transformation of society, the nationalist bourgeoisie sought to pluck out the class aspect and make the struggle their own, to use the revolutionary surge to their own advantage. That reality is equally valid in the present situation. Thus, it is a falsehood to say that the CIU, ERC, PNV and EA are a "more progressive" bourgeoisie than the PPand it is an error on the part of the working class organizations to enter into pacts and alliances with them to form "Governments of Progress" in the Basque provinces, Navarra, etc. All these parties are instruments of the dominant class for maintaining their control over the state apparatus and the private ownerships of the means of production, as we have tried to demonstrate in light of the experience of the 30's in the present article.
The influence of the nationalist bourgeoisie among the workers, peasantry, and petit bourgeoisie(intellectuals, etc.) would not have penetrated so deeply if the leaders of the workers' organizations had adopted a class-based policy in regards to the national question, instead of creating a following of bougeois or petit bourgeois or defending the postulates of Spanish nationalism.
"The imperialist Spanish bourgeoisie was weak , backward, and corrupt, allied with the large agricultural landowners and the Church. They attempted to supress the Catalans, Basques, and other nationalities. In these circumstances, the nationalism of the Catalan and Basque masses, which reflected above all their discontent, is a progressive revolutionary factor, while the Spanish nationalism is a reactionary imperialist factor", indicated Trotsky to his supporters in the Communist Left of Cataluna.
It is easy to understand the disgust of the masses over the corruption and centralism, but the alternative can in no case be complete independence in a world(today even more so than in the 30's) so enormously interrelated on a global scale, where the independence of the different countries, particularly those less developed, is more formal than real. We are not trying to deny the viability of an independent Euskadi, Cataluna or Galicia, but rather what it would mean for the masses, who, instead of gaining the benefits, would find themselves involved in a nightmare. The Balkanization of the Spanish State would make each of its parts even more dependent on the separate imperialist powers. "What does this program of separatism mean? It means the economic and political dismemberment of the Spanish State or, in other words, the transformation of the Iberian Peninsula into a type of Balkan Peninsula, formed by independent states, divided by customs barriers, with independent armies and involved in 'independent' hispanic wars."(Trotsky, Writings 30-36, pg.137). The recent experience of the partitioning of the former Yugoslavia clearly demonstrates that this could not be one of the alternatives. Nonetheless, only by means of the (most consequent) defense of the democratic rights of the different nationalities can one combat the demagogy of the Basque and Catalan bourgeoisie who, in connivance with the Spanish bourgeoisie, equally exploited and deprived the workers of the entire State, regardless of whether they were Catalans, Castillians, Basques, or Galicians.
It is necessary to distinguish between the nationalism of the bourgeoisie(both Basque and Catalan), which is particularly egotistical, voracious, and reactionary, and the nationalism felt by the masses, which represented above all hatred for the corruption, extravagance, backwardness, exploitation, and the repression of their own languages and cultures. The latter thus has a distinctly progressive and revolutionary nature.
The liberation of the historic nationalities from centralist oppression will be achieved by uniting the democratic- national recoveries with the struggle of the working class of the entire State by the socialist transformation of society. For this, the organic union of the proletariat is vital, disregarding any consideration of nationality, language, race, or religion. Those like the petit bourgeois nationalists who make attempts against this union are doing very little favor to the worker movement and to the cause of their own national liberation.
Today, as in the past, the internal crisis of capitalism: massive stoppage, cutting of social programs, the precarious employment situation, etc. together with the corruption, repression and terrorism of the State due to lack of a correct leadership policy of the workers' organizations at a state level
From the Marxist point of view, there is no contradiction in defending the right of self-determination of the historic nationalities( including the right of independence if the majority of Catalans, Basques, or Galicians so decide democratically) and defending at the same time the organic unity of the working class surpassing national boundaries. We defend the greatest autonomy of the historic nationalities as part of an Iberian Socialist Federation as the first step toward a Socialist Federation of Europe and a Worldwide Socialist Federation.
Translated by L.M. The original appeared in the Spanish Marxist magazine Marxismo Hoy No. 3.