Counterrevolution in the revolution

The Spanish revolution and subsequent civil war, which erupted for real 60 years ago in July 1936, is the source of endless controversy. The defeat of the revolution generates an equal amount of anger and sadness. Everyone supported the Spanish revolution and hated Franco. Eddie Ford examines what went wrong

The saga of the Spanish civil war, from the joyous birth of the revolution to its bloody defeat, is a long and bitter one. Unsurprisingly, this story generates much heat and anger. Recriminations and mutual accusations still reverberate. In this respect, the Spanish civil war continues - retrospectively, in the pages of the leftwing press.

Powerful mythologies have been built around the Spanish revolution and counterrevolution. These mythologies, which run deep in today’s political psyche, help to feed and sustain conflicting political ideologies and trends. These myths all contain partial truths (though, of course, some are more partial than others) but in the first and last analysis they only help to obscure the truth. This can only do a disservice to the proletariat and the revolutionary struggle.

It is incumbent upon all revolutionaries, regardless of the tradition they come from, to ruthlessly examine the Spanish revolution, and remorselessly expose its paltriness and inadequacies. By locating the mistakes and failures of the Spanish revolution we reinvigorate our movement and alert us to future dangers - and possible future betrayals.

Perhaps of even more significance, given the worldwide collapse of ‘official communism’ and the workers’ movement in general, is the opportunity which such a reappraisal gives us to take stock of our history, discard past falsehoods and further the process of communist unity.

This might sound like a curious, even semi-fantastic sentiment. All experience teaches us that at the very mention of the words - “Spanish civil war” - gaping political faultlines immediately open. The combatants retreat into their respective political camps and proceed to slug it out. You have all seen it. Anarchist, Trotskyist, ‘official communist’/Stalinites, libertarian socialists, etc point the finger at each other and let loose with ritualised history.

However, this ideological ‘log-jam’ can be broken down and transcended. By honestly and modestly recognising that the events of Spain were the result of a disastrous failure by all the respective parties, organisations, trends and individuals, we can break out of our ideological ghettos. Nobody comes out of the Spanish debacle smelling of Marxist roses. Therefore, no historical political viewpoint can be set in stone. Nothing is sacred.

This brings us, almost naturally, to Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom. This is a film of great power and artistic worth - it would be churlish, if not mean-minded, to say otherwise. The main merit of Land and Freedom is that it helps to break down the myth that Spain was a simple two-horse contest between ‘democracy’ (the good guys who supported the republican government) and fascism (the bad guys who opposed the republic). Loach hints at the complexity of political forces that lay behind government lines, and he vividly demonstrates how the forces of counterrevolution lurked inside the revolution.

Controversially, at least for all those with an ‘official communist’ frame of mind, Land and Freedom also pointed to the treacherous role of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) and the Stalinite bureaucracy, which worked overtime to crush all those revolutionary forces which were not content to meekly defend the People’s Front regime.

For the Stalinites, whether in the Kremlin or in Barcelona, the role of communists was to defend the gains of the so-called bourgeois democratic revolution against fascism - any talk of socialist revolution was denounced as either ‘ultra-leftism’ or ‘Trotskyism’. In Loach’s film we see the bitter consequences of this approach: the mass arrest, torture and physical extermination of many revolutionaries. This was JV Stalin’s contribution to the Spanish revolution - to strangle it. For those with eyes to see, the Kremlin and its agents were the carriers of counterrevolution.

Loach deserves praise for helping to raise these questions. However, in the process of debunking ‘official communist’ mythology, Loach serves up another myth. This one centres on the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification). In Loach’s version of history, the POUM are portrayed as the authentic advocates of ‘pure’ revolution. This romanticised POUM, the party of George Orwell, is the holy paladin of the revolution. It is contrasted to the corrupt PCE and the ‘weak’ People’s Front government, who compromise and backslide. If only the POUM had been running the show ...

