The revolution and civil war in Spain in the 1930s represent a somewhat unique moment in history, when an incredible variety of political parties and programs were put to the test and given the opportunity to prove their worth. Further, the eventual victory of Franco’s fascist armies makes this a cautionary tale that ought to warn revolutionaries today against making the same mistakes as the Republican camp.
The main political line inside the Republican camp, promoted by the Communist Party (PCE) and the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), was the Popular Front. It was this political line, sanctified by the Stalinized Comintern, that did more than any other to ensure the defeat of the Republic and the victory of fascism. This fatal error was reinforced by the refusal of the anarchists, organized in the CNT and FAI, to take power and form a revolutionary government when given the opportunity. The Stalinist, reformist, and anarchist approaches to the civil war and revolution in Spain all failed, and we believe studying the reasons for those failures is of great relevance for revolutionaries today.
The Popular Front was a multi-class formation that sought to unite all “progressive” and “democratic” forces in the struggle against Franco—the price of which was the abandonment and/or indefinite postponement of revolutionary aims. In practice, it meant putting the revolution “on hold” in order to fight the civil war “first.” But civil war is ultimately a class war, and to emerge victorious, the working class can rely only on its own revolutionary methods and organizations. This alliance of sections of the left with the liberal bourgeois—or rather, with the pale shadow of the liberal bourgeois, most of whom had no scruples supporting Franco if the alternative was workers’ power—undermined the war effort at every turn.
As no inroads against private property of any kind could be tolerated by these politicians, the Republic fought with its hands tied behind its back and took the working class down with it. As an example, the Popular Front refused to take revolutionary measures for the confiscation and redistribution of the land, leading the pro-Republican peasantry to feel as though it had little to fight for. This was a missed opportunity to break the back of Franco’s forces by giving both his soldiers and those living in fascist-controlled areas a powerful incentive to revolt.
The government also refused to support self-determination for the Spanish colony of Morocco, which allowed Franco’s forces to use it as a key power base, which could have been crippled by a strong independence movement there. Additionally, it is impossible to know how many lives were wasted by the Popular Front policies of keeping weapons needed on the front lines back in the rear—for use in repressing the revolutionary workers—and denying adequate supplies to the revolutionary militias that proved to be among the most determined anti-fascist fighters.
What is known is how quickly the “Republican” bourgeois capitulated to Franco and how demoralized the Popular Front left the revolutionary workers and peasants. The road not taken, the only path to victory in the revolution, was to form a proletarian united front, embrace the class nature of the war, and rally all the oppressed and exploited sections of society in the struggle for their own liberation.
The Spanish Revolution also showed the anti-revolutionary aspects of the anarchist insistence on the “abolition of the state”—in the abstract—as the primary task. Faced with an actual revolution and the opportunity to take power in order to transform society, the Spanish anarchists refused. Claiming to be against all types of state organization, the CNT/FAI leaders showed themselves in practice to be against only such governments as would advance the revolution. In the Catalan capital of Barcelona, Lluis Companys flatly informed the CNT/FAI that power was in their hands if they choose to wield it—and was met by the anarchists’ refusal to match the power they had obtained in the streets with governmental power.
Instead, the CNT opted to leave the Catalan government in office, tacitly offering consent to its anti-revolutionary policies. Later, anarchist theory notwithstanding, the CNT went from merely consenting to the government to actively participating in it as the CNT ministers joined the Popular Front government. If the CNT/FAI anarchists had moved to form a revolutionary government and aligned with the POUM to dismantle the Popular Front and wage a revolutionary war against the fascist tide, their victory would have been assured. Of course, if they had done so, they would not have been anarchists and would have had to accept that the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is a necessary stage in the socialist transformation of society after all.
In his article, “The Lessons of Spain: Last Warning,” Trotsky wrote: “A new generation of revolutionists is now being educated by the lessons of the defeats. This generation has verified in action the ignominious reputation of the Second International. It has plumbed the depths of the Third International’s downfall. It has learned how to judge the Anarchists not by their words but by their deeds. It is a great inestimable school, paid for with the blood of countless fighters!”
The defeat of the Spanish Republic was the result of the class-collaborationist policies of its leaders and the absence of a powerful Bolshevik party to offer an alternative. This should serve as a lesson to revolutionaries today and ensure that the mistakes of the past are never repeated.