Why the Left lost the Spanish Civil War

Kronstadt In Spain

Barcelona 1937 and the failure of the Spanish Republic

by Gwydion M. Williams

The Effective Revolutionary

In Privatising Orwell, I talked about many different issues, maybe too many. I was offended at the way Christopher Hitchens had tried to bring George Orwell with him when he migrated from Trotskyism to New Right. But a lot of other interesting material turned up. From the first, I suspected that Orwell was something very different from the modern New Right. But I found a lot of other stuff, including Orwell’s insights into Hitler’s peculiar inability to move on from his 1920s vision.

Orwell could cleverly mock other people’s lies. But I found that was not honest where the facts got in the way of his own opinions. Nor did he hesitate to ‘revise history’ when it was his own history.

Orwell had one position on Spain in 1937 and another in 1942. You might even say he had two positions in 1937, shifting from disdainful Revolutionary Socialism in Spilling The Spanish Beans to shocked Broad-Leftism in Homage To Catalonia. That’s a point to study elsewhere: both of these works agree in defending P.O.U.M. and condemning the Communists for curbing Far-Left enthusiasm.

Five years on, in Looking Back on the Spanish War, he forgets about P.O.U.M. and sneers at the Far Left:

“The Trotskyist thesis that the war could have been won if the revolution had not been sabotaged was probably false. To nationalise factories, demolish churches, and issue revolutionary manifestos would not have made the armies more efficient. The Fascists won because they were the stronger; they had modern arms and the others hadn’t. No political strategy could offset that.”

Orwell was never a Trotskyist—he was in fact anti-Leninist, as I showed in Privatising Orwell. But the viewpoint he condemns in 1942 went wider than Trotskyists, a small movement at the time. It was his own position in Homage To Catalonia. At the time Homage was a forgotten work that had sold less than 1000 copies.

But if Orwell was not an honest observer, he still saw something shocking. Something tragic, possibly the fatal blunder of the Civil War. Or perhaps a cruel and dishonest deed that was typical of how civil wars are actually won. The Bolsheviks had done worse at Kronstadt and had won regardless.

Trotskyism and all other forms of anti-Stalinist Leninism have been ineffective creeds, simply because they won’t face up to the logical continuity between the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 and the consolidation of that power under Lenin, Zinoviev and Stalin.

The sailors of Kronstadt had been a prominent part of the revolutionary coalition that overthrew Kerensky’s moderate-socialist government back in 1917. The men who rebelled in 1921 were not those same men, but replacements drafted in during the Civil War, which was just then ending. Still, it was symbolic of how Bolshevism became willing to strike down any enemy, left or right. The accusations made against P.O.U.M. and the anarchists in 1937 were no wilder than those made against the Kronstadt rebels in 1921. You cannot build a successful military-political system in a hostile world and also be nice to protestors.

Would it have been better for socialists to stay nice and stay powerless? The Bolshevik argument was always that the ruling class had started the Great War and would do worse in future, whether or not they were opposed. The way the USA and Britain have behaved since the Soviet collapse makes me think that we would be living in a much worse world if there had been no Soviet Union for several crucial decades.

Stalin’s ruthless industrialisation produced an economy capable of matching and defeating the Nazi war-machine. Two-thirds of the German Army was on the Eastern Front down to the very end, leaving just one-third to face the USA and allies in the West. It is unlikely that the USA could have done it without the Soviet alliance.

As for progress towards socialism, there was no other force on the anti-parliamentary left that mattered as anything more than an irritant.

Two arenas existed in the 1930s in which some other sort of left-wing force might have emerged. There was China, and there was Spain.

In China, Mao Zedong and Zhu De started with very small forces and built up a formidable Red Army without much direct Soviet aid. Often in the face of Comintern foolishness: Mao was for a long time distrusted and was for a time out of power, achieving dominance only during the Long March. Mao showed that he could face much larger better-equipped forces and survive despite the worst they could throw at him.

Mao’s quarter-century of supreme power saw China almost double its population, more than triple its economy, increase heavy industry 90-fold, assert independence and restore unity and internal peace. It was under Mao that China became a nuclear power and launched satellites.

The functional alternative to Mao was Chiang Kai-shek, who in 1949 left behind a China that was no better off than when he had taken over in 1927. Without Mao, China would probably be another Africa, war-torn and slipping into ever-deeper poverty. All this stemmed from an ability to survive and grow stronger in a war-torn land.

Spain was the other arena in which a different sort of radicalism might have emerged. Sadly, nothing really new came out of it, just a few good ideas on medical treatment devised by the foreign volunteers of the ‘International Brigade’. The Russian anarchists had produced the formidable Nestor Machno, but there was really only him, a flukish talent whose personal role was significant enough for his forces to be known as Machnovites. If Spain had any potential Machnos, they must have been suppressed by the Anarchist’s pathological suspicion of leadership. Many were brave but few were effective.

In China, Mao had been closer to Anarchism than Marxism until news reached China of the Bolshevik Revolution and Lenin’s willingness to treat Asians as fellow-humans. While studying Spain, I was amazed at how much similarity there was between Spanish anarchist ideas and Maoist practice. Between what the anarchists briefly tried in their strongholds during the civil war and what Mao attempted and partly created during his time in power.

You could imagine an alternate history in which Mao was the world’s most effective anarcho-communist, far surpassing Machno’s achievements. You could even argue that he was just that, anarchic under a Marxist mask. That’s speculation; a large topic in itself, which I will study some time in the future. For now, let it be noted that anarchism had a strong beginning in China, a culture with a lot of home-grown anarchic ideas. But then Lenin spoke of Backward Europe And Advanced Asia, and showed he meant it. Mao and many others switched over to a global socialism that was visibly effective.

‘Effective’ is a simple little word that describes an infinite degree of complexity. It doesn’t mean being hard-line for the sake of it. Nor does it mean mindless moderation. An effective leader may switch from hard-line intolerance to soft conciliation and back again, in a way that baffles most observers: alternate between aggressiveness and caution in a way that puzzles scholars who try later to unpick the secrets of the great leader’s success.

Where most scholars go wrong is in being too theoretical. Effectiveness is precisely the skill of picking the most useful option out of dozens that might be open to the leader at that point in time. A chess-master usually doesn’t spot any chess-moves that a routine chess-player would not also have considered. The skill of a superior chess-player lies in noticing which moves will pay off. This might involve aggression, even spectacular sacrifice, a gambit that ruins the enemy whether they accept or reject the offering. But gambits aren’t always a good idea, and the expert will also know when to be boring, slow and defensive.

Chess involves 16 pieces per side, of just six sorts, all of them with known moves and under total control by the player. Chess is presumed to have started as a war-game, most likely in India and with dice used to decide the outcome when pieces clashed. There are lots of modern war-games like that, and they tend to be as confusing and slow-moving as most actual wars. Chess holds a fascination because the ‘fog of war’ appears to clear and one could win if one saw clearly enough. This is a product of it being a relatively simple game: real-life politics involves thousands of independent players of unknown aim and mysterious action. To build power in such chaos takes skill: to build power and also advance socialist politics takes a rare sort of genius.

To be more exact, you need a body of ‘cadres’, a reliable revolutionary machine, a tricky combination to actually create. And you need an effective leader able to do something coherent with that machine.

Trotsky was effective from 1917 to 1921, but passed on a legacy of large-scale ineffectiveness to his followers (together with impressive organisational skills at a factional level). Trotsky should have asked ‘where did we go wrong’, but preferred to construct elaborate explanation about how everyone else went wrong, while he himself was more-or-less perfect.

No effective leader spends much time worrying about other people doing the wrong thing. Mistakes, resistance, jealousy, hostility and downright stupidity are part of life. The skill is in managing it; making something workable and worthwhile out of the mess.

Lenin had built up the Bolshevik political machine out of the confused factionalism of Russia Social-Democracy. Trotsky opposed this up until 1917 and then joined it, saving himself from the oblivion that swallowed many politicians who had once counted for much more. But you can’t say he learned from him mistakes: he was one of those people who learn their mistakes and repeat them with appalling precision.

No Trotskyist movement has ever been successful in gathering strength on a large scale, regardless of circumstances. Since separating from mainstream Leninism, Trotskyism has existed as a kind of ‘side reaction’ in the ferment of left politics. In chemistry, ‘side reactions’ eat up raw material and fail to produce the desired product. Trotskyist sects have picked the people who ought to have created new radical politics. But all that has multiplied has been useless squabbling Trotskyist sects.

Anarchism has also been a movement that kept starting fights it couldn’t win. Spain’s anarchists were brave and determined, for the most part. What they weren’t was gifted with superior military skills. They’d been defeated before, and showed no signs of having learned how to win.

Effectiveness is also a key difference between those anarchists and Mao. Mao delayed doing anything too radical before he was in power. He pulled back when he saw he was in danger of being defeated. Anarchists never took a realistic view of the dangers of defeat and the merits of delay.

May 1937 was the high point in the tensions between the elected Republican Government of Spain and left-wing militants in Catalonia. In the actual circumstances of Spain 1937, you might have thought that left-wing militants could have found something better to do than quarrel with an anti-fascist government. The Republic had been losing ground ever since General Franco had brought Spain’s ‘Army Of Africa’ to the Spanish mainland in July-August 1936. The Military-Rightists, who called themselves ‘Nationalists’, were well supplied with German and Italian weapons, as well as being supported by German pilots, Italian soldiers and Moorish mercenaries from their own colonial territories. Britain and France were officially neutral, but the British Government and most of the ruling class wanted the Military-Rightists to win.

The USA also stayed neutral – President Roosevelt needed the support of US Catholic politicians, who overwhelmingly supported the Military-Rightists, but Roosevelt was also not a committed foe of fascism until maybe 1938. He never did help the democratically elected Republic in Spain, and the USA was happy to prop up Franco for as long as he lived. Spanish dictatorship was maintained until after the Communist vote went into decline in Western Europe. But Spain today is ruled by a Socialist Party that was part of the Spanish Republic and is not feeling especially friendly towards the USA.

Spanish politics in the 1930s were a great oddity compared to the West European norm. You could say that Spain was torn four ways, two rival left-wing tendencies and two rivals on the right. Franco managed to reconcile the traditionalist-religious Carlists with the militarists and fascist elements. The Left remained split between a Socialist party founded by Marxists and a strong Anarcho-Syndicalist movement that had been started by followers of Bakunin.

The two branches of Spanish leftism had been continuously at odds from the start, reflecting the wider split in Europe between the followers of Marx and Bakunin. The Russian Revolution had not moderated matters, not after Lenin broke Russian anarchism.

To complicate matters, there was P.O.U.M., former Spanish communists who had rejected Stalin but then also quarrelled with Trotsky. But P.O.U.M. was a smallish party in Catalonia and barely existed in the rest of Spain. In practice P.O.U.M. were an add-on to the Anarchists.

Spanish Communism had the potential to bridge the gap between anarchism, socialism and other radicalisms. But the original leaders followed Trotsky into a dead-end. Spanish Communism from a new beginning achieved a lot, but never had quite enough time or experienced members.

Tragedy In Barcelona

In 1937, the majority parties of the Republic faced a steady erosion of their position. They tried to change Western opinion by curbing their own left-wing. Or rather their non-Communist left-wing; the Spanish Communists accepted the Comintern’s Popular Front policy and insisted that ‘bourgeois democracy’ must be propped up for the time being, given that ‘revolutionary crises’ were spreading fascism rather than left-wing power.

The Spanish Communists took a prominent part in curbing the Anarchists. But they did this in full agreement with the non-socialist Republican parties and the moderate wing of the Socialists. In Barcelona, they were doing this by stages until there was a sudden uprising after the Republic’s Assault Guards took over the Barcelona telephone exchange, which the Anarchists had been using to tap everyone else’s telephone conversations. This led to an armed demonstration of force by the Anarchist militias of the city.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about what Orwell said of the matter. About how my father Raymond Williams discussed this in his book on Orwell, wondering if Orwell had been right, while making it clear than most sources considered P.O.U.M. to have been fools or traitors. And how Christopher Hitchens accuses my father of lying, for reporting majority opinion as it actually was, rather than as Hitchens would have wished it to have been.

Hitchens is part of the ‘Post-Truthful’ school of historians, who evidently think that there is no objective truth and that their duty is to report events as those events would have been if their own beliefs had been true. Anyone who draws attention to unwelcome facts in defiance of the best ideology is clearly wicked and should be denounced with whatever ‘UnGood’ words may suit the writer’s mood.

My father reported the majority position, but also said that the Republic should have shown more patience with their Far Left. I share this feeling, but the matter is tricky. Consider what else was happening at the time. The Republic was steadily losing ground, despite heroic efforts by some Republican forces, mostly those influenced by the Communists. The general picture in 1937 was:

January 17 : The Nationalists begin the battle to take Málaga. Three Nationalist columns converge on the city from Seville and Granada.

February 6 : The Republican troops arrive in Almería, after a badly organized retreat from Málaga under continuous bombardment by German artillery.

February 6-24 : The Nationalist offensive of Jarama, by the forces under General Orgaz, attempts to isolate Madrid. In heavy combat, Republican forces under Generals Pozas and Miaja prevent them from achieving this objective.

March 8-18 : The Battle of Guadalajara, another attempt to isolate Madrid. After a rapid advance of Nationalist and Italian troops, the Republicans counterattack, aided by Soviet tanks and airplanes; the Italians suffer a serious defeat.

March 31 : Start of General Mola’s Nationalist offensive to take Bilbao, defended by forces under the command of General Llano de la Encomienda.

April 19 : Decree of Unification: Franco declares the amalgamation of the Falange and the Carlists…

April 26 : Bombardment of Guernica by the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion.

May 3-8 : revolt by the anarchist P.O.U.M and C.N.T in Barcelona.

May 17 : The government of Largo Caballero falls. Doctor Juan Negrín, socialist, becomes head of the government.

June 3 : Nationalist General Mola dies in an airplane accident. Fidel Dávila takes over as commander of his troops attacking Bilbao.

June 16 : The P.O.U.M is outlawed and its leaders are arrested

June 17 : The Jaime I, one of the Republicans’ best ships, is sunk in Cartagena.

June 19 : Bilbao is taken by the nationalists, causing the collapse of the defensive system known as the “Cinturón de Hierro” (“Belt of Iron”).

June 21 : Soviet agents assasinate P.O.U.M leader Andreu Nin

July 7-26 : The Battle of Brunete. Attempting to reduce the Nationalist pressure on Madrid, General Miaja orders an offensive directed by Generals Juan Modesto and Enrique Jurado. They take Brunete, moving the front some eight kilometres. The Nationalist counterattack directed by General José Enrique Varela almost completely wipes out this gain.

November 31 : The Republican Government abandons Valencia for Barcelona.

December 15 : Start of the Battle of Teruel.