Unfortunately, real history tells us a different story. A more sober, less romantic tale. Unlike the POUM of Ken Loach’s imagination, the POUM in the real world had a somewhat Menshevik and altogether dubious role to play. Though it may contradict the mythology of Loach and Orwell, the POUM was just as prone to ‘compromise’ and ‘backsliding’ as the PCE or the anarcho-syndicalists. In fact, whatever the subjective good intentions of the POUM leadership - and the no doubt heroic endeavours of POUM fighters ‘on the ground’ - communists cannot escape the fact that the POUM played a decisive part in the defeat of the revolution. A study of the POUM indeed leads one to the inescapable conclusion that the POUM only played into the hands of counterrevolution.

A harsh verdict, it may seem. But given the bloodshed and suffering Franco’s victory caused, an unavoidable judgement. This is not the message you would take home from Land and Freedom. Yet it was the view of a certain Leon Trotsky, even if the POUM have gone done in popular history as ‘Trotskyist’. Analysing the role of the POUM in the Spanish revolution, Trotsky wrote: “Contrary to its own intentions, the POUM proved to be, in the final analysis, the chief obstacle on the road to the creation of a revolutionary party” (The Lessons of Spain - the final warning Colombo 1956, p14).

This is somewhat ironic. Clearly, in Land and Freedom, Loach was playing to the ‘soft’ Trotskyite gallery - the likes of the Workers Revolutionary Party, entryist organisations in the Labour Party, Labour lefts who fancy themselves as revolutionaries and others in the ‘anti-Stalinist’, Guardian-reading political milieu. Loach knows his audience. Land and Freedom, in many ways, was a bid to reclaim the Spanish revolution for Trotskyism, with the added bonus that the POUMists could act as a substitute for ‘plucky’ Bosnian muslims (possibly the real subject of the film). Regrettably, Loach has to ignore Leon Trotsky in order to rehabilitate ‘Trotskyism’.

By concentrating on the POUM’s tactics, strategy and orientation, we can uncover the real tragedy of the Spanish revolution: the complete absence of any revolutionary leadership. There was no revolutionary party that could lead and inspire the masses, or provide the revolutionary programme which would outline the path to be taken and the goal to be achieved - state power. The POUM was no exception. This is the lesson of Spain: the need for the Party and Partyism. The anarchists and the anarcho-syndicalists may crassly tell us that Spain ‘proves’ them right: ’This is what happens when you have parties and leadership, power corrupts.’ The opposite is the case, of course. The lack of a Bolshevik Party made counterrevolution and defeat the virtually inevitable trajectory.

Trotsky’s passionate condemnation of the anarchists’ pseudo-revolutionism could also apply to the leaders of the POUM:

“The renunciation of conquest of power inevitably throws every workers’ organisation into the swamp of reformism and turns it into a plaything of the bourgeoisie: it cannot be otherwise in view of the class structure of society. In opposing the goal, the conquest of power, the anarchists could not in the end fail to oppose the means: the revolution” (Ibid p12).

The bourgeoisie, in the shape of General Franco and the military, had no such compunction or scruples. Franco was single-mindedly dedicated to the “conquest of power” and the Spanish ruling class instinctively recognised this, gained strength from it and threw their weight behind him. The class confidence of the ruling class outmatched that of the working class and the exploited.

This can be seen by Franco’s rapid success. On July 17, General Franco assumed command of the Moors and Legionnaires of Spanish Morocco. He issued a manifesto to the army and called upon “the nation” to join him in establishing a fascistic state in Spain. Within three days, like dominoes, almost all of the 50 garrisons in Spain declared their allegiance for Franco and the counterrevolution.

The bulk of the bourgeoisie - nobility, landlords, bankers etc - immediately fled into Franco-held territory, or out of the country altogether. The spectre of “communism” was haunting them, as the PCE had just four days before given its full support to the People’s Front government of Manuel Azana. The Spanish ruling class detected the hand of Kremlin-inspired ‘Bolshevism’ in this development and was looking for a saviour.

It would be a mistake, though, to look back with hindsight and pronounce Franco’s victory inevitable, or to overestimate his strength. In reality, Franco was making a gamble and was unsure himself as to how much support he could whip up. Do not fall for the ‘invincible superman’ - the generalissimo of fascist myth. History was not predetermined as soon as Franco launched his uprising.

