LESSONS OF THE SPANISH REVOLUTION (1936-1939) Vernon Richards — eBook £1.50 (see eBookshelf)

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In this study the Spanish workers’ resistance to the military insurrection of July 1936 is viewed not as a struggle between Fascism and Democracy but as a heroic attempt to bring about a far-reaching Social Revolution. In this task the Spanish revolutionaries had to deal both with Franco’s armies and with the forces of counter-revolution in their midst. It is on this latter aspect of the struggle the author attempts to shed some light, drawing on the vast documentation available, most of which, however, is quite unknown to the English-speaking public.

In spite of the defeat of the Spanish Revolution it is nevertheless one of the most important landmarks in Man’s age-long struggle for his freedom and emancipation, and will eventually be so recognised, when the events, which to-day obscure our sense of proportion and capture the headlines, will have long been forgotten.

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THE STRUGGLE IN SPAIN (1936-1939) which was provoked by the rising of the Military, aided and abetted by wealthy landowners and industrialists as well as by the Church, has generally been regarded in progressive circles outside Spain, as a struggle between Fascism and Democracy, democracy being represented by the Popular Front government which had been victorious in the general elections of February 1936.

Such an interpretation of the situation may have served a purpose at the time as a means of obtaining support from the democracies, (though in fact, it did no more than gain popular sympathy, the democratic governments hastily sealing off Republican Spain from Europe by their policy of Non-Intervention). But such a simplification of the issues hardly bears examination in the light of facts. There is abundant evidence to show that, left to its own devices, the Popular Front Government would have offered no resistance to Franco. Indeed its first reaction to the insurrection was to seek to “make a deal” with Franco and when this was refused outright the government preferred defeat to the arming of the people. If then, in those first days of the struggle, Franco was defeated in two-thirds of the Peninsula we must seek the reasons elsewhere.

It was the revolutionary movement in Spain—the syndicalist organisation C.N.T. (National Confederation of Labour) and certain sections of the Socialist U.G.T. (The General Union of Workers)—which took up Franco’s challenge on July 19, 1936 not as supporters of the Popular Front government, but in the name of the Social Revolution. How far they were able to proceed in putting their social and economic concepts into practise whilst engaging Franco in the armed struggle is a study in itself, and the chapters in which I have dealt with the Agricultural and Industrial Collectives are intended to do no more than hint at this important and neglected aspect of the Spanish revolution. Perhaps, one day, the extensive documentation on the subject will be collected together and published.

In the present study, I am more interested in seeking the reasons for the defeat of the revolution than for Franco’s military victory. For a revolution can be defeated by internal disruption as well as by superior armament. Franco’s victory, it is true, was in part the result of German and Italian intervention on his side, coupled with the policy of non-intervention which adversely affected only the Republican forces. It is also true that the disruption of the “Republican” forces was the result of the application of Moscow-inspired tactics in return for Russian armament. But again, this is only part of the truth. For there is the inescapable reality that during the first weeks of the struggle neither Italian, German or Russian intervention had affected the issue in the decisive way that was to be the case a few months later.

To what extent, then, was the revolutionary movement responsible for its own defeat? Was it too weak to carry through the revolution? To what extent was the purchase of arms and raw materials outside dependent on the maintenance of an appearance of a constitutional government of Republican Spain? What chances had an improvised army of “guerillas” against a regular fighting force? These were some of the “practical” problems facing the revolutionary movement and its leaders. But in seeking to solve these problems, the anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists were also confronted with other questions which were fundamental to the whole theoretical and moral basis of their organisations. To what extent could they collaborate with the political parties and the U.G.T. (the socialist counterpart of the C.N.T. to which half of the organised workers of Spain adhered)? In the circumstances was one form of government to be supported against another? Should the revolutionary impetus of the first days of resistance be halted in the “interests” of the armed struggle against Franco or be allowed to develop as far as the workers were able and prepared to take it? Was the situation such that the social revolution could triumph and, if not, what was to be the role of the revolutionary workers?