This source is typical in blaming P.O.U.M and the Barcelona Anarchists for the ‘May Events (I quote a lot of others later on). Most observers saw the Communists and their disciplined approach as the main hope of the Republic; this included some who had no liking for Communism as such. The Republic was viewed as having been weakened by the refusal of the Anarchists and P.O.U.M to accept the authority of the Republic’s government. This remained the majority view down to 1971, when my father was writing:

“The republican cause suffered from internal differences much more fundamental than were to be found on the other side, and serious clashes occurred. A miniature civil war within the Civil War was caused by an Anarcho-Syndicalists rising that raged for a week in Barcelona… Large-scale plot and spy trials were frequent, some of them implicating anomalously placed Trotskyists, whose group, known as the P.O.U.M. .. was the Cinderella of the republican family.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1966 edition).

“Matters came to a head in May when, as the result of a somewhat obscure incident, there were three days of street fighting in Barcelona… Communist insistence procured the suppression of the P.O.U.M., who as ‘Trotskyist’ heretics were especially hated by Stalin, and the prosecution of its leaders on the absurd charges of treason and collaboration with the enemy. Although the other members of the Government prevented any executions, Andreas Nin … was secretly murdered in prison. While few shed any tears over the fate of these Left-wing Marxists, the Anarchists could not help seeing that they were next on the list. (Gerald Brenan’s The Spanish Labyrinth, first published in 1943 and still one of the standard books.)

Hemmingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls—written in 1940—shows sympathy for the plight of the Spanish Republicans in their doomed war. But no homage for Catalonia: P.O.U.M. are mentioned as being a bit of a joke, comic-opera revolutionaries. It’s well worth reading even if the rest of Hemmingway’s work has no interest for you (it has none for me). I quote it extensively later on.

P.O.U.M. were political fools, and their militia was small and inefficient. They blamed a lack of weapons, but most fighters on the Republican side had old weapons. The International Brigade was not notably better off. Revolutionary movements have managed to grow strong from very small beginnings–but no Trotskyists nor movements close to Trotskyism. P.O.U.M had not managed to grow into a third Spanish left that might compete seriously with the Anarchists and the Communist + Socialist alignment. They were to be found where the fighting was thinnest: on a front that moved very little between the outbreak of fighting and the collapse of the Republic in the north-east.

Ken Loach’s Land And Freedom (1995) seems to be the first major film about the Spanish Civil War since Hollywood made For Whom The Bell Tolls. Which would have been good, if it hadn’t chosen to bang the Trotskyist drum and ignore the real fighters.

It starts with an historic blunder, attributing the rising to General Franco. It was organised by General Mola, with General Sanjurjo as the acknowledged leader until his mysterious death in a plane crash. General Franco sat on the fence till the last minute. But the Military-Rightists—not all fascists—had the sense to rally round him as their most successful leader.

The important front was Madrid, which held off the enemy till the very end. The P.O.U.M militia, whose tale is told in Land And Freedom, were a small force on a front that barely moved throughout the war.

The film has a member of the Communist Party member accidentally join P.O.U.M, which is ridiculous. The Communist Party had a well-organised network taking members and sympathisers to the International Brigades. P.O.U.M had a smaller network, which in Britain was linked to a body called the Independent Labour Party—that’s how George Orwell got there. The hero’s adventures in Spain shadow Orwell’s, but have been reinvented to make a more likeable character than the upper-class Etonian whose first choice of career was as a colonial-policeman.

Most historians see P.O.U.M as an irrelevance. If there was a serious alternative in Spain, it was the massive Anarchist movement that had its own ideology reaching back to Bakunin and the anti-Marxist element in the First International. Maybe they could have won if they’d been allowed to go their own way. But it is factually true that most historians in 1971 saw the Communists as much the most efficient element on the Republican side. That’s less true today; people decided after the collapse of 1989-1991 that the Soviet Union must always have been inefficient, and the past is brought into line with the present.

The standard view up to the 1970s was that the Spanish Communists with their ruthless discipline had offered the best chance for defeating fascism in Spain. My father did not say that such views were correct. He sympathised strongly with Orwell’s 1937 opinion, that the war was lost by curbing the Republic’s internal radicalism. But he also gave the majority view, and described it as such. That makes him guilty of Thoughtcrime, in Hitchens’s opinion. Facts are not what they were at the time, but only what we now feel they ought to have been.

A Half-Socialist Republic

In the Spanish Civil War, each side was a coalition of rivals in uneasy alliance. Franco managed to balance these forces around himself. No such political skill was found on the Republican side.

The aim was the same, a unified Republicanism to face Franco’s unified Nationalism. Franco’s unification was not strictly fascist, though it included fascist elements. By the same token, a unified Republicanism would have required the various socialist parties to accept that they could not win on their own.

The Republican forces were an amalgam of many forces: anti-clerical Republicans, Socialists, Spain’s small Communist Party and the much more numerous Anarchists. They had an uneasy alliance with the Basque Nationalists and the Catalan Nationalists.

In the 1936 election, the left-wing Popular Front received 4.7 million votes, the Right just under 4 million and the centre less than half a million. Gerald Brenan’s The Spanish Labyrinth explains how Spain’s odd electoral law gave the Popular Front 267 deputies and the Right 132. There was no separate voting for parties, but the Socialists were awarded 89 deputies out of 267, two Republican groups got 84 and 37 while the Communists got 16. Smaller parties got the balance, including one Syndicalist who defied Anarcho-Syndicalists traditions by taking part in ‘bourgeois democracy’.

Anarchists normally refused to take part in elections, which makes it hard to be sure just how many of them there were. The Spanish Labyrinth estimates that they brought 1.25 million votes to the Popular Front total, about a quarter of the total and less than 12% of the total voters. Whether all of those voters supported full-blown Anarchism is moot; a major issue being the release of 30,000 political prisoners who’d been imprisoned by the previous right-wing government.

As for P.O.U.M, George Orwell records that they claimed 10,000 members in July 1936, 70,000 for December but down to 40,000 by June 1937. They seemed to have played around with the notion of a second revolution against the Republic, maybe remembering that the Bolsheviks had overthrown a democratic republic led by a socialist. But the Anarchists would not support them, and so it came to nothing.

Accusations of Fascist sympathy were made against P.O.U.M at the time by the Spanish Communists, and I believe they were still saying it in 1971. Franco then was still in power and my father was mostly trying to avoid sectarian rows of the sort that continuously have weakened the left. Hitchens talks about ‘show trials’, but it was not like Moscow—where in any case the testimony of the accused was much more impressive than the rather hysterical case for the prosecution.

In Spain, the P.O.U.M leaders were actually convicted of rebellion against the Republic, but found not guilty of Fascist sympathies. You can say that they played into the hands of the Fascists, and in fact some Fascists did say just that, including in documents found in German archives, where a Fascist agent claims credit for stirring up the May 1937 conflict.

On the other hand, P.O.U.M were front-line fighters in their own little bit of the anti-fascist war, and it was open to argument whether they had caused or intended Barcelona’s miniature civil war of 1937. It was definitely demoralising for the Republic’s supporters. Orwell himself claims to have been intending to join the International Brigade and would probably then have fought on the Madrid front. Who knows how he would have developed if this had happened? Instead he found himself on the side of P.O.U.M in an internal conflict, a conflict in which he regarded the Republic’s Government as the aggressor:

“But what happened to him and his comrades from the front was so arbitrary and brutal that his choice of action was inevitable. Different accounts were given, and are still given, of the start of the street-fighting and of its political motives, All Orwell knew, and could know, was that the ragged men back from the front, in this again class-divided city, were being rounded up by guards and police in the name of the struggle against fascism, and, most accounts say, in the name of the true cause of socialism and the people. The experience left a scar which was never likely to heal. One would think worse of him, indeed, if it ever healed. (Orwell, by Raymond Williams.)

Hitchens quotes just one portion of this passage, giving a very different impression:

“Of the May 1937 killings in Barcelona, Williams writes two pages later that they took place ‘in the name of the struggle against fascism, and, most accounts say, in the name of the true cause of socialism and the people’. Again there is the surreptitious and gutless reliance on the non-existent ‘most accounts’.” (Orwell’s Victory, by Christopher Hitchens.)

Most accounts do say exactly what my father describes them as saying—and this was even more true in 1971. My father also thought this might have been an error, but you cannot usefully protest against anything without first giving an accurate description of whatever it is you are protesting about. It is a simple fact that the P.O.U.M leaders were condemned by the majority of the Republic and were found guilty of a revolt against that Republic.

It is also true that lies have a way of poisoning everything, the liar as well as the lied-about. If the Spanish Communist Party had said that Anarchists and P.O.U.M were fools who were playing into the hands of the fascists, that would have made sense to people. Unless you thought that a massive intensification of radical measures was possible and desirable, you could not easily say anything else. The Spanish Communists muddied the waters by claiming that left extremists were disguised fascists, which they were obviously not. They would have been on much stronger ground if they just pointed out the great advantages if Spain should be won for anti-fascist ‘bourgeois democrats’.

A Republican victory in Spain might have made the Italian Fascists and German Nazis much more wary about starting any more wars. It might have prevented the entire Second World War, saving millions of lives and also avoiding the wasted decades in which the Soviet Union tried to remake Middle-Europe in its own image. And, even if the World War had not been avoided, an anti-Fascist Spain would have been somewhere for the defeated French to fall back to; providing an easy base to move back into France if the USA had then joined in. Against this one can only set the hazy possibility that Catalonian radicalism would somehow have generated an effective military force, which really hadn’t happened after the first hectic days of Republican resistance to the military take-over. Admirable intentions and excellent schemes for reform do not generate military power:

“The history of the Spanish Civil War represents a striking triumph of material over moral factors in war… it is probable that no offensives of modern time have been initiated with greater enthusiasm… and that no defensive tasks have been faced with grimmer resolution than have those of holding Madrid and Barcelona. (Encyclopaedia Britannica Book Of The Year 1939).

Moral fervour does not stop tanks or warplanes. Hitler’s tanks were stopped by the Red Army, turned into an effective force by Stalin’s ruthlessness. Before that, Germany’s warplanes had been defeated by Britain’s Spitfires and Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain. Those Spitfires and Hurricanes and also radar have to be credited to Chamberlain and the ‘National Government’. Those people had a sound grasp of military technology, however foolish or nasty their other policies.

That’s the complexity of actual history. It’s moot if Hitchens has read anything much about the Spanish Civil War, apart from what Orwell wrote. The only other source he mentions is the work of Ronald Radosh, who also takes a ‘Satanic Stalins’ view of history. Everything the Soviet Union did was wrong, and anyone who argues about the matter is evil. There is no interest in the actual complexities of politics among the various left-of-centre forces that composed the Spanish Republic during its anti-Fascist war.

In 1971, there were plenty of people around who’d actually fought in Spain—there are still some, but now a dwindling band. Very few of them sympathised with P.O.U.M, and you often heard people justifying the suppression of the Anarchists in just the terms that my father describes. Most sources, including George Orwell himself, say that it was the Communists who saved the Republic from quick collapse.

“The Communists had gained power and a vast increase of membership partly by appealing to the middle classes against the revolutionaries, but partly also because they were the only people who looked capable of winning the war. The Russian arms and the magnificent defence of Madrid by troops mainly under Communist control had made the Communists the heroes of Spain. As someone put it, every Russian aeroplane that flew over our heads was Communist propaganda…

“But, finally, the war was worth winning even if the revolution was lost. And in the end I came to doubt whether, in the long run, the Communist policy made for victory. Very few people seem to have reflected that a different policy might be appropriate at different periods of the war. The Anarchists probably saved the situation in the first two months, but they were incapable of organizing resistance beyond a certain point; the Communists probably saved the situation in October-December, but to win the war outright was a different matter. In England the Communist war-policy has been accepted without question, because very few criticisms of it have been allowed to get into print and because its general line — do away with revolutionary chaos, speed up production, militarize the army — sounds realistic and efficient. It is worth pointing out its inherent weakness…

“The whole tendency of the Communist policy was to reduce the war to an ordinary, non-revolutionary war in which the Government was heavily handicapped. For a war of that kind has got to be won by mechanical means, i.e. ultimately, by limitless supplies of weapons; and the Government’s chief donor of weapons, the U.S.S.R., was at a great disadvantage, geographically, compared with Italy and Germany. Perhaps the P.O.U.M. and Anarchist slogan: ‘The war and the revolution are inseparable’, was less visionary than it sounds.

“I have given my reasons for thinking that the Communist anti-revolutionary policy was mistaken, but so far as its effect upon the war goes I do not hope that my judgement is right. A thousand times I hope that it is wrong. I would wish to see this war won by any means whatever.” (Homage To Catalonia.)

You should also take a closer look at the anarchist policies that the Spanish Communists were suppressing. There were claims—hotly disputed at the time and ever since—that some peasants were forced to join collectives, in addition to those who definitely chose it. There was also a wholesale attack on Spanish Catholicism, a process that George Orwell reported with strong approval:

“Franco’s bid for power differed from those of Hitler and Mussolini in that it was a military insurrection, comparable to a foreign invasion, and therefore had not much mass backing, though Franco has since been trying to acquire one. Its chief supporters, apart from certain sections of Big Business, were the land-owning aristocracy and the huge, parasitic Church.” (Spilling The Spanish Beans.)

Orwell ignores the considerable popular support that existed for the Military-Rightists in many parts of Spain. He only saw Catalonia, where the left had always been strong and where they had silenced their rivals.

“It was the first time that I had ever been in a town [Barcelona] where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen.

“Some of the foreign anti-Fascist papers even descended to the pitiful lie of pretending that churches were only attacked when they were used as Fascist fortresses. Actually churches were pillaged everywhere and as a matter of course, because it was perfectly well understood that the Spanish Church was part of the capitalist racket. In six months in Spain I only saw two undamaged churches, and until about July 1937 no churches were allowed to reopen and hold services, except for one or two Protestant churches in Madrid…

“To the Spanish people, at any rate in Catalonia and Aragon, the Church was a racket pure and simple. And possibly Christian belief was replaced to some extent by Anarchism, whose influence is widely spread and which undoubtedly has a religious tinge.” (Homage To Catalonia.)

Anarchism in Spain was the creed of a militant minority. On their own, they were bound to be crushed. In alliance with other socialists and with non-socialists, they would have had a chance. But compromise was not in their nature. They hung on to what they had with a religious fervour. And lost it all, along with the rest of the divided forces that had composed the Spanish Republic.


Some Views Of Spain’s Civil War

I’ve collected here some interesting comments on the war, showing what standard references actually did say. Confirming that they did overwhelmingly regard P.O.U.M as having led an uprising that weakened the cause of the Spanish Republic.