In May, just two months before the uprising, Franco told a fellow conspirator, General Luis Orgaz, not to be so certain of victory:

“It’s going to be immensely difficult and very bloody. We haven’t got much of an army, the intervention of the Civil Guard is looking doubtful and many officers will side with the constituted power: some because it’s easier, others because of their convictions. Nobody should forget that the soldier who rebels against the constituted power can never turn back, never surrender, for he will be shot without a second thought” (Paul Preston Franco London 1993, p131).

This is evidence that Franco was not invincible - he could have been defeated. By being bold, Franco and his forces eventually won the day. If the revolutionary forces had possessed an equal boldness, counterrevolution could have been vanquished. The defeat of fascism in Spain would have galvanised the proletariat in the rest of Europe - perhaps even threatened Hitler’s regime, which was still insecure.

Yet if we look at the POUM we see a flabby, cowardly organisation which was prone to constant vacillation and a deadening ‘moderation’ - and this was an organisation which Trotsky characterised as the “most honest political organisation in Spain” (The Lessons of Spain p21).

This will come as no surprise to anyone aware of the origin of the POUM. The POUM was the product of an unprincipled fusion in September 1935 of Andres Nin’s Communist Left with Joaquin Maurin’s Workers and Peasants bloc, which was a semi-nationalist Catalan organisation. The latter organisation had a less than inspiring history. Maurin’s members had collaborated with Stalin in the period 1924-28, actively helping him in sending the Communist Party of China into the counterrevolutionary Kuomintang’s “bloc of four classes”. In other words, Maurin had conspired with opportunism, with all the disastrous implications that policy had for the Chinese workers’ movement.

Maurin’s organisation split from the Comintern in 1929, but to the right - not to the left, towards principled Bolshevism. The Comintern’s increasingly ‘centrist’ opportunism in the years 1924-28 was not cited by Maurin, nor was its turn to ‘ultra-leftist’ opportunism in 1929 (“social fascism”, so-called red unionism, etc) and the Third Period. No. The Workers and Peasants bloc of Maurin waved goodbye to JV Stalin on the narrow issue of the national question in Catalonia (and other related topics).

Andres Nin’s Communist Left (Izquierda Comunista) was, in essence, a tiny sect, not a party organisation. In a parallel development with the Workers and Peasants Bloc, albeit from the other end, it broke from Trotsky’s International Left Opposition, in a rightward drifting direction. When Nin’s sect fused with Maurin’s bloc it adopted wholesale the ‘programme’ of the Workers and Peasants bloc, leaving only the residue of Bolshevism and Leninism. POUMism emerged from this quick-fix amalgamation.

Plainly, such an organisation could not act as the vanguard of the revolution - or even as a particularly effective ‘spear-carrier’. The POUM, as we have seen, was not the product of the coming together of the highest theoretical and organisational achievements of the workers’ movement in Spain. The reverse: the POUM was cobbled together on the basis of the lowest common denominator. Such a hopelessly eclectic ‘programme’ and ideology could only help to disarm the Spanish workers, not equip them for revolution.

By their friends thou shall know them. This applies especially to the POUM and Andres Nin. The POUM leadership condemned the Trotskyist movement, such as it was, for being “sectarian”. Yet it was quite happy to cultivate international connections with all manner of right-centrist organisations. The POUM’s main connection was with the ‘International Committee of Revolutionary Socialist Unity’, or the London Bureau, which consisted mainly of the Independent Labour Party and the SAP (Socialist Workers Party) of Germany. This magnificent body issued a manifesto-cum-solidarity statement to the Spanish workers’ movement on August 17, 1936, which was totally uncritical of the People’s Front government.

This was the sort of company the POUMists liked to keep. Whatever criticism you may have of Trotsky’s International Left Opposition, and then the Fourth International, communists do not fail to recognise that it was a revolutionary trend. The same could not be said for the ILP or the SAP in Germany: the latter, shortly after issuing its ‘solidarity’ statement embraced, Popular Frontism with unashamed enthusiasm.