With the passing of the years, these have not become simply academic questions. For the Spanish workers who have continued the struggle against Franco both inside Spain and in exile, they are very real and controversial questions. And yet it will be many years before a complete and objective history of the Spanish Revolution will be written. Vast quantities of documents are buried in the organisations’ archives or dispersed, and the individual testimonies of those who played leading roles still remain to be recorded. Not least among the difficulties is the deep division in outlook, both in Spain and in exile, between those Spanish militants who would guide the revolutionary movement back to its traditional anti-governmental, anti-collaborationist position, and those in whom the experience of 1936-39 has strengthened the view that the revolutionary movement must collaborate in government and govern. mental institutions, or disappear. The present study is therefore offered only as a very modest attempt at unravelling and interpreting some of the many issues in the Spanish Revolution.

For my facts, I have relied on official documents. Considerations of space made it quite impossible to reproduce them in full, but I have done my best not to distort the sense by quoting out of context. And in fairness to the critics among my Spanish comrades, I accept full responsibility for the opinions expressed herein. Some have criticised me for being wise after the event, and for writing on events of which I was but a spectator from afar. I mention these criticisms as a warning to the reader as to my limited qualifications for dealing with such a complex subject. But I feel I should in my defence point out that most of the criticisms I have made in this book were expressed by me in 1936-39 in the columns of the journal Spain and the World. This did not, and still does not, prevent me from identifying myself with the Spanish workers’ heroic struggle against Franco’s regime.

It has also been suggested to me that this study provides ammunition for the political enemies of anarchism. Apart from the fact that the cause of anarchy cannot be harmed by an attempt at establishing the truth, the basis of my criticism is not that anarchist ideas were proved unworkable by the Spanish experience, but that the Spanish anarchists and syndicalists failed to put their theories to the test, adopting instead the tactics of the enemy. I fail to see, therefore, how the believers in the enemy, i.e. government and political parties, can use this criticism against anarchism without it rebounding on themselves!

This book would never have been written but for the publication in Toulouse of the first two volumes of La C.N.T. en la Revolución Española. This work contains hundreds of documents relating to the C.N.T.’s role in the Spanish struggle, and I wish to acknowledge here my indebtedness both to the Editor, Jose Peirats, and to the Publishers, the majority section of the C.N.T. in exile. Of the many other sources which I have consulted, special mention must he made of D. A. de Santillán’s frank and provocative work Por qué Perdímos la Guerra and Gerald Brenan’s Spanish Labyrinth. For the reader who is unfamiliar with the political and social background in Spain. and in particular, the important role of revolutionary syndicalism and anarchism, Mr Brenan’s scholarly and eminently readable book cannot he too strongly recommended.

V.R. July 1953


Introduction;  I — The Elections of February 1936; II — The Militarists’ Uprising of July 1936; III — The Revolution at the Crossroads; IV — Anarchist Dictatorship or Collaboration & Democracy; V — The C.N.T. and the U.G.T; VI — The C.N.T. joins the Catalan and Central Governments; VII — The C.N.T. and Political Action; VIII — The Corruption of Power;  IX — The Agricultural Collectives;  X — The Collectivised Industries;  XI — The Communists : Spearhead of the Counter-revolution;  XII — The “May Days” in Barcelona;  XIII — The Revolutionary Significance of the “May Days”; XIV — The C.N.T. and the Caballero Government Crisis;  XV — The F.A.I. and the Political Struggle;  XVI — The C.N.T.—U.G.T. Pact; Conclusions; ANARCHISM AND SYNDICALISM;  ANARCHISM AND VIOLENCE;  ANARCHISM AND THE CULT OF THE LEADER;  BIBLIOGRAPHY; INDEX; APPENDIX — July 19, 1936: Republic or revolution? A review of Hugh Thomas’s ‘masterpiece of the historian’s art’ by Vernon Richards. ‘Anarchy’, Vol 1, No. 5, July 1961