Even if the standard view is wrong, it is indisputably the standard view. But I don’t think it is wrong. The Civil War could best have been won by a coalition of left-wing forces. A Bolshevik-style hijacking of the process, even if it had been a good idea, was way beyond the power and capabilities of P.O.U.M. But they did play around with the idea, and must have contributed to the mentality that led left-wingers to take up arms against their own government. It would have been like trying to overthrow Churchill in 1940. (Rather than 1945, when it was done with impeccable legality and the silent backing of an army that was rather more radical than the general population.)

Encyclopaedia Britannica Book Of The Year 1939

Spain, Civil War In: The history of the Spanish Civil War represents a striking triumph of material over moral factors in war. The defence of the Spanish Republican cause has not been conducted without a considerable measure of political disharmony between Communists, Anarchists, and moderate Republicans, nor has it been wholly free from outbreaks of criminal disorder, but it is probably that no offensives of modern time have been initiated with greater enthusiasm… and that no defensive tasks have been faced with grimmer resolution than have those of holding Madrid and Barcelona.

It also speaks of the ‘New Model army’ of the Spanish Republicans

Spain: …the trial in Barcelona, for complicity in the May 1937 rising, of nine Unified Marxist leaders (P.O.U.M), five of whom were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, though all were cleared of the charge of having fascist sympathies; and a series of trials following the discovery of a spy ring in Catalonia.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Book Of The Year 1940

Spanish Civil War: The triumph of the insurrectionists [Franco’s forces] was the result largely of material superiority and foreign aid…

The Republican Government had to contend also with a constantly diminishing food supply and internal dissention.

It speaks later of “an Anarcho-Syndicalists insurrection in Catalonia in May 1937”

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1966 edition

Spain The republican cause suffered from internal differences much more fundamental than were to be found on the other side, and serious clashes occurred. A miniature civil war within the Civil War was caused by an Anarcho-Syndicalists rising that raged for a week in Barcelona… Large-scale plot and spy trials were frequent, some of them implicating anomalously placed Trotskyists, whose group, known as the P.O.U.M. .. was the Cinderella of the republican family.

This edition has no separate entry for the Civil War.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1993 edition

Spain: Catalonia the richest and most highly industrialised part of the country… for much of its history the region has exhibited closer ties with southern France that with the rest of Spain. Catalan, the native language… is quite different from Castilian Spanish.

Spain: The Civil War: The role of the workers in defeating the [military-fascist] rising made their organisations the power in the Republican zone. The legal government was by-passed or totally supplanted by local committees ad trade unions; the workers militia replaced the dissolved army… The English novelist George Orwell well described Barcelona, where the CNT [the anarcho-syndicalist trade union] was all-powerful…

This revolution was distasteful to the Left Republicans and to the Communist Party, which rapidly grew in numbers and in political influence because it controlled the supply of arms from the Soviet Union. In the name of an efficient war effort and the preservation of ‘bourgeois’ elements of the Popular Front, the Communists pressed for a popular army and central government control…

A small Marxist revolutionary party .. P.O.U.M, which rejected the Popular Front in favour of a workers’ government, set off a rebellion in Barcelona in May 1937. The Communists, Republicans and anti-Caballero Socialists used this as an excuse to outs Largo Caballero, who had proved insufficiently pliable to Communist demands, The government led by the Socialist doctor Juan Negrin was a Republican-Socialist-Communist concern. The great unions, the UGT and CNT, were replaced by political parties.

The Communists were correct in arguing that the committee-militia system was militarily ineffective. General Franco’s army, ferried over from Morocco, cut through the militia and arrived before Madrid by November 1936. The successful resistance of the city, which was stiffened by the arrival of the International Brigades and Soviet arms, meant that the Civil War would be prolonged for two years…

The republicans consistently hoped that France and Great Britain would allow them to acquire arms. Partly because of fear of a general war, partly because of domestic pressures, both powers backed non-intervention (i.e., self-imposed restriction of arms supply by all powers)… The Germans .. supplied the Condor Legion (100 combat planes, and the Italians sent ground troops; both supplied tanks and artillery. The Western democracies protested but did nothing. The Soviet Union alone responded to the breakdown of non-intervention by supply arms to the Republican side…

The final Nationalist campaign in Catalonia was relatively easy. On the Republican side, the feasibility of continued resistance, which was supported by the Communists and Negrin, caused acute political divisions. On March 7, 1939, a civil war broke out in Madrid between Communists and anti-Communists. On March 28 the Nationalist forces entered a starving capital.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2002 edition on DVD

Spanish Civil War: The war was an outcome of a polarization of Spanish life and politics that had developed over previous decades. On one side (the Nationalist) were most Roman Catholics, important elements of the military, most landowners, and many businessmen. On the other side (the Republican) were urban workers, most agricultural labourers, and many of the educated middle class. Politically their differences often found extreme and vehement expression in parties such as the fascist-oriented Falange and the militant anarchists. Between these extremes were other groups covering the political spectrum from monarchism and conservatism through liberalism to socialism, including a small communist movement divided among followers of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and his archrival, Leon Trotsky. In 1934 there was widespread labour conflict and a bloody uprising by miners in Asturias that was suppressed by troops led by General Francisco Franco…

A well-planned military uprising began on July 17, 1936, in garrison towns throughout Spain…

The captaincy of the Nationalists was gradually assumed by General Franco, leading forces he had brought from Morocco. On October 1, 1936, he was named head of state and set up a government in Burgos… Internecine conflict compromised the Republican effort from the outset. On one side were the anarchists and militant socialists, who viewed the war as a revolutionary struggle and spearheaded widespread collectivization of agriculture, industry, and services; on the other were the more moderate socialists and republicans, whose objective was the preservation of the Republic. Seeking allies against the threat of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union had embraced a Popular Front strategy, and as a result, the Comintern directed Spanish communists to support the Republicans.

Spain: The Civil War The rising of the military started in Morocco on July 17, 1936, and spread to the garrisons of metropolitan Spain in the following days. The Civil War took place because the rising was successful only in Old Castile, in Navarre, where Carlist support was decisive, and, of the larger towns, in Saragossa, Seville, Cordova, Valladolid, and Cadiz…Thus, in broadest terms, the Republic held the centre, the Levant, Catalonia, and the Basque industrial zones; the Nationalists held the food-producing areas. One consequence was to be an increasingly acute food shortage in the Republican zone… (Followed by text that broadly repeats the 1993 edition, including blaming P.O.U.M for the events of May 1937.)

Victory would go to the side with the best army, with unified political control, and with adequate arms supply. The core of the Nationalist army was the African army commanded by General Franco. Given the confused political control in Republican Spain, the secure military and political command of Franco (from October 1936) was decisive. In April 1937 he incorporated the Falange and the Carlists into a unified movement under his leadership.

Microsoft Encarta 2003

In Madrid, on March 4, the commander of the Republican Army of the Centre, Colonel Segismundo Casado, rebelled against the Republican Government in the hope of stopping increasingly senseless slaughter. His overtures for a negotiated peace were rejected by Franco and, after a minor civil war within the civil war, Republican troops simply began to surrender. The Nationalists entered a stunned capital on March 27. 400,000 Republicans were forced into exile.

A Concise History of Spain
Henry Kamen, Thames and Hudson, 1973.

The government drew its strength principally from the parties of the left, the socialists and anarchists, and from the invaluable help of the Catalans and Basques, who had both been granted autonomy within the Republic…

It was the intensely Catholic Basques, for instance, who stood firmly by the anti-clerical Republic…

The Republic would have collapsed within months but for the material help given by the Soviet Union. Policy differences within the Republic proved to be one of its great weaknesses, and the importation of Soviet police methods was wholly unpalatable to many of the leaders, notably the socialist prime minister, Largo Caballero. The extermination by the Russians of the leaders of the dissident Catalan communists of the P.O.U.M was typical of the internecine strife within Republican ranks. But 1939 the widely resented domination of the communists… and the policy splits between anarchists and socialists, had led to a collapse of authority.

The Nationalists benefited almost from the first from a united command… The extreme monarchism of the Carlists and the social fascism of the Falangists were both soon repressed by being fused in 1937 into a single party, the only one ever permitted in the Nationalist state.

Hemmingway: For Whom The Bell Tolls (1941).

Hemingway’s fiction is based on his own work as a journalist who became very partisan on the Republican side. He tells it from the viewpoint of Robert Jordan, a young US man who uses his expertise with explosives for the Republican cause. As well as a love-story in which ‘the earth moved’—Hemingway probably originated this now-clichéd phrase—it has some interesting stuff about politics. Stuff that commentators nowadays try to explain away, because fails to fit modern categories.

He fought now in this war because it had started in a country that he loved and he believed in the Republic and that if it were destroyed life would be unbearable for all those people who believed in it. He was under Communist discipline for the duration of the war. Here in Spain the Communists offered the best discipline and the soundest and sanest for the prosecution of the war. He accepted their discipline for the duration of the war because, in the conduct of war, they were the only party whose program and discipline he could respect.

What were his politics? He had none now, he told himself. But do not tell any one else that, he thought. Don’t ever admit that. And what are you going to do afterwards? I am going to go back and earn my living teaching Spanish as before, and I am going to write a true book. I’ll bet, he said. I’ll bet that will be easy.

It was at Gaylord’s [a club taken over by the Soviet advisors] that you learned that Valentm Gonzalez, called El Campesino or The Peasant, had never been a peasant but was an ex-sergeant in the Spanish Foreign Legion who had deserted and fought with Abd el Krim. That was all right, too. Why shouldn’t he be ? You had to have these peasant leaders quickly in this sort of war and a real peasant leader might be a little too much like Pablo. You couldn’t wait for the real Peasant Leader to arrive and he might have too many peasant characteristics when he did. So you had to manufacture one. At that, from what he had seen of Campesino, with his black beard, his thick negroid lips, and his feverish, staring eyes, he thought he might give almost as much trouble as a real peasant leader. The last time he had seen him he seemed to have gotten to believe his own publicity and think he was a peasant. He was a brave, tough man; no braver in the world. But God, how he talked too much. And when he was excited he would say anything no matter what the consequences of his indiscretion. And those consequences had been many already. He was a wonderful Brigade Commander though in a situation where it looked at though everything was lost. He never knew when everything was lost, and if it was, he would fight out of it…

Jordan’s opinions are based on direct contacts that Hemingway himself would probably have had:

Gaylord’s was the place where you met famous peasant and worker Spanish commanders who had sprung to arms from the people at the start of the war without any previous military training and found that many of them spoke Russian. That had been the first big disillusion to him a few months back and he had started to be cynical to himself about it. But when he realized how it happened it was all right. They were peasants and workers. They had been active in the 1934 revolution and had to flee the country when it failed and in Russia they had sent them to the military academy and to the Lenin Institute the Comintern maintained so they would be ready to fight the next time and have the necessary military education to command.

The Comintern had educated them there. In a revolution you could not admit to outsiders who helped you nor that anyone knew more than he was supposed to know. He had learned that. If a thing was right fundamentally the lying was not supposed to matter. There was a lot of lying though. He did not care for the lying at first. He hated it. Then later he had come to like it. It was part of being an insider but it was a very corrupting business…

It was a long way from Gaylord’s to this cave though. No, that was not the long way. The long way was going to be from this cave to Gaylord’s. Kashkin had taken him there first and he had not liked it. Kashkin had said he should meet Karkov because Karkov wanted to know Americans and because he was the greatest lover of Lope de Vega in the world and thought ‘Fuente Ovejuna’ was the greatest play ever written. Maybe it was at that, but he, Robert Jordan, did not think so.

He had liked Karkov but not the place. Karkov was the most intelligent man he had ever met. Wearing black riding boots, grey breeches, and a grey tunic, with tiny hands and feet, puffily fragile of face and body, with a spitting way of talking through his bad teeth, he looked comic when Robert Jordan first saw him. But he had more brains and more inner dignity and outer insolence and humour than any man that he had ever known.

Gaylord’s itself had seemed indecently luxurious and corrupt. But why shouldn’t the representatives of a power that governed a sixth of the world have a few comforts ? Well, they had them and Robert Jordan had at first been repelled by the whole business and then had accepted it and enjoyed it…

[Note that ‘gay’ as a term for homosexuals was a rare usage until maybe the 1970s.  Most people didn’t know there was such a meaning, and it was generally used in its original sense of merry.]

Jordan worries about the general low quality of the military leadership, comparing them to generals from both sides of the USA’s own Civil War.

There wasn’t any Grant, nor any Sherman nor any Stonewall Jackson on either side so far in this war. No. Nor any Jeb Stuart either. Nor any Sheridan. It was overrun with McClellans though. The fascists had plenty of McClellans and we had at least three of them. He had certainly not seen any military geniuses in this war. Not a one. Nor anything resembling one… This attack was going to be his biggest show so far and Robert Jordan did not like too much what he had heard about the attack. Then there was Gall, the Hungarian, who ought to be shot if you could believe half you heard at Gaylord’s. Make it if you can believe ten per cent of what you hear at Gaylord’s, Robert Jordan thought…

At one time he had thought Gaylord’s had been bad for him. It was the opposite of the puritanical, religious communism of Velazquez 63, the Madrid palace that had been turned into the International Brigade headquarters in the capital. At Velazquez 63it was like being a member of a religious order — and Gaylord’s was a long way away from the feeling you had at the headquarters of the Fifth Regiment before it had been broken up in the brigades of the new army.

At either of those places you felt that you were taking part in a crusade. That was the only word for it although it was a word that had been so worn and abused that it no longer gave its true meaning. You felt, in spite of all bureaucracy and inefficiency and party strife something that was like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion. It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was authentic as the feeling you had when you heard Bach, or stood in Chartres Cathedral or some Cathedral at Leon and saw the light coming through the great windows; or when you saw Mantegna and Greco and Brueghel in the Prado. It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it. It was something that you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance; only a dung to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance or your duty. But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling and this necessity too. You could fight.

So you fought, he thought. And in the fighting soon there was no purity of feeling for those who survived the fighting and were good at it Not after the first six months.

The defence of a position or of a city is a part of war in which you can feel that first sort of feeling. The fighting in the Sierras had been that way. They had fought there with the true comradeship of the revolution. Up there when there had been the first necessity for the enforcement of discipline he had approved and understood it. Under the shelling men had been cowards and had run. He had seen them shot and left to swell beside the road, nobody bothering to do more than strip them of their cartridges and their valuables. Taking their cartridges, their boots and their leather coats was right. Taking the valuables was only realistic. It only kept the anarchists from getting them.

It had seemed just and right and necessary that the men who ran were shot. There was nothing wrong about it. Their running was ft selfishness. The fascists had attacked and we had stopped them on that slope in the grey rocks, the scrub pines and the gorse of the Guadarrama hillsides. We had held along the road under the bombing from the planes and the shelling when they brought their artillery up and those who were left at the end of that day had counter-attacked and driven .them back. Later, when they had tried to come down on the left, sifting down between the rocks and through the trees, we had held out in the Sanatorium firing from the windows and the roof although they had passed it on both sides, and we lived through knowing what it was to be surrounded until the counter-attack had cleared them back behind the road again…

‘Yes,’ Robert Jordan had said. ‘I agree with you. But to get a full picture of what is happening you cannot read only the party organ.’