The brief, dramatic and explosive course of the revolution in 1936 cruelly exposed the weaknesses and timidity of the POUM, which was permanently ‘outwitted’ by events and was terminally incapable of offering leadership and direction to the revolutionary forces. The Spain of 1936-37 confirmed the acute observation of Trotsky, who warned that revolutions

“move faster than the thought of semi-revolutionary or quarter-revolutionary parties. Whoever lags behind falls under the wheels of the locomotive, and therewith - and this is the chief danger - the locomotive itself is also not infrequently wrecked ... During revolution the line of least resistance is the line of greatest disaster” (The Lessons of Spain p21).

This predilection for the “line of least resistance” became apparent from the outset. In September, following their declaration of support for the People’s Front government in February, the POUM and the CNT (the National Confederation of Labour, the anarcho-syndicalist trade union federation) entered the Catalan government. Andres Nin became minister of justice. Thus, the ‘anti-sectarian’ POUM and the anarchists - who, of course, despise state power as a matter of principle - declared their preference for the bourgeois state machinery rather than the emerging alternative power centres of the Spanish workers. For the last two months Anti-fascist Militia Committees had sprung up all over Catalonia, and were acting as a pole of attraction for militant workers and revolutionaries. Spanish soviets were coming into existence. The POUM and the CNT had turned their back on them.

Nin’s entrance into the Catalonian Coalition government saw him engage in spectacular political somersaults. On September 7 Nin had made a fiery speech denouncing the Madrid coalition government, established on September 4, raising the slogan, “Down with the bourgeois ministers”.

A correct slogan. The newly installed coalition government of Largo Caballero, who had participated in previous anti-working class governments and was now being lauded as the “Spanish Lenin” by the PCE and ‘official communism’, was a typical cabinet of class collaboration - ie, dedicated to the continuation of the old order. The Caballero government issued a programme on September 5, the main point of which stated:

“The ministerial programme signifies essentially the firm decision to assure triumph over the rebellion, co-ordinating the forces of the people, through the required unity of action. To that is subordinated every other political interest, putting to a side the ideological differences, since at present there can be no other task than that of assuring the smashing of the insurrection” (my emphasis).

Translated, the revolutionary and workers’ movement should confine itself to the ‘anti-fascist’ struggle against Franco. The “forces of the people” must dedicate themselves to the military defeat of Franco’s insurrectionists. The bourgeois state must be preserved.

The revolutionary Andres Nin objected to the class collaborationist nature of the regime in Madrid. Eleven days later the central committee of the POUM published a resolution - accepting coalitionism. This resolution, which appeared in the POUM’s newspaper La Batalla, claimed that the Catalonian

“left republican movement is of a profoundly popular nature - which distinguishes it radically from the Spanish left republican movement - and the peasant masses and workers’ sections on which it is based are moving definitely toward the revolution, influenced by the proletarian parties and organisations”.

At this point, Nin and the POUM ‘forgot’ the essential lessons of Marx and Lenin  - that the working class has to destroy the bourgeois state machinery and erect its own workers’ state. Felix Morrow, in his excellent account Revolution and counterrevolution in Spain, comments:

“It was this fundamental tenet, the essence of the accumulated experience of a century of revolutionary struggle, which the POUM violated in entering the Generalidad [Catalan coalition government]” (New York 1976 p113).

Naturally, Nin had to suitably ‘amend’ the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In his September 8 speech decrying the Caballero coalition government, Nin also said:

“The dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised by one single sector of the proletariat, but by all, absolutely all. No workers’ party or union centre has the right to exercise a dictatorship”.

Instinctively, many communists might nod their heads at such words: a dictatorship over the proletariat by a single party is not our aim. However, Nin had something else in mind when he uttered these words. What Nin meant was that the POUM was entering into a cosy ‘agreement’ with the tops in the other political organisations, so as to jointly assume governmental responsibility. The working class was to be relegated to the role of spectator - at best.