‘No,’ Karkov had said. ‘But you will not find any such picture if you read twenty papers and then, if you had it, I do not know what you would do with it. I have such a picture almost constantly and what I do is to try to forget it.’

‘You think it is that bad ?’

‘It is better now than it was. We are getting rid of some of the worst. But it is very rotten. We are building a huge army now and some of the elements, those of Modesto, of El Campesino, of Lister and of Duran, are reliable. They are more than reliable. They are magnificent. You will see that. Also we still have the Brigades although their role is changing. But an army that is made up of good and bad elements cannot win a war. All must be brought to a certain level of political development; all must know why they are fighting, and its importance. All must believe in the fight they are to make and all must accept discipline. We are making a huge conscript army without the time to implant the discipline that a conscript army must have, to behave properly under fire. We call it a people’s army but it will not have the assets of a true people’s army and it will not have the iron discipline that a conscript army needs. You will see. It is a very dangerous procedure…’

Here the hero is talking to Karkov, a Russian journalist and the hero’s most reliably ally in a confused war.

‘You are not very cheerful to-day.’

‘No,’ Karkov had said. I have just come back from Valencia where I have seen many people. No one comes back very cheerful from Valencia. In Madrid you feel good and clean and with no possibility of anything but winning. Valencia is something else. The cowards who fled from Madrid still govern there. They have settled happily into the sloth and bureaucracy of governing. They have only contempt for those of Madrid. Their obsession now is the weakening of the commissariat for war. And Barcelona. You should see Barcelona.’

‘How is it ?’

It is all still comic opera. First it was the paradise of the crackpots and the romantic revolutionists. Now it is the paradise of the fake soldier. The soldiers who like to wear uniforms, who like to strut and swagger and wear red-and-black scarves. Who like everything about war except to fight. Valencia makes you sick and Barcelona makes you laugh.’

‘What about the P.O.U.M. putsch ?’

‘The P.O.U.M. was never serious. It was a heresy of crackpots and wild men and it was really just an infantilism. There were some honest misguided people. There was one fairly good brain and there was a little fascist money. Not much. The poor P.O.U.M. They were very silly people.

‘But were many killed in the putsch ?’

‘Not so many as were shot afterwards or will be shot. The P.O.U.M. It is like the name. Not serious. They should have called it the M.U.M.P.S. or the M.E.A.S.L.E.S. But no. The Measles is much more dangerous. It can affect both sight and hearing. But they made one plot you know to kill me, to kill Walter, to kill Modesto and to kill Prieto. You see how badly mixed up they were? We are not at all alike. Poor P.O.U.M. They never did kill anybody. Not at the front nor anywhere else. A few in Barcelona, yes.’

‘Were you there?’

‘Yes I have sent a cable describing the wickedness of that infamous organization of Trotskyite murderers and their fascist machinations all beneath contempt but, between us. It is not very serious, the P.O.U.M. Nin was their only man. We had him but he escaped from our hands.’

‘Where is he now?’

‘In Paris. We say he is in Paris. He was a very pleasant fellow, but with bad political aberrations.’

‘But they were in communication with the fascists, weren’t they?’

‘Who is not?’

‘We are not.’

‘Who knows? I hope we are not.’

Hemingway clearly let the Communists do a lot of his thinking for him, when it came to Spanish politics. Not, indeed, that he was unaware that Nin had been murdered in prison – he has Karkov say that Nin was a very pleasant fellow, which is not what Karkov would say if the man had believed his own story about Nin having escaped to Paris. But Hemingway has his non-Communist hero make a practical judgement that the Communists were the most efficient fighters – a point agreed by almost everyone.

Later on, we see an example of how many other divisions existed within the Republican camp:

‘But look, Roberto,’ Agustin said. ‘They say the government moves further to the right each day. That in the Republic they no longer say Comrade but Senor and Senora. Canst shift thy pockets ?’

‘When it moves far enough to the right I will carry them in my hip pocket,’ Robert Jordan said, ‘and sew it in the centre.’

‘That they should stay in thy shirt,’ Agustin said. ‘Are we to win this war and lose the revolution ?’

‘Nay,’ Robert Jordan said. ‘But if we do not win this war there will be no revolution nor any Republic nor any thou nor any me nor anything but the most grand carajo.’

‘So say I,’ Anseimo said. ‘That we should win the war.’

‘And afterwards shoot the anarchists and the Communists and all this canalla except the good Republicans,’ Agustin said.

‘That we should win this war and shoot nobody,’ Anseimo said. ‘That we should govern justly and that all should participate in the benefits according as they have striven for them. And that those who have fought against us should be educated to see their error.’

‘We will have to shoot many,’ Agustin said. ‘Many, many, many.’

He thumped his closed right fist against the palm of his left hand. ‘That we should shoot none. Not even the leaders. That they should be reformed by work.’

‘I know the work I’d put them at,’ Agustin said, and he picked up some snow and put it in his mouth.

‘What, bad one? Robert Jordan asked.

‘Two trades of the utmost brilliance.’

‘They are;’

Agustin put some more snow in his mouth and looked across the clearing where the cavalry had ridden. Then he spat the melted snow out. Vaya. What a breakfast,’ he said. ‘Where is the filthy gipsy ?’

‘What trades?’ Robert Jordan asked him. ‘Speak, bad mouth.’ ‘Jumping from planes without parachutes,’ Agustin said, and his eyes shone. ‘That for those that we care for. And being nailed to the tops offence posts to be pushed over backwards for the others.’…

‘You sweated enough,’ Robert Jordan said. ‘I thought it was fear/

‘Fear, yes,’ Agustin said. ‘Fear and the other. And in this life there is no stronger thing than the other.’

Yes, Robert Jordan thought. We do it coldly but they do not, nor ever have. It is their extra sacrament. Their old one that they had before the new religion came from the far end of the Mediterranean, the one they have never abandoned but only suppressed and hidden to bring it out again in wars and inquisitions. They are the people of the Auto de Fe; the act of faith. Killing is something one must do, but ours are different from theirs. And you, he thought, you have never been corrupted by it ? You never had it in the Sierra? Norat Usera? Not through all the time in Estremadura ? Nor at any time ? Que va, he told himself. At every train.

Stop making dubious literature about the Berbers and the old Iberians and admit that you have liked to kill as all who are soldiers by choice have enjoyed it at some time whether they lie about it or not. Anseimo does not like to because he is a hunter, not a soldier. Don’t idealize him, either. Hunters kill animals and soldiers kill men. Don’t lie to yourself, he thought- Nor make up literature about it. You have been tainted with it for a long time now. And do not think against Anseimo either. He is a Christian. Something very rare in Catholic countries.

But with Agustin I had thought it was fear, he thought. That natural fear before action. So it was the other, too. Of course, he may be bragging now. There was plenty of fear. I felt the fear under my hand. Well, it was time to stop talking…

They shoot a patrolling soldier, as in the film. Unlike the film, here Jordan feels some genuine compassion for the enemy, who is a Carlist. Carlism was reactionary Catholicism based on a 19th century rebellion and wanted to bring back the Inquisition. But also Carlists had a strong community way of life and it was possible for people to like them while not sharing any of their beliefs.

The snow had all been gone by noon and the rocks were hot now in the sun. There were no clouds in the sky and Robert Jordan sat in the rocks with his shirt off browning his back in the sun and reading the letters that had been in the pockets of the dead cavalryman. From time to time he would stop reading to look across the open slope to the line of the timber, look over the high country above and then return to the letters. No more cavalry had appeared. At intervals there would be the sound of a shot from the direction of El Sordo’s camp. But the firing was desultory.

From examining his military papers he knew the boy was from Tafalla in Navarre, twenty-one years old, unmarried, and die son of a blacksmith. His regiment was the Nth cavalry, which surprised Robert Jordan, for he had believed that regiment to be in the North. He was a Carlist, and he had been wounded at the fighting for Irun at the start of the war.

I’ve probably seen him run through the streets ahead of the bulls at the Feria in Pamplona, Robert Jordan thought. You never kill anyone that you want to kill in a war, he said to himself. Well, hardly ever, he amended and went on reading the letters…

How many is that you have killed ? he asked himself. I don’t know. Do you think you have a right to kill anyone ? No. But I have to. How many of those you have killed have been real fascists ? Very few. But they are all the enemy to whose force we are opposing force. But you like the people of Navarre better than those of any other part of Spain. Yes. And you kill )diem. Yes. If you don’t believe it go down there to the camp. Don’t you know it is wrong to kill ? Yes. But you do it? Yes. And you still believe absolutely that your cause is right ? Yes.

It is right, he told himself, not reassuringly, but proudly. I believe in the people and their right to govern themselves as they wish. But you mustn’t believe in killing, he told himself. You must do it as a necessity but you must not believe in it. If you believe in it the whole thing is wrong.

But how many do you suppose you have killed ? I don’t know because I won’t keep track. But do you know ? Yes. How many ? You can’t be sure how many. Blowing the trains you kill many. Very many. But you can’t be sure. But of those you are sure of? More than twenty. And of those how many were real fascists ? Two that I am sure of. Because I had to shoot them when we took them prisoners at Usera. And you did not mind that ? No. Nor did you like it ? No. I decided never to do it again. I have avoided it. I have avoided killing those who are unarmed…

All right, he told himself. Thanks for all the good advice and is it all right for me to love Maria ?

Yes, himself said. Even if there isn’t supposed to be any such thing as love in a purely materialistic conception of society ?

Since when did you ever have any such conception; himself asked. Never. And you never could have. You re not a real Marxist and you know it. You believe in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. You believe in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Don’t ever kid yourself with too much dialectics. They are for some but not for you. You have to know them in order not to be a sucker. You have put many things in abeyance to win a war. If this war is lost all of those things are lost.

But afterwards you can discard what you do not believe in. There is plenty you do not believe in and plenty that you do believe in…

Cut out the dying stuff, he said to himself. That’s not the way we talk. That’s the way our friends the anarchists talk. Whenever things get really bad they want to set fire to something and to die. It’s a very odd kind of mind they have. Very odd…

Saying that “afterwards you can discard what you do not believe” was prophetic. The Centre-Right feared Soviet Communism more than the feared fascism, and from their own long-obsolete point of view they were right. The Centre-Left and various uncommitted Bohemian characters feared Fascism and especially Nazism much more than Soviet Communism, and they too were right. Centre-Left values in Britain and the USA gained greatly from a war in which the Soviet Union was an ambiguous enemy and Nazism an unequivocal foe. Set-backs from the 1980s onwards are very far from taking us back to where we were in the 1930s.

As for the Spanish Anarchists, Hemingway disliked them greatly. He repeats the doubtful story about the Anarchist leader Durutti being murdered by his own people for trying to impose enough discipline to win the war. Duarte’s death was also blamed on the Communists, but most people think it a normal combat death by a brave man who was emerging as a successful leader in the anti-Fascist struggle in Madrid. Anarchists in Spain were very diverse and Hemingway is unfair to them, showing just the worst sort :

‘’I am not a fascist,’ Andres shouted. ‘I am a guerrillero from the band of Pablo. I come with a message for the General Staff/

‘He’s crazy,’ he heard someone say. ‘Toss a bomb at him.’

‘Listen,’ Andres said. ‘I am alone. I am completely by myself. I obscenity in the midst of the holy mysteries that I am alone. Let me come in.’

‘He speaks like a Christian,’ he heard someone say and laugh.

Then someone else said, ‘The best thing is to toss a bomb down on him.’

‘No,’ Andres shouted. ‘That would be a great mistake. This is important. Let me come in.’…

‘Brothers,’ Andres said. He was wet through with sweat and he knew the bomb advocate was perfectly capable of tossing a grenade at any moment. ‘I have no importance.’

‘I believe it,’ the bomb man said.

‘You are right,’ Andres said. He was working carefully through the third belt of wire and he was very close to the parapet. ‘I have no importance of any kind. But the affair is serious. Muy, muy

‘There is no more serious thing than liberty,’ the bomb man shouted. ‘Thou thinkest there is anything more serious than liberty ?’ he asked challengingly.

No, man,’ Andres said, relieved. He knew now he was up against the crazies; the ones with the black-and-red scarves. ‘Viva la Libertad!’

‘Viva la F.A.I. Viva la C.N.T., they shouted back at him from the parapet. ‘ Viva el anarco-sindicalismo and liberty.’

‘ Viva nosotros,’ Andres shouted. ‘Long life to us.’

‘He is a co-religionary of ours,’ the bomb man said. ‘And I might have killed him with this.’

He looked at the grenade in his hand and was deeply moved as Andres climbed over the parapet. Putting his arms around him, the grenade still in one hand, so that it rested against Andres’s shoulder blade as he embraced him, the bomb man kissed him on both cheeks.

Hemmingway has an even more hostile view of Andre Marty, presented in the book as ‘Andre Massart’, a man who has let his suspicions run away with him. This is controversial, and Hemingway was criticised for it at the time by the Communists. It remains controversial: Hugh Thomas says “Marty was obsessed by spies, but their were certainly some such”. Hemingway may have exaggerated, but the picture is vivid and shows an understanding of the pressures that could lead to paranoia and injustice.

Massart shook his head again. He was looking at Andres but he was not seeing him.

Golz, he thought in a mixture of horror and exultation as a man might feel hearing that a business enemy had been killed in a particularly nasty, motor accident or that someone you hated but whose probity you had never doubted had been guilty of defalcation. That Golz should be one of them, too. That Golz should be in such obvious communication with the fascists. Golz that he had known for nearly twenty years. Golz who had captured the gold train that winter with Lucacz in Siberia. Golz who had fought against Kolchak, and in Poland. In the Caucasus. In China, and here since the first October. But he had been close to Tukachevsky. To Voroshilov, yes, too. But to Tukachevsky. And to who else? Here to Karkov, of course. And to Lucacz. But all the Hungarians had been intriguers…

‘Take them away,’ Massart said, now kindly, to the guard. He was sorry for them as human beings if it should be necessary to liquidate them. But it was the tragedy of Golz that oppressed him. That it should be Golz, he thought. He would take the fascist communication at once to Varloff. No, better he would take it to Golz himself and watch him as he received it. That was what he would do. How could he be sure of Varloff if Golz was one of them ? No. This was a thing to be very careful about.

Elsewhere, Hemingway also showed a very hostile view of ‘La Pasionaria’, a leading Communist and the sort of female politician who was then very rare, almost unknown outside of left-wing circles. Radical in some ways, Hemingway may have been worried by traditional male bastions being invaded.

For Whom The Bell Tolls is the only book by Hemmingway that I’ve enjoyed or would take seriously. The other stuff I find trivial, futile macho characters doing nothing worthwhile—killing bulls or smuggling or swanning round Europe doing nothing very much.

He is spot on in noticing the quasi-religious character of Communism when it was a functional creed. The claim to be rational and scientific was part of it, necessary for a radical creed to win a modern audience.

On the Spanish left, only the anarchists were comparable. The rest was just wishful thinking.

The Spanish Civil War: Anarchism in Action (1984), by Eddie Conlon

Anarchism had, and still has, a long tradition in Spain. In the middle of the last century anarchist ideas were brought to Spain by Fanelli, an Italian supporter of Michael Bakunin who was one of the founders of modern anarchism. A Spanish section of the First International was set up and the majority within it took the side of the anarchists in the International…

The revolution that had broken out was of supreme embarrassment to the Communists. Whatever chance they had of winning over Britain and France was lessened by the fact that a social revolution had started. There was no way the British and French Governments would intervene on the side of revolutionaries. Thus the revolution was to be hidden and eventually suppressed. The power of the collectives and militias was to be smashed…

The collectivisation movement seriously upset the middle classes. Small businesses were closed and everywhere ‘middle-men’ found their role abolished as the workers committees took over distribution. The middle classes would have turned to their traditional parties but viewed them as incapable of stemming the collectivisation movement. The Communist Party seemed the only party serious about protecting their property or getting it back from the workers. One former Communist commented “In Murcia and elsewhere I saw that our placards and leaflets appealed for shopkeepers’ membership with the promise of absolute support for private property”

Membership of the Communist Party grew in leaps and bounds. Within a few months of the outbreak of the war 76,700 peasant proprietors and tenant farmers along with 15,485 members of the urban middle classes had joined up. Its influence among these layers went far beyond these figures as thousands of members of the intermediate classes, without actually joining the Party, placed themselves under its wing…

It would be wrong to suggest that the counter-revolution that came was only as a result of the line and activities of the Communists. The Republicans and Socialists agreed with them. The Republicans, who lacked any real base among the masses, retired to the background and ceded to the Communists the delicate job of opposing the social revolution and defending the middle classes. Even Largo Caballero, who became Prime Minister in August, the one time left wing Socialist and leader of the UGT, declared on forming the government that it was “necessary to sacrifice revolutionary language to win the friendship of the democratic powers” and the “Spanish Government is not fighting for socialism but for democracy and constitutional rule”. Although Caballero did not go all the way with the Communists there were many in his party, even his closest allies, who worked for the Communist line against the social revolution…

Because of this control of arms the Communists, supported by the others, enforced militarisation. The militia system was broken up. A regular army was rebuilt with officers, regimentation, saluting and differential rates of pay. The militias who refused to come under the command of the War Ministry (and many CNT and P.O.U.M militias did refuse) were starved of arms. They were left with no choice…

The role of the CNT played in government was clearly illustrated by what became known as the May Days. On May 3rd 1937, three lorry loads of police led by the Stalinist Salas, Commissar of Public Order, attempted to take over the telephone exchange in Barcelona which had been controlled by a joint CNT-UGT committee since the outbreak of the war. The aim of this was to wrest control of the building from the workers and to remove control of the telephone system from them. The telephonists had been able to keep tabs on what was going on by listening in on the calls of government ministers. It was also the beginning of an effort by the government to occupy strategic points in the city in preparation for an all-out attack.

The police captured the first floor because of the surprise nature of their attack but got no further. Firing started. Word spread like wildfire and within hours the local defence committees of the CNT-FAI went into action arming themselves and building barricades. The P.O.U.M supported them and soon the workers were in control of most of the city. The government had control of only the central area, which could very easily have been taken.

In other areas of Catalonia action was also taken. Civil Guards were disarmed and offices of the PSUC were seized as a “preventive measure”. There was no firing on the first night and by the second day the workers were spreading the barricades further into the suburbs. Also involved were the Libertarian Youth (FIJL). Being in control the workers could have taken over but an order from Casa CNT (the H.Q.) forbade all action and ordered workers to leave the barricades.

The leaders of the CNT entered into negotiations with the government, which had the effect of giving the government forces more time to fortify buildings and to occupy the Cathedral towers. All day Tuesday (May 4th) the Regional Committee of the CNT appealed again and again over loudspeakers for the barricades to be dismantled and for a return to work. As these appeals were made negotiations went on and appeals came into Casa CNT from other workers centres who were now coming under attack. The CNT government ministers were recalled from Valencia (where the central government was now situated) to make further appeals to the workers.

The negotiations which went on, led to nothing as regards control of the telephone phone exchange. The workers were ordered off the barricades and unfortunately they went. On Thursday (May 6th) the building was vacated and the PSUC took it over. On the same day the railway station was taken over by the PSUC. The CNT had also controlled that. This happened throughout Catalonia.

On Friday 5,000 Assault Guards arrived from Valencia. The repression that followed was severe. The May days left 500 dead and 1,100 wounded. Hundreds more were killed during the “mopping up ” of the next few weeks.

During the May Days an alternative to the policies of the CNT National Committee emerged in the form of the Friends of Durutti (FoD). This group, formed in March 1937, consisted of CNT militants opposed to the policy of militarising the militias. They took the name of Durutti who had led the Aragon militias and had defended the social revolution to the hilt. When it was suggested to him that the CNT should enter the government to legalise the gains of the revolution, he responded “When the workers expropriate the bourgeoisie, when one attacks foreign property, when public order is in the hands of the workers, when the militia is controlled by the unions, when, in fact, one is in the process of making a revolution from the bottom up, how is it possible to give this a legal basis?”.

In March Jaime Balius, one of the leading militants of the FoD, had said that “We anarchists have arrived at the limits of our concessions… not another step back. It is the hour of action. Save the revolution. If we continue to give up our position there is no doubt that in a short time we shall be overwhelmed. It is for this fundamental reason that it is necessary to develop a new orientation in our movement”.

By this new direction was meant an end to a-political anarchism. “To beat Franco we need to crush the bourgeoisie and its Stalinist and Socialist allies. The capitalist state must be destroyed totally and there must be installed workers’ power depending on rank and file workers’ committees. A political anarchism has failed”. During the May Days they called for the setting up of a Revolutionary Junta. They called for the disarming of the police, the socialisation of the economy, the dissolving of the political parties that had turned against the working class. In effect they called for workers’ power. They called on the workers to stay at the barricades until they had control of Catalonia. On Tuesday May 6th the Regional Committee of the CNT issued a statement disowning the FoD as ‘agents provocateurs’. The same day the FoD containing a blistering attack on the CNT leadership and saying a revolutionary opportunity had been wasted. The FoD were expelled from the CNT at the end of May. Their offices were taken over by the police and their organisation was outlawed…

The FoD was an expression of opposition to this kind of thought. Not only in their paper, The Friends of the People, but in countless local publications of the CNT, and indeed of the UGT, P.O.U.M and Libertarian Youth you can find such opposition. However it must be said this was only given a clear expression when it was too late. The FoD did not have enough time to win the masses to their position. They understood the need for a regroupment to take on the leadership of the CNT. “The vanguard i.e. the revolutionary militants and Friends of Durutti, P.O.U.M and the Youth must regroup to elaborate a programme of proletarian revolutionaries”.  [http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/scw/anarchist.htm.

Durutti’s actual friends disputed that he would have sided with the ‘Friends of Durutti’ if he had still been alive. The actual clash came as a surprise to both sides, but P.O.U.M and FoD had been creating the mood in which Barcelona workers would think it was a good idea to have a civil war within the civil war. How they’d have done if they’d been strong enough to take over is moot. What should be obvious is that they damaged the anti-Fascist cause by starting a fight they could not win.

The Spanish Civil War:  An Overview (US view)

The International Brigades themselves became a reality when the Moscow-based Comintern (Communist International) decided to act on Spain’s behalf. Negotiations with the Spanish Government took place in late October. Stalin’s motivations, no doubt, were pragmatic. He probably hoped, for example, to use an alliance to help the Spanish Republic as a way of building a general antifascist alliance with the Western democracies. But it was too soon. That alliance would come, but only after Munich, after Spain had fallen, and after the West tried every imaginable means of appeasing Hitler. In any case, early in November, about the time the attack on Madrid commenced, word reached New York to begin recruiting Americans for service in Spain…

Despite the diversity of their backgrounds, one may make some generalizations about the Americans who volunteered. The youngest were three eighteen-year-olds, the oldest were fifty-nine and sixty. Over eighty of the volunteers were African Americans, and the International Brigades were entirely integrated. In fact, the Lincoln Battalion was commanded for a time by Oliver Law, an African-American volunteer from Chicago, until he died in battle. It was the first time in American history that an integrated military force was led by an African American officer. Most of the American volunteers were unmarried, although, as their letters reveal, many had relationships back home they tried to sustain by correspondence. Their median age was twenty-seven, their median birth date 1910. About eighteen percent came from New York and most of the rest came from other cities. Perhaps a third were Jews…

Meanwhile, the Popular Front Government (a coalition of middle-class republicans, moderate socialists, and communists) had endured a civil war within the civil war in Catalonia. The government was about to integrate the remaining Catalan militias into the People’s Army, a step the radical Left regarded as “a euphemism for disarmament and repression of the class-conscious revolutionary workers” (Jackson, 119). Believing that the government was exclusively concerned with defeating Franco and indifferent or antagonistic toward the major social revolution needed in Spain, an anti-Stalinist Marxist group, the P.O.U.M, provoked several days of rioting and sporadic fighting in early May of 1937 in Barcelona. They were joined by the more radical contingents of Catalonian anarchists. This gave the Spanish communists—a rather small party at the outset of the war that had gained membership and prestige in the months since—the excuse they needed to crush the P.O.U.M, a group they reviled beyond reason. In the ensuing crackdown the P.O.U.M leader Andrés Nin was taken prisoner and murdered, and other enemies of the Communist Party were tortured. By mid-June the P.O.U.M had been declared illegal. For some, this meant the betrayal of all the more utopian aims of the Spanish Left and a certain disillusionment with the cause of the Republic. For others, a crackdown seemed essential because a unified leadership focused on winning the war was indeed necessary; a full social revolution would have to wait until fascism was defeated. What is clear is that the internal dissension on the Left damaged the spirit of resistance in Catalonia. Negotiation and compromise, rather than violence, would have served all parties better in the face of Franco’s armies.

Although International Brigade members did not have fully detailed knowledge of events in Barcelona, their letters show consistent antagonism toward the P.O.U.M. Moreover, since they were being bombed, strafed, and shot at by Franco’s troops, they certainly considered winning the war the first priority. And their own experience confirmed the need for a unified military command that could train recruits; coordinate troop movements with aircraft, artillery, and tanks; and supply food, ammunition, and medical services, tasks that were quite beyond the Catalonian militias. [http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/scw/overview.htm]

Paper by Michael Kolb, written in January 2000

Otherwise in the republican parts of Spain: the system was doomed to failure through many internal differences that had grown bigger and bigger since the outbreak of the war. From the 3rd to the 10th May 1937 raged a little rebellion in Barcelona, organized by Anarcho-Syndicalists, who were unsatisfied with their situation. They gave the authority in Barcelona a week of heavy fighting, until they were beaten, imprisoned and later on executed. Another serious crisis in the Valencian Government lead to the formation of a new cabinet, introducing Juan Negrín as leader, from which the rebellious Anarcho-Syndicalists were eliminated. They were nevermore represented in a republican government in Spain until April 1938. The so-called generalitat also underwent some smaller crises, but they drew them only more closely together….

The Soviet Union was the greatest supporter of the Spanish republicans, with not always to clear goal, objectives that are not fully revealed till today. The Soviets wanted to strengthen all the Communists in Europe, and the rising of fascism was against their plans. They also wanted to win France and Great Britain for an alliance against Germany, which was growing stronger and stronger, and becoming a real threat again for the Union. And so, the Soviets had to work against every upcoming nationalistic movement in Europe. With the defeating of the fascists in Spain, they would have achieved a solemn hit against Germany and enfeebled the fascists, as in the same time, strengthened the Communists. [http://schultreff.de/referate/englisch/r0562t00.htm].

First Inside Story of Barcelona Rising

The net effect of Barcelona’s new Tragic Week has been to bring realities into the open and to reinforce the need to control the ‘uncontrollables’. It has been the worst uprising that even Barcelona has seen: 400 killed, according to the Minister of Propaganda, and thousands wounded; and it took three days for most of the combatants to discover who was fighting what.

When I left on Saturday morning, the barricades were higher than ever, though the firing had ceased, but they were in the hands of the forces of order. This has not been an Anarchist uprising. It is a frustrated putsch by the ‘Trotskyist’ P.O.U.M, working through their controlled organisations, ‘Friends of Durutti’ and Libertarian Youth. Luck put me in an excellent position to see all that happened.

Throughout the week all these were firing madly at one another and at whatever passed them. The tragedy began on Monday afternoon when the government sent armed police into the Telefónica building to disarm the workers there, mostly CNT men. Grave irregularities in the service had been a scandal for some time…

The incident was very obscure, but word went round that the Government was out against the Anarchists. The streets filled with armed men. On taking a photograph of them, I was arrested by about 20 armed enthusiasts, who took me off to the Anarchist building… whence, after half an hour’s argument, I escaped minus my film. The building was already putting itself in position to withstand a siege and contained some 200 armed men…

I was watching from behind a shutter when a waiter came and asked me to open it wide. ‘We always do so in a revolt’, he explained, ‘so that there can be no doubt no-one is shooting from behind.’ Every shutter in sight -most of them usually closed- had already been thrown open, so well does the Barcelona citizen know the code of street warfare…

The anarchist CNT and Socialist UGT were not technically ‘out in the street’. So long as they remained behind their barricades they were merely watchfully waiting, an attitude which includes the right to shoot at anything armed in the open street. Thus a CNT car would drive along. It would be signalled to halt at some barricade. If it refused, every police and UGT barricade in sight blazed at it, whereupon the CNT barricades opened fire on the others, and long after the car, more or less crippled, had disappeared, all the barricades continued to blaze at one another. The general bursts were generally aggravated by ‘pacos’ -hidden solitary men, usually Fascists, shooting from rooftops at nothing in particular, but doing all they could to add to the general pandemonium…

By Wednesday evening, however, it began to be clear who was behind the revolt. All the walls were plastered with an inflammatory poster calling for an immediate revolution and the shooting of Republican and Socialist leaders. It was signed by ‘Friends of Durutti’. On Thursday morning the anarchist daily denied all knowledge or sympathy with it, but La Batalla, the P.O.U.M newspaper, republished the document with the highest praise. Barcelona, the first city of Spain, was plunged into bloodshed by agents provocateurs using this subversive organisation. An irreparable disaster was thus only just avoided, for with the CNT and UGT fully mobilised anything might have happened.  [http://www.arrakis.es/~ald/newschronicle.htm].