At worst, the workers were being set up for counterrevolution. This turned out to be the case. Predictably, one of the first steps taken by the Generalidad was to dissolve all the revolutionary committees which had arose on July 19, and earlier. July 19 had seen the formation of the Central Committee of the Militias - ie, militia committees, supply committees, workers’ patrols, etc. This marked the stage of dual power and posed the question of state power. For the revolution to succeed it required the centralisation of these workers’ organs into a disciplined, national organisation. The bourgeoisie - and the PCE - feared the new-born Central Committee.

The Generalidad ordered the Central Committee to be dissolved and all its powers to be turned over to the ministries of defence and internal security. The militias, the people armed, were to be absorbed into the bourgeois standing army and then turned into their opposite - a force to defend the bourgeois order, not overthrow it.

An infamous decree was passed on October 9, which Andres Nin put his name to. In the act of signing article 2 Nin was also signing his own death warrant ... and that of his POUM comrades. Article 2 stated: “Resistance to dissolving them will be considered as a fascist act and its instigators delivered to the Tribunals of Popular Justice.”

Most would agree that this signified the beginning of the end of the Spanish revolution. Morrow has no doubts on this matter. For him the

“dissolution of the committees marked the first great advance of the counterrevolution. It removed the nascent soviet power and enabled the bourgeois state to begin retrieving in every sphere the power which had fallen from its hands on July 19” (Ibid p115).

A counterrevolutionary chain of events followed from the Article 2 decree of the Generalidad. This eventually saw the POUM being expelled from the government in December. In June 1937 the POUM was outlawed by the central government, which had been formed in November and included anarchists in its ranks. POUM leaders were arrested, on the grounds that the POUM was a “fascist organisation”. The unfortunate Nin was tortured and murdered by Stalin’s gangsters, the NKVD (see my review of Jesus Hernandez How the NKVD framed the POUM below). The PCE played a willing and active role in this orgy of terror and murder, their first loyalty being to the republican government and the Stalinite bureaucracy. The October Revolution itself became besmirched by the usurpers of Leninism and proletarian internationalism.

For the working class there were no victors from the Spanish revolution and counterrevolution - only losers. The POUM revealed themselves to be “helpless centrists” (Trotsky), not the bronzed heros of Land and Freedom. The anarchists’ r-r-revolutionary phrasemongering became a thin cover for cowardice and treachery. The ‘official communist’ movement, personified by JV Stalin, played a venal and counterrevolutionary role. The events in Spain were the logical result of the doctrine of socialism in one country: ‘Sorry, Spain, we’ve got the franchise - none for you.’ The Trotskyist movement, if you can call it that, played an utterly negligible role, adding to the confusion for the main part.

Leon Trotsky’s writings and advice also need to be scrutinised minutely. Though much of his work on Spain contains brilliant insights and many truths, it has to be asked if his tactics would have secured revolutionary victory. Trotsky took Andres Nin’s Communist Left severely to task for not entering the Socialist Party of Spain, in which he detected an embryonic ‘Bolshevik’ tendency. This is open to question. The Socialist Party had had a consistently reactionary stance and it is hard to see it (or any splinters or factions from it) acting as a potential vanguard party.

This is the charge Morrow repeats in Revolution and counterrevolution in Spain. Morrow castigates the Communist Left for not following Trotsky “in his estimation of the profound significance of the leftward development in the socialist ranks” (Ibid p7). This needs to be examined, especially as Trotsky’s critique amounted to the same in France during 1933-34. He urged communists to enter the Socialist Party of France rather than the “counterrevolutionary” Communist Party, despite the undeniable fact that the Socialist Party had a consistent counterrevolutionary orientation. This has been dubbed Trotsky’s ‘French Turn’.

For our revolutionary movement to grow we need to study Spain and learn the lessons. A first step must be the shedding of all ideological arrogance and absolutist conviction. No one has a monopoly of truth when it comes to Spain, whether it be Ken Loach or even Leon Trotsky - least of all the decaying remnants of ‘official communism’. For all those committed to communist science, let us make sure we do not repeat the same mistakes.