The Tragic Week in May, by Augustin Souchy

On July 19th 1936, the Spanish generals rose against the people. The workers of Barcelona, under the leadership of the anarchists, succeeded in smashing the fascist rising within two and a half days. The anarchists did not want to conquer power for themselves, nor did the unions seek to establish a dictatorship. As in all other parts of Spain, an anti-fascist united front was formed. It ranged all the way from the various republican tendencies of the bourgeoisie to the most extreme tendencies of the proletariat – the anarchists. Naturally there was not complete harmony among the various tendencies composing the anti-fascist block, either with respect to aims or choice of means. Some wanted merely to smash the power of the generals and the clergy, but, otherwise maintain a bourgeois capitalist society; others sought a fundamental change in all phases of social life…

In the course of this development divergent trends began to appear. The masses of the workers were for the most part organised in the anarcho-syndicalist organisation. the CNT; the petty bourgeoisie, during the months that followed the 19th of July, affiliated itself with the UGT. Not only workers, but traders, owners of small shops, market salesmen, etc., joined the UGT. The developments in Spain took a course totally different from that of other countries. Forms of organisation arose, especially in Catalonia, which had been seen nowhere else. In all other European countries, especially in the democratic ones, the political parties form the currents of public life, but in Catalonia the trade unions have this function…

Continuous conflicts arose between the members of the CNT and those of the UGT, over ways and means of conducting the work. The conflicts created a scarcity of certain food articles. Things became more expensive; sharp political discussions arose as to their cause, and as to the value of the methods…

To the communists of the PSUC the P.O.U.M signified a rival party that had to be eliminated from the scene. The Soviet Union strongly supported these manoeuvres. Some shipments of food arrived from the USSR. They also sent some armaments. The propaganda machine started using this support for their political purposes. The P.O.U.M began to lose their influence.

The influence of the PSUC grew in proportion as that of the P.O.U.M declined. The differences between the two parties were extended into the UGT. The members of the P.O.U.M belonged to the UGT and even held a number of important positions there. The PSUC wanted to expel them from their posts. A bitter conflict began between the two Marxist brothers for control of the trade unions, a conflict such as is known only too well in many other countries. The political atmosphere among the anti-fascists in Catalonia became ever more unbearable…

Immediately after taking over the Department, Juan Comorera, the new Minister, erased, with one stroke of his pen, the entire work of his predecessor: the inner trade monopoly, the fixed prices for articles of food, was wiped out. Comorera’s aim was to break the power of the unions. He therefore wanted to turn over the function of supplying food to private companies. Thus small proprietors, petty traders and tenants were able to make greater profits through higher prices. The scarcity of bread became chronic. Things became more expensive and the masses more discontented. Economically, as well as politically, the fuel had been assembled, and demagogy helped set it alight…

In the meantime, a sort of united front had been established between the Catalan Left (Esquerra), the Catalan Nationalists (Estat Catala), and the PSUC and UGT. They all defended the Minister of the Interior, Aiguade, and the Chief of Police, Rodriguez Salas, the two most directly responsible for the outbreak. This united front among the Ministers was carried into the street. Police, national Guards, Catalan city police, and members of the PSUC (affiliated to the 3rd International) and the UGT manned the barricades together against the workers of the CNT and the FAI, with whom the P.O.U.M, the Party of Marxist Unity, were also allied. This united front of all the left bourgeois parties with the communists against the syndicalist CNT and the anarchist FAI was ample proof that they were trying to create a situation in which they could remove the syndicalists and the anarchists from the government and discredit them among the workers… That the police under Rodriguez Salas had rebelled against the government was never stated in the official reports of the government. The population had to be told that the workers of the CNT and the FAI had initiated the conflict…

A newly founded group, called ‘Friends of Durutti’ functioning on the fringes of the CNT-FAI, published a proclamation declaring that, “A revolutionary Junta has been constituted in Barcelona. All those responsible for the putsch, manoeuvring under the protection of the government, shall be executed. The P.O.U.M shall be a member of the Revolutionary Junta because they stood by the workers.”

The Regional Committees decided not to concur with this proclamation. The Libertarian Youth likewise rejected it. On the next day, Thursday May 6th, their official statement was printed in the entire press of Barcelona…

The anarchists were persecuted; the anarchists were murdered; the anarchists were outlawed. Still they limited themselves only to defence, and never attacked. Yet when the lie was circulated that the anarchists were doing the attacking, the world press seized upon it eagerly and spread it to the four corners of the earth…

The committees decided to address the population of Barcelona by manifesto that they wished to maintain the anti-fascist front. At the same time they addressed the general public all over the world by a manifesto on Thursday May 6th which reads as follows:

“While the tragic events were taking place here in Barcelona, provoked as they were by some irresponsible elements in the anti-fascist organisations, the world at large received very little information concerning the whole situation.

“The same cowardly elements that wished to provoke bloodshed in Barcelona, issued false reports to the outside world with the same evil intentions, grossly misrepresenting everything.

“Foreign countries have been told that the CNT and the FAI were the cause of the disturbances of the last few days. You were told that the anarchists were guilty of starting this struggle among fellow workers which caused blood to flow in the streets of Barcelona. You were told that the anarchists attacked the police the Generality, and other municipal and state institutions.

“Nothing is more false than this version of the developments and those who spread such lies intentionally can be nothing but fascists in disguise.


Each side did damage by accusing the other of being fascist in disguise. But the Far Left cause was doomed, regardless of its merits. Also most sources agree that most of the non-military killings on the Republican side were done by the Anarchist.

A left-wing government will normally be blamed if it fails to suppress its own extremists. And also blamed if it does suppress its own extremists, who will then be redefined as innocent victims of leftist brutality. The same critics will usually excuse much worse violence by their own side.

Victor Serge: Marxism in Our Time (1938)

Since the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, Marxism has gone through many metamorphoses and suffered many attacks. Critics still exist – and sometimes men of good will – who insist that it has been cancelled, refuted, destroyed by history. The confused but energetic class-consciousness of the last defenders of capitalism, however, sees in Marxism its most dangerous spiritual and social enemy. The preventative counter-revolutions of Italy and of Germany justly proclaim themselves “anti-Marxist”. On the other hand, almost all workers’ movements which have won any appreciable power have been inspired by Marxism. The CNT of Spain is almost the only exception to this rule, and experience has shown only too well the seriousness of its ideological bankruptcy, at a moment when the consciousness of the masses was called on to become one of the decisive factors in a revolution in the making – a revolution perhaps aborted today precisely because of the political incapacity of the revolutionaries.

Victor Serge: A Letter and Some Notes (1939)

On the P.O.U.M, however. This heroic and persecuted workers’ party alone represented revolutionary Marxism in the ranks of the Spanish revolution. It gave proof of clairvoyance and a magnificent courage. It was all the more up against it by the fact that even in the best days the uncomprehending and brutal attitude of the Third International towards anarchists and syndicalists had made Marxism unpopular in the labour movement of Spain. Nevertheless, it was not infallible, far from it. And I do not dream of reproaching it for that, for I know of nobody, really, of nobody, infallible down there. On the other hand, nothing is easier than for a dozen comrades to meet, and then announce that they possess the monopoly of the full truth, the only correct theory, the infallible recipe on how to make the revolution succeed – and thenceforth to denounce as traitors, opportunists and incompetents the militants who are at grips with that reality which events and masses constitute. This way of acting seems to me incorrect and vexatious, even if it happens that its defenders say things which are, in themselves, quite right…

The comrades of the P.O.U.M and of the CNT having been persecuted and assassinated with impunity in the Spanish republic while the CNT participated in various capacities in a bourgeois government, the CNT obviously bears its share of the political responsibility for these crimes against the labour movement, though it would be unjust to render its leaders personally responsible for them.

Serge never explained why it was a good idea to undermine an anti-Fascist war that was still winnable in 1937. Winning wasn’t what he was interested in. He was not a Trotskyist, perhaps because he remembered Trotsky in power. But like Trotsky, he blamed particular leaders for the awkward fact that the Soviet Union could not actually be governed according to the ideals of 1917.

Regarding the Bolshevik’s repression of its own far-left at Kronstadt, he said:

According to the Soviet historians, mutinous Kronstadt had some 16,000 combatants at its disposal. Several thousand succeeded in reaching Finland over the ice. The others, by hundreds and more likely by thousands, were massacred at the end of the battle or executed afterward. Where are Dzerzhinsky’s statistics – and what are they worth if they exist? The single fact that a Trotsky, at the pinnacle of power, did not feel the need of informing himself precisely on this repression of an insurrectional movement of workers, the single fact that a Trotsky did not know what all rank-and-file Communists knew: that out of inhumanity a needless crime had just been committed against the proletariat and the peasants – this single fact, I say, is gravely significant. It is indeed in the field of repression that the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party committed the most serious mistakes from the beginning of the revolution, mistakes which were to contribute most dangerously, on the one hand, to bureaucratising the party and the state, and on the other, to disarming the masses and more particularly the revolutionists. It is high time this was acknowledged.

Victor Serge: Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)

I met the Menshevik leaders, and certain anarchists. Both sets denounced Bolshevik intolerance, the stubborn refusal to revolutionary dissenters of any right to exist, and the excesses of the Terror. The Mensheviks seemed to me to be admirably intelligent, honest and devoted to Socialism, but completely overtaken by events. They stood for a sound principle, that of working-class democracy, but in a situation fraught with such mortal danger that the stage of siege did not permit any functioning of democratic institutions…

Since the first massacres of Red prisoners by the Whites, the murders of Volodarsky and Uritsky and the attempt against Lenin (in the summer of 1918), the custom of arresting and, often, executing hostages had become generalized and legal. Already Cheka, which made mass arrests of suspects, the was tending to settle their fate independently, under formal control of the Party, but in reality without anybody’s knowledge.

The Party endeavoured to head it with incorruptible men like the former convict Dzerzhinsky, a sincere idealist, ruthless but chivalrous, with the emaciated profile of an Inquisitor: tall forehead, bony nose, untidy goatee, and an expression of weariness and austerity. But the Party had few men of this stamp and many Chekas.

I believe that the formation of the Chekas was one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918 when plots, blockades, and interventions made them lose their heads. All evidence indicates that revolutionary tribunals, functioning in the light of day and admitting the right of defence, would have attained the same efficiency with far less abuse and depravity. Was it necessary to revert to the procedures of the Inquisition?

By the beginning of 1919, the Chekas had little or no resistance against this psychological perversion and corruption. I know for a fact that Dzerzhinsky judged them to be “half-rotten”, and saw no solution to the evil except in shooting the worst Chekists and abolishing the death-penalty as quickly as possible.

Serge is believed to be the first writer to describe the Soviet Government as ‘totalitarian’. He had no positive politics whatsoever. Lumping Left and Right under a common label seems to have been his main historic achievement.

Serge does at least note that mass killings after the October Revolution were begun by the Whites, who were backed by the British Government. Very much a continuation of earlier Tsarist policies, which hadn’t stood in the way of a British-French-Russian alliance against Germany.

Shooting your own ‘bad elements’ and then abolishing the death penalty isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds. Abolishing the death penalty was part of the standard cultural package of socialism, and has indeed been carried through in most of Western Europe, where socialists were able to take over and moderate the existing state machine. The Bolsheviks tried it when they first took power and also pardoned and released right-wing officers who had opposed them in the early days. But a policy of mercy requires mercy from both sides, and the Russian Whites showed none. The Reds acquired the same habits while fighting them.

Review of a book about Victor Serge

Blaming Trotsky’s personality for their estrangement does not hold water. Nor can their disputes be merely explained away by the role of the GPU in sowing misunderstanding and discord between the two revolutionary veterans. There were real and important political differences between Serge and Trotsky, and on essentials Trotsky was correct. Most of their disputes boiled down to grasping what Trotsky referred to as the “pitiless logic” of revolution: where revolution stops short of the vigorous defence of working class power it invites bloody reaction and capitalist dictatorship…

History should be the judge on who was correct. Unfortunately, the P.O.U.M leaders, devoid of Marxist principles, signed a ‘popular front’ pact and joined a capitalist dominated government in 1936. This disorientated and weakened the revolutionary workers and paved the way for the outlawing and suppression of the P.O.U.M at the instigation of the Stalinists. In the hands of the Stalinists and ‘liberal’ capitalists, the revolution went down to bloody defeat. Stalin feared the success of the Spanish working class more than the potential threat of strengthened fascism in Europe: he correctly understood that a victorious Spanish revolution would act as an enormous impulse for Soviet workers to struggle to overthrow the bureaucracy. (The Course is Set on Hope by Susan Weissman. [http://www.socialistworld.net/eng/2002/06/16review.html])

As I said before, mainstream Communists saw P.O.U.M as a mere nuisance, getting in the way of their efforts to persuade the much more powerful Anarchists to make the anti-Fascist war the main priority.

Spartacus Educational (Trotskyist)

The Workers Party of Marxist Unification (P.O.U.M) was formed by Andres Nin and Joaquin Maurin in 1935. A revolutionary anti-Stalinist Communist party was strongly influenced by the political ideas of Leon Trotsky. The group supported the collectivization of the means of production and agreed with Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution.

As a result of Maurin’s involvement, P.O.U.M was very strong in Catalonia. In most areas of Spain it made little impact and in 1935 P.O.U.M is estimated to have only around 8,000 members.

P.O.U.M supported the Popular Front Government but its radical policies such as nationalization without compensation, were not introduced. Andres Nin criticised the Popular Front’s conservatism and on 16th December he was ousted from the government.

During the Spanish Civil War the organization grew rapidly and by the end of 1936 it was 30,000 strong with 10,000 in its own militia. [http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/SPpoum.htm]

They cite what Claude Coburn was saying in the Communist Party’s Daily Worker at the time:

The P.O.U.M, acting in cooperation with well-known criminal elements, and with certain other deluded persons in the anarchist organisations, planned, organised and led the attack in the rearguard, accurately timed to coincide with the attack on the front at Bilbao.

In the past, the leaders of the P.O.U.M have frequently sought to deny their complicity as agents of a Fascist cause against the People’s Front. This time they are convicted out of their own mouths as clearly as their allies, operating in the Soviet Union, who confessed to the crimes of espionage, sabotage, and attempted murder against the government of the Soviet Union.

Copies of La Batalla, issued on and after 2 May, and the leaflets issued by the P.O.U.M before and during the killings in Barcelona, set down the position in cold print.

In the plainest terms the P.O.U.M declares it is the enemy of the People’s Government. In the plainest terms it calls upon its followers to turn their arms in the same direction as the Fascists, namely, against the government of the People’s Front and the anti-fascist fighters…

This weekend may well be a turning-point. If the decree is successfully carried out it means:

First: That the groups led by the P.O.U.M who rose against the government last week will lose their main source of strength, namely, their arms.

Second: That, as a result of this, their ability to hamper by terrorism the efforts of the antifascist workers to get the war factories on to a satisfactory basis will be sharply reduced.

Third: That the arms at present hidden will be available for use on the front, where they are badly needed.

Fourth: That in future those who steal arms from the front or steal arms in transit to the front will be liable to immediate arrest and trial as ally of the fascist enemy.

Spartacus Educational have a genuine interest in truth, even when it doesn’t fit Trotskyist perceptions. As well as Coburn, they cite Tom Murray, Voices From the Spanish Civil War (1986)

Prospects for the future of the Republic were quite good as a sort of a liberal progressive administration. Nobody could call it anything other than that. It wasn’t a Government of Socialists. The Republican Government was a Government more or less of Liberals, with Socialists and supporting Communists and so on. And the terrible crime of the P.O.U.M. in my view was that they tried to foster the idea that this was a revolutionary war. It wasn’t a revolutionary war. It never had any signs of a revolutionary war. The people of Spain were not revolutionary in the sense of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. They were people concerned to expel the Italians and the Germans from their territory, which was a revolt against an invasion by foreigners into their territory, a foreign invasion which was sponsored by the handful of generals led by Franco. I think it was a great tragedy that at a certain period in the struggle there was fighting behind the lines, instigated in my view by those who believed that it was a revolutionary struggle. And this has got to be clearly understood: it wasn’t a revolutionary struggle. It had none of the elements of a revolutionary struggle. It was a struggle for the expulsion of foreign invaders. But the lack of unity ensuing created a terrible handicap.

Barcelona May-days of 1937

If the anarchists and the P.O.U.M had wanted to exterminate the Communists in Barcelona and Catalonia. they would as a preliminary measure, have ousted their divisions: and, above all, a systematic series of incidents would have occurred in their fiefs (that is to say all the industrial cities and most of the villages…

The Communists refuse these interpretations totally, and if the term: anarchist and Trotskyist ‘putsch’ has been used automatically from 1960 … to 1977 … there is also a development. When a grave responsibility is invariably attributed to Franco’s agents according to the evidence of Von Faupel, Nazi ambassador to Franco (message of 13th May 1937, the disturbances in Barcelona had been provoked by his agents, in German political archives);

Two years later, Pritsker in … added the ‘proof’ of the quotation from the Nazi archives about Franco’s agents (clearly this was a matter of boasting to impress Hitler). (Review of non-anarchist writings on the Barcelona May-days of 1937, [http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/spain/review_mayday.html]

This review sympathises with P.O.U.M, but is clear about the hard-line position of the Spanish Communists at least up until 1977. Hitchens, rejecting what my father said, asked which authorities said P.O.U.M were seen as traitors. As I’ve shown, a remarkable range of sources agree that was the majority left opinion.

Everyone except the Trotskyists and Anarchists agree that P.O.U.M damaged the Republican cause. This includes the Nazis: note that they regarded it as a useful split in the enemy camp rather than a dangerous outbreak of radical spirit. This applies whether or not they boasted about their own role in it.

The Anarcho-Statists of Spain

The Spanish fascists used barbaric methods throughout the Spanish Civil War in order to establish a brutal dictatorship. The Spanish Communists used similar wartime measures in their failed effort to give birth to an even more totalitarian regime. But many discussions of the Spanish Civil War overlook, minimize, or apologize for the atrocious behaviour and tyrannical aspirations of perhaps the most powerful faction of the Spanish Republicans: the Anarchist movement. The present essay aims to redress the balance…

In Catalonia, Aragon, and other areas, Anarchist militants defeated the military uprisings. Finding themselves more powerful than the regional governments and possibly the central government, the Spanish Anarchists seized the moment to implement some radical changes in those regions of Spain where they had a large following. One of these radical changes was the beginning of large-scale murders of people believed to be supporters of the Nationalists. In most cases, these supporters had taken no specific action to assist the Nationalist rebellion; they were singled out for their beliefs, or what people guessed their beliefs were…

Hugh Thomas’ The Spanish Civil War … explains that: “All who could conceivably be suspected of sympathy for the nationalist rising were in danger. As among the nationalists, the irrational circumstances of a civil war made it impossible to lay down what was or was not treason. The worthy died, the unworthy often lived. In East Andalusia, lorries manned by the CNT drove into villages and ordered mayors to hand over their fascists. The mayors had often to say that they had all fled but the terrorists would often hear from informers which of the better off people were still there, arrest them and shoot them in a nearby ravine.” Thomas adds that, “In the vast majority of cases, the murders were of the rank and file of the Right. Often members of the working class would be killed by their own acquaintances for hypocrisy, for having kow-towed too often to their social superiors, even simply for untruthfulness. In Altea, near Alicante, for example, a cafe proprietor was killed with a hatchet by an anarchist for having overcharged for stamps and for the glass of wine that buyers of stamps were forced to take while waiting.” Political belief was not the only kind of heterodoxy which the Spanish Anarchists refused to tolerate. Mere acceptance of theism, typically in its Catholic variant, provoked many of the Anarchist militants to violence. The burning of religious buildings, from cathedrals and churches to convents and monasteries was widespread, as was the murder of priests and nuns…

Fraser documents many other instances of the Anarchists’ religious intolerance, but also brings out an interesting case in which the Anarchist leader Carod forbade violence against religious buildings and personnel. “‘You are burning the churches without thinking of the grief you are causing your mothers, sisters, daughters, parents, in whose veins flows Christian, Catholic blood. Do not believe that by burning churches you are going to change that blood and that tomorrow everyone will feel himself, herself an atheist. On the contrary! The more you violate their consciences, the more they will side with the church. Moreover, the immense majority of you are believers at heart.’ He demanded that all lives and all property – not only religious – be respected.” Note that Carod merely appeals to the strategic folly of persecuting religious believers, since it leads people to “side with the church” (and presumably to side with the Nationalists as well). Carod’s argument typifies the Spanish Anarchists’ half-hearted self- criticism. One waits in vain for an Anarchist to defend freedom of thought, the individual’s right to believe what he chooses; to say, in short, that mere belief is not a crime, but killing someone for his beliefs is. None of this implies, of course, that similar atrocities were not committed by the Nationalists and by non-Anarchist forces on the Republican side. It is to be expected that Communists, fascists, and the other bloodthirsty zealots of the 20th century would brutally murder people for their beliefs. One would be surprised if moderate Republicans, moderate Socialists, and moderate monarchists restrained themselves from widespread murder in the midst of a fratricidal civil war. But one would hope that a movement condemning the state for its age-old brutality, and advocating an end to all human domination, would have behaved differently. Instead, it is clear that Anarchist militants were at the vanguard of the murder squads on the Republican side.

The Anarchists were even more eager to assume governmental powers in Catalonia, where they were strong enough to overshadow the regional Catalonian Government, the Generalitat. Rather than officially enter the Catalonian Government, the Anarchists chose to retain the Generalitat as a legal cover; but real power shifted into the hands of the Anarchist-controlled Central Anti-Fascist Militia Committee… A raid on the Anarchist-controlled telephone company brought these feelings to the surface. (The non-Anarchists objected to the Anarchists’ use of wiretaps to listen in on important conversations.) The CNT ministers merely demanded the removal of the main people responsible for the raid; but hundreds of the rank-and-file Anarchists responded with rage, setting up barricades. As Bolloten describes matters, “That same night [May 3 -B.C.] the executive committee of the P.O.U.M met with the regional committees of the CNT, FAI, and the Libertarian Youth. Julian Gorkin, a member of the executive [of the P.O.U.M -B.C.], recalls: ‘We stated the problem in these precise terms: ‘Neither of us has urged the masses of Barcelona to take this action. This is a spontaneous response to Stalinist aggression…[The regional committees] made no decision. Their maximal demand was the removal of the [police] commissioner who had provoked the movement. As though it were not the various forces behind him that had to be destroyed! Always the form instead of the substance!” The Anarchist leadership was, as this quote indicates, out of step with the rank-and-file; they urged the militants to stop the fighting. Their requests were not heeded, as Bolloten notes: “[T]here were forces intent on stoking the conflict. Not only were Rodriguez Salas’s men initiating new offensive actions, but the tiny Trotskyist group of Bolshevik Leninists and the dissident Anarchist Friends of Durutti, joined by some of the more militant members of the P.O.U.M, were extremely active. While the activists ignored the Anarchist leadership, the CNT ministers desperately tried to hammer out a deal…

The despotism of the Anarchists sometimes even extended to the pettiness of prohibiting not only alcohol but coffee and tobacco. “In the libertarian village of Magdalena de Pulpis, for example, the abolition of alcohol and tobacco was hailed as a triumph. In the village of Azuara, the collectivists closed the cafe because they regarded it as a ‘frivolous institution.'” Bolloten quotes Franz Borkenau, an eyewitness. “‘I tried in vain to get a drink, either of coffee or wine or lemonade. The village bar had been closed as nefarious commerce. I had a look at the stores. They were so low as to foretell approaching starvation. But the inhabitants seemed to be proud of this state of things. They were pleased, they told us, that coffee drinking had come to an end; they seemed to regard this abolition of useless things as a moral improvement.'” As one peasant put it, “‘[T]here is no money for vice.'” Thus, the freedom of the Aragonese peasantry was the Orwellian freedom to live precisely as the Anarchist militia deemed right. [http://www.studyworld.com/newsite/ReportEssay/History/European%5CThe_Anarcho-Statists_of_Spain-32279316.htm]

Lessons of People’s War in Spain 1936-1939

This is from ‘Progressive Labor’ a US group who stick to 1960s Marxist anti-revisionism. They share with the Trotskyists a complete inability to understand the value of compromise.

The Spanish Civil War was the opening act of the Second World War in Europe

It was the military and political proving ground both for European Fascism, and for class-collaborationist policies that the old communist movement never outlived

In one important respect, however, the Spanish War differed from the major conflict which was to follow. In Spain, the major capitalist powers united–despite their contradictions with one another–against the threat of proletarian revolution, a threat made real by the Asturias revolt of 1934

When the World War came, the lines were not drawn, as the imperialists had wished, with Hitler’s Germany attacking the Soviet Union, with active or “neutral” support from the “democracies.” Instead, the imperialists fought among themselves, though still leaving the Soviet workers to destroy Hitler virtually by themselves

The History of the Civil war has long preoccupied red-baiters of all sorts, seeking to vilify Spanish communists, the Communist International, and Stalin. Anti-communist writers have produced almost as many pages of lies about the struggle in Spain as about the October Revolution. This article will be a brief attempt to exhume some of the lessons for the working class that have been buried under this mass of filth

We will see that study of the war has practical value for communists of today on a number of points. We will see that the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) and the Comintern provided the only effective leadership–political and military–in the struggle against Fascism in Spain. The PCE, unlike all the groups of “left” creeps beloved of anti-communist writers from Orwell to Chomsky, was able to organize hundreds of thousands of working people into a powerful military force, despite the enormous material difficulties and their own weaknesses

As for the errors of the PCE, they confirm major points of PL’s line: (1) communists lose when they abandon the struggle for workers’ dictatorship; (2) fighting fascism is critical for worker’s victory; (3) nationalism and alliances with bosses are disastrous; (4) “unity” with various phoney left groups–Anarchists and Trotskyites–is as fatal as “unity” with bosses…

Pasionaria’s broadcasts and speeches called for the resolute defence of Madrid: “They shall not pass!” “Madrid will be the tomb of Fascism!” Since then, the PCE had organized to make this a reality. Their famous Fifth Regiment had recruited over 60,000 militiamen (half PCE members), which soon became the backbone of the People’s Army. Modelled on the Soviet Red Army of Russian civil war days, the 5th Regiment had a system of political commissars responsible for the political understanding of the troops and commanders, and who acted as commanders themselves when the need arose. Tens of thousands of workers were trained in the Regiment, including the soon to be famous commanders Lister (a quarryman), Modesto (a woodcutter) and El Campesino (“The Peasant”). Barracks, commissary, and training schools were organized, as well as committees to look after families of recruits…

Lister really had been a quarryman, Modesto a woodcutter. But as Hemingway said, El Campesino was a former soldier who had never been an actual peasant. Nor do Progressive Labour seem ignorant of this; they just evade it.

From November 8 to the 15th, nine militia units came from other areas to aid Madrid. One, the 3,000-man Anarchist column from the Aragon Front, deserves mention for its example of Anarchist military organization. The column was led by Buenaventura Durutti, whose demands for an independent section of the front “so that their achievements could not then be claimed by other units” were supported by the Anarchist Minister of Justice. The Anarchists were given a sector in the University City, with artillery and air support, but refused to attack. The next day, the Fascists attacked and the Anarchists broke and ran, abandoning a key bridge and positions in the University. Counterattacks by exhausted militiamen and Internationals regained some of the lost territory; lines thus established were to remain the same until the end of the war. Ashamed of the performance of his men, Durutti tried to persuade them not to leave Madrid but was shot and killed by one of them.

This is one of several rival stories about Durutti’s death. It is also inaccurate to call the P.O.U.M Trotskyists, though their position was close.

The Trotskyite P.O.U.M (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) was formed in October, 1935 by the fusion of two sects led by renegades from the PCE

Their activities were largely confined to Catalonia. Until their suppression in May, 1937, the P.O.U.M acted as an adjunct to the Anarchist Federation of Iberia (FAI) and the labor federation (CNT) which the FAI led. Vitriolic in their attacks on “Stalinists,” the P.O.U.M merely offered friendly advice to the Anarchists, who held “similar ideas concerning hopes and perspectives on the revolution.

After the defeat of the Fascist rising in Barcelona, Anarchists and POUMists organized militias which “fought” on the Aragon front. Their military accomplishments were truly amazing: they made a demonstration in the direction of Zaragoza, the capital of Aragon, and settled in to trade occasional shots with the Fascists… Internationals relieving Anarchist troops on the Ebro River a year after the beginning of the war found no fortifications, and positions a full two kilometres from Fascist lines. Exactly two casualties had been admitted to the nearby military hospital in the previous three months. Anarchist militias had elevated chaos into a political principle. A leaflet distributed in Aragon stated that: We do not recognize military formations because this is the negation of Anarchism. Winning the war does not mean winning the revolution. Technology and strategy are important in the present war, not discipline which presupposes a negation of the personality… The Internationals also found a peasant population embittered against Republican forces by the Anarchist seizures. The commissar of the Lincoln Brigade found one farmer incredulous that he was offered money for food instead of worthless script. The sullen attitudes of the Aragon farmers contrasted markedly with the enthusiastic support that had met the People’s Army forces outside Anarchist-controlled areas. On the Fascist side, the Aragon front was very weakly held: a Franco historian says that the Fascists were able to remove forces from that front to attack Madrid. POUMists and their defenders have excused their criminal foot-dragging by the lack of arms for P.O.U.M and FAI-CNT forces, claiming that communists withheld Soviet material from Aragon. Orwell, for example, explains their failure to attack, despite the desires of the rank-and-file militiamen, by the lack of artillery and maps, the difficult terrain, and the fact that there was only one machine gun for every fifty men. With the same material difficulties–including one machine gun per fifty men–the communist-led 35th Division forced the Ebro River in July, 1938, advanced 25 kilometres, captured 4 towns and 2500 prisoners. The P.O.U.M leaders’ attitude is amply summed up by a remark Orwell quotes from his P.O.U.M commander Georges Kopp: “This is not war, it is comic opera with an occasional death.” As we have seen, things weren’t so comic on the Madrid front. (Progressive Labor, Vol. 9, No. 5 (Oct.-Nov. 1979), 106-116.. [http://www.mail-archive.com/marxist-leninist-list@lists.wwpublish.com/msg00936.html].)

The P.O.U.M. in Spain.  Albert Weisbord, Class Struggle (February 1937)

Many advanced workers, disillusioned with the Socialists and Stalinists, have been willing to believe that in the P.O.U.M. there is some hope that the workers will be able to surmount their difficulties and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and a socialist regime…

No longer tied to the apron strings of capital, the proletariat of Spain is ready to modernize Spain not in the capitalist sense but in the socialist sense. And thus the modernization of Spain in the capitalist sense has to be the work not of a progressive government but of forces that stifle and crush the revolutionary proletariat and the toiling masses.

Many of those who wish to modernize Spain from a bourgeois point of view are now with the forces of Franco precisely for this reason. The insurgents are not of one piece; there are the Carlists and the Bourbonists, but there are also the fascists. The fascists do not wish to bring back the old Spain that has been irrevocably destroyed. They too wish essentially to industrialize and modernize Spain, but they understand clearly that no longer is this the job of revolution – as was the case in France in 1789 – but of counter-revolution.

In this the counter-revolutionary fascists disagree violently with their capitalist brethren who are still behind the Madrid Government. The capitalists of the Madrid Government who are in the Left Republican Parties, believe that the workers can be controlled, that they will not make a bid for power and that therefore the Madrid Government can become, like the government of present day England or of France, a fine vehicle for the development of capital. The fascist capitalists, however, believe that the day is too late for this, that democratic control is too weak, that the working class can no longer be restrained and that the first job of the day is to crush the aspirations of the masses for Socialism. Only thus can capitalism be revived in Spain…

But the fact of the matter is, the masses are more or less imprisoned by the opportunism of the Socialists and Stalinists on the one hand, and the Anarchists and Syndicalists on the other. The Socialists and Stalinists have openly declared that they are not fighting for Socialism but merely for bourgeois democracy. They have become ardent bourgeois democrats and republicans and have no other thought than loyal support of the status quo that was being attacked by the rebel reactionaries… They make no effort to carry the revolution forward for the benefit of the people. Instead they carry on bitter war against the Left Wing, especially the P.O.U.M. that tends to go in the revolutionary direction.

The Anarchists also have come out strongly against the dictatorship of the proletariat and it was for this reason that the Anarcho-Syndicalists of the C.N.T. refused to participate in the Asturias revolt of 1934 and quietly saw their own brethren shot down by the Madrid Government of those days because the workers refused to pledge themselves to the Asturias revolt that they would not take the power and inaugurate Socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

A revolutionary workers’ party in the government would strive to change the struggle from one against fascism and monarchism to one against capitalism as a whole. It would expose in detail the sabotage of the capitalist elements in the government and how these saboteurs are protected by the Socialists, Stalinists and others playing their game…

Maurin was killed in action in the present civil war, leaving Nin practically the chief leader. But far from producing a monolithic organization, this set of circumstances is only bringing to a head a crisis within the P.O.U.M…

To break with the Socialists, Stalinists and Trotskyists of the Trotsky-Nin stamp and build up a real internationalist Communist organization that will establish the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Spain and extend the revolution throughout Europe.

Barricades In Barcelona

In the general press the May Days have been pictured as a wild uprising of uncontrolled Anarchists (F.A.I.) mingled with treacherous Trotskyists (P.O.U.M.) behind whom lurk the sinister figures of the “Fifth Column” of Franco. The Spanish Embassy to France, inspired by Alvarez del Vayo and Luis Arquistain, actually stated that those behind the barricades flew monarchist flags in the streets.

The May Days were an expression of the fact that the dual power which has been established in Catalonia and in Spain after the July 1936 days is creating an intolerable situation, capable of solving none of the burning problems that face Leftist Spain. The dilemma must be resolved either in one direction or another. Either the Spanish and Catalonian State is to be controlled by the regular government in favor of capitalist development, or the workers will take over the full power and establish their own forms of fighting and of governing. The present confused situation stems directly from this dual power.

The Fight Within The Spanish Left

The P.O.U.M., then, tries to stand for the same position in Spain as the Bolshevik Party under Lenin stood in Russia, just as objectively the Socialist-Stalinists of Spain may be compared to the Mensheviks and the Anarcho-Syndicalists appear as the Spanish variety of the Russian Left Social Revolutionaries. The Workers Party of Marxist Unification, however, is by no means as hardened or tested, nor its leadership so intransigent or audacious as the Bolsheviks were under Lenin. The mistakes of the P.O.U.M. have been far more numerous.

The Provocations Of Bourgeois Democracy In Spain

The events of May were but the culmination of a whole series of provocations on the part of the bourgeois democratic forces against the workers… February 15th – Valencia Government orders collection of all heavy arms from workers and all light arms not held by permission. [http://www.weisbord.org/]

Orwell and the Spanish Revolution

John Newsinger, Issue 62 of International Socialism Journal, which is mainstream Trotskyism.

Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair at Motihari in India in 1903, the son of an Indian civil servant, an agent in the Opium Department. His paternal grandfather had served in the Indian army and his maternal grandfather had been a teak merchant in Burma. In every respect his was a family rooted in the British Raj. He attended a preparatory school in Sussex and then aged 13 was sent to Eton.

Despite his literary interests he did not go on to university, but in 1922 joined the Indian Imperial Police and was stationed in Burma. Given his background this was hardly a surprising decision. As Raymond Williams observes, so far his life had been ‘in all its visible details a training for membership in the administrative middle class of imperialist Britain’…

At least initially, the dominant position was that the revolutionary process had to be temporarily suspended and the bourgeois state maintained in order to maximise unity in the war against the fascists and to avoid the international isolation of the Republic. Once the military were crushed, however, the revolution would continue…

Against this, there were those who argued that the only way to win the war was by actually completing the revolution, by overthrowing the bourgeois state altogether and completing the process of expropriation. Only in this way could revolutionary enthusiasm be maintained and unrest and rebellion be stirred up behind the fascist lines and, perhaps most crucially, in Morocco. This was the position of the small independent revolutionary party, the P.O.U.M, although it was to be savagely criticised by Trotsky for inconsistency and equivocation. There were also many anarchists holding similar views.

Lastly, there were those who believed that the revolutionary process had to be put into reverse and that the revolutionary gains of July 1936 had to be liquidated. Far from either establishing, or preparing the way for the establishment of, a workers’ state, the bourgeois state had to be re-established and all working class encroachments upon its prerogatives had to be eliminated. Predictably, this was the policy of the Republican middle class, but, somewhat less predictably, it was also the position of the Spanish Communist Party and of the military-political apparatus that the Russians eventually established in the country. Although the Communists made anti-fascism their watchword and vigorously advocated a more disciplined, centralised war effort, they were also determined to destroy the revolution and to eliminate the various bastions of workers’ power that had been established. Revolutionary Barcelona was to be an important target. The Spanish Revolution was to be ruthlessly sacrificed in the interests of Russian foreign policy, of securing an alliance with Britain and France.

When Orwell arrived back in Barcelona the situation was approaching crisis point. Communist pressure was provoking increasing conflict and it was only a matter of time before it erupted into open fighting. Tension was so great that all May Day parades and demonstrations were cancelled in order to avoid the inevitable clashes between Anarchists and Communists. Then at 3pm on Monday 3 May came the provocation that finally did the trick. Heavily armed police occupied the CNT controlled telephone exchange. There was a spontaneous response from working class Barcelona as a general strike quickly gripped the city, hundreds of barricades were erected and armed CNT members took to the streets. The spirit of July had been resurrected.

That evening the P.O.U.M executive met in secret with the regional committees of the CNT and of the FAI to consider how to respond to the uprising. The P.O.U.M leader Julian Gorkin later described how he and his comrades had argued that now was the last opportunity they would have to settle accounts with the Communists and their bourgeois allies:

Neither of us has urged the masses of Barcelona to take this action. This is a spontaneous response to a Stalinist provocation. This is the decisive moment for the Revolution. Either we place ourselves at the head of the movement in order to destroy the internal enemy or else the movement will collapse and the enemy will destroy us. We must make our choice; revolution or counter-revolution.

Gorkin’s assessment of the alternatives was to be fully vindicated in the following weeks but the Anarchist leadership refused to acknowledge their predicament. They were still committed to supporting the Catalan Government, the Generalitat, where their representatives still sat as ministers alongside the PSUC and the representatives of the Catalan bourgeoisie. These problems, they argued, could all be settled by discussion and negotiation. They absolutely refused to have anything to do with the uprising and instead called for a ceasefire, the dismantling of the barricades and a return to work.

This forced the P.O.U.M leadership onto the defensive. Their support and influence were only small compared to that of the Anarchists who still dominated the working class movement in Catalonia. If the Anarchists refused to give a lead to the uprising and, indeed, called for its actual surrender then the situation seemed altogether hopeless. Without leadership the uprising was doomed to defeat and the P.O.U.M believed that they were too weak to provide that leadership. The party seems to have lapsed into passivity, to have gone on the defensive in the hope of preserving what it could in the coming catastrophe…

While he rejected Homage to Catalonia, it is worth briefly considering some of the books that Gollancz did see fit to publish. One of the more restrained was Frank Jellinek’s The Civil War in Spain. He at least acknowledged that the P.O.U.M was not a Trotskyist organisation, but ‘it was objectively helping Trotskyism–and, by extension, fascism’. As for the May events themselves: ‘Documents found in two leading hotels proved conclusively that Franco’s agents had been actively at work to foment the rising’ and that there had been ‘a plan for a large-scale rebel landing on the Catalan coast in April, aided surreptitiously by German and Italian ships’. The outbreak had fortunately been ‘badly mistimed’. Less restrained was J R Campbell’s Soviet Policy and its Critics. This enthusiastic endorsement of the Russian purges included various asides on Spain: the P.O.U.M ‘have spied for Franco and stabbed the People’s Army in the back’, while the fascist agent, Nin, was unfortunately ‘rescued by fascists disguised in military uniforms, who took this measure in the hope of preventing the Spanish authorities securing new and fuller proofs of their crimes’. Most remarkable, however, is Reuben Osborn’s The Psychology of Reaction. This attempted psychological analysis of the fascist personality includes an inevitable chapter on Trotskyism: ‘a knowledge of the psychology of fascist leaders is, at the same time, a knowledge of the psychology of the Trotskyists.’ Osborn goes on to warn, somewhat ominously, that ‘there are concealed within all revolutionary movements individuals who are still unavowed Trotskyists, who mask with their Socialist ideology the psychology of the fascist.’ These and other similar volumes were all published by Gollancz and distributed by the Left Book Club. They were part of a barrage of abuse and slander that effectively denied Orwell and other critics of so much as a hearing from much of the left.

Rejected by Gollancz, Homage to Catalonia was published by Frederic Warburg. His was an embattled firm that was slowly having the life squeezed out of it by the Communists for publishing books by the dissident left, by socialists hostile to Communism. … When it did finally appear in April 1938 Orwell’s book made virtually no impact whatsoever and by the outbreak of war with Germany had sold only 900 copies…

Orwell’s opposition to the Popular Front embraced opposition to what he regarded as the coming war with Germany. He saw the Popular Front as a means whereby the working class could be rallied in support of a war that was not really against fascism but was actually for British imperialism. Such a war, he believed, would inevitably be accompanied by the same repression of the revolutionary left in Britain as he had seen in Spain. He was determined to oppose it and for a while was even urging preparations for going underground. This intransigent revolutionary stance was often accompanied by feelings of hopelessness, that all was lost, and on occasions he seemed to advocate an almost quietest response to the impending catastrophe.3 Once war with Germany broke out, however, he quickly abandoned his opposition and in a remarkable about turn took up a position of what can be best described as ‘revolutionary patriotism’. He argued that the war could only be won if Britain became socialist, adapting what was essentially the P.O.U.M position during the Spanish War to British circumstances. Eventually his politics moderated into what Bernard Crick has somewhat misleadingly characterised as ‘Tribune Socialism’, the belief that a Labour Government was the most that could be achieved in Britain, at least for the foreseeable future, but as late as the autumn of 1942 in his Looking Back on the Spanish War.

(note 31) Lawrence and Wishart [the Communist Party’s publishers] actually republished a collection of Claud Cockburn’s reports from Spain, including his attacks on ‘the Trotskyist swine’ as part of their commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the conflict … Cockburn in Spain (London, 1986), p184.


My father’s book on Orwell is not mentioned after the first item. There is no suggestion that Raymond Williams was unfair to the P.O.U.M militia – his description of the matter isn’t very much different from Newsinger’s own. Newsinger in fact says definitely that P.O.U.M were trying an uprising, though they lacked the strength to take it very far.

History of Barcelona

Within days of Spain’s Second Republic forming in 1931, Catalan nationalists declared a republic within an ‘Iberian Federation’. Catalunya briefly gained genuine autonomy after the leftist Popular Front won the February 1936 Spanish general election, and for nearly a year revolutionary anarchists and the P.O.U.M (the Workers Marxist Unification Party) ran the town. Get 10 anarchists in a room, though, and you’ll have 11 political opinions; in May 1937 infighting between communists, anarchists and the P.O.U.M broke out into street fighting for three days, killing at least 1500 people.

The Republican effort across Spain was troubled by similar infighting, which destroyed any chance they may have had of defeating Franco’s fascist militia. Barcelona, the last stronghold of the Republicans, fell to Franco’s forces in January 1939, and the war ended a few months later. Rather than submitting to Franco, thousands of Catalans fled across the border to France, Andorra and farther afield.  [http://www.aboutbarcelona.com/barcelona/history.asp].

In fact the Republic still held Madrid and a quarter of all Spain after Catalonia fell. As I described in Privatising Orwell, it was internal betrayal by an anti-Communist faction in the army that finished them off.


First published in Problems of Socialism and Capitalism, No. 81-82, Winter 2006

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